July 29, 2023

"Flex" Is One of The Summer Season's MVPs

It’s 1998 and the five starting players for the Lady Train, the all-black girls basketball team in a small Arkansas town, aren’t dirt poor or bougie rich. The problems they’re dealing with aren’t extraordinary either but the kinds of things familiar to teen girls everywhere. And those facts alone make Flex, currently running at Lincoln Center’s Mitzi E. Newhouse theater, a standout because its playwright Candrice Jones isn’t leaning into the predictable tropes of black trauma or white guilt that seem to have become almost mandatory these days when plays center around black characters. 

This doesn’t mean that Jones and her director Lileana Blain-Cruz are sidestepping the challenging realities of contemporary life. One of the players is pregnant and considering an abortion. Two are secretly in love and trying to navigate their relationship in a church-going community where homosexuality is considered a sin. And each sees her athletic prowess as a way to get a scholarship to a good college or to escape the provincialism of their hometown or to help define the woman she hopes to become.

The pleasure for theatergoers is that Jones, Blain-Cruz and the engaging cast and clever design team they’ve recruited have figured out how to turn all of this into a thought-provoking but often laugh-out-loud funny and thoroughly entertaining time.  

The title is based on a basketball strategy in which no player showboats but each one works to support the greater good of the team as a whole. And that same approach works beautifully in this production too. Although a special shout-out has to go to set designer Matt Saunders for not only designing authentic-looking basketball courts but creating a full-size car that, with the assistance of Adam Honoré’s spot-on lighting and a crackerjack stage crew, draws a mid-show ovation.

Like many sports narratives, Flex follows its team’s efforts to win a championship. There are, of course, bumps along that journey. For starters, the Lady Train’s coach (Christiana Clark) forbids anyone who gets pregnant from playing, which means that valuable team member April (Brittany Bellizeare) will be benched, which means that the team's prospects will be put at risk. 

There’s also the dangerously acrimonious rivalry between a swaggering newcomer named Sidney (Tamera Tomakili) who has just moved to town from Oakland where she was such a hot shot that college scouts have now followed her to the Lady Train’s games; and the team’s longtime star player, the perhaps too-aptly named Starra (Erica Matthews) who is desperate to catch the eyes of those scouts. 

Jones is still a young playwright (the production of Flex that would have marked her professional debut was scheduled to be done in 2020 at the Humana Festival in Louisville but was canceled when the pandemic shut down theaters everywhere; click here to read more about that) and she does occasionally venture into melodrama or fall back on coincidence to move her plot along. 

But Blain-Cruz, who, like Jones, played basketball in high school, keeps the action moving so that the jokes land and the basketball choreography looks convincing (extra kudos to Matthews who manages to sink basket after basket) without sacrificing the show’s underlying message about the importance of team work on and off the court.

There have been some gripes from the critics but this show is a crowd-pleaser. And I saw far more young people than usual at the performance I attended, including groups of men who I suppose were drawn by the basketball theme. Flex clearly seemed to score for them. And it did for me too.

July 8, 2023

It's His Niece Sonya Who Stands Out in this Very Intimate Production of "Uncle Vanya"

Like most theater obsessives, I take pride in my collection of experiences that give me bragging rights—I saw Hamilton at the Public before it was a hit! I saw Glory Days, which opened and closed on Broadway the same night! I was at the Lincoln Center performance when Patti LuPone reached out and grabbed an audience member’s cell phone!—and I’m always on the lookout for more. Which
 is why my theatergoing buddy Bill and I ended up in a second-floor loft in the Flatiron District along with just 38 other audience members watching a very intimate production of Anton Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya.

It was the cast that drew us there. Actors love Chekhov plays because they teeter on the line between comedy and tragedy and even those in the smaller roles get some moments to show off how they can navigate both. This time out, the director David Cromer steps into the title role of the poor relation who has devoted his life to maintaining the family property so that his brother-in-law, a vain professor, can afford to high-life it in Moscow. But also in the cast are the heavy hitters Marin Ireland as Vanya’s niece Sonya, Bill Irwin as the professor Serebryakov and Will Brill as Astrov, the despairing doctor who drinks too much and visits often.

This is the fifth major production of Uncle Vanya I’ve seen and each has used a different translation of the play, often adapted by a contemporary playwright (Annie Baker, Richard Nelson, Jean-Claude van Itallie) but this one uses the translation done back in the ‘90s by the playwright and Russian language scholar Paul Schmidt. I’m no Chekhov expert but it seemed to me to be different from the others I’ve seen in that the focus is less on Vanya and his disappointments and more on the romantic triangle involving Astrov, Sonya and the professor’s much younger second wife Yelena.

But that changing dynamic could also reflect the performances and the modern-clothes staging by director Jack Serio (click here to read more about him). Cromer has acted on both stage and screen and it seems that playing Vanya has been a longtime dream of his but he’s made his name—and won a slew of honors—as a director and it can’t have been easy for a 27-year-old newcomer like Serio to direct one of the best stage directors working today. The result is that, at least for me, Cromer’s portrayal of Vanya lacks the animating layers of resentment, ridiculousness and, finally, resignation that I've seen others bring to the role. 

Instead, Cromer’s Vanya comes across as just a supporting player in his own story. I suppose that's a valid choice since the others in his family see Vanya that way. But both the comedy and the tragedy here is that the character no longer wants to be a supporting player and is struggling to break out of that role by denouncing the professor as a selfish fraud and declaring his own futile love for Yelena. Cromer evokes that desperation but not vividly enough for me to ache for him as I’ve done for other Vanyas.  

Sonya’s story arc is similar to his. But in Ireland’s hands the emotional payoff is different. Sonya too has been left in the country to toil alongside her uncle while her widowed father is off in the city and finding a new wife. The only hope Sonya has for her own happiness is that Astrov might return a bit of the unabashed love she has for him. But Astrov also loves Yelena, who is beautifully played by Julia Chan, a newcomer to me who totally captures the elusive quality that makes everyone so enchanted with Yelena. 

Ireland digs deep into Sonya’s disappointment and her awareness that she will never be able to compete with someone like Yelena. And she makes that all so poignantly resonant that you’d be excused for thinking that the play should have been called “Sonya.” I’d urge you to see her marvelous work in this production, whose brief run ends July 16, but tickets sold out within 24-hours of going on sale. So yep, I’m bragging again.

July 1, 2023

Theater Books for Summer Reading 2023

Happy Fourth of July Weekend!  Time has been so slippery over these past three pandemic years and global warming is now playing such havoc with the weather that on some days just breathing the air is risky. But even so, I’m still able to appreciate when summer arrives. It’s the time when I slow down and worry less, when my beloved husband K sets up my seasonal happy place on our terrace and mixes up cocktails for me to sip out there (old-fashion Vodka Collins this year) and it’s when I get to share my annual summer reading list with those of you who love theater as much as I do. There were so many great choices this year that I really had a hard time whittling the list down but below are 16 of my favorites. two for each of the weeks before Labor Day.


I’m starting off with novels because I love escaping into other worlds, especially the world of the theater.

Cyclorama by Adam Langer  If you read and liked Susan Choi’s “Trust Exercise” (which I recommended back in 2019) then you’ll probably like this new novel about a group of high school kids in the Chicago suburbs and the dangerously charismatic drama teacher they had in the 1980s. But this isn’t just a rip-off of Choi’s National Book Award winner, Langer has a lot to say about current politics, the environment and most especially about how teachers can affect the lives of their students for years after they graduate.  

Enter Ghost by Isabella Hammad  A company working on a play is a familiar subject for theater-themed novels and this one offers the usual rivalries between actors and the stressful events that threaten to jeopardize the production. But what sets this version apart is that the play, Hamlet, is being readied for a performance in the Israeli-controlled West Bank by an all-Palestinian cast. It’s told through the experience of a British-Palestinian actress who, fleeing London after a bad love affair, tries to reconnect to the homeland she left years before and to the art that defines her true identity.

Someday, Somewhere, Maybe by Lauren Graham  Although she’s now probably best known for starring in the cult TV show “Gilmore Girls,” Graham remembers what it was like trying to break into show business—working low-paying day jobs, sharing cheap apartments, going on endless auditions—and she’s turned all of that into this charming romcom about a young actress who is making one final run at her dreams (including a possible relationship with the hunky movie star in her acting class) before giving up, returning home and settling for marriage to the longtime boyfriend she rarely sees and hardly knows any more. The outcome isn’t really in doubt for attentive readers but Graham makes it fun getting there.

A Tender Thing by Emily Neuberger   Set in 1959, this novel is another pastiche of familiar tropes: the young heroine’s passion for Broadway and for a talented theater maker is reminiscent of the classic novel “Marjorie Morningstar;” (which I recommended in 2020); the everyone-hates-him-but-he’s-brilliant director is a nod to Jerome Robbins and their musical about an interracial love affair borrows heavily from West Side Story. Even so, I still couldn’t put this one down. But do avoid the audiobook version because Neuberger, who narrates it herself, takes every opportunity she can to sing numbers from her faux musical, which is fine at first but really annoying by the sixth, seventh and eighth time she does it. 

The Twist of a Knife by Anthony Horowitz   This delightful murder mystery is set in London’s Theaterland. And it has great fun blurring the line between fiction and fact with Horowitz inserting a same-named version of himself into the narrative as the prime suspect when a mean-spirited theater critic is murdered after publishing a savage review of the play he’s just opened. The only hope the fictional Horowitz has of clearing his name is if he can persuade the detective who is supposed to have co-authored his previous books to track down the actual culprit.

Up With the Sun by Thomas Mallon  The actor Dick Kallman won a Theater World Award for his performance in the 1951 musical Seventeen and he starred in the short-lived TV sitcom “Hank” a decade later but Kallman’s career never really took off, in part because of his abrasive personality. In 1980, he achieved the kind of fame no one wants when he became the victim of a gruesome  murder. All of that is compellingly recounted in Mallon’s fictional version of Kallman’s life's story but the best part of the book may be its vivid portrayal of how young Broadway actors came of age in the 1950s and ‘60s. 



I love first-hand accounts of theater history because reading them—or at least the best of them—is like sitting over cool drinks on a hot day while sharing juicy gossip with a good friend.

The Algonquin Kid: Adventures Growing Up at New York’s Legendary Hotel by Michael Elihu Colby  Who wouldn’t have wanted to be little Mikey Colby? During the Golden Age of Broadway, from 1947 to 1986, his grandparents owned and operated the Algonquin Hotel. Everyone who was anyone in the theater world during those days stayed at the Algonquin, ate at the Algonquin, drank at the Algonquin. And, in some cases, performed at the Algonquin and Colby, the apple of his grandparents’ eyes, had a front-row seat to all of it: meeting celebrities, going to the openings of their shows and eventually, writing some of his own. I’ve been putting this list together for years now and it's hard to think of a better summer read. 

Chita by Chita Rivera with Patrick Pacheco  To say that Rivera, now 90, is a living legend is an understatement.  She originated the roles of Anita in West Side Story, Velma Kelly in Chicago and the title character in Kiss of the Spider Woman. She’s also a ten-time Tony nominee who has won three of them, including one for Lifetime Achievement; was the first Latina to receive a Kennedy Center Honor and is the namesake of the Chita Rivera Awards that celebrate excellence in dance and choreography on Broadway, off-Broadway and on film. Rivera looks back at all of that in this kind-hearted memoir (she even has nice things to say about the notoriously difficult Jerome Robbins) and although she’s always been a private person, her co-writer, our mutual friend Patrick Pacheco, gets her to talk a bit about some of her past relationships, which include affairs with the legendary Broadway restaurateur Joe Allen and the even more legendary entertainer Sammy Davis, Jr.

Shy: The Alarmingly Outspoken Memoirs of Mary Rodgers and Jesse Green I suppose this is a semi-memoir since all of the text was actually written by Green, the chief theater critic for The New York Times, and most of it was written after the 2014 death of Mary Rodgers, the daughter of Richard Rodgers, the mother of Adam Guettel, the intimate of Hal Prince and Stephen Sondheim and an accomplished composer (Once Upon a Mattress) and author (“Freaky Friday”) in her own right. But drawing from taped interviews he conducted with Rodgers before her death, Green has worked hard to capture her gleefully acerbic—and yet often self-deprecating—voice. And, of course it’s hard to beat the story of someone who knew everyone in show business. I know Jesse slightly but even if I didn’t, I’d be recommending this one just as enthusiastically as I am now.

Without You: A Memoir of Love, Loss, and the Musical Rent by Anthony Rapp.  There may not be as much behind-the-scenes gossip about Rent as fans might want in this memoir by the actor who originated the role of Mark in the workshop production of Jonathan Larson’s landmark musical and then went on to play it during the show’s legendary run at New York Theatre Workshop, on Broadway, in the national tour, in the London revival and in the ill-conceived movie. But there’s enough. Rapp has also turned his memories into a one-man show that recently closed in New York but that will soon be touring to other parts of the country. But his book goes even deeper, bravely revealing some of the not-so-pleasant parts of himself as a young man learning to deal with fame and grief, particularly after the death of his beloved mother. 


And then there are the theater books that fall into a category all their own.

Blanche: The Life and Times of Tennessee Williams's Greatest Creation by Nancy Schoenberger Few characters in any genre are as memorable—or can be evoked by the utterance of just one name—as Blanche DuBois, the tragic heroine of Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire.  Schoenberger had the very smart idea of chronicling how playing this iconic role affected six actors, ranging from Jessica Tandy, who created the part in the original 1947 production, to the 2018 staging at the Marines’ Memorial Theatre in San Francisco that gave Jemier Jenkins the chance to be one of the few black actresses to tackle the role in a major production. The book reveals how each woman stepped into the role and how difficult it was for her to leave it behind. It’s a must-read for serious theater lovers.

Gays on Broadway by Ethan Mordden  In one way or another, Broadway has provided a home and a haven for gay artists and their stories. In his latest book, Mordden, the dean of theater historians, chronicles how those actors and the shows in which they performed both reflected and shaped America’s changing attitude toward gay people, from the days in which queer artists had to maneuver around the Wales Padlock Act, which made it illegal to depict “sex degeneracy, or sex perversion” onstage; to the ways in which plays like As Is, the Normal Heart and Angels in America helped to make the AIDS crisis a part of the national conversation.

Designing Broadway: How Derek McLane and Other Acclaimed Set Designers Create the Visual World of Theatre by Derek McLane and Eila Mell AND Transforming Space Over Time: Set Design and Visual Storytelling with Broadway’s Legendary Directors by Beowulf Boritt Two of the very best set designers working today—two-time Tony winner McLane and two-time Tony winner Boritt—have turned out terrific books on how they and their peers create the physical worlds in which plays and musical take place.  Each tells in-the-room-where-it-happened stories about how they devised such sets as the colorful phantasmagoria McLane designed for Moulin Rouge and the erector-set marvel Boritt created for Act One and they share conversations detailing how they’ve worked with collaborators ranging from Hal Prince to Kenny Leon. Both books offer master classes in scenic design.  But if you’re feeling summer-time lazy, the pictures and illustrations alone are worth the price of these books.

Fifty Key Stage Musicals, edited by Robert W. Schneider and Shannon Agnew  This invaluable collection of essays not only makes the case for the importance of each of the 50 shows it covers but for the book itself as one of the very best of the attempts to rank the shows that have shaped the musical theater canon. It starts with The Black Crook, which opened in 1866, and so delighted theatergoers with its scantily dressed (for the times) chorus girls that it was revived 15 times over the next 20 years and it moves right up to the contemporary phenomenon of Hamilton. Each show gets its own chapter, written by an expert who provides historical context and defends its right to be on the list. I tried to restrict myself to one chapter a day but failed at that and ended up tearing through the whole thing in just a few sittings.

Musicals for Dummies by Seth Rudetsky  Everything anyone could possibly want to know about musical theater (what an orchestrator does, which stars broke out in which Broadway shows, how to get tickets for a hot show, why people should pay attention to community theater) is packed into this book. But even though all of it is told in Rudetsky’s inimitable chatty style, I hadn’t planned to include the book on this list because most people reading this post already know a lot of that stuff. However, the Kindle version of the book includes wonderful links that Rudetsky—and who knows more about musicals than him—has curated to illustrate many of the points he makes and although I don’t much care for watching videos online, I was transported by his selections. This isn’t just a summer read, it’s an all-around-the-year read.

Finally, as always, if you’re looking for even more to read, here are the links to my now over 150 suggestions from previous years: