October 31, 2015

The Public Continues Its Hot Streak with "Eclipsed" and "First Daughter Suite"

Is there any theater company hotter right now than the Public Theater? It started the year off with the literally revolutionary production of Lin-Manuel Miranda's Hamilton that moved to Broadway in August (click here for my review). It also picked up four Tonys, including Best Musical, for Fun Home, which began its life in the Public's lab series back in 2012 and became a history maker in its own right as the first show written by an all-female team—Jeanine Tesori and Lisa Kron—to win the top Tony. 

And right now, the Public is running Barbecue, Robert O'Hara's cheeky satire on race, class and the media which ends its three-week run tomorrow; First Daughter Suite, a new chamber musical about the clash between the private and personal lives of five presidential families by the always-boundary pushing composer Michael John LaChiusa and Eclipsed, a moving drama about women surviving in war-ravaged Liberia that not only marks the New York stage debut of the Oscar-winning and fashion-forward actress Lupita Nyong'o but recently announced that it too is moving to Broadway in March.

These shows aren't all great but the Public has attained its heat by championing shows that dare to create theatrical experiences that speak, in one way or another, to the way we live now, bringing to center stage stories about women, gays and people of color.

LaChiusa, who created Giant, The Wild Party and Marie Christine, has always marched to his own drum, usually writing the music, book and lyrics for shows that venture into all kinds of genres. But this time out, LaChiusa has returned to the territory that first put him on the map when the Public produced his First Lady Suite in 1993.

That show, which I saw because a friend insisted that LaChiusa was the most original musicals talent since Stephen Sondheim, consisted of four unrelated fantasias about the inner lives of the mid-century first ladies Eleanor Roosevelt, Bess Truman, Mamie Eisenhower and Jackie Kennedy.

Now, LaChiusa is exploring the latter part of that century when Republicans reigned in the White House and he has focused on the mother-daughter tensions between Pat Nixon and her daughters Julie and Tricia, Betty Ford and her daughter Susan, Nancy Reagan and her wild-child daughter Patti and Barbara Bush's interactions with both the ghost of her daughter Robin who died of leukemia at age three and her daughter-in-law Laura, first lady to Barb's eldest child and the nation's 43rd president George (click here to read more about the composer's fascination with first families).

I'm a longtime LaChiusa fan but even I will admit that musical books aren't his strong suit. The scenarios in First Daughter Suite are often amusing. It's fun to see the Nixon girls snipe at one another and their mother on Tricia's wedding day; Nancy and Patti tussle over Patti's tell-all novel about her first family. 

But the jokes are too often obvious, playing to the biases of the Public's presumed liberal audiences. And some of the gibes are cheap shots, particularly Susan Ford's putdowns of her mother's drinking problem. Only Rosalynn Carter and her daughter come off well in a fantasy sequence in which Amy tries to rescue the American hostages held in Iran. 

No new insights are provided into any of the women and LaChiusa doesn't tie their stories together, although common themes are hinted at—water plays a role in each roughly half-hour vignette, reinforced by Scott Pask's set in which panels in the floor change color to reflect different bodies of water. 

Still, LaChiusa is one of the few composers who regularly creates strong roles for women and here he's been blessed with a cast of eight gifted actresses, who, under the precise direction of Kirsten Sanderson and with the expert costumes by Toni-Leslie James, turn in sensational performances. 

Barbara Walsh is particularly good at capturing the icy elusiveness with which Pat Nixon protected herself, Alison Fraser is a hoot as both Betty Ford and Nancy Reagan and Mary Testa, a frequent LaChiusa collaborator, was born to play the no-nonsense Barbara Bush (click here to listen to an interview about the creation of the characters).

LaChiusa's music is, as always, lush and gorgeous and although there's a sameness to some of the arias, there are a few glorious moments when the women join together in a harmony that evades the show, which has been extended through Nov. 22, as a whole.

Women also band together in Eclipsed, which began its life at the Yale Drama School in 2009 but had trouble getting other productions because artistic directors and commercial producers feared it was too similar to Lynn Nottage's Ruined, which chronicled the plight of women in the Congo.

But the Yale Drama-school trained Nyong'o (click here to read more about her) had understudied for the show when it was done in New Haven and when the Public's artistic director Oskar Eustis invited her to do something at his theater, she said she wanted to do Eclipsed.

The play is written by Danai Gurira, the Zimbabwean actress who is probably best known for her role on TV’s “The Walking Dead” but who is also an accomplished playwright. And it's directed by Liesl Tommy, a South African who has been making a name for herself as a  rising go-to director in this country. Together, they steep this production in the unaffected authenticity and unapologetic feminism they share (click here to read more about their collaboration).

The setting is the ramshackle hut that is home to the women who are the sex slaves of a rebel commander fighting in Liberia's 14-year civil war. As the play opens two of the women are trying to hide a village girl who has wandered into the camp but she, too, soon becomes a "wife" to the commanding officer whom they refer to only as the "CO."  

They don't refer to themselves by name either, but by numbers derived from the order in which the warlord kidnapped and raped them. Gurira completes her portrait of the options open to Liberian women at the time with the additions of the former No. 2 wife who has escaped subjugation by joining the rebel fighters and becoming as heartless as they are and an affluent woman, whose own experiences with the war have lead her to join the coalition of women who eventually ended it.

The play centers around the competition for the heart and soul of the village girl played by Nyong'o. But Eclipsed is truly an ensemble piece and each woman gets a chance to shine. It's a testament to Nyong'o's belief in the play that she didn't insist on a star vehicle for her New York debut and a testament to her talent that she shines so bright amid a display of stellar performances.

Saycon Sengbloh vies for MVP honors as the No.1 wife who protectively rules over the others. Pascale Armand provides leavening comic relief as the most vain, and ultimately most pragmatic, of the group. Zainab Jah is fierce and frightening as the wife-turned-warrior. And Akousa Busia brings a quiet dignity to the role of the peacemaker.

It's no spoiler to say that there are no happy endings for any of these women and yet the play pays beautiful tribute to their struggles. It took a few seconds for the applause to start at the end of the performance I attended, not because those of there hadn't been move by what we'd seen but because we had been.

October 28, 2015

"Cloud Nine" Takes Off Again

Cloud Nine made the great British playwright Caryl Churchill's name when it was first produced in London back in 1979. And when it moved to New York a couple of years later, it won an Obie for Best Play and became a touchstone for a generation of theater lovers awed by both its inventive form (it not only juxtaposes two time periods but requires men to play non-campy female roles—and vice versa) and its then-bold content (gimlet-eyed examinations of colonialism, feminism and gender identity). 

Yet I was nervous about seeing the revival which ends a month-long run at the Atlantic Theater Company's Linda Gross Theater this weekend, thinking it might be too brainy or weird. And this isn't the first time I found myself intimidated by the prospect of seeing a Churchill play. 

I felt the same way about the revival of her 1982 Top Girls, which had a brief Broadway run in 2008; and her most recent work, Love and Information, which played at New York Theatre Workshop last year. But I ended up loving both those productions. And I'm now, albeit belatedly, cheering this one too.

The first act of Cloud Nine takes place in an African country under British colonial rule during the Victorian era. Clive, the local British administrator, reigns over the natives and over his domestic household, which includes his young wife Betty (who is played by a man) their two children (the boy is played by a female actor and the daughter by a doll)  a governess, Betty's visiting mother, two friends seeking refuge from local native uprisings and a Gunga Din-like black servant, who is played by a white actor.

Everyone, except the doll, is having secret affairs that cross age, gender and race boundaries. And yet almost everyone is dissatisfied with his or her life, with the notable exception of Clive, who blithely enjoys the privilege of his whiteness, his maleness and his straightness.

But Churchill has always been an unabashed feminist. In the second act, the place and time change to the London of 1979 in the full bloom of the women's and gay liberation movements. Some of the same characters from the first act are there but they've aged only 25 years, underscoring Churchill's point that society's attitudes toward women and gay people remained stuck in the Victorian era until after the social upheavals that followed World War II.

The actors also switch roles in the second act. The actor who plays Betty in the first act now plays her gay son. The actress who played the son as a boy now plays a middle-aged Betty. Tellingly, no version of Clive appears at all, an indication of the disappearing power of the old white male hegemony.

The gender-bending and role reversals may sound confusing but James Macdonald's sharp direction makes them easy to follow and the performances by the show's seven-member cast are across-the-board superb.

Each actor really deserves to be name checked but I have to single out Brook Bloom, who so thoroughly embodied the quiet ruefulness of the older Betty, who can see the new opportunities—professional and sexual—that are opening up for women but coming too late for her, that she took the curtain call with tears still in her eyes at the performance I attended.

But the production doesn't get everything right. I can't help wishing that Macdonald had cast some actors of color, particularly in this play where having a white actor play a black character was intended to make a political statement. Having a black actress play the role of the governess (who in the second act becomes a radical lesbian) would have been totally in keeping with that progressive audaciousness.

And then there's the seating. The regular seats inside the Linda Gross have been ripped out and temporarily replaced with wooden bleachers. The Atlantic has acknowledged how butt numbing they are by making cushions available to people who ask for them. Even so the people sitting behind me (and a handful of other folks) opted to leave at intermission. 

It's too bad they didn't stay because the power of the play comes in seeing the two acts and thinking about how much further we've come even since then.

October 24, 2015

Turning on the Ghost Light, Yep Again

October is always a crazy month for me. Not only do work demands kick into high gear, so does the theater season. And, on top of that, five of the people I most love have birthdays—and requisite celebrations—this month and the beginning of the next. These are all good problems to have but they also cut into my time and ability to post here as regularly as I'd like. Which is why you're looking at the ghost light theaters use when they're temporarily empty instead of at my thoughts on some of the fascinating shows I've recently seen.

I'm determined to get something up about at least one of them at some point next week but in the meantime do check out some of the pieces from other theater-obsessed writers that I've collected in the B&Me magazine on Flipboard, which you can find by clicking here.

October 21, 2015

"Perfect Arrangement" is a Sweet-and-Sour Mix of Comedy, Tragedy...and Gay History

History, they say, is written by the victors. But sometimes there's a game change and new tales get told. Which may explain why long suppressed parts of the American story are finally making it to the stage in shows like Allegiance, the soon-to-open musical about the Japanese-Americans who were forced into internment camps during World War II; and Perfect Arrangement, the subversive comedy about the McCarthy-era witch hunt of gays and lesbians that opened last week at Primary Stages.

The persecution of people for loving someone of the same sex didn't strike me as a laughing matter and so I was somewhat uneasy about seeing Perfect Arrangement. The perky '50s pop tunes that played before the show began and the sight of a glossy, sitcom-ready set did little to qualm my concerns as my friend June and I settled into our seats at The Duke on 42nd Street where the show is playing through Nov. 6.

But playwright Topher Payne and director Michael Barakiva know exactly what they're doing (click here to read an interview with them). The domestic comedy hijinks at the start of their production make all the more poignant their eventual ruminations on all the obstacles—including shame and self loathing—that had to be overcome before gay people could stand up for their rights and openly tell their stories.

Here's the setup:  it's 1951 and Bob Martindale, a mid-level manager in the internal affairs division of the State Department, and his stay-at-home wife Millie are entertaining two other couples in their Georgetown duplex: Bob's co-worker Norma Baxter and her school teacher husband Jim, who live next door; and Bob's boss Ted Sunderson and his ditzy wife Kitty.

After the cocktails and canapés are served, Ted announces that Bob and Norma have done such a great job rooting out suspected communists in the department that they're now being given the job of finding and firing people suspected of being homosexuals. 

The rationale is that these folks are security risks because they're susceptible to blackmail that would make them betray the country's secrets since no one would want to be openly identified as gay.

What Ted doesn't know is that the Martindales and the Baxters are all gay, and that once behind closed doors they rearrange themselves into the actual couples of Bob and Jim and Norma and Millie, moving back and forth between two adjacent apartments through a secret door that is, pointedly, inside a closet.

So now Bob and Norma have to figure out a way to rid the department of gays without literally outing themselves and losing their jobs and reputations. And that task is made even more complicated when they have to juggle unexpected visits from the ditzy Kitty and an older lover of Millie's. 

As in any farce, identities are mistaken, wisecracks exchanged and doors slammed. The seven-member cast is uniformly terrific at all of it and the women look gorgeous in the period flared-skirt-pinched waist costumes that Jennifer Caprio has designed for them.

But, of course, there's more at stake here than in the usual boulevard comedy. The situation turns serious when some members of the foursome begin to tire of the charade and yearn for a life in which they can live openly with the person they love. Others, however, are determined to maintain the facade and protect the only way of life they can envision.

The campaign against gays that we now call the Lavender Scare isn't as well known as the anti-communist Red Scare but it may have been even more destructive, causing a couple of generations of gay people to burrow deep into the closet for fear of having their lives ruined in the way that those accused of being "deviants" experienced during the 1950s (click here to see a terrific 30-minute documentary on the subject). 

Payne's well-constructed play sheds valuable light on that era. Now I'm not saying that Perfect Arrangement is perfect. Payne also indulges in a bit of the wish fulfillment and historical revisionism that Quentin Tarantino used when he had Jews kill Hitler in "Inglorious Basterds" and slaves shoot down masters in "Django Unchained". 

Still, Payne remains sympathetic to all his characters (except the one out-and-out bigot) and his play reminds us that the real way to change history is to take one courageous step at a time.

October 17, 2015

"The Gin Game" Plays a Winning Hand

As they age, some actors retreat from the stage, citing memory loss, diminished stamina or some other disabling factor. Luckily, neither Cicely Tyson, who will be 91 in December, nor James Earl Jones, who'll turn 85 one month later, has gotten that memo. Because that means theater lovers now have the chance to see these two majestic old lions perform together in the marvelous revival of The Gin Game that opened at the Golden Theatre this week.

D.L.Coburn's two-hander about two lonely people in a nursing home who forge a friendship during a series of card games first played on Broadway in 1977 when I was far too young to think about old age and didn't give The Gin Game a second thought, even though it then starred the husband-and-wife team of Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy, ran 583 performances and won the Pulitzer Prize.

And even now when the play's themes are hitting much closer to home, I had worried that The Gin Game might be one of those shows that get a kick out of making old people look foolish: unable to handle anything more technologically complicated than a can opener, embarrassingly sex crazed or delusionally daft. But it isn't.

Instead, Coburn has created two full-bodied characters. Weller was a businessman, who lost contact with his kids after a divorce from their mother and lost control of his company after falling out with some partners. Fonsia was an even earlier divorcée who raised her only son alone by working as an apartment house manager but she hasn't seen him in years.

Both find themselves in a second-rate nursing home, aware of their failings, physical and otherwise, unvisited by anyone and yet determined to push on with all the dignity they can muster.

The Gin Game is refreshingly honest about the challenges of aging, from minor annoyances like the patronizing way people treat the elderly to major concerns like the prospect of senility. And yet, it's also genuinely funny. People seated all around me and my friend Ann were having a great time.

The play, which runs for a full two hours, requires its actors to be of a certain age but it also requires them to possess the performing chops of much younger players. Jones and Tyson fit the bill. And the fact that the show fits them equally well is quiet testament to the fact that Shakespeare isn't the only playwright whose work can adapt easily to race-diverse casting.

The stars' professional and personal relationship dates back to the legendary 1961 production of Jean Genet's The Blacks, which also starred Roscoe Lee Browne, Louis Gossett and Maya Angelou. And the old friends, under the guidance of Leonard Foglia's easy direction, bring out the best in one another (click here to read an interview with them done by an old friend of mine).

I've sometimes found Tyson, best known for playing noble and long-suffering women like the real-life abolitionist Harriet Tubman and the fictional former slave Miss Jane Pittman, to be mannered. But here, as in her Tony-winning performance in The Trip to Bountiful two seasons ago, Tyson relaxes into her character, allowing Fonsia to be flirty one moment, flinty the next. She makes it equally easy to see why Weller might be drawn to Fonsia and why Fonsia's son might want to keep his distance from her.

Jones' familiar booming basso voice (familiar to fans of "Star Wars" and CNN alike) sometimes gets in the way of his acting and it almost does in the opening scenes of this play. But once he and Tyson settled into the routine of their card games, he shifts into a more nuanced performance that reveals the years of disappointment and defeat underneath Weller's prickliness.

It is sometimes difficult to tell whether Jones really needs the cane he wields or if the little old lady shuffle Tyson uses to get around the stage is a character trait or a physical necessity. And I'm pretty sure a couple of lines were bungled the night I saw the show. But no matter, these two old masters make old age look truly golden.

October 14, 2015

Feeling Chilly About "Spring Awakening"

"I dare you to knock a show starring deaf people and a girl in a wheelchair," my husband K said when I got home from the Deaf West Theatre's revival of Spring Awakening that is playing a limited engagement at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre through Jan. 24. 

Well, I don't have the cojones to do that but I do have to say that as great as it is to see those folks onstage (and all the deaf people in the audience too) I wasn't really moved by the production itself.  

And that surprises me because I was totally smitten by the original production that opened in 2006 and won eight Tonys, including Best Musical, the year before I started writing B&Me. I was such a fan of Duncan Sheik and Steven Sater's pop-rock score that I bought the cast album and had it on repeat-play for months.

German playwright Frank Wedekind's 1891 story of teens misunderstood by their parents, confused by the roiling of adolescent hormones and beset with one woe after another touched me. And I was equally seduced by the backstory of how it took Wedekind 15 years to find anyone daring enough to stage a play that dealt sympathetically with homosexuality, masturbation and teen pregnancy.

I also was won over by the perspicacity of the 2006 production's casting folks who gave the nod to the then-fledgling talents of Jonathan Groff, Lea Michele, John Gallagher Jr., Gideon Glick and Krysta Rodriguez, who graduates from an ensemble member in that earlier production to an awards-worthy portrayal of the local bad girl Ilse in the current one.

So even though it seemed a bit too soon for a Broadway revival (click here to read about the producer's decision to bring it back), I was intrigued by the new production’s concept of highlighting the miscommunication between the generations by making many of the youngsters deaf and literally unable to speak to their parents or hear them. 

But when I actually saw the show, I found its conceit of having deaf actors sign their dialogue and song lyrics while hearing actors simultaneously speak and sing the same lines to be distracting and to lessen, instead of heighten, the emotion.

Yet, I still admire the skill that, under the taut direction of Michael Arden, went into syncing the two languages. And I also appreciate how Spencer Liff, building on Bill T. Jones' stylized movements for the original production, finds imaginative ways to incorporate American Sign Language into his choreography (click here for a story about how they put it all together).

Those efforts are helped by the casting of the TV actress Camryn Manheim, who learned ASL in college (click here for a Q&A with her) and the veteran deaf actors Marlee Matlin, who won an Oscar for her work in "Children of a Lesser God" (click here to read an interview with her), and Russell Harvard, the heart and soul of the terrific 2012 off-Broadway show Tribes (click here for my review of it), all three making their Broadway debuts. 

And, of course, it's always a pleasure to see—and hear the dulcet voice of—Patrick Page, who shares the adult male roles with Harvard. Several of the young deaf actors, including the lovely Sandra Mae Frank, as the naive Wendla, and Daniel N. Durant as the tormented Moritz, are very good too. 

But my biggest kudos go to Austin P. McKenzie, a charismatic hearing actor with the pretty-boy looks of the young Warren Beatty, who sings wonderfully, does his own signing and, perhaps because he's able to control the role, allowed me to invest a little in the main character of Melchior who most successfully defies the adults.

And then there's that girl in the wheelchair. Her isn't technically a starring role. Ali Stroker, who was paralyzed in a car accident at two and is the first wheelchair bound actor to appear in a Broadway show (click here to read more about her) is a member of the ensemble but the exuberant abandon with which she performs makes her a standout. And I dare anybody to knock that.

October 10, 2015

"Barbecue" is Tasty But Not Truly Nourishing

Barbecue, the sly satire that opened this week at the Public Theater, is filled with so many surprises that the ushers won't even hand out programs until the intermission. Which makes it a bit difficult for me to talk about the show without spoiling some of its fun.

And there is plenty of fun to be had, particularly in the first act, even though it may not be the kind of humor appreciated by the politically correct, among whose numbers I've been known to be on occasion. But even I couldn't resist the dare-you-not-to-laugh antics that playwright Robert O'Hara has his characters commit.

The play opens in a picnic area in a sylvan park (an eye-catching set by Clint Ramos that's terrifically lit by Jason Lyons). One after another, four of the O'Mallery siblings arrive and it's quickly made clear that they haven't gathered for the titular cookout but for an intervention with their fifth sibling Barbara, a crack head so volatile that they've nicknamed her Zippity Boom.

The real problem, however, is that Barbara's brother and two of her sisters are almost as substance dependent as she is, chugging from a magnum of Jack Daniels, popping pills and indulging in a little recreational blow before their baby sister arrives.

The way they're clothed (hootchie dresses and muscle shirts) and the way they talk (heavy on profanity, light on grammar) mark them as the kind of low-rent clan that people tut-tut at but love to laugh at on reality TV shows. And the fact that we in the theater audience are also laughing at them adds a meta edge of discomfort.

As he showed with his previous comedy Bootycandy (click here for my review of it), O'Hara enjoys playing with society's attitude's toward issues like race and class and he is totally unafraid of employing stereotypes to do it. 

His take on the prejudices that have been embedded in all of us can be brazen and wickedly funny but, also as with Bootycandy, O'Hara has the tendency to stop just short of making his audiences think too hard or feel too uncomfortable by underlining the point that he's just joking around so no one should take offense.

One of Barbecue's biggest surprises comes at the end of its first act and the second, while still entertaining, is more predictable and less sharp. But under the direction of Kent Gash, the 10-member cast, which includes Becky Ann Baker, Tamberla Perry, Samantha Soule and Kim Wayans, never flags. And, for good or ill, the laughs never stop coming.