Sunday, June 30, 2013

45. Review of THE HENRIETTA (June 30, 2013)


The Metropolitan Playhouse, on E. 4th Street between Avenues A and B in Alphabet City, a theatre of around 70 seats, is in its twenty-first season, although its practice of reviving plays from the American theatrical heritage began in 1997. Its latest offering, which closed on June 30, when I caught it, is THE HENRIETTA, a hit comedy-melodrama from 1887 by the now largely forgotten Bronson Howard who, in his day, was one of the most popular and respected of commercial playwrights. The play even created a phrase, “business is business,” that is still in circulation to excuse the amoral attitude of earning a buck regardless of who gets hurt in the process. A still viable 1920 silent movie, THE SAPHEAD, based on the play and a later novel by Victor Mapes and Winchell Smith, and starring the great Buster Keaton in the role that made him a star, can be seen on YouTube.
            Productions at small companies like this must be applauded for their valiant efforts to serve important academic and artistic ends on the flimsiest of budgets; producing a play from 1887 requires clever management to recreate a sense of period and style, and one must assess the quality of what one sees within the framework of very limited financial means.
The Metropolitan Playhouse, 220 E. 4th Street
In the present case, costume designer Sidney Fortner has done a splendid job in dressing her cast of a dozen to look like well-to-do people of the late 19th century, and even the minimal sets, by Alex Roe (who also directed), which require some effort of imagination on the audience’s part, satisfactorily capture a feeling for the era—a potted palm or two goes a long way in this regard. The principal problems, as usual, arise in the area of acting and direction, but first a word or two about the play.
            The odd title, THE HENRIETTA, refers to four different Henriettas, two of them people, one a horse, and one a mining and land company. There is much comic confusion about just which one people are talking about at various times, but it is the mining and land connection that is the most important, since this is a business comedy focusing on Wall Street rapaciousness. The plot revolves around a ruthless but charming millionaire widower named Nicholas van Alstyne (Michael Durkin) and his family, which includes two sons, the immoral Nicholas, Jr. (Michael Hardart), who seeks to cheat his own father out of his fortune, and the comically innocent but dandified Bertie (Blaine Smith), who becomes, in spite of himself, the “young Napoleon of Wall Street”; another sibling is Lady Mary Trelawney (Ashley Masula). Nick, Jr., is married to the lovely Rose (Melody Bates), Bertie loves the pretty Agnes (Alexandra O’Daly), and Mary is the wife of the awfully British aristocrat, Lord Arthur (Chuck Bradley). Other characters include an upstanding physician, Dr. Parke Wainwright (Kelly King); a society minister, the Rev. Dr. Murray Hilton (James Luse); a stock broker, Watson Flint (David Lavine); a wealthy, middle-aged woman, Mrs. Cornelia Opdyke (Teresa Kelsey); and a clerk, Musgrave (J.M. McDonough). All but the clerk are involved in romantic complications, which work in counterpoint to the ups and downs of the stock market speculation (a ticker tape plays an important role in act three) that keeps the plot’s other motor going.
            Most of the actors struggled to combine period manners with inner sincerity and comedic truth. Michael Durkin’s Wall Street baron came closest to making his character believable, and Teresa Kelsey and Kelly King had their strong moments, but most of the others teetered precariously on the border between amateurism and professionalism, sometimes leaning one way, sometimes the other. James Luce as the minister gave what was surely the oddest of overblown performances. Alex Roe’s direction needed to have the actors pick up the pace; a good ten minutes or more could have been lopped off from the play’s two hours and 35 minutes running time. Mr. Roe worked hard to bring some invention to the staging, but most of his comical ideas, such as having two lovers walk off hand in hand so their joined hands could collide with a potted plant, fell flat. The idea of allowing the actors to speak their many asides directly to specific audience members was mildly effective in the tiny venue, but it gradually grew cloying.
            THE HENRIETTA is a well-crafted if somewhat old-fashioned play that deserves revival, but this production doesn’t quite measure up to its demands. Nevertheless, it was fun to see a play from 126 years ago whose greedy characters seem straight out of today’s era of the one percent.


Saturday, June 29, 2013

44. Review of GIBRALTAR (June 29, 2013)



Back in 1958, Zero Mostel’s career as a stage actor to contend with took a major step forward when he played the Dublin Jew, Leopold Bloom, in the long run, Off-Broadway production of ULYSSES IN NIGHTTOWN (unsuccessfully revived on Broadway in 1974). This was Marjorie Barkentin’s adaptation of the Walpurgisnicht section of James Joyce’s controversial modern classic, ULYSSES. Now, in the intimate downstairs venue at the Irish Repertory Theatre, Patrick Fitzgerald, a trim actor who could not be more unlike the hulking Mostel physically, vocally, or ethnicity-wise, has undertaken the role, while also writing the script, which he adapted from another part of the novel into a generally viable, if not altogether successful, stage play. Joyce’s densely written novel, famous for its stream of consciousness style and many provocative religious and sexual references (which led to its being banned as late as the early 1960s) is difficult enough to read; turning it into a play, where the audience must grasp everything as soon as it’s said, is an awesome task. This is compounded by the likelihood that most theatregoers probably never read the original or, if they have, probably don't remember it. A further obstacle is created by adapting the material for only two actors, one of whom (Fitzgerald) plays Leopold and three lesser roles, and the other (Cara Seymour) eleven roles, including the magnificent one of Molly Bloom.  
Outside the Irish Repertory Theatre,

            Fitzgerald must be given kudos for making the slightly less than two-hour production (with a brief, five-minute intermission) hold the audience’s attention, despite the often hard-to-follow, episodic structure, which focuses only on the book’s second half; what transpires happens in a single day (June 16, 1904) in the life of Leopold and Molly, his Gibraltar-born wife, who has not had sex with her spouse for ten years, since the death of their infant son. The day, is broken up into eight episodes, but omits a number of major characters; it follows the Blooms, even when they are visibly taking care of nature’s call, and concludes with the unfaithful Molly giving her famously earthy, stream-of-consciousness soliloquy (composed in eight enormously long sentences) as she ruminates in bed about, among many other things, when she first fell in love with Leopold and agreed to have sex with him, thereby concluding the play (and the novel) with “yes I said yes I will Yes.”  

            Sarah Bacon, who designed both the set and costumes, provides for the former a workable space defined by a black upstage wall consisting of scrim within a framework that allows for the opening of a door and window; as day turns to night, the wall behind the scrim lights up with stars. A bed at one side (the head of the big guy in front of me made seeing the action here difficult) and a kitchen at the other, with an outhouse toilet in the middle provide functional units within the space. And the minimal costumes (too few to distinguish all of Ms. Seymour’s roles from one another) capture the period well

            Ultimately, this is a performance piece with tour-de-force roles for two actors. Having been unimpressed by Mr. Fitzgerald’s rather dull work in last season’s KATIE ROCHE at the Mint, I was pleasantly surprised by the vocal and physical variety, as well as the expressive interpretation, he gives to Joyce’s lines; still, he doesn’t convince me he is Joyce’s paunchy Jew. More effective is Ms. Seymour, even though she isn’t able to sharply differentiate all her characterizations from one another. I thought her very fine delivery of the lengthy soliloquy was just shy of truly outstanding because it needed a few more fireworks to vary its mood.  

In spite of Terry Kinney’s intelligent direction and the often difficult but nonetheless poetically fascinating, and frequently funny, passages in the word-play filled narrative and dialogue sections, little that is straightforwardly dramatic happens in GIBRALTAR. All is storytelling (Fitzgerald created two roles for this function, Narrator, played by himself, and Muse, played by Ms. Seymour), conversation, and reminiscence, and without more knowledge of the book some of this can be muddy going. Were the show not closing on Sunday, June 30, I’d advise that some theatergoers would find GIBRALTAR mildly satisfying as a primer on part of a famous novel; that others would disregard the lack of a strong dramatic conflict and just revel in Joyce’s brilliant language well performed; and that others, like me, would consider it highly respectable but not fully satisfying as theatre.     
A final note: as I left the subway station at 23rd and 6th, the first person I saw on my way to GIBRALTAR was this man, walking down 6th Ave. Of course, he had nothing to do with the show, but the coincidence was too good to pass by without taking a picture. I thought it might have some spiritual connection to the show, though, perhaps meaning that I should be ready for a perfect, leak free (waterproof) experience. However, when I got to the box office, they didn't have my tickets because I'd made a scheduling error. They squeezed me in, though, but I entered the general admission seating too late, and was forced to sit in the last row where I saw more of the white hair in front of me than I did of the show. The experience was not quite as waterproof as I had hoped for.

43. Review of DIRTY GREAT LOVE STORY (June 28, 2013)


The latest entry in the Brits Off Broadway series at 59E59 is this charming, funny, affecting, two-actor love story, written (and rhymed, as the program credit says) by its costars, Richard Marsh and Katie Bonna, who, judging by the names of their characters, play themselves. Ms. Bonna also plays her friend CC, who has a conversational tic of saying “I love it!,” with great enthusiasm, while Mr. Marsh displays his role-playing versatility by assuming the northern England accent of his friend, Westy, and the snooty tones of Matt Priest, his Eton-educated rival for Katie’s affections.
59e59. Photo: Betty Ho

            The performance, well-directed by Pia Furtado, is given in the 59E59’s tiny Theatre C on the third floor. One can see why it was selected for importation from England, where it underwent development at multiple locales before premiering at the Pleasance Edinburgh in August 2012, followed by productions at the Bristol Old Vic and the Theatre Royal Bury St. Edmunds earlier this year. It requires nothing but its very casually dressed actors, a pair of blank screens behind them to offer a background for simple lighting effects (by Charlie Lucas), and two stools (set design by Georgia Lowe). Well-timed sound and music effects (by Steve Mayo) offer all the ambience we need.

            The material, which is admittedly thin and familiar, tells of a young man and a young woman who meet in a pub or club (I’m not clear which and it makes no difference) when he’s with his friends at a stag-do (bachelor’s party) and she’s with hers at a hen-do (bachelorette party). The curly-haired Richard, who vaguely resembles David Letterman, is geeky and bespectacled, while Katy, who reminds me of a young Emma Thompson, both vocally (that posh accent) and physically, is attractive in a nonthreatening way. Each has had romantic problems and each is searching (with the aggressive encouragement of friends) for someone to marry. The plot goes through the usual permutations: boy meets girl, boy and girl get drunk and have sex, boy and girl go their separate ways without realizing how much the other one means to them, boy and girl have unsuccessful liaisons with other lovers, boy and girl quarrel, but, in the end, after two years, boy and girl finally admit they love one another.

            What makes this potentially banal material engaging is 1) the marvelously British tone the actors bring to their vivid characterizations of these wry but lonely young singles, and 2) the terrific writing, all of it in verse, both rhymed and blank. Many of the lines spoken with a definite rhythmic undertone; still, the words always sound natural and spontaneous; the effect is nothing like hip hop. The dialogue contains lots of young people’s language, much of it profane, and there are numerous texting abbreviations, such as OMG and LOL, sprinkled throughout.

Mr. Marsh and Ms. Bonna speak their lines, many of them delivered in narrative style directly to the audience, with great earnestness and honesty. Bonna is particularly colorful with her captivating facial expressions, which often make ordinary lines stand out because of how her adorably flexible mug comments on them. Because of the proximity of the audience to the actors, after watching this couple for 85 intermissionless minutes, you feel you have really gotten to know them; even more, you’ve grown to like them.  

            Here’s a sample of a sequence spoken during the scene when Katie and Richard realize they’re in love. Katie says:

            I kiss the soft lips

            In the geeky face,

            In the stubborn head,

            Of the man I woke up next to one day in bed,

            But every question I could have,

            My mouth’s already said.

            I can see more with my eyes closed now,

            Than when they were open and booze-soaked and red.

            Or when I was blinded by You Know Who,

            Or when I chose Matt Priest instead,

            And what I see,

            And what I need

            Is someone who can list every soul-destroyingly

            Humiliating thing I’ve done over the last two years,\

            And make it sound like poetry.

            He sees me,

            All of me,

            All of it,

            And I fucking love him for it.

            DIRTY GREAT LOVE STORY is one of those tasty little tidbits you sometimes bite into when circulating among the smorgasbord that is New York theatre. It goes down nicely, is quickly digested, and leaves you still hungry for the main course yet to come. It may not have filled you up, but you’re happy you ate it.  

Friday, June 28, 2013



In CUFF ME: THE FIFTY SHADES OF GREY UNAUTHORIZED MUSICAL PARODY! one of the characters says something to the effect of “It’s weird doing sex acts in a synagogue.” That’s because this shoddy parody of a publishing phenomenon that even the characters in the show demean (“the writing sucks” is one example; another calls the book “first-class smut”) is being performed at the Actors Temple Theatre on W. 47th Street. But judging from an audience that seemed to be made up of over 90 per cent squealing and giggling young women (with a few cougars thrown in for good measure), even with me and a male friend present, finding a minion (ten men) to hold services would have been highly problematic. Perhaps this is because, as the show says of FIFTY SHADES OF GREY, the book by British writer E.L. James on which it’s based, it’s “the greatest piece of literature in the women’s masturbation movement.”
The Actors Temple Theatre on W. 47th Street.

            Despite a couple of performers who might do respectable work in more conventional fare, this show (conceived by Tim Flaherty) is written, directed (by Sonya Carter), and performed in a blatantly hit ‘em over the head style of exaggerated mugging and shouting. The book and lyrics (by Bradford McMurran, Jeremiah Albers, and Sean Michael Devereux) seem determined to find the lowest common denominator, so what might have served as fodder for an amusingly dirty satire of an erotic book that every female on the planet seems to have read comes off as tastelessness personified. Interestingly, while the buff actors playing Christian (Matthew Brian Bagley), the leading man, and  Ana (Laurie Elizabeth Gardner), the leading lady, get down to their underwear, there is no actual nudity (apart from a scene in which Christian turns around to reveal that the buttocks area on his trousers has been removed to expose his nether cheeks). A brief sequence done in projected shadows allows for a silhouetted man to demonstrate his cartoonish tumescence, but mostly the sexuality displayed is a matter of mindlessly continuous bumps and grinds and mimed sexual positions. All right, already, I wanted to shout after bump and grind 1,000. WE GET IT!! 

            The show’s premise is that, while a couple of women are in a beauty parlor, they and two beauticians begin to talk about FIFTY SHADES OF GREY. One woman (Tina Jensen) never heard of it, so the other woman begins to explain it. I won’t bother with any more plot description so let it suffice to say that the story is about the sexually innocent Ana’s sexual awakening via the S&M proclivities of a handsome, wealthy businessman named Christian. Four actors (the second male is Alex Gonzalez, who also undertakes female roles) play the multiple roles, and there are numerous costume and wig changes. 

            The set, which uses several movable panels to create different locales, is cheap and tacky looking, the most prominent effect being three walls covered with dildos, paddles, whips, and other sexual implements (including, for hilarity’s sake—NOT—a rubber chicken and a plastic flamingo). This is a musical, but without original music, so new lyrics are set to familiar tunes. Of those I recognized (which don’t include the hip-hop numbers), there are “Big Spender” (from SWEET CHARITY), “If I Were a Rich Man” (FIDDLER ON THE ROOF,” “Like a Virgin” (Madonna), “Baby It’s Cold Outside,” and so on. The lyrics are radically altered to reflect the show’s tawdry humor, so Madonna’s anthem, for example, becomes “I’m a Virgin.”

            Everything is miked and amplified to very high decibel levels, and the actors, especially the ditzy Ana, often scream their lines as if that somehow might makes them funnier. There are substantial chunks of choreography (the finale, done in Bollywood style, is actually pretty good), sometimes with strobes flashing through overdone smoke effects. Everyone seems to have graduated from Overacting University, which, naturally, has no courses labeled Subtlety 101. Almost all dialogue is directed straight to the audience, as in old-time vaudeville routines. The simpleminded dialogue is riddled with such tasteful zingers as, “When I reach the good parts I touch myself.” Or, “I wanted to finger your butthole with mayonnaise.” The characters are caricatures of caricatures, and Ana is so dumb she doesn't know the difference between ID (identity) and id (the Freudian term).
            Most members of the audience seemed to be having a grand old time. And even the Ukranian-born manager--a guy who trained as a classical trumpet player--at the Nissan dealership where I recently got a new car--recommended the show when he learned of my theatre interests. I don't know if he read the book, though. I myself have not, so my response does not accurately reflect the degree to which the show parodies the book. Perhaps you have to read it to appreciate what’s on stage.  But if the book is as bad as even its parody often announces, then I’d be surprised if the show isn’t even worse.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

41. Review of THE BOAT FACTORY (June 26, 2013)


Dan Gordon, playwright and costar of THE BOAT FACTORY, now playing at 59E59 as part of the Brits Off Broadway season, grew up in East Belfast, home to world-renowned factories that produced thousands of world-class ships. The Titanic was the most famous of these fabulous creations, built by the Harland and Wolff factory, where Gordon’s dad (or “da,” as the play would have it), Davy, worked, starting in 1947 and ending when he succumbed many years later to mesothelioma. THE BOAT FACTORY is an elegy to the days of the shipbuilding factories, which gradually died out when jet passenger planes replaced them in the 1960s as a means of global travel. It is also a reminiscence of working-class life in postwar Belfast, a largely Protestant city in Northern Ireland where Catholics were in the minority, but, despite 200 years of religious tension, worked in the shipyards largely without friction next to their much more numerous Protestant coworkers.
Program notes about the Historic Background to the Boat Factory

            Gordon’s intimate play, a two-hander in which he and Michael Condron play multiple roles, was originally staged  by the Happenstance Theatre Company, Northern Ireland. It combines comedy with poignancy in an unconventionally structured work, reminiscent of story theatre, that a friend who saw the play with me commended as being as carefully crafted as the work of the shipwrights who created those great behemoths of yore. Gordon mingles naturalistic prose with poetic passages, shifting gears from scenes that dramatize his da’s family life, his going to work as an indentured laborer, and his close friendship with Wee Geordie (Condron), to moments that recite in telegraphese the history of Belfast shipbuilding and that describe the tools, routines, and dangers of working in the yards. Gordon writes in his program notes about the Boat Factory's place in his life, and its silence in later years: "It is a heritage and a history that has all but disappeared--and with it, the skills, the memories, and the men who made it great. I want to remember them--for my father was one of them."

            Gordon, a husky, gray-haired man in a sleeveless wool sweater, and Condron, a more slightly built, vest-wearing, younger fellow with thinning dark hair, make a perfect duo who use their thick Irish accents (Condron is actually a native Canadian) to capture multiple colorful characters, like the granda who, every time he farted, blamed his dog; or an effeminate shoe salesman; or a beaky-nosed clerk; or an overweight office girl; or an official who resembled Oliver Hardy and actually was named Hardy, and so on. There is marvelous byplay when each in turn, doing rapid changes of a bowler hat, plays a gruff-voiced foreman. Condron, performing his main role of Geordie, a carpenter with a gimpy leg caused by a bout with polio, has a running gag where he lopes around like a movie cowpoke and asks Davy, “John Wayne or Gary Cooper?” These two highly disciplined artists display beautifully coordinated timing, movement, gestures, and facial expressions, often highlighted by wonderfully integrated sound effects. Despite the stylization of the staging (kudos to director Philip Crawford) and writing, and their speedy shifts from role to role, they always remain completely focused and totally believable, even when being exaggeratedly cartoonish. Their stage is a simple one of a backdrop depicting the ground plan of the shipyard and harbor, with red metal scaffolding up right and up left that they use to excellent advantage, especially when climbing up to a tower, the “crow’s nest,” overlooking the river alongside the shipyard.

            The play doesn’t have much of a traditional plot, being more a memoir cum documentary, but we do become attached to Davy and Geordie, and their assorted bosses, coworkers, family members, and the like. It may not be the cruise you were planning, but a voyage to 59E59 for an evening at THE BOAT FACTORY is guaranteed not to run into any icebergs.      

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

40. Review of RANTOUL AND DIE (June 23, 2013)



When the lights come up on Mark Roberts’s RANTOUL AND DIE, a scene of apparent violence is underway. We are in the grungiest of refuse-strewn, trailer trash living rooms (designed by Alfred Schatz) and one man, Gary (Matthew Pilieci), is standing behind the ugly, green leather couch holding his friend, Rallis (Derek Ahonen), in a chokehold. The violence, it turns out, is only guy play, but real violence will occur later in this dark-edged comedy being performed in the smaller of the Cherry Lane Theatre’s two venues. Despite hillbilly accents making these working-class stiffs sound like refugees from DELIVERANCE, the play takes place in Rantoul, Illinois, a small city about 110 miles south of Chicago where the Dairy Queen seems to be the chief local attraction.
Matthew Pilieci (in red jacket) and Derek Ahonen.

            Gary has saved Rallis after finding him with slit wrists in the blood-soaked tub. Rallis, an unkempt, emotional train wreck, whines endlessly because Debbie (Sarah Lemp), his wife, wants to leave him, and Gary, who is secretly carrying on with her, tries to console him. Then Debbie comes home from her job at the Dairy Queen and goes on a verbal rampage demanding that Rallis sign the divorce papers, excoriating him ruthlessly for all his husbandly shortcomings. At the end of act one, Rallis, about as depressed a sad sack as you’ll ever want to see, does something that leads to his vegetative presence in act two.

Sarah Lemp and Derek Ahonen.
A fourth character is central to the second act, Callie (Vanessa Vaché), a plump coworker of Debbie’s at the Dairy Queen, who lives with her invalid mother and fourteen cats. Rallis never signed the papers, so Debbie is stuck with him, but Callie, seemingly the most goodhearted of people, is giving all her spare time to nursing Rallis, who is propped up on the couch, wearing a full head cast showing only his nose, eyes, and mouth. This allows things no one would normally say in front of him to be aired, but, because of his occasional, though very slight, head movements and the little we can see of his eyes, the question hovers as to just how much he actually comprehends, if anything. Then, speaking in a barely audible voice, the consistently calm and collected Callie, hoping to show Debbie that even she has made mistakes, launches into one of those long theatrical confessions designed to make your skin crawl by its horrific excesses. We don’t know if Rallis understands a word of it, but he’s stuck with her, and it serves as a suitable conclusion to what might, if it were set somewhere in Alabama or Mississippi, have been a valid entry into the Southern Gothic sweepstakes.

Vanessa Vaché (left) and Sarah Lemp.
Playwright Mark Roberts, a TV sitcom veteran (he’s a producer and writer for “Two and a Half Men”), has a way with eccentric characters and pungent, often profane, language, and there is definitely much that’s quirkily funny in the behavior of these often clueless rubes. The characters are not always consistent, though, sometimes seeming much smarter and more articulate than they should be, and it’s hard to see how Sarah Lemp’s Debbie ever wound up with Rallis (actually, the character is allowed to ask this question herself). RANTOUL AND DIE’s structure is more about a situation than a plot, and that situation is essentially a set up for the display of crackpot characterizations and grittily offbeat conversation.

Director Jay Stull moves the action along at a steady clip and he gets fully energized performances from his four-actor company, each of whom brings his or her character to colorful life. But for all its would-be over-the-top, subversive humor, I found this two-act, 100- minute piece (not 90, as advertised) a bit longer than it had to be, and not as funny as it should have been. Considering its author’s TV background, perhaps a laugh track would have helped.  

Saturday, June 22, 2013

39. Review of THE EXPLORERS CLUB (June 21, 2013)



The exceptionally detailed, wood paneled set of Nell Benjamin’s THE EXPLORERS CLUB, at the Manhattan Theatre Club’s City Center Stage I, depicts the interior of the Explorers Club, a determinedly masculine domain in 1879 London. With its red leather couch, fully stocked bar, huge elephant tusks, stuffed animals, fur pelts, framed paintings, chandelier, and upstairs level, Donyale Werle’s setting is almost interesting enough on its own to warrant a visit to this old-time farce, which mingles traditional comedic dramaturgy with a contemporary feminist touch. It’s a shame that the play, however, while seeming to do everything possible to regularly tickle my funny bone, didn't do so often enough to raise the production beyond the level of pleasant entertainment. This is not to say the audience didn't laugh often and vigorously, but, except for a few truly hilarious lines and some exceptionally well done business, I watched with a smile, chuckled now and then, but rarely trumpeted a guffaw.


A photo of the set for THE EXPLORERS CLUB, taken at the end of the show. The audience was invited to photograph the set when the actors were not on it.
            The hour and 35-minute, two-act production is very well, and very speedily, staged by Marc Bruni. The American cast playing stuffy British types occasionally comes close but doesn’t quite win the cigar in playing what requires the kind of comedic genius we think of when we recall Monty Python. For me, the standout is the lovely Jennifer Westfeldt (writer/star of KISSING JESSICA STEIN, the indie movie), who plays Phyllida Spotte-Hume, an intrepid female explorer who has discovered a lost civilization and seeks to break the barriers preventing women from joining the males-only preserve of the Explorers Club, a group deeply in the shadow of the National Geographic Society (it should be Royal, not National); Ms. Westfeldt also plays Phyllida's aristocratic twin, Countess Glamorgan, who appears in a striking black evening gown, dripping with jewelry. Ms. Westfeldt captures the high-toned accent of the period, exaggerating it somewhat for the countess, while also bringing both feminine independence and inner strength to both roles, yet being just as convincing when circumstances force her to fall into a pre-feminist Victorian swoon.

            Vying for her affections are two young men: one is Lucius Fretway (Lorenzo Pisoni), the clumsy and bespectacled hero, a botanist (there is a mildly diverting, if too familiar scene, where the characters get high on cigars made of a plant he cultivated); the other is Harry Percy (David Furr), a character of little learning but full of braggadocio, who claims to have discovered the East Pole (he is the sole survivor of the expedition so his word must be taken at face value). There is humorous friction between the snake-loving Professor Cope (Brian Avers), who wears a potently poisonous cobra around his neck, and his closest friend, Professor Walling (Steven Boyer), whose beloved guinea pig gets eaten by Cope’s snake, leading to a humorous rift in the men’s relationship. Veteran John McMartin plays Professor Sloane, an “arco-theologist,” a specialist in “biblical science,” who claims to have discovered that the Irish are the ten lost tribes of Israel, causing a near revolution when the Hibernians learn that they may be Jewish. Sloane is the principal objector to a woman’s being allowed to join the club’s masculine precincts.

And then there is the weird native Phyllida has brought back from Pahatlabong, the civilization she discovered, a loin-clothed young man she calls Luigi (Carson Elrod), who is painted blue with vivid body markings and wears a multicolored Mohawk. In a situation rife with comical promise, Luigi learns some English and is gradually assimilated into the club’s world, becoming its bartender. In several memorably acrobatic scenes, he mixes drinks and then, in rapid succession, slides across the bar and tosses through the air whiskey-filled tumblers, which are caught with remarkable dexterity by the other members of the cast (only one was barely dropped when I saw the show). There are other characters as well, principally Sir Bernard Humphries (Max Baker), a representative of Queen Victoria who plans on wiping out Luigi’s people because Luigi slapped the queen when he met her (this is how his people greet one another), and Beebe (Arnie Burton), an explorer Harry Percy abandoned on a mountain only for him to become a militant Tibetan monk (or something like that).

            All this perhaps sounds very risible and perhaps I'm just a sourpuss. These mostly silly, pompous, and buffoonish characters are ripe for exploitation in the CHARLEY’S AUNT school of theatrical farce, and most of them are played with sufficient straightness of face and lack of excessive archness to prevent them from lapsing too far into the excesses this kind of material sometimes inspires. After Ms. Westfeldt, David Furr, Lorenzo Pisoni, and Carson Elrod, were my favorites, while Arnie Burton as the warrior monk was too broad for my tastes. They all are assisted by Anita Yavich’s wonderful period costumes (I loved the hooded fur coat worn by Harry Percy when he burst through the club doors on his first entrance).

            There’s no way that THE EXPLORERS CLUB will bore you, and you may laugh louder and longer than I, so I think I can safely recommend that you gather your explorer's gear and make your own expedition to the City Center. Who knows, maybe you’ll even discover the West Pole.   


38. Review of THE BANANA MONOLOGUES (June 21, 2013)

38. THE BANANA MONOLOGUES (June 21, 2013)


The title of this one-man play, now on view at the Acorn Theatre on Theatre Row, is surely intended as a male takeoff on  Eve Ensler's THE VAGINA MONOLOGUES, but the play itself is something else entirely. It is essentially the story of a character named Gus Weiderman, living in Charleston, SC, and his mostly long-distance relationship with his girlfriend, Alexis, in St. Louis. To tell the story, an actor named John R. Brennan plays four roles: Gus, a pharmacist, and the character whose story this is; Alexis, also a pharmacist; a guy named Darby, of whom Gus is jealous; and, I regret to say, his penis, which he refers to as Sgt. Johnson. Brennan changes his voice and physical behavior for each character.

            Gus is a nice-looking guy who refers to himself as a “poor man’s Patrick Swayze,” which is not far from the mark (DIRTY DANCING, Gus and Alexis’s favorite movie, is referred to frequently); Alexis, despite her profession, is a somewhat ditzy dame with a high-pitched, breathy voice, and other ultra-femme attributes (translation: she's hot); Darby is mostly seen as a sort of crouching, screechy, nightmarish troll; and Sgt. Johnson is a super-macho, gravelly-voiced, drill instructor type. Sgt. Johnson is frequently in conflict with Gus because, to this upstanding penis, sex—represented by the soldier’s firing his automatic rifle, with a grenade explosion as the climax—is the only mission worth fighting for, while Gus is always searching for something deeper. Sorry about that, but the play does advertise itself as "A penetratingly funny show about love."   
The Acorn Theatre, on Theatre Row.
In the course of the play's intermissionless 80-minutes, Brennan gives an athletic performance (including disco dancing and pushups), shifting rapidly from role to role, often in rapid-fire repartee between characters. A trim and pleasant-looking man of around 30, he definitely has talent, but the material he is performing, written by himself, Jason C. Cooper, and Mary Cimino, and directed by Debra Whitfield, mixes a determinedly earnest performance with devastatingly unfunny, often uncomfortably juvenile, scatological humor. A few spectators in the one-third filled house laughed valiantly, either because they actually thought this material was funny or because they were friends or relatives of the performer. I hope the latter.

            As I've intimated, there is a considerable amount of no-holds-barred but ridiculously sophomoric sex talk (I lost count of all the references to “blue balls”) and mimed sexual action (both with a partner and otherwise); the double entendres fly about as wildly as the indiscriminate bullets spraying out of Sgt. Johnson’s "gun." At one point, Sgt. Johnson says of himself, “I’m a dick.” (Har!)Another of his lines goes: “Women need labels. Men need labia.” (Har, har!) And then there’s: “Don’t talk to me about being hard. I wrote the book.” (Hardy har har!) Among the frequently embarrassing scenes is one where Gus roams the audience, asking, “When was the last time you got laid?,” and actually gets some women to recite cringe-inducing, sexually explicit comments after him.

Roman Tatarowicz’s set is a fairly elaborate system of platforming, with criss-crossed poles decorating the upstage area. Deborah Constantine’s lighting, too, is rather complex, since the piece is staged with high-intensity theatricality as Brennan moves swiftly from place to place and level to level across the Acorn’s stage.  And sound effects of guns shooting, grenades exploding, and many other things fill your ears at every gap in the action. But for all its strenuous efforts, THE BANANA MONOLOGUES remains as funny as someone slipping on a peel.  


37. Review of a cautionary tale (June 20, 2013)

37. a cautionary tale

The Flea Theatre, on White Street, in Tribeca.

Once again, the Bats, the always dynamic and often arrestingly talented young, non-Equity, resident acting company at the Flea Theatre in Tribeca, are demonstrating their vitality and panache. As usual, they begin the evening by hanging around the performance space, chatting happily with one another and with friends or anyone else in the audience (the small stage and extremely limited seating area are in very tight proximity), or even playing ball. Their oddball vehicle, cleverly directed by Benjamin H. Kamine, who staged last season’s JOB by Thomas Bradshaw here, is in the Flea’s tiny basement venue, but, as usual, these inventive artists have found a way to make the severely limited space resound with excellent sound effects and music (Jeremy S. Bloom), arresting lighting effects (Jonathan Cottle), creatively inspired low-budget scenery (David Meyer), and energetic movement.       

Unfortunately, Christopher Oscar Peña’s a cautionary tail (as he spells it), a bizarre mingling of naturalism, surrealism, and even Chinese opera, is overlong at nearly two and a half hours; the intermission, which lasted over 20 minutes, required the audience to leave the theatre while the scenery for act 2 was set up, but the balmy early summer air outside was an inviting reprieve from the un-air conditioned stuffiness downstairs.

This rambling, multi-scened mixture of comedy and drama focuses on the sibling friction between a gay Chinese-American brother, Luke Wood (an excellent Tony Vo), and his older sister, the violin-playing Vivienne (Cleo Gray, quite good), who are portrayed realistically, and the cruel power over them exercised by their ruthless mother, Tiger. Tiger is well played by Bobby Foley,  a slender male actor in a weird drag getup consisting of a yellow robe tightly cinched at the waist, black gloves, a large fan he sharply snaps open and shut, and a headdress and makeup influenced by Chinese theatre. Tiger is surely the monstrous incarnation of the ultimate Tiger Mother, that much-discussed Chinese-American parent who, to some critics, suffocates her children with excessive pressure to guarantee their entrance into the top schools.
Bobby Foley as Tiger in a cautionary tale. Photo: Hunter Canning..
A number of subjects and themes arise during the action, including abortion, interracial romance, college and career choices, homosexuality, teenage promiscuity, identity, revenge, retribution, social media (there’s a scene about Facebook), tai chi, maternal domination (and its comeuppance), sacrifice, and female employer-male employee sexual power playing;  aside from its reference to the man’s need to be a tiger to succeed (Foley plays the meek male employee), what this scene was doing in the play beats me. There are phantasmagorical scenes involving a weird Mephistophelian insurance agent, who barges into people’s apartments, and others showing the torments of hell, depicted with an imaginative set of cloth stalactites and elastic ribbons. This being something of a coming-of-age drama, the characters, seen mostly in their teenage years, return a decade later in their maturity, and we see how far (or not) they’ve evolved from who they were before (see THE ASSEMBLED PARTIES for a more effective use of this device). Many scenes or scene breaks involve the large and very well-drilled ensemble doing rapid Chinese theatre and martial arts based movements, but what they all have to do with one another is not especially clear. Without them, however, this would be a less interesting presentation, so you take your pleasures where you find them.
Cleo Gray as Vivienne in a cautionary tail. Photo: Hunter Canning.
I was curious about why the title uses the word “tail” so I asked one of the actors on the way out if he could explain. He said it was a play on words, a reference to the tiger’s tail. Oh, thanks, I said, and moved on, still uncertain not only as to what that implied, but about many other things in the play. (There’s also an unrelated, new animated film, with the voice of Cate Blanchett, which uses the same title.) Still, it was in keeping with the spirit of other unconventional plays I’ve seen in this space with the Bats, and it gives this always refreshing group a playground for continuing to make offbeat theatre.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

36. Review of FAR FROM HEAVEN (June 19, 2013)


The premise of Todd Hayne’s 2002 film, FAR FROM HEAVEN, which is the source of this only sporadically interesting musical at Playwrights Horizons, is rich with promise. It is set largely in 1957, during the Eisenhower era, when racial problems were coming to a head during the Civil Rights movement and when homosexuality remained a scandalous and forbidden practice; it also takes the artistic step of replicating the style of Hollywood director Douglas Sirk, famed for his lush, adult-themed Technicolor melodramas, such as MAGNIFICENT OBSESSION, IMITATION OF LIFE, ALL THAT HEAVEN ALLOWS, and WRITTEN ON THE WIND. The musical version faithfully reflects the themes, plot, and style of the film, which starred Julianne Moore as Cathy Whitaker, the epitome of suburban domesticity, Dennis Quaid as her secretly gay husband, Frank, and Dennis Haysbert as Raymond Deagan, the black gardener who befriends Cathy. In Michel Greif’s smooth but superficial production, those roles are played by Kelli O’Hara, Steven Pasquale, and Isaiah Johnson, each of whom offers a fine, if not especially memorable, performance.

            For those who don’t remember or never saw the movie, let it suffice to say that Cathy is the embodiment of 1950s middle-class, white, suburban domesticity, the Betty Crocker or June Cleaver ideal familiar from TV shows and films of the period. The mother of two usually well-behaved kids, a boy, David (Jake Lucas), and a girl, Janice (Julianna Rigoglioso), she lives in a carefully decorated home in Hartford, CT, that she runs with the help of a kindly black maid, Sybil (Quincy Tyler Bernstine). She is refined (she cautions her boy not to swear when he says “Shucks”), soft-spoken, caring, and repressed. Her husband, Frank, goes to business in an advertising company but increasingly has been coming home late. The family is taken aback when he is arrested one night for “loitering.” But Cathy ultimately finds out the hard way about what he’s been doing, and psychological therapy is introduced, as per the period’s beliefs. Meanwhile, Raymond Deagan, a black man (colored or Negro in the period’s terminology), with a little girl of his own, befriends Cathy. He is not only attractive but highly cultured, as demonstrated in an overreaching art gallery scene where he tosses off an analysis of Joan Miró’s paintings. But Hartford, even in 1957, seems not far removed from the deep South in its racial prejudices and gossip soon puts its dent in the relationship.

One of the serious weaknesses in the story, but an element that makes it all so reminiscent of 1950s writing in sociologically oriented potboilers, is the need to make Raymond such a paragon of cultural knowledge and racial sensitivity. Book writer Richard Greenberg, whose play THE ASSEMBLED PARTIES was one of the best plays of last season, hews closely to the movie script, but it would have helped if he could have done something to trim the abundance of clichés and stereotypes, and find a more original voice in depicting this bygone era.

            To embody the multi-scened production with cinematic fluidity, set designer Allen Moyer has created a flexible environment of easily movable scaffolding capable of creating multiple configurations, from an elevator to a modernistic suburban home with floating steps, with Kenneth Posner’s lighting enhancing every moment. Scenic units noiselessly rise from the floor and sink back into it in seconds, and Peter Nigrini has crafted fine projections to evoke specific indoor and outdoor locations as well as the seasonal background; unfortunately, they are often blocked from view by the scaffolding. Catherine Zuber’s period costumes perfectly capture what the mostly well-heeled, well-dressed residents—especially the women—of a suburban Connecticut town might have worn, and everyone looks as if they stepped from an ad in LIFE or THE SATURDAY EVENING POST. Ms. O’Hara’s costumes, with their full skirts and cinched waists, can’t quite hide the pregnant actress’s growing embonpoint, but it is to her credit that she races through what must be a tremendously fatiguing role, with its 19 costume changes, without skipping a beat.

              Neither the music nor the lyrics are impressive, but the music is probably the greatest problem. As in so many other contemporary musicals (all of which seem to be by the same composer, whatever the name on the program is), the music is dedicated to moving the story along and tries to express the emotions and thoughts the characters are experiencing. This leads to a monotonous quality that often sounds like heightened recitative, with melody jettisoned for emotional expressiveness. Yet, far from creating an emotional reaction in the audience, the effect is cerebral and none of the songs ever wraps itself around your heart and makes you want to sing it. In FAR FROM HEAVEN, not a single number, if such they can be called, received more than polite applause when I attended, and many received none because they were so tightly sewn into the dramatic action that there was no space for the audience to react.  

Ms. O’Hara demonstrates again why she is one of the most respected singers on or off Broadway. I don’t think her acting as Cathy is particularly deep or interesting (she overuses the same fluttery hand gestures when being dismissive), and there is a flatness to her scenes (as there is to much else on view), but when she sings she always captures your attention. FAR FROM HEAVEN is far from heavenly but, because of the talent involved and the intriguing subject matter, musical theatre aficionados will want to see it. As for everybody else, I have my doubts.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

35. Review of SONTAG: REBORN


Let’s be honest. How familiar are you with the writing of the late Susan Sontag (1933-2004), the prolific writer, activist, and public intellectual you may remember for the blaze of white hair across the front of her dark mane (some call it a “skunk stripe”). If you’re a Sontag fan, or are at least semi-conversant with her life and thoughts, you will probably love SONTAG: REBORN, a 75-minute, intermissionless, one-woman presentation of material carefully culled by Moe Angelos—the actress who convincingly plays Sontag—from the writer’s journals; these were edited by her son, David Rieff, as REBORN and AS CONSCIOUSNESS IS HARNESSED TO FLESH: JOURNALS AND NOTEBOOKS. If you know her as I did, as a cultural phenomenon of whom I was persistently aware but whose work never called to me, you will, perhaps, not love the content of this show so much. But whoever you are, it will be hard not to appreciate the considerable talent that the Builders Association and director Marianne Weems have put into producing the play at the New York Theatre Workshop.

            Sontag is seen both as her mature self and her younger self, the former in an almost hologram-like black and white video projection that overlooks the stage; as the smoke from her cigarette rises, the mature, sophisticated Sontag interacts, sometimes contentiously, with her optimistic but always questioning live and girlish presence, itself behind a scrim. The stage is dressed by designer Joshua Higgason primarily with a large desk and many books, as videos, seen on multiple transparent surfaces that occasionally overlap each other, provide the primary visual interest. Austin Switzer’s projection designs are among the most technically advanced I’ve seen, even in a time when projections are becoming a primary tool of theatrical design.

Angelos plays Sontag from 1947 to 1963 (or ages 15 to 31), and the years are ticked off by the video Sontag, who informs us of all the remarkable milestones in this brilliant woman’s early career: her teenage precocity while growing up in Sherman Oaks, California; her one-time meeting with Thomas Mann, when she stole a cigarette he was smoking; the schools she went to; the multiple degrees she acquired; the books she read and the writers she admired; the plays and movies she saw; her failed marriage of eight years to sociologist Philip Rieff, whom she wed ten days after she met him (when she was 19); the birth of her child, David; her lesbian affairs, notably with a woman named H she met at Berkeley, and the love of her life, painter-playwright, Maria Irene Fornes; her European travels; the New York Times’s dismissal of her first novel, BENEFACTORS, when she was 30; and the success of her “Notes on Camp” essay in Partisan Review, which finally brought her wide acclaim. We even see an electronically enhanced vision of her hand writing her journals, with the sentences magically illuminated as pen touches paper.

            The spoken content seems entirely to have been drawn from Sontag’s journals, so there are highly intimate revelations, such as her noting a time she masturbated and then examined her c—t, as she calls it, in the mirror. She was constantly judging her own work, about which she felt insecure, as well as that of others. But the play shoots out so many rapidly spoken nuggets of information and ideas that it becomes difficult to catch them all, and the effect, especially for those unfamiliar with the material, eventually grows tedious.
            Still, Angelos’s performance, while never overly showy (except when she captures the accents of Mann or Fornes), remains compelling; when Sontag’s comments register, they do so effectively, possibly inspiring some to want to seek out her work and get to know her better. But unless you are already a Sontag follower, I doubt that this play makes her writing and ideas scintillating enough to spark a rediscover Sontag movement. I remain content to have gotten whatever snippets of the writer I could from SONTAG: REBORN and let those more literarily inclined explore Sontag to their hearts' content.