Tuesday, September 30, 2014

76. Review of TO THE BONE (September 29, 2014)

76. TO THE BONE
 
 

I recently saw a video posted to Facebook that showed the workings of a humongous Chinese poultry processing plant, where thousands of workers stand in place chopping, gutting, and packaging a never-ending supply of chickens moving relentlessly along on conveyer belts. Dressed in hazmat-like, white protective clothing, with masks allowing only their vacant eyes to show, they stare soullessly as they do their robot-like tasks. It’s impossible to imagine what such dehumanizing work does to a human being, but a glimpse of it is present in Lisa Ramirez’s promising new play, TO THE BONE, at the Cherry Lane Theatre. The play is being offered as part of this year’s Theatre: Village festival, titled E Pluribus, in which four plays “celebrating America’s diversity” are being presented by the Axis Theatre, the Cherry Lane, the New Ohio Theatre, and the Rattlestick Playwrights Theater, all prominent West Village venues. 

Liza Fernandez, Annie Henk, and Lisa  Ramirez in a scene from Ramirez's To the Bone, directed by Lisa Peterson, at the Cherry Lane Theatre.
From left: Lisa Fernandez, Annie Henk, Lisa Martinez. Photo: TO THE BONE company.
Miss Ramirez, who also offers a persuasive performance as Olga, one of three Hispanic poultry processors, shines a light on the dilemma of undocumented immigrant female workers in much the same way that Elizabeth Irwin does for Mexican busboys in her recent MY MAÑANA COMES, where the fear of being discovered and deported never ends. Much of the dramatist’s inspiration comes from interviews she conducted with undocumented Latino workers. Ms. Martinez’s two-act play, which runs a slightly longish two hours, is less consistent and polished than Ms. Irwin’s, but nevertheless provides a strong evening of theatre, especially in this vividly directed (by Lisa Peterson) and expertly performed production. 
To establish Olga’s house, the poultry plant, and other nearby places, designer Rachel Hauck has totally reconfigured the small theatre at the rear of the Cherry Lane’s lobby from the conventional end stage arrangement it normally uses. Two rows of seats facing the entrance doors surround a three-quarters round acting area. There’s a small kitchen at extreme audience left, in the space between one bank of seats and the other, and a windowed room at the upstage end of the left seating bank. Up a small flight on the upstage wall at audience right are the windowed living quarters of Olga’s coworkers, Reina and Juana, with the bedroom of Lupe, Olga’s daughter, below. A movable doorway stands in its frame at center and factory lockers are placed in a corner at audience right. Lining the walls are stacked chicken crates, each with a flickering light inside to suggest a living presence. Serving multiple purposes, such as for furniture, car seats, and assembly line platforms, are four more crates. Although the minimalist effect is generally satisfactory, the layout of the characters’ living arrangements is rather vague and confusing.
In act one we watch the daily routines of Olga, Reina (Annie Henk), and Juana (Liza Fernandez) as they get up, do their morning washing and eating rituals, get driven to their Sullivan County factory by the Guatamalan cabby Jorge (Dan Domingues), and perform their drearily repetitious jobs. They are ragged over the loudspeaker by their cruelly demanding American boss, Daryl (Haynes Thigpen), and drilled to work faster by their Honduran floor supervisor, Lalo (Gerardo Rodrigues). Lalo is outwardly ruthless, but inwardly sympathetic, as his own well-being depends on his satisfying Daryl’s demands. Daryl himself is pressured by orders from “corporate” to provide more product.
Of the three women, Olga, a Salvadoran, is the only one with a green card, while Reina and Juana are illegals. Olga’s 20-year-old daughter, Lupe (Paola Lázaro-Muñoz), works at a medical clinic and aspires to attend NYU’s law school. The only plant worker who dares to oppose the management over issues like work breaks and the like is the feisty Olga, whose green card gives her a sense of security impossible for the others, one of whom, Juana, suffers both from physical weakness at work and from psychological issues that cause her to sleepwalk like a ghost. Before act one ends, we also meet Carmen (Xochitl Romero), Reina’s young Honduran niece, who has slipped across the border to find work at the poultry plant. Sad and vulnerable, with a taste for poetry, she needs money for a parent’s operation.
Act two moves away from its emphasis on the debilitating effect of work conditions to the story of Carmen, with whom Jorge soon falls in love. The plot becomes increasingly melodramatic, with rape and retribution taking prominence. Olga’s fury has no bounds and helps to inspire events that lead to violence and tragedy. Gone are the choreographically precise rituals smartly choreographed by Ms. Peterson, replaced by a more insistently naturalistic performance mode. Although the rape is intrinsic to the exploitative environment, it seems too clichéd a device, and muddles the socio-political through line, especially with the rapist being depicted as a monster of unregenerate evil.
Ms. Ramirez’s spicy language, much of which I believe is intended to be understood as spoken in Spanish (albeit with only hints of Hispanic accents), carries the action forward with dynamic force, and is rendered with the kind of conviction I found so lacking the other evening in SCENES FROM A MARRIAGE. Ms. Ramirez acts Olga with fiery anger and determination, making her sympathetic despite her destructively irate temperament. Ms. Lázaro-Muñoz brings memorable intelligence, humor, and emotional variety to the chubby, skateboard-riding, hip-hop reciting Lupe, while Ms. Romero plays Carmen with heartbreaking sweetness and sorrow. So believable is her air of victimization that I was amazed to read in her bio that Glamour Magazine chose her as one of the “Top 10 Funniest Food Bloggers.” Ms. Henk is completely credible as the determined Reina, and Ms. Fernandez is suitably sensitive as Juana, although her long, almost whispered monologue to Juana is barely audible. Both Mr. Domingues and Mr. Rodriguez do excellently by their roles, and Mr. Thigpen, forced to be a two-dimensional villain, makes Daryl someone you want to hiss.  
Jill BC Du Boff has outdone herself with an extraordinary sound design combining perfectly chosen musical selections and auditory effects (including what one would hear in a poultry processing plant), while Russell H. Champa’s lighting does wonders to create the right emotional atmosphere in the tiny space. Theresa Squire’s costumes add authenticity to this bedraggled corner of existence.
TO THE BONE is part slice of life, part expressionism, and part melodrama. You may not like every part but what remains should be finger lickin’ good.

Monday, September 29, 2014

75. Review of SCENES FROM A MARRIAGE (September 28, 2014)

75. SCENES FROM A MARRIAGE


 
 

Like the unseen, artsy Belgian film director in Neil LaBute’s THE MONEY SHOT, at the Lucille Lortel Theatre, the artsy Belgian stage director Ivo Van Hove likes to break boundaries. One can question the necessity of Van Hove’s boundary breaking, but it can’t be denied that he’s gained a considerable name for himself in New York with the series of works he’s staged at the New York Theatre Workshop. Since 2000, when he staged Susan Sontag’s ALICE IN BED there, he’s put his personal stamp on such NYTW revivals as THE LITTLE FOXES, THE MISANTHROPE, A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE, and HEDDA GABLER. His newest venture at this East Village venue is SCENES FROM A MARRIAGE, in an English version by Emily Mann based on the 1973 Swedish TV miniseries of that title, written and directed by Ingmar Bergman and starring Erland Josephson and Liv Ullman. A considerably trimmed down version of the miniseries appeared not long afterward as an internationally successful movie. 

From left: Tina Benko, Dallas Roberts, Roslyn Ruff, Alex Hurt, Arliss Howard, Susannah Flood. Photo: Jan Versweyveld.


I realize some critics (including Ben Brantley of the New York Times) love this production (as did a couple of theatregoers I overheard when the show ended), and that the fence-sitters and more seriously disappointed reviewers veer toward the minority. Just this morning, a respected playwright and theatre journalist posted on Facebook that “everyone should try to see SCENES FROM A MARRIAGE. It’s not only fascinating in itself, for anyone who makes theatre it will kickstart your imagination.” I, on the other hand, couldn’t shake the feeling that the emperor was naked.

SCENES FROM A MARRIAGE is an essentially straightforward drama of marital dysfunction, made memorable in its original screen form by the luminosity and insight of Josephson and Ullman, as directed by Bergman with intensely scrutinizing close-ups. The NYTW production, however, does everything possible to draw attention to itself and away from its source. And without actors of even half the brilliance of the originals to make the blood flow in its veins, the script comes off as hackneyed and overblown.

Most of the critical fuss concerns the unique way that Mr. Van Hove, who originally directed the work with his Toneelgroep Amsterdam company in the Netherlands, has staged the play. At considerable expense, he’s emptied out the interior of the NYTW so that a theatre-in-the-round configuration of three or four rows of red, plush seats can be installed. In the large open space thus created, designer Jan Versweyveld has placed an elaborate tripartite setting that cuts the audience seating into three discrete units, each facing one of three rooms. These functional rather than decorative rooms are equipped with doors and windows. The windows face into a sort of triangular general interior space into which the actors can enter, and where they can be seen, gathering props, turning music on, or dealing with their feelings. (The effect is something like a recording studio.) The only furnishings in the outside rooms are a table each in two scenes and a bed in a third. The tables force the actors to use them as chairs, beds, and whatnot.

The first of the play’s two acts contains three principal scenes that chart the progress of Johan and Marianne's marriage over a period of nearly 20 years. Each scene is acted in its room simultaneously with those in the other rooms. This is because there are three sets of actors playing Johan and Marianne; they’re labeled with numbers, as in Johan 1 and Marianne 1, but essentially they’re young Johan and Marianne (early 30s?), older Johan and Marianne (late 30s?), and oldest (late 40s?) Johan and Marianne. No couple in any way resembles the other, and one, in fact, is racially mixed. As per the logistics mentioned in the next paragraph, the actors repeat their scenes three times during the evening. You can sometimes see the actors in other rooms through the windows, and hear their voices or slamming doors. Actors from other scenes can also be seen in the interior room, and, occasionally, there’s a counterpoint effect between what you glean from another scene while you’re watching the one before you. One actress actually takes a moment to acknowledge something going on elsewhere.

The ambience is purely contemporary America, although certain music choices, such as  “Bridge over Troubled Water,” take us back a few years. No costumer is credited for the actors' clothes, which are mostly contemporary grunge, with around 80% of the company wearing jeans.

Spectators are given a colored wristband before entering the theatre, the color designating in which area they’ll be seated. My blue wristband meant my friend and I were seated in the room where the first scene was to be performed, and we were able to watch the three scenes in chronological succession. The other options would be to see scene two followed by scenes three and one, or to see scene three followed by scenes one and two. At the end of each scene, an actor comes out and casually asks the audience to move through the curtains to its right to enter the next room.

A 30-minute intermission follows while the set is rearranged for the second act. The evening was a lovely one, so standing outside and chatting was perfectly fine. Given the small lobby, I pity the audience that has to find shelter on inclement nights. The production, by the way, intermission included, takes three hours and 15 minutes, which was 15 minutes shorter than I’d expected. This was one of the event’s more positive takeaways.

The script is about Johan and Marianne, a successful couple—he a professor, she a lawyer. Former radicals, they now appear the perfect middle-class couple. When first seen (with Alex Hurt as Johan and Susannah Flood as Marianne), they’ve been married for ten years, and a visiting couple, Peter (Erin Gann) and Katrina (Carmen Zilles) are envious of what seems their ideal relationship. Peter and Katrina, however, reveal their own marital problems and they have a major brouhaha. Afterward, Marianne tells Johan that she’s pregnant, and we see cracks forming in their relationship when they discuss what to do about the baby. 

In scene two, Johan (Dallas Roberts) and Marianne (Roslyn Ruff) bicker over the “little boxes” of domestic life they feel obliged to fill, and Marianne expresses her growing discontent with their married life, despite its seeming placidity. The idea of infidelity is raised and passed over. Johan interacts at work with Eva (Emma Ramos), a pretty colleague; is there something going on? Marianne counsels Mrs. Jacobi (Mia Katigbak), a woman who wants a divorce from her husband of 20 years. Her reason: “There’s no love in our marriage.” Marianne senses a connection to Mrs. Jacobi’s dilemma as a woman who has everything but still seeks “something unattainable she calls love.” Soon, Marianne and Johan reflect on the cooling of their sex lives.

The crux of scene three is Johan’s (Arliss Howard) revelation that he’s in love with a 23-year-old student and is going to leave Marianne (Tina Benko) and their children. What’s wrong with his marriage? For starters, its ordinariness, responsibilities, nagging, pleasing others, holiday planning, etc. Marriage itself seems the culprit, as it does throughout the play, not anything egregious one or the other partners does prior to Johan’s affair. This may be why SCENES FROM A MARRIAGE was considered so controversial in Sweden: after its release the number of divorces leaped, with many pointing their fingers at the miniseries and movie.

When the audience returns for the second act, the rooms have vanished, replaced by a large, round space with a few select properties. If actors need to sit or lie down, they do so on the floor. For much of this act, especially the earlier sections, all three Mariannes and Johans appear at the same time. They sometimes speak chorally, sometimes in overlapping sections, and sometimes one after the other, but the same lines are spoken by all. They do so in varying configurations around the space, occasionally mixing with actors who are not their designated partners. This is all carefully orchestrated, of course, as is their wide-ranging movement. Much of what they say is indecipherable because of the jumble of voices but enough comes through to allow their feelings to be expressed, especially during an extended argument that evolves from shouting to physical tussling (shades of THE MONEY SHOT again!).

The plot follows Johan and Marianne through the dissolution of their marriage to their later marriages and affairs, showing them as inextricably bound through it all as if they still were married.  For most of the latter part of the play, only the oldest Johan and Marianne are present, and there are brief incursions by other characters, notably Marianne’s mom (Ms. Katigbak again), whom Marianne questions about her own marriage to Marianne’s late father. Once the multiple couples disappear, the performance settles into conventional narrative terms again, and, apart from the minimalist environment, is indistinguishable from any other drama of the type.

My objections to Mr. Van Hove’s deconstruction of SCENES FROM A MARRIAGE are many, but I’ll keep them brief. For one thing, very few of the actors--several of them well known locally--seem able to make the writing real, no matter how naturalistic they seek to be, and the many emotional transitions come off as forced and hollow. The scenes of kissing and fondling are completely unconvincing, as if the actors aren’t very comfortable with their partners. Every kiss, for example, seems to be done with lips together. Several actors, such as Susannah Flood and Carmen Zilles (so good last year in ADORATION OF THE OLD WOMAN), are acceptable, and Ms. Katigbak makes a good impression in her two supporting roles; her chief drawback is that she barely differentiates one character from the other. My friend, an established director and professor of directing, who couldn’t bring himself to stay for act two, thought Stella Adler would have shredded most of the other actors to pieces.

Mr. Van Hove’s conception, with its multiple casting and multiple sets, succeeds in suggesting the universality of marital dysfunction, but so, actually, does Bergman’s original, with its traditional approach. The subject of SCENES FROM A MARRIAGE is basic human territory, but the presence of great actors under an even greater director make it exceptionally powerful, meaningful, and moving. In this theatrical version, with its look-at-me gimmickry and unpersuasive actors, the text simply can’t be prevented from sounding banal.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

74. Review of LOVE LETTERS (September 24, 2014)

74. LOVE LETTERS

 





OMG and LOL are not in the lexicon of Andrew Makepeace Ladd III and Melissa Gardner, the protagonists of LOVE LETTERS, A.R. Gurney’s profoundly poignant yet often hilarious epistolary play, now in revival at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre. But OMG, I loved it, and, as superbly performed by Brian Dennehy and Mia Farrow (more than superb, actually), I both LOL and found myself ‘-(  during its captivating presentation.

LOVE LETTERS, first presented at New Haven’s Long Wharf Theatre in 1988, with John Rubenstein and Joanna Gleeson, and afterward produced at New York’s Promenade Theatre with a succession of famous actors playing the leads, moved the same year to the Edison, a small Broadway theatre, where the practice of different stars taking over the parts during the run continued. It has had numerous productions since, often for one-night stands, because all it needs are two actors, a stage or platform, a table, and two chairs. The actors read from scripts so they don’t even have to memorize their lines.  [Correction: An earlier posting of this review noted that the Edison was technically Off Broadway. According to Wikipedia, the Edison, now gone, had 541 seats, which would qualify it as a Broadway house, but it also could do plays using 499 seats, making it Off Broadway. LOVE LETTERS ran as a Broadway show. I have revised the review to reflect this, with thanks to Prof. James Wilson of CUNY for his input.]

Mia Farrow, Brian Dennehy. Photo: Carol Rosegg.

The piece now is getting its first production in a major Broadway theatre, the Brooks Atkinson, where it’s been directed by Gregory Mosher. Despite the minimal requirements of set, lighting, and costumes, each design area has been assigned to a leading designer, John Lee Beatty for the first, Peter Kaczorowski for the second, and Jane Greenwood for the third. (For the Edison production Mr. Beatty was “scenic consultant,” and there was no costume designer.) As for the casting, after Ms. Farrow departs, she’ll be replaced by Carol Burnett, playing opposite Mr. Dennehy, and they’ll in turn be followed by Alan Alda and Candice Bergen, who’ll give over to Stacy Keach and Diana Rigg, while Anjelica Huston and Martin Sheen will come after them. A program insert promises “many more brilliant casts to be announced.” I admit to having been so taken by the performance I attended—even though I could see bits and pieces of only about 10 of its 90 minutes because of a horrendous sightline problem—that if time and finances allowed, I’d come back and see each new pair of players. (More on the sightline issue later.) 

It could be argued that LOVE LETTERS is really a radio play (which is essentially how I experienced it), since Mr. Gurney explicitly calls for no physical interplay between the actors. In a note published with the script, he says: “the piece would seem to work best if the actors didn’t look at each other until the end, when Melissa might watch Andy as he reads his final letter. They listen eagerly and actively to each other along the way, however, much as we might listen to an urgent voice on a one-way radio, coming from far, far away.” When I saw it, Mr. Dennehy didn’t look at his partner at all, but Ms. Farrow did, for a brief moment, glance wistfully at him. But listen they did, closely.

Over the course of the play, performed without a break despite Mr. Gurney’s script suggestion that one be taken midway through, we hear the actors read the letters, cards, and notes that Melissa and Andy have mailed or passed to one another from the time they were childhood friends and classmates. In a sense, the play is a paean to the days when people put pen to paper and stuffed these papers in envelopes, on which they placed a stamp, then put them into mailboxes, and waited impatiently for similarly created replies.

I recently came across such a missive from my kid brother, sent to me from Brooklyn after I’d gone off to grad school in Hawaii over 50 years ago, telling me how much he missed me and begging me to write more often; despite (or possibly because of) its writing errors, its power to evoke a time and place in our lives floored me. Why did I ignore him? Was it because I was writing so many letters to my girlfriend, letters that would so grow in frequency and intensity that our love grew exponentially to where we agreed for her to fly to Honolulu so we could marry? I suppose many of us from an older generation have such letters somewhere, saved in shoeboxes or whatnot. We may not bother reading them, but they’re there, tangible reminders of our existence at specific moments in our lives. When, for some reason, we do open them, especially the forgotten ones, the experience can be overwhelming. How many of us plan to print out our e-mails (or texts!) so we can return to them 50 years hence?

The relationship between Mr. Gurney’s New England-raised children of privilege (she being much richer than he) covers 50 years, starting in the late 1930s, during which their jottings reveal their gradual maturing, as they progress through all the stages of elite private schools, college, and on into their post-college years. Signs of trouble in Melissa’s youth emerge in contrast to the picture of Andy as an upright, socially conscious, studious young man, whose rectitude and submission to his parents’ wishes Melissa often criticizes. We gradually see the effect on Melissa of her mother’s marital problems and alcoholism, which leads eventually to her own excessive drinking, romantic difficulties, and psychological crises.

The subtextual love between these devoted friends, throughout their tiffs, misunderstandings, and mutual reprimands, is revealed bit by bit in their written comments, some merely a word or two in length, others more extensive. Despite their mutual affection, true romance fails to unite them and they gradually go their separate ways, but they never do lose touch (something like what Facebook is now helping to restore); even though much time passes between their letter-writing connections, they remain deeply attached to one another. Love affairs and marriages, careers (she becomes an artist, he a lawyer and politician), and the rest of life’s milestones come and go, until, eventually, their lives reunite, if only fitfully and with keenly moving results that affect me whenever I recall them. 

Despite the marvelous sensitivity of Mr. Gurney’s writing, which so exquisitely captures the tone, attitudes, thoughts, and experiences of these well-heeled WASPs, the pangs I feel when thinking of LOVE LETTERS in performance stem greatly from the extraordinarily touching performance of Ms. Farrow as Melissa. Looking (when I managed to see her) every bit as luminous as she’s always been on screen, her crinkly, shining blondeness framing her delicate facial features, seen behind large, round eyeglasses, she manages to be funny, sad, angry, wise, silly, frightened, and fragile with total believability. As Melissa grows psychologically troubled, the desperation and need in Ms. Farrow’s voice cut into your heart so pitifully because it was only minutes earlier that you saw her as a sweet, although not guileless, and endearing child. The loss of innocence she evokes is truly heartbreaking.

The burly, gray-haired, and bespectacled Mr. Dennehy, in the less flamboyant role, again demonstrates his vaunted stage power and presence, as he takes us through Andy’s life, from diligent, respectful schoolboy to teenager with a crush to wartime service to success as a high-powered lawyer and senator. Always, even in his maturity, he retains Andy’s appealingly boyish goodness, and we truly feel for his dilemma when, late in life, he finds himself painfully enmeshed with the deteriorating sweetheart of his youth.

I noted earlier that my visit to LOVE LETTERS was marred only by my inability to see much of it. I had an otherwise quality seat in row H, but the placement of the table downstage seems to have been done without recognizing how spectators in the poorly raked auditorium could view it. The simple solution of placing the table on a slightly raised platform seems not to have occurred to anyone. If you plan to see this wonderful piece of theatre, and want good seats, I’d advise you to get them in the rear of the orchestra or, better yet, the front mezzanine. Amazingly, though, even if you just listen to the actors, as if they’re on the radio, you’ll be more moved and charmed than at many other plays more lavishly produced. At least I was.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

73. Review of ICEBOUND (September 22, 2014)


73. ICEBOUND
 


If you look at the list of Pulitzer Prize-winning dramas since the award was first given to a playwright in 1917 you’ll find a few plays you probably never heard of or, even if you’re a theatre professor, never read or saw on stage. How about the very first, WHY MARRY? It’s likely that the 1923 winner, ICEBOUND, by the prolific Owen Davis, may also be unfamiliar to you, but you now have an opportunity to see it if you scoot on down to E. 4th Street in Alphabet City, where the diminutive Metropolitan Playhouse has thawed it out and attempted to give it new life, as they have with so many other forgotten plays over the years. The production itself is imperfect, but not so much that you can’t get a clear idea of Davis’s intentions. Davis, by the way, was previously the author of dozens of popular melodramas, such as BERTHA THE SEWING MACHINE and NELLIE THE BEAUTIFUL CLOAK MODEL. His turn toward serious drama suggests the influence of Eugene O’Neill, especially in ICEBOUND, set as it is in a repressed New England environment.
Robert Ames as Ben, Edna May Oliver as Hannah, Phyllis Povah as Jane in the original production of ICEBOUND.
Olivia Killingsworth, Quinlan Corbett. Photo: Jacob J. Goldberg.
When first produced in 1923 at Broadway’s Sam H. Harris Theatre (parts of which are embedded in 42nd Street’s Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum), where its 170 performances qualified it as hit, it received only mixed reviews, despite its ultimately getting both the Pulitzer and being selected as one of Burns Mantle’s Ten Best Plays of the Year. Like so many other Pulitzer winners, its choice now seems odd when looking back on plays that were bypassed; the 1922-1923 season, after all, included Elmer Rice’s expressionistic THE ADDING MACHINE, which became a minor classic; George Kelly’s THE TORCH-BEARERS, which, while lightweight, still gets revived; John Colton and Clemence Randolph’s sex-soaked RAIN, also still produced; and Czech Karel Capek’s influential R.U.R., which gave us the word “robot.”
ICEBOUND, which a contemporary critic called a “vivid and biting study of a New England family,” is described in my Encyclopedia of the New York Stage, 1920-1930 as being about “the waiting of a family of greedy, selfish survivors for the offstage death of tightfisted old Grandma Jordan, so that they may learn what she has left for them in her will.” Mrs. Jordan, anticipating their greedy response, leaves her entire estate (apart from token bequests) to a distant cousin, 24-year-old Jane Crosby (Olivia Killingsworth), who nursed her for eight years in the small town Maine home in which the action is set.

Jane has been requested in the will to use the money to regenerate the old lady’s wastrel grandson Ben (Quinlan Corbett), a fugitive accused of setting fire to someone’s barn, and who Mrs. Jordan thinks Jane can tame and marry. Ben, who shows up unexpectedly to be there when his grandmother passes, goes to work for Jane on the farm in return for her signing his bail bond, an act overseen by Judge Bradford (Rob Skolits), who’s in love with Jane but agrees to use his influence to have Ben’s indictment squashed. However, when she discovers Nettie (Michelle Geisler), the impetuous teenage stepdaughter of Ben’s older brother, Henry (Kelly King), in Ben’s arms, Jane declares she’ll hand over the property to him and leave. Ben, who’s matured under her guidance, realizes how blind he’s been to her love, and decides to marry her, as his late grandmother had predicted.
The other family members are Henry’s second wife, Emma (Maria Silverman); the old-maid sister Ella (Anne Bates); the busybody Sadie (Alyssa Simon); and Sadie’s child, Orin (Connor Barth), whose mother is constantly reprimanding him. This bunch, whom Ben calls “crow buzzards,” are now beholden to him. There’s also a wise old family maid, Hannah (Sidney Fortner), who actually gets to deliver the tag line. ICEBOUND’s title refers to the icebound nature of the family’s hearts and souls, which are like the frozen world of a Maine winter.
Alex Roe, the Metropolitan’s hardworking artistic director, staged and designed the production. He’s combined Acts 1 and 2 into a single act, followed by a 15-minute break before Act 3 begins. The Jordan house’s two rooms, a parlor in the first and third acts, and a sitting room in the second, are indicated by simply having the actors move the same furniture into different positions, a common practice at this low-budget theatre. The audience of around 50 surrounds three sides of the set, with the upstage wall covered by an abstract painting of a bleak landscape.
This is all well and good, but because Mr. Roe apparently wants to further emphasize the close bond between the dreary, unadorned interior and the natural environment of the farm on which the household is situated, he creates a visual metaphor by putting two trees at either upstage corner, right inside the house, and covers the floor with wood chips. The odd result makes it look like the characters are living in a stable (there’s one outside).
Moreover, the dialogue says that it’s beginning to snow during the first act, so Mr. Roe actually has snow falling inside the parlor, the phony flakes falling on furniture and actors alike (rogue flakes have been falling from the start and continue to do so throughout the evening, even when the season turns to spring). These are unnecessarily distracting choices, as is Mr. Roe’s decision to have several characters read the playwright’s scene-setting descriptions at the start of Acts 1 and 3, much as a Pearl Theatre production did last year for a program of J.M. Barrie plays, in which an actor playing Barrie spoke them. 
The actors offer competent performances, some more acceptable than others. Kelly King is fine as the selfish older brother, who needs to keep borrowing money from Ben to resolve his business problems; Anne Bates gives Ella, who wants money to begin a dress-making business, a semblance of truth; and Rob Skolits does well by Judge Bradford, making him both stern and reasonable. Ms. Killingsworth’s Jane is far too wishy-washy and lightweight to represent a woman who must have a spine of steel to handle her mean-spirited relatives and run a farm efficiently. Mr. Corbett simply lacks the charisma and three-dimensionality to be acceptable as both the black sheep son and the reformed lover.
The play seeks to reproduce the speech and manners of these mostly narrow-minded, religiously conservative, and stubbornly petty characters, so Maine accents should be an essential component of ICEBOUND’ atmosphere. A dialect coach has worked with the cast, but her students need more coaching as the mélange of accents—some close, some distant, and some in no man’s land—could use a dialect GPS to guide them back to the northeastern United States.  
ICEBOUND deals grimly with grim small town folk, and it has some interest as a naturalistic period piece. There’s a tiny bit of humor, and the everyday dialogue sounds authentic enough. The highlight comes when the judge reprimands the blinkered Ben about how much Jane has done for him. I’m not sure Davis intended the audience to laugh as I did, but the moment underlined a problem in Ben’s character by emphasizing his utter naiveté, not a proper virtue in a romantic leading man.
ICEBOUND is the second Davis drama produced by the Metropolitan, which did his first serious play, DETOUR (1921), a couple of years ago. Now it might be fun to dig out one of his old mellers. I’ve always wanted to see BERTHA THE SEWING MACHINE GIRL.

72. Review of UNCLE VANYA (September 23, 2014)

72. UNCLE VANYA
 
For my review of UNCLE VANYA at the Pearl Theatre, please click on this link to the Theater Pizzazz website: http://www.theaterpizzazz.com/uncle-vanya/
 

 
 


Sunday, September 21, 2014

71. Review of THE MONEY SHOT (September 18, 2014)


71. THE MONEY SHOT
 
 
In THE MONEY SHOT, an MCC production now at the Lucille Lortel Theatre, playwright Neil LaBute thrusts the long blade of his sharpened rapier into the world of Hollywood film stars, skewering their arrogance, extravagance, solipsism, sexual mores, ignorance, and sheer stupidity, with frequently laugh-worthy results. Much of this is clichéd, of course, but it might have worked better if Terry Kinney’s pushy direction didn't put such a crimp in the hilarity quotient by allowing his actors to overplay from the very beginning, too quickly emphasizing the characters’ cartoonish behavior and thereby damaging their credibility. Given the subject of the play, you might call it a case of premature exaggeration.

Disappointed as I was, I have to admit the play is still very funny, even if much of the humor comes cheap, and only makes me long for a production that takes a dryer, more subtle approach. There are plenty of comic firecrackers waiting to be exploded in THE MONEY SHOT and to ignite them properly the play needs to create a sense of reality around the characters early on, not allow them to bolt from the starting gate in full gallop.


Elizabeth Reaser, Frederick Weller, and Gia Crovatin in Neil LaBute's The Money Shot.
From left: Elizabeth Reaser, Fred Weller, Gia Crovatin. Photo: Joan Marcus.
There are four characters in this 90-minute, intermissionless piece, all of it set in the fancy $7+ million dollar Hollywood Hills home of uncloseted lesbian movie star Karen (Elizabeth Reaser) and her partner, Bev (Callie Thorne), a film editor. Visiting for dinner and a business-related conversation are action movie star Steve (Fred Weller) and Missy (Gia Crovatin), a gorgeous blond airhead he’s been married to for a year. We quickly learn that the subject the evening is leading to is an upcoming love scene between Steve and Karen in the movie they’re costarring in, but we don’t find out until much later that the scene in question concerns the actors’ willingness to follow their artsy Belgian director’s wish that it involve real sex, ejaculation and all. Both actors, afraid their careers may be on the downturn, see the commercial potential in being the first major screen stars to have actual, rather than simulated sex, in a Hollywood film, but they seek their respective partners’ green light before they’re willing to go ahead.

Photo Flash: First Look at Elizabeth Reaser & More in MCC's THE MONEY SHOT
Fred Weller, Callie Thorne. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Before we get to that point, however, Mr. LaBute has fun blowing up the actors’ vacuity and egotism, including Karen’s pseudo-involvement in social causes and her preoccupation with commercial branding; it doesn’t take long before you wonder how she and the intelligent Bev can have a meaningful relationship. But the main target of Mr. LaBute’s satire is Steve, a vanity freak obsessed with his age, which he will go to any lengths to insist is 48 rather than 50, and whose ignorance of basic facts is so enormous that it makes his superstardom seen totally unreal; surely, the celebrity media would have torn him to pieces by now. When proven wrong about anything his stock respose is the old “we agree to disagree” ploy. If he disagrees with a Wikipedia article, he says the site can’t be trusted. This is a guy who uses “C and A” as his abbreviation for what he thinks is “cause and affect,” who fears it might be insensitive to insult the Nazis, and who insists that Belgium isn’t part of Europe. When, challenged, he looks it up on his IPhone, then crows triumphantly because he finds that Belgium is part of the European Union, which he assumes is some offshoot of Europe, not the continent itself. Satire needs more substantial targets than this pushover if it’s going to make a point.

Steve’s persistent opponent is Bev, the only one present with brains and education (from Brown), whose frustration with his appalling obliviousness to facts continues to grow whenever he opens his know-nothing yap. As things heat up, with smartphones being the weapon of choice, Steve and Bev let loose their nastiest invectives, his being laced with rancid homophobic slurs. Eventually, a decision must be made about the sex scene, the phones get put aside as the acrid adversaries let literal push come to shove as they engage in a full-fledged wrestling match.

Mr. LaBute’s dialogue is often point blank blunt, and the scene where the actors and their partners discuss with straight faces just what sexual activities they’re willing to condone and which are no-no’s may cause your face to redden, but there’s no denying the yocks it produces. This being a farce, extreme physical activity has a crucial place. One example is the wrestling match; another is a dance routine combining cheerleading and gymnastic moves that Missy, who played one of the “possessed” girls, performs from her high school production of THE CRUCIBLE. She says Arthur Miller sued. Peter Pucci is credited with the purposely idiotic choreography, which I assume also includes the wrestling moves. Again, anything goes here for the sake of a laugh.

The Lortel’s auditorium is only slightly raked so, sitting in row G, I had to keep moving my position to see around the huge head in front of me. What I saw, when I could, was Derek Lane’s attractively designed patio of a movie star’s fancy home high over Hollywood, whose distant lights can be viewed upstage in the distance. A second story over the patio suggests a place for unseen action to take place near the play’s end. Sarah J. Holden’s costumes are reasonable facsimiles of the casual duds well-heeled movie people hang out in, while David Weiner’s lighting and Rob Milburn and Michael Bodeen’s sound design provide appropriate visual and auditory ambience.

Fred Weller (whose own Wikipedia article says he’s 48) is a slim actor with chiseled features and an equally chiseled torso (revealed during his wrestling bout), so he’s physically plausible as someone with an action movie franchise; he gives Steve the appropriate clueless cockiness but he delivers his lines in a monotonously whiny delivery that fails to reflect what you’d expect a Tom Cruise-like movie star to sound like. Even Vin Diesel would be more acceptable.

Elizabeth Reaser, who took over the role of Karen when real movie star Heather Graham left early in the rehearsal process, has some amusing moments, but she goes over-broad too often, which can’t always be excused on the grounds of Karen's being tipsy. She has a really big screaming scene at one point, but if less had been more previously, more would have been more here.

As Missy, Steve’s tall, slender bride, Gia Crovatin gets all the mileage possible out of playing a wannabe actress who can’t resist stuffing her hungry face with shrimp thingies when her husband isn’t looking. More Steve’s accessory than his wife, she makes the moment when her worm turns memorable, even though this development in the way Missy is written, thematically satisfying as it is, seems forced.

Most authentic is Callie Thorne as Bev, who gives the least exaggerated and most grounded performance. Judging by the all the talk about Bev as an athlete, I expected a more physically imposing performer than Ms. Thorne, who’s considerably shorter than Mr. Weller. Nevertheless, she has the kind of confidence and aggressive attitude Bev needs, and you soon accept her without reservations.

THE MONEY SHOT, named after those splashy climactic moments in porn films, is designed to keep you awake and alert, and at that it succeeds. But there simply are too many places where smiles and chuckles take the place of gleeful eruptions. If only the director and actors would have trusted the play more, it might truly have been on the money.

70. Review of NDBELE FUNERAL (September 20, 2014)

70. NDBELE FUNERAL
 
 

The word “Ndbele,” which appears nowhere in the play called NDBELE FUNERAL, on view at 59E59 Theaters, refers to one of two African ethnic groups, the Southern Ndebele people of South Africa, where the play takes place, and the Northern Ndbele people of Zimbabwe and Botswana. NDBELE FUNERAL, refers to the former. It is written by American playwright Zoey Martinson, who also stars in it; is a creation of Smoke and Mirrors Collaborative, of which Ms. Martinson is a co-director; won the Overall Excellence Award for Best Play at FringeNYC 2013; and was also a Time Out Critic’s Pick. The director is Awoye Timpo.

Yusuf Miller, Zoey Martinson. Photo: Hunter Canning.


Set in a dilapidated shack, lacking water and power, in Soweto Township, South Africa, NDBELE FUNERAL focuses on Daweti (Ms. Martinson), a 30ish woman dying of AIDS, whose sores mark her once-pretty face. The audience of around 50 sits on three sides of the filthy hovel (designed by Jason Sherwood and lit by Justin W King), whose corrugated tin door is held in place by the flimsiest of means. If they stretch their legs, those in the front row of 59E59’s miniscule Theater C can practically put their feet on the shabby cardboard flooring. An oblong box—a coffin, actually—whose sides are decorated with colorful African motifs, sits against one wall, and the place is littered with paper, plastic bags, and other refuse. There’s a mat on the floor that serves as a bed, and the seating is limited to plastic milk boxes. For all its decrepitude, though, Daweti insists that the trash is part of the room’s feng shui harmony.

From left: Yusuf Miller, Zoey Martinson, Jonathan David Martin. Photo: Hunter Canning.

Daweti, a university-educated coloured (mixed-race) woman who has fallen to this repellent state in the wake of her illness, including being disowned by her parents, has built the coffin for herself from the wood freely supplied by the African National Congress government to local homeowners in the wake of a flood. The wood was supposed to be used to rebuild their homes but many people instead have been selling it to make money. Jan (Jonathan David Martin), a white man working for the Department of Housing, is going around the township investigating how people have used their government supplies. When he comes to Daweti’s place, she pretends not to be who he’s seeking and sends him on a wild goose chase. Ultimately, however, he returns and things get edgy.

Before that happens, however, Daweti is visited by her dearest friend, a married-with-kids, middle-class black man named Thabo (Yusuf Miller), who has known her since meeting her at a dance when they were at university, and who periodically checks on her well-being, something he intimates he’ll no longer be able to do. Thabo is beaming, energetic, and friendly, a deeply religious Christian, in contrast to the skeptical Daweti who has lost her faith in everything and rails against the universe for her condition. Thabo also possesses a poetic streak, which justifies his sometimes lyrical way of expressing himself. The pistol shoved into the back of his slacks, however, like all those pistols in desk drawers we see in movies, doesn’t augur well. He’s appalled by Daweti’s decision to build a coffin instead of repairing her crummy abode. Jan, who doesn’t participate much until the play’s latter third, may seem an officious bureaucrat, but he eventually gets a monologue that reveals his frustration not only with the obstinate people he must investigate but the unsatisfactory job he, as an educated student of humanist philosophy, must labor at in order to make a living. Each character somehow represents an aspect of post-Apartheid life, little of which, from this snapshot’s point of view, seems very pretty. You don’t hear the words “99 percent” and “one percent” but the air is thick with hatred of a world ruled by unfeeling capitalists who know nothing of the lives of the needy.

At various points, South African song and dance intrude (the excellent original music is by Spirits Indigenous and Tuelo Minah), with the actors performing routines in Gumboot style, using lots of rhythmic stamping and complex hand clapping; the enthusiastic choreography is by Sduduzo-Ka Mbili and Cuereston Burge. Otherwise naturalistic, NDBELE FUNERAL also includes direct address monologues, performed in South African township theatre style, where the action stops as actors deliver emotion-driven narrations. Based on what I’d read, I assumed the production bordered on being a musical, but the number of music-based scenes is rather minimal and occupies perhaps 10 percent of the 70-minute, intermissionless performance.

All performances are well done, but, in the venue’s cramped quarters, the actors sometimes overdo it. I liked Mr. Miller’s ingratiating charm and affability, and it’s easy to believe his affection and concern for Daweti, but he comes on too strong from the start, and you can see how hard he’s working as he quickly becomes drenched in sweat and has to keep mopping his shaved, perspiring head. His occasionally overheated performance seems even more so when you see the nearly as aggressive acting of Ms. Martinson, who wears a heavy wool sweater and wool cap. Daweti is written and played with such unrelenting bitterness that, except for the stylized breaks, it’s hard to sympathize with her. Mr. Martin, playing the heavy, so to speak, does his best to humanize Jan. The actors, of course, all speak in South African accents; their level of success varies.

The play rushes toward a potentially violent climax that, while dramatically tense, veers toward contrivance when Thabo, seemingly so content, makes a revelation he’s been hiding until now. This revelation, and the possibilities it opens for Daweti’s fate, may make a point about the unhappy conditions the first generation of post-Apartheid South Africans are living through, but it seems more a playwriting device than an organic development. 

Imperfect as it is, I wouldn’t put any nails in this play’s coffin. While there are moments when NDBELE FUNERAL slackens, its creative touches, lively staging, and musical components clearly demonstrate that Zoey Martinson’s is a refreshing theatrical voice from whom more is to be anticipated.