June 28, 2017

"Animal's" Bark is Stronger than Its Bite

Madness is unimaginable to those of us unaffected by it and yet that hasn't stopped writers from trying to recreate what it must feel like to lose control of one's mind. And actors also embrace the challenges such roles offer, from Alice Ripley's sensational turn as the schizophrenic mom in Next to Normal to Frank Langella's heartbreaking portrayal of the Alzheimer's afflicted title character in Florian Zeller's The Father. Both performances not only won Tonys but also shed light on the anguish people with those conditions suffer.

Now Rebecca Hall is bringing her considerable talent to the portrayal of an equally disturbed woman in Clare Lizzimore's play Animal, which is running at the Atlantic Theater Company through this weekend. Hall hits all the notes of a woman who is alternately fearful, frustrated and funny. I just wish this play were as good as she is.

As often happens in these kinds of works, the malady is treated as something of a mystery and we in the audience have to piece together what's happening. But in this case, Lizzimore seems more interested in the gimmick of the guessing game than in making us truly care about Hall's character Rachel.

We're purposefully told very little about Rachel's life before the play begins but over the course of its 80-minute playing time, her behavior seems to become more and more erratic. She starts up a flirtation with a hunky stranger. She mistreats her stroke-addled mother-in-law.

All through it, her husband (played by Hall's real-life spouse Morgan Spector; click here to read an interview with them) and a patient shrink (Greg Keller) continue looking for ways to help her. But despite the witty lines Lizzimore has given Rachel, I got more annoyed with her than either of those men did.

Director Gaye Taylor Upchurch attempts to showcase the performances by stripping away everything else. Rachel Hauck's leisure-wear outfits for the characters could pass for clothes the actors might have worn to the theater.

Meanwhile, the action unfolds in Atlantic's small studio space with the audience sitting on both sides of an almost entirely bare playing area. Only Stowe Nelson's slightly spooky soundscape provides clues to what really might be going on.

I'll admit I was moved once the reveal was unveiled but that's mostly because someone close to me is going through a similar experience. Still, it's even more maddening that Lizzimore's resolution is far more pat than real life's could ever hope to be.

June 21, 2017

An intermission

My husband K and I are away on vacation so no posts until we get back next week.

June 17, 2017

"The Government Inspector" Triumphs

The Red Bull Theater Company has a gift for silliness. Its production of Richard Brinsley Sheridan's 18th century classic The School for Scandal was one of the best evenings I had in the theater last year (click here to read my review). And for the past four weeks Red Bull's production of Nikolai Gogol's 19th century satire The Government Inspector has been delighting audiences just as much at The Duke on 42nd Street.

Gogol wrote his play to protest—and poke fun at—the rampant political corruption in Imperial Russia. He placed the action in a provincial town where the locals have recently learned that an undercover official has been dispatched from the capital to secretly investigate wrongdoings in their region.

When a stranger takes up residence at the local inn, everyone assumes he's the dreaded inspector. So all the local muckety-mucks—the crooked mayor and his social-climbing wife, profiteering merchants and magistrates, a pair of dimwitted landowners—try to curry his favor with bribes and other offerings.

The problem, of course, is that the stranger is not the inspector but a feckless dandy from the city named Hlestakov, who is mystified by all the attention he suddenly receives but keeps demanding more and more of it.

The playwright Jeffrey Hatcher has crafted an adaptation that's a bit too contemporary for my taste but I totally appreciate how director Jesse Berger has shamelessly plagiarized the playbooks of comic geniuses ranging from the Marx Brothers to Mel Brooks to squeeze every single laugh out of it.

He's aided by a brilliant cast of clowns that includes Michael McGrath as the mayor, Mary Testa as his wife and the invaluable Arnie Burton as Hlestakov's smarter-than-his-master servant and a busy-body mailman (most of the supporting cast doubles).

But Berger and we in the audience are most indebted to the always-appealing Michael Urie, who is as adept at physical comedy as he is with a one-liner in the role of Hlestakov.

The other 10 cast members, all masters of comedic timing, are funny as hell too. Even Tilly Grimes' costumes deserve—and gets—laughs. My friend Ellie, a former actress, fell over laughing several times. I tend to be harder to please when it comes to farce but even I couldn't restrain my giggles.

Yet, as the last line of the play makes clear, Gogol had more than just laughter in mind when he wrote The Government Inspector and his message is just as relevant today as it was when he wrote it. The Red Bull's run of ends June 24. Hurry out and see it.

June 14, 2017

Tony Talk Podcast: Episode 12: Wrapping Up

The 2016-2017 theater season that ended on Sunday night with the Tony Awards ceremony hosted by Kevin Spacey was one of the best in recent memory. That made the contest for the top prizes one of the most competitive and, as the creation of the Tony Talk podcast attests, fun to follow. Alas, the telecast didn't measure up to either.

Unlike in the past few years, when Neil Patrick Harris, Hugh Jackman and James Corden made a special effort to be inclusive so that theater nerds would feel embraced and newcomers would feel welcomed, Spacey was almost entirely self-referential, doing an opening number that only made sense to people who'd seen all the nominated shows and knew all of their backstories, taking up time with irrelevant impressions of Johnny Carson and Bill Clinton and hyping his Netflix series. 

The folks who chose the musical numbers to showcase were almost as tone-deaf. Viewers around the country look forward to getting a peek at each season's new musicals but the excerpts this year were confusing or lugubrious and revealed little about what made their shows special and worth seeing.

The ones that came off best were Ben Platt's performance of a song from Dear Evan Hansen (he won Best Actor in a Musical and it Best Musical) and a high-energy dance number from Bandstand, a show that didn't get nominated for Best Musical but took advantage of the opportunity to show why its choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler earned the top prize in that category.

Nor did the telecast solve the longstanding problem of how to showcase plays. This year's approach of having the playwright of each of the Best Play nominee describe his or her show probably didn't sell many tickets but it still was great to see all four of those remarkable writers get a moment in the spotlight even if only J.T. Roger's Oslo emerged as the ultimate winner.

Plus some of the speeches were moving and some of the outfits were gorgeous. So this week, in our final episode, my pals Chris Caggiano, Bill Tynan and I talk about all of it. Click the orange button below to hear what we have to say or check out all the Tony Talk podcasts on SoundCloud by clicking here. And you also can find a bunch of other articles about the broadcast in the Tony Talk magazine on Flipboard, which you can find here. 

June 10, 2017

Tony Talk Podcast Episode 11: Final Predictions

After enduring 40 days of awards lunches, newspaper ads, TV appearances, magazine interviews and all kinds of social media interactions, the Broadway community (fans included) will finally get to see who'll win the 2016-2017 Tonys on Sunday.

Unlike last year, when it was clear that Hamilton was going to run away with everything, there are no sure bets—other than Bette Midler (her terrific performance as the title character in Hello, Dolly! is certain to earn her the award for Best Actress in a Musical). So watching the Tonys should be great fun but predicting the winners is more difficult (click here for some expert speculation).

For much of the season, the frontrunner for Best Musical has been Dear Evan Hansen, the show about a boy who attempts to become popular by pretending to have been the best friend of a classmate who committed suicide. But a survey of Tony voters the New York Times published Friday suggests that Come From Away, the show about the small Canadian town that welcomed thousands of travelers marooned when planes were grounded after the Sept. 11 attacks, has been closing in.

Similarly, Oslo, J.T. Roger's play about the secret negotiations that lead to the 1993 peace treaty between the Israelis and the Palestinians, has won the top prize from all of the other theater groups, except for the Pulitzer Prize committee, which chose Sweat, Lynn Nottage's look at the effect of the deindustrialization of America on one Pennsylvania mill town.

But it's another contender that's been gaining ground on Oslo. Over the past couple of weeks, A Doll's House, Part 2, Lucas Hnath's cheeky sequel to the Ibsen classic about a woman who walks out on her husband and children, has launched a big promotional push that has more than tripled its ticket sales and increased its already favorable word-of-mouth with regular theatergoers and voters. 

A special midnight performance of Doll's House when out-of-town producers and theater owners were in town for their annual conference is reported to have played particularly well with those road voters. So the Best Play award now seems up for grabs. And there are down-to-the-wire contests in other categories too. 

In this week's episode, my pals Patrick Pacheco, Bill Tynan and I talk about the nominees each of us is rooting for. Click the orange button below to hear what we have to say or check out all the Tony Talk podcasts on SoundCloud by clicking here

And if you want even more help in making your Tony choices, you can check out the dozens of articles about this year's contest that I've collected in the Tony Talk magazine on Flipboard, which you can find here. 

June 7, 2017

The Shared Promise and Common Failings of "Can You Forgive Her?" "The End of Longing" and "The Whirligig"

Has someone been traveling around peddling the idea that all a play now needs to be successful is quirky characters, snappy dialog and a speech at the end about the meaning of life?  I ask because three shows I've recently seen fit that formula and despite having been written by pedigreed playwrights and performed by talented casts, all three ran off the rails.

Going in alphabetical order, I'll start with Can You Forgive Her, a comedy by Gina Gionfriddo that is running at the Vineyard Theatre through this weekend but that is nowhere near as entertaining as the earlier works (Becky Shaw and Rapture, Blister, Burn) that twice made Gionfriddo a Pulitzer finalist.

A bookrack filled with 19th century novels has been conspicuously placed in the Vineyard's lobby, a nod to the fact that the play's title is borrowed from the 1864 Anthony Trollope novel of the same name and that its storyline is a modern spin on the literary marriage plot in which an aspiring young woman tries to better her circumstances by hooking up with a rich guy.

And right there we have a problem. Because this is not the 19th century and what such a woman can now do is get a job and make her own money. However that option doesn't seem to have occurred to Miranda, the title's eponymous "her."

Instead, despite having a degree from a top college, Miranda sleeps with men who will pay her bills, take her out to fancy restaurants and buy her goodies like Gucci handbags. When one of her sugar daddies discovers that she's seeing another, she hides out in the home of  Graham and Tanya, a working-class couple in the New Jersey beach town where Miranda is visiting.

Graham and Tanya have relationship problems of their own. He is emotionally paralyzed by the recent death of his mother and she's a single mom who has a history of making bad choices.

None of this makes much sense. It's hard to believe that Tanya, already nervous about Graham, would leave him alone with Miranda. And it's even more unlikely that each of Miranda's lovers would show up and then hang around to squabble.

Can You Forgive Her? is only 90 minutes but the first hour seemed like two. Amber Tamblyn works hard (perhaps too hard) to make Miranda an irresistible kook (click here to read an interview with her) but the play only comes alive in its final third when Frank Wood arrives as the older of Miranda's two lovers. Wood's character isn't any more convincing than the others but this actor is such a master craftsman that he truly is irresistible.

The premise of The End of Longing, which opened Monday night in an MCC Theater production at the Lucille Lortel Theatre, also strains credulity. It opens with a guy hitting on a woman at a trendy bar. She turns him down but moments later they discover that their best friends are dating one another and before you can say "Pisco Sour" they've hook up too.

But, as in any romcom, there are obstacles. And theirs are doozies. He, Jack, is an alcoholic in denial. She, Stephanie, is a $2,500-a-night call girl. Each tries to be tolerant of the other's foible until they can't.

Then, toward the end of the show's 100-minute running time, Jack has an epiphany, delivers a fervent soliloquy and everybody, including Stephanie's neurotic best friend (nice to see Sue Jean Kim cast in a role that isn't specifically Asian) and Jack's salt-of-the-earth bestie, end up happily (click here to read the cast's reflections on the show).

There are only two things that make this show even passably noteworthy. The first is that it's written by and stars Matthew Perry, who is still best known for playing Chandler on the sitcom "Friends." His residually high Q-Score is clearly the reason that the Lortel has had to open its rarely used balcony to accommodate the demand for seats.

The second thing is that Perry has waged his own battles against booze and drugs and has become such a major advocate for drug rehabilitation programs that he even converted his former Malibu mansion into a home for recovering addicts. Those experiences inform Jack's climactic speech about the challenges of staying sober. It's the most genuine thing in the play. But, alas, it's not enough to save it.

The Whirligig, which is playing in a New Group production at The Pershing Square Signature Center through June 18, also boasts celebrity authorship. It's written by the actor Hamish Linklater (click here for a Q&A with him) and features incidental music by Duncan Sheik.

Although primarily an ensemble piece, this drama centers around a young woman named Julie, who is so gravely ill that she's already lying in a hospital bed onstage when the audience enters The Griffin theater at Pershing Square. A series of flashbacks explain how she got there and how her approaching death is affecting the lives of her family and friends.

The story is told through one of those fractured narratives that so many writers now resort to instead of just figuring out how to create momentum in a straight-ahead narrative. I tried to follow what was going on but eventually gave up. But at least I stayed for the second act; several of the people at the matinee I attended ducked out during the intermission break.

What kept me going were the first-rate performances. Zosia Mamet brought welcomed humor and pathos to the role of Julie's best friend, a former wild child who blames herself for the bad choices that have landed Julie in that hospital bed.

And it was particularly great to see Norbert Leo Butz back onstage as Julie's dad, who wonders what part his self-absorption has played in the tragedy. He gets the epiphany speech in this one and, no surprise, Butz delivers it well. But, as they say in the news business, all three of these plays are too much tell and not nearly enough show.