December 29, 2018

10 Shows That Stood Out for Me in 2018

The end of the year has sneaked up on me. I got lost in the whir of finishing the school semester where I teach, getting ready for Christmas and dealing with some health problems (nothing serious: a bad cold and a lingering foot injury). But I’ve found time to read the year-end 10 Best lists, including the round-up of them that my blogger pal Jonathan Mandell puts together every year and which you can find by clicking here.

These lists always make me smile because, of course, there is no absolute best. I counted more than 50 different shows that popped up on the nearly two dozen 10 Best lists I saw or heard on podcasts. And even a much-admired show like The Ferryman failed to make the cut for some critics.

That’s in part because there was so much good stuff to see year.  But it's also because theater is a conversation between the people who make a show and each of us who is lucky enough to see it. And how we come out feeling about a show depends on all kinds of things from how an actor performed his part to whether he looks like an old boyfriend, from how well a playwright explores a theme to whether that theme is an issue that touches us personally, from the magic of the stagecraft to how much we needed a good laugh or a quiet cry that day. 

So, with all that in mind, here, in my usual cop-out alphabetical order, are 10 shows that, for various reasons, stood out for me from the nearly 140 shows I saw this year:

Edward Albee's At Home at the Zoo: Signature Theatre Company’s revival of these one-act plays written at the beginning and the end of Albee’s career was brilliantly directed by Lila Neugebauer and performed by a stellar cast that deftly walked the tightrope between the cool intellectualism and the visceral emotionalism that this late great playwright’s work demands.

The Ferryman: If I were doing a numbered list, Jez Butterworth’s magnificent family drama set against the back drop of the Irish troubles would be at the top. I was exhilarated by Butterworth’s simultaneously lucid and lyrical storytelling, the uniformly superb performances of the show’s 21-member cast (including a scene-stealing baby) and the nimble staging of director Sam Mendes and his design crew, top-notch from set to sound.

Fiddler on the Roof in Yiddish: The trendy way to revive an old musical nowadays seems to be to try to make it fit more with our contemporary sensibilities. But under the astute direction of Joel Grey, The National Yiddish Theatre's production of the classic Jerry Bock-Sheldon Harnick musical based on the shtetl stories of Sholem Aleichem has taken a different approach: performing the show in the language its Jewish characters would actually have spoken in the 19th century and treating their traditions with reverence. The result is surprisingly fresh and deeply moving.

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child: Naysayers grumble that this show didn’t deserve its Tony for Best Play but this sequel to J.K. Rowling’s stories about the adventures of a boy wizard and his friends is filled with the kind of good old-fashioned storytelling by Jack Thorne and spectacular stage magic created by director John Tiffany and movement specialist Steven Hoggett that will appeal to the kids who grew up on the Potter books, the kids they’re now raising and kids at heart like me.

The Jungle: Immersive shows were a growing trend in 2018 but this one at St. Ann's Warehouse the Park Avenue Armory stood apart. It set theatergoers in the mdist of a refugee camp that once existed in Calais, France and housed scores of refugees from Afghanistan, Syria, Somalia and other war-ravaged countries, all desperately hoping to start a new life in Europe. Some of the actors once lived in the real-life camp but all of them—whether playing camp leaders, relief workers or smugglers—were superbly affecting.
Lewiston/Clarkston: The Rattlestick Theater transformed its playing space to house the changing physical and emotional landscape of the American West in Samuel D. Hunter’s linked one-acts set in contemporary towns named for the 19th century explorers Meriwether Lewis and John Clark. A chicken dinner was served in the break between the plays (offering food themed to shows was another trend this year) and the actors moved around the 51 people lucky enough to attend each performance but director Davis McCallum and his impressive cast maintained an aching authenticity throughout.

On Beckett: Drawing on his finely-honed skills as both a trained clown and a serious tragedian, Bill Irwin proved the perfect guide into the sometimes-inscrutable works of the absurdist playwright Samuel Beckett. And this one-man show at The Irish Repertory Theatre, which Irwin both wrote and directed, was a master class in acting and a love letter to theater making.

Slave Play: The trend that most impressed me this year was the growing number of shows that broke taboos—societal and theatrical—to look at the knotty issue of race in new ways. I could have chosen Pass Over, Antoinette Nwandu’s riff on Waiting for Godot; Jackie Sibblies Drury’s genre-bending Fairview or Aleshea Harris’ What to Send Up When It Goes Down, each deliberately unsettling and thoroughly thought-provoking. But I’m going with New York Theatre Workshop's production of this one by Jeremy O. Harris because it’s the most intimate of the genre and because its final scene was so unflinchingly raw and honest that it shook me to my core.

Sugar in Our Wounds: Identifying as an Afro-queer playwright, Donja R. Love has written a trilogy that deals with the experience of being gay and black at pivotal points in American history. This first, which played at Manhattan Theatre Club, was set on a southern plantation during the Civil War, where a group of slaves dream of freedom and two of the men unexpectedly fall in love. Director Saheem Ali created a lovely frame for Love’s lyrical language and passionate story and the audience the night I saw the show was filled with weeping male couples, grateful to see themselves finally reflected in history.
Usual Girls: Several plays by promising young female playwrights offered glimpses of how difficult it still is to be a young woman coming of age in this society. Clare Barron’s Dance Nation popped up on many Top 10 lists and I liked it a lot too. But I was struck even more by the Roundabout Underground's production of this one by Ming Peiffer, which tells the story of a young Korean-American woman struggling with sexism, racism and the damage that oppressed people can turn on themselves. Under Tyne Rafaeli's flint-eyed direction, it managed to be equal parts raunchy, funny and heartbreaking.

As I said, it was a great year for theater.  Here's hoping that 2019 brings us just as much to cheer. In the meantime, I wish you and yours good health, much happiness and the chance to see as many shows as your heart desires.

December 8, 2018

Turning on the Ghost Light, Yes Again

Life has gotten crazy again and I couldn't find the time to write this week. So as I usually do when this happens, I'm turning on the ghost light that theaters use when they're temporarily empty. I do hope to get back on track next week but in the meantime, I did manage to do an interview with playwright Christopher Demos-Brown for Stagecraft, the podcast series I do for BroadwayRadio. Brown is making an auspicious Broadway debut with American Son, a contemporary drama that stars Kerry Washington, Steven Pasquale, Jeremy Jordan and Eugene Lee. You can listen to our conversation about the show by clicking here.

December 1, 2018

Its Stars Are the Only Upside to "Downstairs"

Over the past decade the playwright Theresa Rebeck has had four shows premiere on Broadway and at least a half dozen others open in major off-Broadway productions.  And I can’t figure out why. Rebeck has a fine ear for dialog and a knack for coming up with intriguing situations and interesting characters for her shows but she never seems to know quite what to do with them. 

That was certainly the case with Bernhardt/Hamlet, her comedy in which Janet McTeer played the legendary 19th century actress Sarah Bernhardt and that finished an eight-week run at the Roundabout Theatre Company’s American Airlines Theatre last month. And it's true once again with Downstairs, a drama that is now playing in a Primary Stages production at the Cherry Lane Theatre through Dec. 22.

This time out the characters are the middle-aged siblings Teddy and Irene. The situation is that Teddy, who’s lost his job and maybe his grip on reality, has moved into the basement of the home that Irene, a timid woman who keeps her head down as though bracing for a blow, shares with her husband Gerry.

As attentively designed by Narelle Sissons, the cramped and cluttered basement is not a comfortable space. But Teddy—sleeping on a discarded sagging sofa, making breakfast out of coffee brewed in an electronic pot and dry cereal poured into a dusty bowl, and idling away his time on an old computer—seems eager to extend his stay there.

 And although the siblings squabble over trite things like whether Teddy should be puttering around all day in his underwear; and not-so-trite things like the way their inheritance was divided; and even far-out things like Teddy’s musings about his belief in demons and whether Gerry may be one, Irene likes having her brother there even as she makes it clear that her husband wants her brother to go.

That sets up a triangle of competing loyalties and creates opportunities for some Hitchcockian-style storytelling.  Is Teddy insane?  Is Gerry a menace? Will Irene realize that either possibility could endanger her?  

But having set her thriller in motion, Rebeck seems to have gotten bored by it and doesn’t even bother to come up with satisfying answers. By the play's end, I was left with even more questions than I had at its beginning.

That’s not the fault of the cast. Once again, Rebeck has attracted terrific actors. In fact, Tim Daly, who plays Teddy, reportedly asked Rebeck to write a play that would give him and his real-life sister Tyne the chance to appear onstage together for the first time (click here to read about that). 

Under Adrienne Campbell-Holt’s supportive direction, the Dalys are both charming in their roles, using the warm bonds of their own relationship to infuse the one between Teddy and Irene. 

They’re also having a ball playing against type with the usually dashing Tim schlumping around as Teddy and the usually brassy Tyne nestling into Irene’s meekness. And the veteran character actor John Procaccino chips in with a chilling performance as the domineering Gerry.

All three make the show watchable. But not even their collective talents can make Downstairs more than that because the playwright hasn’t given them enough to work with.  

Rebeck has complained in the past that critics are tough on her because she’s so prolific and because she's a woman (click here to read an interview with her). But maybe it's just because, as in this case, we think her work isn't good. 

November 24, 2018

Do "The Ferryman" and the "The Waverly Gallery" Live Up to The Hype About Them?

Most theatergoers, especially those with limited time and resources, try to figure out which shows to see through a combination of word of mouth, social media and official reviews, particularly the ones in The New York Times. And when the reviews are raves, that can mean they walk into a show with very high expectations—and the risk of being very disappointed. 

So far this season, clamorous buzz and unbridled praise has circled around The Ferryman, Jez Butterworth’s family saga set against the backdrop of the Irish hunger strikes in the 1980s; and The Waverly Gallery, Kenneth Lonergan’s memory play about caring for an aging relative who is descending into dementia. Each has been proclaimed a production not to be missed. So should you believe the hype?

Like legions of theatergoers on both sides of the ocean, I was gobsmacked by Butterworth’s previous play Jerusalem (click here to read my review), an ode to the eroding myths of British identity that made a star out of Mark Rylance almost a decade ago. And so Ferryman, with its mythological allusions to the god who carries souls to the underworld, was at the top of my want-to-see-list this fall. Amazingly, it surpassed my expectations. 

With the exception of a brief prologue, the play is set in the farmhouse of Quinn Carney, a former member of the Irish Republican Army who has given up politics and now devotes his time to heading a multigenerational family and farming their land in the rural Northern Ireland county of Armagh.  

Living in the house are Quinn’s sickly wife and their six children, his whiskey-loving uncle, two maiden aunts and his sister-in-law Caitlin and her teen son Oisin, widowed and orphaned when Quinn's brother Seamus mysteriously disappeared a decade earlier. The family has long suspected that Seamus was assassinated by the IRA but while still mourning his absence, Quinn and Caitlin have fallen in love with one another.

As the play opens, Seamus’ body has been discovered in a bog with a bullet hole in its head. IRA leaders want to protect the sympathy for their cause that's recently been engendered by the starvation deaths of incarcerated members waging a hunger strike for the right to be treated as political prisoners. So the IRA will do whatever it takes to get the Carney family to release a statement absolving the group of Seamus’ murder.

That’s a lot of plot and a lot of characters—21 actors take a bow at the curtain call—but Butterworth, who based the play on the real-life disappearance of the uncle of his life partner Laura Donnelly (she also reprises her Olivier Award-winning portrayal of Caitlin) weaves it altogether in thrillingly satisfying fashion.

In fact the play serves as a master class in theatrical storytelling. Butterworth is superb with language, be it the colloquial braggadocio of a group of teen boys trying to act older and wiser than they are or the poetic musings of the elderly aunt who lives in the past but can foretell the future.

He’s equally adept with plotting. Not a word in this nearly three-and-a-half-hour play is wasted. A seemingly random conversation about a radio program tells us everything we need to know about the characters having it. A funny scene with a live rabbit in Act I foreshadows devastating consequences in Act III.  

His brilliant script is brought to life by an equally brilliant cast lead by Donnelly and Paddy Considine who originated the roles of Caitlin and Quinn at London’s Royal Court Theatre, but everyone, down to a real-life baby (click here to read about the infants who share the role) is pitch perfect.

And the vibrant direction of Sam Mendes (click here to read a profile of him) fills the stage with movement, music and an underlying menace, subtly echoed in Nick Powell’s soundscape, Peter Mumford’s lighting and the slightly askew farmhouse that set designer Rob Howell has created.

The play is long, the authentic-sounding accents can at times be difficult to understand and a few naysayers have accused the play of indulging in stereotypes (click here to read one such objection) but I can’t remember the last time I walked out of a theater so exhilarated by what I'd just seen that I wanted to turn around and go right back in to see the whole thing all over again.

Alas, I didn’t feel that way when I left the Golden Theatre after seeing The Waverly Gallery. This is the third of the plays Lonergan wrote in the ‘90s to get a star-studded Broadway production over the last four years. I was so taken with last spring’s revival of Lobby Hero (click here for my review of that), that I was really looking forward to this one, especially because some critics have called it Lonergan’s masterwork.  

Lonergan has called the play his most personal because it’s based on the experiences he had with his grandmother who operated an art gallery in Greenwich Village in the 1970s until she began to suffer from dementia, forcing him and his mother to make tough decisions about the best way to care for her and to deal with the gallery that had become the main focus of her life.

Waverly Gallery ran for just 70 performances in 2000 but Eileen Heckart picked up the Lucille Lortel, Drama Desk, Obie and Outer Critics Circle awards for her portrayal of the declining Gladys Green. This time out, Elaine May, returning to the Broadway stage for the first time in 57 years, is destined to make a similar sweep. 

May, herself a comparatively youthful 86, turns in a performance that is heartbreaking in both its emotional and physical truthfulness as her Gladys becomes frailer, and more fearful about what is happening to her, in each scene.

There is also strong work from Joan Allen as her daughter and Lucas Hedges as her grandson (click here to read an interview with him).  And yet the play failed to move me. Maybe it’s because there have been so many books, movies and plays (including the devastating The Father) about the ravages of dementia since Lonergan wrote The Waverly Gallery that the material seemed overly familiar. 

Or maybe it’s because of the distracting directorial and design choices that Lila Neugebauer, a usually deft director, has made in her Broadway debut. Long pauses between each scene to allow stagehands to change the sets broke the momentum of the storytelling and sucked the energy out of the whole enterprise.

Meanwhile, the video projections of scenes from the Village in earlier years that Neugebauer and projection designer Tal Yarden chose to show during those intervals quickly grew monotonous and had very little to do with the plot.

But I’m in the minority on this one.  The Waverly Gallery has drawn raves. People who usually dismiss plays that deal with social issues, have touted this one. Perhaps that’s because the issue of aging directly affects most critics (older folks) and Broadway theatergoers (also older folks).

I’m no spring chicken myself. I’ve seen elderly loved ones lose both their physical and mental abilities.  And my own mortality is peeping around the corner. But I like to think none of that would matter and I’d still be moved if there were truly a great play. After all, I’m not Irish and I was knocked out by The Ferryman.