February 24, 2018

"In the Body of the World" is an Ego Trip

It's been 20 years since the dance critic Joan Acocella declared that she wouldn't critique a piece that the choreographer Bill T. Jones had centered on terminally ill people and his own diagnosis of AIDS. While acknowledging the pain and suffering of Jones' subjects and of the artist himself, Croce said she found the work "intolerably voyeuristic." She seemed churlish to me at the time but I got what she meant as I sat wondering what I would write about the Manhattan Theatre Club's production of In the Body of the World, the new solo show in which Eve Ensler recounts her battle with uterine cancer: I'm sorry that Ensler had to go through such a harrowing experience but I'm also sorry that her show dragged me through it.

And I'd been looking forward to the show because I'd been such a fan of The Vagina Monologues, Ensler's 1996 breakthrough show about women and their bodies that has now been performed all over the world and caused Valentine's Day to be rebranded in feminist circles as V-Day.

But I also wanted to see the new work because it had been touted as a show about Ensler's efforts to help women in the Congo struggling to recover from the systematic rape that has become a brutal weapon in that country's many civil wars. Those efforts are in In the Body of the World but the body that gets the most attention is Ensler's own.

Under Diane Paulus' indulgent direction (click here to read an interview with the director), Ensler recounts in excruciating detail the examinations and treatments she underwent, including the bruising insensitivity of some doctors, the shame of a bursting colostomy bag and the almost paralyzing fear of dying. 

I'm happy that she seems to have gotten past all that. And I'm assuming it must be cathartic for her to relive these awful times in her life but isn't that what therapy is for? 

Ensler is a witty woman and there are genuine moments of levity (when a doctor recommends radiating her vagina, she wryly reminds him who she is) but other moments are forced. The man next to me and I silently bonded when we both refused to participate when she insisted that audience members stand up and join her in a victory dance. 

Yet what I resented most was Ensler's attempt to draw parallels between her experience and that of the Congolese women. I know that Ensler has worked diligently for disenfranchised women over the past two decades. So perhaps the metaphorical linkages between the personal and the political worked better in her 2013 memoir that shares a name with this show. 

But for me, equating the ordeal of a privileged white woman battling cancer when surrounded by supportive friends and cared for with the best treatments the American medical establishment has to offer with the trauma of being a poor black woman raped, mutilated and later shunned by her community comes off as the kind of cultural imperialism that Ensler herself usually abhors. 

February 17, 2018

Celebrating B&Me's 11th Anniversary

It's hard to believe that I've been writing this blog for 11 years but that's what the calendar tells me. As longtime readers may remember, I posted a "Curtain-Raiser" on Feb. 14, 2007 (I've always loved the kismet of its being Valentine's Day) and followed up two days later with a review of the off-Broadway production of In the Heights, which you can read here.

I've enjoyed every minute since then but this past year has been a particularly fortuitous—and busy—one. For starters, I was invited to be one of the revolving guest hosts on the long-running and Emmy-winning TV show "Theater Talk" (you can check out my first episode by clicking here).

And thanks to BroadwayRadio honcho James Marino, I've continued to fill in on the network's popular "This Week on Broadway" podcast when one of its two regulars commentators Peter Filichia or Michael Portantiere can't make it. But I also launched two podcasts of my own.

On "Tony Talk," a few of my friends and I tracked last year's theater awards season from the Pulitzer Prize for Drama straight through to Tony night and we're hoping to start up again as this year's theater season moves into the heat of the awards phase.

"Stagecraft" is my series of conversations with playwrights and musical book writers. I've talked to some really interesting folks from Sarah DeLappe, author of the Pulitzer finalist The Wolves to Kyle Jarrow, who wrote the book for the fun musical SpongeBob Squarepants. The podcast has been in hibernation during the New York theater season's winter lull but will return on BroadwayRadio in a few weeks (you can catch up with all the past episodes by clicking here).

Other highlights over the past 12 months have included the chance to talk at a panel hosted by the American Theatre Critics Association last fall and another sponsored by the Drama Desk at this year's BroadwayCon. And I also got to be one of the "experts" handicapping last year's Tony race on the awards site "Gold Derby;" I'm proud to say that my predictions put me in second place in a field of some pretty savvy folks. 

Plus there was the pleasure of seeing the number of followers for the magazines I curate on the Flipboard site climb to over 4,000, with half of them following the flagship publication "Broadway & Me: the Magazine," (you can find it by clicking here).

But all of these opportunities and experiences began here, with these posts. And so I remain grateful to those of you who've made the journey with me and to those of you who took the time to join it today. I look forward to continuing our conversations. 

In the meantime, I hope your Valentine's Day was as lovely as mine (I really am a lucky gal to have my husband K) and I hope too that the next year brings us lots of theater we all can love.

February 10, 2018

"[porto]" is a Romcom for Millennials to Love

[Porto],  the oddly punctuated romcom that opened this week at the McGinn/Cazale Theatre on the Upper West Side isn't for me. But I don't mean that as a knock against the show. Kate Benson, its young Brooklyn-based playwright, clearly aimed the show at her contemporaries, the demographic cohort we call Millennials.  And judging by the knowing laughter from the 20- and 30-somethings in the audience at the performance I attended, she's hit her intended mark.

A kind of latter-day everywoman, the titular character Porto is recovering from a relationship gone sour and finds solace by hanging out at her neighborhood bar, the kind of place where the bartender not only knows your name but what you like to drink and pours it unasked as soon as you walk in.

The bar is located in hipster Brooklyn and so it serves craft beers and artisanal sandwiches like foie gras sausage rolls. Its denizens are the sort of people who profess that their favorite parts of "Moby-Dick" are the sections on the logistics of whaling. I imagine all this self-referential satire went over really big when the show played a sold-out run at The Bushwick Star last year.

But now, the Women's Project Theater is seeking a larger audience for [porto] and promoting it as something of a female empowerment tale that explores the all-ages dilemma of how a woman can be in a romantic relationship without succumbing to gender stereotypes or surrendering her sense of self. 

Much of this is spelled out in a deadpan voice-over narration, delivered from offstage by Benson herself. But, at one point, actors playing Simone de Beauvoir and Gloria Steinem, take up the debate in an absurdist scene, amusingly directed by Lee Sunday Evans and imaginatively designed by Kristen Robinson. The fact that the uber-feminists writers are played by men puts an ironic spin on what they say but I can't tell how cynical it's all meant to be.

There's also a tongue-in-check quality to most of the characters, who are named for their jobs—Doug the Bartender and Raphael the Waiter—or for their drinks of choice—Hennepin (the guy that Porto attempts to hook up with) and Dry Sac (her anorexic girlfriend who despite her name seems to favor drinking vodka on an empty stomach, which is played for cheap laughs). 

The one exception to these one-note characters is Porto, (although I'm still trying to figure out what the brackets in the title mean). She is presented as an average-looking woman with an above-average intelligence, a healthy sex drive and a quick wit. In short, she is, as she notes, the kind of woman who usually plays the sidekick in traditional romcoms. 

But Julia Sirna-Frest makes her the anchor of this one. And she gives Porto (and [porto]) such sincere vulnerability that you almost don't need to be a millennial to appreciate it.

February 3, 2018

"Fire and Air" Fails to Ignite Any Passion

The creative ferment at the beginning of the last century rivaled that of the Renaissance. Painters like Pablo Picasso and Vasily Kandisnky restructured painting. Composers like Claude Debussy and Igor Stravinsky reconfigured sound.  

In the midst of it all, working with all of them, was Sergei Diaghilev, the scion of a wealthy Russian family who had little innate talent of his own but possessed an unparalleled affinity for art that lead to his becoming a visionary impresario and the subject of Fire and Air, the new play by Terrence McNally that opened this week at Classic Stage Company.

Diaghilev created the legendary Ballets Russes, championed such dancers as Vaslav Nijinsky and George Balanchine and commissioned such scores as "The Firebird" and "The Rite of Spring." And he spent oodles of money to transform this work into such daringly innovative productions that audiences sometimes rioted when they saw them. 

An unabashed hedonist, he also loved good food, rare books and beautiful men. In short, Diaghilev is a great subject for a play about what it takes to make great art. Which makes it even sadder that Fire and Air isn't a good show.

McNally says he's been working on it for years and had originally envisioned a tribute as large and colorful as the man himself. But, under the direction of the notorious minimalist John Doyle, the show has been trimmed to just six actors who trudge through Diaghilev's life on a nearly bare set that Doyle has underdecorated with two large mirrors and five gilt-colored chairs (click here to read about the show's evolution).

Bits and pieces of Diaghilev's biography—his fear of drowning, his fondness for dandyish clothes, a long-running relationship with his cousin—are cited (actually recited since the play is more tell than show) but they pass by in a stream of scenes that are no more involving than reading an excerpt from Diaghilev's Wikipedia bio would be. There's no sense of why we should care about this man and no real conflict to pull us into his story.

McNally does attempt to build a narrative around Diaghilev's tempestuous relationship with Nijinsky but, at least as staged by Doyle, that consists mainly of Nijinsky striking pretty poses and Diaghilev alternately pouting and shouting.

The actors do the best with what they've been given. Douglas Hodge, a Tony winner for his turn as Albin in the 2010 revival of La Cage aux Folles, does even more—too much more. Perhaps sensing how inert the show is, Hodge tries to liven it up by emoting as though he were in a Diaghilev-era melodrama. Several times, he literally swoons to the floor. My theatergoing buddy Bill appreciated his efforts. I was distracted by the teeth marks in the scenery.

James Cusati-Moyer as Nijinsky and Jay Amstrong Johnson as Leonid Massine, come off better because their main function is to look beautiful, which they both do. But the prodigiously talented John Glover as Diaghilev's cousin, Marsha Mason as his nanny and Marin Mazzie as his patron are wasted, functioning more as a Greek chorus than as distinctive characters.

There were far too many moments when I lost track of what role each was supposed to be serving or even where we were in Diaghilev's life. And I mean that literally. The action moves from Paris to Venice, with other stops along the way but I'll be damned if I could tell where we were.

So instead of trying to figure that out, I sat there imagining all the wonderful things Diaghilev and his compatriots might have done with a story as potentially rich as this one.