June 29, 2019

"A Strange Loop" Almost Completes Its Circle

A Strange Loop may be the meta-musical to end all meta-musicals. For just like the cult favorite [title of show] its loosely-knotted storyline chronicles the effort to create the show the audience is actually watching. But 15 years have gone by since [title of show] began the journey that took it from the New York Musical Festival to Broadway and the theatrical landscape has changed. The creators and four main characters in [title] were white. Michael R. Jackson who has written the book, music and lyrics for A Strange Loop is black. He’s also gay, slightly overweight, sexually insecure and very talented [click here to read more about him]. His brash, messy and often quite moving show is about all of those things.

It opens with Jackson’s stand-in, a chubby guy named Usher who works as an usher (just as Jackson once did) sounding chimes to indicate that the second act of The Lion King is about to begin and introducing the first of many in-theater jokes. This is Usher’s day job; his true profession is writing musicals. Or at least he wants to write one about his own life as a young gay man but he’s plagued by self-doubts. They are personified by six actors who give voice to those crippling thoughts. An especially persistent one identifies itself as Daily Self Loathing.

For Usher was raised by loving but deeply religious parents who aren’t happy about his queerness or his career choice. They hope he’ll outgrow his gayness, return to the church, marry a woman and write uplifting morality tales like those Tyler Perry writes, and that Usher detests.

Usher’s life in New York isn't much easier. White agents and producers urge him to write only about slavery and other forms of black pain that they say will appeal to white liberals who make up most theater audiences. Black men on dating sites reject him for being too dark-skinned, too fat and too fem; while white hook-ups want to engage in racially demeaning sex-play fantasies.

Jackson crams all of this into Loop, along with references to the cognitive scientist Douglas Hofstadter's theories about the revolving circles of thought that create our sense of identity (and which give the show its title) the songs of Liz Phair, whose “white girl” music he and Usher prefer to that of Beyoncé’s and direct addresses to the audience that acknowledge this may all be too much for one show.

And there are moments when Jackson’s complaints do seem a bit whiny and repetitive or when his portrayals of his family and the black church stray into uncomfortable caricature. But what saves the show is the unsentimental vulnerability that ripples through the entire production. And its dare-you-not-to-laugh humor. Plus the tuneful music is terrific, even when the lyrics, like much of the dialog, tilt toward the overly bawdy and the totally non-PC.

All of this also fuels Stephen Brackett’s clever, high-energy direction and the uniformly superb performances, led by the appealing Larry Owens as Usher. Owens never leaves the stage during the 100 minutes of the show and has to belt out most of its big numbers.

But the rest of the cast is just as hard working, playing not only the chiding thoughts in Usher’s head, but an array of other characters including some surprise cameos. They sing, they dance and in a few scenes bring some real drama.

Still, this isn’t a show for everyone (the use of the N-word may turn off some folks; the graphic depictions of sex may turn off others). And A Strange Loop is unlikely to follow [title of show] to Broadway, even though Broadway has been opening up to more nontraditional work. So I applaud Playwrights Horizons for partnering with Page 73, the longtime incubator for early-career theater writers, to bring A Strange Loop to its stage.

Talented young voices need to be encouraged.  Next up for Jackson is a collaboration with Anna K. Jacobs on a show called Teeth, which will be part of the National Alliance for Musical Theatre Festival in October. Teeth is based on a 2007 horror-comedy movie. Its subject about a high school girl who fights off male violence with her “vaginal dentata” isn’t really my jam.  But I’m upbeat enough about Jackson’s work that I may give it a try.

June 22, 2019

Why "Public Servant" Fails to Get My Vote

Theater loves dysfunctional families (the Weston clan in August: Osage County, the Tyrones in Long Day’s Journey Into Night; generations of the House of Atreus) so the determined-to-get-along families in Bekah Brunstetter’s plays take some getting used to. 

And it may take even longer for some liberal New York theatergoers to embrace them. For while Brunstetter’s female protagonists are politically progressive, their relatives—the people they most love—tend to be pro-life, anti-gay and patronizing, at least initially, toward people different from them. But Brunstetter, the daughter of a conservative North Carolina politician, is on a mission to show the warmer side of these MAGA types.

In The Cake, which ran at Manhattan Theatre Club earlier this year, a baker refuses to make a wedding cake for her beloved goddaughter because the young woman is marrying another woman but still managed to come off as lovable. Now, in Public Servant, a Theater Breaking Through Barriers production that is playing in Theatre Five at the newly renovated Theatre Row through next weekend, a conservative county commissioner named Ed Sink is confronted with two issues that challenge his values and manipulate the empathy of the audience.

The first is a constituent’s request for Ed to stop pushing a building project—a community pool—that may benefit the town but will gut the value of the home she’s inherited from her mother. The second, and more important one, is that Ed's teenage daughter Hannah has returned home from college with liberal ideas and a decision to make that will go against everything her parents have raised her to believe. 

Theater Breaking Through Barriers is a company that promotes artists with disabilities and so the sympathy deck is stacked because the constituent Miriam is not only written as a woman with cerebral palsy, played by Christine Bruno who also has the condition, but is desperately trying to conceive a child and needs the money from a sale of her mom’s home for fertility treatments.

But as conceived by Brunstetter, a writer on the feel-good TV show “This is Us,” and disarmingly played by Chris Henry Coffey, Ed is a guy who so clearly wants to do the right thing that we can’t help rooting for him. 

In fact, the entire play wants to do the right thing. But the strain of doing so shows in its improbable plot developments (Miriam and Hannah, played with just the right amount of naiveté by Anna Lentz, become allies) and its unrealistic denouement (including a potential reconciliation between Ed and his unseen bipolar wife).

It's not that people don't change their minds or find a place of compromise but it's not unrealistic to expect our playwrights to wrestle with how they get there. Here they just suddenly and inexplicably do.

Even the set reinforces Brunstetter’s idealistic message. It features a series of white picket fences that, cleverly designed by Edward T. Morris, swing open to display mini-sets for Ed’s office, Miriam’s backyard and a clinic Hannah visits. But they’re also metaphors for the adage that good fences make good neighbors and that we might all get along better if we just respect each other and try not to trespass on one another’s beliefs.

It’s a nice sentiment, particularly in these polarized times and the play itself, under the light-handed direction of Geordie Broadwater, is pleasant. But while I may find comfort in the easy resolutions on Brunstetter’s TV show, I expect more intellectual rigor from my theater and Public Servant fails to deliver on that.

June 15, 2019

"The Secret Life of Bees" Isn't Buzzworthy

Should white people be allowed to tell stories about black people? The answer, of course, is yes. I’m a firm believer that stories about any of us belong to all of us. But I still found myself asking that question as I watched The Secret Life of Bees, the cliché-ridden musical that opened this week at the Atlantic Theater Company’s Linda Gross Theater. 

The show is based on the 2002 novel by the white writer Sue Monk Kidd. It was a big bestseller and, six years later, was turned into a popular movie starring Queen Latifah, Jennifer Hudson, Alicia Keys, Sophie Okonedo and Dakota Fanning.

Like the book and movie, the musical is set in South Carolina at the height of the Civil Rights Movement and four of its five leading characters are black women. But the story is still primarily a bildungsroman centered on the fifth, a motherless white girl named Lily.

When the show opens, Lily (Elizabeth Teeter) is living with her abusive father and their black housekeeper Rosaleen (Saycon Sengbloh) who is both loyal and, as these tales tend to require, feisty. But after Rosaleen is beaten by white bigots for attempting to vote, Lilly persuades her that they should run away.

These you-go-girl versions of Mark Twain's Huck and Jim, find refuge with the Boatwright sisters, a trio of independent African-American women who raise bees, pray to a black Madonna and have a mysterious connection to Lily’s dead mother. 

Duncan Sheik, a Tony winner for Spring Awakening, wrote the score; Susan Birkenhead, a Tony nominee for Jelly’s Last Jam, wrote the lyrics; Lynn Nottage, the only woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for Drama twice, wrote the book and Sam Gold, the Tony-winning director of Fun Home, staged the show. So you can see why I had high hopes for this one. But the tasty stew I’d been anticipating turned out to be just soupy.

For even though the Boatwrights are portrayed as cultured women who read classic novels and play the cello, at heart, this is yet another standard-issue tale about Magical Negroes whose primary purpose is to help a white protagonist learn about the true meaning of life.

I get that our racist past means that until relatively recently, the black people most whites encountered were people who served them. Which is why we have so many stories like The Member of the Wedding, Caroline, or Change, To Kill a Mockingbird (in both versions) and now The Secret Life of Bees. Many of these are well-told stories by very talented and well-meaning writers. But I’m just tired of them.

Nottage, the only African-American among the core creators of the musical, attempts to shift the spotlight to the Boatwrights and Rosaleen but the gerrymandering is sometimes awkward. Too often when the sisters, nicely played by LaChanze, Eisa Davis and Anastacia McClesky, talk to one another, their conversations are mainly about Lily.

The music, rooted in the percussive rhythms and down-home melodies of spirituals, is rousing. And Birkenhead’s lyrics, which occasionally borrow from Gullah, the creole language once spoken by slaves and their descendants, can be affecting (click here to read more about how they put it together). But these bids for authenticity also seem to be trying too hard.

Meanwhile, Gold’s direction is even more misguided. Even though he has the services of the imaginative scenic designer Mimi Lien, Gold sets the action on a mostly bare stage and many scenes require actors to get down on their hands and knees to mop up liquids he's unnecessarily directed them to splash or dribble on the floor as part of ersatz rituals.

And when in doubt for what to do, Gold has his cast break into a Juba, the foot-stomping and body-slapping dance black slaves created when their white owners forbade them to use drums. That dance can make a powerful statement when used the right way (as it was in Choir Boy whose choreography was nominated for a Tony) but it can come off as caricature when it isn’t.

The actors try their best to make it all work. Their voices are splendid and the harmonies they create are stirring. But the characters they’re playing are thinly drawn and their actions hard to believe.

As she often does, Nottage tries to inject notes of optimism, even changing some significant plot points from the book to make for a more upbeat ending. But that also undercuts some of the drama that the show so badly needs.

Still, the success of the book and the movie—and, to be honest, the largely positive critical response to this show—prove that there’s an audience for this kind of racial comfort food. It’s just an audience that doesn’t include me.

June 8, 2019

This "Dying City" is Truly Lifeless

The first question I ask whenever I see or even hear about a revival is “why are they doing this show?” The answer to that is right in its name for Second Stage Theater. For although it may now be best known as the incubator for such shows as Dear Evan Hansen and Next to Normal, the company's longstanding mission has been to give a second staging, a second chance, to works created by contemporary American playwrights. So it makes sense that it would give such a chance to Christopher Shinn’s Dying City, which hasn’t had a major production in New York since it debuted at Lincoln Center’s Mitzi E. Newhouse Theatre in 2007 and became a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Alas, the revival that opened at Second Stage’s Tony Kiser space this week makes you wonder what the Pulitzer nominators were thinking.

The play is a two-hander but it has three characters.  It starts with a man named Peter hitting a buzzer relentlessly to be let into the apartment of a woman named Kelly, who is clearly reluctant to let him in. But it’s not what you think. It turns out that Peter is a successful gay actor and the identical twin of Kelly’s husband Craig who died in Iraq a year earlier. Brother-in-law and sister-in-law haven’t seen one another since the funeral. 

As Dying City shuttles between the night before Craig left for his deployment and the later encounter between the two people closest to him, relationships are examined and secrets revealed. Shinn clearly intends the play to be a meditation on grief and trauma but he also wants to ruminate on the differences between fraternal and spousal love, the definitions of what it means to be a man and, in a nod to a major issue of the day, what constitutes a just war.

I suspect it’s the latter that appealed to those Pulitzer adjudicators. But while its question is timeless, the treatment here makes Dying City seem dated. And some of its dramaturgy is clunky too. Peter keeps going into a different room to answer or make phone calls that have no effect on the narrative except to get him on and offstage when the playwright needs him to. And a deus ex machina concerning some emails makes no sense at all

Still, one might forgive all of that if the relationships between the characters seemed immediate and the performances made them seem genuine. But neither is the case in this production.

The play calls for a single actor to play the brothers in alternating scenes. With the aid of some telegraphing hair and costume changes—a T shirt for Peter, a flannel shirt for Craig—Colin Woodell, whose screen credits outnumber his stage credits in the Playbill, does a good job distinguishing between the brothers but he doesn’t dig deep into what motivates either sibling.

That’s even more of a problem for Mary Elizabeth Winstead, a TV actress making her theater debut in a tough role that is almost all subtext. For Kelly, a psychologist by profession, is intent on keeping her true emotions to, and maybe even from, herself. So it’s right for the character to be opaque but the actor playing her shouldn’t be.

Both actors might have fared better if the originally scheduled director Lila Neugebauer had stayed with the production. But when Neugebauer, a master at guiding actors through difficult plays, left, reportedly to begin working on a movie, Shinn took over the directing duties himself (click here to read more about that).

Having a playwright direct his own work is rarely a recipe for success. By nature, most writers have more of an affinity for the words they’ve created than for the actions needed to bring those words to life onstage. Shinn’s direction is plodding, making the show’s running time seem far longer than its 90 minutes.

Even the design elements are flat-footed. The apartment Dane Laffrey designed for Kelly is OK but I’m still trying to figure out what the black void that took up so much of stage left was supposed to signify. Meanwhile lighting designer Tyler Micoleau displayed no subtlety when it came to indicating the constant time changes.

But I’m going to stop now because I get no satisfaction out of beating up on a production, particularly one that’s already as wobbly-kneed as this one is. So I’ll just end by saying I wish it had been able to make better use of its second chance. 

June 1, 2019

It's Hard Not to be Seduced by This Sexy "Frankie and Johnny in the Claire de Lune'

Two-handers, plays with just two characters, often share a similarity with comedy acts in which there’s a cut-up and a straight man. And in the 1980s, those roles tended to break down along gender lines with the upbeat Matt Friedman and his persistent wooing of Sally Talley in Lanford Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Talley’s Folly; the manic Pale and his persistent wooing of Anna in Wilson’s Burn This and the love-crazed Johnny and his persistent wooing of Frankie in Terrance McNally’s Frankie and Johnny in the Claire de Lune, which is now getting a starry revival that opened at the Broadhurst Theatre this week.

Even in our #MeToo era which tends to frown on too much male persistence, it’s hard not to be seduced by Matt, Pale and Johnny who get to do all the fun things and say nearly all the great lines, as Adam Driver does with his Tony-nominated performance in the current revival of Burn This, which is now playing to sold-out houses at the Hudson Theatre.

And even though six-time Tony winner Audra McDonald is unsurprisingly winning as the love-averse waitress Frankie in the new production of Frankie and Johnny, its MVP is Michael Shannon who brings his own prodigious charm to the role of the tirelessly romantic short order cook Johnny (click here to read more about the making of the production).

Shannon cut his acting teeth in Chicago where he worked with the Steppenwolf Company. I first saw him when he did the one-man show Mistakes Were Made back in 2010. But people in the know already knew how terrific he was. A group of young guys who looked to be acting students stood up at the curtain call and chanted his name.  Frankie and Johnny shows that he's lost none of his power.

The show takes place in real time, picking up right after the title characters have made love on their first date and are trying to figure out what comes next. Frankie wants to take things slowly but Johnny is determined that they should make a full commitment to one another and woos her with confessional stories about his past, romantic music from a classical radio station and food he cooks up to satisfy their post-coital hunger.

My friend Ellie was so taken with Shannon’s performance that she’s been Googling him ever since we saw him last week and has been sending me daily updates on her deepening infatuation. And I can understand why.

Over the past few years, Shannon has been playing heavies in movies and so it’s a pleasure to see him be as funny and as sexy (warning: there is full frontal nudity in Arin Arbus’ artfully directed production) as he is here. He makes a great cut-up.

And yet this marvelous actor never loses touch with the underlying melancholy that his Johnny is fighting against as he tries to persuade himself, as much as he does Frankie, to take one more lunge at the possibility of happiness.

Yes, the play is somewhat dated and it’s a stretch of the imagination to think of McDonald or Shannon as sad-sack losers. Plus the play goes on far too long. I would have been satisfied if it ended with the first act’s curtain since the second act pretty much repeats what happened in the first. But with big-hearted support from McDonald, Shannon makes you fall in love with him and with the possibility that love truly can heal all wounds.