February 29, 2020

The Clever Mysteries of “The Headlands”

Christopher Chen’s intriguing memory play The Headlands works on so many levels that it’s hard for me to keep track of all of them.

It starts out as a crime procedural centered around an investigation into a long ago murder in San Francisco’s Chinese community. Then it cloaks itself in the film-noirish moodiness of illicit love and shady financial dealings. And ultimately it becomes a meditation on assimilation, identity and the narratives that we and others weave around ourselves.

The play bounces back and forth between the present as a young armchair sleuth named Henry tries to figure out what caused the mysterious shooting death of his father, an earlier period of the 1970s when Henry’s parents—his father a poor immigrant to this country and his mother the daughter of one of the city’s wealthy families—met and fell in love and a bit later when the child Henry fears they may be falling apart.

The result is a kaleidoscope of a play that shifts constantly as new information is added, reinterpreted, viewed from different angles. The tone is jokey at first but gradually becomes more pensive as Chen and director Knud Adams peel away the layers of the stories that Henry's investigation reveals.

They’re ably assisted by a top-notch cast, whose first among equals is Johnny Wu who, with just a subtle alteration of voice and posture, convincingly plays the father at several periods in the character’s life, from an almost nebbishy immigrant dishwasher to a seemingly confident businessman.

But everyone is terrific and it’s particularly wonderful to see Asian actors getting to explore a full spectrum of emotions that range from the romantic to the malevolent. And what a pleasure it must be for them to be in a play that doesn't shy away from the issues of race and otherness but that doesn't wallow in them either. 

Still, the production’s true MVP is its video projections, which may be the best I’ve ever seen. The stage of LCT3’s Clair Tow Theater, where the show is running through March 22, is almost bare except for white scrims on which projection designer Ruey Horng Sun displays images of mid-century San Francisco that provide a perfect backdrop for the slight but still glamorous seediness of the story (click here to read more about how they were assembled).

The title borrows its name from the often foggy promontory across the bay from the city and it made me nostalgic for the time I spent in San Francisco before the tech bros took it over. The Headlands only runs 90 minutes but I would have happily stayed longer.

February 22, 2020

Joyfully Celebrating 13 Years of B&Me

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Time flies. And this year it’s whizzing by so quickly that I almost forgot to take some time out to celebrate the 13th anniversary of Broadway & Me. But although I’m a week or so late, I'm no less exuberant about having survived, and even thrived, for this long.

Thirteen, my birth date, has always been a lucky number for me and this past year has been filled with all kinds of happy-making events. At the top of the list, of course, was seeing lots of shows and discovering some fine new playwrights, several of whom were kind enough to talk with me about their plays for the “Stagecraft” podcast I continue to do for BroadwayRadio (you can check out those interviews by clicking here).

I also got to talk to other theater makers for stories I wrote for other theater-related sites from a Q&A with playwright Jeremy O. Harris and director Robert O’Hara for their much-talked about production of Slave Play (click here to read that) to a profile of the young actor Will Hochman who made his Broadway debut opposite Mary-Louise Parker in Adam Rapp’s wonderful The Sound Inside (you can read it by clicking here)

Another highlight of the year was accepting an Emmy on behalf of an episode I co-hosted for the still-much missed TV show "Theater Talk," created and produced by my pal Susan Haskins-Doloff. A few weeks later, I joined Susan and a panel of other theater critics to talk about the season for a reunion episode of "Theater Talk" that was filmed at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center and later broadcast on stations across the country (we’re scheduled to get together again this May 5, so I hope you’ll keep an eye out for that.)

And just a month ago, I produced a panel for this year’s BroadwayCon to kick off the 70th anniversary celebration of the Outer Critics Circle. The panel was moderated by my fellow OCC board member Broadway World’s Richard Ridge and featured a super talented panel of playwrights that included Ming Peiffer (Usual Girls) Donja R. Love (Sugar in Our Wounds, One in Two) and Bess Wohl (Small Mouth Sounds, Grand Horizons).

As I said, really happy-making stuff. But it all began here, when I published my first blog post on Valentine’s Day, Feb. 14, 2007. And writing here and sharing theater with you all remains the thing closest to my heart.

I am endlessly grateful to those of you who have stuck with me over the years —and to those of you who may have just stumbled onto this post for the first time today. The 2020 spring season is heating up so I’m already looking forward to another terrific year of theatergoing and I hope you’ll share it with me.

February 15, 2020

Question: What Makes a Modern Musical? Replies From: "Bob & Ted & Carol & Alice," "Romeo & Bernadette" & "Darling Grenadine"

Wither the musical? Not the jukebox musical or the ones that strap themselves to popular movies like a shipwreck victim clinging to a lifeboat or even those with rock scores whose songs self-consciously comment on a show instead of embedding themselves within it. I’m talking about the traditional musical with a book, original tunes that move the plot along, tell us about the character and even have lines that rhyme, the kind of show written for people who are no longer in high school. Does that kind of musical have a future? Three shows I’ve seen over the past couple of weeks try to answer that question. Their responses—and mine to them—are mixed.

Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, The New Group production that is running at the Pershing Square Signature Center through March 22, is based on Paul Mazursky’s 1969 movie about two affluent white couples who flirt with the idea of open marriage and wife swapping. It's certainly adult but it's also as old-fashioned as they come. So old-fashioned in fact that it seems dug out of some early ‘60s time capsule. 

The costumes (mini-skirts, Nehru jackets) are cute and colorful and the actors are equally perky but B&C&T&A has a book by Jonathan Marc Sherman that mimics the wink-wink coyness of those old Doris Day-Rock Hudson movies that were all pillow talk and no action when it came to sex.

The musical's characters talk about their extra-marital liaisons and there’s the iconic scene where the four of them climb into bed together but Sherman doesn’t seem to have anything meaningful to say about their doings, that period or its relation to the present when love stories now routinely include second marriages, same-sex couples and transgender partners.

Meanwhile, the show’s score with music by the now ubiquitous Duncan Sheik (this is his third show in less than a year) and overworked lyrics by Amanda Green so intentionally evokes the songs of Burt Bacharach and Hal David that you’re almost waiting for a cameo appearance by their muse Dionne Warwick. If only. It would be sad if too many other musicals followed down this shaky path.

Romeo & Bernadette, the AMAS Musical Theatre production, looks back to the ‘60s too.  But it’s more self-aware and surefooted about it. Mark Saltzman who wrote the book and lyrics, which he set to what the program calls “Classical Italian Melodies,” moves Shakespeare’s story of young lovers from warring clans in 16th century Verona to 1960’s Brooklyn.

In this telling of the tale, the poison that Romeo drank didn’t kill him but put him to sleep for 400 years. When he awakes in midcentury Verona he spots an American tourist who is—pardon the expression—a dead ringer for his beloved Juliet and he sets out to reclaim her heart.

As it turns out the tourist, whose name is Bernadette, is the daughter or an American mobster (more Guys and Dolls’ Big Jule than Tony Soprano) and she’s engaged to marry a young hotheaded mafioso. When Romeo makes his way to America, he’s taken under the wing of the rival gang, despite being dressed in a poet’s shirt, tights and a codpiece and displaying the courtly gestures of his era.

The narrative is grown-up but it makes no sense and the humor is divided between jokes about Romeo’s anachronisms and the stereotypical behavior of the other characters (everyone, except Romeo, speaks with exaggerated Brooklyn accents, Bernadette is the kind of entitled princess who would fit right in with the Kardashians and her bridal florist is the kind of flamboyant gay guy who keeps fluttering his hands) but it’s all played with such jolly affection that it’s almost hard to take offense. 

The show’s songs are distinctive and spring from moments of genuine emotion. They aren’t afraid of metaphor either and their lyrics are delightfully clever. People familiar with opera or the Dean Martin songbook will have the extra pleasure of being able to identify the original melodies that Saltzman has recruited for his tunes. My theatergoing buddy Bill couldn’t resist humming a few as we walked to a restaurant for dinner after the show.

Romeo & Bernadette closes at A.R.T./New York Theatres this weekend but is already scheduled to reopen for an unlimited run on Theatre Row starting March 17. It’s a fun show, the kind the whole family might enjoy but it too looks to the past rather than to the future.

Darling Grenadine, currently playing a sold-out run at the Roundabout Theatre Company’s Black Box Theatre, seems to be heading in the right direction. The show, which was entirely written by, Daniel Zaitchik, is an original modern-day romcom, leavened with just enough darkness to give it some of the edge that modern theatergoers seem to favor.

Its main character is a songwriter named Harry who’s made a small fortune from writing a jingle for a hamburger chain but can’t seem to write anything else. He falls for a girl named Louise who’s in the ensemble of a hit Broadway musical and the understudy for its star. 

Given a setup like that, you think you know where the show is going but it doesn’t go there.  Instead, it slowly reveals that Harry has a seriously grown-up problem that threatens his relationship with Louise, as well as the ones he has with his brother, with his beloved dog, both of whom are named Paul, and with his past.

The songs, written and sung with exquisite care, are reminiscent of Golden Age showtunes but firmly rooted in today’s sensibilities. This isn’t a perfect show.  It’s too long and some of the numbers seem as though they were pulled randomly out of a trunk. But the show has been deftly staged by Michael Berresse and it offers some hope that modern-day musicals can cater to theater lovers who don't need to depend on their parents' health insurance coverage.

February 8, 2020

"A Soldier's Story" Flies Its Flag at Half-Mast

One of my best friends worked for the Negro Ensemble Company back in its heyday and so I got to see the original productions of such shows as Zooman and the Sign, The River Niger and the NEC’s most successful production, Charles Fuller’s Pulitzer Prize-winning A Soldier’s Story, which has now been revived by the Roundabout Theatre Company and is running at the American Airlines Theatre through March 25.

Set in the barracks of an all-black platoon stationed on a southern army base toward the end of World War II, A Soldier’s Story starts with the murder of the group's sergeant and the arrival of one of the military's few black officers who has been sent to investigate the crime. 

On the surface the play unfolds like an episode of a network TV procedural with the questioning of witnesses, flashbacks that explore relevant relationships and some misdirection about who did the deed. But what won the play its Pulitzer was Fuller’s devastating meditation on the effects of systemic racism. 

The original cast turned out to be special too. It included a young Denzel Washington and a young Samuel L. Jackson. But the performances that knocked me out back then and that I still remember vividly now were by Adolph Caesar as the murdered Sergeant Vernon C. Waters and Larry Riley as C.J. Memphis, one of the privates under Waters' command.

Caesar played Waters as a man desperate to show that African Americans could make good soldiers but unaware of how much white society’s belief in black inferiority had already infected him. That resulted in a  performance that was simultaneously gut-wrenching and heartbreaking. 

Riley, on the other hand, played Memphis as a naive but sweet country boy who had a way with singing the blues and making friends that endeared him to the other guys in the unit—and to those of us in the audience as well.

Both actors left big shoes to fill and I’m sorry to say that the actors stepping into them in this revival, the first time the play has been done on Broadway, walk more lightly than I’d hoped. 

That’s not at all the fault of the play, which offers as sharp a commentary about both institutionalized and internalized racism as it did when it debuted in 1981 and when it was turned into the Oscar-nominated film “ A Soldier’s Story” three years later. The problem now, I fear, rests in the direction by Kenny Leon.

This production is cooly intellectual rather than viscerally emotional. It focuses more on the look of things (the set is bo-ho chic and the men are buff) than on what the play is trying to say about the indignities and thwarted opportunities that segregation wrought during that pre-Civil Rights era. 

Nor has Leon helped his actors distinguish the individuals in the barracks who represent the different ways black people in that time dealt with those burdens, from going-along-to get-along to barely containing the anger that would later erupt in the militancy of the ‘60s. 

Instead, the men in this platoon are just a group of nice interchangeable guys and it was difficult to keep track of who was who. J. Alphonse Nicholson has shown himself to be a talented actor in other plays but his Memphis fails to stand out here, which undercuts the impact of his pivotal storyline. 

Similarly, football player-turned-actor Nnamdi Asomugha fades into the crowd as the firebrand Private Peterson, the role that helped launch Denzel Washington’s career.  

David Alan Grier’s Sgt. Waters also misses the mark.  It’s not that Grier, who replaced Riley in the original production and had a different part in the movie version, isn’t a good and versatile actor but he’s also so innately genial that he can’t help diluting the self-loathing that’s supposed to fuel Waters.

The most effective performance comes from Blair Underwood, who plays the Howard University-educated attorney who has been sent to investigate the case.  Underwood, who says he drew on the experiences of growing up in a military family (click here to read more about that), quietly navigates the role of a man who has to walk the line between the blacks who view him with pride and the whites who view him with surly unease.  

But Leon fussies up the rest of the production with gratuitous business like having the men appear shirtless as often as possible or including choreographed interludes in which they sing and engage in the syncopated drill-like moves practiced by black fraternities in their step competitions.  

All of that is audience-plesing (the sight of Underwood’s six pack abs stops the show as women and men hoot and clap in delight) but the eye candy detracts from the play. 

I'm willing to admit that I may be somewhat blinded by my memories of the original production but back then, all that was needed were Fuller's fine words, a cast of committed actors and the plain-spoken direction of the NEC's artistic director Douglas Turner Ward.  

Still, the fact that this revival has been so well received by critics and audiences confirms that A Soldier's Play belongs in the canon of great American plays. And so I find myself in the strange position of being disappointed in a production but still believing that if you can, you ought to see it.

February 1, 2020

The Madness of a Post-Modern "Medea"

Just like Shakespeare, the great Greek playwrights staged their plays with all-male actors. But unlike the Bard, Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides centered many of their plays around great female characters: Antigone, Clytemnestra, Electra, Medea and all those Trojan Women.

Scores of modern playwrights have been inspired by those complex heroines, especially by Medea, the wronged wife who wreaks the ultimate act of revenge. Adaptations of her story have included Maxwell Anderson’s three-act drama The Wingless Victory, Neil LaBute’s one-act Medea Redux, Michael John LaChiusa’s musical Marie Christine and Luis Alfaro’s Mojada, the affecting resetting of the tale as a Mexican immigrant’s story that ran last year at The Public Theater. Now joining those ranks is Australian director Simon Stone’s 80-minute update which opened Thursday night at BAM.

Stone’s Medea features the real-life couple of Rose Byrne and Bobby Cannavale (click here to read more about the couple) and their fame as movie and TV stars has audiences packing BAM’s Harvey Theater at top dollar prices. But the director shines the brightest spotlight on himself.

This production is filled with look-at-me gimmicks, as though Stone had been given an expiring gift card at some shop for post-modern theatrical devices. Everything is showily on-trend. His stage is bare and white and lit to a cornea-scalding brightness. His cast is dressed in casual chic clothes. He has giant video screens display close-ups of the actors’ faces, recorded while they’re performing onstage.

Under other circumstances, those things might not have bothered me. I like a bit of showy theatricality. And I enjoyed Stone's much praised  production of Yerma, a modern reworking of the Federico García Lorca play of the same name that played at the Park Avenue Armory a couple of years ago and that was performed in a Lucite box that dared the audience to figure out how the actors got into and out of it.

But that box made sense because it provided a visual metaphor for how trapped Yerma’s childless woman and her husband were by her desperation to be a mother. For Medea, Stone (click here to read more about him) seems to be tossing in things just because he can. In the process, the story, which he wrote as well as directed, gets lost.

In this contemporary makeover of Medea, the main character isn’t the outsider who gives up everything she knows and travels to a foreign land for the man she loves only to be abandoned by him. Instead, she’s a brilliant medical researcher named Anna, whose spouse has simply cheated on her.

By the time the play opens, Anna, upset that her husband has been sleeping with a much younger and richer woman, has already tried to poison him with ricin (Stone says he also drew from the 1995 true crime case of Kansa City doctor Debora Green about whom you can read more by clicking hereand she has spent some time in a psychiatric hospital.

Nevertheless, Anna's husband, here named Lucas instead of Jason, welcomes her home and allows her to spend unsupervised time with their two young sons. No one else—Anna’s therapist, her old boss, her new boss, Lucas’ girlfriend—seems to see the danger in that either.

Did none of them pay any attention to the mythology sessions in seventh grade?  Why, instead of allowing his heroine to be a truly tragic avenger or a strong woman who just dumps the guy, has Stone turned her into a hipster harpy?

And because he’s also traded in the poetic language of Euripides’ original for the colloquialisms of a “Law & Order’ episode and given up the larger-than-life passion common to all myths in exchange for the coolness of post-modernism, there’s little left for the actors or for the audience to do but start counting down the minutes to the slaughter.

That horrific denouement is enacted with some elegant stage business. It creates ironically pretty images that I admired but that failed to stir anything more in me.