January 18, 2020

An Invitation to Join Me (and Some Great Playwrights) at This Year's BroadwayCon

No review post this week (although if you have a chance you should try to catch Talene Monahon’s How to Load a Musket, a really thought-provoking play about historical reenactors and the fractured ways in which we all view America history, which is running through next weekend at 59E59 Theaters).

But what I really want to do is give you a heads-up about the terrific panel that the Outer Critics Circle will be presenting at this year’s BroadwayCon to kick off a year-long celebration of the 70th anniversary season of the organization composed of New York-based theater writers and reviewers for a variety of print and online publications. 

The panel will celebrate some great young playwrights, which is something the group has been doing for a long time. In 1967, the OCC established the John Gassner Award, named after the group’s founder and created to give a boost to promising playwrights at the beginning of their careers. Past honorees have included John Guare, David Henry Hwang, John Leguizamo, Lynn Nottage, Aaron Sorkin and August Wilson. 

It's probably immodest of me to say that the upcoming BroadwayCon panel is just as terrific since I sit on the executive board of the group and am an organizer of the panel.  But the truth is the truth and it is a terrific lineup. 

Moderated by Richard Ridge, my fellow OCC board member and the host of Broadway Worlds’ “Backstage with Richard Ridge,” it will celebrate three of today’s most exciting playwrights: Donja R. Love (Sugar in Our Wounds) and Ming Peiffer (Usual Girls) who were finalists for last year’s Gassner prize and Bess Wohl, who won the award in 2017 for Small Mouth Sounds and who will make her Broadway debut next week with the Second Stage production of Grand Horizons. 

The four of them will get together next Friday, Jan, 24, at 11:15 a.m. in the Beekman Room at the Midtown Hilton to talk about the current golden age of playwriting. I'll be there too and I hope that those of you attending BroadwayCon (which, as you know, is great fun) will join us. You can find more information at: http://bit.ly/occ-con

January 11, 2020

Some Must See Shows for the Spring Season

The best preview for the spring 2020 theater season I’ve seen was the one that my friend and fellow theater junkie Howard Sherman posted on his Facebook page a couple of weeks ago:

I can’t be as succinct (or maybe even as optimistic) as Howard but here are a dozen upcoming shows that I am champing at the bit to see over the next few months:

The Australian director Simon Stone had great success with his reworking of Federico García Lorca’s 1934 tragedy Yerma about a childless woman that played at the Park Avenue Armory two years ago. Now he’s taking on Euripides’ classic tragedy about a woman who commits the ultimate act of revenge against a cheating husband. To make it even more tempting, he’s recruited the real-life couple of Rose Byrne and Bobby Cannavale to star.  
Running Jan. 12 to Feb. 23 at BAM

Who wouldn’t want to see an ensemble composed of Jane Alexander, James Cromwell, Priscilla Lopez, Ashley Park and Michael Urie? And just as tantalizing is the fact that they’re appearing in the Broadway debut of Bess Wohl whose Small Mouth Sounds and Make Believe showed that she's a master at dissecting the intricacies of human relationships.
Opening Jan. 23 at Second Stage’s Helen Hayes Theater

Sure, it's another movie adaptation but this musical reworking of Paul Mazurky’s 1969 comedy about two married couples trying to get in on the sexual revolution has a score by Duncan Sheik and I’m always up for seeing and hearing the latest by the composer of Spring Awakening.
Opening Feb. 4 in a The New Group production at The Pershing Square Signature Center

Signature Theatre has already announced an extension for this new show by Katori Hall and although I don’t know a lot about it, this comedy about a guy trying to win a culinary competition promises to be a welcomed reminder that plays about black and brown people don’t always have to deal with racial trauma.
Opening Feb. 11 in Signature Theatre’s  Alice Griffin Jewel Box Theatre

Although this musical about the relationship between the silent film director Mack Sennett and his leading lady Mabel Normand only ran 66 performances when it originally opened in 1974, I’ve always wanted to see it and so I bought my ticket for the Encores! production as soon as they went on sale. I just wish the show’s composer Jerry Herman, who died Dec. 26, could be around to see what is said to be one of his favorite of his shows.
Running Feb. 19-23 at City Center

Even friends who don’t go to the theater much have been asking me about the revival of this classic retelling of the Romeo and Juliet story with music by Leonard Bernstein, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and a book by Arthur Laurents (and whose original productions was directed and choreographed by Jerome Robbins). I’m admittedly nervous about what the iconoclastic director Ivo van Hove might do with one of my all-time favorite musicals but there’s no way you could keep me away from seeing this one.
Opening Feb. 20 at the Broadway Theatre

I’ve loved the mix of the real and the mildly surreal in everything (The Hatmakers Wife and The Great Leap) I’ve seen by Lauren Yee and I’ve been looking forward to seeing this play that sets the story of a survivor of the Khmer Rouge’s Killing Fields to a score of rock music played by an onstage band.
Opening Feb. 24 in a Signature Theatre production at The Pershing Square Signature Center

The always-intriguing playwright Lucas Hnath has already premiered one new play this season (The Thin Place at Playwrights Horizons) but this is his most personal work to date: a solo show based on the true experience of his mother, a hospital chaplain who was held captive for five months by a former mental patient. Plus it's starring one of my I’ll-see-her-in-anything faves, Deirdre O’Connell.
Opening Feb. 25 at the Vineyard Theatre

Issues of gender, ethnic identity and aging are catnip for me and I’m eager to see them examined in Celine Song’s meta play about a playwright struggling to write about the last of Korea’s traditional female deep sea divers in this production staged by the up-and-coming young female director Sammi Cannold.
Opening March 9 at New York Theatre Workshop

They’re calling this musical Britain’s Hamilton because it sets the real-life stories of the six wives of Henry VIII to a sung-through pop score filled with catchy songs and resonant points about the way women’s lives have been constricted throughout history. Just listening to the cast album has been a blast and I’ve already made a date with my Anglophilic niece to see the live production.
Opening March 12 at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre

My beloved husband K is notoriously picky about what he will see but he’s already put in his bid to see the new Tracy Letts comedy about a fractious city council meeting and I totally get why because the show will be directed by the Tony-winning Anna D. Shapiro and has a supporting cast that includes Blair Brown, K Todd Freeman, Armie Hammer, Jessie Mueller, Austin Pendleton and Letts himself.
Opening March 15 at the Cort Theatre

It was originally scheduled for last season and so my appetite has been truly whet for this latest work by the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Martyna Majok which promises to offer another of her timely meditations on what it means to be an immigrant and marginalized in today’s America.
Opening March 24 at New York Theatre Workshop

January 4, 2020

"Judgment Day": More Style Than Substance

Bigger isn’t always better. The British director Richard Jones won deserved kudos in 2017 for staging The Hairy Ape in the vast drill hall at the Park Avenue Armory. That production literally revolved around a massive turntable on which designer Stewart Laing set a series of huge see-through cubes in which Eugene O'Neill's jeremiad about class division unfolded. It was sensational and landed on my list of the best theatrical experiences I had that year.

Jones is now back and filling the same 55,000-square-foot space with an adaptation of Judgment Day, an allegorical piece written in 1937 by the Austro-Hungarian playwright Ödön von Horváth, who died the next year at age 36 when a tree branch fell on his head during a thunderstorm. However this timeout Jones' production is less thrilling.

Judgment Day, adapted for this production by the playwright Christopher Shinn, chronicles the aftermath of a train crash that occurs outside a small Bavarian town when the station master Thomas Hudetz fails to send the necessary signal. Normally a by-the-clock guy but unhappily married to a woman 13-years-older than he is, Hudetz lies about what happened because he is ashamed that he was distracted at the crucial moment by the flirtations of a younger woman.

But that's just the set-up because Horváth, who watched the Nazis rise to power, is most interested in the community's response to the train wreck. He shows how the kind of herd mentality that always bodes ill quickly develops. Then he adds another calamity that intensifies the enmity. Tragedy ensues as the townspeople look for scapegoats to blame.

Once again however, the focus of Jones’ production is the set. This time he has collaborated with designer Paul Steinberg and the centerpieces of the show are two towering plywood structures that are wheeled around to create different settings ranging from the train station to the village tavern that provides the community's main entertainment to a nearby forest that becomes the scene of an eventual manhunt.

The sharply choreographed movement, effective lighting and sound design that conveys the whoosh of passing trains, the plaintive sound of church bells and an underlying sense of dread are all impressive. And they seem to have wowed many of the critics. My BroadwayRadio colleague Peter Filichia has declared this production, which runs through Jan. 10, to be one of the best things he’s ever seen. And he’s seen over 10,000 shows.

I agree that Judgment Day is a visual spectacle. But I also think Jones’ epic approach overwhelms his storytelling. Like O'Neill's Hairy Ape, Horváth’s tale is intentionally expressionistic and leans heavily on archetypes. But Jones and Bobby Cannavale, who played the proud ship worker in the Hairy Ape who is dismissed by a wealthy female passenger as a “filthy beast,” found a way to make you feel for the character and, by extension, for others ground down by the 1 percent.

Horvath’s more intimate story calls for even more empathetic treatment. But neither the director nor Bruno Kirby (click here toread more about him) who plays Hudetz made me feel anything for the station master’s plight. And having never seen the play before, I can’t tell if I should blame Horváth, Shinn or Jones for making the townspeople so vapid. And that’s despite the fact that they’re played in this production by such fine actors as Harriet Harris as the town busybody (automatic demerits for anyone who makes Harris seem colorless) and Henry Stram as the one resident who attempts to abide by his moral conscience.

I get that we’re supposed to draw parallels between the time of the play and these fitful times when polarized groupthink is threatening our own democracy. But the erosion of society’s norms doesn’t happen with epic gestures, it happens in the quotidian moments in which people begin to lie to themselves about what is happening around them, find it easier to follow the crowd than to stand on principle and look for outsiders to blame.

I suspect those are among the sins we'll all be called to answer for on the real Judgment Day and no amount of razzle-dazzle in this production or otherwise can make up for a sincere contemplation of how to confront them.