June 29, 2016

"The Healing" Salves Emotional Wounds

Outsiders are Samuel D. Hunter's specialty. But his aren't the heroic or charismatic figures that command center stage in most narratives. Instead, they are the more commonplace misfits society has pushed to the margins because they're disabled, gay (The Few), obese (The Whale) poor (Pocatello) or, among the secular, religious (all Hunter's plays). 

So it made perfect sense for Theater Breaking Through Barriers, a company devoted to using actors with physical disabilities, to commission a new play from Hunter. The result is The Healing, an affecting meditation on faith, friendship and forgiveness that is running at The Clurman Theatre through July 16.

The Healing opens in a tchotchke-filled house in a small town in Idaho, Hunter's home state. It's the home of a woman named Zoe, who, having no family or close friends, kept herself company by ordering things from the Home Shopping Network but recently committed suicide by lying down in the snow and freezing to death.

The people who gather to mourn her passing and pack up her belongings are friends she met years ago when they all attended a Christian Science summer camp, whose director, like the notorious gay conversion programs, told the kids with disabilities they could change their conditions if they prayed hard enough.

Zoe's closest friend Sharon, a feisty wheelchair bound girl, eventually rebelled and lead a campaign that closed the camp. But the experiences there marked each of them and their cabin-mates even more than the disabilities they were born with.

Hunter and director Stella Powell-Jones sift through the emotional damage with great sensitivity. The cast, composed of both abled-bodied and disabled actors (some of whose disabilities are less obvious than others) is uniformly excellent. But Shannon DeVido, who plays the sharp-tongued Sharon, is a standout.

That's in part because DeVido gets most of the funniest lines (Hunter always leavens his serious subject matter with large dollops of humor ) but also because she's so good at conveying both the pain and compassion that Sharon hides beneath her veneer of cynicism. Casting directors should be finding parts for DeVido, whether they're written for someone in a wheelchair or not.

There's a not-exactly surprise twist that comes toward the end of the show's 90 minutes but the survivors' struggle to get there is still moving—and worth seeing.

June 25, 2016

"Shining City" Lets Matthew Broderick Shine

Now 54, Matthew Broderick made his stage debut as a teenager in the original 1982 production of Torch Song Trilogy, won a Tony Award the next year for his performance in Neil Simon's autobiographical Brighton Beach Memoirs and then another in 1995 for the revival of How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. 

But, of course, it was his portrayal of the nebbishy accountant Leo Bloom in The Producers that turned Broderick into a Broadway legend. Alas, it also seemed to put a juju on him that turned his subsequent performances over the next 15 years into hollow specters of the Bloom character.

So it's great to be able to report that Broderick is almost back to his old form in the Irish Repertory Theatre's very satisfying revival of Conor McPherson's Shining City that will end a month-long-run next weekend.

Broderick plays John, a middle-aged Dublin widower so haunted by the car-crash death of the wife he didn't love that he can no longer sleep in the home they shared. He seeks help from a shrink named Ian, a former priest who has his own troubled relationship with the mother of his child (Lisa Dawn) and is just as unmoored as John, sleeping in his office and questioning his sexuality by picking up a male hustler (a nicely unsettling James Russell).

The shrink is really the main character and he's wonderfully portrayed by Billy Carter, a stage vet on both sides of the Atlantic and a frequent performer at the Irish Rep. He's captivating even when he's just sitting and listening.

But the patient John is still a meaty part. And while Broderick, rocking a believable Irish accent, doesn't move too far from the phlegmatic behavior that has marred his recent performances, he finds a way to put that lethargy to good—and effective—use here.

In fact, under the fussy-free direction of the Irish Rep's producing director Ciarán O'Reilly, the role seems to be almost therapeutic for Broderick, his vitality visibly returning just as the recovering John's does (click here to read an interview with the actor).

The result is that the performance—and the play that surrounds it—is a wonderful way for the Irish Rep to celebrate its newly renovated home (better sight lines, more comfortable seats, additional bathrooms) and to mark what could be the beginning of a renaissance for Broderick's career.

June 22, 2016

"Out of the Mouths of Babes" Ain't P.C. But It's Hard to Resist Its Old-Fashioned Charm

The four women who gather for the funeral of a man they all once loved in Out of the Mouth of Babes wouldn't pass the Bechdel test. That feminist litmus test requires that female characters talk to one another about something other than a man. But all the women do in Israel Horowitz's daffy comedy that opened at the Cherry Lane Theatre this week is talk about the late lover they shared.

They meet in an art-filled Parisian loft with large casement windows overlooking the Seine. The apartment (beautifully designed by Neil Patel, who uses real artworks by celebrities including Rosie O'Donnell and Joel Grey) was the longtime home of the deceased, who has died at the age of 100 and is never called by his name but only referred to, almost reverentially, as "Him."

Over eight decades, he lived there with a succession of young women, whom he met in the classes he taught at the Sorbonne, seduced, married and then cheated on before repeating the cycle.

And yet, wealthy, charming and apparently great in bed, he has—in what can only be described as a male fantasy—remained the highlight of each woman's life, despite the fact that each is accomplished in her own right.

The first to arrive are second wife Evelyn and Evie, the woman who replaced her and whom he nicknamed Snookie. They're eventually joined by Janice, who tried to kill herself by leaping out of one of the big windows when she realized her time with him was up; and Marie-Belle, the last of his concubines and perhaps the one who understood him best.

There isn't much of a story line. Instead the women just trade memories of their days with him and zingers about one another. The play is chocked full of one liners so determined to elicit laughs that you can almost hear the rim shot in the background as they're spoken. But no matter. The lines are funny and, under Barnet Kellman's affable direction, the women deliver them with pizazz.

That's no surprise since two of the women are Judith Ivey, who plays Snookie; and Estelle Parsons, who plays Evelyn. Both of these theater greats have starred in past Horowitz plays (Ivey in the two-hander Park Your Car In Harvard Yard opposite Jason Robards and Parsons in My Old Lady) and each knows to how to put just the right spin on what Horowitz has written for her to say.

Their cast mates, the Cherry Lane's artistic director Angelina Fiordellisi as Janice and the charming Francesca Choy-Kee as Marie-Belle, aren't playing on quite as high a level but they all look to be having great fun.

The audience has fun too. The body language of the two men sitting in front of me indicated that they felt they were wasting their time during the first few minutes of the play. But by intermission they were falling all over themselves laughing just like the rest of us.

Out of the Mouths of Babes is silly and misogynistic (even the reference to "babes" in the title is condescending) and it doesn't even pretend to offer any deep truths about life, love or anything else. But I still dare you not to have a good time.

June 18, 2016

Why "Indian Summer" is Kind of a Bummer

Joe Tippett is a terrific actor. He's particularly good at mining humor when playing "bros" and other kinds of macho guys. But he's also great at revealing how his characters want to be more than stereotypical meatheads. The chance to watch him do the latter is the only reason to see Indian Summer, the soggy dramedy that's running at Playwrights Horizons through next weekend.

Gregory S. Moss, making his New York debut, says he wrote the play as a love letter to Rhode Island (click here to read more about what he had to say) but he has set it in a seaside community and set up a divisive line between the wealthy summer people who keep vacation houses there and the blue-collar townspeople who live in the community year-round.

Hovering somewhere in between is Daniel, a bookish, insecure 16-year-old whose single mom has left him with his recently widowed grandfather and hasn't said when, or even if, she'll return. Lonely, Daniel strikes up a friendship with Izzy, a townie with a potty-mouth plenty of attitude and a muscle-bound boyfriend named Jeremy.

You see where this is supposed to go. Izzy will bring Daniel out of his shell. Daniel will play Pygmalion to her brash Galatea. Smiles will ensue. But things don't quite work out that way for the characters—or for me.

A few parts of Indian Summer do work. Elise Kibler makes a feisty and attractive Izzy. Owen Campbell is sweetly awkward as Daniel. And the energy level soars whenever Tippett's Jeremy appears.

But most of the humor is derived from Izzy and Jeremy's working-class accents or their social ineptness. And I felt uncomfortable sitting in a room full of people affluent enough to enjoy a night out at the theater who were spending it laughing at people who wouldn't have the money or sophistication to do so.

Moreover, at least as directed by Carolyn Cantor, I also found it hard to believe in the connection between Daniel and Izzy. The play gives them nothing in common and no real reason to strike up even a conversation, less than a romance.  Besides, who wouldn't want to go off with the more entertaining Jeremy?

Indian Summer even trips over its own internal logic. One minute Izzy doesn't know what the word "provisional" means; the next minute she's calling herself an "autodidact" and spouting off philosophical observations about the nature of life.

 A subplot detailing the grandfather's grief is nicely realized by the always-reliable Jonathan Hadary but also seems to have drifted in from some other play.

And yet audience seemed to love the show the night I saw it. The younger members were particularly tickled, including the cargo-shorts-wearing bro at the end of my row, who brought a beer back to his seat after intermission and guffawed whenever Izzy or Jeremy uttered a malapropism. Which distressed me even more.

June 15, 2016

"Incognito" is Virtually Incomprehensible

The last two minutes are the only fully satisfying ones in Incognito, the new Nick Payne play that is running at Manhattan Theatre Club through July 10. The problem is that while they really are terrific minutes you have to sit through the other 88 to get to them.

Payne, just 32, has built up a reputation as his generation's Tom Stoppard, a maker of brainy, challenging plays aimed at smart theatergoers. I like to think of myself as one of them but I've run hot and cold on Payne's work. 

I loved Constellations, his metaphysical love story between a beekeeper and a quantum physicist that had a limited run on Broadway last year (click here for my review). But I was less taken with If There Is I Haven’t Found It Yet, a messy fantasia about a bullied girl and her dysfunctional family that played at the Roundabout Theatre four years ago (click here for that review).

This time out Payne makes the braininess literal. His focus is on how the mind works and he offers three main storylines of such self-conscious solemnity that you'd think he were auditioning them to be case studies in one of the late Oliver Sacks' bestsellers about weird neurological disorders.

The first is based on the real-life pathologist who stole Albert Einstein's brain (click here for an account of the real event). The second is inspired by the true story of a man who lost his short-term memory after an operation and so could live only in the past. And the third, seemingly fictional, is about the love affair between two women—one a lawyer, the other a neuropsychologist.

A cast of four portrays these and a dozen or so other characters. The actors—Geneva Carr, Heather Lind, Morgan Spector and Charlie Cox, the now requisite Hollywood émigré, in this case from the Netflix superhero series "Daredevil" (click here to read a Q&A with him)—are all excellent.

But there is no set, just a moving turntable and four straight-backed chairs. And there are no real costumes, just everyday wear in hues of brain-matter gray. So the actors have to indicate their changes from one character to another solely with body language and vocal intonations. They do a valiant job but it's still confusing to figure out who is who and what they mean to whom.

Director Doug Hughes tries to help by projecting thematic words—Encoding, Storing, Receiving—on a screen and creating brief intervals in which the action stops, music plays and the actors engage in choreographic movements that reminded me of Madonna videos from her voguing phase. But I couldn't figure out what the hell that gesturing was supposed to mean either.

The only thing that ended up resonating with me were those final moments with the amnesiac, beautifully realized by Cox, because they played to the heart as well as the head.

The program notes supply a reading list that inspired the play and that presumably might help one to understand it better. But while I'm up for a thought-provoking experience as much as the next smart theater lover, I don't think watching a play should be the equivalent of taking a GRE.

June 11, 2016

The Highs and Lows of Three Tony-Nominated Plays

As soon as I finished Wednesday's post on the highs and lows of some of the musicals up for Tonys, I realized that I should give some equal hi-lo time to a few of the nominated plays as well. The clear frontrunner for Best Play is Steven Karam's The Humans, which has already won the Obie, Outer Critics Circle and Drama Desk awards and probably would have won the Pulitzer Prize if not for Hamilton (click here for my review).

But the competition is tougher for Best Revival of a Play, whose nominees include Noises Off, Michael Frayn's much-beloved farce about the behind-the-scenes hijinks of a second-rate acting troupe. The Roundabout Theatre Company's production was fun and picked up five Tony nominations, including for three members of its cast (David Furr, Megan Hilty and Andrea Martin) but it ended its eight-week run back in March and doesn't really stand a chance against the four heavyweight dramas in the category.

I've already talked about my personal favorite, Belgian director Ivo van Hove's radical reimagining of Arthur Miller's A View from the Bridge (click here to read my review of that) and so here are my thoughts on the other three: 

BLACKBIRD. Scottish playwright David Harrower's two-hander about the reunion between a pedophile and the now-grown woman he abused had its American premiere at Manhattan Theatre Club back in 2007 and seeing it then remains one of the most riveting nights I've ever had in the theater (click here to read my review).

Highlight:  Both actor Jeff Daniels and director Joe Mantello have returned for this Broadway production and they've managed to dig even deeper into the marrow of the play.

Lowlight: Michelle Williams, taking over from Allison Pill, is a fine actress but her choices make her character more worldly and less shell-shocked, undercutting the play's poignancy for me.

Tony Spotlight: Both Daniels and Williams have been nominated in the lead acting categories but he faces stiff competition from The Father's Frank Langella and A View from The Bridge's Mark Strong; and she from Eclipse's Lupita Nyong'o and Long Day's Journey into Night's Jessica Lange.

THE CRUCIBLE. This is the fifth Broadway revival of Arthur Miller's cautionary tale about the 17th century Salem witch trials, which he intended as an allegory for the McCarthy hearings that sort to root out suspected communists in the 1950s. It's also the second Miller work that the iconoclastic van Hove staged on Broadway this past season.

Highlight: I don't share New York Times critic Ben Brantley's love for this modern-dress production, which mystifyingly—and awkwardly—sets the action in what appears to be a classroom in an all-girl's school. But the lead character John Proctor's refusal to save himself by making false accusations against his friends and neighbors never fails to move me.

Lowlight: The cast is filled with actors I admire but van Hove (perhaps exhausted from having mounted four major productions in six months (Antigone, which played at the Brooklyn Academy of Music; Lazarus, the David Bowie musical at New York Theatre Workshop and the two Miller revivals) either miscast the roles (Ben Whishaw, struggling but uncomfortable as Proctor) or directed them to hit one note (the young movie actress Saoirse Ronan unrelentingly churlish as the chief troublemaker Abigail Williams).

Tony Spotlight: Despite my misgivings, the show picked up four nominations. Still, it's the runt of van Hove's theatrical litter and I'd be surprised if it won any.

LONG DAY'S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT. The four main roles in Eugene O'Neill's memory play about his tormented family and their battles with substance abuse and other demons remain among the most coveted in the American theatrical canon.

Highlight: Director Jonathan Kent underscores the love that the fictionalized Tyrone family have for one another despite its inability to save them from one another. And the production—Tom Pye's set, Jane Greenwood's costumes, Natasha Katz's lights, Clive Goodwin's sound—is gorgeous.

Lowlight:  Michael Shannon and John Gallgaher, Jr.'s portrayals of the sons Jamie and Edmund struck me as far too contemporary.

Tony Spotlight: Jessica Lange, who played the morphine-addicted mother in a London production 16 years ago, has said that "No part I have played on stage or in film has ever captured me more," and her radiant performance shows it. I expect that she will win the Tony and I wouldn't be surprised if she gets a standing ovation when she does.

June 8, 2016

The Highs and Lows of Three Tony-Nominated Musicals Not Named "Hamilton"

From the moment that Hamilton's revolutionary troupe stepped onto the stage at the Richard Rodgers Theatre last summer, it was clear that Lin-Manuel Miranda's hip-hop infused celebration of the once-forgotten Founding Father would be the favorite for this year's Tony Award for Best Musical—and deservedly so. 

Still, you've got to feel some sympathy for all the folks who worked so hard on the other musicals that opened on Broadway this past season and especially for the four that have also been nominated for the top musical honor that will be given out this Sunday night.

I talked about School of Rock earlier this year (click here to read my review) but I haven't had a chance to share my thoughts on the other three contenders and so as we head into the final stretch of the race, I'm going to do another of my highlights and lowlights round-ups for those shows.

BRIGHT STAR. The influx of migrants from the movies and the pop music worlds continues with this blue grass musical, whose book, music and lyrics were written by the multi-hyphenate actor-musician-et. al. Steve Martin and the singer-songwriter and Paul Simon spouse Edie Brickell. Their tale, inspired by a news article, tracks two storylines (a country girl's ill-fated love affair in 1923 and a WWII vet's literary aspirations in 1945) that fatefully—and sentimentally—merge before the final curtain.

Highlight: In her Broadway debut, Carmen Cusack, who previously worked on London's West End and in U.S. touring companies, gives a star-making performance, believable as both a naïve country girl and a sophisticated New York editor.

Lowlight: The music is pat-your-foot pleasant but the words, whether sung or spoken, are plodding and predictable. Ticket sales have been weak throughout the run and the show's creators have reportedly been writing checks to keep it going, presumably hoping that a performance on the Tonys will draw summer theatergoers.

Tony Spotlight: Although it picked up five nominations, including one for Cusack, it's unlikely that the show would have been a winner even if Hamilton weren't in the mix.

SHUFFLE ALONG, OR THE MAKING OF THE MUSICAL SENSATION OF 1921 AND ALL THAT FOLLOWED. Director George C. Wolfe has assembled an all-star cast (Audra McDonald, Brian Stokes Mitchell, Billy Porter, Brandon Victor Dixon and Joshua Henry) to tell the story surrounding the first Broadway show to be entirely created and performed by African-Americans. As much a game changer in its day as Hamilton is in ours, the original Shuffle Along was not only a massive hit but brought jazz and hardcore hoofing to the Broadway stage.

Highlight: That cast! Even the hard-dancing ensemble is terrific. Plus there's the delightful score by Noble Sissle and Eubie Blake.

Lowlight: Restoring the reputation of this often forgotten show has been a dream of Wolfe's since he was in college but his eagerness to make a case for it occasionally tips over into the pedantic.

Tony Spotlight: None of the show's three biggest names were nominated, not even McDonald, who has a record-breaking six Tonys. But Dixon got a best supporting nod for his portrayal of her love interest Eubie Blake and Adrienne Warren, in her Broadway debut, got one for playing two very different ingénues. Neither is a frontrunner in his or her category but Shuffle Along does have a fighting chance of winning at least a couple of its 10 nominations (second only to Hamilton's 16) and the odds seem particularly good for Savion Glover, who devised the show-stopping choreography.

WAITRESS. Adapted from the 2007 indie movie of the same title, this show centers around a pregnant waitress who's stuck in a bad marriage. Salvation is presented in the forms of her mystical talent for pie making, her quirky friends at the diner where she works and the possibilities of a romance with her gynecologist.

Highlight: Pop songwriter Sara Bareilles' tunes are catchy and Jessie Mueller is every bit as endearing and clear-voiced as she was for her Tony-winning portrayal of Carole King in Beautiful. Plus you can actually buy and eat pie during the intermission.

Lowlight: There really isn't one, unless you penalize the show for being a touch old-fashioned.

Tony Spotlight: It's paltry four nominations (neither Mueller nor director Diane Paulus got one) suggest that the nominators were among the underwhelmed but the show has been selling out since it opened, which is another way of bringing home the gold.

Now, I hope you'll come back on Saturday for my thoughts on a few of the Tony-nominated plays. In the meantime, do check out the articles and videos I've been collecting in my Tony Talk magazine on the Flipboard site, which you can find by clicking here.

June 4, 2016

A "Peer Gynt" That Truly Lost Its Way

Sometimes I think John Doyle's middle name must be Minimalist. The British director made his reputation with small-scale productions of Stephen Sondheim musicals in which the actors played instruments, doubling as their own orchestra. Over the past decade, he's helmed 10 shows in New York, won a bunch of awards (including a Tony for his Sweeney Todd) and occasionally even used real pit musicians.

As the wife of a proud card-carrying member of the musician's union Local 802, I haven't been a big a fan of Doyle's work but even I've been won over by his spare but emotional take on The Color Purple, a frontrunner for this year's Tony for Best Revival of a Musical. 

However, I'm back in the naysayer's corner with his latest venture: a stripped-down revival of Henrik Ibsen's Peer Gynt that is playing through June 19 at the Classic Stage Company, where Doyle will take over as artistic director in the fall.

I'd never before seen this Bildungsroman about a fool-hardy Norwegian peasant whose wanderings take him to China, Egypt, Morocco and other exotic locales where he mixes it up with kings, trolls, madmen and emissaries from the afterlife. Past productions have run as long as six-hours, were performed in verse and featured extravagant sets and costumes and a huge cast.

Doyle's version (he did the adaptation himself) runs two hours, plays out on a bare stage that's been set in the round and has a cast of just seven actors, all in sober, modern dress and some of them—yes—playing instruments.

It was the cast that initially drew me to the show. For it includes such stage MVPs as Becky Ann Baker, Dylan Baker, Quincy Tyler Bernstine and the incredibly versatile Gabriel Ebert, who throws himself body and soul into the title role. 

They and their cast mates do manage to create a few beautiful moments. But there aren't enough of them to make for a satisfying whole. And even the play's famous "onion" scene underwhelms.

I'd read up on the play before seeing it and I knew it was a challenging work.The meandering tale is supposed to chronicle Gynt's search for his true self but Doyle's concept left me totally lost. And since there was no scenery to orient me and no costumes to signal when the actors were assuming different characters, I eventually gave up even trying to understand it.

On the other hand, my friend Ellie, a literature professor and former actress, was totally charmed. But you shouldn't have to come armed with a lit degree or an acting c.v. to enjoy a play.

June 1, 2016

"Hadestown" is a Helluva Fine Destination

It's been a long time since I walked out of a musical and couldn't wait to hear the score again. Luckily, the singer-songwriter Anaïs Mitchell recorded a concept album for Hadestown, the new show running at New York Theatre Workshop through July 3. So I was able to call it up on Spotify and listen to her songs on my way home. They make a strong case that American roots music, not rock or rap, could be the future of the American musical.

The show is a sung through version of the story of the—many millennia spoiler alert—ill-fated lovers Orpheus and Eurydice, whose bond is put to the ultimate test when Eurydice is abducted by Hades, the god of the underworld, and Orpheus journeys into that hell to bring her back to the world of the living.

Mitchell and the ever-inventive director Rachel Chavkin, the recent Obie winner for The Royale who will make her Broadway debut this fall with Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812, have transformed the song cycle into a theatrical piece that sticks close to the main storyline but they've added a down-home Louisiana vibe that is alternately sweet and peppery and deliciously satisfying (click here to read more about how they put the show together).

Michael Krass' costumes, Rachel Hauck's spare but appealingly rustic set and a few of the tunes (especially an Andrews Sisters-style number terrifically sung by the three-member ensemble who serve as the show's literal Greek chorus) suggest that the story is taking place in the late '30s or early '40s. 

But there are also intonations of contemporary times with allusions to the growing tensions between the 1 percent and the rest of us and the rising threat of fascism (particularly in a number, written long before Donald Trump announced his candidacy, called "Why We Build the Wall" [click the orange button below to hear that track from the concept album]) 

In keeping with the show's classic and country themes, the theater's seating area has been reconfigured to resemble a coliseum, with a random assortment of straight-back wooden chairs and optional cushions. Beer is sold in a small bar at the entrance and can be carried to the seats. The seven-member band, which includes a trombone and a cello, plays onstage.

The multiracial cast (the men are white; most of the women black) is terrific, except for Damon Daunno's Orpheus who is charming but strains when his songs venture into falsetto, as so many contemporary songs for leading men now unfortunately seem to do.

But Nabiyah Be is both radiant and poignant as Eurydice. Meanwhile, Amber Gray, who played the fragile title character in Branden Jacobs-Jenkins' An Octoroon, is winningly sassy and sultry-voiced as Hades' wife Persephone.

And I knew I was in good hands, the moment I opened the program and saw that the barrel-voiced Patrick Page was playing the devilish Hades. There's no one better at adding a rainbow of colors to a character who in other hands would be monochromatic villain.

Best of all, however, is Chris Sullivan, who plays the world-weary narrator Hermes. Tall, burly and wearing a pork-pie hat, Sullivan doesn't resemble the classic image of the fleet-footed messenger of the gods but he is the charismatic soul of this show, singing bluesy tunes and underscoring the message that all love is an act of faith.