February 24, 2016

"Tennessee Williams 1982": Two Late Plays That May Appeal to Only a Dedicated Few

So much of my time is spent trying to keep up with shows that open on Broadway and those produced by the larger off-Broadway companies that I rarely get to see smaller off-off Broadway shows. But when the Playhouse Creatures Theatre Company invited me to its latest production, I knew I had to make time to go even though I'd never heard of the company before. Why? Because I'm a sucker for Tennessee Williams and the company is presenting two of the last one-act plays Williams wrote the year before he died from choking on a medicine bottle cap in1983.

The double-bill called Tennessee Williams 1982 opened Sunday night at Walkerspace in Tribeca and, under the direction of Cosmin Chivu, a Rumanian-born director who's made a specialty of Williams' later works (click here to read a Q&A with him) it's been given a modest, albeit enthusiastic, production. 

Both plays venture away from Williams' home territory of the south. A Recluse and His Guest, which has never been produced before, is set "in a far northern town in a remote time" and has the air of a fable. The Remarkable Rooming-House of Mme. Le Monde takes place in an attic in London and falls closer to Joe Orton's nihilistic romps. But both are filled with the wounded souls that populate all of Williams' works and who so often touch me.

The central figures in Recluse are Nevrika, a morally-ambiguous woman, who, like Blanche DuBois, has come to the end of her line as she wanders into an unfamiliar community hoping to find salvation there; and Ott, the titular outcast who provides a sanctuary that is threatened when her past is revealed to him.

But Williams had toughened up in the intervening years between A Streetcar Named Desire and A Recluse and His Guest and in the end Nevrika doesn't depend on the kindness of strangers but gathers up strength within herself.

Nevrika is played by Kate Skinner and Ott by Ford Austin, neither is listed as a company member but both have long lists of credits in regional theaters and smaller films. They work hard here but are unable to evoke the poetry that anchors even Williams' most outlandish flights of fancy. And without the lyricism, the work totters on the brink of bombast and balderdash.

The versatile Skinner returns as the harpyish title character in the second play but the focus of this tale is Mint, a cripple who lives (or perhaps is held hostage) in the attic of a boarding house where he is mistreated by his landlady's son and even by the old frenemy who visits him for tea.

Mint gets around by attaching himself to hooks that descend from the ceiling. And I couldn't help feeling sorry for Jade Ziane, the appealing actor who plays Mint, as he swung from one hook to another, awkwardly clamping the metal closures onto a harness fitted around his waist and, as the script requires, periodically crashing to the ground. 

As John Lahr's exhaustive biography makes clear, Williams reveled in rough sex. Apparently liberated in the post-Stonewall era from having to cloak his inclinations in metaphor, he puts them out in full view: Mme. Le Monde opens with a male-on-male rape scene, ends with another act of violence and the time in between isn't pleasant either, nor is it meant to be.

No doubt constricted by a small budget, Chivu makes do with one set for both plays. The dominant element in Justin West's design is a collection of old TV sets scattered around a space that resembles a junk shop. 

The TVs make some sense in the relatively contemporary Mme. Le Monde but none in Recluse and Chivu's decision to use them for projections makes too literal what should have been suggestive. He also underscores both plays with over-emphatic live music that calls far more attention to itself than it should.

Yet despite everything I've said, I'm glad I had the opportunity to see these works, neither of which is likely to be staged often. But unless you're a Williams fanatic like me, you may not feel your time was as well spent.

February 20, 2016

This "Prodigal Son" Remains Lost

Like the playwright John Patrick Shanley, I was a kid from a working-class family who got a scholarship to a New England prep school and it changed my life in all kinds of ways. So I was really looking forward to Prodigal Son, the new play inspired by Shanley's school days that opened at Manhattan Theatre Club's Stage I last week. And maybe my high expectations explain why I was so disappointed by the play. Although, alas, that's not the only reason.

The experience of moving from one world into another, particularly at such a sensitive age, can be difficult and Shanley is apparently still wrestling with it. In an author's note in the program, he says that he hasn't changed the name of the school or those of the teachers who were important to him in his time there. "I wish you could have been there," he writes. "I wish more generally that you could have shared my whole life with me, so we could discuss and compare."

Shanley's alter ego, to whom he's given the name Jim Quinn, is smart but defensive: quick to challenge his instructors and even quicker to confront classmates who make fun of his Bronx accent. He's also somewhat self-destructive, doing things—drinking, stealing from his classmates—that, if discovered, will get him thrown out of the place.

Timothée Chalamet, a young actor who went to New York's High School for Performing Arts and has appeared in several movies and on TV's "Homeland," is pitch perfect as Jim, equal parts cocky, vulnerable and desperate to be somebody of true importance. The rest of the cast (Chris McGarry as the headmaster, Annika Broas as his wife, Robert Sean Leonard as a supportive English teacher and David Potters as Jim's nerdy roommate) is first-rate too.

And yet the play, at least as directed by Shanley himself, struck me as bloodless. Maybe that's because Shanley knows how it all unfolded and didn't feel the need to spell it out for the rest of us. Or perhaps he figured details aren't necessary cause the audience knows how it all turned out since we're sitting there at the outcome. 

Instead, he seems as though he's still trying to prove that he fits into that world. He name checks poets (T.S. Eliot) and philosophers (Heraclitus)  and theologians (the school's name saint). And he devotes far too much of the play to having everyone marvel over and over again how brilliant Jim (i.e., the young Shanley) is. 

The subtle nuances he achieved in his Pulitzer Prize-winning Doubt are absent here. Prodigal Son is a heady play but it rarely gets to the heart of what the experience meant for a kid with so few other options.

There are instances when that could have happened. One of Jim's mentors reveals a romantic interest in the boy but the moment is rushed by, as though Shanley is uncomfortable with the memory. And like all the other plot points that make this more than just a paean to his younger self, the revelation happens in the final 10 minutes of the play. That means 85 minutes of throat-clearing.

There's no quarreling with the work of the creative team. The set by Santo Loquasto is so right-on that I felt the frosty air of a New England winter just by looking at its bare birch trees. Natasha Katz's lighting gracefully charts the passage of time. And the moody interstitial music by Paul Simon is lovely, even though Shanley allows it to play on far longer than the scene changes require.

But sets, lighting and music aren't the primary reasons we go to see a play. And this play doesn't make a strong enough argument for our being there.

February 17, 2016

"Smart People" Strains too Hard to Be Clever

Lydia Diamond's Stick Fly, which had a brief Broadway run back in 2011, was such a refreshing look at African-American life in contemporary America that I had to talk myself out of jumping on Amtrak and going up to Boston to see her next play Smart People when it debuted at Huntington Theatre Company in 2014.  So I leapt at the chance to see the new production of Smart People that opened at Second Stage Theatre last week.  

Now, all I can say is that I'm glad I saved the train fare. Smart People clearly wants to be a conversation-provoking look at the issue of race in this country and to probe the various ways in which prejudice and privilege manifest themselves. But the play, at least as presented in this production, may be too clever for its own good. 

Set in Cambridge, Mass. in the months leading up to Barack Obama's election in 2008, Smart People tracks the romantic and professional maneuverings of four people who would seem ideal candidates for a post-racial America. Jackson, who's black, is a Harvard-educated surgical resident. His best friend Brian is a white neuroscientist who is using brain imaging to study racism.

The equally smart women in their lives are Ginny, a part Chinese-part-Japanese genius (certified by a MacArthur grant) who is studying depression in immigrant women; and Valerie, a biracial actress who has a gift for the classics.

What happens to these smarties is just as schematic as their CVs. They bump into one another, break apart and then collide again, like the pieces in a three-dimensional kaleidoscope. Only the images they create are predictable.

Jackson feels that supervising doctors at the hospital are second guessing his decisions because he's black. Brian can see the racism in everyone but himself. Ginny is annoyed that Asians are too often excluded from the race dialog. And Valerie keeps getting offered stereotypical sista-from-the-hood roles.

The lines Diamond gives them are similarly pat and often pedantic, at moments grinding the play to a halt as the actors chug through them with the earnestness of debate team members trying to score points.  And there's little help to be had from director Kenny Leon.

Although Leon has done terrific work with plays by August Wilson and Lorraine Hansberry he fails to make one right move here. The staging is blocky instead of fluid and the sets by Riccardo Hernandez are anorexically spare, even for a designer who often favors minimal design. They lean so heavily on projections that I wondered if he had been working with an undernourished budget.

Leon has cast the show with attractive actors who have impressive acting school credentials but all four have devoted most of their careers to TV, which has allowed their stage chops to go flabby.

Both Mahershala Ali, perhaps best known as the political insider Remy Danton on Netflix's "House of Cards" and Joshua Jackson, who grew up on the old teen series "Dawson's Creek" and now plays the cuckolded husband on Showtime's "The Affair" (click here to read an interview with him) have natural stage charisma but besides flaunting their nicely chiseled bodies in one shirtless scene after another (and even one bottomless one) they don't know how to channel it into convincing characters. 

The women, Anne Son, who was a series regular on ABC's "My Generation," and Tessa Thompson, who can currently be seen as Michael B. Jordan's love interest in the "Rocky" sequel "Creed," are similarly pleasant to look at but have equal difficulty with making the people they play more than two-dimensional avatars for Diamond's political positions (click here to read an interview with her).

This all adds up to a big disappointment, especially since the reviews for the Boston production were great.  But that, directed by the Huntington's artistic director Peter DuBois, featured a different quartet of actors.  Maybe I should have paid the train fare after all.

February 13, 2016

An Eighth Anniversary Message

I get sentimental around this time every year because tomorrow is Valentine's Day, a chance for me to celebrate how lucky I am to have my husband K in my life.  And because it's also the anniversary of Broadway & Me, a chance to celebrate how lucky I am to see so much theater and to have been able to share that with all of you for a now unbelievable eight years. I'm looking forward to continuing both romances for many years to come.

February 10, 2016

"Fiddler on the Roof" is a Bit Off-Key for Me

Some roles become so identified with one actor that others shy away from doing them. Here I'm thinking of Fanny Brice in Funny Girl (although the British actress Sheridan Smith recently dared to step into Barbra Streisand's shoes and I'd love to see Lady Gaga give them a try). But other roles have been marked so indelibly that succeeding actors can't resist imitating the original. In that category stands Tevye the dairyman in Fiddler on the Roof. 

Lots of actors—Herschel Bernardi, Topol, Theodore Bikel, Alfred Molina, Harvey Fierstein—have played the poor milkman since Zero Mostel originated the role in 1964 and each has raised his hands aloft, wiggled his shoulders and shaken his hips just as Mostel did when he performed the iconic "If I Were A Rich Man (click here to read more about some of their experiences)."  

Danny Burstein does them too in the revival of Fiddler that is currently playing at The Broadway Theatre. But although Burstein has a fine voice, he's also a very fine actor and he brings lots of other things to the role as well. 

Burstein is smaller than most of the men who have played Tevye but that makes an unexpectedly good fit for the character. For circumstances are constantly threatening to overwhelm Tevye, a God-fearing Jew living in a turn-of-the-last century Russia filled with volatile anti-Semites and a tradition-proud man who is father to five rebellious daughters. 

Without sacrificing the humor that the Yiddish writer Sholem Aleichem built into the stories on which the show is based, Burstein layers his performance with the disappointment, anger and resignation Tevye experiences as he confronts a changing world (click here to read more about the actor). 

The result is precisely the kind of darker interpretation that director Bart Sher likes to excavate when he revives classic musicals as he's done with South Pacific and The King and I. But in this case some of it works (Burstein's performance) and some of it doesn't. 

Sher frames Joseph Stein's classic book with a silent modern-day prologue and coda that link Tevye's eventual exile from his beloved village of Anatevka to current refugee crises around the world, which struck me as unnecessary and even Sheldon Harnick, the sole survivor of the original creative team, has expressed some doubts about it (click here to read more about his thoughts).

The milkman's daughters have also been made more feminist. As the matchmaker approaches their home with a proposal for the eldest sister Tzeitel, the girl and her sisters turn the song "Matchmaker, Matchmaker" from the usual playful fantasy about the kind of man each hopes to marry into a plaintive lament about how poor girls like them have so little choice in the matter. 

I might have been more accepting if the singing had been better. Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick's score is chocked full of some of the most beautiful and beloved show tunes in the Broadway songbook (click here to read more about the public's longstanding love affair with the show) but, with the exception of Burstein's numbers, they simply aren't performed well this time out.

To be fair, the actresses playing two of the sisters were out the night my husband K and I saw the show but that doesn't explain the weak showing of some of the others. 

Jessica Hecht is pitch perfect as Tevye's no-nonsense wife Golde, except when it comes to her singing. Whenever she can, this otherwise feisty Golde softens her voice, as though seeking refuge behind that of her singing partner. 

Meanwhile, the exuberance of "Miracle of Miracles," the song the village tailor Motel sings when he summons up the nerve to claim the woman he loves is undercut by another tentative performance.

I wasn't crazy about the dancing either. Jerome Robbins made the dances he created for the original production as expressive of the characters' emotions as the songs Bock and Harnick wrote for them. Previous revivals have reproduced the Robbins routines but Sher recruited the Israeli choreographer Hofesh Schechter to come up with new ones (click here to read more about him).

Schechter's work is looser-limbed than Robbins and, for all I know, may even be more authentic, but it's not as clever—or as emotional. Or maybe, like those other Tevyes, I'm just too stuck on the old way of doing things.

February 6, 2016

Turning on the Ghost Light

Health problems (nothing dire but serious enough to have screwed with my schedule) are keeping me from posting today. So as I usually do when I can't write here, I'm putting up the ghost light that theaters turn on when they're temporarily dark. And also just like them, I'm hoping that you'll return when I'm back in action.

February 3, 2016

"Tappin Thru Life" is Light On Its Feet

Maurice Hines and his younger brother Gregory were barely out of diapers when they started in show business. Known as The Hines Kids (and later as Hines, Hines and Dad when their drummer father joined the act) they were passable singers, terrific dancers and irresistibly entertaining. And that pretty much describes what you'll find in Tappin Thru Life, the genial show that Hines, now 72, has been touring around the country over the last couple of years and recently opened at off-Broadway's New World Stages.

The show is basically a cabaret act disguised as a musical memoir. Hines, a charming raconteur, recalls how he and his brother started dancing, were mentored by the Nicholas Brothers and other tap masters, worked their way up the marquee and onto Johnny Carson's show (appearing 37 times) and eventually into the clubs on the Las Vegas strip, where they were the opening act for such legendary entertainers as Judy Garland and Sammy Davis Jr.

As he recounts his tale, Hines sings some standards, performs a few dance numbers and ties it altogether with amusing anecdotes about the old days. He and director Jeff Calhoun have also had the very good sense to illustrate the reminiscences with projected photos of the brothers from their adorable baby pictures straight through to a video clip of the last time they dance together in the 1984 movie "The Cotton Club,"  (click here to see the number).

The act had broken up in the '70s and the brothers didn't speak for nearly a decade. They had long since reconciled by the time Gregory, who established a celebrated solo career in movies ("White Nights" with Mikhail Baryshnikov) and on Broadway (Sophisticated Ladies, Jelly's Last Jam) died from liver cancer in 2003 but Hines stages a nightly reunion with his baby brother when he recreates one of their old routines, which always ended with a handshake. His empty outstretched hand is meant to tug at the heart and it does.

Hines has more corporeal help too. There's a revolving cast of his tap dancing protégés to carry on the hoofing legacy. First among equals are the Manzari Brothers, whom Hines discovered six years ago when they were still in high school and who have since worked with everyone from gospel singer BeBe Winans to American songbook singer Michael Feinstein. Like the Hines before them, the Manzaris are very cute and very fast on their feet (click here to read more about them).

They're all backed up by the all-female Diva Jazz Orchestra, nine women who really know how to swing. This is the rare show where the audience doesn't rush out after the curtain call but hangs around to listen to the band jam on the exit music.

My husband K, a former pit musician, who (full disclosure) is friends with several Diva band members, has seen the show twice. Each time he struck up a conversation with a woman in the audience who talked about growing up as a fan of the Hines brothers.

For them—and for me—this 90-minute revue is a link to those days when performers considered it a priority to give the audience a good time, which Hines, dapperly dressed by T. Tyler Stumpf and still able to pull off a fast bombershay, definitely does.

Still, this isn't a show for everyone. People looking for an edgy evening or some sense of where musical theater is headed should look elsewhere. But others will, like me, enjoy this trip back to the past. There's a thin line between "dated" and "classic" and through the force of his personality and the finesse of his artistry, Maurice Hines lands Tappin Thru Life on the right side.