Thursday, November 28, 2013

162. Review of SMALL ENGINE REPAIR (November 28, 2013)


Very few plays have annoyed me lately as much as John Pollono’s SMALL ENGINE REPAIR, at the Lucille Lortel Theatre. The two best things about it are its set and its hour and 10-minute length. I realize I’m again in the minority (although not alone), with various critics weighing in on how savvy and funny the play is. When I saw it,  the audience gave the actors a very warm reception while I was slinking up the aisle to escape into the fresh night air where I could breathe again; during the performance, though, I couldn’t resist shaking my head at its inanity, lack of credibility, and overly broad performances. When the audience laughed, I cringed.

            The play is set in the town of Manchester, New Hampshire, which the locals snarkily call Manch-Vegas because it so lacks any of Las Vegas’s glitz. All the action transpires in Richard Hoover’s excellent creation of a strikingly detailed small engine repair shop belonging to the grease-stained Frank, portrayed by the play’s author. Frank enters considerably before the house lights go down to clean the shop in preparation for the arrival of two childhood friends.These are Packie (James Ransone), a smallish guy proud of his Irish heritage, and Swaino (James Badge Dale), a braggart womanizer who preys on much younger women. Frank, Packie, and Swaino, who grew up together, are working class chumps in their mid-30s, extremely foul of mouth and given to extremes of irritatingly immature attitudes and behavior. Packie and Swaino are bachelors, but Frank has a 17-year-old daughter, Crystal, the light of his life; her childhood face beams from a shop poster dominating the set. The guys haven’t seen one another much in recent years, and there are petty tensions among them, but Frank has gotten them together for a purpose that only slowly comes into focus.
From left: James Ransone, John Pollono, James Badge Dale. Photo: Joan Marcus.

 James Ransone and James Badge Dale. Photo: Joan Marcus. 

From left: Keegan Allen, James Badge Dale, James Ransone, John Pollono. Photo: Joan Marcus.

Frank, Packie, and Swaino are largely uneducated (Swaino did a year of college), even though they sometimes express themselves in ways that belie their presumed ignorance. Packie is into social media in a big way, while Swaino thinks having a Blackberry Storm is the height of cool. The pervasiveness of social media and the Internet gradually become an underlying satirical subject of the play, but the situation Mr. Pollono creates to embody his theme is so heavy handed and his characters so exaggerated, that it's impossible to accept anything happening on the stage as true. Structurally, the play has all kinds of problems: for example, when someone needs to be offstage so the others can have the space to themselves, he simply says “I have to pee,” and exits. This obvious device is actually used three times.

Once the trio of pot-smoking, scotch-guzzling, filth-talking buds has been introduced, there enters Chad (Keegan Allen), a handsome, blonde 19-year-old frat boy whose Brooks Brothers duds make him look like someone from the moon in this caveman setting. SMALL ENGINE REPAIR aims to stress the class differences between the wealthy Chad, whose father is a powerful Boston lawyer, and the dead-end, working-class world of the three roughnecks, but, under Jo Bonney's direction, it’s far too in-your-face and overplayed. Chad’s the ostensible reason Frank has gathered his friends, as he’s there to sell them Ecstasy. But we soon learn Chad has done something involving Crystal that's the actual reason for Frank’s having arranged the reunion, and the threat of something very gruesome comes into play. I’ll refrain from offering the spoiler, but I can’t refrain from thinking Frank’s behavior and how his friends respond to it, is ridiculous, whatever its dramaturgical or satirical purpose. David Mamet and Neil LaBute: what have you wrought?

There are many potentially interesting ideas in SMALL ENGINE REPAIR but they are buried in overkill and tastelessness. When the friends, who’ve nearly been hoist by their own petard, come up with a way out of the dilemma they’ve gotten themselves into, they do so on a level of crassness and implausibility that had me nearly running for the street. SMALL ENGINE REPAIR needs a complete overhaul before it can run smoothly.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

161. Review of LIES MY FATHER TOLD ME (November 21, 2013)


LIES MY FATHER TOLD ME, another musical based on a movie, has come to town, this one at the Baruch Performing Arts Center, where it is being produced by the venerable National Yiddish Theatre—Folksbiene company. In celebration of the troupe’s 99th season, a remarkable record to which no other New York troupe comes close, it has lavished its resources on what it touts as one of its most elaborate productions, a 17-actor musicalization of Jan Kadar’s Academy Award-nominated1975 Canadian movie about a Jewish boy’s coming of age in 1920s Montreal, based on the writings of Ted Allan. It had its world premiere in Montreal in 2010; this is its first New York showing.

Alex Dreier and Chuck Karel. Photo: Michael Priest.

            The two-hour 15-minute show, apart from a few familiar Yiddish words, is in English, like most Folksbiene productions these days. If you weren’t aware of the story’s background, you might think when it begins that it’s set among the immigrant population of New York’s Lower East Side. John C. Dinning’s impressive set shows a stable at stage right and a large structure at the left that revolves to show the exterior or interior of the house in which young David (Alex Dreier) and his family live. The family consists of Danny’s adoring, gentle mother, Annie (Russell Arden Koplin), his get-rich-quick schemer of a father, Harry (Jonathan Raviv), and his Tevye-like grandpa, called by the Yiddish term “Zaida” (Chuck Karel). There’s also Uncle Benny (Jonathan Hadley), ready to partner Harry’s ideas, but quick to separate himself when things go wrong. Neighborhood characters include the flinty Irishwoman Mrs. Tanner (Renée Bang Allen), always complaining about the filth produced by Zaida’s old nag, Ferdeleh; Edna (Leisa Mather), the local heart-of-gold prostitute; and Mr. Baumgarten (Gordon Stanley), the Marxist tailor who debates Marxism versus religion with Zaida in a song called “Politics”: Zaida keeps waiting for the messiah but Baumgarten insists the messiah is the working class.

Front row, from left: Jonathan Hadley, Jonathan Raviv, Russell Arden Koplin, Chuck Karel, and Gordon Stanley. Photo: Michael Priest.

            The central plot, such as it is, concerns the seven-year-old David and his relationship with his beloved 70-year-old Zaida, whom he often accompanies on the old man’s horse-drawn cart (the horse is imagined) as he goes around the ghetto selling junk (and singing “Rags, Clothes, Bottles”) and telling David fantastical stories, imagining (in “Magic Wings”) that the nag has wings that help to fly them to China and other exotic places. Harry’s latest scheme is the invention of creaseless trousers, for which, as usual, he must borrow money from the skeptical Zaida, and which, also as usual, turns out to be a flop. The secular Harry’s rejection of Zaida’s religious beliefs (he calls the old man a “religious hypocrite” when Zaida resists his borrowing demands) is another plot spur, as is the boy’s love for Ferdeleh, which is on its last legs. One of the most uncomfortable sequences comes when David grows jealous of his mother’s breastfeeding her new arrival, and demands to be given the same treat, a notion of which the embarrassed Zaida must disabuse him. Narrating the story, which is basically a string of incidents, is the grown-up David (Joe Paparella), who observes the action he’s describing and occasionally expresses himself in song. A driving force behind David’s revelations is his need to confront his anger toward his father, a man who could never take criticism, called everyone an idiot, had a gambling problem, was physically abusive, and had trouble with the truth. But David's ire is never resolved. Despite Zaida’s teaching young David to honor his father, regardless of what he does, older David is never able to do so, which gives the show’s hopefully sentimental qualities a sour edge, as seen in the unforgiving title.

            Elan Kunin's music, lyrics, and orchestration have something of the right ethnic and period quality, but never rise much beyond the conventional.The direction of Bryna Wasserman, who adapted the film script, is mechanical; her choice of having characters pet the invisible horse seems awkward in this otherwise literal-looking environment, where we already may feel the horse's absence too sharply. And either insufficient rehearsal or directorial inattention was responsible for the slack scene transitions when I saw the show. Merete Muenter is responsible for the familiar, if jaunty, choreography. And Izzy Fields's costumes evoke the period. The actors do their best, especially Chuck Karel as the deep-voiced (if sometimes flat) Zaida, the promising child actor Alex Dreier as young David, Jonathan Raviv as the unpleasant Harry, and Russell Arden Koplin (who sings nicely the sweet ballad, “Maybe Someday”) as the long-suffering mother. The ensemble also includes a handful of sprightly kids.

By and large, LIES MY FATHER TOLD ME struggles from a general lack of spontaneity, and the show often lies there, like unleavened bread. It’s too bad there are no Passover scenes.


159 and 160. TWELFTH NIGHT and RICHARD III (November 19 and 20, 2013)

159 and 160. Reviews of TWELFTH NIGHT and RICHARD III

The Shakespeare-heavy 2013-2014 season, which has presented ten Shakespeare (or Shakespeare-based) plays and musicals thus far, has mostly been a disappointment. I don’t get to see A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM or MACBETH until early December, so I’ll put them aside for the moment and thank the heavens for the arrival on these shores of London’s Shakespeare’s Globe productions of TWELFTH NIGHT and RICHARD III, starring the inimitable Mark Rylance. These plays are running in repertory at Broadway’s Belasco Theatre and, while I’m not as over the moon about them as many commentators have been, they are eminently successful at what they seek to do and are must-see experiences for serious bardolaters.
          Both plays are performed on a stage, designed by Jennifer Tiramani, that replicates the appearance of a medieval hall at Oxford University and that resembles the permanent set at London’s Globe Theatre, where these revivals were first presented. A small number of audience members are seated in a two-tiered arrangement at either side of the stage, so some sense of the Globe staging is preserved. As is well known, the Globe’s productions seek to recapture as much of the authentic feel of how Shakespeare would have been performed in his own day. Musical instruments and costumes (also by Jennifer Tiramani) are as authentic as possible. It’s impossible to know precisely how the plays were acted, of course, so, even if what we’re watching gives us only a general impression that we’re on the South Bank of the Thames in the early 1600s, the performances are unquestionably the product of 21st-century actors bringing their own sensibilities to bear on characterizations, timing, humor, and even pronunciation.

From left: Colin Hurley, Angus Wright, Jethro Skinner, Stephen Fry. Photo: Joan Marcus.

From left: Paul Chahidi, Colin Hurley, Angus Wright. Photo: Joan Marcus.
             Even having all the roles played by men, as was the case in Shakespeare’s day, can’t repeat the experience of the original, which mainly used boys, not mature men, to play the female roles. Still, seeing talented male actors, their facial features partially disguised by the use of white makeup with touches of rouge, is instructive. While some vocal modification is employed, the actors don’t go so far in altering the way they sound as do the onnagata or female-role specialists in Japan’s kabuki theatre, or other Asian forms where men regularly play women’s roles. While a few actors, like Samuel Barnett, play women in both plays, most of the actors playing women in one play perform male roles in the other. Joseph Timms, though, plays both Lady Anne and Grey, a male role, in RICHARD III.

            The outstanding actors of female roles are Mr. Barnett, who plays Viola in TWELFTH NIGHT and Queen Elizabeth in RICHARD III; Mr. Rylance, who plays Olivia in TWELFTH NIGHT; and Joseph Chahidi, who portrays Maria in TWELFTH NIGHT. Mr. Rylance also plays the title role in RICHARD III, a true tour de force, while Mr. Chahidi plays both Hastings and Tyrell in that play.

Mark Rylance and Samuel Barnett. Photo: Joan Marcus.

Mark Rylance. Photo: Joan Marcus.

Angus Wright and Mark Rylance. Photo: Joan Marcus.

Mark Rylance. Photo: Joan Marcus.

Mr. Barnett’s Viola is an exceptional piece of work, never falling into camp; he's completely believable when, disguised as the page Cesario, he's able to suggest both the boy he's impersonating and the girl he actually is. (The casting of Joseph Timms as his twin, Sebastian, is a stroke of genius because of the actors’ striking resemblance when wearing similar costumes and makeup.)  Whether Mr. Rylance is, indeed, the greatest classical actor in the English-speaking theatre is, of course, debatable, but he has an always intriguing, inventive, and wonderfully watchable stage presence. His highly-touted Olivia is so eye-catching in the comical way he looks, behaves, and moves that TWELFTH NIGHT essentially makes Olivia the leading, not a supporting, character. I can think of no better adjective for his interpretation than “cute,” but it is a cuteness for the ages and one I won’t soon forget. Mr. Chahidi’s Maria is a full-bodied, buxom, middle-aged woman, mischievous and clever; the presence of the male actor within the woman’s guise serves well at making even crueler the treatment Maria, Sir Toby (Colin Hurley), and Fabian (Jethro Skinner) impose on Malvolio (Stephen Fry). I don't recall a production in which Maria stood out as strongly as she does here.

Mr. Fry’s Malvolio, by the way, is never so outrageously pompous and arrogant as to deserve the mistreatment he's accorded by the trio of mischief makers who abuse him, thereby increasing the sympathy he receives. I suspect Shakespeare would have preferred the audience to agree more with his comeuppance than his vindication.

The other chief performance of the repertory is Mr. Rylance’s RICHARD III, a role in which he gleefully relishes his own machinations and wickedness, laughing bizarrely and shifting suddenly in tone to malevolence and back again; he does this with such clownish glee that many have found his interpretation at odds with Shakespeare’s intentions. Valid as this criticism may be, I found his performance, like that of his equally questionable Olivia, always riveting; his Richard is the kind of a frighteningly friendly sociopath who could as easily charm you into his arms (as he does the woman whose husband and father he's murdered) as gobble you up in one bite.

Under Tim Carroll’s superb direction, both plays move like the wind, with actors entering from or exiting into the two, large upstage doors as one scene succeeds another, and with many entrances and exits using short flights of stairs at down left and right leading to the auditorium. The exquisite costumes, constructed according to early 17th-century methods, make the stage seem a page out of history. Six chandeliers using actual wax candles are overhead, assisted only subtly by electric lighting, and the lights remain on dimly in the auditorium throughout. A fully costumed orchestra playing rauschpfeifes, sackbuts, shawms, recorders, lute, thoerbo, hurdy gurdy, pipe, and tabor is visible above the rear façade, playing authentic music, and further enhancing the sense of what being at a Shakespeare play was like 400 years ago.  

            Although it is far from what an Elizabethan audience would have witnessed, the company appears on stage at half hour to put on their costumes and makeup as the audience watches. Standing on stage with them are modern theatre workers in shirts and ties, headsets, and the like, while similarly contemporary assistants wearing black dress the actors and help with wigs and makeup. This touch reminds us that, while our step back in time is only partial, it’s impossible to recapture with total accuracy a time so distant. We must combine our historical knowledge with creative imagination. The opening sequence is a half-step into the past. Even when the play begins, we and the actors must continue to supply the rest.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

158. MARY-KATE OLSEN IS IN LOVE (November 24, 2013)


Katherine Folk-Sullivan and Alex Grubb. Photo: Hunter Canning.

I’m fully aware that the relatively small number of reviewers who thus far have written about this play, which is having its world premiere at the Flea, have been quite ecstatic about it. Given the dearth of shows to feel that way about, I wish I, too, were in love with MARY-KATE OLSEN IS IN LOVE, but I’m afraid my feelings remain seriously muted. Perhaps this is because I’m decades behind being able to appreciate its funny-sad take on the Millennial generation (despite my granddaughters being a part of it). I can understand the point of its satire, but even an hour of having to listen to two clearly talented young actresses speaking in a pitch-perfect, but exaggerated version of the affectless, whiny, valley girl intonations of the Olsen twins (fraternal, btw, not identical), Mary-Kate (Christine Lee) and Ashley (Kana Hatakeyama), is more punishment than I can bear. Younger spectators, though, who have more of an affinity for these phenomenally successful sitcom actresses turned fashion designers, will clearly feel another way.

From left: Kana Hatakeyama, Katherine Folk-Sullivan, and Christine Lee. Photo: Hunter Canning.

            This isn’t to deny that Mallery Avidon has written a bright commentary on the dilemma of today’s twenty-somethings, especially women, who have set their eyes on goals which they are likely never to achieve, and will have to learn to live with lesser expectations. It’s just that, as a play, MARY-KATE OLSEN IS IN LOVE plays so fast and loose with clever theatrical devices that I had trouble becoming involved in the characters’ dilemmas, and found little to care about besides playwright Avidon and director Kristan Seemel’s ingenuity.

            Grace (Katherine Folk-Sullivan) is a well-educated 27-year-old with a good job, but she feels unfulfilled and spends her spare time as a couch potato stuffing her face while watching cheap TV shows. Her husband, Tyler (Alex Grubbs), a year older, is even worse; he’s unemployed and does nothing but smoke pot and play war-themed video games. A fantasy-like reality invades the lives of both Grace and Tyler. In Grace’s case, the Olsen twins, dressed in their trademark “bag lady” look, manifest themselves before Grace and tempt her with all the things she needs to have in our market-driven world to be truly happy. (There’s an interesting correlation here with the shopaholic character of Mrs. Apex in SELF, the 1856 satire I saw earlier in the day.) Grace even moves to New Zealand to spend her life on the beach with Mary-Kate, only for her to realize that, not only is she not a lesbian, her new life isn’t very satisfying, and she’s ready to settle for the one she had before, mundane as it may have been. Tyler’s avatar is a military figure (Alex Mandell) under whose influence he goes off to war and dies. Despite the stylized presentation, these things actually happen to the characters, so there's no "it was all a dream" denouement. Meanwhile, a chorus of Amazing Girls keeps popping up to express in staccato phrases, first, their aspirations, and, later, their disappointments, as if such has not always been the way of the world. 

            MARY-KATE OLSEN IS IN LOVE is being given in the cramped downstairs theatre at the Flea, with its odd little acting area partly converted by Scott Tedmon-Jones into a prison-like environment with chain-link fencing and barbed wire. The play takes aim at consumerism, marketing, celebrity worship, and unrealistic expectations. Ms. Avidon also told an interviewer, “The play is a satire about sad people and the inability to grow up. . . . I struggle with what it means to be a grown-up.”

The Flea’s resident acting company, the Bats, shows its usual verve and flair, and they have been directed with imagination to get as much out of the room as possible. This is all well and good, but with a play in which the characters are little more than mouthpieces and cartoons, and with two leading characters whose mannerisms grow wearisome (and I'm not blaming the clearly talented Ms. Lee and Ms. Hatakeyama), I remained at a distance, more interested in looking at my watch than at what was happening on the stage. Perhaps I need to binge on "Full House" and "The Adventures of Mary-Kate and Ashley" if I'm going to get all the twins have to offer here. Or not.

Monday, November 25, 2013

157. Review of SELF (November 24, 2013)

157. SELF

Page Clements. Photo: Leonardo Mascaro.
A visit to the tiny Metropolitan Playhouse on E. 4th Street is always an educational experience. The company’s dedication to reviving long-forgotten plays from America’s past, while done on a dime, offers useful lessons not only in the theatre of years gone by, especially before the 20th century, and gives living expression to the morals and issues that stirred old-time playwrights to put pen to paper. Even in productions that must make do with minimal sets and props, and with actors of varying ability, this company provides a fair idea of what our forebears experienced at the theatre in those days of long ago. It’s not likely any other local company would revive a play like SELF: AN ORIGINAL COMEDY, an 1856 comedy of manners by Mrs. Sidney Frances Bateman (1823-1881), who enjoyed a successful stage career both in America and England, so hats are off to the Metropolitan for allowing us the chance to see it.  

            SELF betrays many of the melodramatic excesses of its day, with florid language, stereotypical characters, endless expository monologues and asides, mechanically contrived situations, and moralistic browbeating. Thankfully, however, even with its obvious manipulations, it has moments and ideas of continued interest and relevance. Still, in what seems to be an uncut version that runs 2 hours and 45 minutes, it is far too overblown to sit through comfortably; aside from a few exceptions, its actors are at sea in trying to invest their verbose and overwritten roles with any sense of reality, forcing them to rely on artificial gestures and facial expressions to cover their inadequacies.  

Drew Ledbetter and Page Clements. Photo: Joseph Sinnott.

            SELF is determined to instruct its audience about the dangers of debt, which it sees as the result of a national obsession with conspicuous consumption. Its lessons, as pertinent today as they were over a century and a half ago, are couched in a play that shows us a wealthy businessman, George Apex (Doug Farrell), whose second wife, Clemanthe Apex (Page Clements), not only has a nasty shopping habit but is the mother by a previous marriage to Charles (Drew Ledbetter), a reckless gambler who looks down on those who work for a living. Apex, for all his seeming wealth, is actually on the verge of bankruptcy, but his beautiful, angelic daughter, Mary (Erica Knight), willingly agrees to save him by signing over to him the entirety of a $15,000 legacy she's inherited from an aunt. However, unaware of this, the selfish Mrs. Apex convinces the at first hesitant Charles to forge Mary's name to a check to pay off their own debts. Showing a glint of decency, Charles says he’ll give up gambling and get a job as a clerk. His pretentious mother says this “will break my heart!" “Better be a working man than a thief,” Charles replies, only to give the idea up when his mother convinces him that the forgery is no such thing, but merely a temporary “borrowing,” which she says she’ll pay back in a few days. However, when Mr. Apex learns from the bank that the money is no longer, he blames Mary—who has promised Mrs. Apex not to reveal the truth—for reneging on her promise, and he tosses her and her faithful black nurse (Mary calls her “Mammy”), Chloe (Marie Louise Guinier), out into a life of penury. “Out of my sight, viper that you are!” rants Apex to his daughter. But all is not lost, since Mary’s loving and wealthy, if crabbily upright godfather, John Unit (Howard Thoresen), comes to the rescue. Almost every sentence of this 60-year-old misogynist (except where Mary is concerned) weighs things in terms of whether they “pay” or not; when the nefarious doings of Mrs. Apex and her son are exposed, Mr. Unit spreads forgiveness around like marmalade and finds a suitable, if private, punishment for the wrongdoers. Surrounding these central characters is a group of comedic gossips who provide commentary on the goings on, and get their own comeuppances as well.

            SELF teaches us, among other things, that work is virtuous and gambling ruinous; that mindless consumption and vanity is wicked; that frugality is essential and debt is horrible; and that self-interest plays a part in all we do, even when we act charitably toward others, but reminds us that we should act selflessly whenever possible. Even old Unit, with his insistence that the only things of value are those that pay, discovers that “love, respect, and sympathy are the only things that pay.” SELF, written four years after UNCLE TOM’S CABIN, also teaches racial tolerance. The black nurse Chloe, despite her dialect-laden lines, is actually written as a human being with strong moral standards that are recognized and appreciated by the others in the play; such roles were rare in mid-19th-century theatre, a time when blacks were played by white actors in blackface in stereotypically clownish ways. As someone says in SELF, Chloe is one more proof that “outward covering is not to be depended on.”

Erica Knight and Marie Louise Guinier. Photo: Debby Goldman.

As often at the Metropolitan, the various scenes (all of those in SELF being interiors) are all played within the same basic environment, designed here by Aaron Sheckler; the change of locales is indicated only by a change in furnishings. Scenery is not the Metropolitan’s strong suit, but enough indications are provided to let us know when we’ve moved from one place to another. On the other hand, the Metropolitan normally provides visual interest in its costumes, and, considering the low budget, Sidney Fortier must be strongly commended for the attractive period clothing with which she’s dressed his cast, especially the women. Women’s garments in the 1850s used great swathes of material and were highly decorative, and the wide, hoop dresses on display here are truly eye-catching. Kudos to the actresses for maneuvering them about the cramped acting area without knocking anything over!
 Under Alex Roe’s direction, the tone mixes melodrama and satire in equal proportions, Mr. Roe thoughtfully inserts ten period songs sung by a quartet of actors to cover the scene changes. Of the actors, only Howard Thoresen as the crusty but kind Mr. Unit is truly grounded and believable. Erica Knight is perfectly cast as the selfless Mary, but she has a distracting tendency to scrunch her eyes as a way of expressing both joy and sorrow. Drew Ledbetter makes a fairly effective profligate as George, but Page Clements, acceptable when speaking, overacts when she has to express herself without words. The remaining cast members, especially Kyle Payne as a foppish parvenu, are simply out of their element here.
Sidney Fortier and Howard Thoresen. :Photo: Lois Segman.
            American life has changed much since 1856, but as SELF so clearly illustrates, the more things change the more they remain the same.


156. Review of FAMILY FURNITURE (November 23, 2013)


A.R. Gurney, whose work in recent years has been a mainstay at the Flea Theatre, returns with FAMILY FURNITURE, yet another in his chronicles of WASP family life. The family here lives in Buffalo, a favorite Gurney locale (he was raised there), the time is the summer of 1952, and the seams between conservative WASP values and those of the postwar generation are beginning to fray. There is nothing earthshaking in this quiet picture of family life, and we’ve seen it all before, but Gurney’s low-key, naturalistic style and the nicely complementary approach of the actors under Thomas Kail’s unobtrusive direction keep the piece afloat for its intermissionless 90 minutes.

Peter Scolari (left) and Andrew Keenan-Bolger. Photo: Joan Marcus.

            Peter Scolari, channeling the simple underplaying of his former “Bosom Buddies” costar, Tom Hanks, is Russell, the well-off father of college students Peggy (Ismenia Mendes), a Smith student, and Nick (Andrew Keenan-Bolger), who's at Williams. The family is spending the summer at their lakefront home on Lake Erie, where Russell likes to fish and sail. Peggy has an Italian-American boyfriend, Marco, but Russell, despite his professed love of the Italian people when they’re in their homeland, has reservations about them in America, where he thinks of them as being either gangsters or politicians: "they misbehave when they're away from their roots." He reveals his own youthful love affair with a Jewish girl, which he thinks amply demonstrates why alliances with people from other family backgrounds are unwise. He allows Peggy to go on a month-long trip to Italy, hoping it will be the antidote to Marco, and is thrilled when she comes home having met and possibly fallen for a wealthy, dyed-in-the-wool WASP boy from Philadelphia named Hamilton Booth who goes to Princeton. Russell’s sense of vindication is swiftly altered when Peggy reveals she may be pregnant by him. Suddenly, “Princeton,” as the smugly upper-crust Russell calls him, is a “rascal” who will pay for whatever expenses are incurred. The idea of “abortion” is only indirectly suggested. Meanwhile, Nick is in love with a Jewish girl, Betsy (Molly Nordin), a Bennington student of poetry. Russell once again expresses his unease about such a cross-ethnic relationship. Gurney delicately navigates Russell’s them versus us mentality in a way that shows it as more than simple bigotry. Although far less common now than then, we all know families that object to their children marrying outside their ethnicities.

            The central plot device is Nick's suspicion that his mother, the attractive Claire (Carolyn McCormick), is having an affair with Howard Baldwin, a family friend. Unlike the uptight Russell, Claire has more liberal ideas about human relationships ("I believe in hybrid vigor"), so it's not unlikely that something is, indeed, going on. Betsy, Nick’s girlfriend, even plots to have him and her read aloud the closet scene from HAMLET in front of Claire to gauge her reaction as a way of testing her guilt. Claire's behavior profoundly affects Nick, whose summer ends with him having moved a step forward toward maturity.

            In this cultured world of privilege and ease, tennis and martinis, people rarely raise their voices. An undercurrent of polite repression races through everyone's veins, an attitude expressed in Russell’s insistence on the proper use of English. The actors convincingly capture through timing and emphasis many of the subtextual nuances, and they capably express both the humorous and poignant elements. Rachel Hauck’s setting, too, is tastefully spare but nuanced, being merely three large, white-painted windows and sets of shutters along the rear wall, abetted by some basic wooden benches and a chair that serve for whatever furniture is needed, and can even be rearranged even to imply the presence of a sailboat. The play begins with the opening of the shutters for the summer season, and concludes with their being shut. Filling the brief interstices between the scenes is Bart Fasbender’s sound design of snatches of pop music from the period.

            FAMILY FURNITURE has many conventional elements. It doesn’t explore new ground, its plot is familiar, its performances are un-showy. But it has a fundamental level of sincerity that makes it more than it at first appears.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

155. Review of AND AWAY WE GO (November 23, 2013)


The first thing that came to mind when I saw announcements printing the title of AND AWAY WE GO was that it had something to do with Jackie Gleason. This was the signature phrase of the great, overweight comedian who said it as he lifted one leg, swung it across his other, and, palms facing down, swooped off sideways to wherever he was headed. But Gleason is nowhere in sight in what is, instead, Terrence McNally’s unusual new play at the Pearl Theatre about the trials, travails, tribulations, and triumphs of theatre people (Western theatre people, that is), from the Greeks to today.

From left: Carol Schultz, Donna Lynne Champlin, Dominic Cuskern, Micah Stock, Sean McNall. Photo: Al Foote III.
            The Pearl’s wide stage has been strikingly converted by set designer Sandra Goldmark to the impressive semblance of a universal prop and costume room, replete with work stations and shelving. Everywhere hang lamps of all sizes, colors, and dimensions, while props, costumed dummies, masks, weapons, and every other sort of theatrical odds and ends fill the shelves, hang from the ceiling, and line the walls in orderly confusion. Regardless of its anachronistic accoutrements, and the use of electric lighting, this cluttered yet appealing space is to be home to a conglomeration of moments set backstage in multiple theatrical periods: Athens, 458 B.C., at the Theatre of Dionysus; London, 1610, at the Globe Theatre; Versailles, 1789, at the Royal Theatre; Moscow, 1896 [sic], at the Moscow Art Theatre; Coconut Grove, Florida, 1956, at the Coconut Grove Playhouse; and an unnamed resident theatre company (perhaps the Pearl?), the present.
From left: Rachel Botchan, Micah Stock, Carol Schultz, Donna Lynne Champlin. Photo: Al Foote III.

The dates listed here are from the script, so it must be noted that the Moscow Art Theatre did not exist in 1896, but was created in 1898. However, the dates have some significance; the first is when Aeschylus’ THE ORESTEIA premiered; the second is during a rehearsal of Shakespeare’s THE TEMPEST (which opened in1611, not 1610); the third during the performance of an unnamed new French play; the fourth during the first Moscow Art Theatre reading of Chekhov’s THE SEAGULL; the fifth during a performance of the American premiere  of Samuel Beckett’s WAITING FOR GODOT, starring Bert Lahr; and the last as a contemporary company is preparing to cancel its upcoming season because of a financial shortfall.

            There are six actors in the play and they each play one of the six characters Mr. McNally has created for each period. Thus each actor--Rachel Botchan, Donna Lynne Champlin, Dominic Cuskern, Sean McNall, Carol Schultz, and Micah Stock, all current members of the Pearl's resident company--plays six roles and there are 36 roles in all. The play actually begins with each actor kissing the stage floor, announcing their name, how long they've been acting, their favorite role, their least favorite, and one thing the audience should know about them. Technically, AND AWAY WE GO is a tour de force of playwriting ingenuity, one that calls for tour de force performances from each actor. Although certain characters tend to dominate some scenes, there are no leading roles, and the result exemplifies the meaning of ensemble. I have reservations about both the play and the acting, but it’s impossible not to appreciate the ambition, cleverness, and effort represented here.

            The action begins in Greece and, as it moves forward in time, it also moves backward, and characters from one period often pop up in others. The overall effect is of the continuity of concerns among members of the theatre community. Anachronisms course freely through the dialogue, which is mostly in a contemporary colloquial mode. Occasionally there are political references, such as the French Revolution brewing in the background of the Versailles material, to suggest the relationship between theatre and society. Cannons keep going off, even in ancient Greece; perhaps these sounds are symbolic of the Elizabethan practice of announcing a play’s beginning with a cannon explosion and of the Globe Theatre’s having once been burned down as a result; some sort of danger, even in the form of monetary shortages, is always threatening to end the life of the fabulous invalid.

            The play is a stewpot of theatrical references and in-jokes, and I often wondered how much was being absorbed by the audience at the Pearl. Theatre buffs will appreciate much of it, although they’ll wince if they spot bloopers (such as the reference to SHE STOOPS TO CONQUER as Restoration comedy), but too many references are bound to fly over all that silver hair. Even the story of WAITING FOR GODOT’S Florida debacle will likely pass by many theatergoers.

            The nonstop mingling of personnel from different periods and the shifting back and forth in time eventually becomes confusing and dull, since none of the characters is given more than a quick outline and the actors are switching from role to role with only minimal physical alterations. A few characters, like Richard Burbage and Mildred Lahr (Bert’s wife), are based on actual people, but most are fictional, not that this matters as all are too thinly drawn to make any distinctions among the real and the actual. While I appreciated being immersed in the world of theatre past, and its associations with theatre present, too much struck me as artificial, and the humor never rose above the level of an ingenious but overextended college sketch. The nature of the writing makes it impossible for the players to give any but the most superficial performances, and, while the company plays with brio and enthusiasm, a great deal of the acting set in earlier periods is overly broad and self-consciously theatrical.

            To his credit, director Jack Cummings III paces the play briskly, although this still doesn't prevent the intermissionless hour and 50 minutes eventually becoming a strain. Without a cohesive plot, and what seems like an endless stream of backstage remarks about playwriting, acting, directors, theatre business, agents, censorship, rehearsals, remembering lines, unions, understudies, masks, critics, men playing women, etc., one’s interest wanes and the well runs dry. When the words “And away we go” were spoken shortly before the play ended, I was glad to take them at their face value.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

154. Review of WITNESSED BY THE WORLD (November 22, 2013)


Seeing this play about JFK’s assassination on November 22, 2013, the 50th anniversary of that tragic event, was the only thing about it that had any meaningful dramatic value. In WITNESSED BY THE WORLD, Ronnie Cohen and Jean Beale have written a play set in the present day that dramatizes the possibility that Jack Ruby, the gangster-connected nightclub owner who killed Lee Harvey Oswald, did it on behalf of his Mafia associates. What a revelation! Of course, the fact that Ruby’s Mafia links were thoroughly investigated on multiple occasions, and not only by the Warren Commission, and were determined not to have relevance in his killing of Oswald is neglected in the dramatists’ rush to judgment on his motives. As far as their lead character, investigative reporter Joan Ross (Charlotte Maier), is concerned, the Warren Commission "is absolute horseshit. Turns out some of those commission guys weren't the most persnickety." The Rockefeller Panel, the Freedom of Information Act? "All smoke screens." The fact that the files have not been opened this year as promised clearly means that something is being hidden. Whether or not that has any truth, however, is not so much the issue as that she is convinced the secret lies with Ruby's sister.

            The play, running at 59E59, begins with Joan finishing up an interview with a young screenwriter, Ira Basil (Max Gordon Moore), about his and his producer brother's charity work; within seconds of learning that Ira's working on a new script about the Mafia, she gets him to agree to collaborate with her on a screenplay focusing on her pet theory about Ruby’s part in the Kennedy assassination plot. Soon, she and Ira are mapping their screenplay out on a chalkboard, although Ira and his brother (not seen) aren't interested in another movie about the assassination but rather want to do one about Ruby’s life before it. Why anyone would want to see such a film is never discussed; Joan, frustrated by this decision, nevertheless follows her goal of sleuthing what happened by locating and interviewing Ruby’s reclusive sister, Eileen Kaminsky (Lois Markle), who, if she were still alive, would now be 96-years-old; Ms. Markle, a respected veteran, may be of a certain age, but there’s no way the character she plays is anywhere near being a centenarian; nor, as depicted, is she the least bit credible to Joan's conspiracy theory. Meanwhile, mirabile dictu, Joan’s gambling buddy, Aaron Spencer, has gotten into trouble with the Mafia and, as it happens, Joe Capano (Joe Tapper), the hoodlum who is forcing him to do some money laundering for the mob, works for Uncle Tony, a shadowy figure who somehow was involved in what went down in Dallas. Eileen (whose 1964 testimony can be read at is reluctant to speak to Joan at first, but the sly reporter rather quickly becomes her close friend and Eileen, without prompting, gives Joan a cigar box with various Ruby artifacts, including a bank key. Joan believes she’s onto something huge here and hires a private eye to find the lock that fits the key. Meanwhile, with Aaron in tow, Joan attends a film industry gala honoring Ira for his charitable work, when . . . I’ll omit the spoiler in case anyone is seriously interested in visiting this totally implausible concoction.

            The program note for WITNESSED BY THE WORLD says: “It’s a play that seeks to stoke the ashes from that fateful time and re-open the conversation about what really happened.” That intention is laudable, but to do so in such a flimsily argued play about issues that have been part of the public record for so long, with the kind of incredible plot twists this play provides, is unacceptable.

            This melodramatic farrago is performed on a dreary set, designed by Libby Stadstad, consisting of little more than black wings and a black background onto which some mildly effective chalk drawing-like images created by Matthew Haber are projected to establish certain scenes. Very little money was invested in the physical trappings, but not even a set by John Lee Beatty could have turned this sow’s ear into a silk purse. The principal creative contribution is Lindsay Jones’s original music, which does manage to create some suspense between scenes.

            None of the otherwise competent actors is able to rise above the play's contrivances, nor is Karen Carpenter’s direction of much help. A friend pointed out such bloopers as the seatbelts draped over the actors’ shoulders as they entered and exited a car, and the never-never do that act of using a wet eraser on a chalkboard. Such missteps could be corrected easily, but not so the premises of this play, which could use a wet eraser of its own. Tovah Feldshuh was originally announced as the play’s star; she seems to have bowed out so she could take over Andrea Martin's role in PIPPIN, which couldn't have happened at a better time. This is not a play in which she would have wanted to be witnessed by the world.

153. Review of ALL THAT FALL (November 21, 2013)



Perhaps no other playwright was as obsessive about protecting his vision of how his plays should be produced than Samuel Beckett. So protective of his work did he become that he found himself spending much of his time supervising other directors staging his plays, and eventually becoming their director himself. He would drill actors over and over to get the right nuances, and he once reduced Billie Whitelaw, the English actress he considered his favorite interpreter, to hysterical tears when she had trouble giving him what he wanted. “My God, Billie, what have I done to you? . . . my God, Billie, what have I done to you?” he said as he stroked her hand. When she had recovered a few minutes later, his attitude changed to all business. “Are you better now? Do you think we can get on with rehearsal?”

            Still, directors continued to approach his eccentric plays with eccentric interpretations, and, when it became too time-consuming, he gradually reduced his complaining and lawsuits and simply simmered. I say all this in response to Trevor Nunn’s current staging of ALL THAT FALL, a one-hour radio play Beckett wrote in 1956 for the BBC (which produced it in January 1957);  he insisted it must be done precisely as a radio play, that is, with all the necessary sound effects but with the actors simply standing and reading their lines in front of microphones. When you listen to a radio play you must see the play in your mind, and he was not especially in favor of having his radio plays staged in theatres, even though, given his name and reputation, this has been done many times.

            Nunn’s production, originally given at the Jermyn Street Theatre in London in 2012, and then moved to the West End’s Arts Theatre, conforms only to the spirit, and not the letter, of Beckett’s requirement, in that the actors hold their scripts and pretend to be reading from them. They are certainly in a space that could pass as a radio studio, it being merely a black-walled room with six chairs at either side, and with a number of microphones hung from wires over the central area. When the broadcast is in progress, a red light over one of the two upstage doorways goes on, and when the play ends, it goes off. But upstage is a prop resembling part of a small automobile, with two seats and a working door on its downstage side. A major chunk of the stage business revolves around the outspoken character of the overweight (in the script) Mrs. Maddy Rooney (the trim Eileen Atkins in the role created by Ms. Whitelaw) getting into and out of this cramped vehicle. Mr. Nunn has staged it very humorously and Ms. Atkins and her fellow actors play it exactly right, but it is a denial of the author’s intentions, and I really would have liked to see how the actors could have created the same comical sense of Mrs. Rooney’s physical discomfort without having it done quite so literally.

            Mr. Nunn has chosen to physically embody not only the car scene, but, to a degree, the play itself, although not with props. He hasn’t brought a hinny (a cross between a horse and a mule) and cart on for the scene when a dung carter (“dung” is mentioned repeatedly) named Christy (Ruairi Conaghan) encounters Mrs. Rooney as she walks down a country road to the train station to surprise her husband, Mr. Rooney (Michael Gambon), on his birthday by picking him up when he arrives. The actors behave as if there’s a stubborn hinny and cart present, and there’s quite a lot of other physical behavior and blocking as Mrs. Rooney proceeds on her journey. When a man on a bicycle appears, he mimes riding it. Moreover, the actors wear costumes that convey their characters, whereas a recreation of a 1956-style radio broadcast would surely have had the men in suits and ties and the women in whatever the actresses involved chose to wear, even if a small studio audience happened to be present. No “designer” (in this case, Cheri Truluck) would have been involved.

            ALL THAT FALL is not as opaque as Beckett’s great stage plays, like WAITING FOR GODOT or ENDGAME, accessible as they usually are, but is essentially a genre piece about colorful Irish characters, with its central roles, played by MS. Atkins and Mr. Gambon, two truly top-tier British stars. It is rather autobiographical, and its writing is said to have caused Beckett, who often struggled with depression, to suffer greatly once he’d finished it. The play is overlaid with a patina of pathos, and touches on aging, death, godlessness, and decrepitude, but in a gently satiric way that conveys Beckett’s usual themes about the anguish of existence, but that also captures the atmosphere of provincial Irish life, down to the characters’ brogues. Literary scholars have uncovered dozens of symbolic and personal references, but no audience could be expected to recognize them without serious study. The essential plot is that Mrs. Rooney walks to the station, meets her husband, and walks home with him as the weather turns foul. She continually encounters metaphorical bumps in the road, which are overcome, as they must be if she is to continue to go on. Still, because of its deceptive simplicity and lack of significant conflict, many audience members are likely to utter responses like the one I heard an elderly gentleman say to his wife in the street outside: “What the hell did you think of it?”

            True to the radio concept, sound effects, created by Paul Groothius, play a major role in evoking the rural atmosphere. The sounds of animals clucking, crowing, and whatever are distinct, as are the footsteps on the gravelly road, the train’s sounds, and such incidental things as Mahler’s “Death and the Maiden,” heard from a nearby house as Mrs. Rooney walks along.

            Regardless of my purist’s reaction to the way in which the production ignores Beckett’s wishes (I’m sure the Beckett estate, even if not completely satisfied, approved it), ALLTHAT FALL is clearly of serious interest. The British and Irish actors assembled to support the leads all bring authenticity and insight to their characterizations, and Mr. Gambon and Ms. Atkins don’t disappoint in revealing their rich ability to embody Beckett’s eccentric characters with humor, sorrow, and intelligence. Mr. Gambon's role is not as long as Ms. Atkins's and hers is the dominant performance, but it is still something to see how, with his deep voice and massive presence, he completely commands the stage, even in the role of a doddering old man. Some of his moments with Ms. Atkins as they face the bleakness before them are deeply touching.

           ALL THAT FALL is one of several Beckett programs being offered this season. Broadway's WAITING FOR GODOT, of course, with Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen, is the piece de resistance, while A MIND-BENDING EVENING OF BECKETT at the Irish Rep offers something of a Beckett sampler. The main reason for seeing ALL THAT FALL is for the rare opportunity to see two great English actors working together; I'd have rather seen them in something more theatrically substantial, but seeing them at all is still something to be relished.

152. Review of AFTER MIDNIGHT (November 20, 2013)



If your tastes run to theatrical filet mignon, I advise DOMESTICATED at Lincoln Center or the Shakespeare plays in rep at the Belasco, but if what you’re looking for is the indulgence of a hot fudge sundae, with all the works, you could do worse than swinging on over to the Brooks Atkinson for AFTER MIDNIGHT, an hour and a half revue providing uninterrupted musical whipped cream. The show, developed from an earlier work called COTTON CLUB PARADE, seen in the City Center Encores! Series, is getting the full Broadway treatment.

From left: Daniel J. Watts, Dormeshia Sumbry-Edwards, Phillip Attmore. Photo: Matthew Murphy.

            AFTER MIDNIGHT has a very simple concept. It intends to recapture the kind of singing and dancing entertainment once associated with Harlem’s legendary Cotton Club, a nightclub whose entertainers were black and its audience white. But the show completely avoids any such historical/racial context, preferring instead to tie all the acts together with some poetic bits and pieces from Langston Hughes delivered by Dulé Hill as a smooth MC who also sings and dances. If you recall him from TV’s “The West Wing,” you’ll be happy to know that he has decent musical theatre skills, although he gets to use them only sporadically here.
Center: Virgil "Lil'O" Gadson; right: Karine Plantadit. Photo: Matthew Murphy.
            The show is little more than a succession of acts, any one of which could easily be moved around from one slot to the other, with the music selected from the songs of Duke Ellington, Ted Koehler and Harold Arlen, Sippie Wallace, Dorothy Fields and Jimmy McHugh, Cab Calloway, and others, with the majority coming from the great Mr. Ellington. The Jazz at Lincoln Center All Stars, a 16-piece orchestra, sits upstage on a sliding platform while the acts are performed in front of it. An act comes on, finishes, walks off as the lights dim, and another act comes on as the lights come up. Continuity is provided by the Cotton Club aura, not by any narrative thread. So there’s not much to chew on, but there’s plenty of singing and dancing to ingest.

            Headlining the show is “American Idol” winner Fantasia Barrino, who already has earned Broadway laurels for THE COLOR PURPLE; she has the audience in the palm of her hands whenever she appears, singing  such standards as “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love,” “Stormy Weather,” “Zaz Zuh Zaz,” and “On the Sunny Side of the Street.” Ms. Barrino has great stage presence, knows how to relish a lyric, has a terrific voice, and moves with sensual authority. She’s scheduled to remain in the show for several months, after which she’ll be replaced by k.d. lang (in an all-black revue?), and then Toni Braxton and Babyface, with others to follow down the line.

            Among the featured players making a big impression are Adriane Lenox, singing “Women Be Wise” and “Go Back Where You Stayed Last Night”; dancer Karine Plantadit in several numbers, especially “Black and Tan Fantasy”; and Dormeshia Sumbry-Edwards doing “The Skrontch,” “Raisin’ the Rent” and “Get Yourself a New Broom.” Two male dancers, the diminutive terpsichorean acrobat Virgil “Lil’o” Gadson, and the unforgettably loose-limbed, double-jointed Julius “iGlide” Chisholm, are sensational, both singly and when paired, while Jared Grimes earns his niche on the roster of great tap dancers. A sizable ensemble of gifted performers helps fill out many of the acts, and gives the audience a rousing send-off in the final number, when the entire company appears.

            But as many others have noted, despite the array of talented singers and dancers, the performers who make the event truly memorable are the members of the Jazz at Lincoln Center All Star, an orchestra of woodwinds, trumpets, trombones, tuba, piano, guitar, bass, and drums that is simply fantastic; when the show has seemingly ended, and the curtain calls are over, their  platform stage glides forward for a mini-concert that lifts you out of the theatre with music in your heart.

            John Lee Beatty’s relatively simple set is a series of false prosceniums to which appropriate elements are added as necessary, and Howell Binkley’s lights do a great job of creating the colorful revue atmosphere. Isabel Toledo’s costumes are knockouts, recreating old Harlem’s nightclub world, from the women’s sequined gowns to the men’s tails and top hats.

            As I’ve said, there’s not much food for thought in AFTER MIDNIGHT, but if music be the food of love, play on.