Saturday, February 18, 2017

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

136. Review: THE DRESSMAKER'S SECRET (seen February 14, 2017)

"Fathers and Son"

Kolozsvár, Romania: 1963, shortly after the assassination of JFK. The communists are in power, spies are everywhere, photographing public activities is verboten, food is scarce, and the aging city is getting grayer. A 19-year-old youth named Robi (Bryan Burton, weak, with an awful hairdo), who idolizes the West and wants to escape Romania, lives in a shabby apartment with his dressmaker mother, Mária (Tracy Sallows, bland).  Mária is busy making a dress for Irma (Caralyn Kozlowski, interesting), a beautiful, flirtatious piano teacher and former friend of Mária’s who has recently reconnected with her, nearly two decades after the end of World War II.

Tracy Sallows, Caralyn Kozlowski. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Each woman has secrets dating back to the war, when Romania became a fascist dictatorship, creating a society where friends betrayed friends, some collaborated with the Gestapo, others sought salvation through communism, and the Jews were shipped to German camps.
Tracy Sallows. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
This is the dramatic foundation on which Mihai Grunfeld and Sarah Levine Simon have based their heartfelt but drearily undramatic The Dressmaker’s Secret, a world premiere adapted from the semi-autobiographical novel The Dressmaker’s Son by the Romanian-born Grunfeld, now a professor of Spanish and American literature at Vassar.
Caralyn Kozlowski, Bryan Burton. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
The seething Robi, an electrician, is obsessed with learning from his mother, with whom he shares an intimate bond, who his father is, a man he long thought was killed in the war. Mária, reluctant to divulge the truth, finally reveals that his father could be one of two men with whom she was in love during the war: one is Irma’s brother, Robert (Robert S. Gregory, middling), a former officer in the Hungarian army who remained in Germany after the war, where he prospered as an engineer; the other is Zoli, a Jewish resident of the city’s ghetto, who was betrayed and shipped off to die in Auschwitz. One of the play’s threads is Robi’s attempt to come to terms with his potentially Jewish heritage, which he at first rejects.

The guilt-racked Robert, coughing into his hankie like Camille to reflect his precarious health, returns to Romania. It’s only now he, who possibly had something to do with Zoli’s arrest, discovers that he may be Robi’s father. This further opens the floodgates of responsibility, recriminations, suspicions, and secrets that ultimately lead to a tentative reconciliation. As for Robert’s cough, the smell of red herring is potent.
Robert S. Gregory, Caralyn Kozlowski. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
As dramatized, however, this promising material is presented over a way-too-long two hours and 20 minutes in 15 dawdling scenes that shift back and forth between Mária’s and Irma’s apartments, cafés, and restaurants. The play—perhaps because of its origins as a novel—is structurally flabby, spreading its multiple foci and many secrets too thin, creating only the most tenuous tension or suspense. Potentially thrilling emotional moments are buried under the expository lethargy, distancing us from the characters’ dilemmas when they should be grabbing us by the throat.
Caralyn Kozlowski. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
More egregious, though, is the sluggish, rhythmically flat, and unimaginative direction of Roger Hendricks Simon; just as problematic is the mostly run-of-the-mill acting, more interested in momentary touches of subdued naturalism than in the needs of theatrical expression. The show’s already dull rhythm is slowed even more by the incessant shifts after each scene break. It’s completely understandable why, after the penultimate scene on the night I attended, the audience began to applaud, thinking the show was over.

Performed in 59E59’s tiny Theater C, with the audience surrounding the space, the play doesn’t benefit from Stephen C. Jones’s cheesy, cluttered setting, with the walls covered by black and white photos of Romania, intended to look as if crudely torn from their sources. Jones’s lighting, fortunately, is better and most of Molly R. Seidel’s costumes are, at least, acceptable, especially the fashionable ones worn by the shapely Irma.

Of the actors, only Kozlowski makes an impression, largely, but not entirely, because of her striking face and gracefully erotic physicality. But she should be careful of overdoing certain mannerisms, like the excessive fluttering of her fingers. And this being another play in which nonsmoking actors must feign smoking, isn’t it time someone began giving classes in how to smoke believably on stage?

59E59 Theaters/Theater C
59 E. 59th St., NYC
Through March 5

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

135, Review: LIFE ACCORDING TO SAKI (seen February 13, 20

"Bullets and Bon Mots"

Children’s book author Katherine Rundell’s Life According to Saki, a modest introduction to the life and writings of the title character, arrives at the 4th Street Theatre from England with excellent credentials, having won the 2016 Best of Edinburgh Award. Since 2004, this award has been granted annually, through the generosity of the Carol Tambor Theatrical Foundation, to a show seen at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. Wikipedia describes the process thusly:

David Paisley. Photo: Monica Simoes.
All productions which receive a four or five star review in The Scotsman newspaper and have not previously been presented in New York City are eligible for the prize.
The winner is announced at The Scotsman’s final Fringe First Award ceremony, which is held on the final Friday morning of the Festival Fringe. The winner receives a four-week run at an Off-Broadway Theater in New York, all expenses paid, including: visa expenses; transportation for cast, crew and props; hotel for cast and crew; per diems; guaranteed stipend; and net box office receipts.
Caitlin Thorburn, Ellen Francis, Tom Machell. Photo: Monica Simos
What the London-based Atticus company has created in Life According to Saki is not unlike several of its predecessors, that is, an ensemble piece in the familiar style of devised theatre; the actors, sometimes cross-dressing, play multiple characters; there's original music played by one or more actors; homemade-looking images are projected; and a variety of simple props are used to imaginatively represent various objects.

This kind of thing, clever as it usually is, has become so common it’s almost impossible to do anything truly original with it; holding empty picture frames up before people’s faces to represent paintings or windows is now more expected than surprising. One of the best moments comes when several actors create the impression of a tiger, but it, too, has a “been there, done that” feeling. On the other hand, it’s the show's overall inventiveness rather than its contents that make a visit most worth one’s while.
David Paisley, Tom Machell, Tom Lambert. Photo: Monica Simoes.
The characters belong to the short stories of the Burma-born, British writer Hector Hugh (H. H.) Munro (1870-1916), best known by his pseudonym of Saki. Like so many other important cultural figures he was killed during World War I. The centenary of his death was celebrated last year, and the play pretends to be taking place on the day he was killed by sniper fire near Beaumont-Hamel, France.
Caitlin Thorburn, Phoebe Frances Brown, Tom Lambert, Tom Machell. Photo: Monica Simoes.
Set within a simplified version of a frontline trench (designed by Anna Lewis), with offstage explosions reminding us of the danger, the play unfolds around the narration of Saki, who enlisted as a private at 45, making him far older than his fellow soldiers. The premise is that Saki, played with ingratiating charm by the mustachioed David Paisley, talks about his life, interrupting it every now and then to introduce one of his short stories to his foxhole fellows. 
Tom Machell, David Paisley, Caitlin Thorburn, Phoebe Frances Brown, Ellen Francis, Tom Lambert. Photo: Monica Simoes.
Instead of Saki’s reading the stories to the Tommys (three of them played by women), they act them out. The contrast between what we know life was like in the trenches and the elegant worlds of Saki’s stories makes for a somewhat uncomfortable effect; this is further underlined by the soldiers wearing sparkling clean uniforms despite Saki’s description of their filth.

Not much is known about Saki’s own life but his personal narrative does include a few offbeat anecdotes, including a grotesque one about his mother’s death after being trampled by a cow. Saki’s homosexuality, on the other hand, is only subtly alluded to in a reference to paintings of St. Sebastian. His stories, which puncture the pretentiousness of Edwardian upper-class society, range from the quirkily amusing to the somberly, even gloomily, serious but are usually in the vein of eccentric comedy, replete with Oscar Wilde-like epigrams. You can practically hear Lady Bracknell claiming ownership of the archest examples.

One whimsical story concerns a mustachioed man named Huddle (Tom Machell), so obsessed with propriety that Clovis (Tom Lambert), a mischievous stranger, overhearing someone tell Huddle he needs an “unrest cure,” decides to play a practical joke on him. He visits his home and strikes fear into him and his family with a tale about a bishop who has declared death on any local, man or woman, who isn’t clean-shaven. (In the far more threatening original the target is the Jews.) 
Ellen Francis, Caitlin Thorburn, Tom Machell, Phoebe Francis Brown, David Paisley.
Another, more a joke than a story, presents a brief shipboard romance between a widowed man (Machell) and woman (Caitlin Thorburn). The only obstacle to their getting hitched is his alarm—before he takes another count—that their total number of children is 13. 

A brief sketch, with its reference to a bird with tiny wings that “does nothing but tweet, night and day,” seems to have been chosen for obvious reasons, while another satirizes a politician concerned with pig and poultry farming. In it, a pig and chicken are played by deliberately ragged puppets, nicely performed in semi-bunraku style. Claire Roi Harvey and Suzi Battersby are the talented puppet designers.

Additional puppets, the aforementioned tiger, a hyena, and a little boy among them, appear in other stories. The child, Conradin, is at the heart of one of the darker tales, about how the sickly ten-year-old, being raised under the oppressive thumb of his great aunt, imagines his polecat ferret to be a vengeful god he calls Sredni Vashtar. This leads to auntie’s violent demise, dismaying everyone but Conradin.
Caitlin Thorburn, Ellen  Francis, Tom Lambert. Photo: Monica Simoes.
Jessica Lazar’s direction (supplemented by Ed Addison’s choreography) is crisp, and her actors are well-drilled and replete with the correct combination of tongue-in-cheek irony and straight-faced seriousness. 

Life According to Saki, which runs only little more than an hour, is best appreciated as a brief introduction to Saki’s writings. Still, the stories seem now only of passing interest, they’re far from hilarious, and they possess little dramatic weight; in short, there simply isn’t enough here worthy of rediscovery. Sales may now be soaring for reprints of 1984 and Brave New World but I'd be surprised if this play’s visitors will show a similar interest in Saki.


4th Street Theatre
83 E. 4th St., NYC
Through March 5

134. Review: RING TWICE FOR MIRANDA (seen February 11, 2017)

"For Whom the Bell Drolls"

For my review of Ring Twice for Miranda please click on THE BROADWAY BLOG.

Saturday, February 11, 2017

133. Review: FADE (seen February 10, 2017)

"Mad Mex"
I learned a word I didn’t know and didn’t hear one I was expecting during Mexican-born playwright Tanya Saracho’s interesting but overly contrived two-hander Fade. The play, originally seen at the Denver Center Theatre, is now at the Cherry Lane in a Primary Stages production shrewdly directed by Jerry Ruiz.

Annie Dow, Eddie Martinez. Photo: James Leynse.
The word I didn’t know was Latinx, which as the Huffington Post explains, “is the gender-neutral alternative to Latino or even Latin@." The word I didn’t hear and thought I would in a play during which two people in Los Angeles debate Mexican identity, is Chicano, a reference to West Coast Mexican-Americans I first became familiar with while sharing the driving duties of a cross-country trip with a self-described Chicano back in1962. Is this now out of date?
Annie Dow, Eddie Martinez. Photo: James Leynse.
Fade’s treatment of identity, sexual, and office politics, as well as class warfare, is the mildly spicy flavoring of a play that actually could be about people of any ethnicity; its central subjects are the shallowness and cut-throat practices of network television and the lengths to which an ambitious but unscrupulous writer will go to advance her own career. Saracho, very active on the Chicago theatre scene (where I saw her quite good Our Lady of the Underpass), obviously knows whereof she writes; her impressive résumé reveals extensive TV script experience, including ABC’s Devious Maids and HBO’s Looking and Girls.
Eddie Martinez. Photo: James Leynse.
In Fade she looks at the problems faced by a young, attractive writer, Lucia (Annie Dow), transplanted from Chicago, where she worked from home in her PJs, to a glass-walled office in an LA corporate building. Mexican by birth but seemingly fully assimilated into middle-class American life, Lucia peppers her unaccented English with Spanish and has a profane motor-mouth that would win the Grand Prix if it was a racing car. She’s been assigned to a series featuring a Latino heroine only to learn from a smug, senior writer that she’s there mainly to fill a diversity quota.
Annie Dow. Photo: James Leynse.
Lucia, feeling like a fish out of water, has landed this obviously well-paying gig (judging from her frequent fashionista costume changes) on the basis of a single novel. She’s offended, though, by the cheesiness of the series, and has little confidence that she can create such crummy stuff. When it comes to smugness, though, she definitely holds her own.
Annie Dow, Eddie Martinez. Photo: James Leynse.
Early on she meets a janitor, Abel (Eddie Martinez), an ex-Marine with a Semper fi tattoo. Assuming, with barely a glance, that he’s Mexican, Lucia speaks to him in Spanish, expressing surprise when he eventually addresses her in English. Why she should have assumed that he was Mexican—or even Latinx, to be PC—escapes me, just as I would have had no idea of her own background had the exposition not made it clear. Perhaps there’s some universal perception that all LA janitors have to be from south of the border. Abel, by the way, a third generation American born and raised in the El Sereno neighborhood, refers to himself as Mexican, not Mexican-American.

As Lucia and Abel begin to bond—despite the unbridgeable social gap between them—he quickly gets wise to her aspirations while she becomes increasingly dependent on this ethnically familiar guy’s steadfast support of her struggles to make an impression on her obnoxious but powerful boss; Abel, though, has good reason to hesitate about revealing too much of himself to Lucia. Finally, though, he leaves an opening she immediately takes advantage of. Then, in a move you can see coming like an 18-wheeler, she betrays him by using what he told her in a way that benefits her career (not unlike certain documented situations) but makes Abel one mad Mex.
Stuffed with one-liners (including two limp ones alluding to Trump) that too infrequently raise chuckles (or require you know Spanish to comprehend), the highly episodic Fade shifts back and forth from fast-paced comedy to serious dilemmas, stumbling now and then to maintain consistent believability. Why, one wonders, does the plot-turning device of having Abel discover what Lucia’s been up to hinge on her leaving him alone in her office with her laptop half-open; you might as well think you’re protecting that piece of steak on the table from your Great Dane by moving it a couple of inches from the edge. Or why would she not realize he’ll eventually see the episode anyway?

And, given her inability to come up with something for her series without stealing it from someone’s life, why should we believe one successful script would be followed by others, as the ending implies? It’s also unconvincing for a published novelist who’s obviously smart enough to land a coveted TV writing gig not to know the difference between the Marines and Army or to be ignorant of the “Semper fi” motto.

Moreover, for characters who make so many references to identity politics, both Lucia and Abel are poor representatives. They themselves are prone to making sweeping generalizations, not only about Mexicans, but about whites, Central Americans, and Columbians.

Though well-acted by Annie Dow, in a bilingual portrayal, Lucia is so self-centered, verbose, annoying, and ruthless that watching her whining and maneuvering for the play’s 90-minutes duration is increasingly uncomfortable. Fortunately, Eddie Martinez’s grounded honesty as Abel creates an ideal balance, although the actor has a tendency to play too often while directly facing the missing fourth wall.

Carisa Kelly’s costumes for Lucia are very tasteful; Mariana Sanchez’s office set, with its upstage corridor and surprise effect at the end, is fine; and Amith Chandrashaker’s lighting is terrific, particularly the final moments as Abel is seen vacuuming in silhouette.  It’s in this moment that the stage directions, “FADE to BLACK” give us a hint of where the title comes from.


Cherry Lane Theatre
38 Commerce St., NYC
Through March 5

Thursday, February 9, 2017

132. Review: THE MOTHER OF INVENTION (seen on February 8, 2017)

“The Windmills of Her Mind”

If anything could be cited as American playwriting’s subject du jour over the past few years it would have to be the crushing problem represented in so many families by a loved one’s struggle with Alzheimer’s or some other form of dementia. Most such plays approach the issue through a seriocomic lens that allows a blend of sorrow and laughter, the latter generated by the gaffes sparked by a deteriorating mind and the humor inherent in how loving but eccentric family members react to the imminent tragedy in their midst.  
James Davis, Isabella Russo. Photo: Maria Baranova.
The most recent entry into the Alzheimer’s sweepstakes is The Mother of Invention, by James Lecesne, who made a splash in 2015 with his one-man play The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey. If you saw Colman Domingo’s Dot at the Vineyard a year ago, you’ll recognize in Lecesne’s play a considerable number of similarities, although Dot was about a widowed African-American woman in Philadelphia while Lecesne’s is about a widowed white woman in Central Florida. Lecesne’s play, sorry to say, suffers from the comparison.
Angela Reed, James Davis, Dale Soules. Photo: Maria Baranova.
Each play’s colorfully feisty central character has the same but differently spelled name reflective of her dotty personality. Dot’s Dotty has two daughters, one of them a woman with a prepubescent child, and a gay son who writes about music; The Mother of Invention’s Dottie (Concetta Tomei, appealingly warm and quirky) has two daughters, the one we meet being a woman with a prepubescent child, and a gay son who writes novels. Each play has a colorful female neighbor; each play has a foreign-born young man with a close relationship to the mother, and each play deals with placing mom in an assisted living facility.
Dan Domingues, Angela Reed. Photo: Maria Baranova.
Of course, there are many things that separate the plays, both in style and substance, but the core issue of how the children of a fading parent confront their loved one’s mental deterioration and how the victim refuses to go gently into that good night remains the same. Like Dot, Both plays lean toward situation comedy, although Domingo’s play had far more laughs.

The walls of designer Jo Winiarski’s living room set—where Dottie’s children, Leanne (Angela Reed, perfectly fine) and David (James Davis, sincere), have gathered to pack up and sell or donate her belongings—are composed of packing cartons; as the play progresses, the cartons are gradually removed, suggesting both the dissolution of her beloved possessions and the dismantling of her mind, very little of which the play itself clinically expresses.

That’s because Lecesne’s central dramatic device is to have Dottie present throughout much of the action while in actuality she’s been sent off to stay with her daughter in Tucson until more permanent arrangements can be made. She not only frequently interjects mildly amusing comments into the dialogue between Leanne and David but even carries items on and off, so it takes several minutes to realize she’s not there and that no one hears or sees her, much like the dead couple in those old Topper movies.
Concetta Tomei. Photo: Marina Baranova. 
Dottie may be suffering from severe memory issues, even telling us the strategies she uses to cover them up, but she seems perfectly at ease chatting about her condition and her children’s dilemma. The device is cute for a while but, since she’s not a ghost but someone on the other side of the country, her being here in spirit, so to speak, quickly becomes a matter of diminishing returns.

The overstuffed, 95-minute, intermissionless play throws in the usual eccentricities, including a charming, handsome, sexually voracious, self-confessed grave robber from South America named Frankie Rey (Dan Domingues, outstanding at making silly dialogue believable) with an apocalyptic view of the future; his receipt from Dottie of large sums of money and a share of her house so he can help an indigenous Columbian tribe puts her kids, especially David, in a tizzy. (Be prepared for a gratuitous full-frontal view of the Latin interloper.) A crucial plot element involves a fight between Frankie and David for a journal containing Dottie’s incriminating jottings.
Dan Domingues, Isabella Russo, Concetta Tomei, Angela Reed. Photo: Marina Baranova.
Adding to the clichés is Leanne’s young daughter, Ryder (Isabella Russo, sweet), offering the customary out-of-the-mouths-of-babes wisdom.  Finally, there’s the batty neighbor, Jane (the sandpaper-voiced Dale Soules, always a pleasure), who’s frightened of terrorists and pays close attention to Homeland Security’s color alerts. When she brings a gun into the proceedings she upsets the play’s already uneasy balance between comedy and drama, not to mention plausibility. Soules is also awkwardly cast in a brief, unnecessary scene as a homeless woman who spins a ridiculous tale about Michel LeGrand’s “The Windmills of Your Mind.”
Concetta Tomei, Dale Soules. Photo: Marina Baranova.
The Mother of Invention is well-cast, nicely acted, efficiently designed (costumes by Paul Marlow, lighting by Daisy Long, sound by Christian Frederickson), and smoothly directed by Tony Speciale. But, given its lack of originality and too frequent triteness, what it lacks most clearly is the magic of invention.


Abingdon Theatre Company
312 W. 36th St., NYC
Through February 26