December 31, 2014

Hello to the New Year, Good-bye to Old Shows

Happy New!  Until this week, the weather in New York has been unseasonably mild but winter is about to hit Broadway hard. Eight main stem shows are scheduled to take their finals bows in January and time is running out for a bunch more off-Broadway as well. Some are departing after long runs, others have been forced into hastier exits, a few are keeping to their predetermined timetables and several will be sorely missed. Below are 12 (along with links to reviews for the ones I wrote about) that are bidding farewell this weekend but there's still time, if you hurry, to catch one or two:

RODGERS + HAMMERSTEIN’S CINDERELLA:  Douglas Carter Beane’s cheeky update of the 1957 TV musical that Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein wrote for Julie Andrews has enchanted scores of would-be princesses (and show queens) for more than 750 performances and now ends its run with the history-making appearance of an African-American actress in the title role.  My review.

ONCE: This underdog winner of the Tony for Best Musical in 2012 turned a small indie film about the love story between an Irish street musician and a Czech immigrant into a big charmer of a show that even after nearly three years and several cast changes kept audiences falling in love with it. My review.

A PARTICLE OF DREAD: Sam Shepard’s riff on the Oedipus myth at Signature Theatre Company left me scratching my head to the point that I couldn’t even figure out what to write about it. But the show has its partisans, including the New York Times’ Charles Isherwood. Both Shepard completists and fans of the show’s star Stephen Rea will want to see it before it closes on Sunday.

PIPPIN: Director Diane Paulus set Stephen Schwartz’s musical about a Medieval prince’s search for the meaning of life against the backdrop of a traveling circus (including a grandma swinging on a trapeze) and won not only a Tony for the Best Revival of 2013 but the hearts of audiences for nearly 700 performances. My review.

POCATELLO: An ambitious work about the decline of the middle class in Middle America, this play bites off more than it can chew but its playwright, the newly-minted MacArthur genius Samuel D. Hunter, remains a talent to be reckoned with. And so although it disappointed me, people who care about the future of American drama should still check this one out before its short run ends on Sunday. My review.

SIDE SHOW: Few modern musicals have more devoted cult followers than this one based on the lives of the Hilton sisters, conjoined twins who had a brief time in the spotlight during the Depression, but neither the original 1997 run nor this revisal has been able to cross over to mainstream acceptance.  Still, there are bragging rights to be had (I’m claiming mine here cause I didn't get the chance to write about it) for those who see one of the fewer than 50 performances that will have played before the show ends this weekend. 

TAIL! SPIN!: Even though I enjoy this satire about the political sex scandals that dominated the news a few years back when I saw it at the Fringe Festival in 2012, I was dubious when I heard that it was returning for an off-Broadway run. But its eight-week run was extended to this weekend, suggesting that there are still chuckles to be had from the bad behavior of Anthony Weiner, Mark Sanford and others. My review.

THE INVISIBLE HAND: Most of the attention has gone to Ayad Akhtar’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Disgraced, which made a transfer to Broadway this fall, but this taut and thoughtful thriller about an American banker who has been kidnapped by a group of Muslim fundamentalists is the Akhtar show to see before it ends its too-short run at New York Theatre Workshop on Sunday. My review.

THE REAL THING: Smart theatergoers regard Tom Stoppard’s plays the way they do Stephen Sondheim musicals: intellectually stimulating, emotionally resonant (if you know where to look) and an essential part of every theater season. I found this revival of his 1982 play about love, marriage and infidelity to be the less satisfying of the fall’s two Stoppard offerings (I preferred the Roundabout Theatre’s lovely production of Indian Ink) but it's still a treat to see the Broadway debuts of movie stars Ewan McGregor and Maggie Gyllenhaal before the show ends its run Sunday. My review.

THIS IS OUR YOUTH: This revival of Kenneth Lonergan’s 1996 play about three affluent kids obsessed with sex, drugs and their relationships with their distant parents failed to catch on with Broadway audiences (or with me, for that matter) but it did win raves from most of the critics and even I appreciated the performances of its stellar young cast, who are worth seeing before the show closes, as planned, on Jan. 4.  

THE ILLUSIONISTS: Magic shows make me nervous and so I didn’t see this collection of prestidigitators but if you love hocus-pocus, then this may be the one for you before the show disappears on Sunday.

IT’S ONLY A PLAY:  OK. I'm cheating. This farce about a group of theater people at the opening night party for an ill-fated play is actually going to continue its run but I’ve included it here because it will be doing so without the amusing presences of Nathan Lane and Megan Mullally who are leaving after this weekend. However, Martin Short and Katie Finneran join the cast next week. My review.

In the meantime, I wish you and yours the happiest of new years filled, of course, with much happy theatergoing.

December 27, 2014

"Pocatello" is A Depressing Place to Visit

Samuel D. Hunter should be my kind of playwright. The characters he writes about are the blue-collar people that I’m always griping never appear in plays. He takes on the kind of big questions I like about God, goodness, our reason for existence. He wrestles with important contemporary issues like the decline of the middle and working classes. He creates flesh-and-blood characters who grapple with real-life problems and he gives them great stuff to say. And yet Hunter’s plays always seem to turn me off.

I was so turned off by The Whale, his 2012 play about a morbidly obese man, that I had to ask my theatergoing buddy Bill to write the post on it (click here to read why he liked it). Then, earlier this year, I was underwhelmed by The Few, Hunter’s play about lonely truckers and the people who love them (click here for my review of that). And now I find myself shrugging my shoulders at his latest, Pocatello, which is running at Playwrights Horizons through Jan. 4.

Pocatello is set entirely in an unnamed Olive Garden-like restaurant in the titular Idaho city and tells the stories of the various people who work there. The main character is Eddie, the manager of the place, who is mild-mannered and quietly gay (everyone knows that he is but no one talks about it). He is also desperate to keep his failing restaurant going and to bring his fractious family, still mourning the long-ago suicide of Eddie’s dad, back together again.

When the play opens, it is family, or as a banner declares famiglia, week at the restaurant and two unhappy clans have gathered to dine at separate tables in a back dining room. At one are Eddie’s irascible mother and his more successful older brother and sister-in-law who are visiting from Minnesota. At the other are the senile father, bulimic teen daughter and alcoholic wife of Troy, a waiter who started working at the restaurant after the town’s paper mill closed. Serving them are the sexually-liberal Isabelle, who was prematurely orphaned at 12, and Max, a recovering meth addict.

I think that covers just about every major contemporary dysfunction and the character’s various woes—plus a succession of depressing meals—unfold in a series of scenes that take place over three days. The result is one miserable development after another.

Maybe I’ve just been lucky to have had a happier life than Hunter seems to have experienced or to have always lived in big cities instead of small ones like Hunter who grew up in Idaho but there's an uncomfortable S&M quality to the relationship Hunter has with his characters. He seems to relish heaping awful things on them and then allowing them to wallow in it. 

All that grimness just gets me down. I didn’t feel empathy or compassion as I sat through the 90 minutes of Pocatello but annoyance. And that ended up annoying me even more because Hunter, a recent McArthur genius grant winner (click here to read a Q&A with him) has some worthy things to say about the rise of the big-box-store economy but it gets lost in the din of all the desperation.

I know that people can get stuck in their own misery (despite “my happier life,” I’ve had my share of head-in-the-sand moments) but Hunter doesn’t make it clear enough why—except to keep the play depressing—Eddie would stick around in a dead-end job in a dying town with a bitter mother and almost no chance at romance. I mean at least there’s a Gay Men’s Chorus in Boise.

But, as usual, the cast rides to the rescue. The acting, under the deft direction of Hunter’s frequent collaborator Davis McCallum, is top-notch in every one of Pocatello's 10 roles. And T.R. Knight is so good and genuine as Eddie that he almost made me want to visit an Olive Garden. Almost.

December 24, 2014

Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas!

May your holidays sparkle with peace, love, happiness—and the good cheer of live theater.

December 20, 2014

The Hi's and Lo's of Four Star-Studded Shows: "The River," "The Real Thing," "A Delicate Balance," and "It's Only a Play"

The city is filling up with holiday visitors and, of course, a lot of those folks want to see a Broadway show. And the ones who want to see a show probably want to see a show with a big-name star in it. I’m not knocking that. Most people only get to see one or two shows a year, if they’re lucky. And so it makes sense to me that they want to do what they can to get their money’s worth cause Broadway tickets cost a lot. Which means that seeing a dud can be a serious disappointment. But seeing a dud with a famous face or two in it at least lessens the sting. So here are my thoughts on four star-studded shows that you might have considered seeing or recommending to the show-seeking out-of-towners you know:

A DELICATE BALANCE: Like so many Edward Albee plays, this comedy of bad manners deals with liquor-swilling WASPs who, despite—or maybe because of—their 1% status, are nearly paralyzed by existential dread. The central characters are the uneasily married couple Tobias and Agnes, her alcoholic sister, their much-divorced grown daughter and the couple’s best friends, who, for some never-specified reason, are terrified of living in their own home and so move in. Filled with Albee’s sardonic one-liners and roiling anxiety, the play won the Pulitzer Prize in 1967, and a 1996 revival swept up a bunch of Tonys, including one for my friend the late George Grizzard's performance as Tobias. The new revival, running at the Golden Theatre through Feb. 22, has been directed by Pam MacKinnon, who did a superb job with Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? last year but is, alas, less successful this time out.
Starlight: Glenn Close, John Lithgow and British actress Lindsay Duncan

Highlight: It’s nice to get to see Close, who, her movie-star fame aside, is also a three-time Tony winner, onstage again for the first time since she did Sunset Boulevard 20 years ago.

Lowlight: Almost everything about the production—the overly ornate set, the unattractive costumes that make Close look dumpy, the stodgy direction—seems to be trying too hard.

IT'S ONLY A PLAY: Terrence McNally has updated his Reagan-era farce about the opening night party for an ill-fated play with new jokes and contemporary references but the basic set-up remains the same: a group of theater folks gather at a producer’s apartment to wait for the New York Times review of their new show. Among them are the anxious playwright, a one-time-theater-actor-turned-TV-star who passed on the chance to star in the play, its wunderkind British director, an aging leading lady, the wealthy but ditzy producer, a condescending—is there ever any other fictional kind—critic and the rookie actor who’s moonlighting as a waiter at the party. Jack O’Brien directs this anything-for-a-laugh production, which has been selling out and was the first show of the season to recoup its investment. It’s scheduled to run at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre through March 29 but three of its stars will be leaving sooner, although Martin Short steps in on Jan. 7.
Starlight: The Producers duo Matthew Broderick and Nathan Lane are back together again as the playwright and his actor buddy, plus there’s F. Murray Abraham, Stockard Channing, Megan Mullally and Rupert Grint from the Harry Potter movies. 

Highlight:  Nathan Lane, who is hilarious even when he’s just standing still—and yet who seems as generous when it comes to sharing the laughs with his fellow actors as he is about giving them to the audience. 

Lowlight: Some of McNally’s new zingers seem a little mean-spirited.

THE REAL THING: Another show with a backstage setting, Tom Stoppard’s 1982 dark comedy deals with love, friendship, infidelity and, this being Stoppard, some lefty politics. At its center are Henry, a married playwright, and Annie, an actress married to his close friend and obsessed with the cause of an imprisoned anti-war activist. There is sex play, word play and some serious thoughts about the boundaries of artifice and the meaning of loyalty but they all get jumbled in director Sam Gold’s self-consciously hip revival, which is running at the Roundabout Theatre Company’s American Airlines Theatre through Jan.4.
Starlight: Maggie Gyllenhaal, Ewan McGregor, Cynthia Nixon, Josh Hamilton

Highlight: McGregor has done lots of theater in London but this is his Broadway debut and it proves worth the wait. It’s also fun to see Nixon, who played Henry’s daughter in Mike Nichols' 1984 production, get the chance to appear as Henry’s wife in this one.

Lowlight: The annoying music that plays between scene changes and that adds absolutely nothing to the experience of seeing the show. 

THE RIVER: It’s hard to know what to say about this head-scratcher of a show. It seems to be about a guy who takes his new girlfriend to a cabin in the woods that has some special meaning to him. To say much more would be a spoiler. And yet, although this is the only show on the list that isn’t a revival, it’s probably the toughest ticket to get. That may be in part because playwright Jez Butterworth’s last play was the critically acclaimed Jerusalem, a big bruiser of a play, teeming with important ideas and a powerhouse performance by Mark Rylance. But it’s more likely because the show, now at Circle in the Square through Feb. 8, stars Hugh Jackman. 
Starlight:  See above.

Highlight:  See above. Jackson is congenitally charismatic, even when he's just cleaning fish.  And it’s also great that the up-and-coming Nigerian- British actress Cush Jumbo has been cast as the girlfriend, even though there’s no mention of race at all.

Lowlight: I like a good intellectual challenge as much as the next theatergoer—maybe more—but, despite the nimble staging of director Ian Rickson, the murkiness of this play is ultimately frustrating.

December 17, 2014

Not Even Stopping to Turn on the Ghost Light...

There's no post today cause after weeks of heavy-duty theatergoing, end-of-the-semester madness, assorted medical appointments and other life stuff, I'm taking the day off to play hooky with my hubby.

December 13, 2014

"The Elephant Man" Fulfills A Big Dream

Theater is all about dreams and so it’s nice when one comes true as triumphantly as it does with the revival of The Elephant Man, which opened at the Booth Theatre on Sunday night, fulfilling the lifelong dream of its star Bradley Cooper.

As you probably know, the play dramatizes the real-life story of Joseph Merrick, called John onstage, who was born with such severe physical deformities (a giant forehead, an elephantine right arm, rough and tuberous skin) that he was displayed for a time in Victorian-era freak shows. A doctor named Frederick Treves discovered him at one and brought Merrick to The London Hospital where he became a subject of medical research, a pet cause of the society set and a permanent resident until his death at just age 27.

Playwright Bernard Pomerance transformed Merrick’s story into an examination of what defines a man and he mixed in large helpings of the debate over whether humanity is better served by religion (as represented by the bishop who tries to save Merrick’s soul) or science (embodied in the doctor who focuses on his physical well-being).

The Elephant Man originally opened on Broadway in 1979, won three Tonys, including for Best Play, and ran for over 900 performances. A big-box-office movie with John Hurt as Merrick and Anthony Hopkins as Treves came out the next year. A young Bradley Cooper later saw the movie and was so affected by it that he decided to become an actor and later performed scenes from the play for his master’s thesis at the Actors Studio Drama School.

Over the past 15 years, Cooper has become a Hollywood star, hitting it big at the box office with “The Hangover” comedies, winning Oscar nominations for his roles in “Silver Linings Playbook” and “American Hustle” and being named People magazine’s “Sexiest Man Alive," but his interest in The Elephant Man never waned.  He did the play at the Williamstown Theater Festival in 2012 and now he’s brought it to Broadway (click here to read more about his relationship with the play).

This has the sound of a vanity project but, luckily, it doesn’t play that way. For Cooper gives a sympathetic performance and surrounds himself with a cast of first-rate co-stars. And it’s the acting that provides the emotional through line in director Scott Ellis’ spare production of, let's be honest, a somewhat sketchy play that doesn’t always bother to connect one scene to the next or to bore deep into any of them.

Cooper personally recruited the always-intriguing Patricia Clarkson to play Mrs. Kendal, the actress who becomes the primary woman in Merrick’s life. The real-life Madge Kendal never met Merrick, although she did raise money for his care.  But the character she inspired visits often in the play and her quips provide much of the comic relief.

Unlike her cast mates, Clarkson doesn’t affect a British accent, at least not a sustaining one, but she is dryly funny and, then in Kendal’s final scene with Merrick, very moving (click here to read a profile of her). Meanwhile Alessandro Nivola is outstanding throughout as Treves, a man of science who finds himself inspired by his patient (click here to read about how he put his performance together).

But, of course, people (the average age of the audience the night my theatergoing buddy Bill and I saw the play was at least a decade younger than you typically find on Broadway) are coming to see Cooper. And I doubt they were disappointed.

The role of Merrick is supposed to be performed without prosthetics or heavy makeup. And so Cooper contorts his body and his face to portray the deformities that were so unsightly that nurses reportedly fled at the sight of Merrick. At the same time, he manages to convey the beauty of the inner life that allowed Merrick to create art, write poetry and speculate that “I think my head is so big because it is so full of dreams.”

I can’t honestly say that the play moved me as much as it did others, including Bill, but the look of satisfaction and gratitude on Cooper’s face at the curtain call made it impossible not to celebrate watching his dream come true.

December 10, 2014

"The Invisible Hand" is a Sure-Handed Thriller

This is turning out to be Ayad Akhtar’s year. Of course last year, when his play Disgraced won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, wasn’t so bad for him either. But in just the past six months, Akhtar opened The Who & The What, a play about a Pakistani-American family, at Lincoln Center’s Claire Tow Theater, saw Disgraced make its Broadway debut and, on Monday, opened his latest play The Invisible Hand, which is scheduled to run at New York Theatre Workshop through Jan 4. 

All three plays deal with the interaction between traditional Islamic values and contemporary life in a post-9/11 world. And no other writer in any medium is exploring this timely and complex issue with more honesty, insight and nuance than Akhtar does. 

Not all of it has worked. The Who & The What was more didactic than dramatic in its examination of the role of women in Islam (click here to read my review).  And while I thought the Lincoln Center production of Disgraced was the best thing I saw that year (click here for my review of it) the cast changes have drained some of the energy from the Broadway production.

Aasif Mandvi had bristled with the scrappy determination and sublimated anger of the Pakistani-born attorney in the play whose efforts to assimilate into the white world are thwarted after he makes a courtesy call on a jailed Muslim cleric. But the British actor Hari Dhillon who has taken over the role on Broadway is so refined and elegant that he seems like he’s already a member of the club who can treat the roadblocks the play throws his way as just minor annoyances (click here for an interview with the actor). 

Meanwhile, the famed dinner party scene in which the characters throw political correctness aside and painfully poke at one another’s biases is undercut by Josh Radnor, fresh off a nine-season run on the CBS sitcom “How I Met Your Mother,” who seemed to think and act as though his character has the alpha role. 

My husband K hadn’t seen the play before and, on the basis of the performance we saw, couldn’t understand why I’d originally been so excited by DisgracedSo he opted not to see The Invisible Hand, which is too bad because nearly everything about this one shows off Akhtar at his best. 

The play opens in a room where an American banker named Nick (Justin Kirk) is being held by Islamic militants who want to ransom him for $10 million. The kidnapping is a mistake. The militants meant to take Nick’s boss and while the bank might have paid for the big honcho, Nick knows that it won’t do the same for him and he can only scrape together $3 million on his own. So he offers to use that money as a bankroll he will use to play the markets and make the rest. 

During that time, Nick attempts to bond in different ways—and with varying success—with his captors: his naive primary guard Dar (Jameal Ali), the more militant—and volatile—British convert to the cause Bashir (Usman Ally) and their group’s leader, the too-smooth Imam Saleem (Dariush Kashani).

Akhtar is a smart guy and a talky writer and this play, like his others, is filled with highbrow speeches about politics, religion and, in this case, economics (the hand referred to in the title is not God’s but Adam Smith’s). In fact, there’s so much talk about how the financial markets work that I felt at moments as though I were in an Econ class  and yet, the financial machinations are presented clearly enough that I might have passed a test afterward (click here for the chear sheet the theater has posted).

The Invisible Hand profits from Ken Rus Schmoll's pinpoint direction, which, aided by Riccardo Hernandez’s prison cell sets and Leah Gelpe’s drone-and firefight-filled sound design, maintains a convincing air of menace and suspense throughout the two-hour running time. He’s also cast the show superbly, particularly the two lead roles.

Kirk combines the cocky optimism that has allowed Nick to be a successful player in the world of high finance with the crippling fear of a man who knows he’s just one slip away from being killed. Ally, who impressed me back in 2010 when he played the Indian wrestler who was forced to dress up like Osama bin Laden, call himself The Fundamentalist and adapt a trademark move dubbed the “sleeper cell kick” in The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity, is just as terrific as Bashir.

His physiognomy probably means Ally is constantly being asked to play a terrorist of one sort or another (click here to listen to another actor of Middle Eastern descent talk about that kind of pigeonholing). But here he breaks through the convention to create a guy who is funny one moment (and a fan of American pop culture) scary the next (and a critic of the way the U.S. treats the disenfranchised) but always recognizably human.

Recent events in Syria and Yemin bring extra currency to The Invisible Hand but the play and this production are deserving enough to be seen on their own right.