Sunday, September 21, 2014

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

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)


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.  

Saturday, September 20, 2014

69. Review of ROCOCO ROUGE (September 19, 2014)


The promotional package for ROCOCO ROUGE, the latest “rouge” offering from artistic director Austin McCormick and his Company XIV (pronounced by its letters rather than as the number 14), invites you to “a titillating evening of decadent divertissement, featuring opera divas, can-can girls, dancing boys, live music, circus, ballet, burlesque, and much more. Sip a delicious cocktail whilst you experience a thrillingly unique fusion of nightlife and theatre.” While neither especially titillating nor decadent, the show delivers on all the other counts, and offers a pleasant enough divertissement for theatregoers seeking pure escapism. Its immediate predecessor, last year’s NUTCRACKER ROUGE, which received a Drama Desk nomination as a Unique Theatrical Experience, had the benefit, minimal as it was, of its source, the NUTCRACKER SUITE, to tie its disparate parts together and provide continuity for those familiar with the story. No such luck with ROCOCO ROUGE, which, while it uses several similar performance routines, is merely a succession of songs, acrobatic acts, and dance numbers, connected by the singing and patter of the very talented mistress of ceremonies, Shelly Watson.
The show is done cabaret style in an unnamed downstairs venue at 428 Lafayette Street, located in the Colonnades, that row of neoclassical, early 1830s buildings directly across from the Public Theatre. The front room cum lobby has a bar where you can have a drink before entering the 100-seat theatre at the rear. Even if you aren’t thirsty when you arrive, you’ll have an opportunity to order from a pretty cocktail waitress at your table, where you’ll likely be seated with strangers. (Some patrons sit on small love seats.) And if your throat remains parched, not to worry, since the show takes two thirst-quenching intermissions. Truthfully, the only need for these “short breaks,” as Ms. Watson calls them, is to sell more drinks; their downside is 1) they stretch the event out to nearly two hours (half an hour longer than advertised), and 2) the intermission music (much of it jazz recordings featuring classical stylists like Ella Fitzgerald and Eartha Kitt) is so loud it’s like being at a wedding or bar mitzvah where you have to scream to have anything like a conversation.

Shelly Watson (center) and company. Photo: Phillip Van Nostrand.
Hanging on one of the theatre’s black walls is a huge Moulin Rouge poster of slinky black chorus girl leader Lisette Malidor in nude silhouette. The stage curtain itself combines colored images of bewigged personages from the time of France’s Louis XIV, from whose dissolute late 18th-century reign the company takes its inspiration, combined with a black and white, painted panorama of 19th-century French chorus girls. Among these charming young women, some of them doing the can can, are a few who think little of displaying their furry nether regions. For shame. Actually, this curtain, which also includes a nude man lying on his back with his equipment in the hand of one of the naughty can can girls, is perhaps the most erotic thing in ROCOCO ROUGE; Ms. Watson promises “debauchery and nakedity” but the results are limp in both zones.

Courtney Giannone (standing) and company. Photo: Phillip Van Nostrand.
Zane Pihlstrom’s minimalist set is mainly two Austrian curtains, one upstage, one down, lit with conventionally smoky, mood-making effects by Jeannette Yew. Several small, standing, crystal chandelier-light lamps line the downstage area, and a spiral staircase is located up left. Mr. Pihlstrom’s costumes continue the company tradition of eroticizing 18th-century high fashion by combining familiar elements but stripping them down to reveal as much flesh as possible. For those first encountering the company’s work they’ll be surprising; if you’ve seen an earlier show, like NUTCRACKER ROUGE, however, the novelty will be gone.

Davon Rainey, Shelly Watson. Photo: Phillip Van Nostrand.
Ms. Watson, who brings to mind a combination of Bette Midler and Mae West, is a roly-poly presence bedecked in a series of truly fanciful wigs and miniskirted costumes consisting of imaginatively adorned corsets, bustiers, and panniers. She makes an excellent female version of the Emcee made famous in the musical CABARET, but, despite her satirically insinuating manner, her lines are neither especially off-color nor funny. More charismatic attitude than scintillating wit, she nevertheless capably anchors the production as she wanders through the audience, mic in hand, with her gently provocative comic commentary and very impressive singing, which shifts effortlessly from operatic arias (in French and Italian) to contemporary hip-hop and jazz. As expected, several ringside spectators get her close-up treatment (I was referred to as a “silver-haired devil” as she put an arm around me), and I thank the gods she didn’t plant her lipstick on my balding pate, as they do to shiny-headed plutocrats in those old movie nightclub scenes.
Katrina Cunningham. Photo: Phillip Van Nostrand.
The show itself is a succession of familiar routines, newly staged and choreographed by Mr. McCormick, but not especially original, nor particularly distinct from one another. The dance numbers feature several attractive women and two men, all of them in scanty costumes showing lots of butt flesh, but there’s no actual nudity. The men wear sequined codpieces and the few women who bare their breasts do so only with pasties stuck firmly in place. G-strings dominate and, as usual, will cause the wedgie-conscious to wonder how people can wear those things without constantly tugging at them. The choreography, much of it set to classical operatic arias, is filled with writhing, twisting, thrusting movements that express feelings but don’t particularly reflect the lyrics (at least not those in English); aside from the sight of lightly clad, lithe, and muscular young bodies behaving in the throes of presumed passion or jealousy or whatnot, the dances are in no way salacious, more’s the pity. And since the company’s two male dancers (Davon Rainey and Steven Trumon Gray), for all their low body fat and trim physiques, are usually dressed in women’s corsets, it may require special tastes to appreciate their sensual appeal.

Laura Careless. Photo: Phillip Van Nostrand.
The dancers are all quite capable of performing Mr. McCormick’s “baroque choreography,” as the company calls it, a combination of classical ballet and contemporary jazz dancing, and there’s even a semi-flamenco piece, based on “Habanera” from CARMEN, performed by Mr. Rainey, who also does a bizarrely incongruous dance, wearing flaming drag, with a red sequined gown and 1920’s style headpiece, while Ms. Watson belts “Is That All There Is?”  It might be noted that the slender Mr. Rainey, who has a tiny waist any figure-conscious woman might envy, bears a striking resemblance to Lisette Malidor, whose poster I mentioned earlier.

ROCOCO ROUGE company. Photo: Phillip Van Nostrand.

The dances include pas de deux and solos (Laura Careless’s is a standout) as well as solo songs, the two principal singers (apart from Ms. Watson) being the lovely brunette Brett Umlauf and the voluptuous Katrina Cunningham, whose renditions of pop tunes, such as Beyoncé’s “Drunken Love” and Brittany Spears’s “Toxic” (titles my theatre companion provided), have a Norah Jones vibe; I admit, however, to having had trouble making out the slurred lyrics. Allison Ulrich proves a deft aerialist on the hanging hoop, especially when she’s paired with Mr. Gray and they have to perform very close to the nearby lighting instruments. She's also no slouch when it comes to pole dancing. Courtney Giannone performs on the cyr wheel, but why she’s been asked to hide her arresting looks by wearing not only an unflattering hairdo but a drawn-on mustache is anybody’s guess. Rob Mastrianni is the talented guitarist who accompanies several numbers.
ROCOCO ROUGE isn’t up to the standards of NUTCRACKER ROUGE, which included several of the same artists on and offstage. It needs something other than atmosphere to unify its parts, and the inclusion of some more daringly erotic material would go a long way to bringing the necessary rouge to audiences’ cheeks.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

68. Review of THE FATAL WEAKNESS (September 17, 2014)


With George Kelly’s drawing room comedy of manners, THE FATAL WEAKNESS, the Mint Theatre continues in its distinguished tradition of producing worthy but long forgotten and infrequently revived plays by significant playwrights of the past. By the time its original production opened at Broadway’s Royale Theatre (now the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre) on November 19, 1946, a year after World War II ended, Kelly (uncle of actress Grace Kelly) had enjoyed an estimable career, including still well-known hits like CRAIG’S WIFE, THE SHOW-OFF, and THE TORCH-BEARERS. This play, however, his tenth (and last) on the Great White Way, was only mildly successful, running 119 performances (not a terrible number back then), and deemed good enough to be selected by Burns Mantle as one of his ten best of the year, and for critic George Jean Nathan to call it the season’s “Best New Comedy.” As I wrote in my ENCYCLOPEDIA OF THE NEW YORK STAGE, 1940-1950, “It pleased a fair proportion of the reviewers, who generally thought it uneven but still a refreshingly unsentimental and incisively comic view of an incurably sentimental middle-aged woman.”

Ina Claire on the cover of the original Playbill for THE FATAL WEAKNESS.

The beloved Broadway light comedienne Ina Claire returned to the stage after a five-year retirement to play the leading role of Ollie Espinshade, a wealthy, incurably romantic woman of 46, played now by Kristen Griffith, who learns from her gossipy friend, Mrs. Mabel Wentz (Cynthia Darlow), that her dashing, if narcissistic, husband of 28 years, the 52-year-old Paul (Cliff Bemis), is having a fling with another woman, Dr. Claudia Hilton (unseen), an M.D. specializing in osteopathy. (The playwright has some fun with this branch of medicine, but he never explains what it is—a form of treatment requiring physical manipulation of the muscles and joint; from the tepid audience laughter, I wonder how commonly known its meaning is.) Ollie is such a romanticist that she even attends the weddings of people she doesn’t know, just so she can weep at them. Her daughter, Penny (Victoria Mack), professes a more cynical view of marriage.

From left: Patricia Kilgarriff, Kristin Griffith. Photo: Richard Termine.

THE FATAL WEAKNESS belongs to that stretch of Kelly’s career when he moved from satirical comedy to problem plays lightened by a mildly comic tone. The mother-daughter conflict over marital obligations lights the spark that leads the dramatist into the exploration of attitudes toward marriage and divorce that constitutes the play’s thematic spine. Ollie’s belief that married couples should remain together through thick and thin is contrasted with Penny’s theory that marriage is essentially a temporary arrangement that should dissolve when it wears out its welcome. Kelly manages, however, to create a situation that allows Ollie to reverse her attitude when she realizes that hers has become a loveless marriage, while, ironically, Penny, whose husband Vernon (Sean Patrick Hopkins) is so frustrated by her various notions about education, childrearing, and marriage that he’s ready to leave her, finds herself eating her own words. Listening in on all this, and occasionally offering comical observations, is the maid, Anna (Patricia Kilgarriff), given an Irish accent here to heighten her wryly knowing remarks.

Patience is required to enjoy ‘The Fatal Weakness’
Kristen Griffith, Victoria Mack. Photo: Richard Termine.
THE FATAL WEAKNESS is the kind of middlebrow entertainment that dominated midcentury Broadway stages, usually with a leading actress in the role of the elegant, fashionably dressed heroine, who spoke in a semi-British accent (such as you can hear daily by watching old B/W films on TCM). Matching her wardrobe would be a lavish home decorated with expensive drapery, furniture, lamps, and tchotchkes. For the 1946 production, Donald Oenslager created a sitting room on the second floor of an urban townhouse with two large archways and tall walls covered with floral wallpaper. In the Mint revival, performed under the limited conditions necessitated by their small Off-Broadway stage, designer Vicki R. Davis has successfully abandoned the chintz and archways in favor of a room with mirrored walls, the upstage section interestingly angled, suggesting a more contemporary yet still period-appropriate art deco ambience that offers a fresh and lively environment for the action. Christian DeAngelis’s lighting nicely helps establish the seasonal shifts, time of day, and atmosphere.

BWW Reviews:  THE FATAL WEAKNESS May Be Found In The Script
Cliff Bemis, Victoria Mack. Photo: Richard Termine.
Andrea Varga has given the actors suitably attractive mid-1940s costumes, with the slender Ms. Griffith looking chicly smart in her various ensembles. Act 3, scene 1, however, is supposedly set during a sweltering heat wave, yet, apart from Penny in her sleeveless, floral summer dress, the other characters’ seem unfazed by the heat and humidity. Ollie wears a jacket over her sheer white blouse, but eventually takes it off, while Paul comes home from vacation wearing a Hemingway-esque hunting jacket and hat. I realize that proper summertime attire in 1946 differed from what would be worn today, but does he really have to wrap himself in a smoking jacket after he’s doffed his other one?

No mention is made of what pays for all this in the Espinshade family, but, except for Penny’s predicament when the possibility of Vernon’s leaving her is raised, financial considerations are not significant in the lives of Paul and Ollie; on the other hand, one of the reasons Paul seems to be attracted to his medical mistress is that she grew up a poor orphan and overcame her deprived background to become a doctor.

The play’s main plot is mainly concerned with Ollie’s determined efforts, prompted by the friendly meddling of Mrs. Wentz, to follow Paul (via a third party female acquaintance who serves as a quasi-private eye) so as to certify that he is, indeed, having an affair. The subplot deals with Penny and Vernon’s troubles, and allows the playwright to introduce and satirize Penny’s advanced notions, including such proto fem-lib positions as her insistence that she needs somehow to “realize” herself (this is before people had to “find” themselves). The tone varies from light comedy to serious discussion; while the laughs in some sections, such as Act 1, come fairly frequently, long stretches go by before someone offers a risible riposte.

Actors are often cast in roles for which they are, technically, either too old or too young. Ina Claire was 53 when she played the 46-year-old Ollie, while the 52-year-old Paul was played by the 41-year-old Howard St. John (whose face you’ll recognize from many old films if you Google him). Ms. Griffith, whose slenderness and grace are suitably believable for Ollie, is, let us say, significantly older than Ms. Claire was when she essayed the part, and, while Mr. St. John was more than a decade younger than Paul, Mr. Bemis is at nearly a decade and a half older than the role. Ms. Griffith acquits herself well as Ollie, emulating the theatrical speaking style associated with such roles, and captures much of the character’s occasional silliness and her well-spoken intelligence when circumstances put her to the test. The somewhat portly Mr. Bemis is appropriately avuncular and down to earth, but not fully convincing as the jaunty lover in early middle age experiencing newfound love. Cynthia Darlow as Mrs. Wentz nearly steals all her scenes as the stereotypically fast-talking, bonbon popping, wiseacre confidante, and Patricia Kilgarriff as the equally familiar comic maid makes the most of her several brief scenes. Victoria Mack is mostly one note as the annoying Penny, and Sean Patrick Hopkins adds few colors to his rather colorless role.

THE FATAL WEAKNESS, whose title refers to Ollie’s incurable sentimentalism, is in a longish three acts and five scenes, which last at least two and a half hours. Played in its entirety, it can’t avoid falling into longeurs, with scenes that, for all the smoothness of their dialogue, are overwritten. Mr. Kelly isn’t content to make his points but insists on doing so to where garrulousness sets in, such as when Paul’s lying about his vacation goes on endlessly, or when he delivers a tall tale about how he supposedly hurt his ankle on the golf course. We know he’s a fibber, so there’s no need to gild the lying.

The current trend for 90-minute, intermissionless plays makes the leisurely talkativeness, and general lack of action, of plays like THE FATAL WEAKNESS seem even more egregious, although director Jesse Marchese generally does a fine job of keeping the dialogue hopping at a nice clip. George Kelly directed his own production, and the script is filled with his original stage directions, which are extremely detailed and give the reader a full picture of the proceedings. One way you can tell Mr. Marchese didn’t follow these notes slavishly is the lack of smoking (apart from a cigar Paul lights in Act 3), directions for which are scattered throughout the script, down to the disposal of “match stems” and the stubbing out of cigarettes. Much as I hate smoking myself, this apparent concession to the actors’ preferences or audience discomfort does deprive the production of a definite period touch. Watching a 1946 drawing room comedy without actors smoking cigarettes (including those in holders) is like seeing IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE in color. It’s not a fatal weakness, but there’s something definitely off.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

67. Review of MY MAÑANA COMES (September 15, 2014)

Spoiler alert: I’m about to gush, uncharacteristically, about MY MAÑANA COMES, a thoroughly engrossing new play by Elizabeth Irwin at the Peter Jay Sharp Theatre. I was aware that it had received widespread kudos when it opened a week or so ago, but I’m always skeptical until I see for myself. Sure enough, the play scores 10s in all categories: writing, acting, direction, and design.
From left: José Joaquin Pérez, Jason Bowen, Brian Quijada, Reza Salazar. Photo: Matthew Murphy.
Ms. Irwin, whose play is being produced by the Playwrights Realm, devoted to supporting the work of early-career playwrights, writes in the program that her years of working in restaurants in various jobs exposed her to the way restaurant employees in the “back of the house” develop family-like relationships, with all the positive and negative elements such bonding brings. Her purpose in writing MY MAÑANA COMES was to reveal the everyday lives of the people whose circumstances make up the subjects of Op Ed articles, Senate debates, and university discussions. The play, set in the kitchen of an up-scale restaurant off Madison Avenue in the 60s, examines the daily routines, friendships, and struggles of four busboys. It’s a story of aspiration and determination, of sacrifice and betrayal, of pride in one’s job and business exploitation; ultimately, it’s about the desperation of the underclass and the tragedy of illegal immigrants. As Ms. Irwin notes: “This play is about what happens to that part of the restaurant’s family when the outside world seeps in.”
From left: Jose Joaquin Pérez, Jason Bowen, Brian Quijada, Reza Salazar. Photo: Matthew Murphy.

The busboys are Peter (Jason Bowen), African American; Jorge (José Joaquín Pérez), Mexican and illegal; Pepe (Reza Salazar), here three months, another undocumented Mexican; and the newest of the batch, Wahlid (Brian Quijada), Mexican American, bilingual but with little connection to his Mexican roots. Peter and his girlfriend have a five-year-old daughter who’s the love of his life, and for whom he slaves at his job in the hope that he can give her a better life, even to where he can take pride in her owning her own restaurant. Jorge saves every penny and may have put away as much as $30 thousand to fulfill his promise to return home after four years and buy his family a house. Pepe, however, broke as he is, can’t resist the temptation to spend what little he earns on a nightly Heineken or a pair of Nike sneakers. Wahlid, outwardly ambitious, is studying to take the EMT exam, although his commitment becomes increasingly doubtful;
MY MAÑANA COMES documents the intricate daily work practices of these four men as they go through their kitchen duties in perfectly coordinated fashion, folding napkins, wiping counters, serving dishes, clearing tables, slicing fruit, and so on. They share their dreams and goals, rib each other (with lots of ethnic gibes), bitch about the vagaries of their abusive French managers, negotiate shifts, and bring to the workplace the daily hassles they must endure because of their low wages, a combination of “shift pay” and tips. Anything that disturbs the equilibrium on the narrow economic tightrope they must walk, like the $100 fine Peter must pay for a fare-beating incident, can create chaos; similarly scary is any threat to the status of Jorge and Pepe, like a visit of Con Ed to check a gas problem in the building one of them lives in. 
For all the obvious naturalism of the plot and performance, however, the audience must accept the fact that the playwright has kept everyone else that might be involved out of the picture. We hear about the managers, but never see them, nor do we see the chefs who place the food on the counter, or the wait staff that would presumably appear in the kitchen at some point. There’s also a considerable amount of Spanish spoken, although dialogue that would ordinarily be spoken by one Mexican immigrant to another in their native tongue is in English, albeit lightly salted with Spanish. For the most part, Ms. Irwin has handled the difficult problem of seesawing the languages well enough to be more or less convincing, including having even Peter, the black, non-Hispanic busboy, be fairly conversant in Spanish, but there are times when you’re aware that you’re suspending your disbelief so that the dramatist can get on with her job.
The episodic, 95-minute, intermissionless play progresses by incrementally deepening our knowledge of these people, establishing the parameters of their personal and work-related issues, with time taken from the sequence of events to give each character a single expository, yet emotionally  rich, monologue delivered to the person’s closest relation (unseen). Ultimately, building on the multitude of tiny personal dramas there arrives a climactic one affecting everyone when the management behaves in an unconscionable way and the workers, with all their individual doubts and fears, must determine how to react. The powerful conclusion will knot your stomach.
In Chew Yay, MY MAÑANA COMES has found the perfect director. He has brilliantly coordinated the nitty gritty activities of the four busboys, making them consistently watchable, while drawing from each actor a sharply edged, subtly shadowed, three-dimensional characterization that never ceases being fully theatrical in terms of timing, emotional variety, and vocal/physical interest. Mr. Yay must also be credited for inspiring the design team to work wonders in bringing their combined skills together to create a visual and auditory world that holds you in its clutches from the very first to the very last moment.
MY MAÑANA COMES is, literally, a work of kitchen sink realism. Wilson Chin’s white and red set recreates the restaurant’s back room with amazingly detailed authenticity, with swinging doors at stage right leading to the dining room, and a stainless steel counter at stage left on which the unseen chefs place dishes to be served. A wall down left rotates so that it can bring lockers into view to suggest a change of locale. Overhead, fluorescent lights hang, but designer Nicole Pearce makes what seem the limitations of her available instruments in this naturalistic environment do far more than one might at first think possible. Mikhail Fiksel has composed compellingly rhythmic interstitial music for the scene breaks in this episodic drama, and his sound design during the action is enormously helpful in creating atmospheric tension. Costume designer Moria Sine Clinton’s black busboy uniforms provide the perfect touch to let us know just what kind of restaurant we’re in, and the everyday grunge her characters wear as mufti, from their T-shirts and jeans down to their shoes and sneakers, is perfectly chosen.
This is essentially an ensemble work, with each actor having roughly the same amount of stage time and dramatic importance. Still, because of his leadership position among the staff, Peter stands out as the central character, and his performance by Mr.  Bowen is a star-making one. Tall and physically appealing, he brings an abundance of intelligence, frustration, affection, humor, and anger to the role. In the final scene, after Peter has been forced to make a painful choice, he stands alone on stage, slicing fruit, managing an expression of such anguish and self-disgust that it will take a long time before I forget it. Nearly as colorful is Mr. Quijada, the energetically happy-go-lucky guy who, despite his family’s Mexican background, expresses his contempt for the Mexican origins of Jorge and Pepe in smartass wisecracks. These get under the skin of the tightly controlled Jorge, careful to keep his seething feelings close to his vest for fear of rocking the boat; he's given a smart and thoughtful performance by Mr. Pérez. Rounding out the ensemble is Mr. Salazar’s Pepe, boyishly foolish and eminently likable.
My recommendation is not to wait until tomorrow to get seats. Then again, although I wouldn’t chance it, it’s good enough to warrant an extended run, so maybe you’ll have time to do so after your mañana comes.


Monday, September 15, 2014

66. Review of BEDBUGS!!! THE MUSICAL (September 14, 2014)


If you’re itching for a good bite on your rock musical butt you couldn’t do better than to flit on over to the Arclight Theatre on W. 71st Street, where BEDBUGS!!! THE MUSICAL will be happy to oblige you. Highly praised during the 2008 New York Musical Theatre Festival, BEDBUGS!!!, like those pesky pests that inspired it, hasn’t been easy to get rid of, and now it’s back in a regular Off-Broadway production that includes several sensational performers with nuclear-powered voices who’ve been with it all along.

Grace McLean, Nicholas Park. Photo: Rex Bonomelli.

BEDBUGS!!!  is in the tradition of those nutty, campy, exaggerated, and high-energy Off-Broadway shows that arrive every year, and mostly vanish soon after. It may not be as funny and its music not as tuneful as classics of the genre, like THE ROCKY HORROR SHOW and LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS, but its creative inspiration, which includes an array of costumes designed by Philip Heckman that range from glamorously glitzy to captivatingly clever, goes a long way toward scratching that itch.

Chris Hall, Grace McLean, and the BEDBUGS!!! THE MUSICAL company. Photo: Rex Bonomelli.

Conceived by composer Paul Leschen and book writer/lyricist Fred Sauter, BEDBUGS!!! is performed on a scruffy set designed by Adam Demerath, who has filled it with discarded old mattresses, garbage bags, and other detritus, with a hot four-piece band, led by Ming Aldrich-Gan, stuffed into an elevated corner up left. A filthy mattress, which can open like double doors, stands up center, and, at stage left, the off kilter frame for a TV screen is placed on high. A reporter named Belinda Bedford (Tracy Conyer Lee) periodically sticks her face in it to update us on news regarding New York City’s bedbug infestation. All is flashily lighted by Kirk Fitzgerald.

Chris Hall, Grace McClean. Photo: Rex Bonomelli.
The show begins with a flashback to 1989 when Young Carly (Grace McLean) is watching a Johnny Carson show on which French-Canadian singing star Dionne Salon (Brian Charles Rooney) is the guest. At the same time, though, Carly’s mother (Gretchen Wylder), seeing that the bed bugs (two words, according to Google) she thought were gone are not, trips and dies, leaving Carly with an indelible hatred for Salon. Flash forward to the present when dowdy grown-up Carly (Ms. McLean) is a rogue scientist trying, with the help of her gay brother, Burt (Nicholas Park), to discover a pesticide powerful enough to eliminate the city’s overwhelming bed  bug problem, even though this means using a radical combination of chemicals. What seems at first her success turns out to be a frightening failure, as she’s actually succeeded in creating a mutant breed of insects who take the form of humanoid creatures led by a tall, charismatic dude with glam-rock attitude named Cimex (Chris Hall). He and his ravenous battalions of buggy buddies begin munching the citizenry and, unless a new spray can be invented, it looks like the Big Apple’s residents will be reduced to trail mix. Participating in this catastrophe is the Celine Dion avatar, Dionne Salon, who has an addiction to eating cheese, and whose shady, unfaithful husband-manager, Dexter Diabolique (Danny Bolero), seeking a comeback, is planning a concert for her at Madison Square Garden, even in the midst of the bed bug crisis. And deepening the dilemma is Cimex’s seduction of Carly, who transforms from bespectacled nerd into the flame-tressed, glam-goddess Queen of the Bed Bugs. Will humanity survive? Will Carly find happiness as an insect bride? Will Salon give her concert? Will she overcome her cheese habit? Will Carly conquer her hatred of Salon? And what about poor Burt, who may have a solution to the bugs but has been partly eaten by one of them?

Brian Charles Rooney, Danny Bolero. Photo: Rex Bonomelli.

Despite the show’s pertinent pointers, like its emphasis on eco-friendly themes (there’s a marvelous number, “Silent Spring,” sung by Carly and featuring an oversized version of the Rachel Carson book of that title, with an actor’s face protruding from its pages), the show seems much more concerned with having fun with human edibles than educational edification. Its score is filled with 80s-style tunes, many of them requiring the kinds of powerful voices we associate with rock stars of the period, but Celine Dion-type power ballads also get their stage time, if only to be ruthlessly parodied. The lead performers all have the extreme vocal chops needed to rock their routines; the ensemble, each of whom sings, dances, and plays multiple roles, is exceptionally well rounded.

 Brian Charles Rooney (center), Nicholas Park, Grace McClean. Photo: Rex Bonomelli.

Mr. Sauter’s book and lyrics are as silly as these things usually are—which is part of the fun—even though there are a number of places where the humor groans with effort. A memorably cringe-worthy example is when a Hasidic Jew (Danny Bolero) sings:

Vontzes, vontzes everywhere.
I can’t bear.
They start at Tsipkilah’s feet,
Climb through the hole in the sheet,
And bite my putz!

The several plot strands, one of them dealing with Burt and his boyfriend, Mason (Barry Shafrin), all come together smoothly enough, however, and despite the cheekiness of the performances and concept, the show never winks at itself too obviously. Robert Bartley’s direction and choreography make the small venue bounce with vitality. He gets awesome mileage from his leads, starting with the huge-voiced Ms. McLean who nails both Carly’s goofiness and, after she bonds with Cimex, her sex appeal. Mr. Hall’s slinky Cimex struts his stuff in a fantastic black and gold costume, part football uniform/part samurai warrior, with a bug headdress replete with golden antennae. Just as memorable is the exceptional drag queen performance of Brian Charles Rooney as the glamorous, determinedly well-meaning Salon; speaking with a comically overripe French-Canadian dialect and singing with a high-pitched voice that hits every challenging note, Mr. Rooney makes an unforgettable Celine mockup. In the less flamboyant role of Burt, Nicholas Park does a solid job, while, among the many excellent ensemble members, Gretchen Wylder’s comic presence stands out in her multiple roles as Carly’s mom, a bug who chats with Cimex by “clicking,” and a Brooklyn diner lady, among others.

Brian Charles Rooney. Photo: Rex Bonomelli.

As expected, the most reiterated line in this somewhat overlong two hour, 20 minute show is “Sleep tight. Don’t let the bed bugs bite.” I have a feeling, though, that many fans will be bitten but want to return.  “Once bitten, twice shy,” the saying goes. Maybe not for BEDBUGS!!!

Sunday, September 14, 2014

65. Review of MIGHTY REAL: A FABULOUS SYLVESTER MUSICAL (September 10, 2014)


Is disco dead? Not if you visit the Theatre at St. Clements, the Episcopal church cum playhouse, where the high-octane MIGHTY REAL: A FABULOUS SYLVESTER MUSICAL is attempting to resurrect one of its prime movers in a joyously jumping but over-amplified production that threatens to burst the place’s brick walls as well as your eardrums. The show, which takes its title from one of his hit songs, is a paean to the life and career of Sylvester, né Sylvester James, Jr., a flamboyantly gay, African-American disco singer of the 70s and 80s. He may have been only 41 when he died of AIDS in 1988, and, if you weren’t into the disco craze in its heyday today, you may not remember him at all; still, he has a Wikipedia entry so long you might think he won the Nobel Prize.
Anthony Wayne. Photo: Nathan Johnson.

Essentially a cabaret cum jukebox musical, MIGHTY REAL, one of whose producers is diva Sheryl Lee Ralph, is a sparely designed musicfest. David Lander did the barebones black set and simplified, yet terrific, concert-style lighting, rotating disco ball included, of course. The show features a livewire five-man band, led by Alonzo Harris at the keyboards. After an overlong overture, the unflagging star, Anthony Wayne, appears at the top of a short flight of stairs, gowned in fur, to flame about in his fabled fabulosity as he recreates the glitzy glamor of the late singer. The only obvious design element is the large sign hanging over the stage, spelling out “Sylvester” in sweeping cursive style.  Standing at stage right is a quartet of equally energetic and highly talented backup singers, Anastacia McCleskey, Jacqueline B. Arnold, Deanne Stewart, and Rahmel McDade. Mss. McCleskey and Arnold also appear as Sylvester’s frequent backups, Izora Armstead and Martha Walsh, known as the Two Tons o’ Fun (and The Weather Girls), although, unlike the originals, neither has the dimensions suggested by that name. Ms. McCleskey also did the minimal choreography, mostly based on the standard moves of disco performers back in the day.
Anastacia McCleskey, Anthony Wayne, and Jacqueline B. Arnold star in Mighty Real: A Fabulous Sylvester Musical, directed by Kendrell Bowman, at the Theatre at St. Clement's.
From left: Anastacia McCleskey, Anthony Wayne, Jacqueline B. Arnold. Photo: Joan Marcus.
The well-toned Mr. Wayne, who codirected with Kendrell Bowman (doubling as the costume designer), doesn’t resemble the “Queen of Disco,” as Sylvester was known, but you can’t deny his striking looks (especially in his glam makeup, accessorized with flaming red nails) and charismatic charm. He and his energizer bunny company offer 90 minutes of Sylvester’s disco hits along with a sampling of other major songs from the period (such as “Respect,” “Voulez Vous Coucher avec Moi,” “Rolling on the River”), given electric performances reminiscent of the great Motown divas, like Diana Ross, Aretha Franklin, Labelle, and Tina Turner, among others, who made them famous. There’s also a show-stopping “It’s Raining Men” by the Two Tons o’ Fun.  
No one is credited with the book, a maudlin biographical monologue delivered by Sylvester, who speaks in a soft, breathy voice, sometimes blurring into inaudibility, as he talks into a mic held close to his mouth. It’s basically a sentimentalized and abbreviated account of his life, from his childhood as a gospel singing wunderkind growing up in South Central Los Angeles, through his teenage trauma at being rejected for his overt femininity and his becoming a professional singer. His career highs and lows, including his participation in the provocative San Francisco drag queen troupe called the Cockettes, and his indulgent life style spending thousands on bling, are dutifully accounted for, often with a mushy suffering-through-tears sentimentality, especially when the AIDS epidemic hits. He loses his beautiful white lover and eventually succumbs himself in 1988. But, given Ms. Ralph’s involvement as founding director of the D.I.V.A. Foundation, devoted to raising HIV/AIDS awareness, the show concludes on a positive, if platitudinous, note, urging people to live life to its fullest.
MIGHTY REAL, while low budget, does its best to dress Mr. Wayne, who often brandishes a folding fan in one hand (larger than the one seen in Sylvester YouTube videos) in a semblance of the sequins, furs, jewelry, and lamé associated with his flashy persona. He also makes a sharp impression wearing a white suit, with a big, red carnation on the lapel. Whereas the original Sylvester wore a white shirt with such a suit, Mr. Wayne is shirtless, so that his pronounced pectorals are on full display. Men can have cleavage, too! The Two Tons of Fun mostly wear wigs and red sequined dresses, evoking a definite sense of period.
The high-voltage music includes 10 Sylvester numbers, including “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real),” “Dance (Disco Heat),” “Do You Wanna Funk” (excuse me for thinking I heard something else), “Ooh Baby Baby,” and “Cry Me a River.” There’s also a medley where Sylvester covers Barry Manilow’s “Could It Be Magic” and Leon Russell’s “A Song for You.” Even up-tempo this medley offers relief from what begins to sound like an incessant barrage of fast-paced, intensely rhythmic dance music, sung and played as loudly and enthusiastically as possible--more so than the originals--by both Mr. Wayne and his backups. Too often, the exceptionally gifted Mr. Wayne is forced to shout and scream his many big notes (not all of which he hits on key), and J. Rafael Carlotto’s sound design doesn’t prevent the effect from sounding tinny. Listening later to the actual Sylvester’s singing, I heard a much sweeter, higher-pitched falsetto than Mr. Wayne manages, although one must acknowledge how difficult these songs are to sing in any register, and what a powerful instrument is required to sing at such a level for so long (twice on matinee days).
Disco music is dance music, so pretty soon you’re going to want to get up and boogy. For the final song, “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)” Sylvester, dressed in silk kimono and turban, invites the audience to rise, clap or wave its hands, and get down with the beat as Sylvester and company rattle the rafters. The audience happily obliges, but the number seems never to end, and only to get louder and louder (like “Hava Nagila” at a bar mitzvah I went to yesterday). By the time the show finally ends you begin to understand why, even in a church, bringing disco back to life isn’t the easiest of tasks, but it sure can be fun when it works.