January 31, 2015

"A Month in the Country" Proves Uneventul

A Month in the Country, which opened at Classic Stage Company this past Thursday, was written five years before Anton Chekhov was even born. But the setting, the themes and the characters will be familiar to anyone who has seen any of that Russian master’s country house plays in which idle aristocrats and their hangers-on battle ennui, hypocrisy and repressed emotions.

And like Chekhov’s works, this version of that story is part tragedy and party comedy. The mix can be a challenge. A Month in the Country was considered so scandalous when Ivan Turgenev originally published it in 1855 that it wasn’t performed until 1872. 

The play’s central character is Natalya, the fickle wife of a wealthy but dull landowner who fills her time by flirting with her husband’s best friend even though she knows he is not-so-secretly in love with her. But then, she suddenly turns her affections to Aleksey, the college boy who has been hired to tutor her young son. 

And that’s just the start of the daisy chain. For when Natalya realizes that her 17-year-old ward Vera has also fallen for Aleksey, she tries to marry the girl off to an elderly neighbor. 

Meanwhile, the local doctor (there’s always a local doctor around in these plays even though no one is ever sick) woos the spinsterish companion of Natalya’s mother-in-law and a few of the household servants take time from their chores to get it on as well.

That’s a whole lot of plot and it originally unspooled over five acts, lasting more than three hours. But John Christopher Jones has done a translation that slims everything down to a compact two hours. He’s also opted for contemporary language and a tone that leans toward comedy, mined particularly well by Thomas Jay Ryan, who plays the doctor with a deadpan wryness.

But what makes this revival the hot ticket that it’s become is the presence of its stars Taylor Schilling from the Netflix women-in-prison series “Orange is the New Black” and Peter Dinklage from the HBO dungeons-and dragons series “Game of Thrones.” Under the direction of Erica Schmidt, who also happens to be Dinklage’s wife (click here to read an interview with her) both stars acquit themselves well enough. 

Schilling, dressed in a series of gorgeous gowns by costumer Tom Broecker, is lovely to look at, making it easy to see why all the men desire Natalya. And Dinklage, wandering around Mark Wendland’s spare but elegant set, is appropriately hangdog as the unrequited Rakitin, his diminutive size lending an extra layer of poignancy to the character's unhappiness.

But, as I said, these Russian plays are notoriously difficult to pull off. They’re smooth, almost facile, on the surface but roiling underneath. And this production only gets part of that right.

January 28, 2015

"The Road to Damascus" is Worth the Trip

As regular readers know, I’m always griping about how so few plays today grapple with current events. Well, I certainly can’t say that about The Road To Damascus, the political thriller at the 59E59 Theaters, which has a storyline that could easily stand in for a CNN news digest.

Set in a “not so distant future,” the play revolves around a showdown between the American president who succeeds Hillary Clinton and the ISIS-like extremists who have finally taken over Syria.  

When the U.S. threatens to bomb Damascus following an attack on midtown Manhattan, the newly-elected pope, the first pontiff from an African nation and a witness to the bloodshed in his own homeland, vows to go to Damascus to serve as a human shield for the residents of the Syrian capital.

Over the next 100 minutes, people in both Washington (a gung-ho female staffer attached to the NSA, a couple of frustrated State Department officials) and the Vatican (its wily Secretary of State, a Chechen journalist who knew the pope when he was a bishop in the Congo) try to stop him. 

Their efforts are played out in a series of talky scenes in which the characters lay out their positions. Playwright Tom Dulack tries to spice things up with a little sexual intrigue but his play still calls to mind one of those Sunday talk shows that assembles people with a range of political views and then lets them all go at one another.

Dulack teaches theater at the University of Connecticut but the dramaturgy of The Road to Damascus is a little loosey-goosey. Coincidences abound, all of its characters seem to have shared a past with one another and people cover vast distances in warp-speed time. 

HIs women come off particularly poorly: the NSA woman is one of those standard-issue ball-busters who for some inexplicable reason continue to serve as avatars for accomplished women. Meanwhile, the journalist is portrayed as an opportunist who has slept her way to the top of her profession (click here for some other examples of that tired trope). 

Still, the play's issues are compelling and the acting, under Michael Parva’s taut direction, is convincing. A special shout-out goes to Joshua Paul Johnson, whose video projections transform Brittany Vasta’s simple set into a half-dozen different locations, ranging from the inner sanctums of the Vatican to the streets of Damascus.

Dulack originally wrote his play in 2007 as a way to express his anger over the Bush administration’s handling of the Iraq War (click here to read a Q&A with him) but he doesn’t settle for easy answers or, despite his title, save-the-day epiphanies.

The ending of The Road to Damascus has more in common with the messiness of Showtime’s “Homeland” than with the neat fixes found on CBS' "Madam Secretary.” But that only makes it all the more engaging. So much so that after the performance I attended, intense debates erupted in the lady’s room. An indication, surely, that other theatergoers besides me are eager for thought-provoking works like this one.

January 24, 2015

"I'm Gonna Pray for You So Hard" is Merciless

Anger, not the forgiveness of sins, is the guiding principle in I’m Gonna Pray for You So Hard, the brand new two-hander by Halley Feiffer that opened at Atlantic Theater Company’s Stage 2 on Tuesday.

Its sole characters are David Berryman, an award-winning but aging playwright; and his twentysomething daughter Ella, a fledgling actress. The main part of the 90-minute play takes place in the kitchen of their Upper West Side apartment (oddly designed by Mark Wendland so that it’s hard to see everything that’s happening on stage no matter where you'r sitting).  

Father and daughter are waiting up for reviews of an avant-garde production of The Seagull in which Ella has been cast as the morose Masha. Her dad thinks she should have pushed to play the more impassioned Nina.

In fact, David has lots of opinions and during a near monologue, fueled by lots of wine and drugs and interrupted only by fawning interjections from Ella, he lets loose on her director whom he considers “a formerly-famous-now-completely-washed-up-hack” and on critics, whom he calls a “sick cadre of pathetic, sniveling, tiny men with micropenises and no imaginations.”

He also calls his estranged sister a “dyke” and his ill wife “a cunt.” In short, he’s not a nice guy. And as the evening progresses, Ella discovers just how awful her father can be. The second scene of the play flashes forward five years and shows how their interactions have shaped the woman and the artist she becomes.

Reed Birney, who, let’s be frank, can do no wrong in my eyes, and the talented young actress Betty Gilpin, who is best known for her role as the ditzy doctor on the Showtime series “Nurse Jackie,” are excellent as they explore the volatile elements of love and hate, pride and envy and even the sexual tensions that erupt from time to time in most relationships between parents and adult children.

Birney, who so often plays milquetoasty guys, looks, under Trip Cullman’s finely-tuned direction, to be having a ball as the overbearing David but also manages to be heartbreaking in the final moments of the play. And Gilpin, even when largely restricted to just one or two words an utterance, does an incredible job at conveying how both awed and bored Emma is by her father and yet how much she yearns to please him.

It is, of course, impossible not to draw parallels between the lives of the characters Birney and Gilpin play and those of the playwright, who is also an actress, and her father, the celebrated cartoonist and playwright Jules Feiffer.

The facts that connect David and Jules are so similar (being raised in the Bronx, becoming a teen apprentice to a slightly older master of his art form—the fictional playwright Milo Koppler for David, the cartoonist Will Eisner for Jules—winning a Pulitzer) are obvious. 

One can only guess at the emotional verisimilitude of the father-daughter relationship but it’s hard to believe that this play would have been written by anyone who didn’t have some daddy issues—and lingering anger about them—to work out.

Feiffer knew that people like me were going to be speculating about these kinds of things and so she gives Ella a second-scene speech in which she challenges the audience to resist trying to determine if a work is autobiographical. Instead, she suggests, "Why don’t you ask yourself something like this: 'Did this play move me?' 'Did I relate to it?' 'Did some part of me wish I hadn’t related to it?'”

My answers are: yes (even though it made me cringe in moments) yes (I've had my own experiences, albeit thankfully less toxic, with demanding parents) and yes (cause I wish family ties, including the Feiffers', didn't have to be so knotty). However, I also suspect that dinners at the Feiffers' are going to be tense for a while.

January 21, 2015

Brief Encounters with "Constellations" and "A Beautiful Day in November on the Banks of the Greatest of the Great Lakes"

Lots of theatergoers breathe a sigh of relief when they hear that a show is just one act. But increasingly quick gasps might be more apt. For two of the shows I saw last week—Constellations and A Beautiful Day in November on the Banks of the Greatest of the Great Lakes— ran barely 75 minutes each. And the differing pleasures I derived from them prove that size really doesn’t matter.

A show can't afford to waste time when it's this short and both of these productions are what you might call high concept plays. The extravagantly titled A Beautiful Day in November on the Banks of the Greatest of the Great Lakes, which is running at New York City Center’s Stage II through Feb. 7, turns a Midwestern family's holiday dinner into a sporting event.  Literally.

The show opens as two sportscasters take up positions in a glass booth above the stage and begin offering color commentary on the actions of the members of an extended clan as they set the table, bake the pies, roast the turkey and make the stuffing and gravy for their Thanksgiving meal.

The characters (the casting seems colorblind, which I usually applaud but here found confusing) have cutesy names like Cheesecake, Trifle and Smilesinger, which I guess are supposed to indicate their culinary specialties or personality traits. 

What they don’t have are props. Instead director Lee Sunday Evans has the actors mime all their actions, often imitating athletic gestures, like the side-to-side glide of speed skaters as they move around their imaginary kitchen or the Alley-oops of basketball players as they pass dishes from one to the other. 

It’s amusing at first but quickly wears thin, at which point playwright Kate Benson sends the whole thing spinning in a disturbingly surreal direction. But none of it adds up to much.

“Did you get that thing about the babies,” a baffled woman asked my friend Jesse and me as we all left the theater. We shook our heads but as she and I continued down the street, Jesse summed it up just right. “There’s a difference,” she said, “between a concept and a gimmick.”  A Beautiful Day lands on the wrong side of that dividing line.

But concept and gimmick blend beautifully in Constellations, which has a limited run at Manhattan Theatre Club’s Samuel J. Friedman Theatre through March 15. It’s a two-hander about the meeting, mating and marrying of a quantum physicist named Marianne and a beekeeper named Roland. 

Their love story unfolds in a series of short vignettes that often repeat the previous scene but give it a different denouement so that when Marianne first flirts with Roland at a barbecue, he spurns the advance but, an instant later, when she uses the same come on in the replayed scene of a parallel universe, he flirts back.

But the real heart of British playwright Nick Payne’s metaphysical romance is his meditation on the interplay between Marianne’s branch of physics which believes that each moment continues to exist in time even as our lives move on and the more ephemeral concept of time of Roland’s bees who live only a few weeks and so must cram a lifetime of experiences into that brief interval. 

The couple are played by the Hollywood dreamboat Jake Gyllenhaal, sporting a dapper beard and a convincing British accent, and the appealing British actress Ruth Wilson, a two-time Olivier Award winner who recently picked up a Golden Globe for her performance as a cheating wife in the Showtime series “The Affair.” Both are making their Broadway debut and they’re both superb.

Under Michael Longhurst’s lucid direction (click here to read about his approach), each actor nimbly turns on a dime as the replayed scenes demand minute variations—and different line readings—from the ones that have come just before. 

At the same time, they make all the choices seem entirely believable. Plus, Gyllenhaal and Wilson are funny and sexy together: the chemistry between them is electric (and it’s rumored to continue offstage as well—click here for more about that).

Still, as enjoyable as they make it, Constellation’s alternate-lives storyline isn’t new. Idina Menzel simultaneously follows two very different paths in the musical If/Then, which is scheduled to close in March, and Kate Atkinson’s acclaimed 2013 novel “Life After Life,” imagines a rolling series of lives and deaths for its main character.

It all makes me wonder if, as society becomes more secular, the need has intensified to find a new concept of the afterlife in which the possibility of infinite eternities can ease our dread of mortality. 

But you don’t need to be a cosmologist to enjoy Constellations. For it is a wholly entertaining show that engages not only the mind, but the heart as well.

January 17, 2015

In Memoriam: Jean-Claude Baker

Years ago, I took my aunt, then in her 80s, for lunch at Chez Josephine, the Theatre District bistro named for the legendary performer Josephine Baker. At some point during our meal, Jean-Claude Baker, the restaurant’s owner and Josephine’s adopted son, stopped by our table. He kissed my aunt’s hand and then chatted with us for a few minutes. My aunt was charmed. “I didn’t know you knew the owner,” she whispered across the table after he left. “I don’t,” I whispered back. “He’s like that with everyone.”

Jean-Claude died Thursday, an apparent suicide at the age of 71. The news of his death hit me surprisingly hard. I don’t pretend to have been close to him and yet he always made me—and countless others, including my aunt—feel as though we were.

An elfin man who favored lavishly colored tunics and caftans and flamboyant gestures, he was one of a kind. And he was a true theater lover, who went to shows, befriended people at all levels in the business and gave generously to theatrical causes. I don’t know if marquee lights will dim for him but they should.

I ate at Chez Josephine a zillion times over the years, often when I was going alone to one of its neighbor theaters at the far west end of 42nd Street. Sometimes, I’d sit at the bar or, when the weather was warm enough, at one of the café tables set up outside the restaurant. Usually, I ordered an endive salad and the boudin noir, which doesn’t seem to be served anywhere else in the city. Always, Jean-Claude came over to chat.

We talked about what I was going to see, what he thought I should see. Once he told me how he’d hired the young Harry Connick, Jr. to play piano for his customers. Another time, he told me how he’d persuaded Billy Joel to spend the first New Year’s Eve after his divorce from Christie Brinkley at the restaurant.

I told him that I’d read and enjoyed “Josephine Baker: the Hungry Heart,” the book he’d written about his adopted mother. I said the chapters about her early years on the black vaudeville circuit were my favorite part of the book. He said it was his favorite too and that he wanted to write another book about that world.

I wish he’d written that book. I wish even more that he’d known how much he meant to so many people, even relative strangers like me, and that the comfort of that knowledge would have kept him here for a while longer.

January 14, 2015

A New Look for a New Year

Yep. You're at the right place. Things just look different. That's cause I've been promising myself for ages that I'd give B&Me a facelift and I finally got around to doing it. This is still a work in progress but I think it's now easier to read (especially the news feed) and perkier too. Plus I updated the blogroll. I hope you'll like the changes.  Let me know.

How "Winners and Losers" Lost It for Me

If watching two guys drink beer and try to one up each other is your idea of a good time, then Winners and Losers, which opened last week at Soho Rep., may be the show for you. Alas, I need more than that to entertain me.

The show starts off amiably enough. Its creators and sole performers Marcus Youssef and James Long wander out on a stage set with a table and two chairs, introduce themselves and then begin a game in which they confer the status of winner or loser on a variety of subjects, including, at the performance I attended, the basketball player Steve Nash, NAFTA, microwave ovens and masturbation. They hit little silver bells when they reach a conclusion and are ready to move on to the next topic.

But as the 90 minute-show progresses, Marcus and Jamie, as they call one another, tell us more about themselves—or the characters they’ve created for themselves. They’re both Canadians, in their 40s, married with two kids each and live in a Park Slope-like neighborhood in Vancouver. Marcus is from a wealthy family and stands to inherit a lot of money from his father an Egyptian émigré and successful banker. Jamie had a more modest upbringing and left home and started to fend for himself at 16. 

All of it becomes fair game for the kinds of aggressive insults and put downs that alpha males lob at one another. Things get nasty. And the line between the theatrical and the real is intentionally hazy. The press rep says about 20% of the show is improvised each night (click here to read about how it was put together) 

Whenever Marcus and Jamie seemed to get bored with the verbal sparring, they got physical—wrestling, playing ping pong and, of course, swigging beer.  When I got bored, which happened about 30 minutes in, I simply zoned out.

I get that they were intentionally trying to make me uncomfortable (even throwing in a couple of bad-taste jokes about the ISIS beheadings) and they get a win for that. However, they apparently also want to press home some insights about male privilege and the changing definitions of manliness and since they offer few fresh observations about either, they lost on that front. 

But where they really failed was in making me care any more than I would have if I'd overhead two random dudes going all mano-a-mano over drinks at some bar.

January 9, 2015

A Very Personal Ghost Light

My husband K and I have gone off to celebrate our 20th anniversary and so no post today but I'll be back with lots to say next Wednesday. 

January 7, 2015

TV Goes Broadwayish with ABC's "Galavant" and Amazon Prime's "Mozart inthe Jungle"

As the great Frank Loesser once wrote, Baby, it’s cold outside.  On top of that, lots of theaters have gone dark in this annual cold-weather interregnum when old or failing shows have closed but new spring hopefuls have yet to open. Which means that even the most ardent theatergoers are looking for ways to stay cozy and entertained at home. Surprisingly, TV is offering some theater-friendly options—if you think of TV in the loosest terms. 

Just before Christmas, Amazon.com started streaming all 10 episodes of “Mozart in the Jungle,” an original series that’s set in the classical music world but features bunches of familiar Broadway faces, including that of the always welcomed Bernadette Peters. This past Sunday, ABC debuted “Galavant,” a musical fairy tale series with a score by Alan Menken. And this coming Saturday, the Cartoon Network will debut "The Wizard of Watts," an animated musical that takes on the hot topic of police brutality.

Now, neither "Galavant" nor "Mozart in the Jungle" is a true substitute for live theater and, I’ve got to be honest, neither is great in terms of its own medium either but there are still some pleasures to be squeezed from each. “Mozart," the better of the two, is based on oboist Blair Tindall’s tell-all book about the lives of the city’s classical musicians, many of whom moonlight in Broadway pits.

The Amazon adaptation centers around the arrival of Rodrigo, a sexy, young Latin American conductor in the mold of the Los Angeles’ Philharmonic’s Gustavo Dudamel and the show is filled with all kinds of telanovela storylines—the affair between the outgoing conductor and one of the violinists, the bildungsroman of the ingenue oboist, the drug peddling of the so-so drummer, the antics of the ghost of Mozart. It’s all silly and the goings-on bear only a faint resemblance to reality (click here to read an inside’s take on the show) but I’m a sucker for any kind of backstage story and this one is fun.

Plus the cast provides reason enough to give it a try. The movie star Gael García Bernal plays the idiosyncratic Rodrigo with seductive flamboyance. Peters plays the orchestra’s flustered chairwoman (click here to read an interview wit her), Debra Monk is the world-weary concert mistress, Mark Blum the finicky union rep and Mary Louise Wilson showed up in the last episode I saw as a rich patron, while Santino Fontana did a stint as a Yoda-like Mozart.  But my favorite cameo is The Public Theater, which is playing the role of the symphony’s concert hall.    

"Galavant’"s MVP is Menken (click here to read an interview with him), whose Broadway credits include Beauty and the Beast, Little Shop of Horrors, Sister Act and Aladdin and who with Glenn Slater, has written at least two musical numbers for each episode of this original musical comedy about a knight whose lady love throws him over for the fame and fortune of the villainous king who kidnapped but is soon cowed by her.

The show's title song is catchy and the big dance numbers are amusing. There are also gross out jokes and anachronisms galore, as all contemporary tellings of fairy tales now seem to require. The cast is lead by the dashing Joshua Sasse as the title character, although the standout is Timothy Omundson, who is a hoot as the king. 

But even with all that, this one failed to grab me. I felt as though I’d been there and seen it done funnier with Shrek and Spamalot.  Of course, “Galavant” is far cheaper to see and even “Mozart in the Jungle,” which is available only to Amazon Prime customers is a relative bargain since it comes with free shipping for your books. Which, of course, are another way to entertain yourself in these theater-lean months.

January 3, 2015

My 10+ Most Memorable Shows of 2014

Just as I’m sure you’ve been doing, I’ve spent the holidays reading all of the year-end “Best” lists and after the usual “What were they thinking?” “Oh yeah, I forgot about that one” or “I wish I’d seen that” thoughts, the only real conclusion I’ve been able to draw is that there is no one definition of Best.

Hell, I don’t even know how to define it for myself. But as I think back over the shows I saw last year, I realize that although I really prize good acting (Machinal, The City of Conversation) and have an admitted bias towards shows that use inventive stagcraft (Love and Information, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time) the ones that have stuck with me the most made me think or feel in a different way than I did before I saw them. Which I think is what great theater is supposed to do.  

So while my choices may not match up with everyone else's Bests (click here for a rundown of what some others thought) here, in alphabetical order, are 11 shows (yeah, I know it's supposed to be 10 but it didn't work out that way) that made me sit up and pay attention when I saw them, followed me home and still linger in my memory. I've also included links to my full reviews of each in case you want to read more:

1. Appropriate: Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ masterfully reformulated the race card with his drama about a white family dealing with the legacy of slavery;  my review.

2. The Bridges of Madison County:  Jason Robert Brown and Marsha Norman turned a sappy novel about thwarted romance into a beautiful musical meditation on the rights and responsibilities of love; my review.

3. Casa Valentina: Harvey Fierstein crafted a deeply moving piece about pre-Stonewall-era men who found comfort—and distress—in dressing as women; my review.

4. Father Comes Home From the Wars, Parts 1, 2 & 3: Suzan-Lori Parks’ saga of a slave conscripted into the Confederate Army was a wholly original rumination on the meaning of freedom; my review.

5. Grand Concourse: Heidi Schreck’s drama about a soup kitchen was an affective exegesis of faith, hope, charity and the forgiveness of sins; my review.

6. I Remember Mama: This Transport Group revival cast all its parts with AARP-aged actresses, giving new life—and new insights—to John Van Druten’s 1944 play about a Norwegian-American family at the turn of the last century;  my review.

7. Indian Ink: Tom Stoppard’s homage to his boyhood in India and to the mysteries of the creative imagination was both intellectually stimulating and emotionally satisfying; my review.

8. The Invisible Hand: Ayad Akhtar's  thriller about a kidnapped American banker and his Muslim fundamentalist captors continued Akhtar's singular exploration of the tense fault lines between the Islamic and western worlds; my review.

9. Love Letters: Mia Farrow was heartbreaking as a woman who yearns to be accepted for who she is rather than how much money she has in Terrence McNally’s epistolary play about the 50-year romance between two mid-century blue bloods; my review. 

10. Our Lady Of Kibeho: Katori Hall transformed the real-life story of three Rwandan school girls who claim to have seen visions of the Virgin Mary into a haunting tale about the power of faith; my review.

11. Sex with Strangers: Laura Eason gave the sex farce a serious makeover with her sexy two-hander that explored love, work and the power of the Internet; my review.

Finally, Between Riverside and Crazy didn’t quite make even this extended list but I am glad that someone heeded the request at the end of my review (click here to read it) and is giving it an encore production that begins at Second Stage on Jan. 16, which would be a good way to start off a new year of great theatergoing.