November 24, 2018

Do "The Ferryman" and the "The Waverly Gallery" Live Up to The Hype About Them?

Most theatergoers, especially those with limited time and resources, try to figure out which shows to see through a combination of word of mouth, social media and official reviews, particularly the ones in The New York Times. And when the reviews are raves, that can mean they walk into a show with very high expectations—and the risk of being very disappointed. 

So far this season, clamorous buzz and unbridled praise has circled around The Ferryman, Jez Butterworth’s family saga set against the backdrop of the Irish hunger strikes in the 1980s; and The Waverly Gallery, Kenneth Lonergan’s memory play about caring for an aging relative who is descending into dementia. Each has been proclaimed a production not to be missed. So should you believe the hype?

Like legions of theatergoers on both sides of the ocean, I was gobsmacked by Butterworth’s previous play Jerusalem (click here to read my review), an ode to the eroding myths of British identity that made a star out of Mark Rylance almost a decade ago. And so Ferryman, with its mythological allusions to the god who carries souls to the underworld, was at the top of my want-to-see-list this fall. Amazingly, it surpassed my expectations. 

With the exception of a brief prologue, the play is set in the farmhouse of Quinn Carney, a former member of the Irish Republican Army who has given up politics and now devotes his time to heading a multigenerational family and farming their land in the rural Northern Ireland county of Armagh.  

Living in the house are Quinn’s sickly wife and their six children, his whiskey-loving uncle, two maiden aunts and his sister-in-law Caitlin and her teen son Oisin, widowed and orphaned when Quinn's brother Seamus mysteriously disappeared a decade earlier. The family has long suspected that Seamus was assassinated by the IRA but while still mourning his absence, Quinn and Caitlin have fallen in love with one another.

As the play opens, Seamus’ body has been discovered in a bog with a bullet hole in its head. IRA leaders want to protect the sympathy for their cause that's recently been engendered by the starvation deaths of incarcerated members waging a hunger strike for the right to be treated as political prisoners. So the IRA will do whatever it takes to get the Carney family to release a statement absolving the group of Seamus’ murder.

That’s a lot of plot and a lot of characters—21 actors take a bow at the curtain call—but Butterworth, who based the play on the real-life disappearance of the uncle of his life partner Laura Donnelly (she also reprises her Olivier Award-winning portrayal of Caitlin) weaves it altogether in thrillingly satisfying fashion.

In fact the play serves as a master class in theatrical storytelling. Butterworth is superb with language, be it the colloquial braggadocio of a group of teen boys trying to act older and wiser than they are or the poetic musings of the elderly aunt who lives in the past but can foretell the future.

He’s equally adept with plotting. Not a word in this nearly three-and-a-half-hour play is wasted. A seemingly random conversation about a radio program tells us everything we need to know about the characters having it. A funny scene with a live rabbit in Act I foreshadows devastating consequences in Act III.  

His brilliant script is brought to life by an equally brilliant cast lead by Donnelly and Paddy Considine who originated the roles of Caitlin and Quinn at London’s Royal Court Theatre, but everyone, down to a real-life baby (click here to read about the infants who share the role) is pitch perfect.

And the vibrant direction of Sam Mendes (click here to read a profile of him) fills the stage with movement, music and an underlying menace, subtly echoed in Nick Powell’s soundscape, Peter Mumford’s lighting and the slightly askew farmhouse that set designer Rob Howell has created.

The play is long, the authentic-sounding accents can at times be difficult to understand and a few naysayers have accused the play of indulging in stereotypes (click here to read one such objection) but I can’t remember the last time I walked out of a theater so exhilarated by what I'd just seen that I wanted to turn around and go right back in to see the whole thing all over again.

Alas, I didn’t feel that way when I left the Golden Theatre after seeing The Waverly Gallery. This is the third of the plays Lonergan wrote in the ‘90s to get a star-studded Broadway production over the last four years. I was so taken with last spring’s revival of Lobby Hero (click here for my review of that), that I was really looking forward to this one, especially because some critics have called it Lonergan’s masterwork.  

Lonergan has called the play his most personal because it’s based on the experiences he had with his grandmother who operated an art gallery in Greenwich Village in the 1970s until she began to suffer from dementia, forcing him and his mother to make tough decisions about the best way to care for her and to deal with the gallery that had become the main focus of her life.

Waverly Gallery ran for just 70 performances in 2000 but Eileen Heckart picked up the Lucille Lortel, Drama Desk, Obie and Outer Critics Circle awards for her portrayal of the declining Gladys Green. This time out, Elaine May, returning to the Broadway stage for the first time in 57 years, is destined to make a similar sweep. 

May, herself a comparatively youthful 86, turns in a performance that is heartbreaking in both its emotional and physical truthfulness as her Gladys becomes frailer, and more fearful about what is happening to her, in each scene.

There is also strong work from Joan Allen as her daughter and Lucas Hedges as her grandson (click here to read an interview with him).  And yet the play failed to move me. Maybe it’s because there have been so many books, movies and plays (including the devastating The Father) about the ravages of dementia since Lonergan wrote The Waverly Gallery that the material seemed overly familiar. 

Or maybe it’s because of the distracting directorial and design choices that Lila Neugebauer, a usually deft director, has made in her Broadway debut. Long pauses between each scene to allow stagehands to change the sets broke the momentum of the storytelling and sucked the energy out of the whole enterprise.

Meanwhile, the video projections of scenes from the Village in earlier years that Neugebauer and projection designer Tal Yarden chose to show during those intervals quickly grew monotonous and had very little to do with the plot.

But I’m in the minority on this one.  The Waverly Gallery has drawn raves. People who usually dismiss plays that deal with social issues, have touted this one. Perhaps that’s because the issue of aging directly affects most critics (older folks) and Broadway theatergoers (also older folks).

I’m no spring chicken myself. I’ve seen elderly loved ones lose both their physical and mental abilities.  And my own mortality is peeping around the corner. But I like to think none of that would matter and I’d still be moved if there were truly a great play. After all, I’m not Irish and I was knocked out by The Ferryman.

November 17, 2018

Why It's Radical to Let Girls (Of Color) Just Be Girls in "Good Grief" and "Usual Girls"

Something radical is happening on New York stages this season. It’s mainly taking place off-Broadway and it’s largely being driven by women of color who have written that most traditional of forms, a memory play about coming of age.

What’s radical about that, you ask?  Here’s what: these stories aren’t set in the inner city or some ethnic enclave and their primary focus isn’t on how badly white people have treated black, brown, yellow or red people. Instead, these are stories about middle-class kids growing up in the suburbs and struggling to figure out who they are, who they love and how to navigate the world. And the truly impressive thing is that they’re doing it without losing touch with their cultural roots, which only serves to enrich these plays all the more.

Two worthwhile examples of this phenomenon are Ngozi Anyanwu’s Good Grief, which ends its turn at the Vineyard Theatre this weekend and Ming Peiffer’s Usual Girls, which is playing in the Roundabout Theatre Company’s small black box theater at the Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center through Dec. 23. Both productions have flaws but each is daring us to look at the young women at the center of these stories in a different way than theater usually views young women who look like them.

The young woman at the center of Good Grief is Nkechi, a Nigerian-American teenager whom we first see in the ‘90s, growing up in affluent Bucks County, Pennsylvania, where the black population is tiny and she’s falling for her best friend MJ, a mixed-race kid whose good looks make him popular with all the girls and who is played here by the charismatic Bruno Mars-lookalike Ian Quinlan.

To Nkechi’s delight, MJ falls in love with her too and when, early in the 90-minute play, she loses him when he dies in a car crash, her grief is so overwhelming that she resists all the efforts to ease her pain offered by her physician parents, adoring older brother or JD, the white guy who has had a crush on her since grade school and who is played by TV hunk Hunter Parrish.

The playwright herself, a dark-skinned woman with long black braids and an athletic build, plays Nkechi and it took me a moment to realize how rare it was for someone who looks like her to be the main object of desire, as opposed to the thin, fair-skinned, whiter featured black women who usually get such roles onstage and onscreen regardless of whether the writers and directors are white or black.

So Anyanwu’s mere presence is a radical statement (click here to read an interview with the playwright) but also is the fact that her character’s parents are well-educated immigrants, who love their child and draw on both the traditions of their native homeland (which allows the production to include African dance and bits of magical realism) and the contemporary options of their adopted home country (which offers opportunities for the play’s humorous psychobabble exchanges) to comfort her. We don’t see people like them onstage often enough either.

Nor do we see people like Kyeoung, the young Korean-American woman whose story Usual Girls follows over three decades, beginning on an elementary school playground in the ‘80s, where she is the only non-white kid in her suburban town. Some kids taunt Kyeoung because of the shape of her eyes but the real problem for her is that she’s an innately sensual girl in a world that privileges male sexuality.

Through the years, Kyeoung and her friends have experiences that encourage them to be sexual (grade school boys daring them to exchange a kiss; later older boys demanding blow jobs) and then punish them when they act on those feelings.

By the time Kyeoung’s in her teens, boys are taunting her with ignorantly racist remarks about Asian women having differently shaped vaginas. But all the girls are under relentless attack and in their confusion, they turn on one another or find ways to retreat by becoming less individualistic, identifying themselves through the men they hook up with or indulging in pathologies ranging from bulimia to drugs.

What keeps this play from being a downer is Peiffer’s sharp ear for dialog, much of it laugh-out-loud funny (click here to read a similarly entertaining interview with her) and the performances lead by Midori Francis’ fearless portrayal of Kyeoung, who may blame herself for bad dates that descend into date rape but finds the inner strength to resist being defined by those encounters.

The rest of the cast is terrific too. In fact the five actresses portraying revolving groups of Kyeoung’s friends were so good (particularly a standout Abby Corrigan as her quirky best friend Anna) that I was stunned when so relatively few people came out for the curtain call.

With the exception of the racist remarks, Kyeoung’s story could be that of any middle-class girl growing up in Middle America over the last few decades. And that’s the whole point. Korean-Americans, Nigerian-Americans, Muslim-Americans aren’t exotic or obsessed with being other; they’re just people and it’s gratifying to see them portrayed that way onstage.

It’s also gratifying that theaters are beginning to realize they should do that. Just this week, Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre Company announced that it had compiled a list of 208 plays that “feature a mix of diverse central characters who resist simple categorization and lead richly textured lives as they navigate a complex world.” 
They’re calling their list “The Mix” and making it available to companies everywhere. Seeing all kinds of people of color onstage in all kinds of ways would cease to be radical, and maybe become normal, if a whole bunch of them got staged.

November 10, 2018

Taking Time Out to Celebrate My Other Love

As regular readers of this blog know, I'm crazy about my husband K. I also really appreciate his patience in allowing me to take up so much of my time with theater. We're just a third of the way through this month and I've already seen six shows; reviewed two of them in last week's blog post; recorded two interviews for Stagecraft, my Broadway Radio podcast series of conversations with playwrights (you can check all of them out by clicking here);  moderated a panel for the American Theater Critics Association's conference last weekend; had a story about inclusive casting published in the November issue of "American Theatre" magazine (which you can read by clicking here)  and posted a whole bunch of great stuff to the Broadway & Me magazine on Flipboard (which you can see by clicking here). And we're not even talking about my day job. So I hope you'll understand why there will be no post today cause I'm taking this weekend off to celebrate my special K.

November 3, 2018

Remembering the Good and the Bad of the '60s with "Gloria: A Life" and "Days of Rage"

Love ‘em or hate ‘em, the 1960s continue to influence American discourse.  And those tumultuous times are front-and-center in two new recent plays: Gloria: A Life, a look at the career of the feminist leader Gloria Steinem that is playing at the Daryl Roth Theatre through Jan. 27; and Days of Rage, a dramedy about a group of Sixties radicals that is now scheduled to run at Second Stage Theater’s Tony Kiser space through Nov. 25.

Gloria was written by Emily Mann, the artistic director of New Jersey’s McCarter Theatre who is old enough to have experienced the ‘60s; and it’s directed by Diane Paulus, who came of age in its immediate wake. Both women clearly adore their subject and revere even more the kind of we’re-all-in-this-together activism that Steinem, now 84, has long championed.

Their show dances close to hagiography as it hopscotches through Steinem’s professional bio, touching on how she went undercover as a Playboy Bunny and wrote an expose about it; co-founded Ms. magazine; and clocked millions of miles and gave thousands of speeches to advance progressive causes ranging from pay equality to transgender rights.

Just small bits of personal information—how young Gloria cared for a mentally ill mother, how a fiercely independent Gloria married at 66 only to lose her husband to cancer three years later—are sprinkled across her well-known CV.

But while there are few personal revelations about Steinem in this show, you will learn about the debt she feels she owes to the women of color—Flo Kennedy, Wilma Mankiller among them—whom she proudly claims as mentors in the movement but whose roles have often been sidelined in the telling of its history.

Still, this is an ingratiating production. The amphitheater-like seating at the Roth provides an intimate space and the colorful pillows and cushions arrayed on its benches and rugs spread across the playing area make for a cozy and comfortable setting, as though it’s an extended family room.

Decked out in a shoulder-length blonde wig and Steinem’s trademark aviator glasses, the actress Christine Lahti, a personal friend of Steinem’s (click here to read about their relationship) works hard to turn the icon into a relatable gal. 

Meanwhile, Paulus has assembled a determinedly multi-cultural ensemble of six actresses who, with the change of a top or headwear, effectively portray scores of people —male and female—who've passed through Steinem’s life.

A special shout-out has to go to Elaine J. McCarthy’s video projections, which include newsreels of the real Steinem and period photos that are bound to evoke memories for anyone who attended a consciousness raising group, participated in a sisterhood march or otherwise discovered the courage to speak up for herself back in the heyday of “women’s lib."

The show runs a little over an hour and a half and then Lahti invites the audience to spend another 20 minutes or so sharing their own experiences in the struggle for gender equality. The audience at the performance I attended was filled with the kind of smart, progressive-minded, middle-aged women who shop at Eileen Fisher (this is not a put down as anyone who has looked into my closet knows) and there was no shortage of volunteers.

There is a kind of preaching-to-the-choir quality about Gloria and what it calls its “talking circle” but, in these anxious times, sometimes the choir needs to sing—and to be listened to.

Days of Rage is somewhat ambivalent about what those lyrics should be. It’s written by Steven Levenson and directed by Trip Cullman, two white guys who weren’t even born in 1969, the year in which their play is set. 

It centers around a commune of young white radicals, whose number has dwindled to three but who are still determined to participate in that fall’s anti-war demonstrations in Chicago that were organized by the Weather Underground faction of Students for a Democratic Society and that give the show its title. 

The trio—Spence, Jenny and Quinn—attempt to live by their interpretation of strict revolutionary doctrine, which means abiding by collective decisions, sharing everything and disdaining monogamy. Their efforts to recruit more people for the Chicago protest bring two more people into their orbit: Hal, a black guy who works at the local Sears and is attracted to Jenny; and Peggy, a white runaway who has $2,000 in her bag and a penchant for making mischief. Complications ensue.

It’s apparent that Levenson, whose previous work has shown him to be a thoughtful and gifted playwright, wants to look at the different kinds of people who were drawn to political activism in the Sixties. But he makes the ones here too one-dimensional.

Quinn (Odessa Young) is a working-class girl who wants to get back at the elites who have oppressed people like her; Spence (Mike Faist)  is an Ivy League college dropout attracted to intellectual arguments and Jenny (Lauren Patten) is looking for a way to atone for her upper-middle class privilege.

Adding insult to injury, Levenson can’t seem to resist making fun of them. The early scenes come off like a Spinal Tap-style spoof of Sixties radicalism. Cullman's frenetic direction doesn't help. Even the set—an unnecessarily two-story house—is clunky.

There are, however, some enjoyable moments in Days of Rage. Tavi Gevinson has great fun with Peggy’s madcap unpredictability, making her scenes the most entertaining of the evening. Meanwhile J. Alphonse Nicholson brings a sensitive wariness to Hal, a black man who knows he’s being valued more as a symbol than a person, making his scenes, particularly in the play’s latter half, among the most affecting.  

The rest of the 90-minute play moves less convincingly back and forth between slapstick and melodrama as though Levenson can't make up his mind on what to think about the Sixties. But (and perhaps this is the baby boomer in me talking) maybe to fully get the Sixties, it helps to have lived through them.