Saturday, April 26, 2014


291-300. YOUR MOTHER’S COPY OF THE KAMA SUTRA (Friday, April 11)

 VIOLET (Saturday, April 12: matinee)

THE VELOCITY OF AUTUMN (Saturday, April 12: evening) 

THE MYSTERY OF IRMA VEP (Tuesday, April 15)

 CABARET (Wednesday, April 16: matinee)

THE CRIPPLE OF INISHMAAN (Wednesday, April 16: evening)


HEDWIG AND THE ANGRY INCH (Thursday, April 17)

CASA VALENTINA (Friday, April 18)

INVENTING MARY MARTIN (Saturday, April 19) 

As the official theatre awards season comes to an end, I note that I’ve seen approximately 300 shows of every type: musical, drama, revue, revivals of modern and classic plays, one-man/woman shows, magic shows, circuses, shows clean as a whistle and dirty as porn. Being human, I missed half a dozen shows I might otherwise have attended, but for those I’ve seen I wrote a review of almost every one. My time this week having been consumed by awards deliberations, I can offer only brief reviews of the final 10 shows for those who may be interested in my general response.


Zoë Sophia Garcia, Rebecca Henderson, Chris Stack. Photo: Jeremy Daniel.

This weirdly named new play by Kirk Lynn, directed by Anne Kauffman at Playwrights Horizon’s Peter Jay Sharp Theatre, has nothing to do with the Kama Sutra, although sex plays a significant role. In the first act, Carla (Zoë Sophia Garcia) insists that she and her fiancé, Reggie (Chris Stack), replicate all their previous good and bad sexual experiences over the course of a year to see if they’re compatible, and without secrets, before marrying. Before doing so, Reggie seeks the advice of his ex-gal pal, a mediator named Tony (a mannered Rebecca Henderson), who has her doubts; still, Reggie goes ahead with the plan. Meanwhile, the action keeps shifting to scenes involving the relationship between a teenage couple, Sean (Max Brawer) and Bernie (Ismenia Mendes), which is interfered with by another teenager, the devilish Cole (Will Pullen), who creates a crisis when he slips the girl a “date rape” drug. We only learn later that act one has been running on two different timelines, and that Bernie, who now needs healing from her own sexual misadventure, is the daughter of Carla and Reggie. Act two connects the dots, but is principally about the push and pull territory between an angry Reggie and his depressed daughter; despite its familiarity and excessive yelling, it has some sizzling writing. The first act is erratic and the second unfulfilling. At the very least, the Kama Sutra would have been sexier.
 Ismenia Mendes, Max Brawer. Photo: Jeremy Daniel.

Sutton Foster. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Sutton Foster shows why her acting and singing chops make her one of today’s top Broadway stars, although she doesn’t get to dance in Leigh Silverman’s excellently directed revival of VIOLET. This is a “road” musical, like LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE earlier in the season, about a journey with a very special goal; it’s based on a book by Doris Betts, The Ugliest Pilgrim. The show, by Jeanine Tesori (music) and Brian Crawley (book and lyrics), originally seen Off Broadway in 1997, had a one-night City Center Encores showing in 2013, and is now being given a Roundabout-produced Broadway version at the American Airlines Theatre. Ms. Foster plays the title role, a resourceful but touchy and defensive 1964 farmwoman from North Carolina’s Blue Ridge Mountains whose face was seriously scarred by an ax accident caused by her father (Alexander Gemignani) when she was 13 (the young Violet is well played by Emerson Steele); after years of being ridiculed and stared at, she seeks to regain her prettiness by traveling through the South on a bus to Oklahoma where she believes a TV faith healer (Ben Davis) can make the scar disappear. She meets a couple of uniformed soldiers on the way, the white Monty (Colin Donnell, wonderful) and the black Flick (Joshua Henry, outstanding, especially when singing “Let It Sing”). Despite her assumed unattractiveness (the scar is not shown), Violet becomes romantically involved with each, a bit of magic realism perhaps. This being 1964, the show’s temperature rises because of the contemporary Civil Rights fever in the background. VIOLET lacks the pizzazz of a big Broadway musical, but its tuneful country, bluegrass, and gospel score, creatively modest production, colorful supporting cast—some in multiple roles—and the sensitive, complex, yet nonetheless big bang-for-your-bucks performance of Ms. Foster make it one of the best musicals now on the Great White Way.
From left: Joshua Henry, Colin Donnell, Sutton Foster. Photo: Joan Marcus.


Estelle Parsons, at 86, dominates Eric Coble’s flimsy two-character dramedy, at the Booth Theatre, with the remarkably unflagging energy of a woman half her age. She plays Alexandra, a grumpy, feisty, resilient 79-year-old buzzard, who refuses to let her children move her into a nursing home and out of the Brooklyn brownstone she’s lived in for decades; she’s filled her living room with Molotov cocktails, prepared to blow not only the house but half the block to kingdom come if she doesn’t get her way. This prompts her older children (unseen) to summon Chris (Stephen Spinella), her youngest, a ponytailed, gay, middle-aged artist who raised his mother’s ire when he moved away to New Mexico many years ago. As expected, Chris and Alexandra work out their issues over the course of the action, but the piece is riddled with implausible moments and behavior. Despite the exaggerations, many will respond sympathetically to the play’s question of how children should deal with an aging parent, but the fun is in seeing the octogenarian star adding another eccentric character to her trademark gallery of them, going full steam (and shouting much of the time) for 90 minutes, doing all she can to blow air into this flat tire of a play. Mr. Spinella is an only moderately effective counterforce to the velocity of Ms. Parson’s performance.
 Stephen Spinella, Estelle Parsons. Photo: Joan Marcus.  


This is the 30th-anniversary revival, at the Lucille Lortel Theatre, of Charles Ludlam’s 1984 parody of Gothic stage and film melodramas (like Hitchcock’s REBECCA). Written for Ludlam's Ridiculous Theatrical Company, it's directed by Ludlam's former associate, Everett Quinton, and stars two versatile actors, Robert Sella and Arnie Burton, who make multiple quick changes to play eight roles, male and female. Here’s the Wikipedia plot summary: “Mandacrest Estate is the home of Lord Edgar, an Egyptologist, and Lady Enid. Lady Enid is Lord Edgar's second wife, though he has yet to recover entirely from the passing of his first wife, Irma Vep. The house staff, a maid named Jane Twisden and a swineherd named Nicodemus Underwood, have their own opinions of Lady Enid. Enid is attacked by a vampire, and Edgar seeks answers in an Egyptian tomb, briefly resurrecting the mummy of an Egyptian princess. Returning home with the sarcophagus, Edgar prepares to hunt down the werewolf he blames for the death of his son and first wife. Meanwhile, Enid discovers Irma locked away, supposedly to coax out the location of precious jewels from her. Wresting the keys to Irma's cell from Jane, Enid frees Irma only to discover the prisoner is, in fact, Jane herself, actually a vampire, and the killer of Irma as well as her and Edgar's son. Nicodemus, now a werewolf, kills Jane, only to be shot dead by Edgar. In the end, Enid prevents Edgar from writing about his experiences in Egypt, revealing she was the princess herself, the whole thing an elaborate sham by her father to discredit Edgar. The two reconcile.”  I saw the show at an early preview so I won’t review it here, but there’s nothing wrong with noting that my guest loved it.


 Michelle Williams. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Yes, Kander and Ebb’s CABARET is back at Studio 54 again; it’s essentially the same Roundabout revival, directed by Sam Mendes and Rob Marshall, that opened in 1998 starring Alan Cumming as the Emcee and Natasha Richardson as Sally Bowles, even to having Mr. Cumming return to fill his Tony-winning role. Once again, the orchestra seats have been removed, with the Kit Kat Klub’s seedy ambience created by tiny cabaret tables. (Be warned, the snacks and drinks will require the equivalent of billions of Weimar Marks.) That production, which closed 10 years ago, ran for 2,377 performances, with multiple cast replacements (I saw Mollie Ringwald as Sally) and became Broadway’s third longest-running revival. Sally, the second-rate British performer mired in the trashy night life of pre-Nazi Berlin, is now in the hands of blonde-bobbed Broadway newcomer, Michelle Williams, of Hollywood fame. Despite the glow of her yellow hair, however, the Kit Kat Klub’s lights seem to be burning a bit dimmer than usual. Ms. Williams is a very good screen actress, but, while she has an interesting vibrato, she doesn’t quite generate the theatrical charisma associated with the part; her facial and bodily expressiveness is often more enigmatic than sexually dynamic. Mr. Cumming, of course, brings his heralded blend of mystery, charm, and decadence to the Emcee, the roles of Frau Schneider and Herr Schultz are excellently handled by Broadway vets Linda Emond and Danny Burstein, and Bill Heck is appealing as the bisexual Cliff. There’s no doubt that CABARET’s score is far superior to that of any new musical in the 2013-2014 season, and that “Wilkommen” alone blows everything else out of the park. So CABARET is certainly worth a visit by those not familiar with it (if any such creatures still exist); Alan Cumming alone is worth the price of admission. The show just seems a tad tired and could probably have used a longer rest before so quickly returning to its old haunts.

Allan Cumming. Photo: Joan Marcus.

 Pat Shortt, Daniel Radcliffe. Photo: Johan Persson. 

This is a superb revival at the Cort Theatre of Martin McDonagh’s engrossing, touching, and often hilarious 1996 play, starring Harry Potter, er, I mean Daniel Radcliffe, as Cripple Billy (Mr. Radcliffe), a seriously handicapped 17-year-old on the isolated Irish island of Inishmaan. When, in 1934, Robert Flaherty arrives to film MAN OF ARAN, Billy, despite (or because of) his deformed body and stumbling gait, is chosen from among all the islanders to try out for a Hollywood film, and is flown to Los Angeles for a screen test; this alters not only his life but those of the colorful townspeople who always belittled him. The script turns a number of surprising corners before coming to its satisfactory conclusion. A brilliant ensemble, wonderfully directed by Martin Grandage, brings all the sharply etched, richly accented characters to ruddy-faced life. I could write encomiums to, among others, the veteran actresses Gillian Hanna and Ingrid Craigie as Billy’s aunties, Sarah Greene as the flame-tressed (with temperament to match) Helen McCormick, and the remarkable Pat Shortt as the Dickensian Johnnypateenmike. Mr. Radcliffe, who sounds as authentically Irish as any of his costars, has become something of a regular Broadway visitor in recent years and demonstrates why he’s increasingly recognized as one of England’s best young stage actors.
From left: Daniel Radcliffe, Ingrid Craigie, Gillian Hanna, Pat Shortt. Photo: Johan Persson.

I missed the first “volume” (2011) of this ongoing project, which is downtown at the Theatre for a New City. Since what I viewed was an invited dress rehearsal all I’ll say is that this is a clever, one hour and 25-minute piece of devised theatre by a group called the Neo-Futurists in which four versatile actors, two men and two women, using a spare space with carefully chosen props, enact—in mime, apart from a few vocalizations—O’Neill’s extensive stage directions in five early one-acts from 1913-1915 (“RECKLESSNESS,” “WARNINGS,” “FOG,” “ABORTION,” and “THE SNIPER”), as they’re read into a microphone by a seated actor at a desk. The directions are so detailed one can figure out the plots even without dialogue; the results, as adapted and directed by Christopher Loar, are far more comic (intentionally) than the usually dour playwright intended.


 Neil Patrick Harris. Photo: Joan Marcus.
This is essentially the Neil Patrick Harris (Nell Patricia Harris?) show, in which the uber-talented TV star gives a rock-em, sock-em, knock-em in the aisles tour de force performance at the Belasco Theatre. He plays the flamboyant title character, a transvestite rock singer—born in East Berlin and raised there and in Kansas—giving a concert in New York; his “angry inch” (also the name of his six-member  band) is the result of a genital rearrangement gone wrong. Hedwig wears a number of seriously fabuloso wigs and costumes while fronting a punk/glam rock/R&B band that includes the terrific Lena Hall as Yitzhak, his indeterminately gendered partner, who transforms from cropped-hair butch drag into leggy showgirl regalia at the rousing climax. First seen Off Broadway in 1998, starring John Cameron Mitchell (who co-created it with Stephen Trask and also starred in the 2001 film), HEDWIG has been energetically revived under Michael Mayer’s direction, with a satirically fresh beginning suggesting that the show took over the Belasco only at the last minute, when the previous tenant, a six-hours plus musical version of the war movie, THE HURT LOCKER, closed in mid-performance. (Look for one of the faux HURT LOCKER programs littering the floor; they’re hilarious.) Joining a transvestite-heavy season, it may not be your typical Broadway fare, reveling as it does in gay raunchiness, risqué spectator wrangling, and blaring music (to the detriment of some lyrics), but Mr. Harris and company will keep most audience batteries charged for all 95 minutes of its funny, sad, and, as the title hints, angry presentation.
 Neil Patrick Harris. Photo: Joan Marcus.


From left: Nick Westrate, John Cullum, Gabriel Ebert, Tom McGowan. Photo: Matthew Murphy.

In spotlight: Nick Westrate, Patrick Page, Tom McGowan. Photo: Matthew Murphy.

Harvey Fierstein’s new play, directed by Joe Mantello at the Samuel Friedman Theatre, ventures into unusual and potentially fascinating territory with its truth-based depiction, set in 1962, of a group of presumably heterosexual men who used to gather every summer at a Catskills bungalow colony (the play’s title is the place’s nickname) where they could indulge their secret passion for dressing and making up as women, albeit without being campily effeminate. The production, which has received mostly warm reviews, and which my usually hypercritical wife enjoyed, failed to reach me, though. Toward the end of the first act Mr. Fierstein steps into George Bernard Shaw’s shoes to offer a serious discussion drama about the issues of transvestitism and homosexuality, as seen from an early 1960s perspective; its arguments are educationally interesting but dramatically inert. Moreover, the dialogue is stilted, the characters artificial, and the dramatic structure old-fashioned and unconvincing, especially the plot device regarding a character's personal transgression. Perhaps if these cross-dressing men were described as the well-educated members of a classical acting company I might have been able to find them credible; instead, their perfect diction, grammatically correct sentences, and theatrical voices only serve to distance them from reality. The company includes some of New York’s leading actors, among them John Cullum, Reed Birney, Patrick Page, Larry Pine, Gabriel Ebert, and Nick Westrate. Mare Winningham as the woman who runs the bungalow colony with her husband (Mr. Page) is one of the play’s two actual females. Apart from Reed Birney, who brings something special to every role he plays, including his Bette Davis-like role in CASA VALENTINA,  it’s the real women who bring believable femininity to the stage here, not those who playact at being female and, as performed in this play, seem little more than bizarre.

Reed Birney. Photo: Matthew Murphy.


From left: Lynne Halliday, Jason Graae, Emily Skinner, Cameron Adams. Photo: Carol Rosegg.

This being a preview rather than a review of INVENTING MARY MARTIN, which opens April 27, and which I saw at an early preview showing, I must begin with my personal Mary Martin story, or my “almost” Mary Martin story. In 1951, when I was still10, Mary Martin was a household name because of all the publicity generated by her performance in SOUTH PACIFIC. The show’s hit songs were played on the radio all the time, and TV appearances by Ms. Martin and her costar Ezio Pinza were common. When a theatergoing neighbor and family friend told my parents she had a ticket for SOUTH PACIFIC, then in its second year, that she couldn’t use, it was decided I’d take it, even though it meant I’d have to take the IRT subway from Saratoga Avenue in the nearby Brownsville section of Brooklyn all alone, get off at Times Square, and ask directions to the theatre. No one seemed to be concerned about the potential dangers of putting a 10-year-old kid on the subway and sending him to Manhattan unaccompanied, which shows how much has changed over the past 64 years. When I got out of the subway station a cop instructed me on where to find the Majestic Theatre, and I got to see the first Broadway production of SOUTH PACIFIC, some of which I still remember. Unfortunately, Mary Martin had just left the show and the star replacing her was the then only 21-years-old Martha Wright, so I didn’t see the original star, thus my “almost” Mary Martin story. When the show was over, my parents were waiting outside for me, having driven in by car; they took me to the original Lindy’s, where we actually saw the great comedian Milton Berle saunter in for a late-night snack. (Ten years later, by the way, I played the “Professor” in a summer stock production of SOUTH PACIFIC, which has always had a warm place in my heart.)

Mary Martin and Ethel Merman were the two great musical comedy actresses of the day, of course, and no pair of stars since has ever gained the same acclaim as rivals for the throne of Broadway’s musical queen. Merman, because of her brassy belting voice and personal mannerisms, is the one whose style most often tempted impersonators, and there have been Merman-based one-woman shows centered on her career. Martin’s qualities were less idiosyncratic and less immediately recognizable when imitated, which may have been behind the decision to create a revue around her that uses three singers to sing her songs, none of them attempting to sound anything like her. A similar revue about Merman would probably be a travesty, since the most distinctive thing about her was her idiosyncratic voice, not the shows she starred in. With Martin, as the show’s title suggests, it was the nature of her career that counted, as she went from one type of show to another before finally retiring. The concept is rather thin, as most theatre stars, Merman included, have succeeded because of their ability to reinvent themselves.
From left: Emily Skinner, Lynne Halliday, Cameron Adams, Jason Graae. Photo: Carol Rosegg.

All this is by way of introducing INVENTING MARY MARTIN: THE REVUE OF A LIFETIME, an intimate show at the York Theatre, conceived and written by Stephen Cole, and starring the brunette Cameron Adams, the redheaded Lynne Halliday, and the blonde Emily Skinner, with the sole male performer being Jason Graae, who serves as the M.C. while singing and dancing with the ladies. Mr. Graae also does an extended comic number borrowed directly from a 1953 TV sketch in which Ms. Martin, wearing a long, sack-like dress, converted it into a number of historically different styles to show the evolution of women’s clothing during the 20th century. Mr. Graae offers biographical information on Ms. Martin’s career, and, this being a musical revue, the company performs the best-known songs associated with Mary Martin’s Broadway career, such as “I Got Lost In His Arms,” “A Cockeyed Optimist,” “Peter Pan,” and, of course, the grand finale, Cole Porter’s “My Heart Belongs to Daddy,” which she introduced on Broadway in 1938’s LEAVE IT TO ME! and sang in two films,1940’s  LOVE THY NEIGHBOR ( and 1946’s NIGHT AND DAY ( But there’s also a robust sampling of less familiar songs from the singer’s career, such as “Il Bacio,” “Most Gentlemen Don’t Like Love,” and “Swattin’ the Fly.”

And now, ladies and gentlemen, a new season begins.

Friday, April 18, 2014

289. Review of ACT ONE (April 9, 2014)

289. ACT ONE

I was in my second year of college in 1959 when Moss Hart (1904-1961) published his best-selling autobiography, ACT ONE, and still remember the buzz about it among my fellow theatre students. Moss Hart was then known to me mainly as the name connected with an “and” to George S. Kaufman (who was familiar to me because of his presence as a TV panelist), since the classic comedies the pair wrote, including YOU CAN’T TAKE IT WITH YOU and THE MAN WHO CAME TO DINNER, were (and continue to be) among the most frequently revived American plays of the day. Of course, Hart went on to have an abundant career in theatre and film, but his autobiography tells only of his life up to his first Broadway play, 1930’s ONCE IN A LIFETIME, cowritten with Kaufman when Hart was 26.

 Andrea Martin, Matthew Shechter. Photo: Joan Marcus. 

In 1963, only two years after the book was published, a mediocre film version appeared starring, of all people, George Hamilton as Hart, the child of Jewish immigrants from England, who grew up in poverty in the Bronx and Brooklyn before getting work in a theatrical producer’s office in Manhattan and eventually being linked up with the 15-years-older and already very successful Kaufman (played by Jason Robards, Jr.). The film’s director, Dore Schary, who was one of Hart’s early show business friends, is not a character in the film, but (as played by Will Brill) he’s one of a trio of Hart’s buddies in the new stage adaptation written and directed by James Lapine at the Vivian Beaumont Theatre. The film and stage versions, while essentially telling the same story, are considerably different from each other, and a number of characters who appear in one (like Archie Leach—later, Cary Grant—in the movie) don’t appear in the play, and vice versa.  

Matthew Shechter, Mimi Lieber, Santano Fontana. Photo: Joan Marcus.

Mr. Lapine’s ACT ONE is in two acts, but its own act one is far less interesting than its second. Rather than concentrating on the most dramatically interesting part of the story, Hart’s virgin collaboration with the acerbically witty, germophobic—as shown here—Kaufman (Tony Shalhoub), the play chooses to cover Hart’s life from boyhood to young manhood, showing him and his struggling parents in their shabby flat, and making a big to-do about his close relationship with his Aunt Clara (Andrea Martin), a colorful theatre lover who lived with Hart’s family and introduced young Moss to the glories of the drama, even if only at the Alhambra, a cheap uptown venue on 126th Street. Friction with Hart’s father led him to kick her out, giving Ms. Martin a big dramatic moment, but the scene—and many others depicting Hart’s rise from tenement living to when he’s able to move his family to fancy digs across the river—lacks dramatic thrust; while engrossing on the page, they’re mere time killers on the stage. The play would have been much more effective if Mr. Lapine had chosen to concentrate on the period when Hart was introduced to Kaufman and developed an odd-couple relationship with him as they worked on preparing ONCE IN A LIFETIME for what, after running into script problems, turned out to be a hit that made Hart a new theatrical force  with which to be reckoned.
Tony Shalhoub, Santino Fontana. Photo: Joan Marcus.

As an episodic play covering many years and introducing numerous characters, ACT ONE requires a set that can quickly shift from one locale to another, and a large cast in which some must play multiple roles. The set problem is solved by Beowulf Boritt’s design of an elaborate skeletal structure with multiple sections built on a turntable that, like the recent MACHINAL, takes frequent advantage of its flexibility to keep spinning from place to place as Ken Billington’s lighting highlights its many facets as they come into view. The huge set, though, is as distracting as MACHINAL’s, although one or two scenes, like that upstairs in Kaufman’s beautiful home, where the playwrights work, are striking.
From left: Amy Warren, Santino Fontana, Bob Stillman, Will LeBow. Photo: Joan Marcus.

The large company, with 22 actors playing at least twice as many characters, has some performers playing roles for which they might not be ideal. Thus, Alexander Woollcott, the famously rotund critic and raconteur, is played by the slim Will LeBow, while the white producer Max Siegel is in the hands of black actor Chuck Cooper, whose other roles include a Langston Hughes who never looked so well fed. Many famous theatrical personalities of the day are among the dramatis personae, of course, and those who know the period and the book will enjoy the game of name recognition, even if the actors only rarely resemble their roles. Andrea Martin, for instance, plays not only Aunt Clara but eccentric agent Frieda Fishbein and Kaufman's wife, Beatrice Kaufman, while Deborah Offner has five roles, including a turn as Edna Ferber, dressed in a pants suit to hint, it would seem, that she was a lesbian, a claim that’s never been supported.

Mr. Shalhoub makes a credible Kaufman, but he also must play a middle-aged Hart, narrating the story (along with two other Harts, Mr. Fontana as the young playwright and Matthew Shechter as Hart, the boy). Mr. Shalhoub’s Kaufman brings to mind the multi-phobic character of Monk he played successfully on TV, but Kaufman’s aversion to touching anyone, while good for a laugh once or twice, is overdone and loses credibility. I wonder, by the way, why the show chooses to produce Kaufman as Cough-man, when I always remember it being Cowf-man. For verification, simply Google “Kaufman TV panelist” and you’ll see a YouTube clip of him from an old TV show being introduced by host Clifton Fadiman as Cowf-man.

Mr. Santino’s Hart is artificial and charmless, with none of the qualities one would associate with someone of Hart’s background. He’s an energetic cipher, without any romantic entanglements, and could conceivably exchange roles with the equally uninteresting Zach Braff in BULLETS OVER BROADWAY, who also plays an ambitious young playwright of the 1920s.

Mr. Lapine’s production is overproduced and flat. The first act is played at such a brisk pace, with such outsized performances, that it feels like a musical comedy. I kept expecting characters to burst into song every five minutes. The second act, because the story of ONCE IN A LIFETIME’s writing is the focus, is more restrained, but by then it’s too late to regain traction and the play never fully finds its footing. There’s so much narrative about the art of playwriting that one wonders who, outside of theatre people, would even be interested in listening to it. The irony, of course, is that so many of the playwriting notes seem to have been ignored by the play before us.


Thursday, April 17, 2014

288. Review of THE LIBRARY (April 13, 2014)


Steven Soderbergh, best known for his many film and TV directing credits, is at the helm of this Scott Z. Burns play at the Public’s Newman Theatre. Despite a script inspired by the Columbine High School shootings, and a cast starring the excellent 17-year-old Chloë Grace Moretz, the results are mixed.  

Chloe Grace Moretz. Photo: Joan Marcus.
THE LIBRARY, set “in the near future,” concerns the aftermath of a mass shooting in a high school library during which Caitlin Gabriel (Ms. Moretz), when threatened at the barrel of a gun, is reported by a fellow student, Ryan Mayes (Daryl Sabara), to have told the 21-year-old killer, Marshall Bauer, where six other students were hiding.  The killer then wounded her so badly she nearly died. The student who emerges from the tragedy as the hero is a born-again Christian girl named Joy Sheridan, said to have led her classmates in prayer before she was shot. The story gains national attention, inspiring Joy’s pious mother, Dawn (Lili Taylor), to devote herself to burnishing her daughter’s life; she even writes a highly profitable best-selling book which will become a movie. (There’s a chilling scene between Dawn and her publisher [David L. Townsend] that lays bare the way in which people, even well-meaning ones, use the media for self-aggrandizement.) Caitlin, however, despite her sincerity and academic abilities, is disgraced both locally and nationally, and even deprived of adequate victim’s compensation, because of Ryan’s allegations, which she staunchly denies. Her parents, who aren’t sure if she’s telling the truth, are undergoing marital troubles that reveal their own fabric of lies and deceptions. All along, a determined police detective (Tamara Tunie) conducts an investigation into the circumstances surrounding the shooting and Caitlin’s role in it. Caitlin’s failure to be completely forthcoming only complicates matters. 
 Chloe Grace Moretz, Jennifer Westfeldt. Photo: Joan Marcus.

THE LIBRARY touches on the ways the media exploit stories and shape their narratives, even before all the facts are in. However, its RASHOMON-like implications of what is truth and what is not are overlooked when, to all intents and purposes, what actually happened is revealed, which therefore removes any ambiguity that might remain. No examination of the killer’s motives is presented, as the play is concerned more with the outcome of the shootings than their cause.  
Chloe Grace Moretz. Photo: Joan Marcus.

Mr. Burns’s 90-minute, intermissionless play, while rather slight, is made more interesting than it deserves by Mr. Soderbergh’s movie-influenced staging, supported by arresting visuals and a gripping sound design by Darron L. West and M. Florian Staab. Ignoring the script’s description of a naturalistic school library, including a bloodstained carpet, Riccardo Hernandez’s minimalist, modernist set is essentially an open space with five sleek desks and chairs on a shiny black floor, with a cyclorama at the rear. David Lander’s brilliant lighting, using potently dramatic colors and perfectly placed spotlights, creates a vivid scenescape that also allows for memorable silhouetting.  

The acting has a dry, low-keyed, conversational quality that rarely opts for big emotions; these people, regardless of what’s churning inside them, keep their feelings in check (although always visible beneath the surface), which focuses attention on the events affecting them. Ms. Taylor’s understated, superficially kind Dawn Sheridan is made even scarier because of the restraint with which she’s portrayed.
Ms. Moretz, though, is the big takeaway; a terrifically talented young actress, she does a masterful job of capturing the troubled Caitlin’s dilemma, laying bare the character’s fear, anger, sensitivity, bewilderment, and frustration in a world where what sells and inspires is often the opposite of what’s true and moral.

287. Review of OF MICE AND MEN (April 10, 2014)


John Steinbeck’s classic Depression-era novel, OF MICE AND MEN, dramatized by Steinbeck himself and staged by George S. Kaufman at Broadway’s Music Box Theatre in 1937 for a then solid run of 207 performances, starred Wallace Ford as George Milton, the brighter of the play’s two migrant farm workers, and Broderick Crawford as the powerful, slow-minded lug, Lenny Small. It has since been produced countless times around the world, and has had two previous New York revivals, one of them on Broadway in 1971, with Kevin Conway and James Earl Jones as George and Lenny, and one Off Broadway in 1987. The 1939 movie version starred Burgess Meredith as George and, as Lenny, Lon Chaney, Jr., who had replaced Crawford when the original New York production moved to Los Angeles. A less effective movie, starring John Malkovich and Garry Sinise, was made in 1992. There also have been musical and opera versions. Now two of today’s most active film actors, James Franco and Chris O’Dowd, have taken up the parts of George and Lenny for the second Broadway revival, at the Barrymore Theatre, with TV's "Gossip Girls" star Leighton Meester as Curley’s wife and Jim Norton as the one-handed old man, Candy. Anna D. Shapiro is the director. 
 James Franco and Chris O'Dowd. Photo: Richard Phibbs.

This is a rather straightforward, beautifully designed, and lovingly realized version that serves Steinbeck’s drama well. This is what I wrote regarding the first production in The Encyclopedia of the New York Stage 1930-1950: “the play’s vibrantly alive characters, its deeply humane central relationship depicting people struggling to overcome loneliness, its gut-wrenching emotional peaks, its simple and compact structure, and its provocative situations guaranteed it tremendous audience sympathy and appreciation. At the same time, the world it depicted was not a pleasant one, and despite its broodingly tragic atmosphere it failed to achieve the universality of tragedy, and was generally classified as a melodrama of the more thoughtful variety. A brilliant production that perfectly captured the earthy atmosphere of life on a California ranch abetted the virtues in Steinbeck’s script.” Much the same can be said of the current revival.
James Franco, Jim Norton: Photo: Richard Phibbs.
When first performed, the play’s language was considered excessively raw for New York theatergoers’ ears, but today’s audience would laugh if told that words like tart, goddamn, bastard, and bitch were thought too profane. Critic Grenville Vernon, for example, observed that, despite the play’s fine qualities, it “is none the less appalling. . . . Mr. Steinbeck has made their language less brutal than it would be in real life, but it is to be wished that the dramatist had gone farther, and employed suggestion rather than bald statement.” Take that, David Mamet.
Chris O'Dowd, Leighton Meester. Photo: Richard Phibbs.

The new production has excellent sets by Todd Rosenthal, evocative lighting by Japhy Weideman, and convincing period costumes by Suttirat Larlarb. James Franco makes a fine George, being sincerely concerned with his weak-minded friend’s potentially dangerous behavior, but always with a loving hand, even when Lenny gets him most angry. There's an unavoidable hint in the way others talk about George and Lenny's unusual relationship that there may be something deeper to it than ordinary male friendship. George's part is the less colorful of the two, but requires firm concentration and conviction, and when he's forced to make an ultimate decision regarding Lennie's fate, we can feel his anguish. The mentally challenged Lenny has to make you believe not only in his physical strength but in his wish to restrain himself from doing something that might upset George. The Irish born and raised Mr. O’Dowd, bearded, with his head crudely shaved, uses delicate hand gestures to demonstrate his being ill at ease in his own body, and creates an aura of both power and dimwittedness. He's tall but not overly so, so his movements must be carefully measured to make his great might seem all the more palpable. I suspect the long-sleeved work jumper he wears is padded to give him more bulk.

The casting of the excellent Jim Parrack as the muleskinner, Slim, seems problematic, though, since Mr. Parrack is himself tall and powerfully built, making Mr. O’Dowd seem not quite as towering as he's described. But it's a testament to Mr. O’Dowd’s performance that such thoughts don't impede one’s appreciation for the sense he provides of a huge brute in which the tender soul of a child is trapped.

The supporting cast is solid, although one or two characters, like Alex Morf’s Curley, tend toward the two-dimensional. Jim Norton, one of our greatest character actors, brings vivid life to Candy, the old farmhand desperate for a stake in George and Lenny’s dream of a place in which to settle, while Ms. Meester, although thin of voice, is quite good as Curley’s flirtatious wife, capturing the vulnerability and sense of isolation that leads her to behave as she does. And Ron Cephas Jones as Crooks, the sole black man in this racially intolerant white environment, makes us feel his deep-rooted sense of being an odd man out.

OF MICE AND MEN is among the season’s top revivals. If you read it in high school and never saw it on stage or screen, you can’t go wrong in visiting this production for a close approximation of what John Steinbeck had in mind.