Friday, May 31, 2013

17. Review of THE GOLDEN DRAGON (May 30, 2013)



It was warm and sticky in Greenwich Village last night, and by the time I made the 10 to 15-minute trek through the narrow, crowded streets from the W. 4th Street subway station to the New Ohio Theatre at 154 Christopher, where THE GOLDEN DRAGON is playing, I was dripping with perspiration and longing to sit in an air conditioned space. But the minute I got to the theatre lobby, I was asked to take a set of headphones and go on a 15-minute "soundwalk," listening to the attached MP3 instructions as I went. With the headset on, which was like wearing earmuffs in Bermuda, I walked out of the building and was told to look across the street at the Chinese restaurant and wonder what was really going on inside. As odd music played in the background, I was instructed to walk west toward the Hudson River, with occasional comments about what was happening inside the buildings across the way, or with requests to run my hand along the railing in front of an apartment building or across the rough bark of a tree. I was cautioned at street corners to cross carefully, or to watch out for bicyclists, and once I reached the river, was told to hold on to the railing and look deep into the water, contemplating what secrets lay beneath the murky surface. I then was asked to turn back toward the theatre, again being cautioned about the bike riders, but at this point I noticed a slim, middle-aged man walking a breed of dog very familiar to me because it was the only one I ever owned. “Basenji!.” I nearly barked (although Basenjis are incapable of barking), and the man lit up but, rather than simply acknowledging it was indeed a Basenji, engaged me in dog talk all the way back to the theatre. The fact that he was gay and I was alone had NOTHING TO DO WITH IT! So I missed the second half of the otherwise needless headphone narration and gave my ears the pleasure of feeling the balmy breeze coming off the Hudson.
 Outside the New Ohio Theatre
            Inside, I met my companion for the evening, who had listened to the headphones without taking the walk, and walked through hanging Asian fabrics forming a sort of hallway into the theatre, where we were greeted with a strikingly modernist set designed by the increasingly visible Mimi Lien, with five actors dressed in variations of white kitchen attire. The A/C was at full blast, but I was now really drenched so I took advantage of the wet, hot, rolled paper towels (what the Japanese called oshibori) distributed by the actors from stainless steel bowls to audience members. And, as I gradually became more comfortable, the play began.
The hallway outside the theatre
            THE GOLDEN DRAGON is a German-language play by Roland Schimmelpfennig, whose name is a play unto itself. It is receiving its New York premiere (there have been 20 productions worldwide) under the brilliant direction of Ed Sylvanus Iskandar, the Indonesian, sarong-wearing director who was a Drama Desk nominee last season for his memorable staging of Amy Freed’s RESTORATION COMEDY at the Flea. Each staging of this play appears to have invited its director to explore innovative theatricalist ideas, but since this is the only one I’ve seen I can testify to the enormously creative job Iskandar has done in turning a not especially inviting work of dramaturgy into an exciting evening in the theatre running only an hour and a quarter.
            The action is set largely in a Thai-Chinese-Vietnamese restaurant, but also in the apartment house above and a neighboring convenience store. Like the multi-ingredient meals the cooks in the kitchen prepare, each of them identified by the actors by their number on the menu and what goes into them, the play is itself a chop suey of many scenes, covering multiple topics, like illegal immigration, globalization, exploitation of immigrant workers, greed, and sex. There are several stories crosshatching the dramatic landscape, all within a combination of expressionist and realistic theatrical styles, with comedy jostling alongside tragedy, and with even an allegorical plot line about a cricket exploited by ants threading its way through the action. Stage directions, including “Pause” or “short pause,” are spoken by the actors along with their dialogue. Most prominent is the material about a Chinese boy working in the kitchen who has a rotten tooth that is wrenched out of his mouth by his fellow workers and lands in a bowl of Thai soup being eaten by a blonde flight attendant who, rather than being disgusted by it, seems so fascinated by the tooth she sucks it, enjoying both the tasty traces of its bloody and soupy taste until they vanish.

            For me this was a triumph of style over substance, however, with Iskandar and his movement assistant, Erica Fae, creating numerous sequences of balletic kitchen work, sexual activity, shadow dancing, and so forth, as the actors carry on in a streamlined, open, rectangular white box (outlined in a thin strip of neon) that floats above the stage proper, with a trap door through which actors often enter or disappear, and with a stainless steel backdrop in front of which the kitchen activity takes place. Men play women and vice versa, even when a woman, playing a man, has intercourse with a man playing a woman. The white kitchen uniforms designed by Loren Shaw serve throughout for all roles, with barely any changes. Everything is precisely timed, and a constant sound track of music and special sound effects, designed by Katie Down and performed at audience right in view of the spectators, is one of the chief delights, especially when bings, dings, and rings are used to highlight moments of movement or other stage activity.  Similarly engrossing is the colorfully fantastical lighting of Nicole Pearce, who continually finds new and impressive ways to surprise your eyes with striking effects.

            The cast of Noah Galvin, Peter Kim, K.K. Moggie,  Stephen Duff Webber, and Welker White, each of whom plays more than one role, forms an excellent ensemble, making THE GOLDEN DRAGON breath with true theatrical fire.

Thursday, May 30, 2013


16. THESE HALCYON DAYS (May 29, 2013)

All the way over on W. 55 Street near 11 Avenue, is an intimate, wood-paneled theatre, with a tiny stage in a place called the Irish Arts Center. It’s a bit of a hike from the 8 Avenue A train, but I’m glad I caught THESE HALCYON DAYS, a gem-like little 75-minute, intermissionless play by Deirdre Kinahan, before its imminent closing. If you remember THE GIN GAME, that marvelously performed work about two elderly folk in a nursing home who strike up an unlikely friendship, which originally starred Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy, you’ll have some inkling of the essence of this equally well- acted play starring two veteran actors you’ve probably never heard of, Anita Reeves and Stephen Brennan. I was so surprised by the delicacy, subtlety, authenticity, depth, and honesty of their performances that I couldn’t wait for the play to end just so I could check their bios in the program. It turns out there’s a good reason I didn’t know them, since they’ve spent the greater part of their careers on the Irish stage, in revered theatres like the Gate and the Abbey. Now, here they are in a far-flung corner of Manhattan, in the American premiere of a lovely two-person drama that deserves wider recognition, if only because it offers its venerable actors such exceptional opportunities to play cats cradle with your heartstrings.

            Kinahan’s play is inspired by her memories of a beloved uncle, a poet, who suffered increasing dementia while in a North Dublin nursing home. That uncle was, like the character played by Mr. Brennan, named Sean, but the Sean in the play is a retired actor, while his costar, Ms. Reeves, is Patricia, a former school teacher and principal. He, like the real-life Sean, is losing his memory, and he has resigned himself to whiling away his days until he dies, with nothing to look forward to. His hands shake, he struggles to rise from his chair, he is bent, and he needs a walker. But there is still something alive inside his abandoned body, and it takes another resident, Patricia, who actively resents her condition, to reveal it; she has degenerative cirrhosis of the liver (but denies she's an alcoholic), suffers from severe anxiety, and experiences ever more frequent strokes; she insists that she is there only for a rest before she can go home again. Home is the metaphor that continually surrounds these characters, the nursing home that Patricia refers to as a place of “incarceration,” the one that Sean will never see again, and the one that Patricia’s sister, Nora, may have to sell to pay for Patricia’s nursing home care.

            When Patricia meets Stephen and finds out that he was an actor and even appeared in films with stars like Michael Caine (bit parts, he explains), she is excited to discover in this place a man of culture, she having been a teacher of literature and drama. Stephen’s talents are occasionally called on, as when he movingly recites Henry V’s “St. Crispin’s Day” speech, does a dance with Patricia inspired by his performance in THE KING AND I, or bursts into song to the music from the movie LOVE STORY when Patricia plays it on her boom box.

            As the play progresses, the shy, dejected Stephen tentatively comes out of his shell under Patricia’s warm and caring guidance, although she, too, gradually reveals the anguish and fear underlying her generally positive disposition. She never married, she confesses, because she never made the time for romance during her career. She rarely is visited by her sister, and Stephen is never visited by his friend, Tom. There is a remarkable scene when, almost in spite of herself, she kisses Stephen passionately, even putting her tongue in his mouth,; he reacts with marked disgust, and she questions his response. One reason he gives is, "You're old!," but soon he reveals that he has no feelings in that way for women, and that since Tom, whom he explains is his lover, no longer will have anything to do with him (after Stephen's  health declined, they found themselves "no longer in sync"), he has all but given up on human relationships. Patricia, though shocked to learn that "you're a gay," quickly takes the news in stride, and the relationship grows into a kind of love until, at the end, with Stephen’s encouragement, Patricia, aware her next stroke will likely kill her, decides she really will go “home.”

            The scenery by Maree Kearns, a small, shuttered room with a sun porch extension, is functional, as are the lights by Kevin Smith and sound design by Trevor Knight, but these are fairly secondary in a play brought to shimmering life by director David Horan through dialogue that is funny and moving, and characters that are charming and affectionate company, despite their very real physical and mental issues. One meaning of “halcyon” is golden, happy. In this sense, THESE HALCYON DAYS is a halcyon play.


Monday, May 27, 2013


15. NIKOLAI AND THE OTHERS (May 26, 2013)

Chekhov is hard enough for Americans to act and direct convincingly when it’s actually Chekhov you’re acting and directing. The problems are compounded when you’re doing pseudo-Chekhov, even when its creator is Richard Nelson, whose Apple family plays, as most recently represented by SORRY, share some of the Russian master’s ability to create subtle and moving drama and comedy out of the small details of everyday family life. Those plays’ characters are American, so their idioms and customs carry the touch of authenticity brought by an American playwright. But when, as in NIKOLAI AND THE OTHERS at Lincoln Center's Mitzi E. Newhouse Theatre, you have a play with a cast of eighteen characters gathered at the sprawling converted farmhouse of a Westport, Connecticut, home for a country weekend in 1948, all but three of them Russian émigrés, with names like Nikolai, Sergei, Igor, and Natasha, and tied to one another by complex strings of artistic and personal relationships, and when Chekhov’s plays are themselves referenced, you’re dancing on very thin ice. For me, the ice cannot withhold the strain, and NIKOLAI AND THE OTHERS eventually goes under.
            Dancing (on solid ground) actually happens to be very much on the playwright’s mind, since a central character is the great ballet choreographer George Balanchine (smoothly played by actor-singer Michael Cerveris in a convincing toupee), who is finishing his important ballet ORPHEUS with fellow Soviet exile, modernist composer Igor Stravinsky (John Glover).

            Although the playwright’s program note points out that Nelson, for all his extensive research (many of the books he used are listed), plays a bit loosely with some historical data, his Chekhovian dramaturgy focuses entirely on real people, many of them famous artists, including composer Nikolai Nabokov (Stephen Kunken), whose position with the Voice of America places him in a position where he can be a “fixer,” able to help other émigrés with their social or political problems, albeit at a moral price; Sergey Sudeikin (Alvin Epstein), famed scenic designer, the weekend’s frail, 88-year-old (like the actor who plays him) guest of honor because his name day is being celebrated; Vladimir Sokoloff (John Procaccino), classical actor reduced to playing exotic villains whose roles always seem to have him saying, in one accent or another, “I’m going to kill you, mister”; the great ballerina Maria Tallchief (Natalia Alonso), Balanchine’s native American wife, who costars in ORPHEUS with dancer Nicholas Magallanes (Michael Rosen); and Serge Koussevitsky (Dale Place), who will conduct the music for the ballet. And then there are the others, including the many women, such as Vera Stravinsky (Blair Brown), Natasha Nabokov (Kathryn Erbe), Lucia Davidova (Haviland Morris), and Lisa Sokoloff (Betsy Aidem), who serve their lovers and husbands (or ex-husbands) as muses, helpmeets, and confidantes. Aside from the dancers, the only American is the fluent Russian speaker Charles “Chip” Bolen (Gareth Saxe), a “former” State Department official whose presence is highly suspect among these sensitive Russians because of postwar political issues.  

            This is one of those plays where you think it might be nice to have the actors wear costumes with their numbers and names on them, since it requires your continued focus to figure out who is who, especially among the minor characters. You may feel after some time that you’ve more or less got them all down, only for a new passel of people to arrive and force you to pay attention again to learning their names and relationships. Even at the end of a yawn-filled two and a half hours, there were one or two people I never fully got a handle on; maybe because I was yawning (or dozing) too often.

            So—imagine yourself at this lovely estate in 1948, with all these famous artists and intellectuals, one, two, or more of whom you know a lot, a little, or nothing at all—as they eat, drink, cook, move furniture, and flirt while pontificating about the meaning of art and the cultural wars of the period, express concern about their place in the political landscape, talk about their current and former relationships, tell sentimental anecdotes about each other, constantly recall their days in Russia (one scene has each say how old he or she was when they left), and watch as Balanchine demonstrates for them his creative methods as he previews in the barn his soon-to-be triumphant ORPHEUS, based on the Greek myth of the man who attempted to lead his wife out of Hades with the proviso that he not look back; that is something these exiles are, understandably, incapable of doing themselves.

They must somehow seem not only convincing at who they purport to be, but also convincingly Russian. The conceit here is that they are always speaking Russian among themselves, which, given the casting, sounds like very convincing American English. When a foreigner appears in their midst, they quickly resort to speaking with Russian accents and broken English. I guess this is as useful a device as can be expected under the circumstances, but it sure does draw attention to itself and make their Russian-language scenes sound distinctly ersatz.

            Director David Cromer does an effective job of maneuvering his eighteen actors around Marsha Ginsburg’s attractive settings, and Ken Billington’s lighting and Jane Greenwood’s costumes make fine visual contributions; however, as is too often the case in curtain-less shows, the appearance of clunky stagehands to move scenery in full view of the audience during scene changes is extremely distracting and a definite mood breaker. Despite the presence of many solid actors, few of them are able to overcome the play’s languorous pace, rambling structure, and general air of artificiality. Too many scenes seem to have been written in consequence of Mr. Nelson’s research; I can imagine him thinking, “Ah, what a wonderful anecdote I’ve found. Where can I stick it in?” When the highlight of a drama about artists is a scene from a famous ballet, even with it being explained by its choreographer to his friends and colleagues, something is probably wrong with the drama.

            Last season gave us UNCLE VANYA, IVANOV, VANYA AND SONIA AND MASHA AND SPIKE, and NATASHA, PIERRE AND THE GREAT COMET OF 1812. The new season has just begun and we already have NIKOLAI AND THE OTHERS. Should we be prepared again to shout, “The Russians are coming, the Russians are coming”?



It’s always fascinating to learn the “real” story behind the myths of people we’ve come to consider epitomes of whatever it is that made them famous. Lucas Hnath, who garnered interest last season at the Ensemble Studio Theatre with ISAAC'S EYE, a quirkily novel and often bizarre look at Isaac Newton, likes to toy with the possible reality behind accepted perceptions, even though he has to create his own reality to do so. His Newton, while existing in a world of verifiable fact, was purely a product of the playwright’s imagination, even though most of us today have no idea of what Newton might have really been like or are even likely to care about it. With someone more contemporary, however, someone like Walt Disney, whose presence continues to surround us in movies, TV, and theme park America, we are more likely willing to be voyeurs, especially when we’re exposed to a man who is a complete contradiction to what we always thought of him. This is what makes Hnath’s A PUBLIC READING OF A SCREENPLAY ABOUT THE DEATH OF WALT DISNEY so intriguing. There’s certainly documentation to demonstrate that Walt Disney was a far cry from the images of fun, goodness, and family morality associated with his products, but there’s no reason to believe that the Disney we see in this play, no matter how believably written and performed, is anything like the real man.

            Sarah Benson once again displays her directorial chops in making this four character play seem consistently authentic despite the playwright’s difficult stylistic approach. As is so often the case at the Soho Rep, the scenic environment is a surprise and nothing like anything you’ve seen there before. The large rectangular room, sometimes used as is with no scenery to speak of, and with seats dispersed in various configurations, has been converted by set designer Mimi Lien into a corporate boardroom whose walls are covered with dark wood paneling, both in the auditorium and on the stage. Overhead, to complete the sense of place, is a coffered ceiling. We sit on comfortable, cushioned chairs on white risers facing the red carpeted stage, where we see a long, wooden conference table with the actors upstage of it on rolling leather office chairs, facing us as if at a board meeting. A microphone, used only by Disney, is on the desk, with various official odds and ends, including fruits and cheese for snacking.

Before each actor is his script, for this is to be a reading of an autobiographical screenplay about Disney, with him (a marvelous Larry Pine) both reading lines to portray himself and also changing voices instantaneously to speak into the mic as if he were an announcer, reading directorial cues, such as calling for close-ups and cutting from one scene to another. The pretense of reading by Pine and the other actors is gradually abandoned, although now and then resumed, but the behavior of everyone leads you to wonder about their personas. When not reading they are interested and polite listeners, but when reading or saying their lines from memory, they are deeply invested in their characters, yet always with a slight tone of distance. Yet, given that Pine begins the play by referring to himself as Disney, to whom he bears a reasonable resemblance, we are probably meant to assume that the other actors are also the people they enact. Thus the reading of the screenplay uses Pine to play Disney playing Disney; Frank Wood to play Disney’s brother, Roy, playing Roy; Amanda Quaid to play Disney’s unnamed daughter playing that person; and Brian Sgambati to play the daughter’s husband playing himself. The performative nature of the experience, a reading of a screenplay, creates a metatheatrical experience that makes the revelations in the play that much more real while also emphasizing that none of it can be trusted, however much truth may be scattered among the fictions.

To add to the mixture, clearly fantastical elements are included, although even these are tinged with earthy reality. Most noticeably, Disney is presumably dying of something that causes him to cough up blood while nonetheless smoking continuously; to heighten his gradual demise, every now and then, as his coughing worsens, we watch him display blood-soaked handkerchiefs, at one point peeling one from another like a magic trick.

The screenplay itself is largely concerned with Disney’s dream of building an ideal city, which would presumably be Disney World, in Florida, and the conflict he has over its costs with his practically minded, browbeaten, but dependable brother, Roy. He also has fascinating interchanges with his seemingly clueless son-in-law, Ron, who will do anything to be employed by Walt; and his daughter, who refuses to name her son after the father she hates.  There is talk of cryogenic freezing to preserve people forever, and various other topics both authentic and whimsical, although figuring out which is which is not always possible.

Toward the end, as Walt, both the reader of the script and the character he is playing, grows progressively weaker, he continues muttering “cut to” over and over into the mic, and some tedium sets in as we await the final curtain, but all in all this is an offbeat exercise carried out with a polish and expertise that we've come to expect from the Magic Kingdom at Soho Rep.

Friday, May 24, 2013

13. Review of WHO'S YOUR DADDY?

13. WHO'S YOUR DADDY? (May 24, 2013)

Despite its title, WHO'S YOUR DADDY? at the Irish Repertory Theatre, has nothing to do with the Boston Red Sox or the New York Yankees, but the production does manage to get on base pretty easily. It's being staged in the teeny weeny W. Scott McClucas Studio Theatre in the Irish Rep's basement, where the cool Friday night temperature was duplicated inside, as if the a/c had been turned on during a cold wave. Luckily, much of the action is set in steamy Uganda, so the audience could imagine itself in an equatorial climate while sitting with its jackets and sweaters zippered and buttoned to the neck.
          This is a one-man play written by and starring Irish-born actor Johnny Callaghan, and directed by Tom Ormeny. It had its world premiere in November 2012 at Los Angeles's Victory Theatre Center.  Callaghan is a scruffy guy, with scruffy blonde hair, and a scruffy beard; he dresses in scruffy jeans and a scruffy, sleeveless T-shirt, and exudes an air of regular guy scruffiness, made more appealing to American ears by his Irish brogue. His play, based on his own experience, is set in 2006 at a time of crisis in his life after a relationship ended and his life seemed to have lost its direction. A female friend and former lover (she reminds him of who she is by lifting her shirt) ran into him in LA and asked him to bring his filmmaking skills along on a journey to Uganda, where she was making a documentary about Ugandan orphans. He says in a program note, his trip there, when the country was "rumored to be on the brink of civil war--set me free. Uganda forced me to live in the present--apathy was no longer an option--and everything seemed possible again." In Uganda, this rootless roustabout, who says he likes both men and women, but men more, found love and meaning when he became attached to a tiny Ugandan orphan, with a nose dripping multicolored mucus, who knew only one English word, "yes."
         Playing multiple characters, some Ugandan, some Irish, some American, some male, some female, and one just a tot, he recaptures this nine-month period in his life when he attempted to adopt the child, known when he met him as Benson but renamed by Callaghan as Odin, after the Norse god. His tale of how he overcame the incredible red tape of Ugandan bureaucrats, as well as that of the American Embassy, is very involving. Everything he had to endure was heightened by his being gay in a country where that is something you could be killed for. The piece starts out slowly, but builds to a compelling climax as he realizes his dream and becomes a dad.
          The 90-minute, intermissionless, piece is filled with humor, much of it raunchy; Callaghan's good nature grows on you and keeps you warm, even in a chilly theatre. He includes stories of his Hollywood life, his dog, his racist, chain-smoking mom (whose favorite color is "nigger brown"), and how all these threads came together to weave an emotional tapestry depicting a journey toward true parental love. There is one little Ugandan boy who definitely knows now who his daddy is, and we are all the better for knowing it as well.



Occasionally the frequently tedious job of seeing so many low-budget productions in small, largely unheralded venues pays dividends when you come across a new talent in writing, design, or performance. Although it sometimes happens that a show boasts more than one talent, it’s not as common for multiple talents to reside in the same individual, especially when that person is both playwright and actor. A good example, and someone I’d be surprised isn’t heard of more often in the future, is Abby Rosebrock, a slim, toothy blonde from South Carolina who wrote and stars in DIFFERENT ANIMALS, now being shown (but soon closing) in the smaller of the two spaces at the Cherry Lane Theatre. This play, directed by Bruce Ornstein, with a cast of highly talented non-Equity actors, is far from perfect and, at over two hours, it could use a sharp pair of scissors to help keep its audience more consistently involved. On the other hand, my companion, a veteran theatre director for over 50 years, could not get over it, and kept repeating to me that it was one of the best plays he’s seen in the last five years, and that Rosebrock’s performance was unforgettable. I agree with the second opinion, not so much with the first.

            Rosebrock’s Southern Gothic concoction imagines a middle-class couple in Spartanburg, SC, the young wife, Jessica Tarver (Cesa Pledger), having a hot and heavy affair with the handsome young minister, William Burnip (Brady Kirchberg), while her husky, middle-aged husband, Leo (Dirk Keysser), is an object of lust for his sexually ramped up office mate, Molly Gardner (Ms. Rosebrock). Eventually, Leo, Molly, and Jessica end up living together in a ménage a trois, and there is even a scene where all three of them enjoy a romp in a bathtub (yes, another BATHTUB SCENE!). There’s a frontal nudity moment for Leo, but the women remain fully covered by bubbles. The play touches on religion and faith, abortion, fidelity, and mental illness, often merely for laughs, but at other times quite seriously.

The characters, dialogue, and situations start off being somewhat comically over the top, with lots of hilariously filthy conversation, but the play’s descent from light comedy to dark drama creates a sense of stylistic imbalance. Still, Rosebrock’s acting keeps you riveted. As the play proceeds, Molly’s sexual obsessiveness, and tendency to express herself in excited outbursts, becomes increasingly less funny and more and more threatening. The joyous eruptions soon turn to nasty accusations and threats. Any associations between her and the Glenn Close character in FATAL ATTRACTION are quite deliberate, as that movie is referenced in the dialogue (as are other films, including A Streetcar Named Desire and The Godfather II). Rosebrock’s Molly is about as intense a characterization of a psychotic as one can take in such a tiny venue. I sat in the front row, and being so close to her as she became ever more manic (with dashes of zany good will popping up at the most surprising moments) sometimes made me uncomfortable. The insecure glances in her eyes, the constant shifting from grimness to smiles, the volcanically angry outbursts (her excoriation of Leo’s sexual inadequacies is both a remarkable piece of writing and acting), and the sense of being so wired she seems to have Starbucks in her veins, are enough to cover a myriad of playwriting flaws. Molly is both highly intelligent and ditzy; for all her knowledge and articulateness, she can still say things like “I wanted to marry Hugo Chavez and be the next Evita,” which drew a big laugh.

I’ve spent a lot of time on Rosebrock’s performance, but the ensemble around her makes an excellent foil. Each character is full blown, vocally and physically right, and emotionally accurate. This applies even to the seven-year old darling, Maria Panoski, who appears as Jessica’s little girl late in the play. Her brief presence is one of the indelible highlights of the production.

On the down side are the play’s excessive scene changes. Fortunately, they’re well choreographed and smoothly efficient, use effectively designed (by Matthew J. Fick) sliding units that can be transformed from one purpose to another, and are covered by bluegrass music (or something like it). But they drag down the overall pacing of the show and point out the playwright and director’s need to find a means to overcome the problems implicit in so episodically structured a play.

DIFFERENT ANIMALS may have problems but, more often than not, it’s barking up the right tree.

Thursday, May 23, 2013



 Full disclosure: I acted in a college production of Bertolt Brecht’s THE CAUCASIAN CHALK CIRCLE in 1961, with Herb Edelman (he later played Bea Arthur’s husband on MAUDE) as Azdak, and with Rickey Brodsky (Wolf) as Grusha. My own role was the “adjutant,” a minor role (but I had an interesting makeup designed by John Kelly, who may even be reading this). In 1964, I directed the play at the University of Hawaii as my MFA directing project. Having just come back from seven months in Japan, where I’d gone on an East-West Center Fellowship to study kabuki acting, I used many elements influenced by kabuki costuming, makeup, and movement. It was an early example of what later came to be called “fusion theatre,” where Eastern and Western staging techniques intermingle. Subsequently, I saw several productions staged by others, including a lugubrious one at Lincoln Center during the Herbert Blau-Jules Irving regime, and a brilliant one by Andrei Serban at La Mama.

            I had the pleasure of taking Rickey as my guest to the current revival at the Classic Stage Company, and, while we had no time to talk about it afterward, I believe she enjoyed it, even though she’s been away from the play since she acted in it over 50 years ago. I told her during the intermission I wasn’t having quite as good a time, but I never had the chance to say why. CCC is one of Brecht’s two “parable plays,” as Eric Bentley calls them in his published translations, plays that, for all their multiple and even digressive threads, have a fundamental thematic core intended to teach a lesson. In the case of CCC, inspired by an ancient Chinese play, it has to do with the rights of ownership; as Bentley’s translation puts it at the end:  "But you, you who have listened to the Story of the Chalk Circle, Take note what men of old concluded: That what there is shall go to those who are good for it, Thus: the children to the motherly, that they prosper, The carts to good drivers, that they are well driven And the valley to the waterers, that it bring forth fruit.”

CCC creates a world right after a revolution in Georgia, in the Caucasus (thus “Caucasian”), in some imaginary premodern world, where the governor’s pampered and arrogant wife (a fine Mary Testa) is so preoccupied with saving her personal luxuries that she runs off during the chaos, leaving behind her infant child. Grusha (Elizabeth A. Davis), a peasant kitchen maid, sees the abandoned child and, having no other choice, saves its life by taking it with her into the mountains. Naturally, she nurtures and loves the child and, in the interest of giving him a suitable upbringing, endures a number of dire situations. In the topsy-turvy post-revolutionary landscape, people rise and fall with startling ease, and a scabrous lowlife named Azdak (Christopher Lloyd) is made a powerful judge, a development that gives Brecht numerous opportunities to make fun of the difference between legal justice and that administered by the craftily ironic yet humanistic peasant mind. In the climactic scene, the child’s mother, seeking to regain her child for selfish reasons having no bearing on mother love, brings suit in Azdak’s court. Unable to determine whether the biological but self-centered mother or the one that found the child by accident and raised it with the deepest love should have custody, Azdak comes up with a Solomonic scheme: he draws a chalk circle and has the mothers each take a hand of the child and pull, she who pulls the child to her side presumably being the winner. Grusha, however, cannot bear to harm the child by pulling it to her, and it seems that the governor's wife will regain her boy; in Azdak’s view, however, the peasant girl’s caring behavior reveals her to be the true mother, and she is the one who gets to keep the child.

All productions of this play of which I’m aware have used Brecht’s fantastical historical world to create memorably colorful theatrical effects of costuming and stage conventions. This production, however, goes for a more barebones look, placing the action in what appears to be the Soviet Union just after the fall of communism in the recent past. The surprisingly unpretentious costumes by Anita Yavich are, for the most part, contemporary peasant and military. The resultant look is banal. The Ironshirts, for example, so imaginatively dressed in most productions and often even wearing masks, are here shown in standard Russian army long coats and fur hats. Boring! The setting, by Tony Straiges, is an essentially bare space surrounded by the audience on three sides, with chairs, brass headboards, and other familiar detritus hanging from overhead, and with the rear wall covered with huge Soviet political posters. A statue of Lenin falls early on, Saddam Hussein-style, and remains there throughout.

Most notably, the cast is limited to a small ensemble with most actors playing multiple roles, making only minor costume changes from character to character. The director’s conceit seems to be that this is a traveling company of actors, an idea fostered by their entering carrying beat-up luggage that becomes the essential replacement for scenic properties. Lining the suitcases up creates a river, lying in a trunk creates a bathtub (another tub scene, for God’s sake!), and luggage also becomes chairs. For some reason, the first appearance of this luggage-toting ensemble is a brief prologue spoken entirely in Russian or Georgian; the actors have fun showing off their skill at having mastered the dialogue in this difficult foreign tongue, but the point escaped me.

As is common, the prologue and epilogue Brecht prepared showing a group of peasants arguing over water rights, is omitted, but James and Tania Stern’s new translation also cuts and trims much else in the play. Many minor characters are gone, including the two comic lawyers that appear in the final scene, here conflated into a single, well-dressed attorney, and one completely lacking the playwright’s grotesquerie. The little boy is replaced by a puppet, and it manages at times to have a touching quality, but the human dilemma represented by two women struggling with a child of flesh and blood is dissipated by using something made of wood and cloth. When additional bodies are needed for a wedding scene, audience volunteers are called for. (Audience participation is also elicited for an interpolated song that is not in the original and serves little purpose as the audience sings along with notable discomfort.) Brecht’s Singer (Story Teller in Bentley’s version) is also diminished; Christopher Lloyd speaks some of his lines, but in a way that muddies what the character’s purpose is. Still, Lloyd’s is the only performance that rises above the ordinary. In keeping with director Brian Kulick’s conception, Lloyd plays both the Singer and Azdak.

Lloyd is, of course, noted for his oddball, eccentric characters, and he does not disappoint in this regard. As the Singer, he stands around during act one in a dark leather coat, like some sort of official, with a stupid-looking wig of straight white hair hanging to his shoulders. When he becomes Azdak, he pulls off the wig to reveal a shaved pate, which, with his craggy face, and Obama ears, somehow makes him look like a cross between Abe Vigoda and Boris Karloff. His voice is raspy and doesn’t have much volume, so some of his words are garbled, and he sometimes seems to be grasping for lines, but his actorish intelligence and colorful imagination do much to create a vividly clever scoundrel who makes the most of the opportunities thrust upon him. Smith’s Grusha is slender and elegant and looks anything like the peasant girl she is supposed to be; Rickey’s Grusha, pictures of which I have on my Facebook page for those interested in seeing them, was more full-bodied and true to Brecht’s wishes.

Music plays a crucial part in CCC; it seems that directors are never satisfied with existing scores and are always seeking new ones, so the fine music available from previous productions has been ignored in favor of Duncan Sheik’s occasionally pleasant but mostly dull and uninspired, although well sung, score. (The lyrics are translated W.H. Auden, who gets a credit saying they are "by" him; for some reason, he gets no bio.) Of course, this may be because I can still recall the Mark Bucci music we used in both productions with which I was involved. A far more distinctive new score for a Brecht classic was used for last season’s THE GOOD PERSON OF SZECHWAN, just as Lear DeBessonet’s brilliant staging of that revival makes this CAUCASIAN CHALK CIRCLE seem beyond the pale.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013



Knowing that I was going to see BUNTY BERMAN PRESENTS, which is being produced at the Acorn Theatre by the New Group, friends who had seen it said I shouldn’t expect very much but that it nevertheless was lightweight fun and I’d have a good time. I’ve seen many such shows where the artistic or intellectual quality was not as important as simply leaving your taste and your brains at the door, and just enjoying yourself in silliness, sexiness, or some similarly secondary concern. I wish that this had been true of my response to BUNTY BERMAN PRESENTS.

            Instead I sat for over two sluggish hours as a band of enthusiastic but only occasionally effective actors, singers, and dancers mugged their way through Ayub Khan Din’s clichéd and mostly unfunny attempt to parody the Bollywood world of Indian movie musicals. Scott Elliott’s direction and Josh Prince’s choreography are as obvious and uninspired as the plot, which concerns a famous producer (also Ayub Khan Din) whose studio is failing; an egotistical movie hero (Sorab Wadia) whose age, poundage, and hairline are markers on the road to oblivion; the producer’s decision to save the studio with the help of a gangster’s (Alok Tewari) money at the price of making his talentless son (Raja Burrows) a star; a romance between the studio’s female star (Lipica Shah) and the handsome tea boy (Nick Choksi) with star potential; and another love story involving the producer and his secretary (Gayton Scott). Everything is all too familiar from a host of Hollywood and Broadway treatments.
          There are some saving graces, such as Wendall K. Harrington’s clever projections that convert Derek McLane’s set showing the bare-walled interior of a studio sound stage into a wide variety of indoor and outdoor locations, including one creating the illusion of a thunderstorm. Ayub Khan Din (the playwright and star) and Paul Bogaev’s music, in the retro mode of 1950s and 1960s pop tunes, has a generally listenable, albeit commonplace, quality. William Ivey Long’s costumes are often colorful, witty, and character appropriate. Here and there in Scott Elliott’s staging are some amusing notions, although too frequently mingled with cheap laughs. I liked, for example, the idea of parodying the opening logo of MGM movies by replacing the lion with a cow; on the other hand, do we really have to have a huge papier mâché elephant’s rear end through whose anus the head of the fading movie star appears?
My friends’ advice to me was well meant, but there’s no way I’d be able to pass the same on to others planning to see BUNTY BERMAN PRESENTS.



Saturday, May 18, 2013

9. Review of BULL (May 18, 2013)

9. BULL (May 17, 2013)

Mike Bartlett’s BULL, another entry in the annual Brits Off Broadway festival at 59E59, takes its title from its concern with adult bullying and from the notion that office politics in the modern corporate world resembles the cruel and relentless world of the bullfighting ring. In fact, inside the program, but not on the cover, the play carries the subtitle: “The Bullfight Play.”

The same dramatist is responsible for last season’s COCK, which was known as The Cockfight Play, and was staged in a theatre designed to look like a cockfighting arena. For some reason, however,  Soutra Gilmore's much discussed set for BULL, a magnetic 50-minute exercise in Darwinian ruthlessness, brought here by England’s Sheffield Theatres, resembles a boxing ring more than it does a bullfighting arena. The space in Theatre B has been completely rearranged from its typical proscenium orientation (technically, “end stage” because there is neither proscenium or wings) so that the center of the room contains a raised, carpeted square surrounded on each side by metal railings holding glass partitions in place. The ring is sandwiched between two raised sets of bleachers, one on either side, and audience members either sit in these or stand around the ring. The only prop is a water cooler in one corner.  Overhead, a bank of four fluorescent lighting fixtures, arranged in a square, stands ready to illuminate the space.  Before the play begins, the loudspeaker blares "Eye of the Tiger," and an announcer's voice, sounding like one you might hear at a boxing match, asks the audience to turn off all electronic devices.

Thomas (Sam Troughton) is nervously waiting for his boss, Carter (Neil Stuke), to arrive with news as to which member of his office team is to be fired. The slightly nerdy Thomas is accompanied by the beautiful Isobel (Eleanor Matsuura), whose sculpturally prominent cheekbones, tightly drawn back hair worn in a ponytail, and formfitting jacket and skirt suggest knifelike efficiency and determination. They are joined by the buff and handsome Tony (Adam James) and the game is on. Isobel and Tony stab away at Thomas, belittling and disorienting him with sarcasm and various passive-aggressive maneuvers, readying him for his confrontation with Carter; when that happens, he erupts in frustration at his treatment and thereby seals his doom. The play ends as it began, with Isobel and Thomas alone on the stage, and Thomas, like a dying bull, flailing wildly at Isobel, the lithe and agile matador, until he crashes into the water cooler, sending a stream of water across the floor, filling the ring, as he lies face down in it. It is not clear if he’s dead or simply unconscious, but Isobel, in a final gesture of magnanimous victory, places a bottle of wine at his head and the play is over.  

The play, which has been compared to THE LORD OF THE FLIES because of the nastiness of its competitive characters, is ugly, of course, but completely compelling, both because of the horrific cruelty (softened by moments of artificial bonhomie) it uncovers in the workplace as well as its precisely calibrated direction and acting. I mistakenly arrived at the theatre an hour and a half before curtain time, so I found a couch in one of the nearby Bloomingdale’s women’s clothing sections, and read the script, which I’d received in my press packet. The script contains no stage directions at all, and says there are no props; it doesn’t  even mention the water cooler, which makes the work of director Clare Lizzimore that much more impressive. The acting of the four member cast, all dressed in dark business attire, is in the best British tradition of perfectly articulated, rapidly spoken, carefully timed speech, mingling a surface of hypocritical good humor with an underlying tone of threat. No one at all is likable, neither the aggressively defensive Thomas, nor his picking, stabbing, and lancing coworkers, nor the business-first, humanity later Carter, but, despite the obvious artificiality of the play’s concept and the fact that the situation enacted (despite its underlying truth) would be unlikely in any real corporate setting, the characters always manage to remain real and believable. The ensemble, in other words, is priceless, and, if I single out Sam Troughton’s Thomas for special commendation, it probably owes more to the demands of his role as the bullied bull than because of his superior acting skills.

For some reason, I had trouble finding someone to see this play with me, so I went alone. Perhaps it’s because the NY Times was less than pleased with the play. Whatever the reason, BULL is the best new play and production (I don’t count the transfer of NATASHA, etc.) I’ve seen so far this season. And that’s no bull.

Friday, May 17, 2013

8. Review of THIS SIDE OF NEVERLAND (MAY 15, 2013)

8. Review of THIS SIDE OF NEVERLAND (May 16, 2013)

The Scottish writer, James M. Barrie (1860-1937), of course, will be eternally remembered as the author of PETER PAN, the story of a boy who wouldn’t grow up. Barrie also dramatized that book; before it became an animated movie, a musical, and whatever else, it was one of the most popular plays in the world. Despite its whimsical subject matter, the play has been recognized as well for its social allegorical themes. It was only one of many plays Barrie wrote, all of them having interesting thematic topics, and some enjoying considerable success. Among his plays was a number of one-acts, two of which—“ROSALIND” and “THE TWELVE-POUND LOOK”—have been chosen for revival by the Pearl Theatre (on W. 42nd Street near 11th Avenue), devoted to staging plays from the classics. On the other hand, if these two plays from 1914 are considered “classics,” that word needs to be stretched a bit to make room for them. Still, they once were popular in amateur groups and also received a number of important professional revivals, including one of “THE TWELVE-POUND LOOK” starring the great American actress Helen Hayes in a 1952 TV version.

            The Pearl’s productions are generally faithful to the original plays. Its resident company is made up of quite competent actors, few of them especially memorable but all of them well-spoken and theatrically efficient. When you go to the Pearl you know you’ll see a decent rendering of an important play, but it will be more like a quality educational experience than a thrilling evening with path-breaking directorial insights or acting breakthroughs. And such is the case with the two plays being produced under the rubric of THIS SIDE OF NEVERLAND. Director J.R. Sullivan’s only unusual choice (actually, not so unusual as others have done it recently as well) is having actor Sean McNall read some of Barrie’s often charming stage directions as if he were Barrie himself. It’s a bit intrusive but it does add some theatrical flavor to the proceedings.

            Sullivan’s staging attempts to be true to the period; it even recreates the ambiance of an Edwardian theatre, with a costumed female pianist (Carol Schultz) downstage right below the false proscenium playing popular old songs before the curtain  rises and during the intermission. The audience is invited to get in the mood by singing such chestnuts as “A Bicycle Built for Two,” “After the Ball” (coincidentally being given a superb interpretation across town in THE GIRL I LEFT BEHIND ME), “Let Me Call You Sweetheart,” and so on. I couldn’t resist singing along (everyone gets a copy of the lyrics).

            Interestingly, both of these one-acts have feminist themes that still have some slight relevance, a hundred years after they were written. “ROSALIND”(named for the leading female character in Shakespeare’s AS YOU LIKE IT) is about an actress named Mrs. Page (Rachel Botchan) who passes herself off professionally as nearly twenty years younger than she is. While vacationing at a country inn, she abandons all attempts at glamour and pretends to be her own mother. Charles (Sean McNall), a callow youth in love with the actress, whom he believes to be 23-years-old, happens by during a storm and accepts the story that the dowdy woman is his idol’s mother. The truth is ultimately revealed, the actress changes into her glamorous clothes, and the two depart for London together. Mrs. Page’s complaint about how difficult it is for actresses to get the roles of middle-aged women (between the ages of 29 and 60) and her own need to keep the public thinking her younger than she is rings a very contemporary bell.

            The performance might have registered more effectively if—in the attempt to make her look frumpy in a housedress—Ms. Botchan weren’t saddled with one of the least attractive and poorest-fitting costumes I’ve ever seen. Her physical behavior is completely out of period even though it is meant to suggest a woman who abandons her social graces when out of the public eye. For example, no self-respecting woman in 1914, especially a famous actress, would sit with her legs crossed, especially with an ankle resting on her opposite knee.

             In “THE TWELVE-POUND LOOK,” Sir Harry Sims (Bradford Cover), a stuffy, self-satisfied, British businessman preoccupied with his own success, prepares to be knighted by rehearsing with his beautiful, bejeweled wife, Lady Sims (Vaishnavi Sharma), all the ceremonial moves he will have to perform. A woman, Kate (Rachel Botchan), hired to type Sir Harry’s thank you notes, turns out to be the wife he divorced years earlier when he believed her to be having an affair. She reveals she never had an affair but just wanted out from a relationship in which her husband paid her no attention while making his personal success his primary goal. She may not have the jewels and money of the present Lady Sims, but she is much happier in her state of independence, a revelation that only frustrates even more her uncomprehending boor of an ex-husband. Kate, in fact, resembles a latter-day Nora from Ibsen’s A DOLL’S HOUSE, which may not be too far a stretch, since earlier in his career Barrie actually wrote parodies of Ibsen’s HEDDA GABLER and GHOSTS.

            Mr. Cover’s Sir Harry, while capturing a believable British accent, nonetheless expresses himself with too many obviously modern American gestures to be fully convincing. Ms. Botchan does much better by Kate than as the less well written Mrs. Page, and shows much promise. (Her name intrigues me; there’s a famous Japanese novel called BOTCHAN, whose meaning is something like “boy,” or “sonny.”)

            Gary Levinson’s sets are adequate but lacking in professional polish. The tape used to cover joints in the false proscenium is visible through the paint, the fireplace at which characters warm themselves in “ROSALIND” makes no attempt at all to suggest a fire, and a roll-up curtain got stuck during the curtain calls. Elise M. VanderKley’s costumes are period-appropriate but little more, and I still can’t shake the memory of that ugly housedress in “ROSALIND.”
            THIS SIDE OF NEVERLAND, while often appealing, is just this side of being a success.

Sunday, May 12, 2013



I saw this rock musical inspired by WAR AND PEACE last fall when it played in the much smaller space at Ars Nova on W. 54th Street. It was an ingeniously effective devised theatre work, and received so much positive feedback (including several Drama Desk nominations) that, after its limited run ended, it was picked up by a commercial producer and revived for a more extended run in this new downtown production. I hadn’t yet begun writing notices of the shows I was seeing, so I have no previous record to turn to in rekindling my memories, but it was easy enough to see that the new production, while hewing closely to the original in style and intention, is like a version of that show on steroids. Much of the same cast has returned, but the space is larger, the ambiance less funky and more sophisticated, the lighting more elaborate, the costumes upgraded, and a couple of new songs introduced.

            The venue is a tent, called Kazino (as in Casino), built directly under the High Line at W. 13th and Washington Streets in the now very hip former meatpacking district. For $125, each audience member gets a meal before the show as well as a drink, alcoholic or otherwise. We attended the noon brunch on Sunday, with the show following at 12:30 (actually, closer to 12:45). Spectators sit at tiny cabaret tables on the main floor, at a curved bar, or in fancy banquettes. My wife and I sat on one of the elevated tiers, our seats being cushioned leatherette benches (with backs) and our table a tiny one too small to accommodate the various dishes of assorted foods served. It was rather clumsy and my wife’s knee hit it at one point, sending a glass crashing to the ground and requiring a man to sweep up the mess. She almost did it again later in the show, so if you’re at one of these tables, I advise you to sit there at your peril. The food was passable (you can check out the menu online), but our waitress (from Croatia) was sweet and helpful.

            As this suggests, the space, designed by Mimi Lien, is like a large cabaret, and the action goes on all around you, sometimes at the table you’re sitting at, and often on the levels that run around the walls or rise above the main floor where most of the small tables are situated. In other words, the audience cannot help but be immersed in the action, often having to swivel in their seats to see what’s happening behind them.

            NATASHA, PIERRE . . . is a sung-through show focusing on the tragic love story of the beautiful Natasha (Phillipa Soo) who comes to Moscow with her cousin, Sonya (Brittain Ashford), to stay with her strict godmother, Marya D (Grace McClean). She is betrothed to Andrey (Blake Delong), who goes off to fight in the wars, so that while he is away she becomes fair game for the handsome rake, Anatole (Lucas Steele), who seduces and, even though he’s married, attempts to elope with her. But complications ensue when Pierre (Dave Malloy), ordinarily feckless husband of Anatole’s cunning sister, Hélène (Amber Gray), intervenes and prevents Natasha (with whom he's in love) from eloping with Anatole. The program not only provides a synopsis of the action, but also has sketches of all the major characters, with arrows pointing from one to another to help decipher the potentially confusing relationships.

            Bradley King has designed eye-boggling lighting effects, including an extended strobe sequence, and the constellation-like chandeliers do remarkable service in the multiple ways they’re used to illuminate the room. Paloma Young’s gorgeous period costumes seem more expensively authentic than those the original production was able to afford (this is a perception and may not be accurate). The musicians are placed in two locations, so the sound comes at you from multiple directions, and the actors, all wearing head mikes, sing with passion and power a score by Dave Malloy (who also plays Pierre) that sometimes seems merely rhythmic patter designed to move the plot along, but now and then soars into lovely melodies, some of them abetted by the cast singing in choral harmony. Everything—the music, the acting, the singing—is energetic and aggressively theatrical. Malloy himself has a raspy, Tom Waits-like tone, but the others have a wide range of musical qualities, capable of both rock and operatic vocals. The entire company is excellent, so singling anyone out from the ensemble would be difficult and I won’t even try.

            NATASHA, PIERRE AND THE GREAT COMET OF 1812 are streaking across the lower Manhattan sky. Look up and see them before they vanish.

6. Review of A FAMILY FOR ALL OCCASIONS (May 12, 2013)

6.     Review of A FAMILY FOR ALL OCCASIONS (May 12, 2013)
The Labyrinth Theatre on Bank Street in Greenwich Village is yet another diminutive Off Broadway house located nearly a half-mile from the nearest subway station, but the work done there is often worth the trek. Last year’s RADIANCE was much duller than its name suggests, but hope returned when I headed to the Labyrinth yesterday to see Bob Glaudini’s A FAMILY FOR ALL OCCASIONS. After all, Philip Seymour Hoffman, closely associated with the Labyrinth, was directing, and the excellent cast included two highly respected New York theatre veterans, Jeffrey DeMunn and Deirdre O’Connell. Charlie Saxton, who plays Thomas Janes’s nerdy, oddball son on the HBO series HUNG, is cast in a similarly grungy role here. I’m happy to report that the results, while mediocre, were more encouraging than not, and that theatergoers will find this a well-staged, effectively acted drama; unfortunately, its depiction of a dysfunctional family is overly familiar, and it barely manages to sustain one’s interest during its two episodically structured acts.

            The auditorium has an L-shaped configuration, with the audience on each line of the L and the stage in the angled space between. On stage is the living/dining room of a conventional lower-middle class home in a “midsize Northeastern city,” with flowered wallpaper, an upstage archway leading to the bathroom and kitchen to either side, and bookcases filled with neatly arranged volumes, bric-a-brac, and a record player. Overhead is the suggestion of a coffered ceiling. David Meyer’s homey set has a few surprises built into it, however, which come into play when walls slide away so that hidden rooms can move forward and then disappear when no longer needed. One such room is the bathroom, in which yet another bathtub scene is played with an actress in the nude; fine with me, after too many male butts on view during 2012-2013. When the room is back in place and the bookcase that had covered it restored to its position, the wall behind the bookcase remains out of sight so we can see, through the shelves, a scene in which a character urinates. (The device is clever but the scene, designed to show the urinator’s slovenly toilet habits, is not really necessary; the play contains enough other evidence of his grossness to make the point.)

Howard (DeMunn), the paterfamilias, loves to read, especially adventure books, and also has a fascination with words. He is a recently retired electrician, while his second wife, May, to whom he’s been married for 21 years, has a factory job. Howard and Sue have two children (they’re her stepchildren, actually), a daughter, Sue (Justine Lupe), in her late twenties and a son, Sam (Charlie Saxton), in his early twenties. The only other character is a well-dressed, handsome, young black man, Oz (William Jackson Harper). Howard, like Richard in CORE VALUES, tries as hard as he can to maintain a positive attitude when surrounded by disappointment. He tells May, “Stay on the sunny side,” whenever she leaves for work, and always seems to be battling for self-restraint when his family’s unpleasant behavior threatens to overwhelm him. Sue is attractive but disaffected and sexually promiscuous; tall, thin, and blonde, with pink streaks, she has the old Kate Moss heroin-chic look. Sam is short, bearded, stumpy, geeky-looking, and emotionally withdrawn; he has an as yet unrecognized gift for computer game programming. The children’s problems are linked somehow to the fact that their birth mother walked out on Howard shortly after Sam was born; the theme of abandonment is threaded through the play.     

One night Sue brings home Oz, whom she’s picked up somewhere, and Howard, thinking he’s being protective of his daughter, who couldn’t care less, prepares to beat Oz with a baseball bat when he emerges from the bathroom; he’s gone in there at Sue’s invitation while she’s bathing, although he politely keeps his eyes turned away. Oz turns out to be anything but a threat and instead becomes the catalyst in the family’s evolution. Sam, while remaining a psychological case study, moves on to college, while Sue gets pregnant by Oz, whom she seduces in a bizarre scene where she gets him to demonstrate tongue movements, but becomes even more alienated from the family after she’s had the baby. Oz becomes a member of the family while his wife goes out partying, leaving the baby in his care. And through it all, Howard, doing his best to stay positive despite his own and everyone else’s failings, finds both anguish and resolution amidst the chaos.

The play’s many scenes move swiftly under Mr. Hoffman’s deft direction, but the characters generally speak in low (often, for my ears, too low) conversational tones (projection has become a non sequitur in much local stage acting). Time is often expressed by overlapping scenes, so that, for example, Sue will walk off stage pregnant in one scene and walk on casually in the next without her belly.

All the actors do excellent work, but Mr. DeMunn is especially notable as the determinedly optimistic Howard, who tries to ignore his family issues by tinkering with old lamps, at which he earns a few extra dollars, as if fixing them could somehow turn his darkness into light.  

Almost as forgettable as the play is its dull title. The characters may be innocuous but does the title of the play have to be as well? Why would anyone call a play . . . wait, what was it again?

Saturday, May 11, 2013

5. Review of CORE VALUES (May 10, 2013)

5.      Review of CORE VALUES

After reading Charles Isherwood’s New York Times pan of this comedy by Steven Levenson, now playing at Ars Nova (one of NY’s several out-of-the-way Off Broadway venues), I told my wife she might want to think again about going with me. She immediately bowed out, and none of my usual theatre companions were interested either, so I went alone, only to discover that the play was much better than expected, and that a lot of people had missed a worthwhile theatre experience. The play, excellently directed by Carolyn Cantor on a small stage that bisects the tiny theatre, with about 25 people seated in what would normally be the upstage area, facing an audience of perhaps 70 on the other side.

Lauren Helpern’s simple set replicates the basic elements of a conference room, with one wall bearing a big white note board, and the other carrying a door for entrances and exits. A sizable table and typical office chairs occupy the center, and bright fluorescent lighting, designed by Traci Klainer Polimeni, illuminates the space. We are in a travel agency—its boss wants to call it a “leisure expert” firm—at an annual weekend retreat. The economic downturn has forced the company to use its own conference room rather than the Hampton Inn of recent years, which Richard (Reed Birney), the CEO, keeps recalling as if it were the Hilton. The two regular workers, Todd (Paul Thureen), a nerdy blonde guy with a beard who does the tech work and is anxious for a raise and a move into sales, and Nancy (Susan Kelechi Watson), an attractive but totally blasé black woman, would rather be anywhere else. The new hire, Eliot (Erin Wilhelmi), a ditzy young blonde who was hired only a day earlier as a replacement for an incompetent employee who quit to make a TV pilot, is as eager as a puppy to join the team and do well, but she’s also frightened to death because she has no idea of what her responsibilities are or how, without any training, she’s expected to be a travel agent. One other employee is absent, having gone on vacation to Florida with his family. The desperately smiling Richard does his earnest if uncertain best to reassure her, and to make his other employees want to be there and make the most out of the experience, even though they’re not being paid for their time; Richard calls it a retreat, ergo, it’s not work.

If, like me, you’ve ever spent a week in a conference room with the same people, meeting from morning to midnight and beyond and watching much of your time being needlessly frittered away, you’ll have a good idea of why I found myself caring about  the comically frustrating plight of these hapless characters.

The play is structured as a series of episodes, some very brief, that move us through the weekend’s highlights, so that within an hour and half we get the essence of the complete experience and feel as ready to go home at the end as the characters do. The time is spent largely with Richard running a series of typical training exercises designed to build confidence, trust, and sales ability during cold calls. Some of the latter are very funny, as the actors improvise making and receiving calls that hope to induce the customer to buy a travel package. A trust exercise where someone falls backward into the arms of someone else, hoping he’s there, also sparks a big laugh. As with TV’s “THE OFFICE,” you have to buy the incompetence of most of the characters; in real life, they wouldn’t last a week in a true business environment. But the sincerity and dry, understated comic performances manage to draw you in just enough so you are willing to abandon disbelief and accept the world of the play.

Best of all is the ever-reliable Reed Birney, whose Richard puts on a cheery air while he’s actually suffering inside from loneliness after the dissolution of his marriage and the alienation of his children. Gradually, we see his hidden pain emerge from beneath his often ridiculous earnestness, and we see a man desperately working at making the retreat successful because his time with these people is about the only real human contact he can muster. When his staff fails to meet his expectations, even deciding to be elsewhere than at a post-retreat, Sunday night restaurant dinner he has invited them to on his dime, his subdued disappointment is poignant indeed. CORE VALUES may seem a little silly, but the dilemmas it presents will strike a note of recognition and sympathy in many theatergoers, while also giving them lots to laugh about.