May 26, 2018

Taking Time Out, Sort Of...

No show reviews this week.  And no real good excuse for not doing one, except that the weather is suddenly beautiful and I feel like kicking back and taking it easy. But I haven't been entirely slothful. As you may have heard, I (along with the terrific theater writer Jeremy Gerard) have been named a contributor to Broadway News and my first column was posted Thursday morning.  You can check it out here.

Later that day, my husband K and I went to the Outer Critics Circle Awards dinner. Since the winners are announced before the ceremony, the honorees come prepared with great speeches. Norbert Leo Butz, a winner for his delightful turn as Alfred P. Doolittle in Lincoln Center Theater's revival of My Fair Lady, should probably get another award for getting things off to an hilarious start by thanking a litany of pain relievers for their support in making his high-energy dance numbers possible. Others gave speeches that were also funny, heartwarming but, most of all, genuine in their appreciation for the recognition—and for being able to do what they love. You can find out more about the ceremony here.

And then this morning, BroadwayRadio posted the latest episode of my Stagecraft podcast in which I talk to playwrights about their shows currently running both on and off Broadway.  My guest this week is Clare Barron, whose play Dance Nation has been drawing raves and has been extended at Playwrights Horizons through July 1. Barron is just as entertaining and irreverent as her play is and you can hear what she has to say by clicking here.

I'll return to regular posting next week.  In the meantime, hope you both enjoy the holiday weekend and take a little time out to remember and appreciate its true significance as a time to honor those who gave their lives for this country, whose principles, particularly in the most challenging times, are worth defending.

May 19, 2018

The Unabashed Confessions of a "Harry Potter and the Cursed Child" Fangirl

My name is Jan and I'm a Harry Potter fangirl. Seriously. I mean I pre-ordered the published script for Harry Potter and the Cursed Child on Amazon, downloaded the Kindle version on the day it came out last July, devoted a couple of uninterrupted hours to reading it that same afternoon and then set up a Google alert to notify me when I could buy tickets to the stage version when the show transferred from London's West End to Broadway's newly renovated Lyric Theatre.

I fell under Harry Potter's spell 20 years ago when the first of the seven books in J.K. Rowling's series about the education of a boy wizard was published in the U.S. I clearly wasn't the intended audience but its enchanted world swept me up and I turned my teenage niece Jennifer onto the book. We went through the rest of the series together, reading each installment as soon as it came out. We watched the movies that made Daniel Radcliffe a star too, or at least most of them since the final ones grew a little tedious.

So both Jennifer, now herself the mother of a two-year-old, and I were excited and nervous about the prospect of seeing our beloved Harry's world brought to life on a stage. We left totally delighted by what we'd seen.

Playwright Jack Thorne, working off a story devised along with Rowling, and director John Tiffany have created a two-part, five-hour saga that extends the coda at the end of the final book. It's a smart idea, playing directly to the Gen Yers, who grew up reading and loving the Potter books. Like them, Harry is now an adult. He's married with three kids and working for the Ministry of Magic, where his old friend Hermione is the top minister and married to their old pal Ron.

The show opens with the three friends and Harry's wife Ginny at the train station, preparing to send their own kids off to the wizarding school Hogwarts. Hermione and Ron's daughter Rose can't wait to start there but Harry's middle son Albus, named for the famed former headmaster of the school, is more reluctant.

 A loner, Albus has never adjusted to being the son of a famous father. That creates a bond between him and another lonely boy wrestling with his family's legacy, Scorpius Malfoy, the son of Harry's one-time nemesis Draco who is in disgrace for having been a follower of the evil wizard Voldemort, whom Harry vanquished at the end of the books.

The play's plot is a convoluted tale about the two boys' clumsy attempts to use a time traveling machine to change a tragic incident in the past. It's hard even for Potterheads, who cheer loudly whenever a familiar name or place is mentioned, to follow what's going on. But plot is just a maguffin for Rowling who has always been far more interested in the atmospheric setting of the world she created and the emotional connections between the people who populate it.

Thorne (click here to read an interview with him) and Tiffany remain true to that spirit.  But even audience members who come without knowing the difference between Hogwarts and Azkaban (a guide and glossary are included in the program to help out) can appreciate the magic they've created onstage.

Characters disappear right in front of our eyes. Others fly through the air, without any apparent support. Ghostly apparitions float throughout the theater. The how-did-they-do-that sleight of hand was crafted by the illusionist Jamie Harrison and is supportively lit by Neil Austin. Meanwhile, the master movement maker Steven Hoggett choreographs such brilliant sequences that he picked up one of the show's 10 Tony nominations even though Harry Potter and the Cursed Child isn't a musical.

The show seems destined to pick up a bunch of Tonys when they're given out on June 10. Some critics are gripping that it doesn't deserve the prize for Best Play because, they say, the sensational stagecraft obscures a sappy story. But I was moved by the struggles of the play's fathers and sons to connect with one another. And I thought the final scene was a perfect way to end the saga. 

Much of the credit for that must go to the show's top-notch cast. And although it's unfair to single out any of the principal players, I'm going to do it anyway and cheer Anthony Boyle who brings both humor and poignancy to the role of the towheaded Scorpius and is a frontrunner for the Tony for best actor in a featured role (click here to read an interview with him).

I'm also cheering Noma Dumezweni's wise and warm performance as Hermione. Some fans complained when Dumezweni, a black Brit of South African descent, was originally cast in the role but the noise quieted down after Rowling tweeted her wholehearted support for that decision and Dumezweni's Tony-nominated performance should please all but the most retrograde naysayers (click here to read more about her).

The offstage experience is fun too. Some audience members—both kids and adults—show up in costume and parade around the lobby as their favorite characters. And I was even charmed by the renovation of the Lyric, which use to look cold and unwelcoming but now resembles a cozy Victorian-era theater. However some people have complained about problems with the narrow steps in the center aisle that have caused a few audience members, including the 93-year-old critic John Simon, to fall (click here to read about that) so watch where you walk if you go.

Although going to see Harry Potter and the Cursed Child isn't easy either. The producers are using a verified ticketing system so that purchasers have to register and then, after being approved, have to join an online queue to buy tickets when blocks of them are released for sale. The tickets aren't cheap either, since you have to buy both parts. And yet, it's money well spent. I've already got seats to see it again later this summer. Like I said, I'm a fan.

May 12, 2018

"A Brief History of Women" and "Summer and Smoke" May Be Minor Pieces by Master Writers But They're Still Worth Seeing

We theater junkies can be a demanding lot. And sometimes we let our pursuit of the excellent get in the way of our enjoying the very good. At least that's how I've been feeling about two shows by master playwrights that recently opened to middling reviews. I, too, had carps about them and yet I also left each theater grateful that I'd had the chance to see each show. Here's why:

A Brief History of Women: Alan Ayckbourn has a reputation for clever works like Absurd Person Singular and The Norman Conquests that play with form while tickling the funny bone. But the laughs in A Brief History of Women, Aykbourn's  81st play over a nearly 60-year career, tend more toward rueful chuckles than the out-and-out guffaws that so many of his other plays elicit. Or as the couple sitting next to me lamented, "it isn't as funny as he usually is."

Still, Ayckbourn, who also directed this production which is playing as part of the Brits Off Broadway festival at the 59E59 Theaters through May 27, hasn't lost his knack for poking behind the stiff-upper-lip facade of Britain's middle and upper classes. This time he does it through the changing fortunes of an English manor house and the local everyman Anthony Spates whose life intersects with it from his service as a teenaged footman to the noble family that owns the house in 1925 through his tenure as the manager of the place and the caretaker of its legacy when the building becomes a posh hotel in the 1980s.

There are amusing bits along the way, most of them delivered with deliciously hammy relish by Russell Dixon, who, like most of the six-member cast, assumes different roles as the house's function changes over the years. But it is Antony Eden's quietly understated performance as Spates that anchors the play and sent me away thinking back over the places I've lived and the people who filled those empty buildings and also my heart. As I tweeted when I got home, A Brief History of Women may not be top-shelf Ayckbourn but even generic Ayckbourn has what it takes to hit the spot.

Summer and Smoke: As big a Tennessee Williams fan as I consider myself to be, I had never seen Summer and Smoke until my friend Ellie and I recently attended the Transport Group production that is playing at Classic Stage Company through May 25. I'm not sure it's the best introduction to this play because director Jack Cummings III has created such a minimalist production that characters actually have to mime eating ice cream cones and playing cards because there are no props or set, except for two paintings and a few chairs.

But what the play does have is yet another glorious performance by Marin Ireland who portrays Alma Winemiller, the restless but repressed daughter of a minister in a small Mississippi Delta town during the early years of the 20th century. Alma, whose name she likes to tell people is Spanish for soul, yearns for both a more cultured life and for the affections of her next door neighbor John, the dissolute son of the town doctor.

Nathan Darrow is alluring as John, whose inner turmoil rivals Alma's and who is drawn to her but willing to settle for something less than the challenge she offers. There are other good performances too, including Tina Johnson as the town busybody and Barbara Walsh as Alma's mother, another restless woman who is locked in a bad marriage that has driven her mad.

But the play's success rests on Alma's shoulders. The character has often been played by an actress pretending to be homely but Ireland's Alma is simultaneously aware of her beauty and frightened of it and of what the feelings inside her might unleash if fully acknowledged. This take on the roll, the acquiescent undoing of an intelligent and sensual woman, deepens its poignancy. Some scholars say Alma was Williams' favorite female character and Ireland makes it easy to see whyand why it's worth seeing this production.

May 6, 2018

An Ironic Intermission

The irony is that I've been seeing so many shows lately that I've fallen behind on just about everything else and so find that I don't have the time to tell you about them. I'm hoping to climb out of this hole soon—and I'm hoping you'll be there when I do.