Thursday, October 31, 2013

130. Review of MARIE ANTOINETTE (October 31, 2013)


Outside the Soho Rep, on Walker Street in Tribeca.
 In his poem, “If,” Rudyard Kipling wrote, “If you can keep your head/ when all about you are losing theirs and blaming it on you . . .” Someone who literally couldn’t keep her head and was blamed for the loss of others was Marie Antoinette, the pretty Austrian woman who, at 14, married King Louis XVI of France, and who epitomized by her lavish life style the lack of equality that led to the French Revolution. This famous queen of bling has been the frequent subject of movies, fiction, and drama.

The latest play to bring her back from the dead, with her hair piled high on a head once more in place, is David Adjmi’s satire, on view at the Soho Rep, where—as nicely directed by Rebecca Taichman—it’s being given a bare bones production that barely hints at the excesses that made Marie notorious. The costumes (by Anka Lupes) and scaled-down wigs (by Amanda Miller) only wink at an18th-century flair, combining a few select period elements with mostly modern clothing.

Marsha Stephanie Blake (left) and Marin Ireland. Photo: Pavel Antonov.

The runway model-thin Marin Ireland plays the fashion-conscious queen, who's dressed nearly throughout in a full-length red party dress with flaring flounces. In Mr. Adjmi's take, Marie comes off as a ditzy, spoiled, self-involved airhead, stuffing her face with macaroons and speaking like a gossipy high school mean girl until all around begin losing their heads; then, her own life in danger, she begins to grow serious and even engages in political back and forth with her jailer and a sheep (yes, a sheep).  Until then she’s not so much cruel and ruthless as she is clueless; her arrogance and ignorance are explained as the outcome of an upbringing methodically designed to make her into a queen, with no appreciation for the niceties of behaving decently toward those less fortunate.

The play reportedly had a more visually sumptuous production when coproduced by the Yale Repertory Theatre and the American Repertory Theatre earlier in the year. The limited circumstances of the Soho Rep’s tiny Walker Street theatre have inspired a less elaborate presentation. Riccardo Hernandez's simple set makes no attempt to conjure up the splendors of Versailles, where much of the action transpires. The audience sits mostly in two rows along one wall of the rectangular space; it faces a long white wall about 10 feet high on which the words MARIE ANTOINETTE are emblazoned in relief. When necessary, the wall serves as a screen for projections (by Christopher Ash) of pertinent historical information about dates and events in the French Revolution. Furniture is limited mainly to a handful of white chairs and a bench. Stephen Strawbridge’s excellent lighting goes a long way to vivifying this empty setting, and a powerful sound design by Matt Hubbs, which sometimes threatens to blow your eardrums out, does a great deal to create a sense of the trouble brewing offstage as the revolution moves into gear.

Few of the characters have any dramatic weight other than as foils for Marie’s garrulous chatter; among them are her brother, Joseph (Karl Miller), who insists on the importance of her bearing an heir; her presumed lover, the handsome Swedish officer Axel Fersen (Chris Stack); and her Danny DeVito-like husband, Louis XIV (Stephen Rattazzi), wearing a period powdered wig; poor Louis, we learn, can’t get Marie pregnant because his penis is blocked and “the stuff” can’t get out unless he has surgery. There are also a pair of ladies-in-waiting, Yolande de Polignac) (Jennifer Ikeda) and Therese de Lamballe (Marsha Stephanie Blake); a child, the Dauphin (Aimée Laurence), played by an adorable little girl; a Revolutionary (Will Pullen) representing the rabble, who sat in the seat next to me like a member of the audience until jumping up midway to join the action; and the aforementioned sheep, a whimsically philosophical creature played both by a puppet manipulated by David Greenspan, and by Mr. Greenspan himself.

Much of the play—which, to its detriment, brings to mind Sofia Coppola’s exquisite 2006 film of the same title—has a tongue-in-cheek feeling, but it does eventually make points on issues of power and democracy, noting that there can be no true equality because power can’t be shared. Democracy, in this view, is merely illusory. The play sticks closely enough to the historical facts to give a rough idea of what happened to the royal family in the years from 1777 to 1791; still, satire or no, its humor is insufficient, its history is unilluminating, and its presentation is often dull. Wonderfully, Marin Ireland rises above the weakness of the material to deliver a memorably smart and varied performance, but, like everyone else involved, her character is too cartoonish to care much about, even when she’s moving inexorably closer to her date with that falling blade.

 Despite material that promises considerable dramatic and visual excitement, MARIE ANTOINETTE is neither dramatically nor visually exciting. Cue the guillotine.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

129. Review of THE ENGLISH BRIDE (October 26, 2013)



THE ENGLISH BRIDE, playing in the tiny Theatre C at 59E59, could as easily be called BETRAYAL as the Pinter play now on Broadway. Its story, of course, is completely different but it similarly deals in lies and deception, and in a betrayal that goes way beyond the philandering shenanigans of Pinter’s people. Based on an actual incident that occurred in London in 1986, this award-winning work tells of Eileen Finney (Amy Griffin), a homely, 40ish, working-class British woman from Leeds who is falls in love with a nice-looking young Palestinian refugee named Ali Said (Michael Gabriel Goodfriend). Ali promises to marry the considerably older, love-starved Eileen, whom he prepares to accompany to Israel where he will introduce her to his parents prior to their marriage. But Ali is actually an incipient terrorist: an El Al plane with 300 people on board and a suitcase carrying explosives will soon enter the picture.

Amy Griffin and Michael Gabriel Goodfriend. Photo: Bob Eberle.

           Seventy-eight-year-old playwright Lucile Lichtblau examines the background to Ali's potentially horrendous plot by having him and Eileen interrogated by Dov (Ezra Barnes), an Israeli agent of Mossad. We watch as Dov questions both Ali and Eileen, although never together, and also see the relationship between the lovers enacted as physical expressions of the testimony they provide. The dramaturgy mixes straightforward dramatic scenes with considerable direct address. As the interrogation proceeds, the web of truths, half-truths, and outright lies revealed, not only by the suspects but by the agent, grows increasingly complex, and at the end, while we think we know precisely what happened, and who these people are, we cannot be completely sure of anything. At the end, Dov wraps everything up, saying that, in his business, he’s used to never knowing exactly what transpired. “Truth mixed in with lies, love with hate. Fear and shame often conquering our noblest ideals. Nothing is plain and simple. Everything is ambiguous. . . . I must remember that most of what people say is untrue.” At this point, he closes out the play with a salient piece of information that reveals how something crucial we may have accepted in the play as true is not.

           As Dov, Ezra Barnes has the difficult task of playing the friendly questioner who casually gains his detainees’ trust while simultaneously keeping them off balance by toying with veracity. No matter how honest or sincere the answers he gets seem to be, there’s always some lurking falsity in them, and he must use all his skills to dig out the truth by combining acceptance with suspicion; almost always, however, his inquiry is supported by his knowledge of much more than he lets on. My theatre companion didn’t think he pulled it off, but I was more approving. I liked Mr. Barnes's soft-voiced ability to seem friendly and caring while always maintaining an undercurrent of the power at his disposal.

            I wish Mr. Barnes had a more convincing Hebrew accent, just as I wish Mr. Goodfriend’s Arabic accent as Ali Said was better. Despite a name that seems anything but Middle Eastern, this actor looks passably enough like the character he plays, and gives a reasonably acceptable performance of this Arab terrorist, whom Ms. Lichtblau is at pains to humanize in an effort to clarify what drove him not only to attempt the bombing but to behave in such a Machiavellian way toward Eileen. His ultimate motives for becoming a terrorist, however, are left vague.

            As Eileen, Ms. Griffin gives what is the most conspicuous performance in this three-person drama. Even though she’s ostensibly been duped,  Eileen is deft at hiding behind a wall of deceit. While not really homely, as called for by the stage directions, Ms. Griffin’s face has a certain comical aspect that allows us to imagine her being more plain than pretty, and she uses every weapon in her arsenal to play the role with a kind of girlish, even childlike, quality; sometimes impish, sometimes snide, sometimes clownish, and always vulnerable, she uses her pliable features to create a panoply of eye-rolling, head shaking expressions that create a convincing image of someone naïve and desperate enough to bite at Ali’s bait. Eventually, the character, with her physical and facial tics, and her sometimes overly thick (but credible) working-class accent, grows a bit tiresome, but we do feel a pang of regret when she ultimately realizes what a fool she’s been.

            Carl Wallnau, who originally staged this play at Hackettstown, New Jersey’s Centenary Stage Company, capably handles the limited space in Theatre C, placing the action in one corner of the black box room, with the audience facing the stage in two sections set at right angles. Set designer Bob Phillips has covered the stage floor, with its one and two step platforming, in marbled black tile, and the action is surrounded throughout by a modest, translucent drape that allows backlight to glow through it. Chairs and a bench suffice for furniture.

            Most compelling of the episodic play’s multiple scenes are those of the interrogation, while the flashback scenes that examine the budding relationship of the lovers, while absolutely necessary to our understanding of who these people are, gradually lose interest, possibly because there’s a bit too much dependence on expository narrative later in the play. Still, this is a thoughtful and well-executed work and its truths (and falsehoods) make for an interesting dramatic event.


128. Review of BETRAYAL (October 25, 2013)



Harold Pinter, a Nobel Prize winner, was probably Britain’s foremost playwright when he died in 2008. The playwright who would likely be considered his equivalent today was standing right next to me as I waited for the crowd in the aisle to move after the new revival at the Barrymore Theatre of Pinter’s BETRAYAL ended. As we stood there I could swear I overheard him whisper to his companion, “I’m going to see this again.” The remark stuck with me as I wondered what prompted him to say it. Did he really like it that much? Is he a close friend of any of the stars, Daniel Craig, Rachel Weisz, or Rafe Spall, or perhaps with director Mike Nichols? Did he feel he’d missed something important? Was it so richly layered that only a second viewing could bring out all its nuances?  Did I simply mishear? Whatever his reason, if he said it, he would probably have to pull strings to get in since the show reportedly is sold out through its limited run.

        The audience’s response was certainly warm enough to suggest that the production had gone over very well. Despite the large contingent of critics and journalists present, enough people had paid heavy prices for their seats to suggest either that they were applauding something they believed had been a good investment or that, on the contrary, they felt that, by gum, they had spent all that money and refused to believe it wasn’t worth it. As for me, I’m almost reluctant to say the show was mostly a big ho-hum.

            Pinter’s play, premiered in London in 1978, and had a Broadway production in 1980 starring Raul Julia as Jerry, Blythe Danner as Emma, and Roy Scheider as Robert. And, of course, there was the fine 1983 film starring Jeremy Irons as Jerry, Patricia Hodge as Emma, and Ben Kingsley as Robert. I recall thinking that the Broadway production was miscast with otherwise excellent American actors who never convinced me that they were British nor in full command of Pinter’s finely shaded writing. In the present case, three major British actors--Daniel Craig, Rachel Weisz (Craig's real-life wife), and Rafe Spall--are doing the play under the guidance of one of Broadway’s leading directors, Mike Nichols; although there is no longer a problem of their Englishness, they never manage to embody the multileveled, subtle interplay among the characters, and there is nothing revelatory about the performances.

            BETRAYAL is Pinter’s admittedly autobiographical, if fictionalized, account of his seven-year extramarital affair in the 1960s with a BBC TV personality, Joan Bakewell, while he was married to actress Vivien Merchant. It tells the story of how, in 1968, Jerry, a literary agent (Pinter’s avatar), a married man and father, falls for and begins his affair with Emma. She is the gallery-owning wife of Robert, a publisher who is Jerry’s closest friend (his best man, in fact). The affair lasts seven years and ends in 1975. For much of the time,  the lovers conduct their clandestine romance in a rented flat. A coda, set in 1977, two years after the affair ends, brings the former lovers together at a pub, and Emma reveals that she is now involved with another writer, one of Jerry’s clients whose publisher is Robert. What makes this otherwise straightforward tale of adulterous love and deception intriguing is its backward chronology, with the 1977 post-affair coda actually being the first scene, and with the play then proceeding to eight scenes set, respectively, in 1975, 1974, 1973, 1971, and 1968 (1977 has two scenes and 1973 has 3).

            Apart from Pinter’s lauded use of elliptical language and meaningful pauses (when properly used) the story, even with its creative ways of exploring the multiple ramifications of betrayal, seems--at least in this version--rather thin, and dull patches keep cropping up in the colloquies among this civilized, sophisticated, and articulate trio, navigating the treacherous waters of friendship and marriage. The characters play ongoing games of power and positioning, occasionally hinted at metaphorically by the seemingly friendly competition at squash between the cuckold and his deceiver. Robert, aware of the ongoing affair, dispassionately uses his knowledge as a way of dealing with Jerry, who doesn't know until the affair is over that Robert knew of it. The play can only work if each of the actors is able to fully express layered levels of mendacity and guilt (Robert is also an adulterer). Watching the affair from the time of its conclusion to the time of its inception allows us to see how and why it had to end, but without a deeper sense of the characters’ psychological underpinnings the intended impact loses its force.

            The flashiest role is that of Jerry, the lover, and Rafe Spall gives a forceful but often clownish performance, making me wonder what it was in him that led Emma to poison her relationship with Robert. Rachel Weisz is an enticingly beautiful Emma, but, while she offers an intelligent and heartfelt reading, she fails to leave a memorable impression, possibly. The biggest letdown comes from Daniel Craig, whose star power is not enough to make his Robert interestingly three-dimensional. I missed any subtextual menace in his behavior toward either Jerry or Emma, of whose affair he has known for years. (For some reason, Mr. Nichols's staging suggests he knew of it from the start, rather than from 1973, when Pinter's script says he learned of it from a letter.) Overall, Mr. Nichols runs some scenes at too brisk a pace, paying too little attention to the pregnant pauses called for by the script.

          Set designer Ian MacNeil has created a series of rooms whose walls consist of translucent, scrim-like material (opaque under Brian MacDevitt's lighting) that rise into the flies when no longer needed and are replaced by other rooms that descend. The scenery is interestingly attractive but the floating rooms take too long to change. When appropriate, Finn Ross’s projections help to set the scene, notably when we see lovely video of gondolas floating by in Venice. There is some nice incidental music by James Murphy, and Ann Roth's costumes capture well the changing times and places.

            I can’t say I felt totally betrayed by this production of BETRAYAL; it's certainly nice to be in close proximity to famous movie stars. I still wonder, however, what it was that today’s leading British playwright felt about it that would make him want to see it yet again.


Saturday, October 26, 2013

127. Review of A TIME TO KILL (October 24, 2013)



Although the  Web site “Did He Like It,” one of several that reprints reviews of new shows, sometimes offers only the reviews of Ben Brantley or Charles Isherwood of the New York Times, it more often aggregates up to five reviews, as it did last week for Rupert Holmes’s A TIME TO KILL. This adaptation of John Grisham’s best-selling courtroom novel has moved to Broadway after receiving its world premiere at Washington, D.C.'s Arena Stage in 2011, with a different cast. It's also familiar from its excellent 1996 movie version starring Matthew McConaughey as Jake Brigance, the idealistic young lawyer; Kevin Spacey as the DA, Rufus Buckley; Sandra Bullock as Ellen Roark, Jake’s legal assistant; and Samuel L. Jackson as Carl Lee Hailey, the black man who shoots to death two rednecks who brutally raped and nearly killed his 10-year-old daughter. “Did He Like It” prepares the reader for the reviews by running a banner showing vivid cartoon figures showing their reactions: the critic who likes the show has a bright smile and big thumbs up; the one who isn’t sure sits on a fence; and the guy who didn’t like it sticks out his big red tongue and holds his thumb down in disgust. Of the five reviews the site chose to collect for this play, four were thumbs up, one showed the fence sitter, and there were no raised thumbs.
Photo: Carol Rosegg.
            Had the little cartoons included the opinions of my companion and me there would have been two more little fence sitters, although in my case I’d be holding on tight not to fall off and break my neck. I’m not a Grisham reader, and know his books only from their movie adaptations (this is his first to be made into a play). Seeing A TIME TO KILL, as my friend noted, is like reading a book you pick up at the airport; you want to burrow into it, hoping it will make your flight go faster. The play moves quickly, the characters are boldly outlined, the acting is boilerplate, everything looks handsome, and it ends in an audience-comforting manner. It is, you could say, entertaining enough to get you through two-and-a-half hours of being squeezed into a non-reclining Broadway seat while hitting frequent dramaturgical air pockets that bounce you around mentally before you arrive safely at your destination.

Ashley Williams and Sebastian Arcelus. Photo: Carol Rosegg.


          The minute I saw photos of the show before it opened I noticed how closely its leading actors, Sebastian Arcelus as Jake and Patrick Page as Rufus, resembled the movie stars who’d originated these roles.  As I watched the play, the film lingered vaguely in my mind as a point of comparison; it suggested that the producers were banking on its familiarity as a starting point, rather than going for a new and original take on the characters.


Tonya Pinkins, John Douglas Thompson, Sebastian Arcelus. Photo: Carol Rosegg.

            Most of A TIME TO KILL, set in the fictional Mississippi town of Clanton, takes place in a courtroom, presided over by Judge Omar Noose (Fred Dalton Thompson, the former presidential wannabe), and, yes, there’s a wisecrack at the expense of his name. Carl Lee Hailey (John Douglas Thompson), the well-liked black man whose daughter has been raped, takes vengeance into his own hands by shooting the two sleazeballs who raped his little girl, and goes on trial for murder and for injuring a deputy hit by a ricocheting bullet. The smart, good-looking young attorney, Jake Brigance, takes the case, and agrees to take on as his legal assistant, a pretty young whiz kid, Ellen Roark (Ashley Williams). They are up against a crafty and powerful DA in the smoothly confident, well-tailored Rufus, who has his eyes on the governorship and could use this victory to enhance his political position. The case hinges on Jake’s employment of the insanity defense. When things go wrong with the shrink who agrees to be his expert witness (John Procaccino) because of damaging information about him dug up by the prosecution, Ellen comes up at the last minute with a masterful bit of research that turns the tables on the prosecution’s witness. 

Photo: Carol Rosegg.
The plotting is palpably contrived; the courtroom theatrics are in the good old grandstanding tradition, including the interjections of the crusty but witty judge; the melodramatics are slathered on like sauce on a Southern barbecue; and, despite the good ol’ boy ambiance, with the KKK making threats (there's a huge burning cross), and the difficulties of a black man getting a fair shake in a Mississippi venue, justice prevails. Or does it?
Ashley Williams, Sebastian Arcelus, Tom Skerritt. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
            What the play actually does, even if unintended, is demonstrate that when you’re on trial, you’re merely as good as your lawyer, and even then, only if there’s a skeleton in the legal closet you can uncover and wisely use to your benefit before your case implodes; this playwriting ploy has been used in countless TV legal dramas, and its employment here only serves to underline the flimsiness of the case on view. What Carl Lee Hailey did could easily be considered premeditated murder, and many spectators are likely to feel coldly manipulated by the way the story plays upon their feelings to gain sympathy for him.

From left: Tijuana T. Ricks, Patrick Page, J.R. Horne, Fred Dalton Thompson, John Douglas Thompson. Photo: Carol Rosegg.

            James Noone’s attractive set is a high, semicircular wall of horizontal wooden planks with four tall courtroom-type doors. It is built to allow multiple locales to roll into place on moving platforms, or to alter the angle at which the audience views the courtroom. Video projections, by Jeff Sugg, of external events bring the outside world into the space (although they're too often indistinct), and the exterior of Jake’s home is created by a projection that allows one of the doors to serve as the house’s entrance. Jeff Croiter’s expert lighting does much to create the proper atmospherics. Lindsay Jones contributes a significant amount of background music and sound effects.

            Director Ethan McSweeny has the actors playing almost continuously at high-energy, high-decibel levels. He has staged the big courtroom scene as if the audience is the jury, which grows annoying as the lawyers pace back and forth across the stage’s expanse speaking to an orchestra filled with people who have rushed down during intermission to occupy the many empty seats (surely, those reviews!); the kind of intimacy between attorney and jury in a real courtroom is sadly weakened by this choice, which requires even more lawyerly grandiosity than normal.

Another questionable decision has three actors play multiple roles, two of them being especially problematic. John Procaccino plays both the public defender replaced by Jake Brigance and the expert witness selected by Brigance at the suggestion of Lucien Wilbanks, the disbarred, alcoholic lawyer played by Tom Skerritt (Donald Sutherland in the movie). Lee Sellars, who plays one of the rapists, reappears in the guise of the state’s expert witness (he plays another role, as well, in which his face is not always visible). The effect of seeing these actors attempting to play totally different parts (Sellars is more successful) is to remind you of the phoniness of the whole enterprise, when the last thing you should be thinking of is wondering why the producers couldn’t have hired other actors.

Patrick Page stands out as the calculatingly smooth Rufus, and, as he always does, dominates the stage with what is probably the most resonant actor's voice on Broadway. Fred Dalton Thompson, a veteran of roles like that of the judge, is a welcome presence of gravity and humor, but few others on the stage give other than standard-issue performances.

             As I’ve said, A TIME TO KILL, like many airplane (or beach) novels, is entertaining enough to keep you occupied for a couple of hours, but not enough to pass it along to anyone else when it’s over--unless, that is, they have plenty of money to burn and time to kill.







Friday, October 25, 2013

126. Review of THE DOWNTOWN LOOP


The outside entrance to 3-Legged Dog, 80 Greenwich Street.

I could have used a ride on the downtown loop to get from the A train at Fulton and Nassau over to 80 Greenwich Street, where Ben Gassman’s unusual play, THE DOWNTOWN LOOP, is running at 3-Legged Dog. I’m a native New Yorker (Brooklyn and Queens) but this venue, in the financial district, is not in my geographical comfort zone, so I relied on my trusty Iphone map app, which also seemed the guide du jour for other intrepid citizens navigating the narrow streets near Trinity Church. It was rather eerie, actually, walking the post-dusk, emptying streets of old Nieuw Amsterdam with shadowy figures passing by and glowing dimly in the light of their handheld devices as they progressed cautiously, like two-legged Peter Stuyvesants, down Nassau, Liberty, or Rector. This was all to the point, though, as I was heading for a night where technology ruled, the mission of 3LD—a.k.a. 3-Legged Dog—being to “explore the new narrative possibilities created by digital technology, and to provide an environment for our artists to create new tools and modes of expression so that they can excel across a range of disciplines.”

Sarah Mollo-Christensen and Greg Carere. Photo: Todd Carroll.
              THE DOWNTOWN LOOP, directed by Meghan Finn, makes considerable use of technology in its attempt to recreate the feeling of a tour bus ride through Manhattan, although the play to which the experience is tied gradually runs out of gas. When you enter the performance space you climb a short flight to the rear of the “bus,” a series of steel and glass risers with narrow white, plastic seats arranged in rows of two and three on either side of a center aisle. Large video screens surround the entire space, and the bus has neither walls nor ceiling, as you’re supposed to be on the upper deck. To either side are metal railings to keep people in the outer seats from falling off, and beneath your feet is a floor made mostly of glass through which you can see a double bed, meant to be in a hotel room, and a graffiti-covered bathroom at a club. Depending on where you’re sitting, you can either view the several scenes played in these lower-deck spaces by peering straight downward, or you can watch them on the live video feed projected on the screens; camera operators with long, narrow microphones can also be seen.

Greg Carere and Keeley Sheridan. Photo: Todd Carroll.
             The principal tech achievement, however, is the projections of New York City that fill the big screen in front of you and the screens to either side, obviously shot with multiple cameras from an actual bus. Our vehicle moves at a slow and steady pace; I found the most effective moments to be when it gradually turned from one street into another. You may want to know that my theatre companion later said he experienced some mild symptoms of motion sickness. The technology, however, while promising, is not yet advanced enough to blend the frames, so there is some unevenness to the effect, and the images (which also include still montages) are not sharp or bright enough to even approach the colors and vibrancy of the real thing. The event's uniqueness, therefore, while initially intriguing, tends to dissipate, and you begin to search for familiar city landmarks to help you determine precisely where the bus is located at any point in time. Since the video (expertly designed by Jared Mezzocchi) has been carefully edited, you don’t get a sense of real time and place, nor are you supposed to. Eventually, the city becomes just a generalized backdrop to the personal problems of the Tour Guide.

Greg Carere and Mia Jessup. Photo: Todd Carroll.

As the bus proceeds, the cynical guide (well played by Greg Carere) delivers an offbeat explanation, mingling fact and fiction, about the city’s locations while periodically encountering Her (Keelie A. Sheridan), the young woman with whom he has been having a diminishing relationship; at one point she enters from near the U.N. carrying a protest sign on behalf of Sri Lanka's Tamil Freedom Fighters. As this suggests, the play veers from realism to surrealism; nothing can be taken at face value, including the several occasions on which the guide, needing a meditative break, says he’s going swimming. The guide also has sexual liaisons in the aforementioned hotel room with a Basque tourist (Sarah Mollo-Christensen) and with a Finnish woman (Mia Jessup) in the bathroom. There are other digressive events/characters that crop up as well: Shimon (Robert Metz), an Israeli peddler of souvenir tchotchkes, has an oddball relationship with Faoud (Hakan Tolga Polat), an Egyptian hot dog vendor. The Tour Guide and his idealistic Trainee (Sam Soghor) discuss the former’s obsession with asking for tips and his fondness for including inaccurate information in his spiel. The action, which also takes place in the Blarney Stone pub and something called the Couldn’t Club, appears to cover several days.
Sam Soghor and Greg Carere. Photo: Todd Carroll.

            The play proper, which runs 75 minutes, is an offbeat experience I'm sure many will enjoy, but it never is as funny as it tries to be; once the premise is established, the bus’s wheels keep turning but it never really goes anywhere. The play deals with issues of authenticity, but, if you’re looking for an authentic--if touristy--bus tour, with comedy and music thrown in, you might consider THE RIDE. Its tour guides won’t bother you with their personal angst, and you won’t be so relieved to get off the bus.  

Thursday, October 24, 2013

125. Review of THE SNOW GEESE (October 23, 2013)



This month’s PLAYBILL carries a piece on Mary-Louise Parker, who is back on Broadway in Sharr White’s THE SNOW GEESE at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre. It concludes with her saying, “THE SNOW GEESE feels kinda like [a] lost Chekhov play, but not in the way that it is derivative. Sharr has his own style—but it truly, truly is reminiscent of Chekhov.” The play, which Mr. White freely admits is influenced by Chekhov, is set at a hunting lodge in rural upstate New York and deals with the declining fortunes of a once wealthy family at a time when America was on the brink of a major historical event (its entry into World War I); it's named after a bird that assumes symbolic value; it features a leading lady wearing black because she is in mourning, if not for her life, than for her husband, felled by a heart attack two months earlier; it raises issues of class consciousness; a laudanum-prescribing doctor plays a central role, as does a pistol; it tells a story of a self-centered matriarch who refuses to face her family’s financial losses; and it reveals that a solution is available if only the estate is sold. If one were to go even closer into Mr. White’s Chekhovian world, other, less obvious derivations could be cited, but these should be enough to hint at the proximity of what happens within Mr. White’s Gaesling family and those in THE THREE SISTERS, THE CHERRY ORCHARD, THE SEAGULL, and UNCLE VANYA. The title, while reminiscent of THE SEAGULL, has a different meaning. According to the playwright, it refers to the family: "The way that the snow geese migrate is that they all come over in one flock and they all disappear."

From left. Evan Jonigkeit, Victoria Clark, Danny Burstein, Brian Cross, Mary-Louise Parker, Jessica Love. Photo: Joan Marcus.
             Of course, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as great drama has often inspired great spinoffs, but it’s risky because the effort automatically creates grounds for comparison. In the present case, Mr. White’s play falls short, not only as an homage to the Russian master, if such it might be considered, but as a play independent of any influence from a specific playwright. Unlike Mr. White's excellent THE OTHER PLACE, of last season, which provided Laurie Metcalf with an opportunity to display her remarkable gifts, it fails to give the 49-year-old Ms. Parker a role of comparable breadth and interest. (The Playbill cover has absolutely nothing to do with the play or her role.) As Elizabeth Gaesling, an attractive, youthful-looking mother of two diametrically opposed sons, whose husband died of a heart attack, she is not that far removed from Nancy Botwin, the attractive, youthful-looking mother of two diametrically opposed sons on her long-running TV series, “Weeds.” Of course, the circumstances and characters are completely different, but her performance and appearance do nothing to dispel Nancy’s image; Briar, my young adult granddaughter, who has watched all eight seasons of the now ended show (I watched only the first two), felt that, as performed, the characters were practically interchangeable.

Danny Burstein and Victoria Clark. Photo: Joan Marcus.

            In brief, THE SNOW GEESE, set on November 1, 1917, half a year after America entered World War I, takes place on the day the Gaesling family carries out its annual shooting party at its hunting lodge, with each type of fowl given a quota as to how many can be killed. Present are Elizabeth, the lovely but seemingly irresponsible matriarch still grieving over her husband’s death; her Exeter and Princeton-educated son, Duncan (Evan Jonigkeit), who is about to be sent off to fight in France; Arnold (Brian Cross), her 18-year-old son, deprived of Duncan’s educational privileges for reasons the play eventually discloses; Clarissa Hohmann (Victoria Clark), Elizabeth’s down-to-earth, older sister; Max Hohmann (Danny Burstein), Clarissa’s husband, a German immigrant doctor who has been subjected to anti-German xenophobia at home in Syracuse, New York; and Viktorya Grainy (Jessica Love), the once wealthy and cultured but now impoverished Ukrainian maidservant who is subject to the arrogant Duncan’s class snobbery, and is the object of Arnold’s carefully muted affections. 
From left: Evan Jonigkeit, Mary-Louise Parker, and Brian Cross. Photo: Joan Marcus.

            The play takes place over the course of a single day and night, with not much happening other than the kinds of conversations and small events that serve to reveal time, place, and character. Duncan, the golden boy of Elizabeth’s affections (he is Hamlet to her Gertrude), is supposedly so charming that his personal drawbacks fade into insignificance, while Arnold, the earnest, serious-minded son, gains only his mother’s grudging approval. The sibling rivalry is the play’s strongest axle. Duncan haughtily dismisses the danger he'll be facing as a soldier when told by Max and Arnold of the slaughter going on in Europe; as a member of the silk-stocking 7th Regiment, he's so filled with a belief in American exceptionalism he can’t believe he may soon be little more than cannon fodder. As depicted in the writing and Mr. Jonigkeit’s performance, Duncan, who has been raised to marry a rich girl, has about as much appeal as Iran’s president on a charm offensive, creating an uncomfortable breach between the playwright's vision and the audience's perception.
Arnold, the practical-minded son, nearly tears his hair out trying to convince his mother and brother that the family is broke, broke, broke because of their father’s financial ineptitude and the chicanery of a trusted family employee, but they dismiss him as an alarmist, a reaction that, while possible, is simply too artificially established to ring true. When Duncan realizes that his spoiled existence may partly be responsible for the family’s situation, Mr. White’s foreshadowing with the gun is resolved, if not necessarily in true Chekhovian fashion.  Alone with his rational Aunt Clarissa, Arnold offers a convenient explanation of how the situation can be fixed, but whether his ideas will be followed is anybody’s guess. Mr. White has said he was influenced by the 1985 movie, THE SHOOTING PARTY, about the end of Britain's Gilded Age. In his play, America's Gilded Age is coming to an end, and an uncertain new age will soon begin.
Jessica Love and Brian Cross. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Ms. Parker has a few scenes that seem designed to underscore her star presence, one being a dream fantasy that begins act two, when she is alone outside with a handsome man on a romantically starlit night; it seems a bit odd until we slowly realize he is her late husband, Theodore (Christopher Innvar). As they playfully dance and begin to make love, she removes her pretty white dress, revealing stunning period lingerie that shows off Ms. Parker’s stylishly slender figure; the man, saying he has to pee ("piss," I think he said), exits and, after enough time for him to water the forest, Elizabeth wakes up when Clarissa finds her there. The scene seems devised purely for its opportunity to show off Ms. Parker’s still radiant beauty in pre-Victoria’s Secret undies; nothing much is made of a middle-aged woman’s having been so obsessed with her erotic fantasies that she took off her clothes while lying on the ground on a November evening. (The device of having Theodore exit for a bodily function brings to mind a comment young Samuel Beckett once made to a friend: “It’s funny when you think of all the trouble that a playwright takes to get his characters off and on the stage. It’s so simple, you see: when you think this man might want to pee, you simply make him leave for that!”) 
Christopher Innvar and Mary-Louise Parker. Photo: Joan Marcus.

Mr. White, in trying to snare the language and manners of well-educated people in 1917 falls into the trap of making everyone sound bookish and artificial. Elizabeth faults Arnold for not making “foible room” when criticizing others, and Arnold repeatedly calls his father “a financial maladroit.” Among the positive qualities Elizabeth lists for Arnold are his “pugilism.” The actors strive to behave naturally, but neither the occasional vulgarity (jarringly out of place in this environment), strained humor (some of it instigated by the pious Clarissa's Methodism), old-time dances choreographed by Mimi Lieber, nor Daniel Sullivan’s direction can dispel the mustiness that blankets these wax figures. While there are momentary gleams of life, mainly from Ms. Clark and Mr. Burstein, their batteries soon die out and theatrical fustian creeps in like the fog encircling the house.

Wasted are John Lee Beatty’s exquisite sets, which slide seamlessly on wagons from room to room or indoors to out, creating an atmospheric environment combining partial walls and denuded trees. The scenery is evocatively enhanced by Japhy Weideman’s warmly appealing lighting, Rocco DiSanti’s video projections of flying geese, and the always reliable Jane Greenwood’s costumes, which lovingly capture the period ambiance.

Despite all those birds that seem to fly across the stage, THE SNOW GEESE has too much ballast to get off the ground.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

124. Review of THE MODEL APARTMENT (October 22, 2013)



As I left 59E59, where I’d just seen Primary Stages’ revival of Donald Margulies’s THE MODEL APARTMENT, a drama about Holocaust survivors, I overheard another theatergoer complaining to his companion about the surfeit of plays about what happened to the Jews well over half a century ago, when there are much more recent genocidal catastrophes that go unnoticed by contemporary dramatists. He may have had a point, but for many New York playgoers, at any rate, the Holocaust remains a lingering sore that refuses to heal. Besides, there seem to be few playwrights around writing interesting plays about Rwanda, for example, or audiences clamoring to see them.


Kathryn Grody and Mark Blum. Photo: James Leynse.

            In Mr. Margulies’s play, written in 1988 but not premiered until 1995, when its run was cut short by an actor’s unexpected departure, Max (Mark Blum) and Lola (Kathryn Grody) are an aging, Yiddish-accented Jewish couple from Brooklyn who have been trying to escape their wartime memories, while simultaneously reliving them, ever since they emigrated here. They’ve raised a daughter, Debby (Diane Davis), seen as the product of their horrendous experiences, Lola’s in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, Max’s as a fugitive hiding out in the woods. Debby, a morbidly obese, mentally unstable (but not stupid) woman has become such a burden that Max and Lola have slipped silently out of Brooklyn to leave her behind so they can occupy a condo they’ve bought in Florida and live out their retirement in peace.

The futility of this dream starts coming into focus when they have to stay in a model apartment while their own condo is being finished. The model, you see, is a fake, meant only for show, and about the only thing that works are the lights, toilet, and sofa-bed. The TV has no tube, the fridge has no outlet, the ashtray and candlesticks are glued down. Moreover, unlike the one-bedroom place Max and Lola bought, this one is a studio.  But, for all their disappointment, Max and Lola are survivors; they’ve seen far worse and are ready to accept their lot for a few days when—bam—their idyll is instantly destroyed by the unwanted intrusion of Debby, loud, vulgar, and prone to spouting stories laced with Nazi references: she’s left her institution and is off her meds.
Diane Davis, left, and Kathryn Grody. Photo: James Leynse.

            Lola tries to remain calm and motherly, for all her distress, and does her best with the obstreperous Lola, who got their address from a neighbor and drove down on her own. Max, though, keeps trying to hide from his responsibilities; he escapes to bed, as if he could hide there silently, the way he did from the Germans. But Debby is only one unwelcome presence in the couple’s search for peace, for soon the apartment becomes a refuge for Neil (Hubert Point-du Jour), a homeless black man who is Debbie’s lover, and who begins to have noisy sex with her right after he arrives; while not a dangerous presence, he is a disruptive one, and does physical damage to the pristine apartment Max and Lola were told to take good care of.

            The play lurches forward in ominous starts and stops, with brief blackouts interrupting scenes that resume only minutes later. All takes place in the middle of the night, allowing the headlights of passing vehicles to occasionally flash behind the vertical blinds. Despite the sitcom atmosphere of Max and Lola’s arrival in the sham apartment, an ominous mood creeps in, aided immeasurably by Keith Parham’s lighting and Josh Schmidt’s sound effects and music. The apartment, designed by Lauren Halpern, is a perfect replication of a generic, white-walled Florida condo, which somehow seems luxurious to Max; it gradually assumes the feeling of a prison from which Max and Lola can’t escape, just as they can’t abandon the horrors of the war.

As we learn about Debby’s relationship with her parents, we see that she’s the living embodiment of what they went through, her obesity a symbol of all the horrible stories with which they’ve filled her through the years. "They're all inside me. All of them. Anne Frank. The 6 million." (Lola and Max question just who's responsible for their grotesque offspring.) These stories, in fact, appear to have become a family tradition, as witness the long monologue in which Lola recounts to Neil her allegedly close relationship with Anne Frank, on whose famous diary Lola says she had a big influence. As she tells this fictionalized account, we see that it has been told many times, in precisely the same words, since Debby is able to recite them verbatim along with Lola or to help spur her memory. Ironically, when Lola is finished, Neil reveals he has no idea at all who she’s been talking about.

There’s another character involved as well, Deborah, the daughter Max had with a previous wife and lost during the war; he fantasizes her as a warm, lovely, caring young woman ministering to his needs. (Debby, at one point, reviles Max for giving her the name of his dead child, another instance of Max’s clinging to his past suffering.) At the ambiguous conclusion, Deborah speaks softly over Max as he lies unmoving (might he be dead?) in a recliner. In an excellent display of virtuosity, Ms. Davis plays both the manic Debby and the composed Deborah, making rapid changes back and forth between a realistic fat suit and a simple blue dress.

Despite the high marks accorded this revival by a majority of critics, I’m not quite ready to go that far myself. Theatre A at 59E59 (which contains two other venues, B and C), is a shoebox shaped theatre with 15 steeply raked rows. For whatever reason, my seat was in row O, the last one, and, even in this smallish theatre, viewing the stage was like looking at it through the wrong end of a telescope. (Because of the auditorium’s steep rake, I learned only from someone else that the set had a realistic stucco ceiling.) Moreover, Evan Cabnet, whose staging is otherwise fine, has directed the actors, especially the otherwise admirable Mr. Blum and Ms. Grody, to speak many of their lines in quiet, almost whispered (but not stage whispered) tones; while I might have relished this approach were I sitting closer, too much of what they mumble borders on the inaudible.

THE MODEL APARTMENT, which clocks in at around 80 intermissionless minutes, is a noteworthy play being given a generally worthwhile revival. Just make sure you’re sitting close enough to hear it; if not, and you have hearing issues, ask for an infrared listening device. And be sure it works, since the one my wife used was, like so much else in Max and Lola’s temporary abode, no more useful than its TV and refrigerator.


Tuesday, October 22, 2013

123. Review of FUN HOME (October 21, 2013)


Entrance to the Newman Theatre.
As I watched FUN HOME at the Newman Theatre, within the Public Theatre complex, I could sense the emotional connection between many members of the audience and the musical on stage. My theatre companion, who has a gay daughter, nudged me at one point and told me he’d been crying almost since the show began; the gay young man on the left of me whooped and slapped his knee at every joke and dabbed his eyes at the more touching moments; and I noted a gay acquaintance brushing a tear from his cheek as he moved up the aisle at the end. The subject matter, adapted from a best-selling, award-winning, 2006 graphic novel of the same name by lesbian cartoonist Alison Bechdel, was apparently very familiar to a large number of spectators (the friend who went with me had once tried to write a play based on it), but to ignorant me it was unexplored territory. (After doing some post-show research, I learned that FUN HOME is a very controversial book and that attempts have been made to remove it from certain public libraries and college course curriculums on the grounds that it is pornographic.)

Photo on left: Sydney Lucas and Michael Cerveris. Photo: Public Theatre. Photo on right: Beth Malone, Sydney Lucas, Michael Cerveris. Photo: Public Theatre.

From left: Beth Malone, Sydney Lucas, and Alexandra Socha. Photo: Public Theatre. 

            What I saw during the show’s 100 or so intermissionless minutes was the talented young director Sam Gold’s lovely staging of a show that uses considerable charm to relate a painful story of a sweet young lesbian's sexual coming of age, from the time of her childhood in a small, rural Pennsylvania town, to her college years at Oberlin, where she comes out of the closet, to her maturity as a successful writer-artist. In the latter guise, as the mature Alison (Beth Malone), she serves as an omnipresent narrator, watching the experiences of her younger selves (played, in a stroke of conceptual creativity, by two other actresses, called Small Alison and Medium Alison). Plays and musicals with gay coming-of-age themes are far from unique, of course, but in this case Ms. Bechdel’s autobiographical tale takes on a much darker and deeper hue than usual because it involves the story of her father, Bruce (Michael Cerveris), a closeted gay mortician and high school English teacher who is more obsessed with restoring his historic Gothic Revival home than with being a father or a husband, despite outwardly seeming ideal at the latter responsibilities. Fun Home refers not to his house, but to Bruce's funeral parlor, where the three Bechdel kids, Alison, Christian (Griffin Birney), and little John (Noah Hinsdale), freely enjoy themselves, including by hiding in the caskets, which they take for granted.
From left: Noah Hinsdale, Griffin Birney, Sydney Lucas. Photo: Public Theatre.

Bruce's gayness is intimated fairly early by his flirtatious behavior with a nice-looking student named Roy (Joel Perez, who plays all of Bruce's liaisons) during Small Alison’s childhood (the adorable Sydney Lucas). His struggles with his sexual passions lead this tortured soul to express his self-loathing by sometimes behaving nastily to his long-suffering wife, Helen (Judy Kuhn), or by occasionally tyrannizing his children, but never to the point where we forget his love for them. In college, Medium Alison (Alexandra Socha), who has only recently accepted her own gayness and begun a relationship with a college friend, Joan (Roberta Colindrez), learns of her father’s sexual interests from her fed-up mother, and it is only a short time afterward that Bruce—who, unlike his daughter, remains reluctant to accept his sexual orientation—steps in front of a truck and is killed in what Alison is certain was a suicide. She had never been able to break through Bruce’s reserve about his sexuality; when he gives her a book about Colette, the lesbian writer, and she wonders if it means he is somehow trying to reach out to her, he remains noncommittal. Through her illustrated memoir, Alison seeks to come to terms with his death and their complex relationship, partly indicated by small things like Bruce’s constant attempts to feminize Small Alison by demanding that she wear a barrette. 
From left: Joel Perez, Michael Cerveris, Beth Malone. Photo: Public Theatre.

            The libretto, which begins during Alison's childhood, moves around freely in time and space, exploring its issues in the form of anecdotal memories and feelings; since important information is telegraphed early on, there is no strong dramatic arc or suspense, but book and lyric writer Lisa Kron has managed to craft a continually engrossing narrative that expertly mingles comedy and drama. Although Jeanine Tesori has contributed many quality songs (not, unfortunately, listed in the program), this is not a sung-through musical; the dialogue sequences, however, are accompanied by a constant musical background that provides a rhythmic and melodic propulsion to the performance. Much of Ms. Tesori's score, like so many nowadays, has that Sondheimesque quality of emphasizing narrative progression, so that the music serves to advance the story rather than being something to be enjoyed on its own. She nonetheless is gifted enough to allow some numbers to stand out for both their narrative and musical artistry. One of these concerns Alison's being turned on by the sight of a butch lesbian delivery woman and her heavy set of keys. Another is a parody TV commercial for the family funeral home. And Ms. Kuhn sings a wonderful song to Medium Alison about living one's life for happiness.
Roberta Colindrez (left) and Alexandra Socha. Photo: Public Theatre.

            David Zinn’s set is an open environment showing the brick rear wall of the stage (or a simulacrum of it) with furnishings spread out across the expansive, polished wood floor, to be brought into focus as necessary by the use of a turntable built into the deck. Later in the show, the entire rear wall is covered with wallpaper and wainscoting, an allusion to Bruce’s home restoration project. Mr. Zinn’s costumes vary appropriately with the periods presented, and Ben Stanton’s lighting does a superb job of capturing mood and atmosphere in the way it highlights various areas of the stage. There are a number of projections, designed by Jim Findlay and Jeff Sugg, but for some reason, the designers and director chose not to use images from Ms. Bechdel's book, except for one shown toward the end. Since the show alludes to her cartoons, and she always carries a drawing pad, a few more would have been welcome, such as the one in the book where Bruce supports Small Alison on his feet as she poses with arms spread like an airplane, a moment memorably recaptured in the play.  
Photo: Public Theatre.
            The three children who play the young Bechdels are all terrific, with special kudos earned by little Sydney Lucas in a demanding role that calls on her singing, dancing, and acting skills. Alexandra Socha’s Medium Alison is always honest and grounded, as is Beth Malone as the brooding, observant mature Alison, a slim, bespectacled, wraith-like figure with short-cropped hair, standing in the shadows dressed in jeans and maroon polo shirt, holding her large drawing pad, and choosing how to caption the moment she is remembering; judging by online photos, she presents a rather good likeness of Ms. Bechdel. Michael Cerveris, wearing a red wig, is an ideal embodiment of Bruce, singing beautifully and acting truthfully. Judy Kuhn, as Helen, is in excellent voice, while Roberta Colindrez is perfectly believable as Joan.

            Despite the considerable talents of all concerned, and the meaningfulness of the material, with its sensitive handling of a subject rare in musical theatre, something about the show kept me from becoming as emotionally invested in it as so many others. Except perhaps, for the big, powerful number sung by Bruce (in a marvelous moment for Mr. Cerveris) toward the end before he steps in front of that truck, I struggled to go beyond objective appreciation into subjective involvement. This is surely my own limitation (an unconscious hetero bias, perhaps?), and not the show's, and I'm sure the reviews will all note how moved the critics were; I really wish, though, that I too were dabbing my tears when FUN HOME ended.