March 28, 2015

"The Heidi Chronicles" Still Speaks to Me

Several waves of nostalgia swept over me as I watched the revival of Wendy Wasserstein’s The Heidi Chronicles, which is running at the Music Box Theatre through Aug. 9.

The first came because, like Wasserstein who died from lymphoma in 2006, I’m a baby boomer and I can think of no other play that captures so well the struggles of the women of my generation to have it all: a great career, a great family, a great sex life.

The second wave came because I remember seeing—and being shaken by—the original production when it opened in 1989, just three years after Newsweek magazine had infamously declared that a woman over 40 had “a better chance of being killed by a terrorist than getting married.”

The questions about the costs of being a liberated woman that The Heidi Chronicles wrestled with not only resonated with me but resounded widely. The play, which follows its titular character from her prep-school days in the twilight of the “Mad Men” era through the grown-up compromises she makes two decades later during the Reagan years, won both the Tony for Best Play and the Pulitzer Prize for Drama.

The cast that brought that original production to life was pitch perfect too. Boyd Gaines, in his Broadway debut, won the first of his four five Tonys as Heidi’s soul mate and gay best friend Peter. Peter Friedman, still a stalwart of the off-Broadway scene, played Scoop Rosenbaum, the charming but egocentric cad who breaks Heidi’s heart over and over again. 

And Joan Allen, now too long absent from the New York stage, played Heidi, who becomes a celebrated art historian, with the kind of spiky brittleness that many smart women of the time assumed as we tried to shoulder our way into the all-boys’ clubs. I ached when Heidi’s façade shattered in the famous second-act speech in which, unmarried and childless, she confesses to feeling stranded by the promises of the women’s movement.

So I'm sorry to say that I didn’t feel that way when Elisabeth Moss, best known as Peggy Olsen, the up-from-the-secretarial-pool ad woman on TV’s “Mad Men,” delivered the “stranded” speech in the current production. That could be because I'm older and have made peace with feminism's contradictions.  But I suspect there's something more at work.

Some critics who felt the same way have said it's because the play is dated and women no longer have the same concerns. But those folks obviously haven't looked at the still small percentages of women in Congress, running Fortune 500 companies or getting plays produced on Broadway. 

I think the real problem rests with Moss, who is a talented actress but lacks the chutzpah for the role. Born in the same year that the Equal Rights Amendment failed to win ratification, she hasn’t figured out how to convey the exhilaration and exhaustion of a woman proud to be a pioneer but tired of carrying the flag (click here to read about her views on feminism). Too often she cedes the center of attention to others.

Tracee Chimo, an inveterate scene stealer, snatches up a good bit of that attention and runs away with it with her portrayals of four different women who become Heidi’s fellow travelers at different points in her life (click here to read about how the actress created each character). 

The audience lapped up Chimo’s vibrant irascibility the night my friend Priscilla and I saw the show and I couldn’t help wondering what she might do if given a crack at the title role.

But even as is, The Heidi Chronicles is still worth seeing and talking about. Priscilla and I spent the first half hour of our post-show dinner at Joe Allen debating how much things for women have changed over the last quarter of a century. We both acknowledged that the glass was still at the midway mark but we felt differently about whether that meant it was half empty or half full.

But we completely agreed on one thing: both of us wished that Wasserstein, who continued to write about the lives of boomer women in her six subsequent plays, were still around to chronicle the way we live now.

March 25, 2015

Whose Wish to Win the Just-Released DVD of "Into the Woods" is Going to Come True?

As I said, people love Into the Woods. I’ve never gotten more responses for a giveaway than I got for last week’s offer of a free copy of the Blu-ray DVD of Rob Marshall’s all-star movie version of the Stephen Sondheim-James Lapine musical about the intertwined lives of some of our favorite fairytale characters.

And, of course, everyone got the right answer to the question of who played the Witch in the original 1987 stage version of the show:  Bernadette Peters. So I stuffed all the names into a hat (ever the optimist, I used a fedora I wear during the warm weather months) and then my husband K reached in and picked one out.

The person whose wish will be fulfilled is Forrest Hutchinson.

Congratulations to him and many thanks to all of you who participated in this one. And the extra bonus is that there are no losers because the DVD just went on sale yesterday and anyone can get a copy (or if you have Amazon Prime, stream it instantly) by clicking here.

March 21, 2015

The Hi's and Lo's of Four Recent Shows

The umpteenth snowstorm of the year and yet another fresh coat of snow on the ground make it hard to believe that spring officially arrived yesterday. But the New York theater season has been in full bloom for weeks. And it’s been warming to see that so many of the shows have been written by women and feature actors of color in leading roles, as opposed to the supporting parts they’re so often given. Here is a summary of the highlights and lowlights of four of those productions:

THE LIQUID PLAIN. The place is a port town on the coast of Rhode Island and the time is the late 18th and early 19 centuries in Naomi Wallace’s drama about two runaway slaves hoping to make their way back to Africa. Their accomplices are a motley crew of seaman, including a dashing black ship’s captain who goes by the name of Liverpool Joe. Their quest bumps up against such 21st century issues as same-sex marriage and the meaning of white privilege. The play, which is running at Signature Theatre’s The Griffin stage through March 29, is clearly well intentioned but it's also unfocused. 
Highlight: Still it’s great to see a white playwright wrestling with such issues and Kristolyn Lloyd and Ito Aghayere are heartbreaking as the runaways, as are Tara A. Nicolas and Lisa Gay Hamilton as the avatars of their past and future.
Lowlight: The play is stuffed with so many ideas (the ghost of the British poet and abolitionist William Blake even makes a cameo appearance) that the central story gets lost. 

THE MYSTERY OF LOVE & SEX. Everyone has secrets in Bathsheba Doran’s meditation on the ties that bind us to one another. Lucinda and Howard are an affluent middle-aged couple who have fallen into a routine life that fully satisfies neither of them. Their college-age daughter Charlotte and the love of her life Jonny are trying to figure out the life they want to share, which is complicated by race (he’s black) and sexuality (she’s recently developed a crush on another girl; he’s still a virgin). Doran’s resolutions in this production at Lincoln Center Theater’s Mitzi Newhouse Theater through April 26 are messy, just like life.
Highlight: Tony Shalhoub, always a treasure to see onstage, provides both hilarity and heart as Howard, a man who knowingly uses his arrogance to mask his inadequacies. And Diane Lane, too long absent from the New York boards, is poignant as a woman who realizes too late that she has given up too much for love.
Lowlight: The plot meanders a bit as Doran repeats her points and Jonny strays awfully close to being one of those Magical Negro characters whose primary role is to help white people figure out how to embrace their lives instead of just leading his own.

PLACEBO. Two separate stories unfold in Melissa James Gibson’s wry and brainy romcom at Playwrights Horizons through April 5.  In one, a female graduate student supervises a scientific study of a drug that is supposed to boost the libido of women with sexual arousal problems. In the other, she tries to buck up her boyfriend, a Ph.D. candidate in the classics who is struggling to complete his dissertation on Pliny the Younger.
Highlight: No mention is ever made of the fact that the graduate student is white and her boyfriend black, which allows them to be just people instead of political stand-ins. Carrie Coon, such a marvel in the 2012 revival of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and William Jackson Harper, a powerhouse in The Total Bent, Stu’s follow-up to Passing Strange, make their characters believably human.
Lowlight: Yet the strands of the play never really come together and it never becomes clear what it is that Gibson is ultimately trying to say.

THE WORLD OF EXTEME HAPPINESS: It will come as no surprise that the title is ironic for Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig’s drama about the life of Chinese factory workers. The play, which is running at the Manhattan Theatre Club’s City Center stage through March 29, tracks the life of a woman named Sunny from her unwanted birth in a rural China that only prizes boy babies through her fateful decision 20 years later to challenge the rules at the factory where she spends endless hours cleaning bathrooms to earn money to pay school fees for the younger brother she loves above all else.
Highlight: Asian-American actors get even fewer chances to strut their stuff than African-American actors do so it’s really great to see talented vets like Francis Jue and James Saito showing what they can do in multiple roles and even more rewarding to see Jennifer Lim turn in such a lovely performance, particularly in the show’s final scenes, as Sunny.
Lowlight: Cowhig is so eager to make her case about the problems in China that she forgets that she’s writing a play.

March 18, 2015

Hey, It's an "Into the Woods" DVD Giveaway

People love Into the Woods, the Stephen Sondheim musical that interweaves four familiar fairytales into a larger fable about desire, dreams and the tangled bonds between parents and children. And that love was never more evident than in the response to Rob Marshall’s film version, which opened on Christmas Day.

Stories about the film and its all-star cast (Chris Pine! Anna Kendrick! James Corden! Emily Blunt! Meryl Streep!!) poured out, including one that I wrote for Playbill (click here to read it). 

Meanwhile, fans, once reassured that James Lapine’s adaptation for the screen had preserved much of the dark tone he’d originally created in his book for the musical, poured out to see the movie, eventually buying up $127 million in tickets.

You, like me, probably handed over some of those dollars and so that’s why I’m particularly pleased about my latest giveaway: a copy of the Blu-ray version of the movie that is coming out next Tuesday, March 24, just two days after Sondheim’s 85th birthday.

In addition to a high definition version of the film and commentary by Marshall, the package includes four behind-the-scenes featurettes, five Easter eggs and the special bonus of Streep’s performance of “She’ll Be Back,” an original song that Sondheim wrote for her but that got cut from the film (click here for a sneak peek at it, along with Marshall’s reason for why he left it out).

You can become the owner of the whole shebang by naming the star who played Streep’s character of the Witch in the original Broadway production. Send the answer to me at by midnight on Monday, March 23. Then, as usual, I’ll put all the right answers in a hat and my husband K will pluck one out. I’ll announce the lucky winner next Wednesday.

March 14, 2015

Why "Fashions for Men" Is Just My Style

Good guys don’t stand much of a chance in today’s popular culture, as evidenced by the popularity of the school-teacher-turned-drug-dealer series “Breaking Bad” and the beats-up-his-girlfriend-but-women-still-love-him rapper Chris Brown. Maybe that’s why I found it a relief to step into the more genteel world of the Mint Theater Company’s current production of Fashions for Men, Ferenc Molnár’s sweet comedy centered around a man who starts off good and—spoiler alert—ends up that way too.

As savvy theatergoers know, the Mint specializes in reviving works by playwrights who have been neglected or forgotten. The Hungarian-born Molnár, as the company’s always-invaluable program notes explain, was one of the world’s most celebrated playwrights during the first half of the 20th century, equally popular in Europe and in the U.S., where he moved to escape the Nazis. 

Before his death in 1952, nearly two dozen of Molnár's plays opened on Broadway, including his 1909 experimental work Liliom, the source for the Rodgers & Hammerstein musical Carousel, and Fashions for Men, which originally debuted in Budapest in 1917 and ran on Broadway fives years later.

The central character in Fashions for Men is Peter Juhász, the proprietor of an upscale haberdashery and a fast-track candidate for sainthood. Juhász extends credit to impoverished clients, is forgiving when cuckolded and bankrupted by his wife and one of his store clerks and pines silently for the shop girl who has her eye on the wealthy count who is Juhász's benefactor. But—spoiler alert again—it all works out in the end.

Director Davis McCallum confidently transports the production back to a Budapest steeped in pre-WWI innocence but not entirely naïve and a theatrical period in which all the story lines were wrapped up by the final curtain (click here to read about his approach).

Yes, it’s predictable, old-fashioned and, in parts, slow. But that’s all part of the pleasure of this show. There's no wink-wink irony and yet all traces of sentimentality are cut with apt doses of wryness.

As usual, the small Mint has put up a big, rich-looking production, with charming old-world sets by Daniel Zimmerman, spiffy costumes by Martha Hally (click here to read more about them) and some particularly witty sound effects by Jane Shaw. 

The cast is just as delightful. There’s not a laggard among the even dozen of them (the Mint is generous in casting too). But Joe Delafield deserves extra credit for navigating the tricky task of conveying Juhász’s determination to be a good man without turning him into a boring sop.

Equally good is Kurt Rhoads, who is wonderfully sympathetic as the count, turning a character who could easily be played as the butt of several jokes into a man who appreciates goodness, even when he’s falling short of achieving it himself.

And Jeremy Lawrence is an unabashed scene-stealer as a world-weary salesman who can express as much with a lift of his eyebrows or the purse of his lips as it might take a whole page of dialog to say.  

I saw Lawrence at the West Bank Café shortly after seeing Fashions for Men and, although I don’t like bothering actors, I couldn’t resist leaning over and telling him how much I had enjoyed his performance and the rest of the show too.

March 11, 2015

"Lives of the Saints" Has Its Own Virtues

On our way into Lives of the Saints, my theatergoing buddy Bill and I ran into a friend who told us that his wife had been in the hospital and he was eager to see something to take his mind off their ills. 

Our friend got what he was looking for with David Ives’ new collection of comic sketches, which are now playing in a Primary Stages production at The Duke on 42nd Street through March 27.

But Lives of the Saints offers a whole lot more as well. For Ives works like a master short story writer and packs a whole world of complexities into deceptively simple tales. 

Some critics have griped that the six pieces in this collection aren’t as laugh-out-loud funny as those in All in the Timing, the comic anthology that helped to make Ives’ name when it premiered back in 1993 and that had a terrific revival in 2013 (click here for my review). But Bill and I found several of the new works to be both amusing and affecting in their own right.

Running around 15 minutes each, Ives’ mini plays are unrelated, except by whimsy. In one, the lonely Maytag repairman falls in love—make that in lust—with a washing machine. In another, a man stumbles, "Twilight Zone"-style, onto the life he might have lead.

The best two are meditations on the meaning of mortality (the secrets we take with us to the grave, the bonds that even death can’t sever) but any heaviness is leavened by humor (a corpse in one keeps popping back to life and in the other, two women prepare enough food for a funeral breakfast that they could easily feed the multitude that gathered for the Sermon on the Mount).

As he did with All in the Timing, director John Rando provides pitch-perfect pacing (click here to read about their collaboration). And the cast of five (lead by the inestimable Carson Elrod) is, pound for pound, the funniest so far this season (and yes, I’ve seen both You Can’t Take It With You and It’s Only a Play).

Our worried friend was all smiles on his way out of the theater. And we were too.

March 7, 2015

"Bright Half Life" is Only Partly Satisfying

Everyone seems to be fracturing narratives these days, from the low-brow antics of TV’s “How to Get Away With Murder” to the high-brow musings in Kate Atkinson’s metaphysical novel “Life After Life.” Onstage, we’ve recently had the dual plot lines in the musical If/Then and the do-overs in the romantic Constellations, both scheduled to end their runs later this month. And now comes Bright Half Life, a kaleidoscopic view of a 25-year relationship that's playing in a Women’s Project Theater production at City Center’s Stage II.

The relationship is between Erica and Vicky, two women who meet cute, fall in love and, despite obstacles unique to them (Erica is white, totally out of the closet but socially timid; Vicky is black, less open with family and friends but otherwise bold) try to build a life together that is filled with tensions familiar to almost everyone who’s been in a long-term relationship (competing careers, contrasting libidos. the distracting task of raising kids).

Playwright Tanya Barfield tries to cram all of that into 65 minutes. And with the help of Leigh Silverman’s smart direction (click here to read about their collaboration) and two excellent performances from Rebecca Henderson as Erica and Rachael Holmes as Vicky, she almost pulls it off.

The women she’s created are finely etched. Her writing is witty and yet-natural sounding. But because the story is told non-sequentially, with rapid-fire jumps back and forth over the decades, it all felt more like clues in a treasure hunt and I found myself spending more time figuring out where each micro-scene fit into the storyline than on its emotional arc. 

Sometimes fragments, even those as nicely-rendered as the ones in Bright Half Life, just aren’t enough.

March 4, 2015

"The Events" Doesn't Live Up to Its Billing

Every show is an event of some kind but The Events, the docudrama now playing at New York Theatre Workshop, promised to be a particularly special one. Inspired by the 2011 massacre of 77 people, most of them young, at a summer camp in Norway, it proposes to look at both the causes of such violent acts and the ways in which their survivors struggle to recover from them. 

Playwright David Greig and director Ramin Gray have moved the setting to somewhere in Great Britain but, as the growing list of similar events in this country and abroad have shown, it could be anywhere and far too many of us are in need of solace.

The story here revolves around a female minister who leads a community choir that becomes the target of an assault. She comes face-to-face with the gunman and in that moment is forced to confront both her fear of mortality and her definition of morality. 

The only other actor on stage plays a variety of roles, including that of the killer. Which gets confusing since he wears the same T-shirt and jeans throughout and doesn't change his voice or mannerisms to indicate that the different characters are distinct people.

And, like most of us, neither the playwright, director nor actor is successful at getting inside the gunman’s head.  So all we’re left with are the usual clichés: he’s an alienated immigrant, a misguided fundamentalist, a lover of loud music.

 In a simultaneous gesture to classical Greek drama and the current rage for participatory theater, Greig and Gray have constructed The Event so that a revolving series of real community choirs are invited to take on the role of the fictional one in the play.  

That puts a whole lot of weight on the choice of the choir that’s performing the night you see the show and, alas, the one my friend Johanna and I got wasn’t great.  

The choral numbers take up almost a third of the 90-minute show and the choristers are asked to sing a wide variety of songs that include traditional hymns, Norwegian folk songs, pop tunes by artists like the Carpenters and hip-hop by the DJ Dizzee Rascal. Our group was enthusiastic but only intermittently successful.

Some of them were also asked to say, or read, a few lines of dialog. I don’t imagine they get much time to rehearse and, of course, they aren’t pros but only one or two were able to put any life into their lines and a couple, perhaps too thrilled to be in the spotlight, hammed it up to the point that I found myself cringing. 

A man sitting in an aisle seat a couple of rows ahead of me must have been even more distressed than I was by all of it because he jumped up and ran out midway through the show.

But judging by some of the comments I’ve seen tweeted and posted on people’s Facebook pages, The Events can be a moving and cathartic experience for lots of people.  I wish I’d been at one of those performances.