April 30, 2016

"School for Scandal" Is a Master Class in Wit

It's a shame that the Red Bull Theater's production of The School for Scandal is closing May 8, after barely a two-week run because this is one of the most delightful shows I've seen this season.

Of course, Richard Brinsley Sheridan's comedy of manners has been a crowd-pleaser since it debuted at London's Drury Lane Theatre in 1777. But I, somehow, had never seen it until now. That may be because I was expecting something fusty. Instead, I found this satirical look at the vanities of the British upper class to be as fresh and witty as a YouTube-worthy sketch from "Saturday Night Live."

The jam-packed plot tracks the feuds, romances and schemes among a group of frenemies with deliciously metaphorical names like Sneerwell and Backbite. It opens at the home of said Lady Sneerwell, a catty aristocrat who has her eye on the handsome but profligate Charles Surface.

She and her bosom buddy Mrs. Candour spend most of their time trading—and sometimes making up—gossip about the people they know (they're the school of the title) while being entirely oblivious to their own shortcomings.

Then there's Sir Peter Teazle, who has served as guardian to Charles and his not-as-goodie-two-shoes-as-he-pretends-to-be elder brother Joseph. Charles is in love with Teazle's ward Maria and Joseph is engaged in a flirtation with the much younger wife Sir Peter has recently married. 

Both siblings are hoping to inherit money from their wealthy Uncle Oliver, who has secretly returned from years abroad in the Near East to determine which is more deserving of his fortune. And they're all attended by assorted servants and hangers-on, including a poet named Backbite and a journalist named Snake.

This kind of farcical comedy can easily go awry. If the actors strain too hard for laughs the comic soufflé will fall; if they aren't deft enough with the humor the soufflé won't rise in the first place. But director Marc Vietor keeps the balance just right with a sure-handedness that belies the fact that this is his directorial debut.

I've read that Vietor helped things along by trimming some of the political allusions that would have stung in Sheridan's day but have little meaning for modern audiences. He's also toned down some (although not all) of the casual racism of the time so that a moneylender originally named Moses is here called Midas.

But Vietor's smartest move was in the casting of his production. The actors he's assembled are all-around superb, from those in the flashiest roles to those in the tiniest bit parts. 

Leading the merriment are Frances Barber, a mainstay of the London stage; and Dana Ivey, a treasure of the American (click here to read aninterview with her). They set a high standard as respectively Lady Sneerwell and Mrs. Candour, inciting uncontrolled laughter with just a deadpan stare or an unexpected inflection at the end of a sentence.

On the male side of the ledger, the New York stage vets Mark Linn-Baker and Henry Stram deliver as the flustered Sir Peter and Sir Oliver. The younger members of the cast are equally charming, particularly Christian Demarais who brings just the right brio to Charles Surface and Jacob Dresch, a newcomer who's having unabashed fun playing the unctuous Snake.

Red Bull has shown its love for the production with a budget that has allowed for a witty and flexible set by Anna Louizos, whimsical costumes by Andrea Lauer and wonderfully flamboyant wigs by Charles G. LaPointe (Snake's is lime green).

The audience the night I saw the show was surprisingly diverse and genuinely entertained. I bet you would be too.

April 27, 2016

"The Royale" Sits on an Uneasy Throne

Nearly all my theatergoing friends have been asking me if I've seen, and what I think about, The Royale, which has been running at Lincoln Center's Mitzi E. Newhouse theater for the last seven weeks. And then, without waiting for me to answer, each of my inquisitors has told me how knocked out they were by the show. 

And maybe that's why it's taken so long for me to write about it here. Because while I admire a lot about The Royale, I'm also uneasy with some of what the play seems to be saying.

The Royale is a fantasized retelling of the life of Jack Johnson, the first black boxing champion whose struggle to be respected in the first decades of the 20th century also inspired The Great White Hope, which won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1969 and made a star of James Earl Jones.

Undaunted by all of that, playwright Marco Ramirez has taken on the pivotal part of the story in which the up-and-coming boxer, here called Jay, attempts to get the retired title holder into the ring with him so that the black boxer can prove to all doubters that he's the best fighter in the world.

Along the way he has to battle racism from whites who resent the idea of a black man laying hands on a white one and fear from African Americans who worry that they will suffer repercussions if Jay triumphs over a white opponent.

Even Jack's beloved sister Nina begs him not to fight a white man. And since Nina is played by the talented actress Montego Glover, those scenes are among the most effective in the play (click here to read an interview with the actress).

That's what caused the problem for me. I don't doubt that there were African Americans who feared the negative consequences of a Jack Johnson victory. Indeed, there really were riots in which angry white mobs attacked and lynched black people after he won the heavyweight title. But The Royale's staging suggests that Jay's greatest enemy is his own people.

And what the play doesn't show is the great pride that many African Americans took from seeing one of their own not only stand up to a white man but beat him down as so often had happened to them.

My friend Joy says it doesn't matter because the play shows Jay going through with the fight and—spoiler alert on a 100-year old event—winning. And there's no quarreling with the visceral pleasures of the production itself. The five-member cast, lead by Khris Davis' performance as Jay, is uniformly excellent. 

Meanwhile, director Rachel Chavkin has created an inventive production that imagines the audience as spectators at a boxing event with stylized fights and training sessions that pack a punch even though the actors don't actually exchange blows (click here to read more about the staging).

And yet I remain unsettled. You don't take on a subject like this unless you have something to say and although they wrestle with the nuances of race and class that still resonate today, Ramirez and Chavkin end up in a place that raises dubious questions about the cost of fighting for black dignity. 

Luckily for all of us, there were folks from the real Jack Johnson straight through to Martin Luther King and Malcolm X who firmly believed that no price is too high.

April 23, 2016

It's Too Hard Not to Praise the Bard Today

If you call yourself any kind of theater lover, then you know that today is the 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare's death. So, like much of the rest of the world, I'm taking time out to commemorate the occasion and there will be no regular post today.

Instead, I think I'm going to treat myself to a viewing of "Shakespeare in Love." And yes, I know that it's historical hooey but I don't think that this greatest of storytellers would mind at all. 

I don't know what plans you have for observing the day but I hope you will consider checking out "All The World's His Stage," the compendium of articles about the Bard I've been aggregating on the Flipboard site (click here to read them).

And don't despair if you somehow fail to find time to honor this still most revered of all playwrights, cause there's bound to be another worldwide celebration in 2023. For that year will mark the 400th anniversary of the initial publication of the First Folio, the collection of  plays put together by Shakespeare's then-still-grieving friends and admirers and that is largely the reason we know him today.

April 20, 2016

The Outer Critics Circle Nominations Wrestle With a Strange Theater Season

For the first time in years, I attended the announcement of the Outer Critics Circle nominations, which The Algonquin Hotel graciously hosted in its Blue Bar yesterday morning. I wanted to show my support since it's kind of a strange year for the OCC because two of Broadway's biggest shows aren't in the running for its awards.

The first is Hamilton. Since we (I've been a Circle member for several years now) recognize shows both on and off Broadway, we named Hamilton the Outstanding New Off-Broadway Musical of the 2014-2015 season when it debuted at the Public Theater last year. And that means the show (which just won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama Monday) can't be considered again this season under our double-jeopardy rules.
The other show sitting out this year is Shuffle Along, or as it's more formally being called Shuffle Along, Or the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed. This new meta-musical, written and directed by George C. Wolfe, choreographed by Savion Glover and featuring an all-star cast lead by Audra McDonald, Brian Stokes Mitchell and Billy Porter, is still being worked on in previews. So the show's producers sent a message saying it wouldn't be ready in time for our nominators to see.

Luckily, it's been a bustling year on and off Broadway and so there were plenty of other worthy productions to consider and reward. The much-lauded revival of She Loves Me and the opening-tomorrow new musical American Psycho lead the list with eight nominations each. 

The revival of Eugene O'Neill's semi-autobiographical Long Day's Journey into Night and Eclipsed, Danai Gurira's affecting drama about women struggling to survive during Liberia's civil wars, scored with five nods each. In fact, four of the five nominees for Featured Actress in a Play come from plays written by Gurira.

You may not agree with all the choices (I wish that Guards at the Taj, Rajiv Joseph's superb meditation on beauty and friendship; and Southern Comfort, the sweet musical about a community of transgender people, had gotten more love) but I think you're likely to admit that all the nominees are deserving.

The winners will be announced May 9. Between now and then, I've got a few more shows to see and a lot of hard decisions to make. Take a look at the full list of nominees below and try to figure out which you'd choose as the best:

The Father
The Humans
King Charles III
Thérèse Raquin

American Psycho the Musical
Bright Star
On Your Feet!
Tuck Everlasting the Musical

The Christians
Hold On to Me Darling
The Legend of Georgia McBride

Daddy Long Legs
Dear Evan Hansen
Southern Comfort

(Broadway or Off-Broadway)
Bright Star
Daddy Long Legs
Dear Evan Hansen
On Your Feet!

(Broadway or Off-Broadway)
American Psycho the Musical
Bright Star
Daddy Long Legs
Dear Evan Hansen

(Broadway or Off-Broadway)
The Crucible
Fool for Love
Long Day’s Journey Into Night
A View From the Bridge

(Broadway or Off-Broadway)
The Color Purple the Musical
Dames at Sea
Fiddler on the Roof
She Loves Me
Spring Awakening

Evan Cabnet     Gloria
Mike Donahue     The Legend of Georgia McBride
Rupert Goold     King Charles III
Joe Mantello     The Humans
Ivo van Hove     A View From the Bridge

Michael Arden     Spring Awakening
Walter Bobbie     Bright Star
Scott Ellis     She Loves Me
Rupert Goold     American Psycho the Musical
Michael Greif     Dear Evan Hansen

Joshua Bergasse   Cagney
Spencer Liff     Spring Awakening
Josh Rhodes     Bright Star
Randy Skinner     Dames at Sea
Sergio Trujillo     On Your Feet!

(Play or Musical)
Beowulf Boritt     Thérèse Raquin
David Korins     Misery
Mimi Lien     John
David Rockwell     She Loves Me
Walt Spangler     Tuck Everlasting the Musical

(Play or Musical)
ESosa     On Your Feet!
Jane Greenwood     Bright Star
Katrina Lindsay     American Psycho the Musical
Jeff Mahshie     She Loves Me
Tom Scutt     King Charles III

(Play or Musical)
Donald Holder     She Loves Me
Natasha Katz     Long Day’s Journey Into Night
Kenneth Posner     On Your Feet!
Ben Stanton     Spring Awakening
Justin Townsend     American Psycho the Musical

(Play or Musical)
Lucy MacKinnon     Spring Awakening
Peter Nigrini     Grounded
Peter Nigrini     Dear Evan Hansen
Finn Ross     American Psycho the Musical
Tal Yarden     Lazarus

Reed Birney    The Humans
Gabriel Byrne     Long Day’s Journey Into Night
Frank Langella     The Father
Mark Strong     A View From the Bridge
Ben Whishaw     The Crucible

Jayne Houdyshell     The Humans
Jessica Lange     Long Day’s Journey Into Night
Lupita Nyong’o     Eclipsed
Nicola Walker     A View From the Bridge
Michelle Williams     Blackbird

Alex Brightman     School of Rock the Musical
Danny Burstein     Fiddler on the Roof
Robert Creighton     Cagney
Ben Platt     Dear Evan Hansen
Benjamin Walker     American Psycho the Musical

Laura Benanti     She Loves Me
Carmen Cusack    Bright Star
Cynthia Erivo     The Color Purple the Musical
Jessie Mueller     Waitress
Ana Villafañe     On Your Feet!

Sanjit De Silva     Dry Powder
Matt McGrath     The Legend of Georgia McBride
Jim Norton     The Crucible
Robert Sella     Sylvia
Michael Shannon     Long Day’s Journey Into Night

Pascale Armand     Eclipsed
Zainab Jah     Eclipsed
Judith Light     Thérèse Raquin
Saycon Sengbloh     Eclipsed
Myra Lucretia Taylor     Familiar      

Nicholas Barasch     She Loves Me
Roger Bart     Disaster!
Michael Esper     Lazarus
Christopher Fitzgerald     Waitress
Terrence Mann     Tuck Everlasting the Musical

Danielle Brooks     The Color Purple the Musical
Andrea Burns     On Your Feet!
Sophia Anne Caruso     Lazarus
Jane Krakowski     She Loves Me  
Heléne Yorke     American Psycho the Musical 

Mike Birbiglia    Thank God For Jokes
Kathleen Chalfant     Rose
Anne Hathaway     Grounded    
James Lecesne     The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey
Daphne Rubin-Vega     Empanada Loca

(Presented for an American play, preferably by a new playwright)
Lindsey Ferrentino     Ugly Lies the Bone
Lauren Gunderson     I and You
Martyna Majok     Ironbound
Marco Ramirez     The Royale
Anna Ziegler     Boy

James Houghton     Signature Theatre Company

April 13, 2016

"Straight" Probes the Zigzags of Modern Love

Now that transgender people are popping up on TV shows ("Transparent," "Orange is the New Black") in plays (Hir, Southern Comfort) and even on fashion runways (click here), the one muted letter remaining in LGBT, is the B, which stands for bisexual. 

Coming out as "Bi" still doesn't rack up points in either the gay or straight communities. And that's one of the reasons, I was so intrigued by Straight, the new play about a man reluctant to define his sexual choices that is playing at The Acorn Theatre on Theatre Row through May 8.

Straight starts off in typical sitcom/romcom mode. Ben, a financial analyst; and Emily, a biology grad student, have been dating since college but live in separate apartments. They're a supportive and affectionate couple. She makes sure he eats regularly. He listens to her complaints about the lab. They canoodle comfortably.

But as their friends have begun to marry off, Emily has become angsty about their future. She wants them to at least live together. What she doesn't know, and what's initially played as farce, is that Ben likes living alone because he's also secretly dating Chris, a 20 year-old male college student, with whom he has hot sex.

Comedy is supposed to ensue as Ben tries to keep Chris and Emily apart. But Scott Elmegreen and Drew Fornarola, who are credited as the co-authors of Straight, have something else in mind. Ben falls in love with Chris but he's unable to end things with Emily. It's partly that he thinks life would be easier for a heterosexual couple but it's also that he loves her.

And then there's the fact that he doesn't want to identify as totally gay in the way that's easy for Chris to do or as completely straight in the way that Emily needs him to be. He just wants to follow his heart but he isn't sure that society will let him do it.

Ben's dilemma isn't new to the stage. The British playwright Mike Bartlett dealt with it in his superb play Cock back in 2012 (click here for my review) but the question remains relevant in these say-it-loud-say-it-proud gender fluid times: what to do with someone who just wants to be label free?

The Straight playwrights' answer is a little didactic. To underscore Ben's discomfort in the queer world, they make him a bro who loves basketball and beer. To bring in the fact that sexual orientation is predetermined, they make Emily's specialty biogenetics. And then they attempt to drive home both sides of the argument in a long, boozy debate between Ben and Chris.

Still, under the unfussy direction of Andy Sandberg, the three-member cast does a fine job of making you feel for each member in this romantic triangle. Most of the praise has gone to Thomas E. Sullivan, a recent NYU grad, who scores in the flashiest role as the witty and sexy Chris.

But I also have some love for Jake Epstein, who played Gerry Goffin opposite Jessie Mueller's Carole King in Beautiful and who is lovely here as a guy increasingly heartsick over the knowledge that he must hurt at least one person he loves.

Some critics have complained that the play is outdated. But the choice Ben finally makes caused several people at the performance I attended to cry out in dismay. A play that provokes such a visceral response deserves to be seen.