September 29, 2018

"Scraps" And "The Revolving Cycles Truly And Steadily Roll’d" Offer Proof That Plays About Assaults On Black Lives Matter

Ever since Aeschylus wrote the first Greek tragedies back in the fifth century B.C., playwrights have been creating works that wrestle with the pressing issues of their time. One of the most troubling issues of the last few years has been the murder of young black men by law enforcement officers. Those tragedies inspired the Black Lives Matter movement and now they've spawned a crop of audacious plays. 

I saw two of them—Scraps and The Revolving Cycles Truly and Steadily Roll’d—earlier this month. Each has its faults and they won't appeal to all theatergoers but both knocked me out with their commitment to confronting the subject and their fearlessness in breaking established forms to do it.

Geraldine Inoa, the inaugural winner of a fellowship for “unsung voices” created by the TV writer and producer Shonda Rhimes, focuses on the aftermath of a police shooting in Scraps, which closes at The Flea Theater in TriBeCa tonight.

Scraps opens four months after Forest Winthrop, a college football player home during a school break, was shot to death by a cop while he was running to the store to buy diapers for his infant son. Traumatized by Forest’s death, his friends struggle to cope in various ways.

Aisha, the mother of his child, can barely suppress the rage she feels toward white people and even toward Forest, whom she had cautioned to be careful. Their neighbor Jean-Baptise seeks relief in smoking pot and composing rap lyrics about racial oppression. Forest’s best friend Calvin tries to deal with his grief by assimilating as much as he possibly can into the Ivy League world of Columbia University where he’s a scholarship student.

But most affected is Aisha’s sister Adriana, who has spiraled into a depression so severe that she’s given up going to her classes at NYU and barely washes or dresses in anything other than pajamas. The biggest fear they all share is that a wrong step by any of them could result in another premature death, a concern heightened when a menacing white cop appears on their block. 

The second half of this 90-minute drama skips ahead a few years and becomes surrealistic as Inoa plunges into the nightmares of Forest’s now eight-year-old son who is trying to understand the cause of his father's death and who is terrified that the same thing will happen to him.

The boy is played by the adult actress Bryn Carter, who, under the finely-edged direction of The Flea’s artistic director Nigel Smith, gives a devastating performance as does the entire cast, all members of The Flea’s resident company The Bats (click here to read more about the making of the production).  

I want to see all of them again and I plan on seeing the other two plays about race that The Flea is featuring in what it's calling its “Color Brave” season.

The Playwrights Realm, the company dedicated to supporting playwrights at the beginning of their careers, has opened its new season with Jonathan Payne’s The Revolving Cycles Truly and Steadily Roll’d, which is playing at The Duke on 42nd Street through Oct. 6.

Payne’s story centers around the quest of a street kid named Karma to find her foster brother who has been missing for weeks. They've grown up in The Oblong, a poor and dangerous neighborhood whose most successful resident is the local undertaker because so many young people there die before their time.

Taking more than a few pages from Brecht's playbook, Payne names the mortician Profit and blames the Oblong's woes on the ruthlessness of capitalism. He also breaks the fourth wall with direct interactions with the audience. During one meta-moment an actor steps out of character to complain about what the playwright has him saying and doing.

The result is a play that's even messier and more in-your-face than Scraps. It isn't the kind of theater I usually like but I was fascinated by the passionate intensity with which Payne, who has a day job as a social worker, makes his case about the not-so benign neglect of these young people.

Under Awoye Timpo's energetic direction, the cast, most of them playing multiple roles, transforms his thesis into vivid life.  Kara Young is particularly effective as Karma, capturing the simultaneous toughness and vulnerability that put so many black youths at risk.

Eager to engage with their subject matter—and to force audiences to do so as well—both Scraps and Revolving Cycles undercut some of their power by trying to do too much. But this is the kind of misstep nearly all starting playwrights make and in these cases, the talent is sharp enough and the messages important enough for the errors to be forgiven. 

Each show made some people in the audience around me visibly uncomfortable. But shaking people up is what they intend to do. I've tweeted and Facebooked about these shows but I wish I had written here about them sooner because, to paraphrase a wise man, attention to plays like these should be paid.

September 22, 2018

An "Uncle Vanya" That's Truly Stuck in a Rut

Just like the rest of us, theater makers can fall into ruts and end up doing the same thing over and over. That's what happened to John Doyle who repeated his conceit of having actors play their own instruments in the musicals he directed until the idea went from sublime (for some people, albeit never for me) to tiresome.  

It's also happened to playwright Richard Nelson, whose go-to is putting a group of actors around a table where they eat some real food and whine about the unfairness of life. That's what Nelson, who likes to direct his own work, did with the cycle of Apple Family plays that ran at the Public Theater between 2010 and 2013 and The Gabriels trilogy, which played there in 2016. And now he's doing it with a new adaptation of Anton Chekhov's Uncle Vanya that opened this week at the Frederick Loewe Theater at Hunter College.

Some people loved the extreme naturalism of Nelson's family plays but I bailed on the Apples midway through their saga and passed entirely on the Gabriels. I can't say I'm all that happy with Nelson's treatment of Chekhov's clan either. Although I can see what probably drew him to them (click here to read about his adaptation process).

Like most of Chekhov's plays, Uncle Vanya is set on a country estate where a group of aristocrats, their relatives, retainers and other hangers-on sit around and bemoan their lives. In this case, the place is owned by Alexander Serebryakov, a retired art professor who has lived for years in the city but has returned to the rural estate he inherited from his long-deceased first wife with his much younger new wife Elena.

Managing the estate while the professor has been away have been Sonya, his grown daughter by his first marriage, and Vanya, his middle-aged former brother-in-law. Their most frequent guest has been Astrov, the perpetually disgruntled local doctor on whom Sonya has a not-so-secret crush.

Conflicts arise when both Astrov and Vanya fall for Elena and, separately, when Alexander decides to sell the estate so that he can afford to move back to the more exciting life of the city even though such a sale will upend the lives of Sonya and Vanya.

But, as with so much of Chekhov, the true drama occurs in the subtext, in the silences between the lines and on the faces of the actors playing the roles. And so the problems with this production began for me with the idea to stage the play in the round, which meant that I often couldn't see the expressions on the actors' faces because they were turned away from me even though I was sitting in good seats that had been reserved for critics.

It also doesn't help that Nelson has the actors speak without any attempt to project their voices. This, like the decision to outfit them in contemporary leisurewear, is in keeping with his low-key aesthetic but it struck me as a stage version of Mumblecore, those indie films that are so hell-bent on being natural that they often forget to be dramatic—or entertaining. 

Jesse Pennington's apathetic spin on Astrov encapsulates that aesthetic but it was particularly off-putting to me because it conveyed little of the self-flagellating contempt with which the character views himself—and that makes him catnip to the women around him.

The one bright spot is Jay O. Sanders' sympathetic portrayal of Vanya. The burly actor was a mainstay of both the Apple and Gabriels plays and seems to have figured out how to be faithful to his director's understated approach without sacrificing the heightened emotion called for when Vanya realizes the futility of both the dreams he has nurtured and the sacrifices he's made.  

This Vanya is the debut production of the Hunter Theater Project, a new initiative designed to make theater more accessible and affordable. By cutting some scenes and a couple of characters, Nelson and his co-translators have brought the play down to under two intermissionless hours. And tickets are just $37 for general admission and $15 for students.

Still if, by chance, you've never seen Uncle Vanya this isn't the one you should begin with. And you probably won't have to wait long before another production comes along because artistic directors can get in ruts too. This is the fourth major production of the play I've seen in just the past nine years.

September 15, 2018

"Heartbreak House" is Totally Welcoming

It may be a sacrilege to say this but I've never been a fan of the plays of George Bernard Shaw. I appreciate Shaw's place in the theatrical pantheon and his role as a pioneering progressive and feminist but his plays tend to be too long and too talky for me. So imagine my surprise when I found myself having a good time at the Gingold Theatrical Group's production of his 1920 play Heartbreak House, which is running in the Lion Theatre at Theatre Row through Sept. 29. 

Shaw reportedly wrote Heartbreak House as an anti-war manifesto designed to condemn the British upper classes for blundering into WWI, which lasted four years and eventually claimed over 20 million lives. 

Subtitling the play "A Fantasia in the Russian Manner on English Themes," he centered the action around a Chekhov-style country weekend attended by clueless aristocrats, egocentric bohemians and callous industrialists.

They gather in 1914, a few weeks after the war has begun, but the oblivious guests spend their time spouting their philosophies and attempting to hook up with one another out of love, lust and the desire to make the best deal they can to advance their personal positions in society.

Director David Staller, artistic director of the Gingold, which was started in 2006 to champion Shaw’s work, has taken some liberties with the plot, cutting the text roughly in half from four hours to a relatively brisk 2 hours and 20 minutes.

Staller has also added an anachronistic framing device that opens the evening in the basement of a London theater during WWII where some actors decide to put on Heartbreak House to distract the audience supposedly huddled there from worrying about the blitz attack raining down bombs above. 

This turns out to be a very smart idea. It excuses a mix of acting styles and some mismatched costumes since the framing device calls for the fictional theater's backstage staff to take on roles in Shaw's play. 

Thus, performances range from the perhaps too earnest sincerity of Karen Ziemba's party hostess to the trademark daffiness of Jeff Hiller in a variety of roles including the female housekeeper and a burglar with special reasons for breaking into the house.

The conceit also reduces the need to create a fancy upper-class home. Instead, the entire theater is decked out with WWII posters featuring Winston Churchill, while the actual set resembles the dusty underbelly of a stage, complete with rigging and old props.

Perhaps most importantly, the device creates a we're-all-in-this-together spirit by having the actors periodically lead sing-alongs of such determinedly uplifting numbers as "Pack Up Your Troubles" and "Keep the Home Fires Burning," whose lyrics are included in a faux "In the Event of an Air Raid" program.

It’s silly but still hard to resist.  And hardest of all to resist is the deliciously arch performance by Alison Fraser, who plays Lady Ariadne Utterword, an old-school aristocrat who has unabashed disdain for the lower classes.  

Every line Fraser utters through tightly pursed lips and every gesture of exaggerated ennui she makes is a hoot. She pretty much walks away with the show and my friend Joy and I gave her an extra ovation when she entered the nearby Chez Josephine when we were having dinner there after the show.

Every other Shaw production I've seen has taken itself very seriously, waving its social commentary in the air like a banner at a protest demonstration. The message in this Heartbreak House that leaders have a responsibility to the people they serve is still urgent but the production isn't afraid to have fun. And to paraphrase the great anarchist Emma Goldman, a revolution (or a play) without a little fun isn't one worth having. 

September 8, 2018

My Usual Idiosyncratic Fall Theater Preview

Drawing up a list of the fall shows I most want to see is my way of making myself feel better that summer (my favorite season) is ending. It's something I've done for even longer than I've been writing this blog. In most years, the choices are easy and obvious. Every so often, it's tougher because the pickings, to be frank, aren't all that great.  But this year, the theater season is offering an embarrassment of riches and I'm excited about almost everything that's coming. 

However being a woman of a certain age, I find that I'm most looking forward to all the shows that are giving some fabulous actresses around my age—and even older—the chance to strut their stuff.  Those much anticipated shows include:

APOLOGIA:  Even before last year's presidential inauguration caused me to begin obsessively re-watching "The West Wing," I've been a Stockard Channing fan and so I'm really looking forward to seeing her in the flesh in Alexi Kaye Campbell’s play about a Baby Boomer who writes a controversial memoir about her past as a '60s-era radical.  Channing won raves when the show played in London last year and odds are that she'll do the same when it opens at the Laura Pels Theatre on Oct. 16.

BERNHARDT/HAMLET: Sarah Bernhardt was the greatest actress of her day (you can read more about her fascinating life and that of her rival Eleonora Duse in the new book "Playing to the Gods") and so it's fitting that the Divine Sarah, as she was known, is now being played by the also magnificent Janet McTeer in Theresa Rebeck's backstage comedy about Bernhardt's now-legendary decision to play the title role in Hamlet. It opens at the Roundabout Theatre Company's American Airlines Theatre on Sept. 27.

GLORIA: A LIFE: As a writer and editor, advocate and mentor, Gloria Steinem has earned her status as an icon of the modern feminist movement and now her story is being told in a play written by Emily Mann, directed by Diane Paulus and starring Christine Lahti, who I'd appreciated primarily as an excellent movie and TV actress until I saw her terrific turn last season in Suzan-Lori Parks' Fucking AGloria opens at the Daryl Roth Theatre on Oct. 10 and I now suspect this staged version of Steinem's story couldn't be in better hands.

THE LIFESPAN OF A FACT: There are lots of reasons to see this timely new stage adaptation of a book by John D'Agata and Jim Fingal. It's about fact checking fake news and it will bring the always-welcomed Daniel Radcliffe back to Broadway when it opens at Studio 54 on Oct 18. But what makes me happiest is that it's also bringing the great Cherry Jones back to the New York stage for the first time in five years. She plays the editor of a Harpers-style magazine but I would see her if she were just standing onstage reading a newspaper out loud. 

MOTHER OF THE MAID: The Public Theater's attempt to turn the story of Joan of Arc into a musical last year was a disappointment but Jane Anderson's alternate version of the tale of the 15th century saint may offer some redemption. It focuses on Joan's mother and the fact that she will be played by the redoubtable Glenn Close has made this morality tale about the joys and sorrows of raising an unconventional child one of the hottest tickets of the season even before it opens on Oct. 17.  

THE TRUE: Playwright Sharr White likes to write about complicated women and this time out he's chosen to fictionalize the story of Polly Noonan, a real-life political operative (and the grandmother of U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand) who was a major force in Albany politics, known for her tough talk and fierce loyalty to that city's longtime mayor.  So who better to play her in this New Group production that opens Sept. 20 at the Pershing Square Signature Center than Edie Falco, the doyenne of complex, no-nonsense female characters.

THE WAVERLEY GALLERY: The last time the comic legend Elaine May performed on a Broadway stage was back in 1966 when she and her then partner did An Evening with Mike Nichols and Elaine May and so the 86-year-old's return in this revival of Kenneth Lonergan's comedy is all the reason that any theater lover would need to see the show.  The icing on the cake is that the all-star cast for this limited run also includes Michael Cera, David Cromer, Lucas Hedges and Joan Allen, making her own return to the New York stage for the first time in nine years when the show opens at the John Golden Theatre on Oct. 25.

As I said, an embarrassment of riches.