November 30, 2016

"Sweat" Speaks Up for The Working Class

They may not know it but serious theatergoers owe a big debt of gratitude to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, which, despite its name, has commissioned a series of dynamic plays that focus on significant moments in American history.

Since its start in 2008, "American Revolutions: the United States History Cycle," as the project is officially known, has spawned such works as All the Way, Robert Schenkkan's Tony winner about LBJ's efforts to pass the 1964 Civil Rights Act;  Roe, Lisa Loomer's acclaimed account of the 1973 Supreme Court case that gave women the right to have an abortion; and now Sweat, Lynn Nottage's look at the last decade in which the loss of industrial jobs has upended the working class in this country.

As she did with her Pulitzer Prize-winning Ruined, Nottage interviewed real-life people who had experienced the problems she wanted to investigate in her play. She and her frequent collaborator director Kate Whoriskey spent two years talking to people in Reading, Pennsylvania, once an industrial hub so affluent that it has its own square on the Monopoly game board.

But by 2011, Reading had become the poorest city in the U.S. as factory after factory closed and once proud blue-collar workers turned to booze, drugs, welfare and despair (click here to read about her reporting process).

Nottage's fictionalized account of those woes zeros in on two friends, a black woman named Cynthia and a white woman named Tracey, who've spent years working together in a steel tubing plant, supporting one another through bad marriages and raising now-grown sons Chris and Jason, who, like their moms, became co-workers and best friends.

The play opens with brief scenes in which each son is seen meeting with a parole officer and then flashes back eight years to a time when they're all happily celebrating the birthday of another friend at the neighborhood bar that is the local hangout and so authentically designed by John Lee Beatty that you can practically smell the scent of stale beer.

But the good times quickly end. After Cynthia gets a low-level management job that forces her to make some tough decisions about her friends, tensions mount, racial animosities surface, hostilities arise between those who have jobs and those who don't and eventually violence erupts.

The basic tale is familiar. Dominique Morriseau's even more intimate play Skeleton Crew recently covered much of the same territory, right down to the up-from-the-ranks manager who is pushed to betray old friends.

Nottage attempts to shake up her narrative with time shifts between 2000 and 2008 and a hint of mystery about how Chris and Jason ended up with a parole officer. But the moral of the story is the same: the American Dream is becoming more and more elusive for working-class people.

Whoriskey directs the narrative with straightforward efficiency. And the nine-member cast lead by Michelle Wilson as Cynthia and Johanna Day as Tracey is strong, with particularly affecting work coming from James Colby as the bar manager who vainly tries to provide solace and common ground.

Nottage doesn't pretend to have answers about how to remedy the problems her play examines but, as she did with Ruined, she can't resist ending the play on a hopeful note that seemed unrealistic to me.

Still, as the rise of Donald Trump makes clear, those of us who are doing reasonably well need to do a better job of understanding the distress of those of us who aren't. And Sweat, which opened at The Public Theater a week before the election and closes this weekend, is a good place to start.

November 26, 2016

"My Name is Gideon: I'm Probably Going to Die, Eventually" is as Cutesy as Its Title

There's no question that Gideon Irving is a really talented guy. He's been blessed with an ingratiating stage presence, a plangent singing voice and an irrepressible love of music in the Paul Simon mode, which means that all kinds of sounds fascinate him and he delights in playing (quite well) instruments ranging from a Greek bouzouki to an African mbira.

But there's also no question that My Name is Gideon: I'm Probably Going to Die, Eventually, his one-man show that is playing at the Rattlestick Playwrights Theater through Dec. 1, is really self-indulgent.

It runs for an overlong one hour and 45 minutes without intermission and unspools like an anything-goes vaudeville show. It takes place on a cluttered set that purports to be a replica of Irving's home but that is filled with surprises. However, there's no storyline or shape of any kind.

Instead, Irving tells stories, performs magic tricks, does a little bit of ventriloquism, sings a bunch of folk-ish songs he's written and engages in a lot of audience participation, including handing out flowers at the beginning of the show and asking people to throw them back at him during the curtain call. Periodically, he holds up applause signs.

The songs are pretty but intentionally abstruse. Part stand-up routine, part performance art, My Name is Gideon comes across as though a clever college kid were showing off for his buddies.

And it may indeed have started out that way. Irving says he's traveled around the world doing over 500 performances in people's homes, often sleeping over in their spare rooms, on their couches or in a sleeping bag on their floor (click here to read a Q&A in which he talks about those experiences).

A version of the show made its way to this year's Edinburgh Festival Fringe, where it was a hit. And the folks at the performance my theatergoing buddy Bill and I attended seemed to love it too. Two women seated in front of us laughed so hard at Irving's antics that Bill and I wondered if they might have been supportive aunts.

But people like me who prefer shows with structure and purpose may not be as charmed. Irving, who's the son of Mandy Patinkin, is 30 years-old and I'd like to see him do something less puerile. His dad's pal Taylor Mac takes a similar grab-bag approach to his work but uses his talent and eccentricities to explore matters of substance. Irving has the goods to do the same.

November 23, 2016

Taking Time Out for Thanksgiving

Let's be honest: it's been a tough few weeks. But there are still things to be grateful for this Thanksgiving. Among them are the comfort of family, friends—and, of course, good theater. This year, more than ever, I wish you and yours a holiday filled with such bounty. 

November 19, 2016

A Hip-Hop Aesthetic Infuses Hipness into Three New Shows: "Othello:The Remix," "Party People" and "Vietgone"

Intentionally or not, most shows that make their way to Broadway or the major off-Broadway stages are geared for people who usually go to the theater. Which usually means you get a lot of stuff about the problems of well-off white folks or based on the books ("Pygmalion" and "Anna and the King of Siam") music (jazz or classic rock) and old plays (Shakespeare, Chekhov, Ibsen) that those folks most appreciate.

So one of the truly great side effects of Hamilton's phenomenal success is the new willingness of more and more producers and artistic directors to experiment with shows that might never have made it onto a mainstream stage.  

Hip-hop was the dominant music when the twenty and thirty-year-olds who are beginning to make noise in the theater were growing up and, like Hamilton creator Lin-Manuel Miranda, they're bring its aesthetic right along with them. In just the past week, I've seen—and really  enjoyed—three shows that use rap music, multi-ethnic casts and creative choreography to tell stories ranging from a Shakespeare classic to a history of Sixties radicals.

They're not to everyone's taste (a good friend told me she walked out of one of them) but I love that they're bringing new energy to our stages and may bring in some new audiences too. Here's more of what I thought about each of them:   

OTHELLO: THE REMIX, a retelling of Shakespeare's tragedy, playing at the Westside Theatre through March 15.

The Story: In this version, Othello is a Jay Z-like record producer who raises the ire of a hardcore rapper named Iago when he gives the spot the rapper coveted on an upcoming tour to a pop singer named Cassio. Iago pays his boss back by falsely insinuating that Cassio is having an affair with Othello's wife the singer Desdemona and... well, you know the rest.

The Staging: Gregory James Qaiyum and Jeffery Ameen Qaiyum, the Pakistani-American brothers known as GQ and JQ, wrote, composed and directed the show, which has been boiled down from a typical three hours to just 80 minutes. They've converted the remaining dialogue into rap couplets, a lot  of them quite clever and all performed to beats spun by DJ Supernova, who is already onstage working his turntable when the audience enters and stays there throughout the show.

The four-man cast zips around the stage, rapping, performing synchronized dance routines and playing all the parts, signaling their role changes by Velcro-ing on bibs decorated in the style of each character, with the exception of Desdemona, who appears only as an elusive recorded voice.

The Bottom Line:  Purists will miss the Bard's language but others will probably get a kick out of this high-spirited production. And even in the midst of all the zaniness, Postell Pringle still manages to convey Othello's nobility and his folly.

PARTY PEOPLE, a history of the Black Panther Party and the Young Lords devised by the theater collective known as UNIVERSES and playing at The Public Theater through Dec. 11

The Story: The millennial offspring of activists from the '60s organize a reunion for members of the Panthers and the Young Lords and in the process examine the legacy—good and bad—of those groups as well as the responsibility of today's young people who seek social justice.

The Staging: Director Liesl Tommy, herself the child of activists in her native South Africa, uses every theatrical device she can find to recreate 40 years of history: news footage is played on the screens hung all around the Public's Anspacher theater, songs from Spanish boleros to hip-hop boasts are performed, dance routines range from line dances to militaristic marches, a tribute is given to people killed in the struggle and a condemnatory shout-out is lobbed against Donald Trump.

A mostly excellent cast of black, brown and white actors, lead by longtime UNIVERSES members Willie Ruiz, Mildred Ruiz-Sapp and Steven Sapp, portrays a full panoply of characters that include the grieving widow of a white cop shot by the Panthers, a black infiltrator who betrays the party, the committed foot soldiers who created free breakfast programs for poor kids, the paranoid ones who turned to drugs and violence against their own and the children who felt abandoned when their parents placed the needs of the people ahead of the needs of their own families.

Bottom line: At nearly three hours, the show could use some pruning and yet there are many moments of sheer exhilaration, particularly for people unhappy with the current political situation.

VIETGONE, a story about Vietnamese refugees adjusting to life in the U.S. that is playing at Manhattan Theatre Club's City Center Stage I through Dec. 4.

The Story: Playwright Qui Nguyen, artistic director of the Vampire Cowboys Theatre Company, based this comic romance on the experiences of his parents who met in a relocation camp in Arkansas after fleeing Vietnam when Saigon fell and the Americans left in 1975.

The Staging: The setting is the past but, as in Hamilton, the vibe is totally contemporary. Graphic novel-style video projections are employed to indicate different locales. Characters break into soliloquies delivered entirely in rap verse. Stereotypes are constantly turned on their heads. The Vietnamese characters speak hip—and profanity laden—English, while the white characters mumble an almost incomprehensible pidgin English. Women usually portrayed as docile are sexually aggressive. And, layering real substance underneath all the hijinks, views of the 20-year-long war are similarly upended.

Bottom line: The AARP-aged couples on both sides of me left at intermission but the two hours and 20 minutes whizzed by for me and I can't wait to see what Nguyen does next.

November 16, 2016

"Plenty" Isn't Nearly Enough

Casting, they say, is half the job of putting on a successful play. In the case of Plenty, the revival of the David Hare drama that is running at The Public Theater through Dec. 1, the miscasting of the two ledes has thrown the entire production off-balance.

Like most theatergoers who saw the original 1982 production that also played at the Public and then moved to Broadway the next year, I was blown away by both the play and its performances.

Hare's drama is a gimlet-eyed metaphor for the decline of the British Empire after World War II told through the experience of a British woman named Susan, who slowly comes apart when her post-war life fails to equal the glories of her work supporting the French Resistance.

Susan was played by Kate Nelligan, whose all-nerves-exposed performance is still one of the best I've ever seen. As Susan grew impatient with the world around her, Nelligan became a woman increasingly volatile, at times tottering on the fevered brink of hysteria and at other moments, lashing out with chilling cruelty. You didn't know if you wanted to hug her or throttle her but you couldn't resist being fascinated by her.

I had thought that Rachel Weisz, the Oscar and Olivier awards-winning actress who has successfully burrowed into such fraught women as Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire and Hester Collyer in Terence Rattigan's The Deep Blue Sea, would make a great Susan.

But Weisz, under David Leveaux's listless direction, seemed unsure of how to play the role the night my husband K and I saw the show. Her Susan was far too confident at times, as though she could brush off annoyances with the flick of her hand. But at moments, she displayed far too little of the vulnerability that makes the character so truly tragic.

Corey Stoll was even less convincing as Susan's husband Raymond, a dull diplomat who is besotted by her beauty and brilliance even when she begins to undermine his career.

The great Edward Hermann brought an endearing gawkiness to the role when he played it and Charles Dance gave it an air of upper-class fecklessness in the movie opposite Meryl Streep. But Stoll, who'd struck me as an odd choice right from the start, plays Raymond as such a hapless frat boy that it's hard to care how Susan treats him.

The only one who truly hits the mark is Byron Jennings who plays Raymond's mentor with just the right existential fatigue that you'd expect from someone watching an empire slip away.

The scenes in Plenty unfold out of chronological sequence and so the plays ends on the last day of the war when all possibilities lie ahead of Susan. Her final line almost brought me to tears the first time I saw the show. But this time, I just shrugged.