Sunday, November 29, 2015

109. Review: ROSE (seen November 23, 2015)

“Ramblin’ Rose”
Stars range from 5-1.
On the surface it would seem that Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy would be perfect material for a one-woman biographical play, the kind that allows an actor to inhabit an historical person and tell her story in an intimate, personal way. After all, Mrs. Kennedy, who lived to 104, was the matriarch of the most famous American political family; despite all the trappings of a privileged upbringing and fabulously wealthy marriage, she suffered a series of personal tragedies, enduring them with remarkable dignity and fortitude—thanks, in part to her devout Catholic faith.

Kathleen Chalfant. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
But if ROSE, Lawrence Leamer’s solo play about Mrs. Kennedy, produced by Nora’s Playhouse, politely directed by Caroline Reddick Lawson, and starring an elegantly controlled Kathleen Chalfant, is any indication, she was a reticent woman and emotionally distant mother (especially to her daughters), subservient to her father and husband, believing women must make compromises for their men: “All my life I have obeyed men.” Ms. Chalfant’s reserved, delicately nuanced portrayal doesn't make her a gripping theatrical presence, no matter how powerful her family or tragic her life.

Ms. Chalfant, one of New York’s most distinguished and respected stage actresses, strives hard to inject dramatic interest into a character who—except for a few mild emotional outbursts and a gentle joke or two—simply doesn't appear to have been as charismatic as Jack, Bobby and Teddy. (She's the antithesis of another famous woman who recently ruled the stage: Gov. Ann Richards, as embodied by Holland Taylor in ANN.) The actual Rose, in fact, as seen in interviews on YouTube, comes off with more verve and color, almost suggesting something of a minor Katharine Hepburn; even Rose’s decided Boston Brahmin accent is tamped down in Ms. Chalfant’s restrained performance.  

Mr. Leamer, whose first play this is, is the best-selling author of a trilogy of Kennedy books, so ROSE, based on 40 hours of taped interviews to which he had “unprecedented access,” carries the weight of authenticity. He sets the action in 1969, placing us in the 79-year-old Rose’s tastefully decorated living room (designed by Anya Klepikov) in Hyannis Port. The rear wall represents the partly draped windows through which one can presumably view the waters of Nantucket Sound on which Ted ("Teddy"), Rose’s only surviving son, is sailing before coming to visit. Rose, dressed in a lovely, white pants suit (designed by the distinguished Jane Greenwood), a rope of pearls around her neck, and her black hair carefully coiffed, welcomes us, the audience, into her home. Neither I nor my guest heard any reference as to who we are supposed to be, and the script doesn't make it clear, but a friend who saw the play a few days later, as well as another reviewer, note that the audience was intended to be understood as a Dublin ladies' auxiliary group. 

Not long before, Ted was involved in the drowning death of Mary Jo Kopechne when he drove his car off a bridge while taking her home from a party on the island of Chappaquiddick. This became a national scandal that put Ted’s career on the line, and it provides the key that sparks the play’s ignition. As Rose waits for Ted’s arrival, she rambles through her memories, and peruses a photo album whose images are projected on the rear windows (thanks to designers Anya Klepikov and Lianne Arnold). Upstairs, her bedridden husband, the once powerful Joseph P. Kennedy, lies powerless after suffering a massive stroke eight years earlier. 

Rose’s discourse is interrupted several times by phone calls from close family members: her alcoholic daughter, Patricia (whose marriage to movie star Peter Lawford failed); Ted’s alcoholic wife, Joan; Jacqueline Kennedy, John’s wife, now married to Aristotle Onassis; her daughter, Eunice Shriver; and Ted himself. Oddly, Rose makes no attempt to shield us from the private things she’s saying, further confusing the issue of what we’re doing there. These hurried phone calls are intended to offer fly-on-the-wall insights into Rose's familial interactions but only serve to underline their own artificiality.
Kathleen Chalfant. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Little is revealed during the play’s hour and 20 minutes that anyone paying attention during the peak Kennedy years doesn’t already know, but here and there are nuggets that may not be so familiar. I hadn’t realized, for example, that Red-baiting Senator Joseph McCarthy was close friends with the Kennedys (JFK and RFK were both rabid Communist haters in the 1950s); unfortunately, this potentially fascinating tidbit gets only a single sentence.

Rose’s principal story, of course, concerns her children and her marriage to the influential Boston businessman, Joseph P. Kennedy, who became America’s ambassador to the Court of St. James, eventually lost favor because of his isolationist ideas, and continued to live with Rose while carrying on a series of affairs to which she chose to turn a blind eye. Her Irish-American father, popularly known as Honey-Fitz, was mayor of Boston, and she and her Irish-American husband sought to overcome the prejudice against people of their background.

She had four sons and five daughters: Joe, Jr., “golden Joe,” as she calls him, was killed in World War II, John became president only to be assassinated, Robert was assassinated during his presidential campaign, Ted, a heavy-drinking Massachusetts senator, nearly destroyed his career at Chappaquiddick, her daughter Rose Marie (a.k.a. Rosemary) was given what appears to have been an unnecessary lobotomy, and her daughter Kathleen was estranged from the family for marrying a Protestant, who then died during the war; Kathleen herself died in a 1948 plane crash. Daughter Eunice, who founded the Special Olympics figures in the narrative, although not tragically, but nothing is said at all of daughter Jean Kennedy Smith, a successful diplomat and the only surviving sibling.

There’s no question that the Kennedy story is one of modern American history’s most absorbing, compared by some to Greek tragedy. In fact, we see Rose turning from the Bible to discover solace in Euripides’ HECUBA, about a mother who has lost two children. The Kennedys continue to play an important role in American politics and society. And, for those who don’t know much about them or about Rose Kennedy herself, there’s much to learn from the story of a woman who endured so much grief, and who reveals many of her own potentially controversial personality traits, warts and all. But the drama of this indomitable woman, who declares that, regardless of what happens, her family just keeps “marching forward. There’s nothing we cannot do,” remains subdued, and Ms. Chalfant, while offering a Rose that bears a passing physical resemblance to the real thing, lacks the thorns that might have drawn dramatic blood.  

Harold Clurman Theatre
410 West Forty-Second Street, NYC
Through December 13

Friday, November 27, 2015

108. Review: NORA (seen November 25, 2015)

Stars range from 5-1.

In 1981, the great Swedish stage and film director Ingmar Bergman wrote for the stage an adaptation of Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen’s 1879 classic A DOLL’S HOUSE that he called NORA. It’s now being revived at the Cherry Lane Theatre in an English version translated by Frederick J. Marker and Lise-Lone Marker, which has had a number of previous American productions, including its 2006 New York premiere in a three-week run at the ArcLight Theatre. (Several reviews mistakenly claim the present production to be New York’s first.) Local performances of A DOLL’S HOUSE itself, of course, have been abundant, most recently in a lauded 2014 Young Vic production at BAM starring Hattie Morahan. Yet another revival is on deck for the late spring of 2016 at Theater for a New Audience.
Andrea Cirie, Jean Lichty, George Morfogen. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Bergman’s version, which strips the play down to its five principal characters, Nora (Jean Lichty) and Torvald Helmer (Todd Gearhart), Dr. Rank (George Morfogen), Christine Linde (Andrea Cirie), and Nils Krogstad (Larry Bull), packs its events into a one-act play running only an hour and a half, thereby focusing on the immediacy of the drama and giving it a bit more bite. It does, however, weaken the pathos of Nora’s famous decision to leave her husband, as we don’t see the kids she’s also abandoning. As directed by Austin Pendleton, the Cherry Lane production succeeds in making the play’s melodramatic machinations clear but suffers from inadequate performances in the leading roles.
Jean Lichty, George Morfogen. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
This, of course, is the story of Nora, the pretty, young wife of rising banker Torvald, who treats his wife more like a doll than an equal marital partner. Nora finds herself enmeshed in a potentially scandalous situation when her husband, who’s been promoted to bank manager, decides to fire an employee, the unsavory Krogstad. However, Krogstad is the man from whom Nora secretly borrowed a large sum of money, forging the signature of her dying father, in order to pay for a recuperative trip to Italy needed to save the ailing Torvald’s life. Torvald’s always thought the money came from Nora’s father. Now, the widowed Christine Linde, Krogstad’s former lover and Nora’s girlhood friend, arrives, asking Nora to persuade Torvald to give her a job; Torvald agrees, hiring Mrs. Linde to replace Krogstad, who, having discovered the forgery, threatens to expose Nora unless she gets Torvald to retain him.
Jean Lichty, Todd Gearhart. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
When the truth of Nora’s actions finally becomes known to Torvald, he blows a gasket, even though what she did saved his life, but he relents when Krogstad has a change of heart. Nora, however, has come to realize how little respect Torvald has for her as a woman and wife, and decides to leave him, something so shocking in its day that Ibsen’s play was even revised in some theatres so that Nora agreed to stay with Torvald. Eventually, Ibsen’s drama became a rallying point for women’ liberation, even though Ibsen said he hadn’t written it for that purpose.

Designer Harry Feiner has provided a simple, rather dark and dimly lit unit setting (Mr. Feiner also did the inconsistent lighting) on the small stage of the Cherry Lane's Studio space. The dreary result includes several pieces of furniture, one of which is a constantly present bed (that tired symbol again). Theresa Squire has provided attractive period costumes, and Ryan Rumery’s sound design contributes nicely to the atmosphere.
Todd Gearhart, Jean Lichty. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Mr. Pendleton’s staging repeats the bothersome convention he used in his recent HAMLET at CSC of having offstage characters remain onstage, sitting silently, not reacting to what’s transpiring in the scene before them, but present as symbolic references to the dramatic context. Strangely, though, Mr. Pendleton allows Dr. Rank, Torvald’s aging (and dying) friend and Nora’s secret admirer, to react with facial expressions to a scene between Torvald and Nora, as if he can actually hear them. There are a number of other directorial quirks, most of which do little to enhance the drama and serve only to draw attention to themselves. These include having Krogstad and Christine play their intimate scene of reconciliation (very well acted, by the way) while standing together on a small, round podium, or using that same podium for Nora’s demonstration of her tarantella dance, for some reason done in a perfunctory, slow-motion way. And then there’s the odd scene of Nora clearly flirting with Dr. Rank, played by the 82-year-old Mr. Morfogen, only for her to burst out indignantly when he shows signs of responding.
Jean Lichty, Larry Bull. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
The ending, when Nora leaves Torvald, is also a headscratcher. It’s performed in the bedroom, where Torvald is lying naked in bed. His disrobing gets a totally unnecessary scene of its own (despite his period costume, he lacks underwear), and when Nora confronts him to say she’s going bye-bye, the poor actor is forced to wrap the bedclothes around him to perform the scene; I actually felt sorry for him during the curtain calls. Torvald’s nudity, which is mentioned in Bergman’s script, may suggest that his pretenses have been stripped bare, and that he’s powerless before his fully dressed spouse, but it’s awkward and unnecessary. Moreover, as is well known, Nora’s departure through the house’s door was a major moment in late 19th-century world drama, but, as confirmed by the script, there’s no door here, nor is there the sound of a door slamming, which is akin to eliminating Constantine’s offstage shot at the end of THE SEAGULL.You wait for it and when it doesn't happen you wonder if someone goofed.

Mr. Morfogen’s Dr. Rank, while far too old for my taste, once more reveals that actor’s sly intelligence and depth; he wrings every ounce of poignancy and wit from his scenes. Also fine is Ms. Cirie, who brings simple honesty and conviction to Christine. Mr. Bull’s Krogstad has a quiet dignity, reducing the man's creep factor, but his delivery sounds stagy, especially when he artificially emphasizes the “tt” in words like “better.” Mr. Gearhart is a handsome Torvald;, his acting, though, especially at the end, is superficial, constrained, attitudinizing, and passionless. 

A reviewer friend writes that Ms. Lichty’s obvious maturity makes Nora’s girlish behavior that much more believable; it only served to irritate me, however, by stressing her shallowness, ignorance, egotism, and phony charm, thereby robbing her of the sympathy Nora should elicit. There’s a calculated quality to the actress’s choices and a lack of organic connection to her role that comes out most clearly in Ms. Lichty’s failure to give any indication throughout of her gradual emergence from the chrysalis of her doll life. When, in what sounds totally out of place in this world, she tells someone she'd like Torvald to "kiss my arse," it fails to register as anything more than a passing joke. Thus Nora's announcement that she’s going to leave Torvald comes out of the blue; her final moment before this scene shows her complacently allowing her husband to unbutton her dress, as, prior to making love, she says, without apparent irony, “And I thank you for your forgiveness.” Ms. Lichty and Pendleton should have found earlier ways to hint at what was coming.


Cherry Lane Theatre
38 Commerce Street, NYC
Through December 12

Thursday, November 26, 2015

107. Review: GLUTEN! (seen November 24, 2015)

"You Are What You Eat"
Stars range from 5-1.

 For my review of GLUTEN!, please click on THEATER PIZZAZZ


59E59 Theaters/Theater C
59 East 59th Street, NYC
Through December 5

Shawna Maestas, Jeremiah Maestas. Photo: Russ Rowland.

Maggie Low, Roger Manix. Photo: Russ Rowland.

Shawna Cormier. Photo: Russ Rowland.

Maggie Low. Photo: Russ Rowland

Jeremiah Maestas. Photo: Russ Rowland.

From left: Shawna Cormier, Jeremiah Maestas, Maggie Low, Roger Manix, Josh Tobin. Photo: Russ Rowland.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

106. Review: NIGHT IS A ROOM (November 19, 2015)

“Mommy Dearest”
Stars range from 5-1.

The promotional materials for NIGHT IS A ROOM, a new play from Naomi Wallace—Residency One playwright at the Signature Theatre—refer to “the unexpected turn of events” that occurs in the lives of the play’s three characters; the problem is that it comes three-quarters of the way through the first act. This not only makes everything that follows  anticlimactic, it makes revealing much about what happens earlier a bit tricky. 

Ms. Wallace, who comes from Kentucky, sets the play in Leeds, England, where Liana (Dagmara Domincyzk), a beautiful ad agency executive of 43, lives with her attractive husband, Marcus (Bill Heck). He’s a popular history teacher at a girls’ school, where the girls are crazy for him while he deplores their privileging of facts over the emotional reality they represent. (This concern with facts will have ironic overtones later.) Their beloved 21-year-old daughter, Dominique, is studying art in Chicago. The only other character is Doré (Ann Dowd), a frumpy, homely, Yorkshire-accented, 55-year-old domestic worker
In the opening scene, the fashionable (costumes are by Clint Ramos), posh-accented Liana has tracked Doré down because she’s Marcus’s biological mother. Liana, meeting with Doré in the latter’s shabby garden, thinks what a great idea it will be to reunite mother and son for his 40th birthday. Doré hasn’t seen Marcus since, at 15, she was forced to give him up for adoption. Reluctant at first, the exceedingly shy, almost childlike, older woman agrees.
Three weeks pass after the (unseen) successful reunion of Doré and Marcus, who’s been visiting his mother every night, and we’re in Marcus and Liana’s sparsely furnished living room (nicely designed by Rachel Hauck); the elegant place is being redecorated, as signaled by the drop cloths, ladder, and walls prepped for painting. As they await Doré’s first visit, they have a graphic, if clothed, sexual encounter, showing how hot their relationship remains. Or does it? Marcus seems as randy as a young stud, but his interest is only in pleasuring Liana, not himself. Hmm. (Before visiting the theatre, I discovered online commentary by theatregoers who revealed how “shocked” they’d been by something in the production. Could this frank but—in this day and age—not disturbingly naughty scene be what they were referring to? Apparently not.)
The dowdy, awkward Doré, whose unexpected intelligence and taste Marcus has been touting, enters. Soon, Doré’s reticence dissipates. Preferring to call Marcus by his birth name, Jonathan (which makes Liana uncomfortable), Doré talks of the affinity for trees she shares with him. She then recounts a recurring dream about a tree, a piece of flesh, and a thigh wound.
Not long after, the big shocker occurs. Many will find it far-fetched, but the play offers a rational explanation, and several audience members could be seen during the intermission verifying it online. This doesn’t mean, however, that, as dramatized by Ms. Wallace, the subject is being given the most effective theatrical representation. In fact, one could argue that the playwright has done more to sensationalize the matter than to treat it believably,and that the problem is exacerbated by the casting.
Ms. Wallace’s proclivity for sensationalism emerges yet again in act two, which takes place six years later, although the circumstances wil remain sealed. The only people involved are Liana and Doré, who each have experienced life-changing transformations.They clash verbally and—preposterously, physically—as they work out their issues. Since the play did what it had to in the first act, the second comes off like a Sturm und Drang afterthought.
Ms. Wallace initially captures our attention with dialogue that’s ever-so-slightly oblique and gently poetic, the English accents and timing creating a Pinteresque mood of mild suspense. Something’s in the air as we wait for that other shoe to drop. Ms. Wallace’s conversations, which include richly raunchy exchanges bordering on the squirm-worthy, combine naturalistic passages with self-consciously literary ones, as when Liana explains why she calls people in her business “advert whores”:

Though often seen as money-grubbing executives of mass deception, intent on finding the precise instrument to stir the soul into spending its last pound of silver, we're more like poets, really. We find the “it” and then find a way to say it in other words. Our best jingles are set in iambic pentameter, metaphor as bribe and promise, image as loophole, as exemption from the rest.

Whatever one takes away from its provocative material, the production is held together by the compelling performance of Ms. Dowd, whose ability to mingle multiple shadings of wariness and bashfulness with determination and strength creates an intriguing sense of mystery. Mr. Heck and Ms. Domincyzk are both strong actors, but they can't avoid sounding stagy (possibly because of Bill Rauch’s unsubtle direction), thereby weakening instead of bolstering the plausibility of their unusual dilemma. 

NIGHT IS A ROOM takes its curious titlenever clarified during the playfrom a passage in William Carlos Williams’s poem “Complaint,” apparently about a doctor (which Williams was) visiting a woman about to give birth:

Night is a room
darkened for lovers,
through the jalousies the sun
has sent one golden needle!
I pick the hair from her eyes
and watch her misery
with compassion.

I don't know how this applies to Ms. Wallace's play, but I do know there's precious little compassion in it.


Signature Theatre/Alice Griffin Theatre
480 West Forty-Second Street, NYC
Through December 20


105. Review: HIR (seen November 21)

"From One War Zone to Another"
Stars range from 5-1.

Because of scheduling issues I didn’t get to see Taylor Mac’s HIR until just now, two weeks after it opened at Playwright Horizons’ Peter Jay Sharp Theater. The wait whetted my appetite: I didn’t know Mr. Mac’s work as a writer but was blown away by his performance as the woman who impersonates a man in THE GOOD PERSON OF SETZUAN a few seasons back (Mr. Mac is a renowned drag performer). Then there was the presence of the gifted comic actress Kristine Nielsen, whose hilariously broad performance in Christopher Durang’s VANYA AND SONIA AND MASHA AND SPIKE practically made me bepiss myself. Throw into the mix a barrelful of adoring reviews, including one from the New York Times calling HIR “sensational,” and I was primed for a grand old time. It’s my duty, instead, to report that the time I had was less than prime and that I’m filing a minority report.

Kristine Nielsen. Photo: Joan Marcus.
HIR, whose raucous style the playwright calls Absurd Realism, is set during a hot summer in the realistically detailed kitchen/family room (designed by David Zinn and lit by Mike Inwood) of a California “starter home” in which (to use the terms attached to his characters by the playwright) the cisgender Paige Connor (Ms. Neilsen) and the cisgender Arnold Connor (Daniel Oreskes)—have lived for 30 years and where they’ve raised their kids, Isaac (Cameron Scoggins), called “I,” and Max (Tom Phelan). When the deliberately chintzy curtain opens, we see Arnold standing and eating cereal amid an explosion of dirty dishes, laundry, mattresses, blankets, tchotchkes, boxes, and family crap that looks like domestic Armageddon. He’s wearing a woman’s nightdress and a rainbow-colored afro clown wig, and his heavily made-up face is capped with grotesquely arching eyebrows.
Cameron Scoggins, Tom Phelan. Photo: Joan Marcus.
There’s a knock; it’s the cisgender Isaac, home from three years in a war zone as a Marine, picking up body parts in Mortuary Affairs, but so much junk is blocking the front, he has to enter from the back door. Isaac, his hair in a military buzz cut, has been dishonorably discharged for methamphetamine abuse (“I got caught blowing meth up my ASSHOLE!” he later reveals). Not only do his eyes practically jump out of his head when he sees the mess, he’s bowled over to discover that Arnold suffered, not a mild stroke, as Paige had led him to believe, but a massive one, and that his tomboy sister Maxine is transitioning into Max through hormones (“mones”) obtained on the Internet.
Kristine Nielsen, Tom Phelan. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Arnold, a racist plumber who lost his job to an Asian American woman, was a violently abusive, wall-punching, controlling husband and father, who even raped his wife (a memory shown, unnecessarily, in a family shadow puppet show), but has been reduced by his stroke to a monosyllabic, diaper-wearing dodo. The vengeful Paige has turned things around by becoming Arnold’s personal emasculator, deliberately letting his once pristine environment become a cruddy pigsty. She makes him sleep in a cardboard box and, when he misbehaves, spritzes him with water. The A/C is kept on at full blast, even though the house is freezing.
Cameron Scoggins, Daniel Oreskes (seated). Photo: Joan Marcus.
As Isaac tries to absorb this he also must deal with Max, who’s midway between male and female and is to be called not “he” or “she” but “ze,” and not “him” or “her” but “hir” (pronounced “here”). Max, who dreams of joining a queer commune of anarchists, is being homeschooled by Paige (who doesn’t want him bullied), although he’s highly intelligent and insists it’s he who’s teaching Paige, not the other way around. Isaac attempts to man up his willing young sibling, Marine-style, despite Paige’s objections.
Cameron Scoggins, Kristine Nielsen. Photo: Joan Marcus.
 The play spends a lot of its hour and 50 minutes playfully and seriously explaining issues relating to the subject du jour of gender fluidity, which Paige has embraced after “search engine-ing” it, an experience she describes as “like being baptized, only without the male-dominated hegemonic paradigm.” (Yes, that’s how she and Max sometimes speak.) She’s even spelled out the new gender alphabet with fridge magnets:  LGBTTSQQIAA. The dialogue abounds in jargon-laced gender identity talk, but, for all the spirited comic energy with which it’s presented, a didactic aroma wafts over its satirical attack on conventional family relationships, the patriarchy’s downfall, and the myth of the gender binary.  
Kristine Nielsen, Tom Phelan. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Isaac’s unable to accept the transformed conditions, and, apparently attempting to reassert the “male-dominated hegemonic paradigm,” straightens the place up while Paige is off visiting a museum (the stagehands really earn their salaries during the intermission). He and Paige spend much of their time yelling at one another, so much so, in fact, that the actors could qualify for an article about their voices in the Times. Isaac also vomits a lot at each twist of the new family value system, especially when Paige whips up a special Estrogen drink in the blender intended to maintain Arnold’s docility.
Cameron Scoggins, Tom Phelan. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Mr. Mac says that “Absurd Realism is simply realistic characters in a realistic circumstance that is so extreme it is absurd.” One can’t deny the production’s realistic—even hyper-realistic—visual impact, and the general circumstances are real enough, but it’s the extremity of the performances that exemplify the use of “absurd.” Under Niegel Smith’s insistent direction, everything is so overblown that you feel like you’ve wandered into a real nut house; if Ms. Nielsen, in particular, had to interact with real people on the outside she’d be in a straitjacket before you could say Jack Nicholson.
Tom Phelan, Cameron Scoggins, Kristine Nielsen. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Although the audience laughed often, Ms. Nielsen seemed to be giving a master class in how she could deploy her trademark shtick to create a darkly manic character; her achievement is both technically brilliant and frequently disturbing in its sudden transitions, head-bobbling, eye-popping, and prance-walking with fluttering hands held high like rabbit paws. Somehow, though, she manages to keep her inner focus and wrestles the character into life, even though you may want to punch her in the nose. Mr. Scoggins’s frustrated Isaac is sympathetic (which doesn’t seem to be Mr. Mac’s intention), Mr. Phelan makes a very interesting hir, and Mr. Oreskes struggles to make his thankless role convincing. 


Playwrights Horizons/Peter Jay Sharp Theater
416 West Forty-Second Street, NYC
Through December 20

Saturday, November 21, 2015

104. Review: STEVE (seen November 20, 2015)

Stars range from 5-1.

First, the good news about The New Group’s production at the Pershing Square Signature Center of Mark Gerrard’s STEVE, a comedy about issues confronting New York City’s well-to-do gay folks in the age of texting, sexting, and gay marriage: it’s funny, sweet, sentimental, likable, charming, and touching. It’s also wonderfully performed by a terrific ensemble, musically appealing, and delightfully directed by Cynthia Nixon.

The bad news is that it’s clichéd, thinly and unoriginally plotted, and its characters egregiously stereotypical. Judging by the play’s five men and one woman, all middle-aged gay men fear they’re losing their looks, and are always horny and promiscuous; they’re catty chatters, well-dressed (costumes by Tom Broeker), gym-rat narcissists who worship Stephen Sondheim, drop show biz references as often as Eliza Doolittle drops her aitches, and even form sentences based on show tune lyrics; when a character’s about to down a vodka stinger, his “I’ll drink to that” offers only a tiny sample.
Francisco Pryor Garat, Matt McGrath, Ashlie Atkinson. Photo: Monique Carboni.
Plays with such characters sometimes combine their comic banter with a serious thread of mortality by having a beloved friend dying of AIDS. In STEVE, this becomes the imminent death from cancer of Carrie (Ashlie Atkinson), an overweight lesbian, abandoned by her lover and finding support among her male pals. Carrie, who wears a headscarf to cover her chemo-caused baldness (someone likens her to Steven Van Zandt), is everyone’s buddy but is especially close to Steven (the wonderful Matt McGrath, so good recently in THE LEGEND OF GEORGIA McBRIDE), a 47-year-old “failed chorus boy.” Carrie’s ashes even figure in a final scene played out at the gay mecca of Fire Island. (Steven, it should be said at once, is the center of the Steve-Steven-Stephen-Esteban character name game with which—to the audience’s occasional confusion—Mr. Gerrard has fun.)
Mario Cantone, Matt McGrath. Photo: Monique Carboni.
The principal action concerns the troubled partnership—they’re not married, although the subject is mentioned—of stay-at-home Steven and corporate lawyer Stephen (Malcolm Gets), who have an eight-year-old adopted son, Zachary. Their troubles begin when, as they and their friends sit around a restaurant banquette celebrating Steven’s birthday, the birthday boy reveals his discovery that Stephen has been sexting with Brian (Jerry Dixon), boyfriend of their friend Matt (Mario Cantone). The cute young Argentine waiter, Esteban (Francisco Pryor Garat), a dancer, soon befriends the group and keeps popping up in their lives at his various waitering jobs. One other Steve, a muscular personal trainer referred to as “Trainer” Steve, never appears, but is part of most conversations, including a hilarious one in which he figures as part of a threesome with Matt and Brian.
Malcolm Gets, Jerry Dixon, Mario Cantone, Matt McGrath. Photo: Monique Carboni.
STEVE, with its chirpy sit-com ambience, moves along swiftly, using a simple but attractive set (designed by Allen Moyer) of a translucent back wall broken into Mondrian-like panels that take Eric Southern’s attractive lighting well. This allows selective scenic pieces to be brought on and off swiftly as the episodic plot proceeds. When we move to Fire Island, the wall slides to either side, showing a beach-like drop behind it.
Francisco Pryor Garat, Mario Cantone, Matt McGrath. Photo: Monique Carboni.
Mr. Gerrard occasionally uses the device of creating scenes that express what Steven might have said or done only to retreat to what actually transpired, and there’s also a considerable reliance on the projection of text messages (projections by Olivia Sebesky), since the characters depend a great deal on texting one another. One such scene requires a tour de force performance by Mr. Gets's Stephen, who conducts simultaneous landline conversations and message texting, including a back and forth with Brian, whose filthily explicit comments—replete with graphic images—are getting him aroused.

If you take your seat 15 minutes before the show begins you’ll be treated to a medley of old Broadway songs (“Friendship,” “Bosom Buddies,” “All That Jazz,” and so on) sung by the ensemble gathered casually around a piano (played by the talented Mr. Gets), providing an enjoyable foretaste of the people with whom you’ll be involved for the play’s 90 intermissionless minutes. There’ll be a few other songs along the way, and a pleasant closing medley, choreography included, with sprightly curtain calls performed to a song from the film of THE SOUND OF MUSIC, with which I, too, shall leave you: “So long, farewell/Auf Wiedersehen, adieu/Adieu, adieu/To you and you and you.”


The Pershing Square Signature Theatre
480 West Forty-Second Street, NYC
Through December 27

103. Review: PROMISING (seen November 17, 2015)

“Down in the Depths (of the 40th Floor)”
Stars range from 5-1.

The promising subject of PROMISING, Michelle Elliott’s flatfooted, “ripped from the headlines,” Off Broadway play being given by the InProximity Theatre Company, is an accusation of sexual assault leveled by a 20-year old woman at David Carver (Jake Robards), a charismatic, 40ish New York City politician. David’s running for his second term on the City Council, and has a huge lead in the polls; his beautiful campaign manager, Verity Jones (Jolie Curtsinger), can already see the White House in his future. In her skewed view, the situation needs a whatever-it-takes response if David’s career is to be saved. So enamored of the seemingly squeaky clean pol is she that she doesn’t even bother to ask him if the accusation is true. 

Jake Robards: Photo: Michael Cinquino.
Verity, along with David’s speech writer-advisor-buddy Shed Walker (Zachary Clark) is struggling to contain the fallout, when a knock at the door brings in Gemma Carver (Kim Wong). Gemma—all Goth, peace signs, and veganism—is David’s 20-year-old, half-Chinese (if you can believe Ms. Wong’s casting), half- sister, born when David and Gemma’s late dad served as the ambassador to Hong Kong. Gemma has decided to leave Stanford and needs her brother’s support; she doesn’t exactly hit it off with Verity, who, quite implausibly, reacts with comments that she worries make her seem racist.
Kim Wong. Photo: Michael Cinquino.
The torch Verity’s been carrying for David for years has been burning brighter for him ever since he left Nora, his longtime girlfriend. Her love is such that she’s even okay with abandoning her own anti-rape advocacy by revealing publicly that the girl who accused David had an abortion (as if showing blaming the victim for being irresponsible would somehow defuse the situation). For his part, David hasn’t acted on his presumed attraction for Verity (I say presumed because it’s barely noticeable) out of “respect.” Talk about implausibility!
Kim Wong, Zachary Clark, Jolie Cursinger. Photo: Michael Cinquino.
The narrative about how to handle the scandal—and the moral dilemmas raised by the backroom maneuvering—loses its urgency in a series of stops and starts as the playwright takes up stage time with Gemma’s ecological activism (whose moral dimensions are tied obliquely to David’s situation), Gemma and Shed’s mutual attraction, David’s unconvincing reaction to it, and the burgeoning David-Verity thing. Eventually, the scandal again takes precedence, and, as we begin hoping that the playwright won’t resolve David’s sex scandal in the conventional way—PING!—a text message reveals that’s exactly what she does. Still, the final scene, in which the characters weigh in on the future, is the most interesting one, tinged as it is with the right amount of surprise and ambiguity.  
Jolie Curtsinger, Jake Robards, Kim Wong. Photo: Michael Cinquino.
The action—carried out over 90 intermissionless minutes—is set in David’s gray and black, depressingly fortress-like apartment (designed by James J. Fenton and lit by Paul Miller and Kirk Fitzgerald) on the 40th floor of a New York high rise; a bedroom is at stage right, the living room and kitchen at left.  Floor to ceiling windows are presumed to line the front of the stage, allowing the actors to face forward as if they’re admiring the incredible view. The lack of curtains or shades—not very wise if you’ve ever felt the blazing sun in one of these high-rises—is a device to allow an invasion of privacy by a photo-taking drone.
Jolie Curtsinger, Jake Robards. Photo: Michael Cinquino.
The bloodthirsty press and social media get their fair share of lumps in PROMISING, which is billed as “a comedic indictment of our current political climate,” although the sparsity of snappy lines that don’t snap, and the seriousness of the situation, belie that description. Partly, this stems from director Terry Berliner’s thuddingly paced staging.
Kim Wong, Zachary Clark. Photo: Michael Cinquino.
One of Ms. Elliott’s dramatic devices is occasionally to split the dialogue between conversations held by those in the living room, and those in the bedroom. As one pair speaks, the other pauses, but doesn't freeze. This creates a seriously artificial effect as the silent actors pretend to be thinking as they wait for the other dialogue to end before they themselves can resume.
Jolie Curtsinger, Jake Robards, Kim Wong, Zachary Clark. Photo: Michael Cinquino.
Although the characters are paper thin, Ms. Curtsinger, a brunette looker in high heels, tight black skirt and blouse (costumes are by Teresa Snider-Stein), makes the most believable impression as the conniving but ultimately decent Verity. Ms. Wong’s obsessive activist is played largely on one note, and Mr. Clark is acceptable as the politician’s sidekick/acolyte. I’m afraid, though, that Mr. Robards—a handsome simulacrum of his late, gifted dad, Jason—is surprisingly vapid. One might even apply a famous crack attributed to Dorothy Parker at Katharine Hepburn’s expense: he “ran the gamut of emotions from A to B.” 
Jake Robaqrds, Jolie Curtsinger. Photo: Michael Cinquino.
The issues of morality and conscience that should be driving the play never go beyond the formulaic, and the audience must struggle to understand how the insipid politician who stands at the center of this maelstrom could ever have gotten where he is, much less be considered presidential material. Like the words that come out of politicians’ mouths, whatever promises PROMISING makes go largely unfulfilled.

Lighting and Sound America

Samuel Beckett Theatre
410 West Forty-Second Street, NYC
Through December 5