July 30, 2016

"Butler" Tackles History With Humor

You wouldn't think that the subject of slavery would be an obvious choice for comedy. And yet the writer James McBride pulled it off with "The Good Lord Bird," his comedic novel about a young slave's view of the abolitionist John Brown, which won the National Book Award for Fiction in 2013. And now playwright Richard Strand is doing much the same thing with Butler, a surprisingly genial comedy about slaves seeking sanctuary with the Union Army during the Civil War that opened at the 59E59 Theaters this week.

Butler's story is based on the eponymous Union general Benjamin Franklin Butler who devised a legal way to circumvent the Fugitive Slave Law that said runaway slaves must be returned to their masters. Strand's version hews close to the real-life story in which three slaves laboring for the Confederate forces escaped to Fort Monroe, the only Union facility in Virginia, and appealed to Butler for refuge (click here for a full account of the real story).

Only one of the three, a man named Shepard Mallory, is seen in the play and like many recent fictionalized accounts of the period (Quentin Tarantino's "Django Unchained," the new cable series "Underground" and McBride's "The Good Lord Bird") he's smarter and more courageous than most of the white folks he encounters.

Some might quibble with this interpretation of the way things might have been but history is always subjective and susceptible to myth making and it's refreshing to have these new, even if wishful, archetypes replacing the old shameful stereotypes.

Strand smoothes the transition by making Butler go through the process of reconciling his image of what a slave should be with the presence of the obviously charismatic Mallory in the same way that the audience does.

Much of the play's humor is derived from the general's consternation as he tries to keep up with Mallory; much of its heart from his determination to go against his nature (the real Butler supported Jefferson Davis for president at the 1860 Democratic convention) to do the right thing. 

It's a delicate balancing act and director Joseph Discher brings it off, letting the audience know that it's OK to laugh but refusing to let the show devolve into a cartoon.

This production first played at the New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch, N.J. two years ago and has smartly moved here with its four-member cast and a beautifully detailed set intact. 

Made up and padded to resemble photographs of the real Butler, Ames Adamson gives a wonderfully sympathetic performance. And John G. Williams is even better as Mallory, alternately wily and winsome, always making it clear that Mallory knows he isn't in control of his destiny but that he should be. 

As its very name indicates, the focus of Butler is, yet again, how the issue of race affects a white person. But Williams' centered performance commands attention for the plight of Mallory—and, by extension, all other black people—as well.

It's nice to see a regional theater like New Jersey Rep stretching outside the ranks of familiar playwrights and safe subjects. And it's very nice to have this reminder, especially in these times, that the course of history can be changed by the willingness to take one valiant step after another—and that humor may help ease the way. 

July 27, 2016

Who's Going to Get "The Last Word"?

Maybe it's the summer heat. Or maybe too many of you are out of town. Or maybe it's a reluctance to take a chance on an unknown show. Whatever the reason, there weren't as many entrants in this week's giveaway for free tickets to see Friday night's performance of The Last Word at this year's New York Musical Festival as there have been for previous giveaways.

Or maybe the question I asked about which former NYMF shows went on to Broadway was too much of a challenge.  Still, we do have a winner who knew that those shows were Chaplin, Next to Normal and [title of show].  That clever theater lover is Katie Kavett.

Kudos to her and to the cast and crew of The Last Word. 

July 23, 2016

Summer Festivals—and a Summer Giveaway

We're now in the midsummer of this year's theater festival season. It's the time when small companies and fledgling productions get a chance to strut their stuff. Some of these showcases, like ANT Fest, a lineup of edgy entertainments curated by Ars Nova, are already over. Others like the compact Summer Shorts series of short plays at the 59E59 Theaters, which started previews yesterday; and the mammoth anything-goes FringeNYC, which will run from Aug. 12-28, are still in the wings.

Also now underway is the New York Musical Festival, more familiarly known as NYMF. Over the years, NYMF has spawned such shows as Next to Normal, [title of show] and Himself and Nora, a musical now playing at the Minetta Lane Theatre about the relationship between James Joyce, the Irish author of such modernist classics as "Ulysses" and "Finnegan’s Wake," and Nora Barnacle, the woman who was his lover, his muse, the mother of his two children and eventually his wife.

My friend Jessie and I saw Himself and Nora earlier this week. Written entirely (book, music and lyrics) by Jonathan Brielle it's a straightforward bio-musical with a pleasant, Irish-accented score and charming performances by Matt Bogart, who has been with the show since its NYMF days (click here to read an interview with him) and Whitney Bashor in the title roles plus a standout performance by Lianne Marie Dobbs, who like the other two cast members plays a variety of roles and makes each one distinctive.

It was an agreeable way to spend a summer evening (or summer afternoon; the cast is scheduled to perform at next Thursday's Broadway in Bryant Park) even if the show, directed by Michael Bush, a veteran of 10 NYMF productions, didn't reveal anything new about Joyce, Barnacle or the times in which they lived.

The full-length productions for this year's NYMF began this week. There are 18 of them, ranging from A Scythe of Time, a stage version of two Edgar Allan Poe stories; to Tink, the Peter Pan story as seen through the fairy Tinker Bell's eyes.

One of the shows, The Last Word, about a guy who tries to save his debt-burdened restaurant by, the press notes say, "hustling across America - one game of Scrabble at a time," has offered me the opportunity to give away a pair of tickets to its final performance at The Duke theater next Friday night, July 29.

You can learn more about the show by clicking here. You can win the tickets by naming the three NYMF grads that made it to Broadway. Send your answers to me at jan@broadwayandme.com by noon on Tuesday, July 26. Then, as usual, I’ll put all the right answers in a hat and have my husband K pluck one out. I’ll announce the lucky winner next Wednesday.

July 16, 2016

Shifting Into Summer Vacation Mode

With temperatures climbing into the 90s, we're in the midst of the summer's first real heat wave. And consequently, everything is slowing down, including show openings—and now B&Me.

I'll continue to see a few things (there are some goodies coming up) and I look forward to sharing my thoughts about them with you. But, until the season kicks back up to speed in September, these posts will be a bit erratic, although I'll try to check in every Saturday.

In the meantime, if you're hankering for more news about what's going on in the theater world, I hope you'll check out the B&Me magazine on the Flipboard site, where I collect a whole bunch of interesting stuff that other folks have written about theater. You can find it by clicking here.

July 9, 2016

"Small Mouth Sounds" Makes a Big Noise

Since getting her B.A. at NYU's Tisch School of the Arts and an M.F.A from Columbia University barely a decade ago, Rachel Chavkin, whose acclaimed production of Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812 will debut on Broadway this fall, has built a reputation as one of the most inventive directors on the New York theater scene. And nowhere are her gifts more evident than in the production of Bess Wohl's comic drama Small Mouth Sounds, which opens at the Signature Center next week.

I don't usually write about shows before they officially open but Chavkin mounted this show about the emotional journeys of six people at a silent retreat at Ars Nova last year. It sold out then and I couldn't get a ticket. So I grabbed a couple as soon as I heard there would be a return engagement this summer and I'm just as eager to report that my theatergoing buddy Bill and I had a great time.

Like Annie Baker's Circle Mirror Transformation, in which strangers interact at a weekly drama class, and Luigi Pirandello's absurdist classic Six Characters in Search of an Author, Wohl's play throws a bunch of folks together and sets them the existential task of figuring out who and why they are (click here to read an interview with the author). The result is both hilarious and heartbreaking.

Chavkin, also a major force behind Hadestown, which is running at New York Theatre Workshop through July 31 (click here for my rave,) specializes in visceral theater that refuses to be constrained by the proscenium and she's an ideal conductor for this quest (click here to read more about her). 

She's had the space in the Romulus Linney Courtyard Theatre reconfigured so that the audience sits on both sides of the playing space surrounded, kudos to set designer Laura Jellinek, by wood panels and white screens that evoke the calm of a New Age spa.

Nature images assembled by video designer Andrew Schneider are projected on the big screens that run the length of the room and they're accompanied by a near continuous underscoring of bird, cricket, rain, wind and other soothing outdoor sounds (a shoutout here to sound designer Stowe Nelson).

And Chavkin is just as deft and specific with her actors. Half the cast has changed since the Ars Nova production but they—Babak Tafti, Brad Heberlee, Marcia DeBonis, Max Baker, Quincy Tyler Bernstine, JoJo Gonzalez, and Zoë Winters—are all terrific.

One actor has an extended nude scene. Another is never seen until the curtain call. Several are required to cry at the snap of a synapse. And all are occasionally charged with playing some scenes simultaneously, with the audience subtly nudged where to look by Mike Inwood's nimble lighting.

But the major challenge for the actors is to tell their stories and, just as importantly, their backstories (the reasons they're seeking solace at the retreat) almost entirely through their facial expressions and body gestures since their characters are supposed to be silent. It's a real workout and they not only obviously love doing it but ace it as well.

The pleasure for the audience—and there is much of it to be had —is in putting all the pieces together. Some click into place easily; others are more satisfyingly jagged. 

At almost two hours without intermission, Small Mouth Sounds is a bit long but it's also nirvana for smart theatergoers

July 6, 2016

Two Museums Put On Good Stage Shows

Spring's incessant flow of show openings slows to a trickle in the summer so theater junkies like me have to look elsewhere for our fixes. I recently found some solace in theater-related exhibits at two of the city's most unsung museums.

The New-York Historical Society is hosting the New York stop of "First Folio! The Book that Gave Us Shakespeare," a traveling exhibit that the Folger Shakespeare Library has organized to honor the 400th anniversary of the Bard's death.

John Heminges and Henry Condell, members of the King's Men acting company and close friends mentioned in Shakespeare's will, collected and published 36 of his plays in 1623. A few, such as Hamlet and Romeo and Juliet, had been published before but without the Folio later generations might never have known Macbeth, Julius Caesar or Twelfth Night.

About 750 copies of that first edition are believed to have been printed and they didn't go for cheap; it's estimated that each would have cost about $250 in today's money. A Second Folio was published nine years later but with some 1,700 changes from the first and that, of course, makes the original edition even more prized. One sold for $3.7 million in May.

Experts have authenticated 233 surviving copies and the Folger, named after a Standard Oil exec who collected Shakespeare memorabilia and located in Washington D.C., has 82 of them, more than anywhere else (the British Library only has five).

The Folger's road show isn't fancy. The exhibit includes a few easy-to-pack screens with information about the Bard and his book but the main attraction is the Folio itself. It sits in a glass-enclosed case in the lobby of the Historical Society, open to Hamlet's "To be, or not to be" soliloquy.

I got a thrill out of seeing the words, complete with their odd spellings ("The Slings and Arrowes of outragious Fortune") on the parchment pages, even though a guard watched me like a hawk as I inspected them.

Admission to this part of the museum is free and I may even go back before the exhibit leaves July 17. Keep an eye out for when the Folio hits your town or, at the very least, check out the website the Folger has set up for it by clicking here.

You do have to pay to see "New York's Yiddish Theater: From the Bowery to Broadway," which will be at The Museum of the City of New York through Aug. 14 but it's worth the $14 fee ($10 for seniors and free for kids and teens).

Broadway, particularly the Broadway musical, wouldn't be the same if it hadn't been for Yiddish theater, which began in the mid-19th century as a popular form of entertainment in Europe's Jewish communities and migrated along with the waves of those immigrants who came to New York around the turn of the 20th century.

Using photos, posters, scripts, sheet music, costumes, puppets and film clips, curator Edna Nahshon, a professor of theater and drama at The Jewish Theological Seminary (click here to read a Q&A with her), tracks the story of Yiddish theater from the early 1900s when the lower part of Second Avenue became known as the Jewish Rialto to the productions of Fiddler on the Roof and Funny Girl, which both put the Jewish experience front and center on the Broadway stage in 1964.

Along the way, the Yiddish theater nurtured a cornucopia of talents whose influence on the movies, TV and, of course, the theater can still be felt today. 

A whole section of the exhibit is devoted to the Adler family. The patriarch Jacob was celebrated for his Yiddish versions of Shakespeare and his daughter Stella later became an influential member of the Group Theater and the founder of the Stella Adler Studio of Acting, where she mentored, among others, Marlon Brando and Robert De Niro.

Other names that got their start in the Yiddish theater include Paul Muni (née Frederich Meier Weisenfreund,) Molly Picon (née Małka Opiekun,) Edward G. Robinson (Emanuel Goldenberg) and Mickey Katz (Meyer Myron Katz,) whose son Joel would change his last name to Grey and win a Tony for playing the M.C. in Cabaret

It's also fun to see the costumes Zero Mostel wore as Tevye the Milkman in Fiddler and Barbra Streisand wore as the great second Avenue vaudevillian Fanny Brice in Funny Girl.

But I particularly appreciated the sections devoted to less familiar names like Jacob Gordin, whose socially conscious dramas made him kind of the Eugene O'Neill of Yiddish drama and Abraham Goldfaden, whose role as the father of Yiddish theater is honored on the face of the Goldie Award, the Yiddish theater's equivalent of the Tony.

 A major highlight were the sketches and models by the Russian-born set designer Boris Aronson, who began his American career on the Lower East Side before moving uptown to Broadway where he eventually won six Tony awards for his stylized sets for the original production of Cabaret, Follies and Company.

Both exhibits turn theater history into a visceral experience that you should have if you can.

July 2, 2016

Theater Books for Summer Reading 2016

The Tonys and all last season's other theater celebrations are now behind us, several original Hamilton cast members (including the show's creator Lin-Manuel Miranda) are scheduled to take their final bows next week and the theater world—plus the rest of New York—is slipping into summer vacation mode. Which means that it's time for my annual list of books to keep theater lovers company through the lazy weeks of summer until Labor Day.

The selections this year are a real grab bag of choices from audiobooks and graphic novels to memoirs and mysteries. So you're likely to find something, whatever your mood or genre preference. I'm still finishing up a few of them myself and so I'm looking forward to luxuriating on our terrace (my husband K and I got new deckchairs this year) while reading them and sipping a cool drink (old-school Cosmos this year) and I hope the list helps make your summer just as pleasurable. In the meantime, Happy July 4th.

Being an Actor by Simon Callow   Best known as a character actor (he created the role of Mozart in the original 1984 London production of Amadeus) Callow is also a marvelous writer with more than a dozen books to his credit and this memoir of his earliest days in the theater is a total delight. Callow doesn't mind naming names (or burning bridges) but it's his picture of himself as a young actor struggling to master his craft in drama school and in touring companies around England that give the book its heart.

Hamilton The Revolution by Lin-Manuel Miranda and Jeremy McCarter  Like everything else about Miranda's hip-hop musical about one of the formerly lesser known Founding Fathers, this book is a refreshing spin on an old form. It's basically a souvenir book but Miranda and his theater journalist friend McCarter provide a really intimate portrait of how Hamilton was created, with bios on and commentary from each of the main players and members of the production team, gorgeous photos and, best of all, the complete lyrics, annotated with humor, openness and a generosity of spirit by Miranda himself.

Macdeath by Cindy Brown  Part of a comic-mystery series built around an actress who also works part time as a private investigator, this murder mystery is set backstage at a theater company in Phoenix that is doing a production of the Scottish play. Its tongue sits firmly in its cheek and it's just the kind of easy read that's as yummy as a juicy popsicle on a hot summer afternoon.

The Marvels by Brian Selznick  London's Theatre Royal provides the backdrop for this graphic novel about a 13-year-old boy who runs away from school and seeks refuge with his uncle who lives in a mysterious house that is believed to have been owned—and is perhaps now haunted—by a legendary family of actors. Selznick won the  Caldecott Medal for "The Invention of Hugo Cabret," which John Logan adapted for the 2011 movie directed by Martin Scorsese and so the artwork is superb. And the narrative, which begins in 1766 and ends in 1990, is surprisingly moving, even for people like me who don't usually read illustrated books.

 Matchbox Theatre: Thirty Short Entertainments by Michael Frayn  The versatile author of comedies like Noises Off and dramas like Copenhagen has created a gem of a book that, as advertised, features 30 sketches, all written in the form of dialogs that are funny, poignant and insightful about what it means to be human. They're great to read out loud with friends or to savor alone in the theater of your own imagination.

The New York Stories by John O’Hara  The midcentury writer John O'Hara wrote novels, a newspaper column, screenplays and even a couple of plays but he's probably best known for his short stories and this wonderful collection of tales centers around characters who are actors, musicians and their fellow travelers, some successful, most not but all desperate for a moment in the limelight. The audiobook version is an extra treat because the stories are read by a who’s who of terrific stage actors including Dylan Baker, Bobby Canaveral and Jan Maxwell.

Razzle Dazzle: The Battle for Broadway by Michael Riedel  Theater nerds probably already know many of the anecdotes that Riedel, the theater gossip columnist for the New York Post and co-host of the TV show "Theatre Talk," recounts in this history of Broadway from its grimy days in the 1970s through its current heyday as one of the most popular destination spots in the world. Still it's nice to have all the tales in one place and Riedel's relish for these stories is obvious and a bit contagious.

The Secret Life of the American Musical by Jack Viertel  Few people know more about what it takes to make a Broadway musical than Viertel, the artistic director of the Encores! series that puts on concert versions of neglected shows and who has also worked as a critic, dramaturge and producer. So it is a real treat to read his book, which, using lots of examples from shows ranging from Oklahoma to Hamilton, breaks down the basic structure of a musical from the "I Want" song which gets the action going straight through to the climactic 11 o'clock number.

Selected Works: A Memoir in Plays by Terrence McNally  The Tony-winning playwright of such works as Master Class, Love! Valour! Compassion and It's Only A Play has opted against a conventional memoir and, instead, looks back at his life through his work, writing brief introductions to the eight plays he's chosen to include in this collection. Although he does touch on some of his romantic relationships (including his early one with Edward Albee) and frayed friendships (with Manhattan Theatre Club's artistic director Lynne Meadows) there's relatively little gossip) the primary focus is on the relationship between McNally and his plays and the result is a master class in playwriting.

As I said, it's an eclectic list.  I hope you find something there for you and if you’re looking for even more to read, here are the links to the suggestions from previous years: