September 30, 2017

"Charm" Celebrates Gender Fluidity

It's hard not to be charmed by Charm, the new play about a 67-year-old transgender woman who offers etiquette lessons to underprivileged and gender-fluid youths. For everyone associated with this MCC Theater production—playwright Philip Dawkins, director Will Davis and the gender-diverse cast led by Sandra Caldwell—is earnestly committed to doing and saying the right thing. The result is sentimental—but inspirational too.

The play itself, or at least its first act, was inspired by the experiences of Miss Gloria Allen, a now 73-year-old transgender woman who has lived her true identity since she was 19, mentored homeless youths at Chicago's LGBTQ center and been described as a blend of RuPaul and Auntie Mame (click here to read more about her and the show's genesis).

But, as though he were one of her students, Dawkins takes a decorous approach to Allen's story that not only beatifies his subject but makes her fictional stand-in Mama Darleena Andrews less colorful than the real woman seems to be.

And while the students in the play's class are a span-the-gamut mix of rainbow ethnicities, identities ranging from the gender proud to the gender confused and social backgrounds that include a rich kid seeking a safe place to figure out who he is and a homeless teen who supports herself by working the streets as a prostitute, there's a polite quality to all of them too.

They're all looking for love and affirmation and Dawkins gives each of them the chance to act out a bit. But they too easily buy into Mama Darleena's anachronistic ideas about the right way to eat, sit and conform to conventional rules about the way men and women (transgender or cisgender) should behave.

In fact, the play's best conflict is between Mama and D, the gender-non-conforming director of the center who has a more contemporary view on what it means to be a trans person. 

That should be drama enough but in the second act, Dawkins mixes in jealousies and rivalries that eventually threaten the future of the etiquette program and Mama Dareleena's very life. Then he quickly whirls through resolutions to these problems as though they were plot points on a TV procedural.

Yet, it's still great to see a story about transgender people that isn't unrelentingly depressing or sad but is instead upbeat and celebratory. That's due, in part to the substantial transgender presence on the creative team, starting with Davis, the artistic director of Chicago's American Theatre Company and the first acknowledged transgender person to lead a mainstream theatre company in this country (click here to read more about him).

Davis actively recruited transgender actors to be a part of his cast. Their abilities vary but, under Davis' steady hand, they all bring authenticity and obvious delight to the roles they play. And the production really lucked out with Caldwell, a longtime actress who was moved to come out as transgender by the opportunity to be in this play (click here to read an interview with her).

Caldwell is warm and funny as she delivers the snappy lines Dawkins has written for Mama Darleena but she also imbues the role with a gravitas hewn from her own experiencces of what it has been like to live as a trans person in this society. 

Charm, which is running at the Lucille Lortel Theatre through Oct. 15, isn't a great play but, particularly in these tolerance-testing times, it's one worth seeing and cheering on.

September 23, 2017

"The Violin" Plays an Old-Fashioned Tune

The instrument that gives The Violin its title is what the film director Alfred Hitchcock used to call a MacGuffin, a plot device to provide some momentum for what in this play, which opened at the 59E59 Theaters this week, is really a character study of three lost souls.

They are Bobby, a twentysomething petty crook; Terry, his slow-witted younger brother and Giovanni, a middle-aged tailor who has been a surrogate father to the brothers since their parents were killed by local mobsters when they were still boys and their Lower East Side neighborhood had yet to gentrify.

As the play opens, Terry has just quit his job as a cab driver and brought home a violin case someone left in the backseat. Inside they find an 18th century Stradivarius which Bobby believes can be ransomed for a six-figure fee from its owner. 

Gio, as the brothers call the tailor, initially wants nothing to do with the extortion scheme but is gradually seduced into it. I hope it's no spoiler to say that their plan goes awry.

But even the conspiracy is another MacGuffin. For what really interests playwright Dan McCormick are the ways in which we define family and the obligations we owe—and should be able to demand from—those we love.

These are familiar themes and there's a thrown-back quality to director Joseph Discher's production too. In dress, mannerisms and dems-and-dese speech, all three men would be right at home in an Elia Kazan-era melodrama. Even Gio's antiquated tailor shop looks as though it's been left over from the Eisenhower Administration. 

And the dramaturgy—dependent on anguished soliloquies about unrequited dreams and not-so-surprising revelations about the past—is a little timeworn too.

But despite all this, my husband K and I had a good time. And that's largely due to the committed performances from Peter Bradbury, Kevin Isola and most especially Robert LuPone, the co-artistic director of MCC Theatre who hasn't been onstage since 2001 (click here to read an interview with him) but seems happy to be back.They all chomp a bit on the scenery but it's fun to watch them do it.

September 16, 2017

"For Peter Pan on her 70th birthday" is a Gift for Theater Lovers Ready to Grow Up

Ever since a friend died earlier this summer at the relatively young age of 62, I've been preoccupied with death. So For Peter Pan on her 70th birthday, Sarah Ruhl's warm-hearted meditation on mortality which opened at Playwrights Horizons this week, really hit my sweet spot, even if most critics are sour on the show (click here for those reviews).

Although the play runs just 90 minutes, it's a triptych that moves from a deathbed, to the quotidian rituals of mourning to the reluctant acknowledgement that some day we too must die.

Ruhl has said that she wrote the play as a present for her mother, an occasional actress whose favorite role was playing the character Peter Pan, who famously never wants to grow old.  (Click here to read more about its origins). 

Ann, the central character in the play, is one of the five siblings who sit vigil in a hospital room as their aged father dies. She's also the odd duck in her Iowa-raised clan, an early widow who has raised a child on her own and lost a little of her faith unlike her still-married and pious sister, gotten a degree later in life than her doctor brothers and still cherishes the memory of appearing as the title character in her high school production of Peter Pan.

As Ann and her brothers and sister grieve their beloved father, they hold a wake, complete with Irish whiskey, and retell old stories about the past and share their thoughts about what death and the afterlife may bring, from the nihilism of nothingness to the comforting spiritualism of ever-present ghosts, to the whimsy of a Neverland where life and youth are eternal.

Director Les Waters has assembled a top-notch cast to spin this tale. David Chandler, Lisa Emery, Daniel Jenkins and Keith Reddin are lovely as Ann's siblings whose lives have taken them to different parts of the country and down disparate philosophical paths but whose love for one another binds them together. Ron Crawford is particularly affecting as their dad.

But this production had me from the moment I learned that Ann would be played by Kathleen Chalfant, an actor who seems incapable of giving less than a brilliant performance. Here she soars again, and in more ways than one as she grounds the character in a determined optimism and literally takes to the air as Ann assumes her Peter Pan personae.

As my theatergoing buddy Bill and I left the theater, I overhead some audience members grumbling that the show, particularly the wake part, had been too slow. But it seemed just right to me, calling to mind the times that sitting with other mourners and sharing old stories had brought comfort when I lost someone.  

I hate audience participation but when, evoking a moment in J.M. Barrie's original play, we were asked to clap so that Peter could live, I slapped my hands together as hard as I could. 

This is the second Playwrights Horizons production this year, following Adam Bock's A Life, to deal head-on with the subject of death but Ruhl's wry humor keeps For Peter Pan on her 70th birthday from being depressing. Instead it's a reminder that the best way to face death may be with a defiant smile. 

September 9, 2017

A Female-Focused Fall Theater Preview

Experience has taught me that I'm a terrible prognosticator. So many of the shows I get all worked up about at the beginning of a theater season end up disappointing me. And then shows that I'm kind of ho-hum about when I first hear or read about them turn out to be some of my all-time faves. Yet, I can't resist looking ahead and thinking about what's to come this fall. And this year, the thing that pleases me the most (and that will continue to do so regardless of what I eventually think about the shows) is the presence of female directors at the helm of some of the most anticipated productions of this fall season:

M. Butterfly directed by JULIE TAYMOR. Playwright David Henry Hwang explored cultural and gender stereotypes in this mash-up of Puccini's "Madama Butterfly" and the real-life story of a French diplomat who fell for a Chinese opera star who seduced him into betraying his country before he discovered that his lover was actually a man masquerading as a woman. The original 1988 production won both a Pulitzer Prize and a Best Play Tony and ran for over two years. Now Taymor, herself a Tony winner for The Lion King, now in its 20th year, is directing M. Butterfly's first Broadway revival. That's exciting enough but the production will also mark Taymor's first return to Broadway since she was infamously fired from Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark. M. Butterfly's themes seem more up Taymor's alley and like most avid theatergoers, I'm eager to see how she will use the music, dance, puppets and Asian theater techniques she loves to make it her own. The play, which will star Clive Owen and Jin Ha as the mismatched lovers, is scheduled to open at the Cort Theatre Oct. 26.

The Parisian Woman directed by PAM MACKINNON. Set in contemporary Washington, this new comedy of manners centers around a woman who tries to get her lover to help her husband get a high-level position in the government. Beau Willimon, the creator of the Netflix series "House of Cards," specializes in political satire and he based his play on the similarly-named 19th century political drama by the French playwright Henry François Becque. MacKinnon, who won a Tony for directing the 2013 revival of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, knows how to wrangle strong female characters and the strong actors who play them. This time out she'll be working with Uma Thurman, who has played lots of tough women in movies but will be making her Broadway debut. The supporting cast includes Blair Brown, Phillipa Soo and Josh Lucas. The show is set to make its world premiere at the Hudson Theatre on Nov. 30.

SpongeBob SquarePants directed by TINA LANDAU. I've got to be honest and say that I have my doubts about this one but the word-of-mouth has been surprisingly good for this musical version of the animated TV show about the titular sea creature and his oddball friends who live in an underwater town called Bikini Bottom. The musical also features an oddball score of original songs by a boatload of major contemporary songwriters including Susan Bareilles, John Legend, Cyndi Lauper, Lady Antebellum and David Bowie. Just the fact that they all wanted to be involved in this project makes me want to see it. But the show's ultimate success will rest on the shoulders of Landau, who is not only directing SpongeBob but conceived the musical and has nurtured what's being touted as a paean to tolerance and acceptance of others through a tryout in Chicago last year and soon onto the stage at the legendary Palace Theatre, where the good-natured parazoan and his pals are scheduled to open on Dec. 4

Time and the Conways directed by REBECCA TAICHMAN. Fresh off her Tony win for the luminous Indecent, which marked her Broadway debut, Taichman is now leading a revival of J. B. Priestley's 1937 drama about the changing fortunes of an upper-class British family. The play is part family saga, part allegory about Britain between the World Wars and a meditation on the metaphysics of time. The versatile Taichman directed a well-received production of the play at the Old Globe in San Diego last year. In this Roundabout Theatre production, the family matriarch will be played by Elizabeth McGovern, returning to the Broadway stage for the first time in 25 years but already conditioned for the part by her turn as the mistress of the house for six seasons on "Downton Abbey." McGovern, along with a nine-member supporting cast that includes the always-watchable Gabriel Ebert and Stephen Boyer, will open The Conways at the American Airlines Theatre on  Oct. 10.

September 2, 2017

A Labor Day Salute to Drama Teachers

Monday is Labor Day, which for some folks means that the summer is winding down, for others that the school year is starting up and for us theater lovers that a new season is just around the corner.
And here at Broadway & Me, it also means that it’s time for my annual tribute to some of the people whose labor makes the theater work. Over the years, I’ve cheered actors and playwrights, composers and casting agents. Last year I celebrated the seamstresses, wigmakers, set builders, pit musicians and all the others who fill the ranks of what some call “Blue Collar Broadway” (click here to read that). But I want to put the spotlight on a very different unsung group this year: high school drama teachers.

The job isn’t glamorous but it’s an invaluable part of the theater ecosystem. Just about everyone you see on a stage remembers some teacher who spotted his or her talent and nurtured it. Of course, not everyone in the senior class play is destined for—or even wants—a career on the Great White Way. But the empathy theater educators teach, the collaborative spirit they encourage and the respect for the power of art they champion are valuable for everyone, particularly in these coarse times.

And recently, those first-line scouts have been getting more and more of the recognition they deserve. Three years ago, Carnegie Mellon University, The Broadway League and the American Theatre Wing (on whose advisory board I’m proud to sit) joined forces to create the Excellence in Theatre Education Award which honors K-12 theater teachers.

The apple-shaped statuette also comes with a $10,000 check for the winning teacher’s program, an all-expenses paid trip to the Tony Awards ceremony and a shout-out on the show. This year’s honoree was Rachel Harry, who for 30 years has taught at Hood River Valley High School in Oregon. Her productions have ranged from such school stalwarts as The Tempest and Our Town to Does My Head Look Big in This, a contemporary piece about a Muslim girl who decides to wear a hijab while attending a U.S. high school (click here to read more about Harry).

And Harry's not the only out there doing good work. In 2015, journalist Michael Sokolove published “Drama High,” about Lou Volpe, who has devoted four decades to the drama program at Harry S. Truman High School in Levittown, Pennsylvania. The town has fallen on hard times as factory jobs have disappeared and resources are low but Volpe has lead his students to repeated wins at the International Thespian Festival where the best high school productions from around the country compete each year (click here for more about the book).

Indeed, Volpe, who had no formal theater training before he began directing school shows, has been so successful at it that Music Theatre International, the agency that licenses rights to shows from The Music Man to Avenue Q, commissioned him to adapt Rent (a show that deals with AIDS, drug use and same-sex relationships) and Spring Awakening (a show that includes incest, abortion and suicide) so that they might be made more suitable for school audiences but without losing their distinctive style or diluting their powerful messages.

But the best testament to the work that Volpe and his fellow practitioners do may be the fact that NBC has given the green light to “Rise,” a new hour-long show about a high-school drama teacher that’s inspired by Volpe’s life. 

Scheduled for a midseason premiere next winter, its prospects are promising because “Rise” is co-produced by the guy who did the terrific high school football drama “Friday Night Lights” and by Broadway producer Jeffrey Seller, whose credits include Rent, Avenue Q and Hamilton.

The actor Josh Radnor will play Volpe. Sort of. The real Volpe came out years ago but, according to the press notes, although the TV version has the same name, he now also has a wife and three kids. That’s too bad. But hopefully what will remain is the underlying message that high school drama teachers can make a difference in the lives of their students, schools and communities. And that’s something to celebrate this Labor Day and throughout the year.