September 30, 2015

A Gala Event to Honor James Earl Jones

The American Theatre Wing’s annual gala is always a great party. Each year, the Wing, the creator of the Tony Awards, selects a beloved person from the theater world to honor and lots of show makers and theater lovers get dressed up and go somewhere swanky (The Plaza Hotel's Grand Ballroom this year) to celebrate him or her. A highlight of each evening is the performances that pay tribute to the honoree’s career and, in the process, entertain the hell out of the rest of us lucky enough to be there.

Of course finding the numbers to do is easier for some honorees than for others. There was no shortage of candidates when Hal Prince (who has produced and directed more than 50 musicals, ranging from The Pajama Game to The Phantom of the Opera) was honored a couple of years ago. Or when Angela Lansbury (who has won Tonys for her iconic performances in shows such as Mame, Gypsy and Sweeney Todd) was the honoree last year. But I was a little worried when I heard that the Wing was honoring James Earl Jones this year. 

There is no question that Jones, a two-time Tony winner who will mark his 20th Broadway performance when he opens next month in The Gin Game opposite Cicely Tyson, deserves the honor but his resume isn’t exactly heavy on musicals and so I wondered what the entertainment would be.

I shouldn’t have doubted the Wing. It’s got a contact list jammed pack with creative folks and they came up with a terrific—and at times moving—evening. It got off to a sensational start when five of the actors who have played Mufasa in the 18-year run of The Lion King, appeared to sing that show's affecting anthem “They Live in You,” acknowledgement that Jones not only first gave voice to the lion patriarch in the 1994 animated film but also helped pioneer the way for African-American and other actors of color to play significant roles on Broadway.

Also on hand to pay homage were Patina Miller, Ruthie Ann Miles, Brandon Victor Dixon and Kerry Butler, who appeared with Jones in the last revival of The Best Man in which no one batted an eye at having a black actor portray a former president of the United States modeled after Harry Truman. 

But the emotional highlight of the evening came when Norm Lewis sang “Bring Him Home” from Les Misérables and dedicated his performance to Kyle Jean-Baptiste, the 21-year-old actor who made history as the first African American to play that show's leading role of Jean-Valjean just a few weeks before he died in an accident this summer.

In between the performances, my husband K and I dined on lamb chops and chatted with our tablemates, who included Steven Boyer, the terrific star of Hand of God, and Robert Creighton, who created and starred in the bio-musical Cagney, which played at the York Theatre this spring. And K, who’d once worked with Jones, went over to the main table to extend his personal congratulations.

At the end of the evening, filmmaker George Lucas, who confided to the audience that he’d chosen Jones over Orson Welles to be the voice of Darth Vader in the “Star Wars” films, and Samuel L. Jackson, whose wife LaTanya Richardson Jackson is on the board of the Wing, gave Jones the commemorative trophy.

Taking the stage, Jones paid tribute to the training he received at the American Theatre Wing’s Professional School back in the ‘50s, which brought the evening around full circle, showing that the Wing has been doing the right thing for decades. 

September 26, 2015

"The Legend of Georgia McBride" is a Hoot

Sometimes even a serious theatergoer just wants to have fun. At least that's what I was hoping to do when I headed off to see the MCC Theater production of The Legend of Georgia McBride. And that's exactly what I—and, judging by the volume of the laughter—everyone else at the Lucille Lortel Theatre had the night I saw this big-hearted show about a straight guy who finds happiness when he becomes a drag queen.

It's also pretty obvious that playwright Matthew Lopez, the author of The Whipping Man, a dour Civil War drama; and a writer for the overly earnest HBO series "The Newsroom," had a helluva good time when he wrote Georgia McBride.

The show opens as Casey, an Elvis impersonator, is performing his act at a dinky bar on the Florida Panhandle. Casey's got the king's lip snarl and hip swivel down pat but what he doesn't have is a paying audience and so his boss brings in another act, a pair of drag queens named Tracy and Rexy (short for Anorexia Nervosa) and demotes Casey to bartender and general gofer.

The bad news keeps coming. At home, Casey's wife Jo, with whom he's madly in love, tells him that the rent check bounced and that her pregnancy test is positive. So Casey, in desperate need of keeping his job, has little choice when an intoxicated Rexy can't perform one night and he's drafted to replace her.

He's wobbly at first but quickly finds that the high-heel shoes fit. Under Tracy's nurturing tutelage, Casey takes on the drag personae of Georgia McBride and their show begin to pack the bar. Soon Casey's loving the attention he's finally getting and the money he's now earning. The only problem is that he doesn't want Jo to know how he's earning their living or how much he's enjoying what he's doing.

Sprinkled throughout this narrative are full-on numbers from the drag show; what seems to be a "Priscilla, Queen of the Desert" homage is deliciously over-the-top. Lopez also supplies a steady stream of belly-laugh-inducing one-liners. And, under the snappy direction of Mike Donahue, all the performances are delightful.

Dave Thomas Brown is particularly appealing as Casey and he and Afton Williamson's Jo make an adorable, and believable, couple. Plus he's a great-looking drag queen.

But it's Matt McGrath who steals the show as the sagacious Tracy, a drag show vet who has learned over the years that you have to grab your joy where and when you can and to temper the joyless times with a wry quip (click here to read a profile of the actor).

You could easily come out of this show, which ends it run Oct. 11, with some thoughts about the changing definitions of manhood in 21st century America whirling around your head. But you're even more likely to walk away, as I did, with a big grin on your face.

September 23, 2015

This "Hamlet in Bed" Has Identity Issues

Many critics seem to be regarding Hamlet in Bed, the overwrought new play that opened last week at Rattlestick Playwrights Theater, as a kind of audition for some other production they'd rather see than this one. 

The two-hander, written by Michael Laurence, stars Laurence as an actor, self-referentially named Michael, who is obsessed with Shakespeare’s most famous character; and Annette O’Toole as a boozy has-been actress, coyly called Anna, he persuades to play the prince's mother Gertrude. Further complicating the meta-ish plot is the fact that "Michael" secretly believes "Anna" to be his real-life mother who gave him up for adoption at birth.

It's not a bad premise. And although Laurence is a bit old for the role of the college-aged prince, he has the lean and intense mien that could make for a convincing Hamlet. Meanwhile O'Toole, who at 62 has a sultry voice and a taut figure that rocks the skintight pants she wears, would be perfect for a Gertrude who blurs the line between the maternal and the carnal.

Hamlet in Bed also offers theatricality to the max as the characters use handheld mikes to deliver soliloquies that fill us in on their backstories and inner motivations, wrangle over the nature of their relationship during heated encounters (including on the titular bed) and perform speeches from the famous closet scene in which Hamlet confronts his mother about her remarriage so soon after the death of his father.

But Laurence, who fesses up to having some Hamlet issues of his own (click here to read about them) takes such a heavy handed approach to all of it that, abetted by Lisa Peterson's gloomy direction, the pleasure of making the connections between his play and Shakespeare's quickly evaporates.

So I'm with the critics on this one: the show might have been better if it had gone old school, without the bed.

September 19, 2015

"Desire" Offers Six Perspectives on the Uneasy Passions of Tennessee Williams

Resurrection seems to be the latest theater trend. News has recently come that shows featuring holograms of Billie Holiday and Whitney Houston will tour across the country. And now, on both sides of the Atlantic, short stories by long-dead playwrights are being given new lives onstage: Life's Little Nothings, dramatizations of five stories by Anton Chekhov, ended a short run in London this week and Desire, an evening of six one-act plays based on stories by Tennessee Williams, is now running at the 59E59 Theaters through Oct. 10.

The Acting Company commissioned six playwrights of different ages, ethnicities and genders to tackle the Williams stories, which were mainly written before The Glass Menagerie made the playwright famous, although in some cases published later.

It also recruited Michael Wilson, who oversaw a 10-year Williams marathon when he was artistic director at Hartford Stage, to direct the resulting works and assemble an ensemble of nine actors who, with varying degrees of finesse, take on multiple roles in the six plays (click here to read more about that process).

Although a longtime fan of Williams' plays, I'd never read his short stories so I decided to do so before my theatergoing buddy Bill and I went to see Desire. The themes (the hungers for love, sex, food for the soul) and even some of the characters were reminiscent of those from his plays and I was eager to see what the commissioned playwrights would do with them.

As you might expect they met with differing degrees of success. The results are particularly mixed for Beth Henley, who, like Williams, is a Pulitzer Prize winner with roots in the south and a fondness for high-strung female characters. She adapted "The Resemblance Between a Violin Case and a Coffin," a coming-of-age-tale about a young brother and sister who both fall tragically under the spell of a beautiful young violinist.

Henley hews close to the storyline of the shy sister's inability to cope with her budding sexuality and the younger brother's awakening to his but the subtleties of the story's melancholy get lost in the transfer to the stage and the poetic flourishes that Wilson substitutes—having the actor playing the violinist mime his bicycle rides around the town—seem almost silly.

Marcus Gardley, whose own work shares Williams' heightened feel for language, has an even more difficult time with the story called "Desire and the Black Masseur," which chronicles the sadomasochistic relationship between the title character and one of his white patrons.

Gardley, the only African-American playwright in the group, gives a name to the masseur, whom Williams only refers to as "the Negro," makes him the central character and changes the title of the play to Desire Quenched by Touch. But, in the end, neither he nor Wilson is able to overcome the disturbingly Grand Guignol ending that foreshadows events in Williams' own Suddenly, Last Summer.

Despite this fondness for the tragic and sometimes macabre, Williams could be funny and the most crowd-pleasing of the evening's works find ways to tap into that humor. Rebecca Gilman does it by updating "The Field of Blue Children" from the 1930s to the present, complete with smart phones, mean girls and the pop slang in which almost every other word is "like."

What she keeps is the basic storyline of an affluent college girl who is prized for her beauty but yearns for a more meaningful life, which she finds when she falls for a poor poet who recognizes the poetry in her. She is then faced with the choice of running off with him or marrying her frat-boy fiancé. The short story is more poignant but Gilman hits the right notes and Kristen Adele does a good job of conveying the girl's inner turmoil.

The most successful play of the evening—and the one I had most looked forward to—was John Guare's take on "The Portrait of a Girl in Glass,” a 1943 story that reads as thought it were the first draft of The Glass Menagerie, complete with the presence of the Wingfields--Tom, Amanda and Laura—the skipped typing classes, the beloved glass figurines and, of course, the visit from the gentleman caller.

Guare avoids trying to better what Williams so beautifully did with the story. Instead, his play, which he calls You Lied to Me About Centralia, follows Jim, the gentleman caller, after he leaves the Wingfield home and goes to meet his fiancée. The scene between them is a hoot, but tinged with the bittersweet regret that Jim feels for what might have been with Laura. Plus it's great fun to identify all the references to Menagerie and Williams' own proclivities.

None of these mini homages rises to the level of Williams at his best but they are satisfying reminders of what that best could be.

September 16, 2015

Why "Isolde"—And It's Ilk—Is Not for Me

Richard Maxwell clearly has a following. The night my theatergoing buddy Bill and I saw Isolde, the experimental work written and directed by Maxwell that's playing at Theatre For A New Audience’s Polonsky Shakespeare Center through Sept. 27, his fans in the audience, including the woman sitting next to me, started laughing as soon as the actors walked onstage. And they continued chortling for the next 85 minutes. I, on the other hand, didn’t laugh once.

This is the first Maxwell play I’ve seen but from what I can tell his aesthetic veers heavily toward absurd situations, rudimentary scenery and deadpan acting. All of those attributes are on display in Isolde, a contemporary spin on the Celtic legend about the love triangle between a king, his most trusted knight and the woman they both love that will be familiar to fans of both Wagner’s “Tristan and Isolde” and Lerner and Lowe’s Camelot.

The central characters in Maxwell’s version are an actress named Isolde, her wealthy husband Patrick, who’s a building contractor, and the architect they hire to design their dream house. He's called Massimo. Patrick watches a lot of TV and hangs out with a semi-thuggish guy he calls Uncle Jerry. Meanwhile, Isolde and Massimo start an affair that culminates in a bare-butt sex scene.

But nothing seems to perk any of them up, not even when Patrick figures out what’s going on between Isolde and Massimo. In fact, there are no grand arias to be found anywhere, even though bits of Wagner’s score do provide incidental music.

The New York Times’ Ben Brantley calls Isolde “smashing,” and The New Yorker’s Hilton Als calls it “elegant," (click here for his Q&A with Maxwell)They apparently see Patrick’s fondness for reality TV, Isolde’s inability to remember lines of Shakespeare and Patrick’s failure to complete the plans for the house as incisive commentary on the anodyne nature of contemporary culture.

I see those same things as familiar tropes that have been far better explored in other works and that here only give the actors, including Maxwell’s wife Tory Vasquez, who plays Isolde, ideas instead of characters to play. Maxwell's take strikes me as all head, no heart.

Or, as Bill put it in an email he sent me the next morning. “Maxwell—intentionally, I assume—leached out not only most of the emotions from his characters' dialog but also their natures. He gives us what is (just like the set) the mere skeleton of a play rather than a fully fleshed one.”

I don't mind absurd situations, rudimentary scenery or even deadpan acting but I prefer them with more meat on their bones than Isolde provides.

September 12, 2015

Fall Preview: Can't Wait to See It Edition

The fall preview lists started streaming out soon after this summer’s blue moon appeared at the end of July. The New York Times’ comprehensive list of this season's new shows went online Thursday and will appear in the paper edition on Sunday (click here to read it).

Still, in the spirit of you-show-me-yours-I’ll-show-you-mine, I've decided to go ahead with my list of the shows I’m most looking forward to seeing over the next three months. There are, as always, lots of them (including The Humans, a family-during-the-holidays play by Stephen Karam at the Roundabout, and Allegiance, the Broadway musical inspired by “Star Trek” actor George Takei’s childhood in an internment camp where Japanese-Americans were held during WWII).

But the list below kind of composed itself: most of the shows are ones that I was so determined to see that I actually set an alarm on my calendar and bought tickets within an hour of their going on sale. And there are a few that my husband K, a notoriously picky (he might say discerning) theatergoer, has made clear that he’s particularly eager to see. So here, in alphabetical order, are our can't-wait-to-sees for this fall:

THE CHRISTIANS: It’s rare that religion is treated without parody or condescension in contemporary plays and so I’ve been stalking Lucas Hnath’s drama about the pastor of a megachurch and his crisis of faith since its breakout at the Humana Festival of New Plays last year. There will be a full choir onstage and the audience serves as the congregation. The services officially open at Playwrights Horizons next week for a month-long run.

ECLIPSED: Despite the Pulitzer-Prize winning and audience-pleasing success of Lynn Nottage’s Ruined, plays about the current situation in Africa remain a tough sell. But the combination of a script by Danai Gurira, the Zimbabwean actress most famous for her role on TV’s “The Walking Dead” but also an accomplished playwright; and the New York stage debut of Lupita Nyong’o, who won an Oscar for her performance in “12 Years a Slave,” this piece set during the recent civil wars in Liberia will be a must-see during its short run at the Public Theater, which begins with previews on Sept. 29

FIRST DAUGHTER SUITE: Michael John LaChiusa made his name with First Lady Suite, a collection of musical fantasies about the wives of four U.S. presidents that opened at the Public Theater in 1993. Now 22 years and more than a dozen musicals later, he’s back at the Public with a new chamber piece that looks at some of the young women who grew up in the White House and their relationships with their mothers. LaChiusa, who I know just a little, is a longtime favorite of mine and it will be fun to follow him back to his roots. Previews start Oct. 6 for a run that is scheduled to end on Nov. 15.

FOOL FOR LOVE: By contrast, Sam Shepard’s work has always been something of a challenge for me but this 1983 play about extraordinarily star-crossed lovers is one of his classics and this Manhattan Theater Club production is the first time it will be done on Broadway. The fact that it will star Sam Rockwell and Nina Arianda, whom K will see in just about anything, made the decision to include this on the list a no-brainer.

HAMLET: O.K I know this is cheating because Benedict Cumberbatch’s portrayal of Shakespeare’s most famous creation opened in London last month but Cumberbatch is so popular for his roles on the TV series “Sherlock” and in movies from “The Imitation Game” to “Star Trek into Darkness” (his followers dub themselves Cumberbitches) that the production has been covered almost as extensively as Hamilton has been. Luckily, there’s a series of National Theater Live simulcasts that will play at cinemas around the world beginning on Oct. 15 so theater lovers everywhere can see whether the fuss has been worth it.

HENRY IV: The same team (director Phyllida Lloyd and actress Harriet Walter) that spearheaded the terrific all-female version of Julius Caesar at St. Ann’s Warehouse two years ago is back with what is perhaps Shakespeare’s greatest history play Henry IV, offering another chance to see female actors take on iconic roles they usually can’t play. Plus it will be the inaugural production at St. Ann’s new home in an old tobacco warehouse on the Brooklyn waterfront, making for a hard-to-turn down twofer.

HIR: Within just the past year, the experiences of transgender people have exploded into the public consciousness and now the gender-fluid writer and performance artist Taylor Mac has created a topical comedy about a vet returning from the war in Afghanistan, his brother who has recently come out as a woman and their mother who is making some change of her own. Mac, who was sensational in the collaboration he did with Mandy Patinkin two years ago, won’t be in the show that will run at Playwrights Horizons for most of November, but I'm betting that the pitch-perfect casting of Kristine Nielsen will make up for that.

KING CHARLES III: Queen Elizabeth II became Britain’s longest-reigning monarch this week and over the years she’s earned the devotion of her subjects but, alas, her heir hasn’t faired as well, as is evident in this imagining of what both country and crown will be like once Charles takes over. Part of me thought this cruel when I first heard about it but the playwright Mike Bartlett, the author of the superb Cock Fight, has a great sense of the theatrical (King Charles III is written in iambic pentameter) and the production not only won rave reviews but an Olivier Award for Best New Play so how can I resist the Broadway run that officially opens on Nov. 1.

LAZARUS:  Enda Walsh is the Tony-winning book writer of Once. Ivo van Hove is the innovative and very hot director whose work will be popping up all over the city this season. Michael C. Hall is the actor who has brought high intensity to his performances as the Emcee in Cabaret and the title character in Hedwig and the Angry Inch. And David Bowie is, well, David Bowie. The four of them are the reasons that this new musical about a space alien’s quest to find water on earth will be one of the hottest tickets of the season when the show has its month-long run down at New York Theatre Workshop, beginning Nov. 18.

OLD TIMES: Hardly a season goes by without the revival of a musical by Stephen Sondheim or play by Harold Pinter, if not both. This fall, brings a new production of Pinter’s 1971 enigma about a married couple whose life is unsettled by a visit from an old friend of the wife’s. The Roundabout production will mark the New York stage debut of the dashing Clive Owen and a return to Broadway for Eve Best, who was so gobsmackingly good in Pinter's The Homecoming back in 2008 that K, no Pinter fan but a devotee of fine acting, eagerly signed on to see this revival.

A VIEW FROM THE BRIDGE: Had he lived, Arthur Miller would have turned 100 next month and several productions are being mounted to mark the occasion, including Signature Theater’s revival of his under-appreciated play Incident at Vichy and this Broadway transfer of London’s Young Vic’s production of Miller’s tragedy about a dock worker who develops a disasterous lust for his niece. It’s one of K’s favorite plays and the fact that it's staged by the ubiquitous Ivo van Hove, who reinvents rather than revives classic plays, makes it all the more enticing.

September 9, 2015

"Love and Money" Isn't Nearly Rich Enough

No one is a bigger fan of Signature Theatre than I am. For 25 years now, the company has centered its seasons around the work of one playwright, providing theater lovers the rare chance to take in the full range of what some of America’s greatest living stage writers have created and offering those writers a second chance for shows that sometimes weren’t well received the first time around. 

The result has sometimes been wonderful, as happened with Edward Albee’s The Lady from Dubuque (click here for my review of it) and A.R. Gurney’s The Wayside Motor Inn. But Signature also encourages the playwrights to create new works as part of the celebration of their oeuvre. And that hasn’t fared as well. 

By definition, a playwright who merits one of these tribute seasons has to have amassed a substantial body of work and that usually means the honor comes late in a career, when the best work is often behind the writer. If you look back over the years, you'll find that the majority of the commissioned plays have tended to be a parody of what once made their authors great or a misplaced attempt to look au courant.

“The work is an example of the experimental, ruminative style the dramatist has adopted of late, an approach that is by no means his most effective,” the New York Times’ Ben Brantley wrote in his review of Mr. Peters' Connections, the play Arthur Miller wrote to complete his Signature season back in 1998.  And the less said the better about A Particle of Dread, Sam Shepard’s baffling riff on the Oedipus myth that fulfilled his new play obligation last season. 

Now, alas, joining that list of disappointments is Love & Money, the new Gurney play that is running at Signature's Griffin space through Oct. 4. Throughout his long career, Gurney, who will turn 85 in November, has provided a gimlet-eyed view into the angst of upper-class whites, or WASPs, as they've struggled with losing their dominant place in American culture in such fine plays as The Cocktail Hour, The Dining Room and Sylvia, which is being revived on Broadway this fall.

And as regular readers know, his play Love Letters, a sympathetic look at the privileges and burdens of that old aristocracy, reduces me (as far from a WASP as you can get) to tears almost every time I see it, which I try to do as often as I can. But I’ve been far less moved by Gurney’s more recent plays.

The Grand Manner, a memory play inspired by Gurney’s teenage encounter with the actress Katharine Cornell, got so tripped up in his desire to portray the people he once revered that he forgot to give them a plot. Meanwhile Black Tie, a wan attempt at a contemporary comedy set at the wedding between an old-school WASP and a woman of color, so lacked the courage of its premise that the bride doesn’t even make an appearance onstage.

Love & Money falls into the good-intentions-missed-opportunity category. It centers around Cornelia Cunningham, a wealthy WASP widow, whose children have died and grandchildren are estranged, freeing her to give away all of her money to worthy causes, a kind of recompense for the privilege she’s always enjoyed.

As the play opens, Cornelia is happily writing checks and bullying her straight-laced young lawyer when a young African-American man named Walker Williams arrives, claiming to be the son resulting from a secret affair between Cornelia’s deceased daughter and a black man she met during her hippie days. Scottie, as the would-be grandson calls himself, wants Cornelia to pay his way through Princeton.

Is he telling the truth?  Will she give him the money and change her will so that he’ll inherit more when she dies?  Gurney hardly seems to care. The characters—including an Irish maid and a Korean music student—come and go without any consideration for the passage of time or logic. And the resolution is abruptly announced instead of worked out. The play lasts barely 75 minutes and they are padded with the playing and singing of Cole Porter songs.

The production is directed by Mark Lamos, who has made a specialty of doing Gurney plays, but he isn’t able to do much with this one. The cast, lead by Maureen Anderman as Cornelia, runs the gamut from OK to not.

The set, supposedly a parlor in an elegant townhouse that Cornelia uses as an office is appropriately lavish-looking but so awkwardly designed that there aren’t enough places for the actors to sit or to comfortably put down their props. A piano seems to be there just so that they can perform the Porter songs.

All in all, it’s a good thing that Gurney’s legacy is so secure because otherwise, Love & Money would diminish it. Although who knows, maybe 20 years from now some Signature production will revive the show and give it the life it now lacks. In the meantime, I’m afraid it’s not deserving of your love or your money.