July 28, 2018

True Compassion for "Straight White Men"

What a difference a director can make. The first time I saw the dark comedy Straight White Men, it was directed by its playwright Young Jean Lee for a 2014 workshop production at the Public Theater and although Lee is a longtime downtown darling revered for her audaciousness, the result was dour and off-putting. But the new Second Stage production that opened this week at the company's Helen Hayes Theater under the vibrant direction of Anna D. Shapiro gave me an evening in the theater that was both thought-provoking and entertaining.

Lee, who with this production becomes the first Asian-American woman to have a play open on Broadway, is known for her deep dives into questions of race and gender (click here to read a great profile of her). She usually comes at these issues from the perspective of the oppressed. Her breakout piece The Shipment took on contemporary stereotypes about black people. Another one Untitled Feminist Show upended the ways in which women's bodies are stigmatized by featuring six nude performers ranging in size from petite to obese.

So it's clear that Lee is making a provocative statement just by turning her gaze on the hetero cis-gendered white guys who give her play its title. The four in Straight White Men are Ed, a widowed father in his 70s, and his three grown sons Matt, Jake and Drew who have gathered to celebrate Christmas.

The baby of the family Drew is a tenured professor and an award-winning novelist who flits from woman to woman. Middle brother Jake is a high-powered banker and recently divorced. But the eldest Matt has moved back in with their dad, works at a temp job, hasn’t dated in years and, despite his protestations that all is well, breaks into tears as they eat a Christmas Eve dinner of Chinese takeout.

The plot, such as it is, revolves around Matt's siblings’ bungling attempts to understand and cure his sadness. Lee has added a framing device and two new characters for this Broadway production. They are called the Persons in Charge and are played by the gender fluid performers Kate Bornstein and Ty Defoe who roam the audience before the show starts, introduce it with some TED Talk-style patter and then literally position the actors in place before each scene begins.

I think these gender-defying masters of ceremonies are supposed to symbolize the fact that our concept of masculinity is in flux but they seem redundant because when done right, as it's done here, Straight White Men makes that point on its own.

The play goes out of its way to establish that these guys are aware of the privilege that their race and gender give them. Drew solicitously suggests that Matt might be struggling with coming out. Jake's ex-wife is a black woman and his kids are mixed-race. In the first scene the two of them play a modified version of the board game Monopoly called Privilege in which the player who draws a white card has to pay a $200 penalty and go to jail.

And yet, in ways large (Jake mentors only whites at his bank) and small (the brothers communicate best when they manhandle one another) Straight White Men makes it clear that these men find it hard to break out of the roles that society has set for them. Which is why they're so horrified by Matt's feminine behavior: taking care of their dad, working a low-paying job, crying.

In short, it's a hard-eyed look at how men oppress themselves. But Shapiro keeps the play from being tendentious or tedious by emphasizing the genuine affection these men feel for one another and their earnest desire to be better than they are. This choice not to portray them as villains is an audacious act of compassion for liberal theatermakers to make in the current political climate.

Shapiro also doesn't shy away from using the innate charms of her actors. Lots of people are turning out to see the show because Drew is played by the movie star and avatar for today's straight white man Armie Hammer (click here for a very long profile about him) or because they liked the actors playing his siblings, Josh Charles and Paul Schneider, in their roles on the TV shows "The Good Wife" and "Parks and Recreation."

Under Shapiro's steady hand, all three actors appear totally comfortable onstage and deliver performances that go far beyond cameo status. But the biggest test to her mettle may have been the cast changes that occurred over the past few weeks when Tom Skerritt bowed out of playing Ed during rehearsals and was replaced by Denis Arndt, who bowed out during previews (click here to read about all of that).

Shapiro finally tapped the show's understudy Stephen Payne to play Ed. Payne isn't a name like his co-stars but he is additional proof that this director really knows what her play needs.

July 21, 2018

What's Missing in the Theater District?

It's summer vacation time and tourists, who account for over 60 percent of Broadway's ticket buyers, have been streaming into the city, eager to see shows ranging from tried-and-true war horses like Wicked and The Phantom of the Opera to newly Tony-minted hits Harry Potter and the Cursed Child and The Band's Visit. I'm happy for those theatergoers but I wish there was something else for them to see, something like a museum dedicated to Broadway.

My wistfulness isn't new. I've been yearning for such a place for years. But that longing intensified with a recent visit to Cooperstown, New York, where my husband K and I spent a full day at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum. I'm not much of a sports fan but by the time I made my way through all three floors of memorabilia and over 100 years of the sport's history, I found myself really wanting to see a ballgame and totally envious that a similar place doesn't exist for theater.

Now there are places in New York where you can find exhibits about Broadway history. Both the Museum of the City of New York and the New-York Historical Society have theatrical treasures in their collections and they occasionally display some of them, such as the museum did with its terrific survey of Yiddish theater in 2016 and the Historical Society with its tribute to the legendary theatrical cartoonist Al Hirschfeld in 2015.

The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts offers an even more steady diet of theater-related exhibits. The one it did on Noel Coward in 2012 was one of the most informative and entertaining museum shows of any kind I've ever seen. The Library's currently hosting a small tribute to Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein that will be on view through Sept. 25.

But none of these venues are in the Theater District so only the most determined tourists are likely to seek out their shows. The one geographical exception is the American Theatre Hall of Fame, which makes its home at the Gershwin Theatre, where Wicked has been playing for the past 15 years.

Founded in 1972 to honor the careers of significant theater professionals, the hall's members include actors like Audra McDonald and playwrights like Tina Howe, as well as producers like Daryl Roth and even theater critics like Ernie Schier, a  co-founder and the first chairman of the American Theater Critics Association (of which I'm a proud new member).

All of those folks in the previous paragraph were inducted into the Hall of Fame last fall and their names are now inscribed alongside past honorees on the walls of the Gershwin. I’m told that a collection of memorabilia from past winners is assembled there too. But my guess is that only the most die-hard theater fans even know that any of it is there. And most of them can't see those displays even if they know of their existence because the space is only accessible to people paying to see Wicked.

What the names on the wall and the artifacts on display need is a place of their own where Broadway and its history can be widely appreciated. The space doesn't have to be as big as the one baseball has in Cooperstown but it shouldn't be a cheesy throwaway either. The best museums today are interactive affairs that offer visitors a variety of ways to interact with the subject they're celebrating.

Wouldn't it be great if some of the crowds roaming through Times Square had a nearby place to go where they could see the costumes Patti LuPone and Laura Benanti wore in Gypsy, hear songs that were cut from the original production of In the Heights, see drafts of the script for A Raisin in the Sun or learn about the achievements of the names on that Hall of Fame wall?

A reasonable admission fee could make it enticing for even a casual theatergoer. Docents from all parts of the theater community could share their enthusiasm for live theater. And Broadway performers might even pop in every now and then to add extra excitement. Heads snapped around when the recently-retired outfielder Carlos Beltrán walked through one of the galleries the day K and I were at the Baseball Hall of Fame.

I'm willing to bet that a conveniently located museum that offered a truly visceral sense of Broadway (after all, who can put on a better show than Broadway folks) would have a lot of its attendees leaving the same way I left the baseball museum: dying to see the real thing.

July 14, 2018

"Cyprus Avenue" is a Dead-End Street

Edward Bond's drama Saved shocked London audiences in 1965 with its depiction of a group of disaffected young people stoning a baby to death. That harrowing scene set the bar for generations of British playwrights determined to show that they too were mad as hell at the world— and daring enough to say so. 

Thus, we've had racism, rape and torture in Sarah Kane's Blasted, maiming and matricide in Martin McDonagh's A Behanding in Spokane and The Beauty Queen of Leenane, nihilism and murder in Simon Stephen's Punk Rock, and now the multiple atrocities committed in David Ireland's Cyprus Avenue, a co-production of Dublin's Abbey Theatre and London’s Royal Court Theatre that is scheduled to finish up its run at The Public Theater on July 29.

Directed by the Royal Court's artistic director Vicky Featherstone, Cyprus Avenue chronicles the disintegration of a middle-aged guy named Eric, who was born and bred in Northern Ireland but defiantly identifies as British and harbors a hatred of the IRA so deep that it distorts every interaction he has, including those with the members of his immediate family.

I gasped right along with everyone else in the audience as Eric committed one horrific act after another. And the great actor Stephen Rea's characteristically committed portrayal of Eric had me straining to understand how such a seeming everyman could end up so tragically wrong.

But I also left the theater feeling a bit queasy, partially because of the production's somewhat graphic violence but even more so because of my tacit complicity in accepting it as entertainment. 

Let's face it, after 60 years of this kind of shock and awe, few new insights are being offered up. Instead, what we get is just the stage version of a slasher film masquerading as black comedy (and why do we continue to regard killing people as a laughing matter?) or absurdist commentary.

We're supposed to see this play as a cautionary tale about what happens when fundamentalist beliefs go too far. But Eric is presented as so deeply delusional (he actually uses a magic marker to draw a beard on the face of his infant granddaughter) that there's no real connection between his story and those of the real-life people who commit terrifying acts.

Cyprus Avenue unfolds in a series of Eric's conversations with his therapist, a Nigerian-British woman whom he calls a nigger. I know; I flinched at the word just as you probably did when you read it. And the comment is totally gratuitous, adding nothing to our understanding of what drives some people to hate. It's just there, like this play is, to say "look how daring I am."

July 7, 2018

"Skintight" is Just Barely Skin Deep

"I really identified with El," I overhead a seventysomething-year-old man telling his similarly-aged wife as we all walked out of Skintight, the new comedy by Joshua Harmon about older men wanting younger lovers that is playing at the Roundabout Theatre Company's Laura Pels Theatre. The wife took it better than I would have. "I can understand that," she said patting his arm empathetically. I understand it too but I can't say I like the sentiment or the play that motivated it.

El, as his 20-year-old lover Trey calls him, is Elliot Isaac, a world-famous fashion designer almost libelously modeled on the world-famous fashion designer Calvin Klein, who was widely reported a few years ago to have hooked up with a young hunk 47 years his junior (click here to read about that).

The play opens on the eve of  the Jewish Elliot's 70th birthday when his grown daughter Jodi, the child of his closeted-era marriage with a woman, arrives unexpectedly at his chic Greenwich Village townhouse. She says she's come to celebrate her dad's milestone but it's quickly obvious that she's there to seek solace about the fact that her ex-husband has gotten engaged to a Spin Cycle instructor half his age.

As you might guess, Jodi becomes even more unhappy when she discovers that Trey has moved in with Elliott. Also on hand are Jodi's nebbishy gay son Benjamin, who has an eye for Trey; and two servants, an older Hungarian housemaid and a younger butler, who once had a thing of his own with Elliot.

Harmon has drawn praise (including some from me) for his previous plays Bad Jews, Significant Other and Admissions, which played at Lincoln Center earlier this year. But the main draw for this production is the presence of Idina Menzel, who, in a rare non-singing role, has a great time playing Jodi (click here to read an interview with her).

Menzel's face on the poster and the Playbill has drawn criticism from folks who expected her character to have a larger role and narrative arc. But that bothered me less than the play's declared message, delivered in a long monologue by Elliot, that youth and beauty matter more than love or fealty when it comes to choosing a mate. "Hot is everything," Elliot tells Jodi.

The hell it is. I heat up at the sight of taut abs and tight butts as much as everyone else but they seem a damn shallow foundation on which to build a meaningful relationship, regardless of your gender identity or sexual orientation. There may be a defense for Elliot's philosophy but Skintight, filled with one-dimensional characters and specious arguments, makes a damn shallow case for it.

Fans of the play (and I can’t help noticing that most of the good reviews have come from men) will say that Harmon is just exploring society’s obsession with youth and beauty. But if that's the case why isn't some attempt made at a brief for those of us who think there are other reasons to love people too.

Still, Harmon has a way with snappy lines and he and his frequent collaborator director Daniel Aukin treat Skintight as something of a sex farce without doors, although a long staircase and a sleek couch are used to good comic effect. So is the character of Trey, played by newcomer Will Brittain, whose physical attributes are put on abundant display (click here to read an interview with him).

 Maybe it’s best, particularly for those of us over 40 (Harmon is 35) to think of Skintight as just mindless summer entertainment. Although if I were Harmon’s significant other, I’d be keeping a wary eye on the calendar.