March 30, 2019

Why "The Lehman Trilogy" Disappointed Me

Sometimes you want to like something more than you actually do. That’s how I feel about The Lehman Trilogy, which has just opened at the Park Avenue Armory to rapturous reviews.

I’d been expecting rapture too. I’d read the exultant reviews when the show, a nearly three-and-a-half hour chronicle of the rise and fall of the Lehman Brothers investment firm, wowed London audiences. I knew that it was one of those big British state-of-the-world pieces that I admire (I’m among the few who loved the short-lived New York production of Enron) that it starred three fantastic actors, led by the always-great Simon Russell Beale; that it was staged by Sam Mendes, now at the top of his directorial powers (click here to read about him); and that it even had a clever modernist set by the hip designer Es Devlin.

So what was there not to like? I prayed for the show to come to New York. My theatergoing buddy Bill and I bought tickets back in September, within an hour of their going on sale. And I felt smug as we made our way into the cavernous Armory to see it. I’m not sure when the show lost me.

Maybe it was within the first few moments when I realized that the story of the three Jewish brothers who emigrated from Bavaria to the U.S. in the mid-1800s wasn’t going to be dramatized but narrated with the actors speaking in the third person to describe how their characters made the journey from poor immigrants to cotton merchants to merchant bankers to the avatars of Wall Street greed when the firm’s collapse in 2008 helped spark The Great Recession. 

Or perhaps it lost me as I struggled vainly to keep the relationships between all of the characters straight. For without ever changing their 18th century frock coats, Beale, Ben Miles and Adam Godley play not only the three founding brothers but their children and grandchildren, their wives, customers, business associates, rivals and eventual successors.

Or it could be that it’s just harder than I thought it would be for me to work up much sympathy for people whose foundational fortune was rooted in the slave labor of the 18th century and whose irresponsibility later lead to the misery of the millions who lost their livelihood and their life savings in the economic downturn of the 21st.

And it didn't help when I got home and discovered (thanks Wikipedia) that many of the events chronicled in The Lehman Trilogy hadn’t occurred at all. This may be a spoiler for those of you who have tickets to the show's sold-out run but Bobby Lehman, the last family member to chair the firm, died at age 77.

I suppose the Italian playwright Stefano Massini who conceived The Lehman Trilogy as a five-and-half hour radio piece; and Ben Powers, the longtime dramaturg at London’s National Theatre who adapted it into English for the stage, mean the play to be a parable about the perils of unbridled capitalism. 

But the play's tender attitude toward the Lehmans, accompanied by a melancholy piano score performed live by Candida Caldicott, undercuts that. And I just can’t mourn this loss of American innocence when I know it was steeped in self-interested collusion with the country’s original sin.

Not all is lost. Mendes’ direction keeps things moving along and Luke Hall's projections are acid-trip glorious. Devlin’s set, a transparent box that revolves between a modern-day conference room on one side and stacks of timeless cardboard boxes on the other, is as elegant as advertised, albeit not as innovative for theatergoers who've seen similar setups in the recent Young Vic revivals of A Street Car Named Desire and Yerma.

And the actors are flat-out terrific, adeptly modifying the inflection of their voices and the physicality of their movements as they slip into the roles of different characters (the toad-shaped Beale is a particular delight when he morphs into female characters). But there were simply too many people to keep track of and too little time to develop real feeling for any of them once the original siblings died.

A family tree in the program tries to help, as does a timeline a page or so later and several essays on immigration and Jewish identity in America. But shouldn't a play be able to stand on its own two feet?

And while I’m griping, let me register a complaint about that program itself, which is the unwieldly size of an old copy of Life magazine. Like The Lehman Trilogy, its ambition seems outsized. As perhaps were my expectations for what is essentially a pretty pageant of America’s checkered financial past that I really wanted to like but found difficult to cheer.

March 23, 2019

"White Noises" Makes Sadly Familiar Sounds

Maybe it’s just me but I’m troubled by the fact that over the past year I’ve seen or read three works (all by very talented African-American writers) in which a black person has tried to solve a personal problem by asking someone to treat them as a slave. Critical acclaim has greeted all three.

First up was Paul Beatty’s 2015 novel “The Sellout.” I was a latecomer to this satire about a black man who is so distressed by the way poor black people are treated that he appeals to the Supreme Court to reinstitute both segregation and slavery but it not only won that year’s National Book Award but was the first American novel to win London’s prestigious Man Booker prize for the year’s best novel written in the English language. 

Last fall, both critics and serious theatergoers (including me) couldn’t stop talking about Yale Drama School wunderkind Jeremy O. Harris’s pointedly-named Slave Play, which had interracial couples trying to salvage their broken relationships by voluntarily engaging in role play as masters and slaves. 

And now we have Pulitzer Prize-winner Suzan Lori-Park’s White Noise, which opened Wednesday at the Public Theater with a story about a black guy so traumatized by an encounter with white cops that he offers to sell himself to his white best friend.

What is going on?  I get that these are satires and allegories that are trying to provoke serious discussions about the fractured state of race relations in this country but is this truly the only vocabulary that we can use to talk about it?  Do white people really need to hear that things are so bad that black people think being enslaved would be better?

And let’s face it, most of the people reading Beatty’s book, attending shows at New York Theatre Workshop or the Public and maybe even reading this blog are white, as are most of the critics who have cheered on these works. Are these shows giving critics and other “woke” white folks a too easy way to show that they're on the right side of things?

To be fair, all of these works, especially Park’s, try to offer a nuanced take on race. Leo, the lead character in White Noise is a college-educated artist who lives with a white attorney named Dawn who defends poor black people. Their best friends are their college buddies, Ralph, a wealthy white guy who has a day job as a professor, and his girlfriend Misha, an African-American vlogger who hosts a web show called ‘Ask A Black.” 

The couples regularly hang out in a bowling alley (cleverly realized by set designer Clint Ramos) that is part of a chain that Ralph inherited but seems to have been written in primarily because Parks thinks it’s funny. Or maybe I missed the meaning of that metaphor.

The not-at-all-funny deal that Leo proposes during one of the couples' regular nights out calls for him to spend 40 days as Ralph’s slave because he thinks it will relieve him of the pressures that contemporary society places on black men and that going back to the roots of America’s original sin will help him find the fortitude his ancestors used to survive.

The first week or so goes according to plan, curing Leo’s lifelong insomnia (I'm sure there's a "woke" metaphor somewhere in that) and changing his interactions with the white people he encounters. But then the shift in their dynamic begins to affect Ralph too. He starts making imperious demands on Leo that lead to a series of humiliations, all confusingly complicated by the fact that Leo has brought this on himself. Meanwhile, Dawn and Misha are sorting out their own relationship and why they’ve chosen to be with men of their opposite race.  

Each character is given a soliloquy in which to examine his or her own psyche, with an emphasis on how race and sex have shaped it. And under the sure-handed direction of the Public’s artistic director Oskar Eustis, they’re all brilliantly performed by a sensational cast.

Daveed Diggs, who won him a Tony for his portrayal of Hamilton’s Thomas Jefferson, brings the same can’t-take-your-eyes-off-him charisma to Leo, making it hard not to root for the character even when he’s making stupid choices (click here to read an interview with the actor).  Thomas Sadoski taps into an amiable malevolence for his portrayal of Ralph that may someday make him a superb Iago.

Although given somewhat less to do, Zoë Winters and Sheria Irving are also strong as Dawn and Misha, with Irving supplying most of the humor that both the character and the play use to camouflage the toll this society’s demands can put on educated black women.

Yet even these performances can’t mask the fact that these soliloquies—and even this three-hour play itself—aren’t really saying anything we haven’t heard before about race in this country.  Except, of course, for the slavery thing. In the end, it’s what I—as I'm betting most of folks who see this show—walked out of the theater thinking about.

So now, just in case anyone is wondering, I feel compelled to get it on the record that no matter how bad things are or how many books and plays posit the possibility, there are not lots of black people sitting around and thinking that a return to slavery is a way to make America great again.

March 16, 2019

"The Mother" Misjudges Middle-Aged Women

The French playwright Florian Zeller likes to get inside people’s heads.  And the more troubled those heads the better.  Frank Langella won a Tony in 2016 for playing the title character in Zeller’s drama The Father, a devasting portrait of a man disintegrating into dementia. Earlier this year, the playwright took on the mental instability that hits some young men in their teens in The Son, which received rave reviews and is playing at London’s Kiln Theatre through April 7. And so one of the shows I was most excited about seeing this season was Zeller’s The Mother, which opened this week at The Atlantic Theater Company with the movie star Isabelle Huppert in the title role. 

Alas, I couldn’t have been more disappointed.

Perhaps Zeller, a man who turns 40 in June, just couldn’t figure out the psyche of a middle-aged woman. The mother in question is a white French woman called Ann. She’s chicly dressed and sitting on an obviously expensive white leather couch when the audience enters the theater.

The couch, which stretches across the breadth of the wide stage, seems to go on forever. The actress, known for her intense presence in such movies as "The Piano Teacher" and "Elle" is surprisingly petite. The combination provides a visual image that almost screams it’s a metaphor for how domestic life is overwhelming the character. 

For with Ann’s son and daughter now grown and out of the house and her husband still busy with work, she is experiencing a breakdown that she attempts to self-medicate with booze, pills and thoughts that range from the paranoid to the surreal.

All of those thoughts are enacted onstage. And then re-enacted to underscore Ann’s mania and her losing grip on reality.  So we see her cross examining her American husband, stoically played by Chris Noth, about why he’s late. And then the scene plays out again. And again. 

We also see her repeatedly chiding and then wooing her beloved grown son, coolly played, in a gesture of colorblind casting, by the African-American actor Justice Smith (click here to read more about this promising young actor). 

A fourth character played by Odessa Young may be Ann’s daughter, her son’s fiancé, her husband’s mistress or a medical professional called in to take care of her, which adds to the general confusion.

I get that the disorientation is intentional but although the show only runs 90-minutes, it seemed interminable. Plus while I’m willing to grant dramatic license, it’s hard to believe that an empty nest would cause a woman to fall completely apart in this day and age when so many Baby Boomer women are celebrating the fact that we can finally focus on ourselves. 

I don’t know if the blame for these missteps rests with Zeller; with his frequent translator, the British playwright Christopher Hampton, or with director Trip Cullman but it was also hard to tell what was supposed to be real and what was supposed to be only in Ann’s mind. Is her husband really cheating on her?  Does her son really want to kill her? After a while, I gave up trying to figure it all out—or caring about any of it.

Other reviewers have heaped praise on Huppert’s performance. And she is good, delivering a committed and fierce performance (click here to read a Q&A with the actress). But Huppert’s French accent also made it hard for me to understand all of her dialog.

Although I don’t know if it would have made a difference if Huppert had enunciated with Ethel Merman-like clarity. The Mother seems uncertain of what it wants to say and the parts of it that can be understood seems woefully out-dated.