March 30, 2016

"Familiar" Puts a New Twist on an Old Story

The things I like the most about the new play Familiar are the things I can talk about the least. Unless I want to spoil the experience of your seeing this lovely work by the Zimbabwean-American playwright Danai Gurira, now running at Playwrights Horizons through April 10. And, of course, I don't want to do that.

So here's what I can say: Familiar is very different from Eclipsed, Gurira's play about women struggling to survive during the Liberian civil wars that sold-out at the Public Theater last fall and moved to Broadway earlier this month. But Familiar is just as affecting.

As the title hints, the setting (an affluent suburban home) and the storyline (the marriage of two people from different worlds) are well-established tropes. In this version the home (beautifully designed by Clint Ramos) belongs to Donald and Marvelous Chinyaramwira, Zimbabwean immigrants who have done very well, becoming a lawyer and a biochemist and so Americanized that their idea of a great weekend is to watch college football on their big-screen TV.

The marriage is between their eldest daughter Tendi, also an attorney, and her white fiancé Chris, a human rights advocate. The family members who have gathered for the nuptials are the usual stereotypes who populate these kinds of family comedies: Tendi's free-spirited baby sister Nyasha, Chris' clueless brother Brad and Marvelous' sisters Margaret, who has lived in the U.S. for years and boozes a little too much, and Anne, who has come in from the old country insisting on all the old ways of doing things.

With this kind of setup, the audience figures it knows what's going to happen cause it's seen it all before: people will squabble, misunderstandings will arise, feelings will be hurt, secrets will be revealed and then, right before the curtain, peace will be restored and everyone will be reconciled.

And a lot of that does happen in Familiar. But what makes this play special is that Gurira (click here to read more about her) constantly throws in little twists that turn what could have been caricatures into more complex characters. 

The people who seem destined to be the butt of the jokes (and there are plenty of laughs) end up evoking sympathy. What starts out as farce (there are slamming doors) turns into a meditation on the cost of leaving one life and assimilating into another.

The acting under Rebecca Taichman's nimble direction, is all-around fine with Tamara Tunie anchoring the cast in a multi-layered performance as the domineering Marvelous. 

But this is one case where I'm celebrating the play more than its players. For Gurira has shown a light on parts of both the black and the immigrant experiences that too often get overlooked. And what she shows is that whoever you are, there is something about those experiences that will be, well, familiar.

March 26, 2016

"Ironbound" Offers an Unyielding Picture of the Woes Confronting Working-Class Women

The actress Marin Ireland can do no wrong in my book and she shows why that's so in Ironbound, a drama about a Polish immigrant that's playing at Rattlestick Playwrights Theater through April 24. The problem for me is that despite Ireland's superb performance, the play failed to make me feel for her beleaguered character.

Time may have something to do with that. In just 80 minutes, playwright Martyna Majok chronicles two decades in the life of a woman named Darja who lives in one of the depressed communities that used to be the heart of the industrial, or ironbound, belt of New Jersey and who spends a lot of time at an isolated bus stop although she never seems to be going anywhere.

The play starts with an argument between Darja and her boyfriend Tommy after she's found out that he's not only been cheating on her but doing it with the wealthy woman whose house Darja cleans. Then the story jumps back to Darja's arrival in this country with a husband whose dreams were bigger than his love for her. 

There's also talk about an abusive second husband we never see and an encounter with a kid who reminds Darja of the son who has also disappointed her. Then it's back to the present with Tommy. That's a lot of back and forth—not to mention a lot of plot to absorb—in a very small amount of time. 

Majok, who immigrated to this country when she was five and says she based Darja somewhat on her mother, tries to lighten things up with some pungent humor (click here to read a Q&A with her). And director Daniella Topol tries to keep things moving, leaning heavily on lighting designer Justin Townsend to signal the shifts in time. 

Ironbound is a co-production of the Women's Project Theater, which promotes the work of female playwrights, directors and actors and the play taps into the frustrations that so many working-class women experience: never having enough money, never getting a chance at the right jobs, too seldom getting enough love to make up the difference.

It's the kind of stuff I'm always saying I want plays to take on and yet I felt as though this play was telling me these things (yelling them, actually since the arguments between Darja and Tommy are high-decibel) instead of helping me to experience them the way the best theater does.

Still, the men in Darja's lives are nicely portrayed by Morgan Spector (bristling with both swagger and insecurity as Tommy) Josiah Bania (the playwright's husband as the dreamy first husband), and Shiloh Fernandez (in an attention-grabbing stage debut as the kid).

But the weight falls on Marin, who took over the role when the show was already in rehearsal and Gina Gershon dropped out. Up to the task, Marin makes Darja a multi-layered woman, equal parts seductive, annoying, disheartened, resilient. 

With the shrug of her shoulder she expresses what Darja is feeling and with a slight change in her accent—more pronounced just after arrival, softened after years in the U.S.—she signals where we are in the story. It's hard to imagine the play without her.

March 23, 2016

The Down-Home Charms of "Southern Comfort" and "The Robber Bridegroom"

All of a sudden the rootsy melodies of bluegrass music are being strummed on all kinds of New York stages. There's Southern Comfort, which is playing down at the Public Theater through this weekend; The Robber Bridegroom, which opened last week at the Roundabout Theatre Company's Laura Pels theater; and Bright Star, the new Steve Martin-Edie Brickell musical that opens on Broadway tomorrow night. I've only seen the first two but they're as different as a mandolin is from a banjo: one comes with a soft lilt and the other with a raucous twang.

Country music makes thematic sense for Southern Comfort, which is set in rural Georgia and takes its name from the real-life annual gathering of transgender people that has been held in the south for the past 25 years. The musical, adapted from a same-named 2001 documentary (click here to watch it) follows a year in the life of a group that has banded together into a makeshift family that gives them an oasis from the disapproving world around them.

Book writer and lyricist Dan Collins, composer Julianne Wick Davis and director Thomas Caruso, who is credited with conceiving the idea for the stage version with Robert Dusold, have taken pains to make sure that a diverse assortment of transgender experiences are represented. 

At their story's center is Robert Eads, who was born Barbara and has recently been diagnosed with ovarian cancer but hopes to live long enough to attend the year's Southern Comfort gathering with his lady love Lola, who is tentatively beginning to live her life as the woman she has always believed herself to be.

The others in their circle include Jackson (née Peggy) Robert's surrogate son who believes gender reassignment surgery is necessary to complete his transition to being a man; Carly, the beautiful and confident trans woman who is Jackson's current love interest; Sam, a trans man shunned by his family, and Sam's cisgender girlfriend Melanie. Five musicians also perform onstage and take bit parts to help with the storytelling.

The plot centers around several questions that transgender people have to confront: Will Sam's parents accept him as he is? Will Melanie ever introduce the man she loves to the people she works with? Will Jackson get the dangerous operation he believes will save him from Robert's fate? Will Robert find a doctor who will give him the care he needs?  Will Lola find the courage to come out completely? In short, will each of them find the love and acceptance we all want.

That's a lot to load onto a musical and Southern Comfort has some trouble balancing all of it. Members of the transgender community have criticized the show for downplaying the way doctors failed to treat the real-life Eads and the production for failing to cast transgender actors in all the roles. 

To its credit, the Public has acknowledged its shortcomings, responded by holding a series of meetings, both private and public, to discuss those issues and promised to do better next time.

In the meantime, there are two transgender actors in this production—Donnie Cianciotto as Sam and Aneesh Sheth as Carly— and they're good but the leads Robert and Lola are played by stage vets Annette O'Toole and Jeff McCarthy. 

Both O'Toole and McCarthy are cisgendered but they're also terrific in their roles. O'Toole, who sinks so deeply into Robert that she is virtually unrecognizable as herself or as a woman, provides the backbone for this production as resolutely as Eads provided one for his family.

And McCarthy gives the show its heart as the insecure Lola. In fact, his performance of Lola's solo about longing to freely express her true self is the one song that stands out in the show's pleasant but generic score (click here to read an interview with the actor).

Some critics have complained that the show, 10 years in the making, is outdated in this era of Caitlyn Jenner, movies like "Tangerine" and TV shows like "Orange is the New Black" and "Transparent." I suspect, though, that there will be a good number of people attending the real Southern Comfort gathering, scheduled for Sept. 27 thru Oct. 1 in Ft. Lauderdale, who might still see themselves in this show's characters.

I'm the odd man out on The Robber Bridegroom too. This intentionally silly folktale about the romance between a charming rogue and a Mississippi plantation owner's daughter, has drawn considerably higher marks from most critics. But I found its fun to be a bit forced.

The show, which Alfred Uhry adapted from a novella by Eudora Welty, arrives with music by Robert Waldman, lyrics by Uhry and the reputation of having been performed by the young Kevin Kline and Patti LuPone in the 1975 Broadway production (oh, to have seen that one!) 

The Roundabout revival stars stage hunk Steven Pasquale and stage newcomer Ahna O'Reilly but its big draw is the fact that it's directed by Alex Timbers, who brought a flamboyantly imaginative style to Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, Peter and the Starcatcher and Here Lies Love.

Robber Bridegroom's story gives him plenty to work with, including a talking head in a box, a boy named Goat, an evil stepmother and a plot that has the romantic duo falling in love while disguised as other people. And Timbers keeps things moving: actors impersonate props; stuffed dummies fill in for actors, the fourth wall is broken, shtick is spread on thick and a five-man band weaves through it all playing the show's jaunty, foot-stomping score (click here to read more about the director's approach).

But everyone seems to be working so hard that I could almost see the beads of sweat. Pasquale is in fine voice as always and, of course, he looks great but he doesn't seem as comfortable with all the tomfoolery as he does when he's in his natural habitat as a more traditional inamorato. 

O'Reilly betrays none of the nervousness that newbies so often display and jumps headlong through each hoop she's been set. Meanwhile, Leslie Kritzer takes full advantage of the opportunity she's been given to chew the scenery as the stepmother, barely pausing to wipe her mouth before taking big bite after big bite.

I smiled a little. I tapped my foot some. But I couldn't help wishing that they'd been more at ease and that I'd been having more fun.

March 19, 2016

Another Intermission....

Yep, I'm back in the hole again so no post today.  But, aside from the bunch of shows I did manage to talk about on Wednesday, I hope you will check out the roundtable discussion I had with the all-star team—director George C. Wolfe and stars Brian Stokes Mitchell, Billy Porter and Audra McDonald—that's creating the much anticipated musical Shuffle Along or The Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed, which just began previews this week in preparation for its April 28 opening. You can find the conversation I had with them on by clicking here. In the meantime, I should be back above ground next week and I hope you'll return here then.

March 16, 2016

Highlights and Lowlights of Five Intriguing Shows: "Body of an American," "Smokefall," "Nice Fish," "Boy," and "Sense & Sensibility"

March Madness is the term used to describe this time of the year when college basketball teams compete for their national championship. But for me, it means the time when the spring theater season kicks into overdrive. This year it's been further complicated by the obligations that have kept me from posting for the last couple of weeks. But I've still managed to see shows and here is one of my highlights and lowlights looks at some of what I've been seeing, listed in order of how much time you have to catch up with them before they close.

THE BODY OF AN AMERICAN: Dan O'Brien's meta memoir about his relationship with the photojournalist Paul Watson was the co-winner of the inaugural Edward M. Kennedy Prize for Drama Inspired by American History three years ago (it shared the honor with All the Way, Robert Schenkkan's play about the first months of LBJ's presidency) and I've been dying for it to come to New York. Now it has in a Primary Stages production at the Cherry Lane Theatre playing through March 20 but, alas, I can't say I found it worth the wait.

Highlight: One of my favorite actors Michael Cumpsty brings his trademark blend of sensitivity and integrity to the role of Watson, who is haunted by having taken the Pulitzer Prize-winning photo of a dead American soldier being dragged through the streets of Mogadishu in 1993.

Lowlight: The 90-minute two-hander devotes so much of its energy to showy techniques like jumping back and forth in time and having both actors (Michael Crane portrays O'Brien) play other characters and sometimes exchange their main roles as well, that, despite director Jo Bonney's best efforts, the show ultimately failed to make me care about the connection between the men.

SMOKEFALL: A line from a T.S. Eliot poem inspired the title of this absurdist family drama that MCC Theater has extended at the Lucille Lortel Theatre through March 20. And in many ways it is just as maddeningly mystifying as the poet could be—but nowhere near as deep.

Highlight: It's great to see that despite all his movie and TV work, Zachary Quinto continues to make time for the stage. Here he nimbly takes on several characters, including one named Footnote, who narrates the action; and another named Fetus Two, whom we meet in the show's best scene, dressed as a vaudevillian and trading one-liners with his twin (the equally delightful Brian Hutchison) about whether it's worth it for them to leave the womb.

Lowlight: The grim daily lives and poor choices that playwright Noah Haidle has given four generations of this family, including a mute girl named Beauty who literally eats garbage, strains for the profundity of Our Town but ends up in the shallow end of the pool.

NICE FISH: Most of us first became aware of the poet Louis Jenkins when we learned that the whimsical things Mark Rylance was saying during his Tony acceptance speeches were actually lines from the Minnesota poet's work. Now Rylance, who grew up in the Great Lakes region while his British parents were teaching school there, has collaborated with Jenkins and Rylance's wife-director Claire van Kampen to convert some of Jenkins' poems into this surprisingly charming play about two friends who go ice fishing and the other sad-sacks they encounter. It's running at St. Ann's Warehouse in Brooklyn through March 27 and you should get your butt out there to see it (two friends of mine actually made the trip up from Virginia to do that and went home totally satisfied).

Highlight:  Rylance, of course. If I hadn't seen his Tony-winning turn as Olivia in Twelfth Night and his Oscar-winning turn as a Russian agent in "Bridge of Spies," I would have thought that Rylance had devoted his entire career to honing the superb comedic chops he displays here. The rest of the cast ain't bad either and special kudos have to go to Todd Rosenthal for the wittiest set design I've seen in a long time,

Lowlight:  I'm going to have to be really picky to find one. But here goes:  Jenkins is listed as playing one of the characters and he didn't do it the night my theatergoing buddy Bill and I saw the show. But the understudy Raye Birk was so damn good that we didn't mind one bit.

BOY: The old nature versus nurture debate is put to the test when parents make the decision to raise the titular character as a girl following a botched circumcision in this based-on-a-true story drama that Keen Company is presenting in The Clurman theater at Theater Row through April 9.

Highlight: Without makeup or costume changes, Bobby Steggert glides back and forth between genders and ages, all the while quietly conveying the anguish that the title character is experiencing. It's a lovely performance.

Lowlight: Playwright Anna Ziegler has experience with scientific subjects and Linsay Firman directs with unaffected sensitivity but the play, which was funded by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation's initiative to advance an understanding of science through the arts, is unable to shake the earnestness of an after-school special, which undermines some of its dramatic impact.

SENSE & SENSIBILITY: Nearly everyone I know loves Jane Austen (and it's not just them judging by all the movie adaptations of her novels). I don't usually count myself among the Austen lovers but the Bedlam theater company's delightfully inventive production of her first published novel about love among the 18th century English gentry that is now playing at The Gym at Judson through April 17 may make a convert out of me.

Highlight: I'd never seen the Bedlam company before but now their playful and yet utterly serious approach to their work makes me want to see their versions of practically everything. The entire 10-member cast is terrific and yet first among equals in this production, adapted by Kate Hamill and directed by artistic director Eric Tucker, were Andrus Nichols as the most responsible of the husband-seeking Dashwood sisters and Jason O'Connell as the object of her desire. I want to see them in whatever they want to do.

Lowlight: None worth mentioning.

March 6, 2016

A (Hopefully) Brief Intermission

Heavy loads of work and other obligations have put me in a hole. I'm working my way out but it may take another week or so before I can post again. I'll try to sneak in an occasional tweet (which you can see here) or to add a story I've come across to my Flipboard magazine (which you can read here) but I'll be trying hardest to get back to my regular twice-a-week posting schedule and I hope you'll join me when I do.

March 2, 2016

"Her Requiem" Lacks Harmonic Structure

Most parents want their children to have a better life than they did. But a few want to better their own lives by living through their kids. That latter group is the one that interests playwright Greg Pierce in Her Requiem, the new family drama that opened last week at LCT3's Claire Tow Theater.

The "her" in its title is Caitlin, a 17-year-old who is a music prodigy. The requiem is the ambitious composition she is so devoted to completing that she has persuaded her parents to let her take a year off from school and seclude herself in her bedroom, even occasionally forgoing meals, to write it.

Caitlin's mother Allison worries that her daughter is too young to be focusing so intently on a song for the dead but she's also preoccupied with caring for her own mother who is slipping into dementia (the condition with which young playwrights are constantly afflicting any female character over 60).

But Caitlin's dad Dean, who has never realized any of his own dreams and lives on his wife's family money, becomes obsessed with the girl's project and goes along with all of Caitlin's demands, including her isolating dependence on the young former seminarian who is her musical mentor. "If I can't do something great, I may as well clear the path for Caitlin," Dean tells Allison.

Dean even begins writing a blog in which he assumes Caitlin's voice to talk about the making and the meaning of the piece and includes snippets of the music she reluctantly shares with him. He is delighted when the blog goes viral and attracts a following of young people who make a pilgrimage to the family's Vermont home, take up residence in their barn and hold a vigil of support for Caitlin as she struggles to complete her opus.

Some of this is improbable, not to mention a little melodramatic, but director Kate Whoriskey has put together an elegant production. I wanted to move right into the comfortable home that set designer Derek McLane has created for the family. And the casting couldn't be better.

The invaluable Peter Friedman gives a typically nuanced performance, showing all the complex emotions— love, fear, parental pride and personal disappointment—that motivate Dean's need to believe his child is a genius whose achievements will bring glory to them both.

His performance is equaled by Mare Winningham's sympathetic Allison. Friedman and Winningham have worked together before and there's an authentic connection between them as their characters debate what's best for their daughter and for their marriage (click here to read an interview with the actors).

Also very good and providing some deadpan humor is Keilly McQuail, as a young Goth girl who is the leader of the vigil and yet, the most emotionally grounded person in the play.

Two incidents—one inside the house and one outside—propel the play to its climax. Caitlin does eventually leave her room and we do ultimately hear the opening chords of her requiem. Dean is forced to confront the results of his doings and the problem about what to do with the addled grandmother gets resolved too. 

But it's all a little too much for a 90-minute play. Her Requiem is ambitious but it both overpromises and underperforms.