April 28, 2018

...And We're Off Into Awards Season 2018

Let the games begin.  The spring theater season officially closed Thursday night with the opening of The Iceman Cometh, which means the Tony nominators will be toting up their scorecards this weekend, gather on Monday to vote and then announce this year's nominees for Broadway's top prizes on Tuesday, ushering in five weeks of genteel, but still fierce, campaigning.

But awards season actually began at the beginning of April when the nominations were announced for the Lucille Lortel Awards, which honor off-Broadway shows. Then two weeks later, the Pulitzer Prize for Drama was given to the young playwright Martyna Majok for Cost of Living, her terrific drama about people living with disabilities (click here to read my review of that play and here to read a recent interview I did with the playwright).

Two days after that came the nominations from the Drama League. And this past week the Outer Critics Circle and the Drama Desk announced theirs.  Parsing all those lists and figuring out which shows in this somewhat lackluster season got the biggest embrace—and which the sharpest cold shoulders—could make a person cross-eyed. 

Heck, even laying out who runs each group and which kinds of shows they honor is a challenge.  Luckily, "Playing for Prizes: America's Award for Best Drama and Best Musical," a nifty little book by Tim Donahue that I've been reading, does that hard work and so I don't have to (if you're interested, you can check it out by clicking here). 

And if you're as crazy about this stuff, as I am, you also can keep track of the odds for this year's Tony race on the Gold Derby website, where a foolhardy bunch of theater fanatics (including me) try to handicap the winners by clicking here.

Meanwhile, as a literal card-carrying member of the Outer Critics Circle, I'm just going to list all the OCC nominees (some of which I enthusiastically endorse, others which I'm resignedly going along with) and then I'm going to try to catch up with the shows I still haven't seen so I can improve my odds on Gold Derby:

The Children
Farinelli and the King
Harry Potter and the Cursed Child

Escape to Margaritaville
Mean Girls
Prince of Broadway
SpongeBob SquarePants

*we celebrated The Band's Visit as the Outstanding New Off-Broadway Musical last year so it's ineligible this year

Cost of Living
The Low Road
Mlima’s Tale

Cruel Intentions
Desperate Measures
Jerry Springer- The Opera
Miss You Like Hell
Woody Sez

(Broadway or Off-Broadway)
Tina Fey Mean Girls
Quiara Alegría Hudes Miss You Like Hell
Kyle Jarrow SpongeBob SquarePants
Peter Kellogg Desperate Measures

(Broadway or Off-Broadway)

Yolanda Adams, Steven Tyler & Joe Perry of Aerosmith, Sara Bareilles, Jonathan Coulton, Alex Ebert ofEdward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeros, The Flaming Lips, Lady Antebellum, Cyndi Lauper & Rob Hyman, John Legend, Panic! At the Disco, Plain White T’s, They Might Be Giants, T.I., Domani & Lil’C, Jonathan Coulton and Tom Kitt, SpongeBob SquarePants
David Friedman & Peter Kellogg Desperate Measures

Imogen Heap Harry Potter and the Cursed Child
Erin McKeown and Quiara Alegría Hudes Miss You Like Hell
Kristen Anderson-Lopez & Robert Lopez Frozen

(Broadway or Off-Broadway)

Angels in America
Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train
Lobby Hero
Three Tall Women

(Broadway or Off-Broadway)

My Fair Lady
Once on This Island
Pacific Overtures

Jo Bonney Cost of Living
Marianne Elliott Angels in America
Patrick Marber Travesties
Joe Mantello Three Tall Women
John Tiffany Harry Potter and the Cursed Child

Michael Arden Once on This Island
Bill Castellino Desperate Measures Tina Landau SpongeBob SquarePants
Casey Nicholaw Mean Girls
Bartlett Sher My Fair Lady

Camille A. Brown Once on This Island
Christopher Gattelli My Fair Lady
Christopher Gattelli SpongeBob SquarePants
Steven Hoggett Harry Potter and the Cursed Child
Justin Peck Carousel

(Play or Musical)

Miriam Buether Three Tall Women
Myung Hee Cho In the Body of the World
Christine Jones Harry Potter and the Cursed Child
Michael Yeargan My Fair Lady
David Zinn SpongeBob SquarePants

(Play or Musical)

Katrina Lindsay Harry Potter and the Cursed Child
Clint Ramos Once on This Island
Paloma Young Time and the Conways
David Zinn SpongeBob SquarePants
Catherine Zuber My Fair Lady

(Play or Musical)

Kevin Adams SpongeBob SquarePants
Neil Austin Harry Potter and the Cursed Child
Paule Constable Angels in America
Paul Russell Farinelli and the King
Lap Chi Chu Mlima’s Tale

(Play or Musical)

Tim Reid 1984
Finn Ross Frozen
Finn Ross In the Body of the World
Finn Ross & Adam Young Mean Girls
Finn Ross & Ash Woodward Harry Potter and the Cursed Child

(Play or Musical)

Gareth Fry Harry Potter and the Cursed Child
Kate Marvin [Porto]
Fitz Patton Napoli, Brooklyn
Marc Salzberg My Fair Lady
Darron L. West Mlima’s Tale

Jason Robert Brown Prince of Broadway
Tom Kitt SpongeBob SquarePants
AnnMarie Milazzo & Michael Starobin Once on This Island
Jonathan Tunick Carousel
Claire Van Kampen Farinelli and the King

Sean Carvajal Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train
Andrew Garfield Angels in America
Tom Hollander Travesties
Gregg Mozgala Cost of Living
Michael Urie The Government Inspector

MaameYaa Boafo School Girls; Or, the African Mean Girls Play
Jessica Hecht Admissions
Glenda Jackson Three Tall Women
Lauren Ridloff Children of a Lesser God
Katy Sullivan Cost of Living

Harry Hadden-Paton My Fair Lady
Joshua Henry Carousel
David M. Lutken Woody Sez
Conor Ryan Desperate Measures
Ethan Slater SpongeBob SquarePants

Lauren Ambrose My Fair Lady
Erika Henningsen Mean Girls
Hailey Kilgore Once On This Island
Taylor Louderman Mean Girls
Patti Murin Frozen

Anthony Boyle Harry Potter and the Cursed Child
Johnny Flynn Hangmen
Nathan Lane Angels in America
David Morse The Iceman Cometh
Paul Sparks At Home at the Zoo

Jamie Brewer Amy and the Orphans
Denise Gough Angels in America
Harriet Harris The Low Road
Laurie Metcalf Three Tall Women
Mary Testa The Government Inspector

Norbert Leo Butz My Fair Lady
Alexander Gemignani Carousel
Gavin Lee SpongeBob SquarePants 

Nick Wyman Desperate Measures
Tony Yazbeck Prince of Broadway

Kerry Butler Mean Girls
Lindsay Mendez Carousel
Lauren Molina Desperate Measures
Ashley Park Mean Girls
Emily Skinner Prince of Broadway

Billy Crudup Harry Clarke
Eve Ensler In the Body of the World
Alison Fraser Squeamish
John Lithgow Stories By Heart
Sharon Washington Feeding the Dragon

(Presented for an American play, preferably by a new playwright)
Kate Benson [Porto]
Jocelyn Bioh School Girls; Or, the African Mean Girls Play
Lindsey Ferrentino Amy and the Orphans
Meghan Kennedy Napoli, Brooklyn
Dominique Morisseau Pipeline

April 22, 2018

My Last "King Lear"...At Least for A While

Traditions says that King Lear is the most difficult role in the English-speaking theatrical canon. So as soon as actors hit their 50s, they start itching to take on the challenge. Which explains why there always seem to be so many productions of King Lear. And it also explains why I've seen so many of them, including the Royal Shakespeare Company's current one, now running at BAM's Harvey Theater though next weekend.

I'd told myself that after having seen Derek Jacobi, Kevin Kline, Frank Langella, John Lithgow, Joseph Marcell, Christopher Plummer, Sam Waterston, and some others I can't even remember, I was going to give the play a rest. But when my theatergoing buddy Bill suggested that we see Antony Sher's interpretation of Shakespeare's mad and foolish king, I found I couldn't resist.

Besides being a celebrated Shakespearean actor, Sher is also a fine writer who has chronicled his experiences playing such iconic characters as Falstaff and Richard III. So I ordered tickets and a copy of his latest book, "The Year of the Mad King, which talks about his take on Lear (click here to listen to an interview with the actor). Alas, the new memoir, which focuses more on Sher's personal life than his preparation for King Lear, is the weakest of his books and the production isn't much stronger.

To be fair, King Lear has been done so much that it's hard to come up with anything new, as the book "Performing Lear," an analysis of 30 or more of the most significant performances over the last 70 years, makes clear (click here to see more about that book). Still, Gregory Doran, the RSC's artistic director and Sher's husband, tries.

Doran has put together some striking set pieces, including a majestic entry for Lear at the beginning of the play and a memorable scene in which a bunch of the king's rowdy knights abuse the hospitality of his eldest daughter Goneril, strengthening the case for why she and her sister Regan might be fed up with their father.

And the director has thoroughly integrated the cast (the prime roles of Lear's faithful youngest daughter Cordelia and his minister Gloucester's duplicitous son Edmund are both played by black actors). He's also come up with staging innovations that uses supernumeraries to play the wretched residents of Lear's kingdom and a big Plexiglas box that's probably supposed to symbolize something but, in all honesty, I can't figure out what.

Sher's Lear makes his first appearance sitting on a throne in that transparent box, which is initially brought in on the shoulders of four brawny litter carriers. Dwarfed by the large fur-trimmed robe he's wearing, this king might be mistaken for a little boy playing dress up if not for his gray beard.

The combination of the character's childish petulance and his dread of aging and his own mortality are used to fuel his decision to divide his kingdom among his three daughters, determining how much each will get on the basis of the declarations of love for him he forces them to give. This sets off the chain of jealousies and rivalries that will lead to the ruin of them all.

As you might expect from an RSC production, nearly everyone, from Sher to the actors playing the servants, speaks the Bard's lines beautifully. I admired them for it, particularly Paapa Essiedu, the RSC's sleek rising star who infuses Edmund with a disaffected disdain for both his enemies and his allies (click here to read more about the actor who is also slated to play Hamlet at the Kennedy Center next month). 

But none of the performances made me feel anything even though this is perhaps the saddest of Shakespeare's plays. That's no doubt because Doran and Sher have deliberately downplayed the histrionics that have enlivened—or overwhelmed—other Lear productions. 

It may be a smart choice but watching this King Lear made me realize that sometimes, particularly with an old warhorse like this one, a little fanfare helps. And although the timing is unfortunate since the Bard's birthday is tomorrow, it also made me think that it may be time for me to take a break from Shakespeare. So I'm declaring a six-month moratorium on seeing any of his plays.  We'll see how long I can resist.

April 14, 2018

A Totally Winning Revival of "Lobby Hero"

Few things make me happier than seeing my husband K enjoy a good laugh while he's watching a show. And so that alone would be reason enough for me to cheer the revival (and Broadway debut) of Kenneth Lonergan's Lobby Hero, which is now running at Second Stage Theater's newly renovated The Hayes Theater through May 13 (click here to read more about the renovation).

However, there are also other reasons to cheer on this comic tragedy's deep dive into the complexities of power, morality and loyalty. Set in the lobby of an apartment building, it explores the interconnecting stories of a sad-sack security guard named Jeff, his by-the-book supervisor William and two beat cops, the macho veteran Bill and his female rookie partner Dawn.

Two things tie this foursome together: sexual rivalries over Dawn and a horrendous crime that involves a relative of William's. Now, I know none of this sounds funny but Lonergan has an ear for dialog and a taste for the ribald that rivals that of Stephen Adly Giurgis or David Mamet. His characters are laugh-out-loud funny even when they're just trading remarks about something as prosaic as who should sign the building's guest book.

But the primary question they're dealing with is deadly serious: is it more moral to tell the truth or to lie when you know that the system is stacked for or against someone because of their gender or the color of their skin?  The characters know that neither option is entirely right and the achievement of this production is that it makes the viewer feel just as conflicted.

I saw Lobby Hero when it played at Playwrights Horizons back in the spring of 2001 and I wasn't all that impressed. Maybe it's all the recent stories about workplace harassment or the increased attention to the legal system's mistreatment of black men but I responded viscerally this time. I actually squirmed in my seat as the characters made their choices, whether those decisions reflected good intentions or naked self-interest.

Much of the credit for that must go to director Trip Cullman who remains surefooted as he walks the tricky path Lonergan has laid out. Cullman is aided by David Rockwell's revolving set, which subtly mimics the characters' and the audience's shifting perspectives; and by a crackerjack cast, drawn primarily from movies and TV but still displaying impressive stage chops.

Most of the media attention has gone to Chris Evans, taking a break from his role as Captain America in the Marvel superhero movies to play the alpha-male Bill. It's a juicy role, full of swagger and bravado and Evans has fun with it. But he's stage wise enough to know that he could upset the delicate balance Lonergan and Cullman have established and so he doesn't push too hard (click here to read an interview with the actor).

Despite a tendency to talk a little too fast, Brian Tyree Henry, best known as the rapper Paper Boi on the FX sitcom "Atlanta," brings a world-weary naturalism to William that grounds the play in the realities of how difficult it can be to break out of the role that society so often assigns black men.

The British actress Bel Powley is a touch too wide-eyed for me, although that quality makes Dawn's determination to hold her own with the boys all the more poignant.

But it's Michael Cera who emerges as first among equals in this quartet. Skinny and nerdy looking, Cera has made a career out of playing beta-male losers. Here, his Jeff is the quintessential Lonergan protagonist who is eager to be seen as one of the guys but aware enough to know that he never will be.

It's an award-worthy performance and Lonergan has already signed up the actor, who also starred in the revival of This is Our Youth in 2014, for this fall's revival of his play Waverly Gallery, which will also mark Elaine May's return to the stage for the first time in 19 years, which is something else to cheer.

April 7, 2018

Against the Odds With "The Lucky Ones"

We're in the midst of an American musicals renascence so vibrant that even people who can't name the Big Five R&H shows know the names Lin-Manuel Miranda, Pasek & Paul and Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Bobby Lopez, all of whom have hit shows currently running on Broadway. 

Less well-known but also determined to rejuvenate the art form are Abigail and Shaun Bengson, the husband-and-wife duo who perform under the name The Bengsons and who've had three musicals produced within the past year, the most recent being The Lucky Ones, which Ars Nova opened at The Connelly Theater on the Lower East Side last week.

Weaned more on indie rock than the show tunes that influence the uptown musicals makers, The Bengsons create hard-charging shows hewn from their own life stories. I first saw them last November when their show Hundred Days enjoyed a well-received run at New York Theatre Workshop.

Backed by the members of the Bengson's touring band, Hundred Days (which received a Lucille Lortel nomination this past week) recounted the story of the couple's meeting, falling in love, wiggling out of the relationships they already had and moving in together within two days and then spending the remaining 98 fearing that it was all too good to be true and that one or the other would die as a form of retribution. 

Eventually—no spoiler alert since they're both alive and well and actually telling the tale onstage themselves—they find the courage to tie the knot and live happily ever after.

The Bengson's music isn't really my kind of music (there's a similarity to the songs that make it hard for me to remember them individually) and I'm usually turned off by solipsistic narratives that block out the rest of the world the way theirs do. But I found myself fascinated by Hundred Days. 

I was intrigued by the interplay between Abigail's frenetic intensity and banshee-inflected vocals and Shaun's even-keeled mellowness and easy virtuosity on the guitar and keyboards. And I wanted to see what else they might do and so I bought tickets for The Lucky Ones as soon as they went on sale.

Its story, drawn from a tragic incident in Abigail's early teen years, is personal too but this time the canvass is larger, making room for extended family members. 

A cast of 16—lead by Myra Lucretia Taylor as Abigail's mom, Maryann Plunkett as her aunt, Damon Daunno as her charismatic but unstable cousin and Adina Verson as the outsider he falls for—play Abigail's family members and classmates at the progressive prep school her parents once ran.

As she did with Hundred Days, the playwright Sarah Gancher helps shape the memories into the musical's book (click here to listen to an interview I did with the writer for the "Stagecraft" podcast I do for BroadwayRadio) but the narrative remains loose-limbed. It's more tell than actual show.

All three of the Bengson musicals (including Sundown, Yellow Moon, which had a short run at Ars Nova last year) have been directed by Anne Kauffman, the new co-artistic director of Encores! Off-Center, who leans into their material instead of trying to force it into a more conventional production.

The band in both Hundred Days and The Lucky Ones play onstage, the set looks like a smaller version of the metal-pipe jungle gym from last Sunday's televised version of Jesus Christ Superstar and Abigail and Shaun address the audience directly between musical numbers.

There's also galvanic movement choreographed by the couple's friend Sonya Tayeh, one of the best choreographers on TV's "So You Think You Can Dance," who is moving more and more into musical theater.  

So The Lucky Ones has a lot of things going for it, particularly for adventurous theatergoers. And while its parts may not add up to a convincing whole, I still feel lucky to have seen it.