November 30, 2019

The Irish Rep's "Pumpgirl" Drives Too Hard

The monologue play is an odd hybrid. Unlike traditional monologues in which one actor talks directly to the audience, it usually features three or more performers. But unlike traditional plays, the actors in these shows seldom interact with one another even though the stories they’re telling overlap to form a single narrative.

These presentations can be big shows like The Lehman Trilogy, the three-and-a-half hour saga of the rise and fall of the Lehman Brothers investment firm that wowed London audiences last year, enjoyed a sold-out run at the Park Avenue Armory last spring and is scheduled to start a Broadway run in March.

But they’re more often intimate dramas that are relatively easy to produce, which may be why they’ve recently been sprouting up like kudzu. The Irish Repertory Theatre had a surprise success last summer with Elaine Murphy’s Little Gem and Keen Company’s also successful production of Brian Friel’s Molly Sweeney just closed a few weeks ago.

Now, the Irish Rep is doing Pumpgirl by the Irish playwright Abbie Spallen (the Irish seem to have a particular fondness for this genre) that is running in the Irish Rep’s underground studio space through Dec. 29.

Set in a contemporary Northern Irish border town, Pumpgirl tells the story of a guy named Hammy, who is married to a woman named Sinead and carrying on with the titular but otherwise unnamed young woman who works at the local gas station. 

Each is frustrated by the limited opportunities that life is offering and aching for the thrill of a visceral connection. And all three will pay dearly for the latter.

Multiple soliloquies like these may be inexpensive to produce but they’re also tricky to stage. Should they be presented as naturalistic pieces, complete with scenery and exits and entrances by the characters  Or should they be treated more expressionistically on bare sets with the actors remaining onstage even while pretending to be unaware of one another?

Director Nicola Murphy tries to split the difference. She’s allowed set designer Yu-Hsuan Chen to create three separate playing spaces: the home where Sinead waits for Hammy, complete with a kitchen where she prepares evening tea for their two unseen kids and a bed where she spends sleepless nights; Hammy’s beloved car and the somewhat anachronistically old-fashioned gas station where Pumpgirl works.

It’s fun to see the bags of Taytos, the popular Irish snack food, displayed at the station but they look as though they’ve been there since the company started in 1958 and this is supposed to be the present. 

But the greater problem is that the three sets are too much to crowd into a theater that holds about 60 people. Sinead’s bedclothes pool sloppily onto the floor, almost daring audience members not to trip on them on the way in and out of the theater.

Seating is general admission but the way things are setup require lot of neck craning no matter where you sit. My theatergoing buddy Bill and I got there early and chose what seemed to be a good spot but I still missed a lot of the action in Hammy’s car. And that’s not all I missed.

The actors stay onstage even when they’re not speaking. Lighting helps directs the focus but my eyes kept wandering to the silent figures sitting in the semi-darkness. And I have to confess my mind wandered occasionally too.

The actors—Hamish Allan-Headley as Hammy, Labhaoise Magee as Pumpgirl and especially the lively Clare O’Malley as Sinead —are all very good but Murphy has them speak with pronounced Irish accents that aren’t always easy to parse. 

I lost whole paragraphs of dialog as I tried to decipher the words being said. Which is a shame because Spallen fills their speeches with wit, pathos, vivid images and sly pop cultural references (click here to read more about her).

Originally produced at the Edinburg Fringe Festival in 2006 (and later at Manhattan Theatre Club in 2007) Pumpgirl took on the devastating effects of toxic masculinity long before the phrase became fashionable. 

So the play has a lot to say and Spallen not only knows how to say it but also how to build an almost Hitchcockian sense of suspense. I left the theater feeling that the play might have worked better as a short story—or in a less fussy and clearer-spoken production.

November 23, 2019

"Tina, The Tina Turner Musical" May Not Run Deep, But Its Sensational Star Soars High

In the old days, when tickets were cheaper, people went to musicals for the thrill of hearing new songs. Today, when seeing a Broadway show can cost more than a car note, they go for the security of hearing ones they already know. 

Hence the popularity of revivals and jukebox musicals that allow Baby Boomers and Gen X-ers who grew up with the cast albums of Golden Age musicals in their homes and the sounds of pop, rock and soul on the radio to feel that a Broadway show is giving them their money’s worth.

I suspect they’re going to feel that Tina, The Tina Turner Musical does that. Which wasn’t always a given. This is the third big Broadway musical to center on the life of a disco diva and her struggle to be her own woman. But neither Summer: The Donna Summer Musical nor The Cher Show lasted even a year.

Upping Tina’s risk factor is the fact that the Tina Turner songbook isn’t even as big as those of the others: you got “Proud Mary,” “River Deep, Mountain High,” “Private Dancer” and “What’s Love Got to Do With It;” then it kind of runs out of recognizable tunes. For it wasn’t so much the songs Turner sang that made her famous, as the way she performed them, sexily growling their lyrics and shimmying to their melodies.

Luckily, what people who like jukebox musicals really like is the encore that interrupts the curtain call, just after the entire cast has taken its bows, and breaks out one more rousing number. And Tina has a great encore.

Adrienne Warren, in a sensational star-making performance, transforms the encore into a mini-version of a Tina Turner concert, complete with Mick Jagger-style prancing across the stage at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre and other tail-shaking dance moves, all done on dizzyingly tall spike heels. 

By its end, she has the crowd cheering, boogying out of the theater and forgetting the uneven show that came before. But as great as she is, the show could have been so much more. 

As the hit 1993 biopic showed, Turner’s story—abandoned child, abused wife, struggling single mom and eventually comeback superstar—is dramatic (click here to read about her life now). 

But the musical’s book, awkwardly credited to playwright Katori Hall “with Frank Ketelaar and Kees Prins,” is hobbled by its need to cram in some two dozen songs even when they have no relevant connection to the events in Turner’s life.

A glossy production might have helped camouflage some of those faults but director Phyllida Lloyd seems to have lost the mojo that turned Abba’s Mamma Mia! into a 14-year sensation (click here to read more about her). 

This time out, Lloyd's staging just lurches along from one beat to the next, all to the accompaniment of inappropriate rhymes and for no logical reason. There’s no fun or wit to tie it altogether.

And despite listing almost a full battalion of producers in the Playbill (including Turner and her second husband Erwin Bach) the show looks cheap, with lots of mylar streamers and moody video projections that look as though they had been put together late at night after a few too many energy drinks.

The show’s one saving grace—and it’s a big one—is Warren, who seems to have been hewn from the same tree of talent and vitality as the real Turner. I once saw Turner at a concert in Reno, where the audience was attentive and appreciative during most of the performance. Unsatisfied with that, Turner transfused the crowd with her own energy until it was almost ecstatic with joy.

Warren displays the same determination, lifting her show onto her tiny shoulders and infusing it with her own life force. She belts out Turner's vocally-challenging songs, she performs Turner's exuberant dances, she sympathetically cowers from the brutality of Turner's first husband Ike, she charmingly falls for Turner's second husband. 

She almost never leaves the stage, even several of her numerous costume changes are performed right in front of the audience (click here to read more about her).

But it is during the encore, when wearing the shag wig, tight shiny dress and impossibly high heels that have become the now-80 year old Turner’s trademark, that Warren completely fuses with her muse, ending it in sheer transcendent triumph. 

To paraphrase the lyrics to a later Turner song, “she’s simply the best, better than all the rest.”

November 16, 2019

Seeing "Macbeth" Again, Again, And Again

Macbeth is a great gateway drug for Shakespeare newbies. It’s got a straight-ahead plot, some of the Bard’s most memorable lines, plus witches. Us Shakespeare oldies like it too. It’s one of my favorites and despite the well-known superstition against saying its name in a theater (you’re supposed to say “The Scottish Play”) a lot of theater folks apparently also love it. Cause I’ve seen three variations in just the last six months.

First came Red Bull Theater’s production of Erica Schmidt’s Mac Beth, a reimagining of the play as a high-school revenge drama in which a band of contemporary girls meet after classes are over to rehearse the play and settle scores with one another in truly bloody fashion. 

I found the show to be a bit histrionic (click here to read my full review) but earlier this week came word that, starting Jan. 6, it will get a seven-week encore run at the Frederick Loewe Theatre at Hunter College.  

Last month the Roundabout Theatre Company opened Scotland, PA, a musical version of an indie film that sets the Bard’s tragedy in a small Pennsylvania town where stoners step in for the witches, the thane and his lady are recast as a meek fast-food restaurant worker and his more ambitious wife and the score is filled with composer Adam Gwon's ‘70s-style power ballads (click here for more about him). 

That show, which is running at the Laura Pels Theatre thru Dec. 8, amused lots of the critics, including The New York Times’ Jesse Green who found it “quietly insightful, making piquant connections between Shakespeare’s drama of political power lust and the consumerist mania of our own fast-food culture.”

Maybe. But I found Scotland, PA to be just silly. Or perhaps not silly enough since the cast members, while talented and perfectly pleasant, lack the go-for-broke zaniness that you need to pull off a spoof like this. 

The one exception is Jay Armstrong Johnson who brings a daffy charm to Banko, the lovable loser the show’s Mac eventually betrays. In the process, Johnson’s Banko also gives the show a heart it's otherwise missing.

The final entry in the Big Mac sweepstakes, at least for now, comes from Classic Stage Company. As usual, the company’s artistic director John Doyle applies his minimalist aesthetic to the production. 

That means there is practically no set. The costumes are drab shades of black, brown and gray. And the entire cast consists of nine actors, including the two who play Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, which leads to all kinds of confusion about who is killing whom.

But the biggest crime is that Doyle doesn’t seem to have any reason for doing the play. The message of Mac Beth is that teenage girls can be as vicious as medieval warriors. Scotland, PA wants to show that even when the stakes are low, good people can turn into venal ones in pursuit of them.

Doyle’s take, however, isn’t sturdy enough to make the case for doing Shakespeare traditionally or offbeat enough to provide new insights into the play or telling parallels between its time and ours. 

Instead, he does some gender-bending casting with Mary Beth Peil as King Duncan, although that’s less daring after the female Lears and Henry Vs we’ve recently seen. 

He also attempts to go post-modern by changing the famous opening scene in which the witches ask “When shall we three meet again,”  so that the entire cast intones the lines. But of course that makes no sense at all: is everybody, including the Macbeths, supposed to be witches who are in on the evil game?

Perhaps Doyle did the play to showcase Corey Stoll, who, although still best known for his TV roles has been building up his Shakespeare street cred over the past few years in productions for Shakespeare in the Park.  And under surer direction, Stoll might have made a commanding Macbeth. But here, left directorially adrift, he flounders, resorting to shouting and arm flailing. 

And it’s even more obvious that Nadia Bowers, Stoll’s real-life wife (click here to read more about the couple), could have used help in shaping her wan Lady Macbeth.

Still the play has fared worst (click here to read my review of the Lincoln Center debacle of a few years ago) and odds are that Macbeth will soon be given the chance to show its might in some other production soon.