March 25, 2023

"A Doll's House" is Chic But Underfurnished

Despite the projection of the date 1879 on the brick wall at the back of the Hudson Theatre, the new revival of Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House could be taking place in some cool Brooklyn neighborhood today. For everyone on stage is dressed in hipster black outfits. Minimalism is so prioritized that there’s no set and no props, except for some wooden chairs. And when wanting to express deep frustration, its main character Nora just utters the word “Fuck.”

 As you might be able to tell, I wasn’t thrilled with British director Jamie Lloyd’s riff on this classic proto-feminist drama about a 19th century woman finding the courage to break out of the restrictions that society has imposed on her. 

Now I do appreciate the need for revivals to make old works relevant to modern times. Although I didn't see Lloyd's Cyrano de Bergerac, which played at BAM last year, I very much liked his production of Betrayal that ran on Broadway in 2019. Both of them shared the same stripped-down aesthetic as this new production does—and did so to general acclaim. But no one-size-fits-all approach works for every show. 

And alas, Lloyd is showing signs of becoming a straight-play version of John Doyle, whose innovation of having the actors in his musicals accompany themselves on instruments started out as a novel idea but eventually became an annoying gimmick. 

Another Lloyd tic seems to be the casting of famous screen actors in his productions. Tom Hiddleston anchored Betrayal, James McAvoy starred in Cyrano and now Oscar-winner Jessica Chastain is his Nora. Chastain's centrality to this production is on display even before the show starts: when audience members enter the theater, she’s sitting silently in one of the wooden chairs as a turntable revolves so that she can be seen—and photographed—from every angle.

The Juilliard-trained Chastain is a fine actress and she is compelling to watch here (click here to read more about her involvement in the project). She’s also backed by a strong supporting cast that includes Arian Moayed as Nora’s husband Torvald and Okieriete Onaodowan as the bank officer Krogstad. 

But the way this production presents them seems less like an actual play than the showcase night at a drama school where the best students get to show off how much they've learned. 

Meanwhile, playwright Amy Herzog’s updated adaptation softens the alpha-male characters, leaving Moayed and Onaodowan adrift, unsure what beats to play. Adding insult to injury, poor Onaodowan has apparently been directed to deliver many of his lines upstage, facing the wall.

It also doesn’t help that the plot of A Doll’s House pivots around Nora’s forging a bank document because women in her day couldn’t take out loans unless they were signed by a male relative. That obviously poses a problem for any updating because, of course, women now have direct access to their own finances. 

I get that the loan restrictions could be a metaphor for current-day attempts to control what women can and can’t do with their bodies but having the action (or lack of action in this case) take place in some timeless limbo undercuts that connection.

But even more egregiously, Herzog’s script and Lloyd’s direction fail to show Nora's evolving consciousness as she transforms from a flighty trophy wife into a strong woman with a mind of her own. And since that's the whole point of the play, I’m going to have to count this version of it as a failure.

March 18, 2023

How To Defend Yourself" Grapples With Gen-Z Concerns About Intimacy and Consent

Thousands of dollars and countless hours have been spent trying to figure out how to get young people into the theater. But I’ve got a hunch that the answer is simple: offer things they want to see and hear. I suspect that How to Defend Yourself, the bittersweet comedy of modern-day manners that opened this week at New York Theatre Workshop, is just that kind of show.

The narrative centers around a self-defense class organized by a group of college students after a couple of fraternity brothers so brutally raped a female classmate that she’s ended up in the hospital. The sessions are led by Brandi, a taut—in every sense of that word—senior who is determined to share her knowledge of the fighting techniques that she’s mastered and believes can disarm sexual predators.

The women in her class like practicing the martial arts moves (energetically choreographed by Steph Paul, one of the show’s three credited directors) but they’re more ambivalent when it comes to handling their feelings about sex. 

An eager freshman is excited about the prospect of losing her virginity to a hot guy on campus no matter what it takes. Another student is willing to hook up with just about anyone in exchange for even the slightest display of affection. While a third admits she likes it when her sex partners are a little rough.    

Two guys also come to the sessions to demonstrate their ally support but they’re even more confused. “Girls want you to read their fucking minds and then be everything to them,” one, who is perhaps too intentionally named Eggo, laments. “If you’re flirting with me, if you come up to me at a bar and press your tits on me, I’m assuming you want to fuck, sorry!”  

Such quandries about intimacy and consent are high on the list of issues that young people today are wrestling with and Eggo’s comments echo the way they talk about them. Which isn’t surprising. Playwright Liliana Padilla, who is part Asian, part Latinx and identifies as nonbinary, is just a few years out of grad school and has said that they themself are a rape survivor (click here to read more about that). 

But this isn’t a soapbox drama attempting to teach life lessons. Padilla, a winner of the 2019 Yale Drama Prize for emerging playwrights, accepts that life is messy and, allowing form to follow function, permits this play to be messy too. 

So How to Defend Yourself poses the challenging questions and then dares its audiences to figure out for ourselves what today’s young women and men should do to protect themselves—or at least to develop some compassion for those struggling to do so.

This may be frustrating for viewers who want a play that stakes out a clear position on what's right and what's wrong. But even they are likely to be entertained by this play’s bantering humor, its game cast and the kinetic staging, jointly crafted by Padilla, Paul and the always inventive Rachel Chavkin.

I’ll confess that I have no idea what the final five minutes of the play were trying to say but it probably wasn’t speaking to baby boomer me anyway. On the other hand, I happened to be sitting in the midst of a bunch of twentysomethings and I could tell by their head nods and murmurs of assent that it was speaking their language. And that’s why they were there.

March 4, 2023

"The Sign in Sidney Brustein's Window" Is a Sign of Better Things That Never Came

Lorraine Hansberry only lived long enough to see two of her plays produced. The first was A Raisin in the Sun, celebrated when it opened in 1959 as the first play by an African-American woman to be performed on Broadway and now a revered part of the theatrical canon that has so far had five major revivals here in New York and countless others around the country. 

The second was The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window, which limped through a three-month run that ended in 1965 just two days before Hansberry died from pancreatic cancer at the age of 34 and that play has rarely been seen since then.  

So when I heard that the Brooklyn Academy of Music was giving Sidney Brustein its first major revival in New York and that it would be starring the power players Oscar Isaac and Rachel Brosnahan, I made sure to buy a ticket within an hour of they’re going on sale last year and made my way out to Brooklyn last weekend. What I saw wasn’t exactly what I expected but I’m so glad I got to see it.

Hansberry’s script is brimming with ideas and wit and passion. But it’s also filled with too many characters, meandering storylines and more political themes than a State of the Union address. “The truth must be faced,” New York Times critic Howard Taubman wrote when the original production opened, “Miss Hansberry's play lacks concision and cohesion.”

I can’t argue with that but what’s missing from Taubman's review and others at the time is an appreciation for how much ambition this play shows. For while Raisin focused almost entirely on a poor black family’s struggle to better their lives, Hansberry did something in Sidney Brustein that is still rare for playwrights of color to do: she wrote about white people. And they’re not just generic white people but the kind of white bohemians that Hansberry knew well when she lived in Greenwich Village in the early 1960s.

As the play opens its title character Sidney has just traded in one failing enterprise (a local nightclub that didn't serve alcohol) for another (a community newspaper that won’t engage with local politics). He can do these things because he’s financially supported by his wife Iris, a would-be actress who works as a waitress and whom he idolizes and puts down as the mood strikes him.  

Their motley crew of friends and relatives include their upstairs neighbor David, a gay playwright whose latest work has become a surprise hit; Wally, a glad-handing reform politician; Iris’ sisters Mavis, an Upper East Side matron stuck in a marriage of convenience, and Gloria, a free-spirited but fragile call girl; and Alton, a biracial ex-communist who’s in love with Gloria.  

Race aside, each of them represents an aspect of Hansberry herself, who grew up in an affluent family (her father was a big realtor in Chicago) wrote for progressive magazines before moving into playwrighting, married a white man even though she was a lesbian, and remained a committed activist who was a fellow traveler if not an out-and-out member of the communist party.  

Sidney Brustein refuses to let any of Hansberry’s disparate alter egos off the hook, zeroing in on the self-delusions of each of the characters in the play. How much, it asks, are they willing to pay for their pipe dreams? The sign in the title refers to the one that Sidney hangs when he impulsively decides to drop his apolitical stance and endorse a candidate—only to ultimately regret doing so. 

Hansberry’s efforts to wrestle with the many themes in this play can come off as pedantic in some places and as superficial in others. But much of that might have been ironed out (and the three-hour running time trimmed) if she could have focused on the play during its rehearsal period instead of literally fighting to stay alive. Her ex-husband and literary executor until his death in 1991 made some later revisions to the script but that’s hardly the same.

So kudos to director Anne Kauffman, who also did an earlier production of Sidney Brustein in Chicago back in 2016, for being such a steadfast ally of the play and for staging a production that is as engaging as most of this one is (click here to read about how it came together). 

Now there are some hiccups in the production. Some of the costumes for Iris look as though they'd be more at home on Park Avenue than in Washington Square Park. And I still can’t figure out why three of the actors set up chairs in front of the stage to watch their colleagues perform a few scenes. But Kauffman’s casting works beautifully.  

Brosnahan, now best known for her turn as a Joan Rivers-style comic in the Amazon Prime series “The Marvelous Mrs. Mazel,” is poignant here as a less assertive woman struggling to define who she is at the dawn of the modern feminist era. Meanwhile Isaac brings his trademark intensity to a man who yearns to be great but knows he lacks the capacity to be so. 

Watching them made me wish that Hansberry could see them too, and made me wish even more that she'd been able to give us lots of other works for actors and audiences to explore.