July 27, 2019

Chekhov Get a Post-Modern Makeover in "Life Sucks." and "Moscow Moscow..."

Poor Anton Chekhov. For some reason, lots of playwrights have recently decided that the best way for them to write a new play is to cannibalize one of his old ones.

That’s what Aaron Posner does in Life Sucks. (the period's included in its title), a snarky modern-dress riff on Uncle Vanya that had a successful run at The Wild Project earlier this year and is now playing in Theatre Three at Theatre Row through Sept. 1. And it’s what Halley Feiffer has done in her even more annoyingly titled Moscow Moscow Moscow Moscow Moscow Moscow, a punk version of Three Sisters that is running at MCC Theater through Aug. 17.

Both playwrights profess to be big fans of the Russian master and to be paying homage or tribute to him with their reimagining of his classic works (click here to read a discussion between them). But their lavish use of potty-mouthed dialog, their constant breaking of the fourth wall and their replacement of Chekhov’s carefully calibrated subtext with hit-you-on-the-nose explications add up to a kind of simplified Chekhov for Dummies.

It’s not that Posner and Feiffer aren’t talented. Posner’s My Name is Asher Lev, a sensitive adaptation of Chaim Potok's novel about an Orthodox Jewish boy who breaks away from his family to become an artist, made my Top 10 list for 2013. And although parts of it made me cringe with discomfort, I was ultimately moved by I'm Gonna Pray for You So Hard, Feiffer’s 2015 drama about a toxic relationship between a father and daughter that seemed to echo the one between the playwright and her father, the cartoonist and playwright Jules Feiffer.

This time out however, both writers seem more interested in showing off how cleverly post-modern they can be. For the most part, the characters and the storylines in their updates hew close to the Chekhov originals. Vanya, the central figure in Life Sucks. is still a sad sack who has spent his life managing a country estate for the pompous professor who is his brother-in-law and pining for the man’s younger second wife. The three sisters in Moscow are still living in a provincial Russian town and longing for what they believe will be a more fulfilling life in the capital.

The entanglements with and among their relatives, friends and other hangers on also remain in both plays. What’s different are the self-consciously colloquial and often profane language (“I look like shit, but what else is new? I've always looked like shit,” complains Olga, the oldest of the sisters in Moscow) and the self-indulgent meta-theatrics that often mar the most tiresome skits on "Saturday Night Live" (at various points, the characters in Life Sucks. line up and dance awkwardly or quiz the audience about how sucky their lives are).

But Chekhov had already let me know how unhappy Olga was without the obscenity and how dispirited Vanya and his gang were without the embarrassing shuffling around. All that said, I did enjoy some elements of each current production.

Posner has made his female characters feistier than Chekhov’s. The snooty aristocratic mother-in-law has been replaced with a down-to-earth godmother and the gloomy male retainer Waffles has been transformed into a more upbeat lesbian named Pickles. Even Vanya’s lovelorn niece Sonia has been given more backbone than she has in the original version. And it's refreshing to see these women speaking up for themselves.

Feiffer meanwhile, has trimmed Chekhov’s sometimes rambling four acts down to 90-minutes. And although that might make some of the storytelling a little confusing for people unfamiliar with Three Sisters, it does give Moscow a propulsive energy. And even some of its silliest moments (and there are plenty of them) are laugh-out-loud funny.

Both Trip Cullman who directed Moscow and Jeff Wise, who helmed Life Sucks., honor the intentions of their playwrights and the shenanigans they’ve crafted (Cullman even includes some business with a Whoopee cushion) but they also leave room for the actors to breathe real life into their characters.

And those actors, cast without regard for race or in some cases gender, are almost across-the-board excellent. Moscow in particular features a murderers’ row of heavy hitters including Stephen Boyer, Tavi Gevinson, Sas Goldberg, Alfredo Narciso and Ray Anthony Thompson. But first among equals for me was the male actor Chris Perfetti, who portrays the unhappily married middle sister Masha who has an affair with a military officer temporarily assigned to the town.

Costumed in a long black dress but eschewing even the slightest bit of camp, Perfetti so perfectly captured both the humor and the pathos of the character that his performance would have been totally at home in even the most traditional production of Three Sisters. It reassured me that no matter what they do to him, Chekhov will be OK.

July 20, 2019

Taking Time Out for A Quick Intermission

There's no regular post today because, as the GIF above illustrates, I'm running out for a quick intermission while my husband K and I take some time off for a little vacation. But I decided against putting out the ghost light I usually use when I'm taking a break because (1) this GIF is more fun and (2) I'm leaving behind some other things I've done for you to read and listen to while I'm away.

For starters, Slave Play, the provocative meditation on race and sex, is moving to Broadway in September and I got to do a Q&A for BroadwayDirect with its playwright Jeremy O. Harris and its director Robert O'Hara. You can read our conversation by clicking here.

I also interviewed the playwright Winter Miller about her moving new drama No One is Forgotten, which is playing at the Rattlestick Playwrights Theater through next weekend. It chronicles the struggle for survival by two women held in captivity in a small cell in an unidentified land. You can hear our discussion about it—and Miller's frank views about the way theater treats female playwrights—by clicking here.

And finally, I've added a bunch of interesting stories from a variety of sources to the B&Me Flipboard magazine, which you can find by clicking here.

I hope you enjoy all of them and I hope you'll come back to read the reviews of some of the many shows I'm panning to see and write about next week.

July 13, 2019

"In the Green" is Too Monochromatic

As their name suggests, chamber musicals tend to be smaller than traditional song-and-dance shows. Quirkier too. They also tend to be beloved by critics more than by average folks. Or than by me. In the Green, the almost defiantly idiosyncratic musical now playing at LCT3 through Aug. 4, checks off all those boxes.

Written and composed by Grace McLean, it tells the story of Hildegard of Bingen, the 12th century mystic who, at a time when embroidery was the major creative outlet for most women, founded monasteries, composed liturgical music, wrote theological and scientific treatises, staged the first morality plays, and later became both a canonized saint and a feminist icon.

Hildegard lived to be 81 and her long life clearly offers a lot of juicy material for a show to work with. But McLean focuses on the years of Hildegard’s life when, after her parents consigned their eight-year-old daughter to a monastery, she was isolated in a cell for decades with an older religious woman named Juta.

Probably best known as the chiding chaperone in Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812, McLean plays the sizable role of Juta. Three talented young actresses—Rachel Duddy, Ahsley Perez Flangan and Hannah Whitney—play Hildegard. 

The young women don’t divide up the role by age as the performers in Summer: The Donna Summer Musical and The Cher Show do. Instead, they portray parts of the young Hildegard’s fractured soul. The storyline, such as it is, revolves around the efforts to unify these disparate pieces of Hildegard.

There are intimations of sexual abuse in the pasts of both cloistered women (a fifth actress Mia Pak plays the repressed parts of Juta) but their stories are left intentionally fuzzy. McLean is far more interested in creating a sonic narrative.

Her score is played by a four-member band (including someone who strums a qanun) that sits just slightly offstage playing Philip Glass-style rhythms. But the driving force of McLean's soundscape comes directly from the women themselves.

They moan, they click their tongues, they clap their hands, they beat their thighs and sometimes they sing in gorgeous harmony. Through the magic of modern technology, most of their sounds are recorded and immediately played back, creating an eerie electronic echo.

The effect can be arresting. It sometimes reminded me of the Gregorian chants that I adore. But there’s also a-look-at-how-clever-I-am quality to it all that I found annoying.

also wanted more of a story. And since most of the action takes place inside the women’s cell, it got monotonous, despite director Lee Sunday Evans’ valiant attempts to keep the actors in motion. Which is not easy to do in the intentionally constricted space set designer Kristen Robinson has created for them.

Maybe the problem is that I’m just not a chamber musical gal. I’m chagrined to admit that I was bored by Dave Malloy’s Octet, and that a capella musica charmed just about everyone else I know. Even more sacrilegious, I was somewhat ho-hum about The Band’s Visit, a universal favorite (even my persnickety husband K liked it) which, of course, ended up winning a Tony.

But years of theatergoing have taught me that you gotta know yourself and make peace with your preferences. I love propulsive narratives and I’m a sucker for big spectacles onstage. Now I have appreciated other kinds of musicals. But the intimate pleasures of this chamber musical proved to be too claustrophobic for me.

July 6, 2019

Theater Books for Summer Reading 2019

The months of July and August are traditionally a quiet time for theater but the summer is still my favorite time of the year. My husband K says that’s because my birthday is in the summer and so it’s how I first got to know the world. Whatever the reason, I love the languid days, the warm nights and the time I get to sit on our terrace, sipping a cool drink (I’m back to Cosmos this year) and reading. I’ve also come to love sharing my annual summer reading list for those of you looking for something theater-related to read while you kickback at the beach, in the backyard or on a patch of grass or piece of rock in the park. This year’s list has novels, memoirs and biographies, a lot of them about Tennessee Williams:

City of Girls by Elizabeth Gilbert. Although best known as a non-fiction writer and the author of the you-go-girl bestseller "Eat, Pray, Love," Gilbert has also written several novels and her latest is centered around an off-Broadway theater in the 1940s that is home to a motley crew of misfits led by a lesbian version of Auntie Mame. Or at least that's what the best half of the book is about. The story peters out whenever the location shifts but the hard-partying show girls, moody writers and show-must-go-on actors make for good company and an easy summer read. 

Exit Stage Left: The Snagglepuss Chronicles by Mark Russell.  This graphic novel tranposes the Hanna-Barbera cartoon characters into the theater world of the 1950s when the House Un-American Activities Committee was on the prowl. Arthur Miller and Lillian Hellman make cameo appearances but the titular theater-loving mountain lion steps in for Tennessee Williams and anchors a story about the committee's oppression of homosexuals. It's an offbeat but still moving way to look back at that reign of terror.

Famous Father Girl: Growing Up Bernstein by Jamie Bernstein. Leonard Bernstein’s eldest daughter offers an intimate look at her dad, warts and all. And there were plenty of warts including her father’s drug use and decidedly unMeToo behavior with young men, some even younger than his own children. But she also recalls his exuberant love for his family and the professional brilliance that allowed him to create such magnificent scores as the ones for On the Town and West Side Story. Plus there are lots of delicious anecdotes about the family’s famous friends, a who’s who from the Golden Age of American theater that included Betty Comden, Adolph Green, Mike NIchols, Jerome Robbins and Stephen Sondheim.

Leading Men by Christopher Castellani. Tennessee Williams wrote many of his greatest plays during the time that he and Frank Merlo, a working class guy from New Jersey, were a couple. And although far from monogamous, their 15-year relationship may count as one of the midcentury's greatest love stories. Castellani’s novel offers a fictionalized version of a pivotal summer in their lives and its aftermath. I got impatient with chapters devoted to a character inspired by Williams’ longtime confidante and literary executive Maria Britneva but when the book focuses on Williams and Merlo, it’s terrific.

A Player and a Gentleman: The Diary of Harry Watkins,Nineteenth-Century U.S. American Actor, edited by Amy E. Hughes and Nancy J. Stubbs. It’s never been easy to be an actor but it was really tough during this country’s Antebellum years when actors had to be ready to perform as many as a dozen different plays in a week and supply their own costumes. A well-regarded actor who worked alongside some of the era’s greats including Edwin Booth and Edwin Forrest, Watkins kept a journal and the best bits are excerpted in this chronicle of his journey from playing “walking gentleman” parts in traveling companies for $6 a week (less than $200 in today’s money) to becoming an actor-manager. It’s catnip for theater history buffs.

Sister Carrie by Theodore Dreiser: First published in 1900, this novel from the American canon isn’t really a theater book but it provides a fascinating look at the theater world during the Gilded Age as its determined titular heroine transforms from a poor insecure shop girl into a celebrated leading lady of the stage, blithely ruining the lives of several men as she makes her ascent.

Too Much is Not Enough: A Memoir of Fumbling Toward Adulthood by Andrew Rannells. Theater fans know Rannells as the original Elder Price in The Book of Mormon and more recently as Larry in the 50th anniversary revival of The Boys in the Band that featured a cast of all proudly gay actors. But neither of those shows makes it into this delightful memoir of selected stories about the actor’s childhood as a boy actor in his native Omaha, Nebraska, and his first seven years as a struggling actor in New York. Get the audiobook if you can because listening to Rannells narrate his exploits is like dishing with a good friend while sipping a well-chilled cocktail.

Trust Exercise by Susan Choi. Centered around a group of students who attended a performing arts high school in Houston during the 1980s, Choi’s coming-of-age novel, inspired in part by her girlhood experiences at such a school, won raves when it came out earlier this year. As might be expected, it features a charismatic but slightly mysterious teacher who serves as a mentor to the students who all compete to win his favor. But the narrative, which extends into the students’ adulthood, veers from the predictable and ends up posing significant questions about the role of art, friendship, memory and revenge.

Temper by Layne Fargo. Fans of David Ives' psychological thriller Venus in Fur will undoubtedly get a kick out of this Fifty Shades of Greyish story about a thirtysomething Chicago actress who gets cast in a new play by the domineering artistic director of a theater company known for doing edgy work. The play is a two-hander about a troubled married couple but the novel's cast of characters include the company's female co-founder, the actress' male roommate and a reporter who covers the local theater scene. Nearly all of them are bisexual and hot for one another, which sets the stage for jealousies, rivalries and some serious S&M entanglements.

Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh by John Lahr. The one-time theater critic for The New Yorker won a National Book Award for this biography when it came out in 2014 and it’s easy to see why. The book not only provides an intimate (at times too intimate) chronicle of the playwright’s life but also analyzes each of the more than three dozen plays he wrote. As Lahr tells it, Williams drank too much, was sexually obsessive, fretted constantly about his reputation and experienced several nervous breakdowns but he never stopped writing. And although his later plays may suffer in comparison to his early masterpieces, glimpses of Williams' brilliance can be found in those works and in the letters he exchanged with his wide circle of friends and from which Lahr wisely quotes extensively.

And if you're looking for still more to read, below are links to my lists from previous years: