Thursday, August 29, 2013


September is shaping up with some very exciting prospects and I wanted to keep you informed of what I’ve already booked, since I won’t be reviewing anything for several days. That's because of my current immersion in the five-play cycle of plays by Lucy Thurber being presented by the Rattlestick Playwrights Theatre, at various Off-Broadway venues, with two at the Cherry Lane, one at the Rattlestick itself, one at the Axis Theatre, and one at the New Ohio. I’ve already seen SCARCITY and ASHVILLE, and will be attending WHERE WE’RE BORN, KILLERS AND OTHER FAMILY, and STAY over the rest of the week. The entire series will be covered in a single review, as per the request of the press rep, so mum’s the word until then.

            After that I’ll be traveling to the Flea on White Street to see the Bats perform THE RECOMMENDATION, a new play by Jonathan Caren, described in these words: “Aaron Feldman is popular and connected. He is everything his best friend Iskinder Iudoku is not, but when Feldman gets pulled over for a broken taillight, he is introduced to a world where privilege means nothing and Iskinder has the advantage. A play about friendship, class and where loyalty has its limits.” Then there’s a new work about Freud, FINAL ANALYSIS, at the Alice Griffin Jewel Box Theatre at the Signature on W. 42 St. and another work by the same company in the same venue, BREAKFAST WITH MUGABE. The former is described thusly: “FINAL ANALYSIS, was part of the 2012 Midtown International Theatre Festival and was honored with seven MITF Awards, receiving an unprecedented 13 nominations. The play, directed by Ludovica Villar-Hauser, is set in turn-of-the-century Vienna--the crossroads of civilization, a major confluence of art, music, science and politics. But, festering beneath the facade of frivolity and joy, the city is rotting at its core, sickened by moral corruption, obsessed with death, and ravaged by a growing hatred of the Jews. Against this background, Gustav Mahler, the great composer and conductor, falls in love with the talented, tempestuous Alma Schindler; Joseph Stalin meets a dangerous young man over a game of chess; Ludwig Wittgenstein, destined to become a dominant force in world philosophy, runs into an old schoolmate with unpleasant consequences, and in the midst of this, Sigmund Freud faces what he has always denied:  the essential, evil nature of man.”

            BREAKFAST WITH MUGABE, already the recipient of a positive review by the New York Times, is described this way: “Fraser Grace’s thriller is inspired by newspaper reports that Robert Mugabe, severely depressed, and convinced he was haunted by the ghost of a dead comrade, was treated by a white psychiatrist. It premiered at the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Other Place in 2005,” and then transferred to the West End, with other important productions following.

            59E59 will be presenting THE LIFE AND SORT OF DEATH OF ERIC ARGYLE: “Eric Argyle is having a bad Sunday. It’s late. He’s still in his pyjamas. A room full of people are staring at him. And he died at 11.42am, two days ago. An issue that people don’t seem all that receptive to.” And then I’ll be off to FETCH CLAY, MAKE MAN, at the New York Theatre Workshop, a play that examines a true but surprising relationship. “In the days leading up to one of Cassius Clay's most anticipated fights, the heavyweight boxing champion forms an unlikely friendship with the controversial Hollywood star Stepin Fetchit.  With a rhythmic script by award-winning performer and playwright Will Power, who received rave reviews for his hip-hop productions of Flow and The Seven at NYTW, and direction by Tony Award winner Des McAnuff, FETCH CLAY, MAKE MAN explores the improbable bond that forms between two drastically different and influential cultural icons. One a vibrant and audacious youth, the other a resentful and almost forgotten relic, together as they fight to form their public personas and shape their legacies amidst the struggle of the Civil Rights Movement of the mid-1960s. This true story is as powerful and poetic as Clay himself while also humorous and irreverent like Fetchit's signature act. Finding commonality in contradiction, FETCH CLAY, MAKE MAN examines the true meaning of strength, resilience and pride.”

            On the evening of the day I see FETCH CLAY, MAKE MAN, I’ll be privileged to attend Lear DeBessonet’s staging (with 200 actors!) of THE TEMPEST, a huge civic undertaking sponsored by the Public Theatre and being premiered at the Delacorte in Central Park before moving to other NYC venues. “Public Works is the Off-Broadway company's new program, which aims to build audience engagement in all five boroughs of New York City.The Tempest will feature individuals from such diverse groups as Children's Aid Society (Manhattan); DreamYard (Bronx); Fortune Society (Queens); Brownsville Recreation Center (Brooklyn); and Domestic Workers United (all boroughs). Participants will be cast in lead and ensemble roles alongside professional actors.”

            THE HATMAKER’S WIFE will follow at the Peter Jay Sharp Theatre on 42nd Street, with Rachel Chavkin (NATASHA, PIERRE AND THE GREAT COMET OF 1812) at the helm of Lauren Yee’s “whimsical and poignant new play [in which] a young woman moves in with her boyfriend expecting domestic bliss, but instead has trouble getting comfortable. Her strange new home seems determined to help out - and soon the walls are talking. They reveal the magical tale of an old hat-maker and his long-suffering wife, who runs away with his favorite hat. This sweet and surreal story bends time and space to redefine the idea of family, home, and true love itself.”

            Then comes BRENDAN AT THE CHELSEA, at the Acorn on Theatre Row, described as “a warm and funny play set in the 1960s when the notorious Brendan Behan absconded from Ireland to New York and set up residence in the bohemian Chelsea Hotel where his neighbors included Arthur Miller, Bob Dylan and other artists. He’s drunk, broke, hung over and way past the delivery date of his latest book; then a wire arrives from Dublin with the kind of news that’s guaranteed to put his blood pressure through the roof.” The next night brings PHILIP GOES FORTH, a revival of a 1931 George Kelly comedy at the Mint, and yet another comedy revival the night afterward, Shaw’s YOU NEVER CAN TELL, at the Pearl.

            A solo show from Ireland follows, I CAN SEE CLEARLY NOW (THE WHEELCHAIR ON MY FACE), written and performed by Sonia Kelly, at 59E59, with a play by Horton Foote scheduled for the next day at the Signature. It’s called THE OLD FRIENDS and stars musical theatre great Betty Buckley. A couple of days later Orlando Bloom and Condola Rashad costar as the fated lovers in ROMEO AND JULIET, the first Broadway revival of this Shakespearean classic in well over 30 years, with a new play by Regina Taylor at the Signature a day later. It’s title is STOP.RESET and it's described as follows: "As e-books outsell printed books, Alex Ames, the owner of Chicago’s oldest African American book publishing company, must question each of his employees to determine who is still relevant in a rapidly changing world. When he meets J, a mysterious youth plugged into the future, Mr. Ames is forced to discover just how far he will go to survive. A new play from Residency Five playwright Regina Taylor, stop. reset. asks powerful questions of legacy, identity and survival in a world where the real and the virtual are more closely tied than we think."

            Then there’s something by Ethan Coen, of the movies’ Coen brothers, at the Atlantic, WOMEN OR NOTHING. This is Coen's first full-length play. It’s “about two women so desperate to have a child that one of them will even sleep with a man. Who the man is, what he thinks is going on, what the women think about what he thinks, and what the mother of one of the women reveals about her own colorful past—it all defies belief. Why then does it all make sense?” Finally, there’s ARGUENDO, staged at the Public by the adventurous Elevator Repair Service. “In Barnes v. Glen Theatre, a 1991 First Amendment case brought by a group of go-go dancers, the justices of the U.S. Supreme Court debate whether dancing naked in a strip club is an exercise of artistic expression or a crime. In ARGUENDO, ERS presents the case's oral argument, verbatim, revealing a compelling intellectual struggle and the court's often-absurd sense of humor. There will be a 20-minute talk back following every show, included in the price of admission.”
            All this and it will only be September 22, with another week still remaining in the month for additional shows. Let's hope these productions turn out as well on stage as they sound on paper, and that the season before us proves a memorable one.


Wednesday, August 28, 2013

82. Review of AWAKE AND SING (August 27, 2013)


Do you remember how surprised the judges were the night that Susan Boyle began to sing as a contestant on BRITAIN’S GOT TALENT? Here was this extremely unprepossessing woman who, the moment her voice began emitting the sounds of “I Dreamed a Dream” from LES MISERABLES, instantly converted skeptics into believers. I experienced a modest version of that feeling last night when the actors in a downtown revival of Clifford Odets’s socially conscious 1935 masterpiece AWAKE AND SING began to speak. I admit having gone with a cynical sense that I was going to see something bizarre, an Asian-American theatre company (the National Asian American Theatre Company), doing a play about a Jewish family in the Depression-era Bronx, living in a cramped fifth-floor walk-up, and furiously confronting the issues of capitalism and Marxism, as well as various domestic and romantic problems. It wasn’t so much the subjects of conversation or the way families interact that raised my doubts, but rather how American actors from such different ethnic backgrounds could be believable in this world. For one thing, apart from their looks, how would they capture the sounds and inflections associated with that period? Odets’s dialogue is meant to sing with the immigrant-influenced melodies of the Bronx’s colorful streets, which can still sometimes be heard in New York-based gangster flicks of that era. But no sooner did the Berger family, seated around the dining room table, begin to bicker and fuss, than the voices of 1930s working-class New York Jews came pouring forth from actors with faces and names suggesting China, South Asia, and places indeterminate. And soon, even their appearances, despite a plethora of racial origins, were transformed into those of the Berger family of 1933 (when the play is set), whose antecedents probably came from Central or Eastern Europe.
Walkerspace, 46 Walker Street. (Home of the Soho Rep.)

The actors in this company do not share a single ethnicity, and indeed some actors probably possess multiple backgrounds (if the name Jon Norman Schneider is any indication). The point, however, is that, while you never forget for an instant that you are seeing actors who are clearly not what Odets had in mind, their full-hearted grasp of his characters and intentions soon makes you marvel at how universal theatre can be when well performed, regardless of its ethnic origins. Will we one day, do you think, see a non-Asian cast tackle, let’s say, a play by David Henry Hwang? Or, what would be equally politically incorrect in 2013, a non-black cast in a play by August Wilson?

As I noted in my Encyclopedia of the New York Stage: 1930-1940,  AWAKE AND SING, whose title comes from a passage in Isaiah 26:19, “Awake and sing, ye that dwell in dust,” is a propagandistically inclined work in its implied criticism of the capitalist system and its depiction of the problems of Jewish assimilation to an alien culture, but its success has long been attributed to the rich humanity of its characters. It is set among the squabbling members of the Berger family, a poor three-generation tenement household beset by the typical economic problems associated with the times. Hennie Berger (Teresa Avia Lim) loves disillusioned, one-legged racketeer and WW I vet Moe Axelrod (Sanjit De Silva), although she’s married to the pathetic Sam Feinschreiber (David Shih); the marriage was arranged for the sake of the family’s reputation by Hennie’s demanding mother, Bessie (Mia Katigbak), because of Hennie’s pregnancy by an unnamed lover. The kindly, cultured grandfather, Jacob (Alok Tewari), a Marxist barber, is opposed to the couple’s hypocritical nuptials. Hennie eventually runs off to live with Moe. Another thread follows the problems of the rebellious young son, Ralph (Mr. Schneider), whose romance with a poor orphan girl is frowned on by Bessie. He, too, finds sympathy from the old man, who always reminds him that “life isn’t found on dollar bills.” Toward the end, Jacob kills himself so Ralph can inherit his insurance money and awake and sing.

This is a difficult play to cast even with actors whose ethnicity matches that of the characters, but the NAATCO’s troupers do a strong job of confronting the problems. Rather than transpose the play into a world less specifically 1930s Bronx-Jewish, director Stephen Fried has had his company strive to snare that world’s behavioral and speech patterns. While some are more successful than others, they nonetheless offer a no-frills reading of the play that communicates in terms that are never less than clear and compelling. Unlike the 2006 Broadway revival, with its technically complex scenic conceit, this low-rent version's set is perfectly acceptable: the audience of around 50 sits on either side of the rectilinear space, with a bedroom behind the wall at one end, and the kitchen and other rooms offstage behind an archway at the other. The action takes place around the dining room table and on some living room furniture. Furthering the general feeling of authenticity are Moria Sine Clinton's period costumes. 

Sanjit De Silva makes a handsome and believable Moe, although he tends to push too hard for such a tiny space. His limp, too, could be more consistent. Mia Katigbak is a convincing Bessie, a struggling housewife wanting to do what she thinks is best for her family yet forced into actions that sometimes make her a monster. Jon Norman Schneider’s Ralph, while not as charismatic as actors who have played the role before (John Garfield originated it), is earnest and sincere, while Teresa Avia Lim’s Hennie is attractive in an everyday way and her responses to the world in which she is trapped are always credible. Alok Tewari’s grandfather, who uses a slight Yiddish accent, seems a trifle young for the part, even with his gray beard, while Andrew Ramcharan Guilarte overdoes some of Uncle Morty’s mannerisms. Henry Yuk offers a sympathetic Myron, Bessie’s pliable husband, but David Shih’s Yiddish-accented schlemiel of a Sam Feinschreiber comes off too much like a refugee from FIDDLER ON THE ROOF.

The nontraditional casting of this AWAKE AND SING demonstrates that the play remains strong and worthy of revival, regardless of its actors’ backgrounds, and also that the NAATCO has the talent and imagination to step out of the box and undertake revivals that expand their artistic vistas. Dumplings and kreplach can make beautiful theatre together.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

81. Review of THE CHEATERS CLUB (August 25, 2013)



Back in 2006 my family and I took a cruise ship vacation to Mexico. On the way it stopped at Key West where we joined one of those haunted house tours. These take you to sites associated with notorious deaths while the tour guide asks if you see any “orbs” floating around in your photos; these supposedly are nearby wandering souls. For months after that we thought we saw orbs in many pictures we took; more likely, they were created by lens dust. Derek Ahonen’s new play, THE CHEATERS CLUB, produced by the Amoralists at the Abrons Arts Center (at the venerable Henry Street Settlement), uses such a tour to bookend a Southern Gothic story of ghosts and spirit possession in the city of Savannah, Georgia. Like many old southern cities, Savannah does a flourishing trade trying to scare out-of-towners to death.

Henry Street Settlement, Henry Dejur Theatre, Grand Street.
            The program notes discuss a particular night that allegedly occurs in Savannah every 333 years. The night is called Geist Übernachtung and “the last documented occurrence . . . was in the year 1680,” which would make 2013 the year the next one would appear. I can’t vouch for the authenticity of this story, since the Internet fails to list a single mention of Geist Übernachtung. It does state, though, that Savannah is “America’s most haunted city,” and the names of numerous ghost tours available there are listed. So it’s likely that Geist Übernachtung, which probably means something like “overnight with ghosts,” is the playwright’s concoction, designed to support his freewheeling and absurd (but not absurdist) plot. According to his notes, the legend of Geist Übernachtung  holds that on this night “the barriers between the natural and supernatural worlds are temporarily dissolved and the disembodied spirits of the wandering dead may easily cross back into the realm of the living.” This allows for situations that involve spirits taking possession of anyone, dead or alive, if a medium performs the proper rituals.

Left to right: Bryan Anthony, Matthew Pilieci, Jordan Tisdale, David Nash (at rear), Sarah Lemp, and Kelley Swindell. Photo: Russ Rowland.

            Much of the auditorium seating is unused, probably so the empty seats (mostly in the side sections) are covered with cheesy cobwebs like those you see decorating houses on Halloween. The conventional proscenium stage is provided with a red curtain, hiding the scenery until the play proper begins. In a sort of prologue played in the auditorium and before the curtain, a Mephistophelian tour guide, Vladimir Anton (Zen Mansley), introduces us and two corny tourists (Janette Johnston and David Lanson) to the local ghostly lore, but even before the curtain rises we get a taste of how the play will try to blend farce and spookiness when the flamboyantly theatrical Vladimir refers to his landmark Off-Broadway production of a  one-man "kabuki UNCLE VANYA," signaled by karate chops. This kabuki UNCLE VANYA, unfortunately, becomes a running gag almost whenever Vladimir is on stage. (There’s a similarly misguided kabuki-karate conflation in AVI HOFFMAN’S STILL JEWISH AFTER ALL THESE YEARS.)

            When, at last, the curtain rises, we see Alfred Schatz's rather elaborate, if clumsy and not particularly attractive setting, of a hotel, with a small lobby area down right, the hotel’s saloon occupying most of stage left, and three bedrooms on a second level joined by an outside corridor. The rooms (as well as the lobby) have front walls covered in scrim so that lighting makes them either transparent or opaque. (If you’ve ever seen pictures or a production of DESIRE UNDER THE ELMS, you’ll have an idea of what the bedrooms over the saloon look like.) Scenes played in and near the stage left bedroom are partly blocked by poor sight lines, and I was seated dead center. These facilities will be used by a band of four talkative tourists from New York, three of them siblings: a brashly profane guy, Tommy (Matthew Pilieci), his gay brother, Jimmy (Byron Anthony), and their foxy sister, Cathy (Cassandra Paras). The quartet is rounded out by their somewhat shy black friend, Vonn (Jordan Tisdale), a newcomer to the siblings' Cheaters Club, so-called since each is married and they’ve come to Savannah on an annual pilgrimage (a different city every year) to engage in extramarital dalliances. Soon enough, they encounter the Chaney family, headed by Mama (Sarah Lemp), the proprietor of the Chaney Inn, a good-looking, speed-talking, garrulous middle-aged Southern belle with a Georgia accent as thick as Spanish moss. Then there are her seemingly catatonic son and assistant, Lee (James Rees), whose Lurch-like behavior inexplicably vanishes as the play progresses; her other son, the straight-faced gay bartender Lawrence (David Nash); and her daughter, the sexy barmaid cum cabaret singer Lana (Kelley Swindell). Nor must we forget the hotel’s domestic, a voodoo woman named Ola May (Serena Miller), who figures significantly later on. Lots of townspeople walk by or frequent the bar. The number of characters (leads and supporting) who scream their lines, use vulgar language, or behave obnoxiously makes one wonder if they haven’t been taking lessons from the cast of SCARCITY, which I saw the day before.

            Terrible things happen to the Cheaters Club members in the first act. In act two of this two-and-a-half-hour effort (and I do mean effort, for both those on stage and those in the audience), the club members’ spouses come down from New York to find out what happened to their loved ones. These additional instruments in the orchestra of blaring caricatures are Jimmy’s wife, Susan (Vanessa Vaché); Cathy’s husband, Pat (Wade Dunham); Jimmy’s husband, Charlie (James Kautz); and Vonn’s white wife, Linda (Anna Stromberg). By the end of the play we will have had lots of lightning and thunder effects, lamps flashing on and off, smoke and green lights, strobes, furniture bobbing up and down, an open tomb from which multiple corpses are removed, spirit possession, resurrections, and bundles of exposition to help clarify the muddy complications of Mr. Ahonen’s bloated plot. (The elaborate lighting is by Brad Peterson and the eerie sound effects and original music by Phil Carluzzo. Niiamar Felder is responsible for the many costumes.)  

            A great deal of work has gone into THE CHEATERS CLUB, which Mr. Ahonen also directed, but its exaggerated style and complete lack of nuance grow increasingly hard to take, and, for all the hoary thrill-house effects, the only fear one feels is that this exercise will never end. Despite the play’s title, the Amoralists have not cheated when it comes to casting, and no one appears to double in any roles. The most memorable moment comes during the curtain call when the 26-member cast lines up across the stage on both levels. It was memorable as well because it meant the show was over.

Friday, August 23, 2013

80. Review of HARBOR (August 23, 2013)



As entertaining in a familiar way as is Chad Beguelin’s new dramedy, HARBOR, at 59E59, it only occasionally rings true, and seems uncomfortably close to being a sit-com setup.  Its plot concerns a gay couple living seemingly perfect lives (including a hyphenated last name) in an upscale Long Island town when they are disrupted by unexpected interlopers. (It’s another example of THE MAN WHO CAME TO DINNER syndrome, seen earlier this season in ME AND JEZEBEL.) Kevin (Randy Harrison), who has been trying for ten years to write a novel but struggles even to write a promotional brochure, lives with his husband, Ted (Paul Anthony Stewart), in a “birthday cake” of a house in beautiful Sag Harbor on the North Shore. Ted is a successful architect, although his business has been off recently, and it is his money (whose color is replicated on the walls of their tastefully appointed living room, designed by Andrew Jackness) that keeps Kevin free to imagine he’ll one day succeed at finishing his book. Ted controls the purse strings and also the aspirations of the docile Kevin, who discovers in the course of the play a yearning he never fully realized was there.
Left to right: Erin Cummings, Randy Harrison, Paul Anthony Stewart, Alexis Molnar. Photo: Carol Rosegg

            This discovery is precipitated by the surprise appearance of Kevin’s promiscuous, white-trash sister, Donna (Erin Cummings), a dyed redhead in skintight, rocker-type duds (thanks to costume designer Candice Donnelly), who drives up one summer day in an old van accompanied by her precocious 15-year-old daughter, Lottie (Alexis Molnar), a kid whose current reading is Edith Wharton’s HOUSE OF MIRTH. Lottie lives in the van with her mother; as she says, her broad knowledge of literature and life is the result not of home schooling but of “van schooling.” Donna’s feeble attempts to talk like a hip teen, such as using the word “biatch,” are constantly ridiculed by her embarrassed daughter. These “semi-homeless” wanderers show up because Donna is pregnant and, as eventually revealed, wants Kevin and Ted to adopt the baby, who she feels totally incapable of raising. She also hopes to get a gig as a $30,000 a year singer on a cruise ship, a dream as unlikely to occur as her brother’s finishing his novel.

            The kicker is that Ted is totally, unequivocally opposed to having kids, whom he views as Petri-dish breeding grounds for biological disaster, while Kevin finds that he has an inner longing to be a daddy (actually, he says, a mommy), and the manipulative Donna uses all her cunning to fan whatever sparks the dilemma has created. At the same time, the tension between Donna and Lottie, who desperately wants a chance at a “normal” life, grows more intense, especially after Ted discovers an unforeseen fondness for this teenage whiz kid (Donna says, “She’s like Asian smart”); he even tracks down the phone number of the father she’s never met in Champagne-Urbana, Illinois, spurring a phone call by Lottie that provides the two-hour play’s most touching moment.

            The problem of gay couples adopting a child is often in the news, but, as depicted here, Kevin and Ted’s response to the issue is not much different from how a straight couple with opposite views might react to the same situation. What differs is the opportunity it gives the playwright for some brutally cutting sarcasm (mainly from Ted) at the expense of privileged straight parents and their obsessive preoccupation with the specialness of their babies; that is something he believes he and Kevin will, thankfully, never have to deal with as they spend their time living the good life of travel and good booze. 

            Chad Beguelin’s dialogue is shot through with conventional gay-inflected lines, some it self-deprecating, hardly any of it surprising. Because Donna is so outspoken, she thinks little of making tasteless wisecracks about gay sex.  It is Lottie, however, who refers to the town where Kevin and Ted live as “Fag Harbor.” Yikes. People often spout lines that seem to come from the writer’s need to slide in a zinger at regular intervals; many come off as anything-for-a-laugh attempts rather than organic comments grounded in character and situation. Ted, telling Kevin he’ll never succeed at being a writer, says of Kevin’s work-in-progress: “A cookbook by Hitler would have a better chance.” Or, in a line you might expect to hear on the Borscht Belt, teenager Lottie remarks: “I’ve seen so many assholes I could be a proctologist.”  Donna, who can be verbally deft, can also display unconvincing ignorance, as when she remarks that she used to think a misogynist was someone who gave massages. Da da boom. And I wonder how many people get some of the dated references, such as the one to Charles Nelson Reilly. Weed (which Donna is somehow able to afford despite being broke) and alcohol help spur much of the talk.

The situations often seem contrived merely to motivate a confrontation, and arguments sometimes spring up like Jack-in-the-boxes when there’s a need to step on the playwriting gas. The light comedy atmosphere of the first act morphs into more serious territory in act two, especially after Ted makes clear just how immature and dependent on him he thinks Kevin is, and there is an interesting conflation of issues at the end that is resolved by the play’s sole surprising twist, which may or not convince you.

HARBOR is effectively staged by the dependable Mark Lamos, and most of the performances are lively and well-honed, although I thought Randy Harrison (of TV’s “Queer as Folks”) on the bland side. The technical components of scenery, lighting (Japhy Weideman), costumes, and sound (John Gromada) do what they need to, and the overall production is of high quality. HARBOR will entertain you, but, even if you've never been to Sag Harbor, you may nonetheless feel you’ve been here before.

Thursday, August 22, 2013




Having been barely impressed last week at the program of three one-acts called SUMMER SHORTS SERIES B, I returned to the fray at 59E59 hoping that SUMMER SHORTS SERIES A would be a step up from B’s middling offerings. As a program, A did prove slightly superior; it's still middling, just a higher grade of middling. 

            Best of the night is the first piece, “GOOD LUCK (IN FARSI),” written and directed by Neil LaBute, which should have an afterlife as acting class material because it gives two actresses a great chance to show off their comedic skills. The scene is an audition room where two stunners are preparing to try out for the role of a beautiful CIA operative on a new TV series. As played by Elizabeth Masucci, Paige is a brunette knockout with her hair demurely coiffed in a bun, but with a sensational body topped by an impressive rack whose advantages and disadvantages she considers. She has an experiential edge over the other actress, Kate (Gia Crovatin), in that she once appeared in a flop series that filmed six episodes, only several of which actually aired. Kate, who reminds the woman (Molly Logan Chase) managing the audition that it’s “Kate with a T,” is a statuesque blonde, with an equally smokin’ body (displayed in a skintight, blue mini-dress that shouts, "look at me!") but with less happening in the thoracic department. Not to worry, since the escalating rivalry between the actresses leads to a moment when Kate is alone and, helped by a LaBute sight gag, puts mum to the mammary competition.

            The actresses are desperately eager to get the job, but while both are shallow airheads (neither can figure out how much half of one half is), they are keenly aware of the need to find an edge over the competition; this inspires a series of amusingly bitchy maneuvers by each to befriend the other while simultaneously digging their grave. One involves the need to speak some lines in Farsi, which Kate claims to have studied with the help of Rosetta Stone; she generously offers to help Paige read the Farsi dialogue ("the key to Farsi is spit"), her intention, of course, being to sabotage Paige’s audition. She therefore writes out nonsense words that the gullible Paige comically struggles to practice before she enters the audition room and meets her doom.  

            There are some genuine laughs here, and both actresses combine sensational looks with waggish skills that make this fast-paced, upbeat work both fun to look at as well as hear. I especially liked a sequence when the women discuss how ordinary-looking parents can produce beautiful offspring (both women love talking about how gorgeous they are and how it can be a drawback). Kate says at one point, talking about her parents, that "there's something about the two of them together and here I am--BAM!"  LaBute’s satiric take on the place of beauty in our culture and entertainment retains his well-known sharpness. I’m aware that some feminist critics complain about his misogyny, but I've always found him an equal opportunity satirist.

            The balmy comic air of "GOOD LUCK (IN FARSI)" grows a tad heavier in Lucas Hnath’s "ABOUT A WOMAN NAMED SARAH," a snarky shot at Sarah Palin’s expense, directed by Eric Hoff, in which she is shown being considered as John McCain’s 2008 running mate. It's divided into four scenes set at McCain’s Arizona ranch, one between McCain (Mark Elliot Wilson) and Sarah (Marisa Viola); the next between McCain and his wife, Cindy (Stephanie Cannon); the next between Cindy  and Sarah; and the last between Sarah and her husband, Todd. During her interviews, Sarah learns that she is the only option McCain has as everyone else has turned down the offer, she being eighth on the list; no offer has been made to Mitt Romney because McCain thinks him "a shitty person" and
"too douchey.” Cindy strongly objects to Sarah being selected, telling McCain he'll look stupid next to her, but he goes ahead and offers her the job. The commonsensical Todd, thinking she has no idea of what she’ll be getting into, tries to dissuade her, but she is too determined to make something special out of her life, and resists his arguments, including his insistence that she’ll make a fool of herself: she reassures him that she’ll have flashcards.

            Much of the dialogue is written in short and disconnected sentence fragments delivered in a dryly staccato manner constantly interrupted the crack of a clapper, which, because it has no apparent meaning (like the buzzing in David Ives's ALL IN THE TIMING), gradually becomes very annoying. It almost seems that this is a performance choice dictated by a desire to somehow make the deliberately banal dialogue take on an air of satiric significance, but the play offers little more than something Palin haters will adore as one more chance to slap her around; it certainly offers few ironically enlightening insights into her personality. None of the actors does anything to overtly impersonate the real people they’re playing; McCain is performed by a distinguished-looking actor with a full head of silver hair, the striking Cindy by an actress whose similarity to the original is simply that she’s blonde, and Todd by a young man with a mustache. Since Marisa Viola's Sarah doesn’t copy her distinctive speech patterns, the piece misses the yeast that made Tina Fey’s characterizations rise to the heights of hilarity on SNL. Anyone who saw Fey (or even Julianne Moore’s more realistic impersonation in GAME CHANGE) will realize that nothing can ever replace those unforgettable replications, or, even more, the thing itself; that, on its own, is its most ridiculously funny iteration.

            Following the intermission comes the heavy air of “BREAKING THE SPELL.” Since this painfully unfunny piece of fairytale folderol, filled with linguistic and physical nonsequitors, and based on the sleeping beauty story, is by the redoubtable Tina Howe, I must fight the impulse to dismiss it out of hand. Ms. Howe is so talented and the play so bad, I take responsibility for missing whatever values it presumably has, risible or otherwise, but I do wonder whether, had it come from a less respected author, it would have been inflicted on an audience at 59E59.

            Michael Countryman plays the King, whose daughter Christabel (Crystal Finn) is under a curse that has kept her sleeping for 100 years. He’s tried everything to wake her, including having her kissed by thousands of princes, princesses, and assorted oddballs. She lies there, partly hidden, on a stage whose shabby white draperies are supposed to represent cobwebs, while he and his gibberish-spouting Poor Wretched Fool (Evan Shinners) ponder their dilemma as the deadline for waking her comes ever closer. The hapless monarch gets the idea to try music, and soon we have a Scottish-accented, jazz-playing sax player (Jesse Scheinen); a German pianist who offers a Bach concert (Mr. Shinners); and an accordion-playing  California dude from Marin County. At one point we get a cacophony of sound as hard to listen to as the dialogue of this would-be farce. Finally the princess awakens, struggles with her balance and use of language, and rediscovers happiness.

I envy those who actually found something to laugh at in this childish effort; it would have made the time pass faster.  “BREAKING THE SPELL” should be put to sleep for 100 years.
             George Xenos designed each of the simple settings, the serviceable lighting is by Greg MacPherson, the low-budget but appropriate costumes by Sandra Alexandre, and the sound design by Marios Aristopoulous. Score: A- for "GOOD LUCK (IN FARSI)," C+ for "A WOMAN NAMED SARAH," and F for "BREAKING THE SPELL."

Tuesday, August 20, 2013



With two days off between shows, I spent the time with my wife, Marcia, and a female guest, at my weekend house in the Poconos, writing, going to the movies (20 STEPS FROM STARDOM and LEE DANIELS’ THE BUTLER), and eating out. We also spent Monday evening at the Mount Airy Casino and Resort for some low-level gambling. I’m not especially crazy about blowing my dough at the casino, but Marcia and our guest like to play Spanish 21, so while Marcia spent an hour and a half winning $10, and our guest lost $70, I occupied myself at the mindless Wheel of Fortune, losing $60. After hitting my limit while the women were still playing, I sat at an empty stool to watch their game.

A nice-looking young gaming table supervisor with a name tag saying “Robert” (I’ve changed his name), wearing a suit and tie, and sporting a Buffalo Bill goatee and mustache,  saw the pendant I wear around my neck and asked me what it was. I explained that it was an 1878 silver dollar; noting his facial hair, I added that it was much like what Buffalo Bill would have handled back in the day. He thought the reference amusing and asked, “Are you a coin collector?” “No,” I said, “but I used to wear an 18th or 19th-century gold Japanese coin that I lost in Italy a couple of years ago and I wanted something to replace it so my wife, who had one of these stashed away, gave it to me.” He was curious about the Japanese coin, and asked what it looked like. I made an oblong shape with my fingers, to which he responded, “A koban?” Now, this is something only someone fairly knowledgeable about coins or Japanese culture would know, so I asked how he came by this information. He said his wife was Japanese, and pointed her out.  I gazed down a row of empty tables—it was Monday night and business was slow—and could just barely see two Asian women standing at gaming tables. Robert's wife, the second one, was running a blackjack game; she was a croupier. I was pretty amazed because, while you see many Chinese and Korean folks in the Poconos and, especially, at the casino, finding a Japanese up here is as likely as hitting a jackpot. Just as everywhere else on the East Coast, even the Japanese restaurants don’t have Japanese workers. So, as someone with a special interest in Japan, I was intrigued not merely to run into someone Japanese but to find her working the tables at Mt. Airy. In Japan, land of group conformity, they say the nail that stands up must be struck down. No hammer seemed about to hit this nail.

Robert said he’d met her at Mohawk Valley Community College in upstate New York, that her name was Miyako (name changed), and that he’d lived with her in Japan for a time. I told him I was a specialist in Japanese theatre and, seemingly taken aback, he said, “Kabuki?” Bingo. Again, this is not something the average table supervisor (or whatever they’re called) would have known. He hadn’t actually been to a live performance in Japan, but had seen kabuki on TV and was very interested in it. I told him I’d written many books on it, which also seemed a big surprise. I asked if he knew any Japanese and he proudly used the basic words you say when you meet someone. I answered back to show (off) my credentials, and then gave him my card, which is decorated with a Japanese woodblock print showing a kabuki actor’s face. I explained the makeup to him, and he noted that he had a kabuki mask with makeup like this. (Kabuki itself rarely uses masks, but you can buy souvenir masks that have kabuki makeup painted on them.)   

Marcia had finished her game and was getting up to cash in her chips. I told Robert I would offer my greetings to Miyako, and walked to her table, waiting until she’d finished raking in the cards from the hand she’d just dealt. Speaking Japanese, I shouted out, to the dismay, annoyance, or shock of the assembled gamblers, “Miyako-san. My name is Leiter. I’m Robert’s very good friend. His really good friend. Please accept my best wishes.” She looked momentarily stunned and smiled, and then I rejoined Marcia, who had cashed in her windfall of a sawbuck.

But she wasn’t quite ready to leave, since she was up for the night and I’d lost only $60, leaving us a mere $50 in the hole. Now it was time to blow another $20 or $40 on the slots, so we marched around until she found a friendly-looking two cent machine. “Come on,” I said sourly, “you’re only going to waste more money. Let’s leave while we’re ahead. These machines barely pay anything.” “I’m not going to spend much, but I can’t leave without trying,” she answered. So, while her friend went to the ladies’ room, Marcia began to play. About one minute in, the machine lit up brightly with three columns of two corns each, and the numbers declaring her winnings started to mount, looking like they’d never stop. We couldn’t figure out what the three rows of double corns meant on the face of the machine, so we had to wait until the rapidly changing electronic numbers ceased rising and the bells and whistles stopped belling and whistling. When they did, they came to a grand total of $91 and change. Woo hoo! We’re perpetual losers, so this humongous total seemed like manna from heaven. When Marcia’s friend returned I gave her 40 lashes for not being there when we broke the bank. We left the joint having covered my losses and with a few greenbacks to spare. We had put a dent (actually, a scratch) on our overall wagering losses, and felt like we’d won a million.

Later that night, back at the house, I got a Facebook friend request. When I checked, I realized it was Robert from the casino, but with a different name. There, indeed, on his profile picture, was the mask he’d mentioned. I confirmed his request and sent him a message telling him to read my blogs. Now I have a FB friend who’s a table supervisor at a major casino, not someone I’m likely to have met in the ordinary course of events (what is the ordinary course of events?) I’m sure I’ll never recoup the money I’ve lost at Mt. Airy, but yesterday, Mt. Airy paid off, and not just in cash.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

78. Review of LET IT BE (August 18, 2013)

 If you ever wondered whatever happened to those screaming American teenagers who can be seen fainting and hyperventilating in old clips of the Beatles at their 1965 Shea Stadium concert wonder no more. They’re in the audience at LET IT BE, the latest Beatles tribute concert on Broadway (it debuted last year in London), following BEATLEMANIA (1977) and RAIN (2011), shaking their booties, a word that didn’t exist back in the day (at least not these kinds of booties), and acting for all the world as if they were in the presence of the actual John, Paul, George, and Ringo. Actually, I’m exaggerating just a bit, since the kids of 1965 would now be in their early to mid-60s and the more exhibitionist members of the beatlemaniac pack at the St. James are maybe 10 or 15 years younger, and were probably infants when the Beatles arrived on these shores. Nonetheless, there were plenty of people in their 60s and older standing and waving and shouting and jiggling and singing along during the two acts of LET IT BE, and I myself, staid keeper of these records, had to stand a few times just so I could see what was happening on stage.

St. James Theatre, W. 44th Street.

            My introduction to the Beatles came while I was in graduate school at the University of Hawaii in 1963, when I wandered into a record store in Honolulu’s Ala Moana shopping center. There, piled on tables at the front of the store, were recordings of this latest British boy band, with likenesses of their mop headed faces, attached to cardboard posters, bouncing around on springs. In a flash, their music was everywhere, and it became impossible to ignore them, even though I took a little longer than most to become a follower. My son Justin, on the other hand, born in 1967, grew up to become a Beatlemaniac, collecting every bootleg concert and studio recording he could get his hands on and reading every book and article on the Fab Four, to where he knew every published detail about their lives and music (much as he also does about Queen). So he was my guest at today’s performance, and my expert advisor on the authenticity of what he saw and heard.

            Both of us agreed that the only performer who looked and sounded most like the Beatle he was playing was Graham Alexander, a terrific 23-year-old who won a Drama Desk Award for his work in RAIN. Justin noted the physical disparity among the members of the quartet, saying the original band members were all about the same size. And we shared the opinion that the actor playing the quiet one, George Harrison, was the least charismatic, although he did a rousing cover of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.” (It’s really hard to comprehend how many brilliantly memorable songs these guys created.) The others, Ryan Coath as John Lennon and Chris McBurney as Ringo, were fine, although McBurney bears absolutely no resemblance to the famous drummer. Justin, who has seen many other tribute bands do the Beatles, had no serious qualms about the singing, which he felt was close enough to the great Liverpudlians to carry the music. I learned afterward that the cast rotates with other performers, so the cast I saw may not be the one you see if you go. I also should note that none of the actors is credited with a named role, nor are the names John, Paul, George, and Ringo even mentioned in the show; instead, the Playbill lists their roles as “Musician,” probably because of some legal technicality. As has been reported in recent months, the producers of the RAIN have been suing LET IT BE for some sort of copyright infringement, so perhaps there’s some connection.

            Apart from the opportunity to hear 40 great Beatles’ tunes, the show itself is not especially exciting, despite a hyped-up Broadway audience that would have stayed well past the final curtain to hear their favorite songs. They came to see a Beatles concert, not KING LEAR, and they floated out as if they’d just been on a real-life magical mystery tour.

The curtain is decorated with huge old-fashioned TV sets and a radio dial, with video images being played on the screens showing old news clips, commercials (including cigarette spots later in the show), Beatles questions, and the like. When it rises we’re in The Cavern, Liverpool, and the young Beatles begin rocking through one up-tempo, foot-stomping, over-amped, lyric-swallowing number after another; finally, we get to that gorgeous ballad “Yesterday,” which sounds even better coming as it does after so many hard-rocking songs. Apart from ersatz voiceovers copying old broadcast interview comments and other remarks (including a poor imitation of Ed Sullivan), there’s very little narrative or dialogue to explain the context of the leaps forward in time that take us on a trip through the group’s musical history; the changes in music, matched by changes in costuming, facial hair and wigs (much too phony), are only roughly chronological, and Justin pointed out numbers that had come earlier than the period in which the show placed them. The expected milestones are dutifully recreated, including the band’s appearance on Ed Sullivan, their enormous concert at Shea Stadium, their HARD DAY’S NIGHT movie, their “Sergeant Pepper” album (with its outlandish silk costumes), and finishing with “Abbey Road.” All is played against a simple environment of brick side and back walls, with loads of projections, videos, and lighting effects that grow increasingly more complex as the show proceeds, including psychedelic images that cover the entire inside of the theatre.

The audience either already possesses whatever Beatles history it needs to know, or, more likely, couldn’t care less as long as they can drown in the sounds and experience the evolving styles for which this astonishing band was responsible. This becomes particularly evident in act two, when the rock and roll of act one morphs into the more adventurous and revolutionary music introduced, according to Justin, on the “Revolver” album, and then influenced by the hippie, antiwar, and drug taking activities of the late 60s. The audience’s enthusiasm increasingly appeared to be manipulated by Gareth Owens’s sound design of raucous fan reactions played over the loudspeakers and blending with the sound of the live audience’s own noisy responses. I had fun watching the not-so-young spectators jumping up and down and dancing in the aisles and side balconies as if they were not at a Broadway theatre but at MSG or any other giant concert venue. When the show proper ended, the house lights remained dim as the audience clamored for encores, and, of course, after a suitable hiatus, the boys came back and gave us “Give Peace a Chance,” “Let It Be,” and “Hey, Jude.” And still the fans demanded more.

This is a show mainly for Beatles fans, tourists, and nostalgia geeks. It’s conventional, has nothing new to offer, and is merely an excuse for revisiting one of the greatest bands of all time in the person of wax statues that have come to life, but necessarily lack the heart and soul of those they represent. I was very happy that my Beatlemaniac son had a chance to enjoy it, despite some minor cavils; had he not been such an avid fan, I might just have let it be.    



Last season, as in seasons past, plays and musicals with Jewish themes seemed to be opening every week, often piggybacking one another, as if to belie those who claim the middle-class New York Jewish audience is shrinking. If the abundance of such shows is to be believed, that audience has never vanished, even though the effects of the influx of ultraorthodox Jews into neighborhoods traditionally more secular isn’t noticeable at most presentations, since many in that demographic are not typically known for attending events at which the men and women sit together.  Still, the past week alone has provided three Jewish-themed shows: first, there was SOUL DOCTOR, about Shlomo Carlebach, the rock and roll rabbi; then came FIRST DATE, in which a shiksa’s revelation to a nice Jewish boy that she’s not Jewish sparks a production number by a chorus of Hasidim; and, finally, there was  the show whose logorrheic title headlines these comments.
Stage 2/Triad Theatre, 158 W. 72nd St., near Broadway.

            Avi Hoffman, a balding, cherubic, paunchy actor-singer of 55 has made most of his career out of playing Jewish characters in plays and on TV (he now has a recurring role as a Jewish lawyer on MAGIC CITY), and has done two earlier solo shows, neither of which I saw, about the intersection between Judaism and his profession. The first two, in the 90s, were AVI HOFFMAN’S TOO JEWISH? and AVI HOFFMAN’S TOO JEWISH TWO, both of which were widely and frequently performed, including being shown on PBS. His latest venture in this category, AVI HOFFMAN’S STILL JEWISH AFTER ALL THESE YEARS, which comes 15 years after its predecessor, is being given above a Turkish restaurant in the intimate, boite-like (you sit at little tables on chairs or sofas), second-floor venue at Stage 2/Triad Theatre. Here, the Bronx-born Mr. Hoffman (who lived in Israel from 1969 to 1977), assisted by the talented pianist Michael Larsen, runs through the highlights of his stage life in 95 intermissionless minutes, singing lots of songs, doing impressions of a few famous Jewish comics, telling corny jokes, and talking about his holocaust survivor parents, who had successful non-show business careers after emigrating to America. Dressed in a suit and tie (patterned with large stars of David), he begins by shaking hands with the audience as he sings Alan Sherman’s pastiche of Ireland’s “Dear Old Donegal,” the one that goes, “Shake hands with your Uncle Mike, my boy,” but with all the Irish names changed to Jewish ones:

Merowitz, Berowitz, Handelman, Schandelman
Sperber and Gerber and Steiner and Stone
Boskowitz, Lubowitz, Aaronson, Baronson,
Kleinman and Feinman and Freidman and Cohen

Smallowitz, Wallowitz, Tidelbaum, Mandelbaum
Levin, Levinsky, Levine and Levi
Brumburger, Schlumburger, Minkus and Pinkus
And Stein with an "e-I" and Styne with a "why"

To celebrate the music of his youth, Mr. Hoffman offers an extended homage to fellow Jews Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, and Billy Joel (with no mention of Carole King, Neil Diamond, etc.), singing his heart out on songs like “Blowing in the Wind,” “Still Crazy after All These Years,” and “A New York State of Mind,” in each of which he opts for belting and histrionics over subtlety and simplicity: can karaoke be far behind? He offers a momentary, spot-on impression of Jackie Mason, but doing 10 or 12 minutes of a Menasha Skulnik imitation in 2013 suggests that Mr. Hoffman’s brand of nostalgia is a bit long in the tooth and expects his audience to be likewise (which, judging by those in attendance when I went, is a fair enough assumption).  

Aside from the intrusion of his more personal experiences (especially his father’s death), the material is primarily about how Mr. Hoffman’s career developed from his preschool years on, with dozens of slides showing him in his many performances, along with images of his family and the like. There is some fairly rich material about his Yiddish theatre experiences and his important encounter with producer Joe Papp (né Papirofsky), and the show is filled with Yiddish bits and pieces, all of them instantly translated by Mr. Hoffman (even when not necessary), since Yiddish is actually Mr. Hoffman’s first language (his mother is a professor of Yiddish).

            Mr. Hoffman works very hard at being ingratiating, since the show is really not much more than a “and then I acted in” brag book of theatrical achievements, and he will have to win you over if the show is not to appear overly solipsistic. That he succeeds only in part is largely because this is an artery-clogging corned beef sandwich of a show, definitely needing some of the fat trimmed off. We learn not only about his career highs (each advance being introduced by “and then I got the call”), but also the lows, when he was in a flop or jobs were not coming in, and when he found himself going from being the “go-to guy” for Jewish characters to the “too Jewish” guy who considered changing his name so that he could find work in non-Jewish parts. (Note: He’ll be starring locally in the first Yiddish production of WAITING FOR GODOT, opening in late October.) Near the end, when you think the show has reached its end, he launches into a 10-minute overview of his more recent activity, during which he sometimes managed to get cast in gentile roles, with projections identifying his shows as he offers songs and acted scenes intended to display his acting chops. Thus we witness bits and pieces from regional stagings of CHICAGO, HAIRSPRAY, SUPERIOR DONUTS, THE QUARREL, FRANKIE AND JOHNNY IN THE CLAIR DE LUNE, JACQUES BREL . . . , CLOSER THAN EVER, THE ODD COUPLE, HELLO MUDDAH, HELLO FADDUH, and so on. The result, however, is like an extended ego trip cum audition.

Despite Mr. Hoffman’s references to his occasional hardships, the mood is mostly upbeat and pleasant. Nevertheless, for all the Yiddish jokes, the show biz references to famous Jewish entertainers, and the scenes and songs from shows like FIDDLER ON THE ROOF, the question of what being Jewish means to Mr. Hoffman is never addressed: it’s simply a given that, being Jewish, there are certain shared cultural experiences that a Jewish audience will appreciate and going any deeper into their meaning might only intrude on the fun. It might even be like ordering a glass of milk with your pastrami in a kosher restaurant—totally out of place. Still, it would have helped to avoid the impression of self-promotional superficiality that hangs dangerously over the show.

Last year, OLD JEWS TELLING JOKES turned out to be a hit among non-Jews as well as Jews despite its seemingly parochial material, so perhaps Mr. Hoffman’s show will likewise appeal across the ethnic divide. It does seem to hold more interest for older folks, like me, who get the references scattered throughout, like the connection between New York Jews and Miami; most people in the audience at the show I saw seemed of my generation, but I did wonder how much of the material was appreciated by a young Asian woman in the house.

Mr. Hoffman’s name in the title of this and his earlier one-man shows seems intended to make you suspect that he’s a big name you never heard of. Humility, however, in a show that actually projects images of the star’s reviews, or that, even in jest, allows its star to keep reminding the audience of how cute or handsome he once was, is not on this restaurant’s menu. But, if you're hungry, don't worry because, oy vey, what a shanda already, Mr. Hoffman sure serves up plenty of ham.


Friday, August 16, 2013

76. Review of FIRST DATE (August 15, 2013)



I haven’t had a first date since Eve asked me if I’d like to share an apple and a glass of cider in the local orchard, so the only way I was going to know if the new Broadway musical, FIRST DATE, at the Longacre, was anything like the real thing was if I went with someone actually in touch with the dating scene today. Consequently, my date was my beautiful 21-year-old granddaughter, Briar Autumn, who not only laughed loud and often, but also later declared that the show was certifiably on target when it came to reflecting the current dating game; she did wonder, though, whether an older generation would appreciate all the references; speaking for myself and not my fellow members in decrepitude, I answered in the affirmative. The rest of the audience was having such a terrific time that I began to overlook some of the show’s more clichéd and commonplace elements and let myself enjoy it for what it was.  

Longacre Theatre, on W. 48th Street.

            What was it? A musical sitcom (book by Austin Winsberg, a “Gossip Girls” writer), brightly staged by Bill Berry, about a shy, bespectacled Jewish guy named Aaron (Zachary Levi, of TV’s “Chuck”), bordering on nerdiness (funny but forced) and still recovering from being jilted at the altar by the seriously gorgeous (but horribly ball-busting) Allison (Kate Loprest, seriously gorgeous, and hopefully not ball-busting), who is fixed up on a blind date (his first ever) with his complete opposite, Casey (Krysta Rodriguez, of TV’s “Smash”). She's a cocky, artsy, miniskirted, downtown fox with a Chinese symbol tattooed on her wrist, a mouth butter wouldn’t melt in, and a thing for bad boys. She calls him a BDV (Blind Date Virgin) and he, suffering a serious lack of mouth control, responds by dubbing her a BDS (Blind Date Slut), among other unconvincing verbal gaffes he's prone to utter. Although the show begins with the ensemble singing “The One,” a satirical stab at online dating, Aaron and Casey’s get-together is the matchmaking brainchild of Casey’s happily married sister Lauren (Sarah Chase) from middle-class heaven in Westport, CT. Casey, however, despite her outward show of toughness and sarcasm, is really afraid of being hurt, so she affects a snarky attitude that belies her true nature; we eventually learn she’s a devotee of Eckhart Tolle. As the date nears its conclusion, following a chain of comical on-again off-again romantic developments, Aaron reveals a maddeningly contrived personal story about his mom (“The Things I Never Said”) that brings out Casey’s “sensitivity,” and pretty soon we’re headed for—surprise—a second date!

Zachary Levi and Krysta Rodriguez.

Left to right: Sara Chase, Kristoffer Cusick, Zachary Levi, Krysta Rodriguez, Blake Hammond, and Kate Loprest.

             Except for the final number outside a subway station, the entire date takes place in 95 intermissionless minutes set in a cool New York restaurant presided over by a comically wise, overweight gay waiter (Blake Hammond, very good). (You may recall that this is almost precisely the set up in FALLING SHORT, the first one-act in SUMMER SHORTS SERIES B on which I reported recently.) As the cynical Casey, an aspiring photographer, and the geekily clumsy Aaron (in corporate finance, investment counseling, etc.), stumblingly get to know each other, the waiter joins an ensemble of four others (most of whom play multiple roles) who periodically interrupt the proceedings to comment on them in often entertaining song and dance. For example, during an early conversation Aaron and Casey are discovering that they know a number of the same Jewish people ; suddenly, Casey drops the bombshell that she’s not Jewish and BANG!—everything stops, the lights change, and the ensemble dons Hasidic gear to launch into “The Girl for You,” a broadly farcical but groaningly familiar routine about what a horror it would be if Casey and Aaron married. Aaron’s dead grandma even joins to sing lyrics that shout, “Oy oy oy! This isn’t the girl for you. Oy oy oy! A goy a goy a goy.” And the confused son that Aaron and Casey might one day have makes an appearance, doing a hip-hop number wearing a thick gold chain with Jewish and Christian bling. It’s not Cole Porter but, let’s face it, many people (me, too, though not in this instance) sometimes find banality hilarious.
            Among the ensemble are two actors who appear as the inner voices of Casey and Aaron, interrupting them constantly to comment on their behavior during the date, which is filled with obvious missteps; most of the latter are artificial and improbable, but they serve well enough to spark some amusing reactions. One inner voice is that of Casey’s sister, Lauren, the other belongs to Aaron’s best friend, Gabe (Bryce Ryness). Another character threaded through the action is Casey’s flamingly gay BFF, Reggie (Kristoffer Cusick), whose cell phone calls to “bail out” Casey if the date is failing break into the action three times (two too many), and whose formulaic behavior and smarmy wisecracks become increasingly annoying. The trope of a single girl whose best buddy is a gay man is starting to wear thin. A recent example is another new musical, NOBODY LOES YOU. Briar assured me, by the way, that most of the first daters she knows often have a bail out caller lined up to help out in emergencies.

            However much they may have liked the show, I doubt few visitors will have walked out singing Alan Zachary and Michael Weiner’s songs, but during the show they work effectively to keep the laughter rolling. Each of the ensemble members gets to shine, and Blake Hammond’s waiter is even given a risible show stopper in the Jerry Herman vein, “I’d Order Love.”

           FIRST DATE is visually attractive, with a sparely designed set by David Gallo, expert lighting by Mike Baldassari that helps highlight the humor, and attractive costumes by David C. Woolard that perfectly characterize their wearers. There are also "media" designs, presumably the occasional projections, such as those of an animated Google page.
            Despite the commonplaces and overly familiar characters and situations, the show somehow manages to be diverting, for which a large part of the credit must go to its stars. Mr. Levi, far more attractive than the script would have you believe, is a tall, slim, charming, and comically adept actor-singer who, while not gifted with a big Broadway voice, performs with delectable timing and physical grace. Ms. Rodriguez works in perfect counterpoint to him, bringing sardonic bite to their repartee; she has a big sound and charismatic presence and is perfectly believable as the wound-up chick who, at first, would rather be anywhere else than on what she’s certain will be another blind date disaster. (Briar, by the way, thought Sara Chase had the best voice in the show.)

            This small-scale musical, which might have been better suited to an Off Broadway venue, won’t set the world on fire with its conventional plot and only sporadically catchy score, but it contains enough charm and humor, not to mention onstage talent, to make a date with it. A slap from the New York Times shouldn't stop you from meeting this piece of sass.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

75. Review of SOUL DOCTOR (August 13, 2013)



 I have to admit that when I saw the bio-musical SOUL DOCTOR at Off Broadway’s New York Theatre Workshop a year ago, I had no idea who its subject, Shlomo Carlebach (1925-1994), was. I did not know that he was the scion of a line of important German rabbis, or that his parents fled to the United States in 1938 (Shlomo himself actually arrived in 1939)  because of Nazi oppression, and that Shlomo not only became a respected orthodox rabbi himself but, despite the strong resistance of his extremely conservative parents and fellow religionists, developed into an international star singing Jewish-themed rock and roll songs of his own creation. Nor did I know that he had a close and influential friendship with black jazz singer Nina Simone, and also created his own hippie commune in San Francisco, The House of Love and Prayer. Friends and relatives who are more in touch with their cultural roots know much more about Shlomo Carlebach than I; only this past Sunday, while dining with cousins, one of them mentioned she had spent an evening with the man. In a Playbill interview, his daughter, Neshama, says: "People on the outside may not know who he was--but, in our world, my father was Elvis." After seeing SOUL DOCTOR in two versions, I'm no longer "on the outside," nor will many others be if the show sticks around.

Eric Anderson and Amber Iman in SOUL DOCTOR.

Eric Anderson.

Eric Anderson.

The Off Broadway production, while imperfect, was a mostly happy introduction to Shlomo’s life, personality, spirituality, and music. And it was graced with two outstanding performances, one by Eric Anderson as the bearded, guitar-playing "Singing Rabbi," and the other by Erica Ashe as Nina Simone. Before its Off Broadway production, it had spent years bouncing around in various incarnations; now, SOUL DOCTOR, advertised as the “journey of a Rockstar Rabbi,” has made it to Broadway’s Circle in the Square Theatre; I'm afraid, though, that something has been lost in transit. Mr. Anderson, who was nominated for a Drama Desk Award, is back, thankfully, as Shlomo, but Ms. Ashe has been replaced by Amber Iman. In fact, nearly the entire cast has been replaced, only Ryan Strand, as Shlomo’s Hasidic brother, Eli Chaim, and Diana Barger, a member of the ensemble, remaining. The show itself has undergone changes, and while I can’t easily document them, I do recall that the second act of the 2012 version depicted Shlomo’s marriage and its aftermath, which appears to have been cut entirely. It’s hard to say whether this is an improvement or not, but the show has created a tighter focus by bookending it with a performance by Shlomo in what the show claims to be his home town of Vienna, a locale that seems the result of dramatic license, since Shlomo was from Berlin and resided only briefly in Vienna in the early 1930s. In the opening scene, he is interrupted by his perpetual religious nemesis, Reb Pinchas (Ron Orbach), who criticizes him for being so callous as to return to and perform in a city that so mistreated the Jews during World War II. (The show says Shlomo was living in Vienna when he left for the U.S., but Wikipedia has him in Lithuania at the time.) To make the bookending work, the conclusion returns to Shlomo's big concert in Vienna, where his message of peace and love conquers all, and Reb Pinchas (a conflation of the forces opposing Shlomo) is silenced (to the applause of many in the audience).  

What hasn’t changed is the overall approach of Daniel Wise's book (he also directed), which, even at two and a half hours (with one intermission), rushes to squeeze in as much of the rabbi’s life as possible. We first see him as child, witnessing a vicious Nazi officer shooting a joyful Hasidic man for singing in the street; then as a young man in New York (with no indication of what he or his family endured to get here). His once authoritative father is reduced to overseeing a dwindling congregation (it was on W. 79th Street), and Shlomo’s efforts to bring his musical gifts to the services as a way of inducing more secular Jews to come to temple are viewed by Reb Pinchas as a disgrace. His brother, Eli Chaim, becomes a Hasid and introduces Shlomo to the Lubavitcher Rebbe Schneerson; while it isn’t clear if he himself becomes a full-fledged Hasid (he doesn’t wear their distinctive clothing, while his brother does), Shlomo definitely follows many of their ways, which, the script emphasizes, involve heavy duty proselytizing ("one by one" also becomes Shlomo's mantra in getting his music accepted.)  A few zingers at the expense of the Hasidim make their way into the script, as when Shlomo is warned about consorting with them: “You go to the Hasidim as a tourist, you come back as a tour guide.” I have a relative who might find this particularly funny—or not. (I’ll find out when she reads this review.)

One of the character’s throughlines concerns his extreme discomfort at being alone with a woman, much less touching her, and there are frequent references to the shame he brings to his religion when he appears before audiences in which men and women are not separated.  When a photographer catches him giving Nina Simone a kiss, the Jewish press blows it up into huge scandal. (This incident seems conjectural, and, according to Internet sources, the question of whether the pair ever had a physical relationship remains ambiguous.)

The transitions jump simplistically from big life moment to big life moment, so we get Shlomo’s fateful encounter with Nina Simone late at night in a Greenwich Village nightclub, followed by his receiving the gift of a guitar from a blind street singer, and then his instantaneous discovery by a record producer in Washington Square Park, and so on. Much of this has a phony ring to it,  as does Shlomo's conversation with Nina in which they share their stories of racial and religious oppression, each seeming far too ignorant of the other’s issues. The Civil Rights movement and the flower-power revolution and hippie drug culture (Timothy Leary [Michael Paternostro] makes a brief appearance) also play significant roles, but always with something ersatz in the way they are depicted.

 This being a musical, the music counts the most, and, despite the excellent performances of Mr. Anderson and company, and their joyous, even soulful sound, some of the songs sound too much like one another. The music, mostly in the folk-rock style, but with room for gospel (the Simone influence) as well, was composed by Shlomo, but the lyrics are mostly new, written by Daniel Schechter. Many are there mainly to help sustain the narrative, while the originals, reportedly, were liturgical in nature. Since members of the press were given a song list for the performance and told to ignore the one in the program, there obviously has been some tinkering going on before the official opening. One song, however, “I Put a Spell on You,” sung by Ms. Iman as a way of introducing Nina Simone, is by Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, yet no credit for it is listed in the Playbill. Some of the songs will remind you of those upbeat ones you may have heard at a bar mitzvah in a more liberal synagogue, where a cool cantor rocked it to his or her own guitar playing; Shlomo’s songs are said to have become traditional at such affairs.

            Despite being done in the Circle in the Square, the show ignores this venue’s race-track shape and recreates almost the same set used downtown last year by placing seats in the oblong space usually used for acting. The audience thus faces a proscenium-like stage, with a slight thrust, at one end of the room. The set itself, designed by Neil Patel, is an open space backed by a second level platform reached on either side by a sweeping staircase, and with a set of beautifully carved, see-through wooden doors up center. At the rear, what seemingly is an indiscriminate mass of bricks and concrete turns out to be a replica of the Wailing Wall. Jeff Croiter’s lighting helps paint the stage with colors redolent of the show’s several periods, including psychedelic impressions suggestive of the sixties, and Maggie Morgan’s costumes help to recreate those bygone days, although her hippie costumes seem too much like a cruise ship version of HAIR.

            The staging and choreography (the latter by Benoit-Swan Pouffer) are lively and serviceable, if rather generic. The singing and dancing talents on display give no grounds for complaint, but much of the acting, when the actors have to speak lines rather than sing them, is unimpressive. Mr. Anderson, who plays Shlomo as a shy, awkward introvert for much of the time, makes you believe in him as the fish out of water the real Shlomo presumably was; he adds long hair for his hippie phase and grays his beard as he grows older, but he seems too old and knowing to play Shlomo as an egregiously innocent young man. Still, for a gentile playing a richly ethnic Jew, he is totally convincing. By the way, Shlomo and his brother, Eli Chaim are played as children by Teddy Walsh and Ethan Khusidman; when one is performing as Shlomo, the other is playing Eli, and vice versa. I saw Teddy as Young Shlomo and Ethan as Young Eli Chaim; both kids are excellent. Ms. Iman’s Nina Simone looks and sounds more like the real thing than her predecessor, although both the vocal and physical resemblance are superficial; it's too bad that many of her line readings are flat and uninteresting. Least effective are the actors playing Shlomo’s parents, Jamie Jackson and Jacqueline Antaramian, whose Yiddish accents are strained and clearly counterfeit. But I did like very much Zara Mahler as Ruth, a groupie who attaches herself to Shlomo and has a standout ballad, "I Was a Sparrow."

            Judging from the audience’s response, SOUL DOCTOR is a crowd pleaser and should find plenty of interest from both the local and tourist trade. For whatever reasons, I enjoyed it more Off Broadway, when its book seemed fresher, its jokes less corny, its songs more varied, and its themes not so schmaltzy. But despite my kvetching, I suspect many will find their spirits lifted with a shot in the arm from SOUL DOCTOR.