Sunday, February 1, 2015

Friday, January 30, 2015


"Once Upon a Musical Dreary . . . "



Thursday, January 29, 2015

146. Review of SHESH YAK (January 28, 2015)

"For Captive Audiences"

“Ripped from the headlines” is the way reviews often characterize plays inspired by the political zeitgeist in the Middle East and South Asia. Examples: DISGRACED, set in New York but touching on Islamic extremism; the same author’s recent THE INVISIBLE HAND, about an American prisoner of Pakistani terrorists; and the currently running THE ROAD TO DAMASCUS and SHESH YAK. The last two take place in the United States but are preoccupied with Syria, the first dealing with the near future, the second with events of the past.

From left: Zarif Kaibier, Laith Nakli. Photo: Sandra Coudert.
THE ROAD TO DAMASCUS deals with the specter of specific political events and has global implications, while SHESH YAK concentrates on incidents in which its two characters, Jameel and Haytham, participated; it deals with universals such as guilt, redemption, and forgiveness, but it does so on a highly personal level. Despite taking place in 2011, during the Arab Spring, the background could be applied to many circumstances in which someone seeks vengeance for wrongs done under a repressive political regime. In fact, the play, by Syrian-British playwright Laith Nakli, who also plays Haytham, is strikingly reminiscent of a much better play, DEATH AND THE MAIDEN, by Chile’s Ariel Dorfman.

Dorfman’s play, set in a Latin American country, tells of a female political prisoner who was raped by one of her captors. Years later, under a new regime, the rapist happens to visit her home; recognizing him, she binds him so that she can get him to confess his guilt. For much of the play, which also involves the woman’s husband, the rapist sits bound before us during the interrogation.
Zarif Kabier, Laith Nakli. Photo: Sandra Coudert.
In SHESH YAK we’re in the slightly shabby New York apartment (realistically designed by John McDermott and nicely lit by Peter West) of Jameel (Zarif Kabier), a guy in his thirties whose mother keeps calling from Syria to urge him to find a girl and get married. This may be intended to show what a regular fellow Jameel, once a potential soccer star, really is. When the play begins he’s visited by the burly, middle-aged Haytham, a former karate champ, whose severe limp will later be cruelly exploited. Both are Syrian émigrés and Jameel appears overwhelmed with pride to have Haytham, a supporter of the Free Syrian Army, as his guest. Haytham, after all, is about to appear on a TV panel discussion. Apart from its mention of things like the Secret Police, the Syrian conflict is used mainly for context and isn’t the play’s principal subject. In fact, SHESH YAK assumes the audience is familiar with the politics and offers little expository background. It’s almost as if the words “Assad” and “Islam” don’t exist (although an Islamic state and the Islamic Brotherhood are each referred to once).

The enthusiastic Jameel treats Haytham deferentially but, after they begin playing backgammon, he slips his guest a mickey. When Haytham comes to he’s bound and, occasionally, gagged, as the now threatening Jameel questions him, often brutally (oh, that gimpy leg!). Now and then someone phones Jameel, suggesting that what’s happening is part of a planned conspiracy, but the situation remains ambiguous. Gradually, Haytham and the audience learn the reason for Jameel’s animosity.

Shesh Yak (a reference to the numbers six and one on backgammon dice) runs for 80 minutes but seems much longer because of its increasingly static nature, with Jameel circling his prey as he leads up to his big reveal. Their chit-chat adds local color about life in Syria, but offers little of great personal or political interest. Meanwhile, Haytham must grimace in agony as his tormented tormentor torments him; when Jameel’s revelation finally arrives, it’s nothing we might not already have figured out for ourselves. The mildly surprising conclusion that follows is about the only unpredictable thing on view.

SHESH YAK demands a sense of danger and suspense, but neither of its actors, for all their competence, is capable of taking it to that level, and director Bruce McCarty hasn’t been able to inspire anything approaching the necessary cat and mouse tension. It doesn’t take long before you begin to feel almost as captive as Haytham.   

Rattlestick Players Theatre
224 Waverly Place, NYC
Through February 22

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

145. Review of THE ROAD TO DAMASCUS (January 23, 2015)

"Can the First Black Pope Save the Middle East from Nuclear Destruction"

For my review of THE ROAD TO DAMASCUS please click on THEATER PIZZAZZ

Saturday, January 24, 2015

144. Review of HONEYMOON IN VEGAS (January 22, 2015)

"It's a Gamble"

The 1992 movie, HONEYMOON IN VEGAS, written and directed by Andrew Bergman, is a high-octane comedy that, while unquestionably imperfect, remains great fun, much of that because of its charismatic stars. James Caan may overdo his Sonny Corleone shtick as the slickly dangerous gangster, Tommy Korman, but he’s never less than magnetic. Nicholas Cage as Jack Singer and Sarah Jessica Parker as Betsy Nolan, the young Brooklyn couple who fall into Tommy’s clutches at a Las Vegas Casino, are in their youthful prime (she was 27 and he 28), and bring honesty and conviction to their farcical experiences to make them both convincing and hilarious. The famous climactic scene, in which Jack, having inadvertently gotten onto a skydiving plane with “The Flying Elvises,” remains a comic masterpiece. It’s such a memorable conception, you know in advance the new Broadway musical version of the film will be working hard to find a suitably theatrical way to replicate it.

The film’s vivid cinematography and bright locales in Brooklyn, Las Vegas, and Hawaii, and its fast-paced, narrowly focusedif totally implausibleplot, position it perfectly for musicalization. The soundtrack, in fact, has so many Elvis songs, it’s already in musical territory. As an overture, so to speak, to the Broadway show (which began in 2013 at New Jerseys Paper Mill Playhouse), I’d like to describe the movie’s plot, which follows the same arc as the show but differs from it in some significant ways.
Jack, a hapless Brooklyn private investigator without a pot to piss in, has been dating his pretty girlfriend, Betsy, a schoolteacher, for years, while managing to avoid marrying her. It’s not because he doesn’t want to, but because his eccentric mother (Anne Bancroft), on her deathbed, made him promise never to wed. When the frustrated Betsy finally pressures him to tie the knot, Jack succumbs and the pair fly off for nuptials in Las Vegas.  
Once there, though, the powerful gambler Tommy, an attractive middle-aged guy, spots the beautiful Betsy, who so closely resembles his late wife, Donna, a sun worshiper who died of skin cancer, that he determines to get her from Jack by suckering him into a poker game, where he’ll lose so much dough he’ll be forced to let Tommy have Betsy for the weekend. The plan succeeds after Jack, holding a straight flush to the queen, loses what seems a sure thing to Tommy’s straight flush to the king.
Owing Tommy the impossible-to-repay sum of $65,000, Jack has no choice but to let Tommy—who promises no hanky panky—enjoy Betsy’s company for the weekend. But Tommy can’t be trusted, and he intends to spend his weekend with the schoolteacher, not in Las Vegas, but at his gorgeous seaside home in Kauai, Hawaii. Betsy reluctantly agrees to go, but Jack, belatedly regretting the arrangement, follows after them. 
While Tommy uses his considerable wealth and charm to win Betsy’s affections (including his introducing Betsy to his son and daughter-in-law), Jack is sidetracked in Kauai when trying to reach his girlfriend by Mahi Mahi, a wily old cab driver (Pat Morita), paid off by Tommy to keep Jack from finding him. Meanwhile, Tommy lies to Betsy, who’s beginning to feel bad about the situation, that Jack sold her for the weekend to escape a debt, not of $65,000 but of only $3,000. The furious Betsy now agrees to marry Tommy. The pair depart for Vegas, and Jack, aided by his comical right-hand man, Johnny Sandwich (Johnny Williams), makes sure Jack will be unable to book a flight to follow them.
Jack overcomes many obstacles to get to Vegas in time to prevent the marriage; ultimately, in a last-ditch effort, after various re-routings, he boards a plane in San Jose, California, loaded with Elvis impersonators on their way to the very hotel (Bally's in the film, the fictional Milano in the show) where Tommy and Betsy will be and onto whose grounds they plan to make a mass aerial entrance. Jack has no alternative but to dress like an Elvis and make the jump himself. Betsy is already fed up with Tommy, who, when she expresses her reluctance, not only offers her $1 million to marry him but  reveals a seriously menacing attitude when she refuses. Jack’s successful landing brings Betsy back to Jack’s arms and Tommy has to admit defeat.
Even this outline, of course, omits important details, but when a movie is transformed into a musical, a hell of lot more gets thrown out in the condensation process. Musicals require songs and dances, and when they’re underway, plot developments have to wait in the wings. Since Mr. Bergman himself wrote the book for the musical, which has music and lyrics by Jason Robert Brown, we would hope that he knows best about what to cut, what to add, and what to alter in his own material.
Those fond of the film will be saddened to see that we get no idea of what Jack does for a living; that his Brooklyn dentist buddy (John Capodice) has been cut; that Mahi Mahi, now simply Mahi (Catherine Ricafort), has been transformed into a cute Hawaiian hooker who tries to impede Jack’s quest by offering him “Friky Friky,” the natives’ version of nookie-nookie; that one of the movie’s funniest bits, in which Peter Boyle as a Hawaiian chieftain turns out to be a devotee of Broadway musicals who bursts into songs from SOUTH PACIFIC, has been removed; that Tommys actual son and daughter-in-law turn out in the show to be actors hired to fool Betsy; that theres no physical struggle between Jack and Tommy on the grounds of Tommys estate, as Jack tries in vain to shout to the un-hearing Betsy; that Jack catches the Elvis plane, not in San Jose, but in Kauai itself; that Tommy’s threat of violence toward Betsy at the end is dropped so that Tommy remains as likable as possible; and that Jack’s mother, who appears in the movie only in her brief deathbed scene, has become a tiresomely farcical, supernaturalrather than psychologicalleitmotif, popping up in unexpected places (like Tiffany's) to sing arias reminding Jack of a curse she’s placed on him. A silly second act scene in which she appears as a Polynesian statue seriously drags the show down, even though the actress, Nancy Opel, has serious comedic and vocal chops. 

I’d be curious to know why Jack’s $65,000 debt has been changed to $58,000, and why Tommy’s fib about it being only $3,000 is now $800. Of course, by making the latter sum smaller, Jack’s arrangement with Tommy becomes even more outrageous, but I think the audience would have emitted the same audible “ahhh!” of surprised disgust had the original amount been kept.  Still, while relatively annoying, most of these (and other less egregious alterations) don’t seriously threaten the overall entertainment value of the show, which, by the way, pictures the Las Vegas of the movie's era, not the one that exists today. Maybe that's why there isn't a cellphone in sight; had there been, Jack's pursuit of Betsy would have been over much sooner.

Mr. Brown’s deft lyrics are often very amusing, and much of his musicplayed by a great onstage band led by Tom Murraybrings Rat Pack-era jazzy razzmatazz back to life. Since the Vegas depicted here is a retro reconstruction, we hear a Tony Orlando-style entertainer, Buddy Rocky (a terrific David Josefsberg), singing “When You Say Vegas” with lounge lizard panache. The Hawaiian locale allows for island melodies like “Hawaii/Waiting for You.” When Tommy swindles Jack into giving him Betsy for the weekend, the pair join in the delightful Come to an Agreement.

Set designer Anna Louzos creates exuberantly vivid sets that, combining moving units with admirable projections (sometimes animated, like that of a plane landing at an airport), allows the cinematic action to shift instantaneously; she also includes a downstage elevator trap for clever appearances of people and scenic pieces. Brian Hemesmeth’s many stunning costumes make a bold impact, and the showgirls (especially the ultra-long-legged Leslie Donna Flesner and Erica Sweany) wearing his sequined creations in the Las Vegas scenes are among the most eye-poppingly pulchritudinous on the Great White Way. Choreographer Denis Jones provides an assortment of spirited dance numbers, and director Gary Griffin pulls the whole thing together with the necessary energy and imagination; for my money, though, too many bits depend on farcical exaggeration.

Tony Danza’s Tommy, played with silken subtlety, is the most believable of the three leads. Mr. Danza, a trim 63, bears himself with the athletic grace one expects of a former boxer. His Brooklyn background gives him the kind of street smarts to carry off the role of a dangerous Vegas smoothie without having to overdo it. He’s no Sinatra but he sings pleasantly enough, and his second act tap dance is a highlight.

There’s not much to complain about regarding Brynn O’Malley’s Betsy; she’s a terrific singer and an appealing actress, but she’s simply too beautiful and glamorously accoutered and made up (especially that impossibly gorgeous ash-blond hair), making her an unlikely Brooklyn teacher but a prime candidate for Barbie Doll look-alike of the year. Mr. McClure, lithe and amiable, isn't vaguely authentic as a Jewish boy from Brooklyn; his singing voice has a nasally metallic quality, and, while he does all the right things, he never goes beyond skin deep in bringing Jack to life.   

The sequence everyone’s waiting for, with the Flying Elvises, led by a lively Mr. Josefsberg as Roy Bacon (played by the memorably cheerful Roy Gilliam in the film), is carried off with true wit and humor, and goes a long way to lifting the show to a crowd-pleasing level. The way the Elvises move in unison and rhythmically deliver the King’s famous “uh-huh-huh chortle (think I'm All Shook Up ) will rock your roll. These moments help make HONEYMOON IN VEGAS, if not real art, at least the kind of faux stuff youd find in the title city. It’s tired businessman-type entertainment but, judging from the reaction when I went, audiences are likely to find the payoff worth the gamble. 

Nederlander Theatre
208 W. 41 Street, NYC
Open run


“Caution: Not for Those with Low Shtick Tolerance!”

EVERYBODY GETS CAKE! is one of those oddball shows that you’re going to love or hate, laugh your ass off at or view with one eye on your watch. The night I saw it, a small number of people crammed into the tiny Theater C at 59E59, including my guest, laughed almost continuously, sometimes raucously; and then there were us churlish cretins, counting the minutes until the piece was over. Blessedly, for those like me, this took not much more than an hour, although, given my low tolerance for witless non sequiturs, it seemed more like two.
From left: Brent McBeth, Danny Gardner, Joel Jeske. Photo: Jim R Moore/Vaudevisuals.
Don’t let me give the wrong impression, though. EVERYBODY GETS CAKE!, a production of a troupe called Parallel Exit, is produced with considerable skill and polish by a three-man cast (Joel Jeske, Danny Gardner, and Brent McBeth; Ryan Kasprzak takes over for Mr. Gardner on January 24) under the razor-sharp direction of Mark Lonergan. Mr. Lonergan’s achievement, assisted by the choreography of Mr. Gardner and Mr. McBeth, is a nonstop barrage of mostly fast-paced farcical sketches with a surrealistic edge, with each actor-clown making multiple quick costume changes (great costumes by Oana Botez) to play an army of broadly cartoonish characters. Certain images reoccur, including a serial killer, a lonely old man in a nursing home, and torch-bearing villagers (like those in the Boris Karloff FRANKENSTEIN movie), but making sense of this potpourri of nonsense is beside the point. Either the pat of comic butter sticks to the ceiling or it doesn’t.  I suggest distributing seeded rolls to handle all the butter that ends up falling. 
Joel Jeske. Photo: Jim M Moore/Vaudevisuals.
My problem isn’t with the idea of a crazy-quilt, hellzapoppin’ assemblage of comical bits and pieces, whose chief goal seems simply to tickle funny bones, like a theatrical version of a Spike Jones musical routine or those old TV shows, "Laugh-In" and "Monty Python's Flying Circus." It’s simply that, however hard these clowns work (they work very hard, perhaps too hard), using an impressive arsenal of physical, facial, and verbal mugging techniques, their material is too often juvenile and heavy-handed. It’s shtick you want to beat with a stick.   

The performance space—cleverly lit and designed by Maruti Evans—is a white box whose walls and floor are painted with broad arrows pointing up and down, left and right, and in circular directions; there are doors at left and right, a wide door upstage that revolves quickly on a pivot for rapid entrances and exits, and a pair of upper window spaces through which one or the other performers occasionally stick their faces. A talented musician, Ben Model, who occasionally joins the action, sits in a nook where he accompanies the show with bouncy music, both classical, modern, and original (his own). Much of it provides the Mack Sennett-like slapstick shenanigans with a silent-movie feeling. (There are also numerous distinctive sound effects provided by Mike Dobson.)
From left: Danny Gardner, Joel Jeske, Brent McBeth. Photo: Jim M Moore/Vaudevisuals.
As examples of their material, I could cite Mr. Jeske’s frightened Dog Owner, who, as the sound of an offstage dog’s growling is heard, drags himself on as if the dog has one of his legs in its jaws. After pulling himself free, he stands up and says: “So much for ‘Bring Your Dog to Work Day.'” Blackout.There’s a routine that struggles to milk laughs from Mr. Gardner in a pink cow suit, and one that shows Albert Einstein (Mr. Jeske) demonstrating his inability to use a microphone. Even less amusing are the gags based on “Awkward Human Contact,” which are almost as awkward as the one that thinks Mr. Gardner’s slurring his words after a Novocaine injection is side-splitting. Or how about the one that finds hilarity in Mr. Jeske stuffing his jacket with balloons until there’s no more room, followed by a squeaking fart sound and the line, “I think that was me.” Ba-da-boom. Some potentially clever bits go on too long; one allows Mr. Gardner and Mr. McBeth to play a symphony of cell phone sounds, while another, called "Facial Choreography," has all three men show how rubbery their faces are while inserting them in oval picture frames. The gag that made me gag for more reasons than one has Mr. Jeske taking a coffee and donut break while munching enthusiastically on an inflatable hemorrhoid donut. Oh, wit, where hath thou flown?
From left: Danny Gardner, Brent McBeth. Photo: Jim M Moore/Vaudevisuals.
Whether you like the show or not, unless you’re a diabetic or have other diet issues, you’re sure to enjoy the little gift distributed at the end of the show. As the title says, everybody gets cake! 

59E59 Theaters
59 E. 59 St., NYC
Through February 8