Wednesday, December 12, 2018

132 (2018-2019): Review: THE LIFESPAN OF A FACT (seen December 11, 2018)

“Truth or Consequences” 

When I was in junior high my friend Lester was so annoyed by my constant reference to trivial facts that he dubbed me “Sam Factual.” The nickname didn’t stick but my obsession with facts did, leading me to a career in academia, two appearances on Jeopardy, and the publication of a slew of books and the editing of a major academic journal. Some of what I published was actually examined, if only cursorily, by professional fact-checkers.
In this age of “fake news,” when a close advisor to the president can actually excuse his factual errors by calling them “alternative facts,” it’s only natural for there to be interest in a play about fact-checking. I'm referring, of course, to The Lifespan of a Fact, a sporadically interesting comedy being given a not altogether successful production at Studio 54, starring three of Broadway’s brightest lights: Daniel Radcliffe (the Harry Potter films, The Cripple of Inishman), Cherry Jones (The Glass Menagerie), and Bobby Cannavale (The Hairy Ape).
It’s by a trio of writers, credited in the program as “Jeremy Kareken & David Murrell and Gordon Farrell,” whose source is a 2012 nonfiction book of the same title by John D’Agata and Jim Fingal, who happen to be two of the play’s characters. The play is based closely on the book’s many e-mails and comments surrounding D’Agata’s essay, “What Happens There,” written in 2003 but first published in 2010.

When we first meet Fingal (Radcliffe), he’s a speed-talking, nervously ambitious, young intern at a New York magazine whose classy-looking editor, Emily (Jones)—nicely garbed by costumer Linda Cho—gives him a midweek assignment requiring him to fact-check an essay by respected writer John D’Agata (Cannavale) by the following Monday morning.
The essay—D’Agata insists on that word, not “article”—is about suicide in Las Vegas, with particular reference to the death of a teen named Levi Presley who leaped from the roof of the Stratosphere Hotel. The Harvard-educated Fingal goes way beyond what Emily envisioned, taking his responsibilities to the extreme, compiling a stack of notes that is way longer than the essay itself, and even showing up at the writer’s Vegas home for clarification and correction.

D’Agata is initially arrogant and defensive, but Fingal keeps harping on the need for factual accuracy in even the most seemingly minor details: the number of Vegas strip clubs, the color of the bricks on the Strip, how many seconds it took for Presley to fall, etc.

D’Agata expostulates on his creative freedom as a writer to bend the facts on behalf of literary style and emotional accuracy, and the play becomes a debate over the principles of objective reportage versus artistic liberty in search of a higher truth. Things become troubled enough that the frustrated Emily flies out to Vegas to adjudicate the dispute, with all three working through the night to put the essay’s many worms back in their can. 
Serious as the subject is, and heated as it often gets, the play starts off as often being very funny, sometimes even verging on farce. The laughs gradually diminish, though, as it settles into more serious territory, creating an uneasy balance between comedy and drama. And much as it’s interesting to hear the arguments play out, there’s little one can approve in John’s colorful rhetoric defending his creative approach to the facts.

Fingal may be a poster boy for fact-checkers who border on OCD but, given the way the any reporter, celebrity, politician, or publication today must fear being outed for even innocent exaggerations or mistakes, nonfiction writers with literary aspirations must labor to combine those with information as honest and well-sourced as possible.

Leigh Silverman directs with brisk authority but, for all the play’s basis in real life, it often seems more fake than real, suggesting that its own authenticity needs fact-checking. Some of it is obviously fake, like the five-day deadline premise; various details about John’s life and career; or Emily’s unnamed magazine, which is said to have been around for over half a century, although the magazine that eventually published John’s story was The Believer, founded in San Francisco in 2003. In a sense, the play is a dramatized example of John D’Agata’s writing philosophy. 
Moreover, John’s story about a suicide never rises to the level of importance everyone in the play seems to bestow on it.  Nor do the writers solve the classic playwriting problem of how to get people offstage convincingly so others can have private conversations.

Visually, the play is an uncomfortable mashup. It begins in a sleekly modern world, given a high-tech gloss by Mimi Lien’s simplified setting, Jen Schriever’s lighting, and Lucy Mackinnon’s projections. When the bulk of the action moves to D’Agata’s surprisingly dumpy home, though, we’re suddenly faced with a typical sitcom environment, as if we’re in a Neil Simon comedy. Which, come to think of it, the play often suggests, as in a scene when Jim hides in what Emily thinks is the basement but is actually a closet. 
Jones and Cannavale, whose voice sounded rather hoarse the night I went, bring their expected charisma to Emily and John, she being appropriately desperate while always in control, he doing his gruff, machismo thing as the self-centered writer. Neither, however, offers anything we haven’t seen from them before, and both occasionally play more to the audience than to one another.

It’s Radcliffe—despite speaking so rapidly at times his words get muffled—who provides the most honest performance, with his nerdy, politely insistent demand for factual correctness. He’s also mastered a perfectly believable American accent.

This being a limited engagement, the lifespan of The Lifespan of a Fact will itself not be very long, with a scheduled closing on January 13, only weeks away. And that’s a fact.


Studio 54
254 W. 54th St., NYC
Through January 13

131 (2018-2019): Review: NETWORK (seen December 8, 2018)

"Mad as Hell"

For my review of Network please click on THE BROADWAY BLOG.

Monday, December 10, 2018

130 (2018-2019): Review: NOURA (seen December 9, 2018)

"A House Is Not a Home"

One of the more distinct dramatic patterns over the past few years depicts the immigrant experience in America as told from the viewpoints of infrequently explored communities. Africa, Asia, and the Middle East have increasingly become part of the pattern, the newest example being Heather Raffo’s Noura, a sensitive but only passably successful work directed by Joanna Settle at Playwrights Horizons following its world premiere at Washington D.C.’s Shakespeare Theatre Company. The work’s uniqueness lies in its portrayal of a Christian family that fled war-ravaged, Muslim-dominated Iraq to make a better life on these shores. 
Heather Raffo. Photo: Joan Marcus.

Apart from the intrinsic sociological interest such plays provide in exposing us to the cultures of folks we so rarely see dramatized, they almost always explore the difficulties of assimilation faced by these strangers in a strange land, with characters torn between the past and present as they struggle to determine their identities.
Liam Camporo, Matthew David. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Raffo (Nine Parts of Desire) is an American of Iraqi descent (her father's from Mosul). Almost all of her Chaldean relatives have left Iraq, where their community has practically vanished. She began developing her material in workshops she held with Arab-American women in New York. These helped refine the principal dilemma of Noura, whose title is the Iraqi name of a woman (played by Raffo herself) who, when she becomes an American citizen, changes it to Nora. That name’s connection to Ibsen’s A Doll’s House is very much intended although Noura is in no way a direct adaptation of that play to modern circumstances. 
Nabil Elouahabi, Heather Raffo. Photo: Joan Marcus.
The highly educated Noura, costumed by Tilly Grimes in tight black pants, loose blouses, and an occasional shawl, and Tareq (Nabil Elouahabi)—now Tim—live in New York. They’ve just received their American citizenship and passports, after eight years. She’s from Mosul, he’s from Baghdad. He’s a former surgeon who worked at a Subway sandwich shop before getting employment as an E.R. doctor (his shaky hands prevent his doing surgery); she’s a trained architect who works as a teacher. Tareq strongly wishes to leave the past behind and assimilate, Noura’s worried about losing her connection to her tragic nation’s past and its traditions. 

Dahlia Azama, Nabil Elouahabi, Heather Raffo, Liam Campora, Matthew David. Photo: Joan Marcus.
They have an adolescent son, Yazen, called Alex (Liam Campora), who loves playing PlayStation, although its violence disturbs his mother even though she carried a gun in Iraq. Their closest friend is another refugee, a Muslim obstetrician named Rafa’a (Matthew David), whose admiration for Noura suggests Ibsen’s Dr. Rank. The final character is a sharply independent woman in her mid-20s named Maryam (Dahlia Azama). She’s an orphan raised by nuns in Mosul, who, thanks to Noura’s sponsorship, is studying physics at Stanford and will soon be writing weapons contracts for the Department of Defense.
Nabit Elouahabi, Liam Camporo, Heather Raffo, Matthew David. Photo: Joan Marcus.
It’s Christmas Eve, Noura’s been preparing Iraqi food for weeks, and she hopes for a joyful gathering with her family, Rafa’a, and Maryam, whom she’s just met for the first time. But Maryam’s six-months pregnant, the result of a deliberate decision to have a child. The father was a tool, not meant to be a parent. Does the nun-raised Maryam’s appearance at Christmas in her condition have some allusive religious meaning?

When Tareq learns she’s pregnant, he refers to her as a slut and tells Noura not to provide her with any more support. His unexpected reaction reveals how much he remains immersed in his cultural background, even as he desperately seeks to Americanize. The situation thus serves both to motivate what little conflict the play generates and offer a way to examine underlying emotional and social issues.

As the frequently torpid 90-minute evening proceeds, the tension gradually tightens. Sexual and romantic secrets are spilled, attitudes toward ISIS and Iraq are aired, the contrast between living in America and Iraq is discussed, the importance of retaining one’s roots is expressed, motherhood becomes thematically urgent, and a big reveal—seen coming miles away—opens wounds in Tareq and Noura’s relationship. Raffo’s dialogue is sometimes straightforward and natural, sometimes elusively vague and pseudo-poetic. While there are moments of insight and human warmth, too many others feel contrived and artificial.
Liam Campora, Heather Raffo. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Those looking for correspondences to Ibsen’s play will have to look closely since very few are apparent; don’t wait for a door to slam. One example is Noura’s sneaking cigarettes instead of macaroons behind her husband’s back. (Disappointingly, Raffo, like so many actors today, looks like she’d sooner be dodging terrorists in Mosul than puffing on an herbal cigarette, when they even know how to hold one.)
Heather Raffo, Nabit Elouahabi. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Andrew Lieberman has designed a puzzlingly antiseptic set (suitably well-lit by Masha Tsimring) composed of an imposing, doorless and windowless curved wall of backless pigeonholes whose lower portion holds a shelf on which reside a few odds and ends, including several piled-up books. A large Christmas tree is at one side and a round drafting table cum dining table with mismatched chairs at the other.
Heather Raffo, Nabit Elouahabi. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Noura—who, for undisclosed reasons, hasn’t bothered yet to buy a couch, much less anything else on which to lie or lounge—is forced to drop to the wooden floor to nap. Perhaps the intention is to comment on the emptiness of the house compared to the bustling, people-packed one Noura lived in back home, a modern version of which she’s designing as a gift for Tareq. Noura is preoccupied with the idea of “home,” a safe place for her family, but why she’d choose to live in what looks like a deserted library is anybody’s guess.
Heather Raffo. Photo: Joan Marcus.

Raffo, outstanding, leads a company of excellent actors, all of whom serve the material well. But Noura’s significance resides mainly in its presentation of well-trodden but powerful tropes regarding immigrants and assimilation embedded within a world that, for all its initial unfamiliarity, turns out to be pretty familiar after all.


Playwrights Horizons
416 W. 42nd St., NYC
Through December 30

129 (2018-2019): Review: DOWNSTAIRS (seen December 7, 2018)

"The Lower Depths"

For my review of Downstairs please click on THE BROADWAY BLOG.

Friday, December 7, 2018

128 (2018-2019): Review: THE CHER SHOW (seen December 6, 2018)

“Dressed to Kill”

As I squeezed my way up the aisle through the ecstatic crowd leaving The Cher Show I ran into a fellow critic who greeted me with a big smile, saying, “Wasn’t that a shitload of fun?!” I was forced to drop my critical guard and admit it damned sure was, and my middle-aged daughter agreed, even noting later on Facebook that “it’s going down as my all-time favorite.”
Jarrod Spector, Micaela Diamond. Photo: Joan Marcus.
That goes way too far for me, of course, but there’s no denying that The Cher Show, a jukebox musical based on the life and music of Cherilyn Sarkisian—Cher to the world—is extremely entertaining, and not in the mindless way you might expect. Still, most people will go to The Cher Show not for the inspiration it provides but for its slick celebration of songs, singing, sequins, skin, sex, and spectacle. Not to mention Sonny—Bono, that is.

We’re talking about an eye-poppingly lavish, musically engaging show whose producers, Flody Suarez and Jeffrey Seller, aren’t afraid to go overboard in order to replicate the visual excess associated with the Goddess of Pop. The Cher Show even introduces a fashion show displaying a dazzling gallery of the most memorable, over-the-top outfits master designer Bob Mackie (who designed the show’s costumes) created during the glamorous diva’s career.
Micaela Diamond and company. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Few shows since the heyday of the Ziegfeld Follies have so imaginatively glorified the female form, a form the tall, slender, 72-year-old Cher still has. Mackie’s significance in bolstering Cher’s image even qualifies him to be a character in the show, where he’s one of a trio of characters enacted by the terrific Michael Berrese.
Michael Berrese. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Talking of trios, that’s the approach taken by book writer Rick Elice (Jersey Boys) in portraying Cher, a device reminiscent of the one used to portray Donna Summer in another jukebox biomusical, the soon-to-close Summer: The Donna Summer Musical. Micaela Diamond is “Babe,” or the young Cher; Teal Wicks is “Lady,” or mid-career Cher; and Stephanie J. Block is “Star,” or the mature Cher, who aggregates all the best features of her earlier incarnations.

Thus do we watch a  a shy, dyslexic kid molt into the fabulous superstar with whom we’re most familiar. If her unstoppable career is any indication, there may yet be other Chers waiting to one day make their radiant entrance.
Stephanie J. Block and company. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Cleverly, Elice has the three Chers often appear in tandem, commenting to each other on issues in the star’s life, and frequently singing together. Each perfectly bewigged (by Charles G. LaPointe) performer offers a simulacrum of Cher’s powerful, from the gut, belting voice.

Most of the attention is garnered by Block’s remarkable replication, not only of Cher’s vocal qualities, but of her earthy personality, ready wit, and striking appearance (post rhinoplasty, dental, and other procedures, of course). If hers isn’t a Tony-qualifying performance, I haven’t been going to Broadway shows since 1945.
Stephanie J. Block. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Christine Jones and Brett J. Banakis’s efficient set of multiple units serves admirably for the show’s numerous scenes, which depend largely on Kevin Adams’s razzle-dazzle lighting and Darrel Maloney’s exciting projection design. Backed by a bodacious bevy of Broadway’s buffest bodies, The Cher Show races headlong through the highlights of Cher’s on- and offstage life.

We don’t meet her Armenian-American dad, but we do get to visit with her glamorous, six-times married, show-biz mother, Georgia Holt (Emily Skinner, sensational; she also does a stand-out Lucille Ball) and an alcoholic stepfather, John Southall (Matthew Hydzik). We see the teenage Cher meeting Sonny Bono (Jarrod Spector, a virtual Sonny avatar), the height-challenged singer-comedian over whom she towered.
Jarrod Spector. Photo: Joan Marcus.
As telescoped here, after he helped her get started as a backup singer for producer Phil Spector, Sonny used his acumen to team up with her and rocket them to recording and (controversial) TV stardom, with numbers like “The Shoop Shoop Song” and “I Got You, Babe.” Inevitably, greed, overwork, and control issues ignited their divorce, rousing Cher to take her destiny into her own hands.
Jarrod Spector, Teal Wicks. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Cher’s professional ascent and temporary decline, which even led to her doing hairspray infomercials, is tracked in mostly bite-sized pieces, as is her climb to acting on Broadway and in movies (where she won an Oscar) and the big tours she’s done over the past two decades. A lot of ground gets covered late in the show as time moves forward to the insistent rhythm of “And the Beat Goes On.”

There are also her love affairs with drug-using, singer-guitarist Gregg Allman (also Hydzik), of the long, blonde hair, and, among others, the one—when she was 40—with 23-year-old Rob Camilletti (Michael Campayno), a bagel maker from Queens. All the while, we see her struggling to find the impossible balance between the demands of supernova stardom and those of being a mother, wife, and (more or less) normal person.
Teal Wicks, Stephanie J. Block, Micaela Diamond. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Musically, The Cher Show, which contains 35 tunes, frequently (although not always) incorporates the star’s best-known hits into the narrative to accent major events, like having her sing “My Baby Shot Me Down” when she and Sonny break up. Her Armenian ancestry inspires the song “Half-Breed,” and you can figure out how “If I Could Turn Back Time” or “When the Money’s Gone” could fit in.
Company of The Cher Show. Photo: Joan Marcus.
On the other hand, female empowerment can be felt in “You Haven’t Heard the Last of Me” and “Believe,” meant to inspire anyone who’s been down not to give up the fight and to take control of their lives. When Block sings “The Way of Love” you’ll feel she’s earned every dollar you spent to buy your ticket. You may even want to come back and buy another.
Ashley Blair Fitzgerald. Photo: Joan Marcus.
With smashing direction by Jason Moore and showy, Vegas-like choreography by Christopher Gattelli (who gives Ashley Blair Fitzgerald a showstopping Apache routine to “Dark Lady”), The Cher Show delivers the kind of slam-bang flash and glitter you expect from a musical about the Goddess of Pop. 

Cher fans will, of course, miss a few personal details the show glosses over, but there’s enough gossipy juice in its two-hours and 20 minutes to satisfy most people’s curiosity, set hearts racing, and get toes tapping. My friend said it and I’ll say it again: The Cher Show is “a shitload of fun.”
Matthew Hydzik, Emily Skinner, Jarrod Spector, Micaela Diamond, Stephanie J. Block, Teal Wicks, Michael Barrese, Michael Campayno. Photo: Joan Marcus.


Neil Simon Theatre
250 W. 52nd St., NYC
Open run

127 (2018-2019): Review: AMERICAN SON (seen December 5, 2018)

"Teachable Moments"

For my review of American Son please click on THEATER LIFE.

Wednesday, December 5, 2018

126 (2018-2019): Review: THE HELLO GIRLS (seen December 4, 2018)

“Grace Under Fire”

Only a couple of weeks ago, on Veterans’ Day (formerly, Armistice Day), America celebrated the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I. It couldn’t be more fitting that two shows about the conflict are now playing Off-Broadway, All Is Calm: The Christmas Truce, at the Sheen Center, downtown, and The Hello Girls, uptown at 59E59 Theaters, uptown. I haven’t seen the first yet but am familiar with its oft-told tale of how German and English soldiers, mortal enemies, ceased fighting on Christmas Eve, 1914, to celebrate the holiday. The story of The Hello Girls, however, was new to me and will likely be so to most of those who pay it a well-deserved visit.
Company of The Hello Girls. Photo: Richard Termine.
The latest project by the Prospect Theatre Company, now in its 20th year of providing new musicals to the New York theatre, The Hello Girls belongs near the top of its noteworthy list of accomplishments. Unlike All Is Calm, which uses familiar music (like “It’s a Long Way to Tipperary”), The Hello Girls—apart from a snatch or two from songs like “Over There”—has a new score. It’s by the company’s gifted cofounder, Peter Mills, who provides 19 rousing, lyrically clever songs in a variety of modes from jazz to ragtime. Nearly every one works.
Lili Thomas, Skyler Volpe, Chanel Karimkhani, Ellie Fishman, Cathryn Wake. Photo: Richard Termine.
The solid, if overlong, book by Mills and Prospect cofounder/artistic director Cara Reichel introduces the true story of a largely unsung group of brave American women. These are the 223 bilingual telephone operators who, in 1918 (a year before women were allowed to vote), were recruited to join the Signal Corps and shipped off to France. There, they handled the complex telephone systems—in Paris and elsewhere, including the front lines—integral to fighting the Boche.
Ellie Fishman and company. Photo: Richard Termine.
In two acts and 22 scenes, with a single intermission, the show focuses on an actual woman, Grace Banker (Ellie Fishman), called Chief Banker, who left her supervisory job with AT&T to head the first unit of female switchboard operators serving the U.S. Army overseas. She leads four women—Helen Hill (Chanel Karimkhani), Bertha Hunt (Lili Thomas), Suzanne Prevot (Skyler Volpe), and Louise LeBreton (Cathryn Wake)—loosely based on actual “hello girls,” as they were dubbed, and each with her own mini-story. One, for example, concerns the women’s having to pay for their own uniforms.
Skyler Volpe, Ellie Fishman. Photo: Richard Termine.
Over the course of its more than two a half hours, The Hello Girls keeps reminding us of the chauvinistic obstacles the women had to overcome, the disdain they faced as females in a male-dominated domain, the drawbacks to being put on pedestals when their boots were firmly on the ground, the hesitation to place them in dangerous situations, no matter the need, and so on. This harping on the obvious bloats the book with unnecessary material whose removal or paring down would greatly enhance the narrative drive, and likely enhance its feminist perspective. The Hello Girls is good enough to warrant a commercial production; its chances would be even better with some smart trimming. 
Company of The Hello Girls. Photo: Richard Termine.
As the last scene notes, after the war ended, these heroic women (Grace Banker received the Distinguished Service Medal) were denied veterans’ benefits because they were considered civilian contractors, not members of the U.S. Army. Only in 1979, when most were dead, did the Army acknowledge their rights. The full story is available in Elizabeth Cobbs’s The Hello Girls: America’s First Women Soldiers.
Arlo Hill, Ellie Fishman. Photo: Richard Termine.
 The Hello Girls is performed much like some of director John Doyle’s musical productions, with everyone in the ensemble (apart from Ms. Fishman) not only a singer-actor but a talented musician. Arlo Hill, who plays Lt. Joseph Riser, Grace’s immediate commanding officer, who is reluctant to fully accept the women as fellow doughboys, is a percussionist; Scott Wakefield, cast as Gen. John J. Pershing, Commander of the Expeditionary Forces, whose awareness of the need for telephone communication led to the women’s employment, plays the bass (which inspires a blandly funny pun).
Scott Wakefield, Ellie Fishman. Photo: Richard Termine.
Andrew Mayer, whose several roles include Pvt. Dempsey, plays piano and violin; Matthew McGloin, in the role of Pvt. Matterson, a telephone lineman who flirts with one of the women, plays the piano and accordion; Ben Moss, as Lt. Wessen, also handles the piano (two are used); while the women offer high-grade performances on the cello (Karimkhani), bass and piano (Thomas), guitar (Volpe), and clarinet (Wake).
Matthew McGloin, Skyler Volpe. Photo: Richard Termine.
Lianne Arnold’s set is an arrangement of wooden steps and platforms that allows for multiple locales. Intimations of the world of switchboards enhance the environment, as do the projections of period-derived videos and stills. Whitney Locher’s costumes do a fine job of capturing the military and civilian clothes of the day, Isabella Byrd’s lighting works overtime to convey the necessary atmospherics, and Kevin Heard’s sound design offers essential assistance to establishing the wartime background.
Ellie Fishman. Photo: Richard Termine.
Cara Reichel’s direction is perfection itself in the graceful way she, aided by the dance moves of choreographer Christine O’Grady, shifts the 10-member ensemble around the set’s complex warren of levels and passageways. Reichel also deserves praise for finding such a multitalented company. Ellie Fishman’s Grace is every inch the strong, independent leader the part requires, and she sings with assured authority. Arlo Hill as her initially reluctant commanding officer, who insists on respect for one’s superiors, also makes a strong impression, as do all the others in the cast.
Cathryn Wake, Skyler Volpe, Ellie Fishman,Chanel Karimkhani, Lili Thomas. Photo: Richard Termine. 
My strongest regret is that an unfortunate incident caused the already lengthy show to run past its announced ending time. Midway through Act Two, moaning could be heard from offstage, disconcerting the actors. One of them finally stopped the show because a theatregoer in an offstage passageway had taken sick. The delay, while the stricken person waited for medical assistance, lasted more than 15 minutes. Aware that the train I needed to get home to Queens was scheduled to stop running soon for track repairs, I had no alternative but to swiftly depart at a point the script later revealed was perhaps 10 minutes before the final curtain. My apologies to the company but my congratulations for what is, cavils aside, an important contribution to the season’s musical theatre scene.


59E59 Theaters/Theater A
59 E. 59th St., NYC
Through December 22