Thursday, January 30, 2014

215. Review of A MAN'S A MAN (January 25, 2014)

215.  A MAN’S A MAN

It’s good to see something of a Bertolt Brecht resurgence in New York, with Brian Kulick’s revival of A MAN’S A MAN now at the CSC, and with his CAUCASIAN CHALK CIRCLE at the same venue earlier in the season, following Lear deBessonet’s staging of THE GOOD PERSON OF SZECHWAN at La Mama (and later at the Public). Of the three, however, only Ms. deBessonet’s scintillating GOOD PERSON was exceptional. Mr. Kulick’s CHALK CIRCLE was a dull misfire, but, in retrospect, it shines much more brightly when compared to his unimpressive version of Brecht’s A MAN’S A MAN (1924-1926), now at the Classic Stage Company in a translation by Gerhard Nellhaus, with original music by Duncan Sheik.
From left: Martin Moran, Gibson Frazier, Steven Skybell, Jason Babinsky. Photo: Richard Termine.
            A MAN’S A MAN is a Chaplinesque, antiwar, and deliberately anachronistic comedy about the malleability of man’s identity in the machine age (you can take a man apart and make him into anything you want), set among British soldiers in a fantastical India (mainly the imaginary city of Kilkoa) under imperialist rule; it underwent several revisions at Brecht's hand, and Nellhaus’s translation—stiffly artificial, with conversational conjunctions like “can’t” winning out to “cannot”—is said to be based on the latest one. Influenced by Kipling and Pirandello, the potentially thought-provoking play, which sometimes borders on music-hall farce, tells of how when one member of a four-man British machine gun squad, Jeraiah Jip (Andrew Weems, replacing Bill Buell,  injured during previews), is in a pickle after the quartet attempts to burglarize a Tibetan pagoda; during the heist he lost a patch of hair and skin, making him easily identifiable if found. Jip finds refuge when made into the pagoda’s deity by its leader, Mr. Wang (Ching Valdes-Aran). To save their own necks, the remaining soldiers need someone to replace Jip, so one of them, Uriah Shelley (Martin Moran), gets the idea of transforming the lowly, meek Irish porter, Galy Gay (Gibson Frazier), into Jip, turning him into a ferocious fighting machine. Galy goes along for the promised rewards. He's finagled into carrying out a swindle involving a phony elephant constructed of army goods, and is sentenced to death. This prompts him to abandon his identity, eulogize his own presumed corpse, and become a murderously successful warrior who wins the battle against an enemy fortress. Then the real Jip reappears and assumes the persona of Galy Gay. Still-relevant themes touch on “mass marketing, disposable consumption, and globalization fraught with nationalist pride and sound-bite infused patriotism,” as a reviewer wrote some years back about the lauded 2004 Arena Stage revival.
Justin Vivian Bond, Gibson Frazier. Photo: Richard Termine.

            A MAN’S A MAN, given a notable New York revival with an Obie-winning performance of Galy Gay by Joe Chaikin in the 1962-1963 season, begs for a highly stylized production, and Mr. Kulick attempts to offer one by placing the episodic action within a scenic world, designed by Paul Steinberg, dominated by a mostly green upstage wall and 15 metal barrels painted orange that are rolled, carried, or dragged into a variety of configurations to conjure up whatever locales are needed; by placing a wide board across them, a makeshift stage is created. Even the elephant is formed out of an arrangement of barrels. Apart from this notion (diminished somewhat by the unappealing color scheme redolent of New York's Department of Sanitation) and the musical numbers that Brecht incorporated into the text, not much else is notably innovative. The choice of drag performer, Justin Vivian Bond, to play the caustically philosophical canteen owner, Widow Leocadia Begbick, might be considered a creative breakthrough, but there’s nothing in Mr. Bond’s standard drag performance to suggest anything particularly subversive or artistically noteworthy, nor why having a man play the character is necessary (oh, yes, the ease with which identity can be manipulated). Despite his height, which makes him tower over most of the other actors, Mr. Bond is a convincing woman, but not a convincing character. Even Galy Gay’s wife is played by a man (Allan K. Washington), by the way, although not in full drag and obviously as a “this is theatre” play-acting bit. With A MAN’S A MAN Brecht was developing his famed “estrangement” or “alienation” effect, and encouraged byplay between actors and audience, but such improvisational behavior appears only faintly in this production.
Stephen Spinella, Justin Vivian Bond. Photo: Richard Termine. 

            The acting company is ill suited to the play’s satiric demands, at least as conceived by Mr. Kulick. Stephen Spinella, perhaps the best-known actor, plays the macho Sergeant “Bloody Five,” a man who becomes extremely aroused sexually whenever it rains, but the usually reliable Mr. Spinella is miscast (as he was last season playing the lecherous Volpone in Jonson’s Elizabethan comedy) and adrift, looking as helpless as his character, who ultimately shoots off his testicles (which is how Mr. Kulick stages the scene of his self-castration). The central role of Galy Gay (pronounced variously when I saw the production to rhyme with Halley and Gaily, depending on the actor), is played by a charmless Mr. Frazier, who walks around with a cucumber in his hand almost as if he’s in a daze; his acting has so little color his transition from mouse to human machine gun is mildly ho hum. It’s difficult to play a cipher-like character, but the actor needs to find some way to make the man theatrically compelling. Mr. Frazier’s flat performance is replicated in one way or the other by the other actors, who slog through the play with nary a nod to brisk pacing or vivacity, or even consistency of accent.
Martin Moran, Jason Babinsky, Gibson Frazier, Steven Skybell. Photo: Richard Termine.

            The music by Mr. Sheik (SPRING AWAKENING) is largely forgettable, apart from a ballad sung in the second act by the Widow Begbick. Ironically, the best number, another ballad, is not in the show itself, but was cut from the second act and is being presented by Mr. Bond during the intermission. I don’t recall ever seeing a show in which a song found extraneous during the action was considered too good to throw away entirely, thereby prompting its separate performance. This, of course, is appropriate to the alienation effect, but what it’s intended to get us thinking about (other than its odd placement) remains as muddy as so much else in the production. 

Steven Skybell, Jason Babinsky, Justin Vivian Bond, Gibson Frazier, Martin Moran. Photo: Richard Termine. 
By alienation, or estrangement, Brecht intended his audience to be one step removed from identifying with the characters and story so that they would remain in touch with the ideas being expressed. He wanted his spectators to think about the issues being revealed, presumably so they could do something about them. This production of A MAN’S A MAN managed to alienate me, but not, however, in the way that Brecht had hoped.




One of the most memorably thrilling escape movies of the past half century is Alan Parker’s MIDNIGHT EXPRESS (1978), written by Oliver Stone, starring the late Brad Davis, and based on a 1976 book by a young American, Billy Hayes, telling of his flight from a Turkish prison. Last night I had a chance to ask Mr. Hayes a question—to which I’ll return—about a scene in that film, some of which I still remember despite not having seen it in 35 years. This is because he’s currently starring at St. Luke’s Theatre in RIDING THE MIDNIGHT EXPRESS WITH BILLY HAYES, a one-man play he wrote about his harrowing adventures.

Billy Hayes. Photo: Carol Rosegg.

The 67-year-old Mr. Hayes, who wrote two more books about his experiences, is slender and boyish, his once-blonde tresses a well-manicured gray. Energetic and direct, he vaguely resembles what 1950s singing idol Frankie Avalon might look like if he’d retained his teenage weight. After his escape he became a professional actor and director, so he’s perfectly suited to hold an audience’s attention for 70 intermissionless minutes, but his story is gripping enough that even if he were less charismatic it would mesmerize an audience for its duration. Designer Josh Iacovelli has provided him with a stool set against a neutral rust-colored background, and lit him subtly to vary the moods he creates. Wearing black jeans, a black t-shirt, and a blue denim shirt, which he removes midway, Mr. Hayes, nicely directed by John Gould Rubin, tells his famous tale with friendly familiarity, using occasional expletives, vivid imagery, and a narrative that’s consistently clear and compelling. When he recalls moments of great danger he relives what happened with strong emotion and, like a master storyteller, creates riveting suspense and tension.

A product of the roiling 60s, Mr. Hayes left college, where he majored in journalism, to motorcycle around Europe, realized he could make good money smuggling hashish from Turkey by strapping it to his body, and then, on his fourth such attempt, was arrested before boarding a plane from Istanbul. This led to his incarceration, at first for four years and two months; then, as the end of his sentence came into sight, he had his sentence upped to 30 years, partly as a result of Pres. Nixon’s war on drugs. Seeing no other recourse, he plotted to ride the midnight express (a prison euphemism for escape) from the lower security prison he’d gotten himself transferred to on Imrali Island, stealing a dinghy, and rowing through a storm to freedom in Greece.

Mr. Hayes, who learned Turkish in prison, has a certain cocky charm that must have been very useful in navigating the tricky life of being a convicted drug dealer thrown into a cruddy cell and forced to find a way not only to survive but to keep his sanity and figure out a way to flee. He remembers the beatings he endured, the rats, the sex (he’s hetero but admits to a relationship with another male prisoner), the prison’s routine, food, marketplace culture, and bathing practices. We learn of his loneliness, the lesson he learns of the need to ignore the misery of others, his bribery of a prison doctor, and the survival tips he picked up from fellow prisoners. One of his most helpful outlets was yoga, which he praises for keeping him fit and mentally balanced, and which is still a mainstay of his life. He was able to maintain contact through letters with his family and girlfriend, and even to surreptitiously receive both money and LSD in his mail.

He talks a bit about how Parker’s movie differed from the real facts of the story, including how the searing speech Stone wrote for his courtroom scene in which he denounced the Turkish people was nothing like the speech he actually gave when he was sentenced to 30 years; his actual words were of forgiveness, he declares. The climactic escape itself is thrillingly told, from the dinghy crossing to the bus rides and hiking, much of it barefoot across what he later learned was land strewn with mines, until he made it to Greece. There he was happy to offer the Greeks information they were seeking about the Turks in return for lenient treatment.

Once reviled by the Turkish government, Mr. Hayes, who never denied his guilt, ultimately was welcomed back in 2007. His argument was with the prison system, not the Turkish people, he insists. But, because of the film, he long remained a highly controversial figure in that country.

I mentioned at the start a question I had about the movie. It concerned a scene in which the Hayes character, terribly abused by a hulking Turkish guard, kills him when the guard’s head is smashed against a coat hook attached to a wall. Mr. Hayes said there actually was such a guard, but that he never killed him (or anybody else), and that the scene was dramatic fiction.  But he said there was another man, beaten brutally by a guard who crudely insulted eight members of his family as he did so. One day, after being released, he came up to that guard in a public space and shot him eight times, once for each insult. For that, he said, the man got 15 years, while he, Hayes, had been sentenced to 30 years for four pounds of pot.

We can be grateful, though, that he rode the midnight express and is still around to tell us about it.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

213. Review of ILUMINATE (January 25, 2014)


Although I rarely watch TV's “America’s Got Talent,” I did happen to view a program on which a group called iLuminate (also sometimes spelled entirely in lower case) performed with the lights off against a black background while wearing black suits decorated with luminous, computer controlled designs that kept changing as they danced. The group eventually became finalists and the concept evolved into a successful Off-Broadway show called ARTIST OF LIGHT as well as into a world-wide phenomenon used by other artists and in other contexts. The artist behind the idea is Miral Kotb, who created a software technology that allows the wired designs on the dancers’ costumes, which cover their entire bodies, including their heads, to be preprogrammed and controlled from an offstage source.
Photo: Charles Sykes.
A company of 11 dancers performs what its authors, Ms. Kotb and Athena Sunga, call a “play,” but is actually a 50-minute, wordless scenario with a slim plot that allows the light-suited performers to perform vividly choreographed numbers using a variety of dance styles, from Latin to hip-hop and break dancing. All of the dancing—choreographed by Ms. Kotb, John “JRock” Nelson, Dario Mejia, Marcus Allan Cobb, and Robert Vail, three of whom are in the show itself—is designed to show off the awesome technology. 
Photo: Charles Sykes.
I’ll let the press release explain the plot, which concerns “the fantastical journey of Jacob, a talented young artist who struggles to connect with the real world. He takes comfort in his magical paintbrush, which grants him the power to turn the characters of his imagination into living, breathing creatures. When a jealous townsperson steals the paintbrush and turns his endearing creations into horrifying monsters, Jacob must face this danger without the help of his miraculous instrument. He fights to save his town and friends, even as he knows that the paintbrush which brought him so much joy is now a weapon in the hands of a malevolent villain bent on destruction.” This description doesn’t mention the kidnapping of Jacob’s girlfriend; his romantic involvement and attempt to save her is also part of the action. 
Photo: Charles Sykes.
I doubt most the audience, which included lots of youngsters (this being a family friendly concoction) when I attended, were much aware of the specifics of the story, since the visuals are so inventive that you have all you can do just to marvel at them and wonder how they’re being created. Bodies fly apart and reunite, heads are removed, people and props fly through the air, multiple performers create various artful designs, characters appear and disappear in an eye blink, and you only rarely catch the slightest glimpse of performers moving other actors about when they themselves are momentarily unlit. A battle with a giant serpent manipulated, by multiple invisible dancers, is a standout moment. (The fights are the work of Rick Sordelet and Christian Kelly-Sordelet). Loud music (too loud at times), credited to Justin “Kannoby” Keitt and Christopher Tignor, thumps away throughout (there’s even a DJ scene with two large speakers outlined in light), and the energy never flags.
Photo: Charles Sykes.
Even the scenic background (including a street scene with a storefront window and a shop sign bearing Ms. Kobt's first name) and props are technologically created. It’s mindboggling to consider the amount of rehearsal and polishing needed to carry out these results without complications, including moments when the performers come up to you in the auditorium.

The characters, including a couple of robots, are essentially exaggerated caricatures, who resemble humans only in outline. Their unusual costumes, designed by John “JRock” Nelson (who is also one of the performers), Grace Eddy, and Marcus Allan Cobb (another performer), vaguely resemble those of the computer characters in the movie TRON. Ms. Kotb and Jordon Monson are listed as the lighting designers, but with the lights out throughout it’s hard to know what their design contributions are, other than lights off, lights on.        

If you have time, you’re allowed to wait for the performers to come out after the show ends and take photos with them. I was tempted, but the line of parents and kids that formed as I was leaving was too long and I made my departure without benefit of a photo. However, I feel certain that the images of the show that remain in my mind will remain there for a long time to come.  

212. Review of THE CLEARING (January 28, 2014)


There’s one surprise about three-quarters of the way through Jake Jeppson’s THE CLEARING, being given its world premiere at the Theatre at St. Clements, but for the most part the hour and 40-minute, intermissionless play is a conventional exercise that sets up a situation designed to keep us interested until a big secret is revealed.  Plays built around the ultimate revelations of secrets are common, of course, but the mystery here, for all its potential shock value, proves to be mundane and predictable; moreover, after it’s revealed, the play slogs along until another horrible but equally predictable event occurs. And neither of these moments is the production’s big surprise. 
 From left: Gene Gallerano, Brian McManamon, Brian P. Murphy. Photo: Gertjan Houben.
             Les (Brian McManamon) and Chris Ellis (Brian P. Murphy) are brothers in their late 20s, Chris being the older one. Les is gay and has a handsome, kind, and caring lover, Peter Reisner (Gene Gallerano), a photographer. Chris, who recently broke up with his girlfriend, has psychological problems (he says he suffers from "arrested development"); he also makes homophobic remarks to Les that may be cover-ups for his own sexual issues. He and Les have been sharing a secret regarding someone called Daniel for 18 years. The brothers, neither of whose professions is mentioned, live at home with their mother, Ella (Allison Daugherty), an attractive, religiously pious woman; she's a good mother but is depressed because her husband disappeared years earlier. Les and Chris have a favorite place they call the clearing, atop a local mountain.
Brian McManamon, Allison Daugherty. Photo: Gertjan Houben.

            The play begins with a rather ambiguous prologue by Peter about the biblical Abraham’s having heard the voice of God and thereafter realizing that he now was “someone specific. Not just some bearded farmer guy.” Then, in a manner reminiscent of Pinter's BETRAYAL but without the same meaningful purpose, it moves backward to the previous day and then to scenes occurring over the past year. Once the action hits a day that happened a year earlier, the plot starts moving forward again, bringing us back to where the play began. The script has a note from the playwright suggesting that THE CLEARING could be done without the use of projections to help the audience follow the chronology because of his belief that the play doesn't require "those pronounced indicators of time.” I’m not sure I agree, but director Josh Hecht, opting for clarity, uses another indicator of time, an amplified voice, to tell us when the scenes are taking place.

The action maps the fragile but affectionate relationship between the troubled Chris and his obnoxious brother, and those between Les and Peter, Ella and her sons, and Peter and Ella. The characters are mostly laconic and the dialogue dribbles along in brief sentences, forcing us to listen closely for information about who these people are and how they feel about things. Patience is needed, as it seems to take forever for the picture to come into focus and for something interesting to occur. Chris eventually thinks he sees the ghost of the aforementioned Daniel, but finding out who he is requires even more patience because of the long-ago vow taken by the brothers to keep their secret. Meanwhile, Ella becomes fond of Les’s boyfriend, Peter, and agrees to let him photograph her at his studio. This is where the play’s biggest surprise comes in, since Ella doffs all her clothes so she can be photographed in the nude; she struggles so awkwardly to preserve her modesty, though, that it’s hard to imagine any value the resulting photos might have. The scene may be something of a breakthrough for the seemingly uptight Ella, but it's exploitative and cringe-worthy. I’m not sure what it’s doing in the play at all.

The action moves back and forth between the clearing and the Ellis home, but Daniel Zimmerman’s set remains within the clearing; there's an upstage tree looking over a gorge, and two halved-log benches that are moved about in different arrangements to suggest both actual benches and tables and beds inside the house. Leading from the stage to the auditorium is a small, graded hill, with a path used for entrances and exits. No matter what the season, the autumnal leaves on the tree never change, and the thick log benches convey little of whatever else they’re asked to be.

Gertjan Houben’s lighting does its best to create some visual variety on the simple set, Tilly Grimes’s costumes suitably convey the personalities of the characters, and Sam Kusnetz provides nicely atmospheric mood music to cover scene transitions. These elements, however, are insufficient to overcome the script’s inherent weaknesses, which would require uniformly excellent performances from the ensemble. Mr. Hecht’s direction, though, has not been able to elicit anything special from his unexciting cast and THE CLEARING remains just another bump in the current season’s log.  

211. Review of MY DAUGHTER KEEPS OUR HAMMER (January 27, 2014)


The brilliant director Julie Taymor earned part of her reputation staging plays about animals. For one, there was THE LION KING, for another, SPIDERMAN: TURN OFF THE DARK. Now, her niece, Danya Taymor, a novice director in residence at the Flea Theatre, is helming Brian Watkins’s MY DAUGHTER KEEPS OUR HAMMER, a two-character piece in which a sheep figures prominently. This must be the season of the sheep in Tribeca, what with the recent MARIE ANTOINETTE at the Soho Rep, in which David Greenspan played one of these wooly creatures. Fortunately, given what happens to it, we never actually see the sheep in Mr. Watkins's play, but we hear enough about it to see it very clearly in our minds.

Katherine Folk-Sullvan, Layla Khoshnoudi. Photo: Hunt

            MY DAUGHTER KEEPS OUR HAMMER (the title's meaning is unclear) is a borderline play, straddling the fence between short story and drama, with the emphasis on the former. With a play like GROUNDED, playing around the corner at the Walkerspace, the narrative is delivered by a single player, so we can easily accept the solo performance of a character speaking directly to us and telling us her story in a suitably convincing way. In MY DAUGHTER, two sisters recite the narrative, yet despite their sharing the stage for around an hour, they never talk to one another, thereby diminishing the dramatic effect. As they speak, they carry out some simple movements provided by Ms. Taymor, but, for the most part, they deliver directly to us.
Katherine Folk-Sullivan. Photo: Hunter Canning.

            Theirs is an odd but intriguing story ripe with gothic elements of animal-related violence about Sarah (Katherine Folk-Sullivan) and Hannah (Layla Khoshnoudi), who first appear with their hands covered in ashy soot. They live in rural Eaton, Colorado, on the plains, where they care for their ailing, eccentric mother; also present is Vicky, their sole animal, an old sheep their dad bought for his wife on their 20th anniversary. Mom has an inordinate fondness for Vicky, allowing it to ramble around the house like any ordinary pet; being un-housebroken, it does its business everywhere, forcing the stay-at-home Sarah to clean up after it. The sisters recount their reactions to Vicky's presence, which they find inordinately stupid, and which is an obstacle to their relationship with their mother. There's something of a sibling rivalry between the sisters, partly to do with a mint condition '85 Ford in the garage each of them wants their mother to give them, Sarah so she can sell it and use the money for schooling that will let her move on in life, and Hannah, a waitress, so she can replace the heater-less junk heap she presently drives. 

          Hannah, thinking she’d be doing her mother a service, gets a customer to have his ram mate with the sheep and produce a lamb, despite the long odds of a conception. She and Sarah, however,  eventually express their frustrations by mistreating Vicky, beginning with a meat tenderizer, which leads to gruesome events that, to reveal, could lead to animal societies picketing the place.

            Hannah and Sarah speak in rapid, low-keyed, conversational tones, like recognizably ordinary young women, underplaying the rather bizarre things they find themselves doing in their narrative, if not before our eyes. The increasingly grotesque story, written by Mr. Watkins in a dryly candid way, is sick enough to hold our interest, and there are a number of offbeat laugh lines, but its dispassionate style keeps us at something of a distance. The piece reminds us of the elemental cruelty lying dormant in all of us, a cruelty that needs only the right circumstances to emerge, even if the object of our behavior is a helpless creature.

Katherine Folk-Sullivan, Layla Khoshnoudi. Photo: Hunter Canning. 

            MY DAUGHTER . . . is being performed in the Flea’s tiny downstairs space, where a shabby, translucent curtain is pulled aside to reveal the venue’s familiar upstage wall, with its usual openings, painted black by designer Andrew Diaz; what seem like sheets of heavy brown wrapping paper fill the open spaces. Minimal scenic units suggesting simplified fence work made of sticks and dried brush decorate the stage, and the principal props are several logs stacked to form a pyre (could that be a spoiler?). John Eckert does well with the atmospheric lighting, including a bit at the play's beginning when Ms. Folk-Sullivan's profile is seen as an old-fashioned silhouette within a circle of light on the curtain.

            Ms. Folk-Sullivan and Ms.Khosnoudi, members of the Bats, the Flea’s resident company, are both believable, in keeping with the always impressive talent we expect of this company’s young artists, but the piece, for all its strangeness, doesn’t allow them to do more than stay in the storytelling zone; the kind of interaction we expect between two characters in conflict is never present. In fact, there really is not much conflict between the sisters, who both find themselves sucked into the same behavioral vortex. Mr. Watkins definitely can write, but no matter how vivid his images and ideas, this kind of playwriting is a copout. Dramaturgically speaking, it’s like trying to pull the wool over our eyes.  

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

210. Review of OUTSIDE MULLINGAR (January 26, 2014)



From left: Peter Maloney, Brían F. O'Byrne, Dearbhla Molloy. Photo: Joan Marcus.
I haven't had too much luck at the theatre slots lately; for every small payoff, there've been too many paybacks. Maybe it's the luck of the Irish, but I had no doubt I was hearing jackpot bells and whistles during John Patrick Shanley’s OUTSIDE MULLINGAR, at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre. This is the tenth play Shanley (MOONSTRUCK, DOUBT) has written for the Manhattan Theatre Club. The play stands alone for its sheer ability to detonate bursts of explosive laughter at one moment and then wring puddles of tears the next. Other recent works may have more conceptually daring theatrical ideas, more challenging intellectual premises, or more provocative points of view; none, however, can compare to the powerful emotional grip this play exerts throughout because of its lyrical richness, human warmth, romantic sentiment, comical surprises, and exceptional artistry of acting and design. I remain enchanted, days later.  
Debra Messing and Peter Maloney. Photo: Joan Marcus.
           The story is simplicity itself. A stubborn old Irish Midlands cattle farmer, Tony Reilly (Peter Maloney, at the top of his game) senses his mortality and refuses to leave the land to the son, Anthony (Brían F. O’Byrne, marvelous), who farms it with him, because he believes Anthony to have too much in him of the family’s Kelly side, one member in particular of which he despises. He tells Mrs. Aiofe Muldoon (Dearbhla Molloy, wonderful), the lame widow of the just deceased Chris Muldoon, who owns the neighboring farm, that he prefers to leave his property to an American relative instead. A witty and frank woman, Mrs. Muldoon lets Tony know just how foolish she thinks he is, but the self-effacing Anthony, for all his disappointment, lacks the fire in his belly to firmly resist his father’s thickheadedness.

Peter Maloney and Brían F. O'Byrne. Photo: Joan Marcus.

A serious right-of-way problem, however, lies in a small piece of land between the Reilly farm and that of the neighboring Muldoons, making access to the Reillys difficult, and thereby decreasing the property’s value. That piece of land is owned by the Muldoon daughter, Rosemary (Debra Messing, lovely), who got her dad to give it to her when she was a child because, at the age of six, the 13-year-old Anthony had pushed her down there, an event of which he has no remembrance but that has rankled her ever since. The play charts the evolution of Tony’s recognition of his son’s love, and that between the shy Anthony and the beautiful, outspoken woman next door he’s known all his life but whose feelings toward her have remained repressed.

Brían F. O'Byrne and Debra Messing. Photo: Joan Marcus.

The American-born Shanley has written the play in a vernacular that suggests he was born and raised in the old sod, and the actors, two from Ireland itself, all perform as if to the manner born, with deliciously listenable brogues; some critics have faulted Ms. Messing’s accent, but to my ears, only the slightest hints of it being artificial creep in.  There’s no way of knowing what John Aylward, who was replaced during rehearsals by Mr. Maloney, would have made of the irascible Tony, but Mr. Maloney’s performance is one of many memorable highlights, especially in a scene where he lies in bed, mortally ill, and finds peace with his son, whose goodness he has belatedly come to recognize. Mr. O’Byrne’s quiet demeanor here, as his father rambles, beautifully heightens the old man's apotheosis. If you can sit through this scene without spouting gushers, you may need to have your heart checked for sclerosis. And this scene is only one of those requiring a box of Kleenex; just wait until the extended final confrontation between Anthony and Rosemary. If you wear glasses you’ll need Windex to wipe away the steam.

            Doug Hughes’s direction displays a superlative ability to orchestrate the musicality of the language, and the comical argumentativeness and character eccentricity embedded in Shanley’s zesty speeches; he also evinces finely articulated and expressively sensitive performances from  each member of his gifted ensemble. Worthy as well of loud kudos is the contribution of the great set designer John Lee Beatty, who places on a turntable the finely detailed kitchens of the Reilly and Muldoon households, the stable setting where Anthony and Rosemary engage in private conversations, and the bedroom where the dying Tony spends his final hours. Rain, by the way, falls upstage for much of the play, and, thanks to the lovely lighting of Mark McCullough, the atmospherics of gloomy weather, which ultimately (if, perhaps, a tad too obviously), changes to sunshine and blue skies, are effectively captured. With all these technical achievements smoothly integrated, the hour and a half, intermissionless performance moves along seamlessly with ineffable charm, grace, humor, and sentiment.

When my wife's not enjoying a show, her body language can be a dead giveaway. As we sat at OUTSIDE MULLINGAR I avoided glancing her way for fear her experience was not the same as mine.  At the end, when I realized that she was as moved as I, it was clear that OUTSIDE MULLINGAR had hit the theatre jackpot.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

209. Review of KING LEAR (January 24, 2014)


New York and London have had their share of major and minor KING LEARS in the past few years, and this season continues the practice. Since 2004 New York has seen such leading players as Christopher Plummer, Ian McKellan, Kevin Kline, Sam Waterston, Derek Jacobi, and the somewhat lesser known British actor Greg Hicks, play the mad old king. Now the 76-year-old Frank Langella, the onetime romantic heartthrob who has morphed into one of America’s most commanding stage and screen artists, is undertaking the role to wide acclaim at the BAM’s Harvey Theatre, while Simon Russell Beale is playing Lear to perhaps even more rapturous approval across the pond in Sam Mendes’s new production. For all its positive features and critical kudos, however, Mr. Langella’s Lear breaks no new ground and, like the production around it, is fine but not extraordinary. We will soon enough have the Lear of another Shakespearean star, England's Michael Pennington, to compare it to when he brings it to Brooklyn's Theatre for a New Audience, just down the street from BAM. To paraphrase the Bard: "As flies to wanton boys are we to the stars. They Lear us for their sport!"

Frank Langella and Lauren O'Neil. Photo: Johanna Persson.
            Angus Jackson’s production, which premiered at England’s Chichester Theatre Festival, is solid and respectable, but uninspired. A number of lines have been cut, but while purists may grumble, the thee-hour production is insufficiently compelling to make you regret getting out 15 minutes earlier. It is given on a neutral set designed by Robert Innes Hopkins (who’s also responsible for the costumes); it incorporates a slightly raked thrust that protrudes from the proscenium, and is backed by rows of Stonehenge-like pillars (some reviewers refer to them as charred trees, but their square shapes have nothing treelike about them) whose crude surfaces match those of the Harvey's famously distressed walls. It’s the kind of set that permits shafts of smoky light (designed by Peter Mumford) and other electronic effects to pierce their interstices, as in so many Shakespearean revivals, with the lighting replacing extensive set changes—apart from a minimal number of furnishings, like a throne—to convey the essence of each locale. People stand around, rarely sitting on anything but the floor, which has several levels built into it, allowing the scenes to shift swiftly. The map of England that Lear divides for his daughters is imprinted on the wooden floor, although hard to see unless one sits somewhat higher up than where I was. To prepare for the powerful storm scene, which showers real water on the actors (I worried for Mr. Langella's health), sections of flooring are removed. This, and the alteration of the pillars in the second act so that some lean forward, implying that the world is now awry, are the only major changes. Although it looks quite different, the production’s scenic neutrality is not far removed from that used in the current revivals of TWELFTH NIGHT and RICHARD III, which replicate the stage of an Elizabethan theatre.
Catherine McCormack and Max Bennett. Photo: Johanna Persson.
Mr. Hopkins’s ho-hum period costumes are conventional mixes of earth-colored medieval and modern elements, with the men in boots, tight pants, and tunics, and the women in body-hugging gowns, Regan in maroon, Goneril in blue, and Cordelia in a rather dowdy gray. The tragic atmosphere is heightened by Fergus O’Hare’s creative sound design, with its use of battle sounds and thunder, and Isobel Waller-Bridge's original music.
Sebastian Armesto. Photo: Johanna :Persson.

            Mr. Langella remains an imposing presence and, despite his familiar actorish qualities, a generally convincing Lear, playing him as a powerful authoritarian, a man who suffers no fools (except, of course, his own Fool [decently played by Harry Melling]), and is given to fits of potent outrage when anyone crosses him. This provides plausibility to his foolish decision to disinherit Cordelia (Isabella Laughland, bland) and give his kingdom to his evil daughters, Regan (Lauren O’Neil) and Goneril (Catherine McCormack). Unfortunately, Mr. Langella’s propensity for salvos of angry disappointment at Cordelia’s unwillingness to compromise her integrity by out-flattering her sisters leads him to garble his words, a fault that recurs whenever his spleen gets the better of him, as in the storm scene. His depiction of Lear’s descent into disillusionment and madness is well charted; act two of the nearly three-hour production, which shows Lear in a more subdued, even sometimes playful mood, as his madness consumes him, is far more touching because of the actor’s graceful combination of vulnerability, and sincerity; his reconciliation with his abandoned daughter brought tears to my eyes.

Harry Melling, Frank Langella, and Steven Pacey. Photo: Richard Termine.

            As one might expect of a production originating at a topflight British theatre, the ensemble is highly polished and expert at speaking Shakespeare’s challenging dialogue, bringing out its lyricism, intellectual heft, and emotional depth. The standout supporting performance belongs to the hunky Max Bennett as a chillingly charismatic Edmund, his hair closely shorn, and his costume a formfitting ensemble of black jacket, tights, and boots. His magnetism perfectly captures the role’s sardonic evil with his several monologues delivered directly to the audience; the way he dwells on his bastardy is a highlight.

Steven Pacey and Harry Melling. Photo: Johanna :Persson.

            Mr. Jackson’s direction is straightforward and—apart from the deluge of the storm scene—ungimmicky. The gouging of Gloucester’s eyes, always a chilling sequence, has Cornwall (Tim Treloar) tossing eyeballs upstage where they go splat, and Tom O’Bedlam’s hovel is a hole in the stage floor, but these choices are not especially problematic. One or two moments might be questioned, though. Why, for example, does Mr. Langella play the scene over Cordelia’s body, when he asks for a mirror to see if it catches her breath, by miming the mirror instead of having someone hand him one? The request is perfectly reasonable, and since Lear has moments of clarity during the scene it doesn’t need to be played as if it were a madman’s fancy. And having Lear avoid having to carry Cordelia’s corpse by dragging it in from the wings seems more a concession to Ms. Laughland’s avoirdupois than to a choice based on artistic necessity. Actors playing Lear have been known to insist on having petite actresses play Lear just to avoid such awkward moments.
Max Bennett. Photo: Johanna Persson.

            Frank Langella is an actor of such physical and vocal presence that Lear is a role he had to tackle before its physical demands grew too great for him. I don’t know if the shuffling steps Lear occasionally uses are those of the actor or the character, but I can vouch for Mr. Langella’s physical vigor in playing such a demanding part and being as vital at the end as at the beginning. This may not be a Lear for all seasons, but it’s good enough for this wintry one. We'll have to wait for spring before we see if Mr. Pennington can bring it on.

Friday, January 24, 2014

208. Review of THE LONELINESS OF THE LONG DISTANCE RUNNER (January 23, 2014)



Sheldon Best. Photo: Ahron Foster.

In 1962 Tom Courtenay shot to stardom as the title character in Tony Richardson’s excellent film, THE LONELINESS OF THE LONG DISTANCE RUNNER, based on a short story by Alan Sillitoe. Sillitoe was one of Britain’s crop of “angry young men” writers, such as John Wain, Kingsley Amis, and John Osborne, then gathering acclaim. Having grown up in a working-class family, Sillitoe had strong resentments against the British class system, which prevented upward mobility in the working classes, even with the increase in postwar prosperity and consumerism brought on by Labour Party policies. His screenplay now has been adapted as a play by Roy Williams, and is being given a fine production at Atlantic Stage 2 under Leah C. Gardiner’s crisp direction (with a brief but excellent fight scene staged by J. David Brimmer).    

Patrick Murney and Joshua E. Nelson. Photo: Ahron Foster. 

Sheldon Best, Malik Yoba, and Zainab Jah. Photo: Ahron Foster.

            The story has been updated and the central character, Colin Smith (Sheldon Best), is now Afro-British, his accent and that of his mother (an excellent Zainab Jah) suggesting West Indian backgrounds. Colin’s recently deceased dad (Malik Yoba), an outspoken socialist, appears as a bathrobe-wearing ghostly figure who enters sporadically to spout leftist theories to his son, even when he’s in swaddling clothes. The play takes place against the background of the race- and class-related riots that took place in England in 2011, and we see videos of Prime Minister David Cameron condemning the violence, to Colin’s distaste.  Colin is a 17-year-old contemptuous of authority and bitter and resentful about his limited opportunities, yet resistant to the idea of getting a job; one night he burglarizes a bakery with his friend, Jace (Joshua E. Nelson), for which he is sent to a reform school or borstal, where he must use his wits to survive the taunting of fellow prisoners Luke (Patrick Murney) and Asher (Eshan Bay). He takes to long distance running as a way of mentally escaping his daily woes, and his superior ability is noticed by the prison counselor, Stevens (Todd Weeks), who convinces Colin to compete in a cross-country race against the students of a posh public school. Colin is allowed the freedom to train by running freely in the nearby woods for an hour every day. While running, Colin finds himself lifted to another plane, where he finds a stress-free euphoria absent from his troubled daily life. Stevens does everything he can to encourage Colin, but Colin can’t accept the fact that he’s anything but a means for the prison to gain prestige at his expense. He’s torn between his desire to win and his disgust at what he thinks are Stevens’s and the borstal’s ulterior motives in exploiting him.   

From left: Malik Yoba, Zainab Jah, Joshua E. Nelson, Sheldon Best. Photo: Ahron Foster.

 Sheldon Best and Todd Weeks. Photo: Ahron Foster.
            Based as it is on a screenplay, the drama is highly episodic, going back and forth between the borstal and Colin’s pre-borstal days, yet it moves from one scene to the other quite smoothly via Lauren Helpern’s flexible scenic arrangement of sliding translucent panels combined with Pauline Lu and Paul Piekarz’s excellent video and still projections and Michael Chybowski’s effective lighting. The main scenes are in Colin’s apartment, where he challenges his mum’s boyfriend Trevor (Mr. Yoba); in the streets, where he and Jace pick up two girls, Sandra (Sydney Sainté) and Kenisha (Jasmine Cephas Jones, very good), the latter becoming Colin’s girlfriend; in the borstal; and in the woods, where Colin runs.
Sheldon Best. Photo: Ahron Foster.
From left: Joshua E. Nelson, Sydney Sainte, Jasmine Cephas Jones, Sheldon Best. Photo: Ahron Foster.

The running scenes are what make this play most memorable, as Colin must run in one place, usually facing straight toward the audience but sometimes shifting directions, as video projections intensify the sense of movement. Mr. Best, who specializes in physically demanding roles, has the extremely challenging job of speaking numerous lines, largely in monologue form, while running in place. (The original London production used a 25-foot treadmill.) When others run with him, it’s only for brief stretches, and they usually fall behind before disappearing or stopping to rest. Mr. Best, who wears a loose tank top and shorts (courtesy of costume designer Bobby Frederick Tilley II) throughout, regardless of where or when a scene occurs, has a wiry, muscular frame and looks every inch the runner; if any performance could be said to be a workout, this is it. The running scenes are reminiscent of last season’s THE JAMMER, seen on this very same stage, which created the illusion of skating in a roller derby. One drawback here is that by having to speak so many lines while running, Mr. Best needs to maintain a high energy level that bleeds too often into his non-running scenes and gives his overall performance a sustained note of angry intensity that needs more variation and subtlety. If he’s thinking contemplatively while sprinting along, why need it be at such volume and passion? Also, playing quiet scenes when you’re trying to catch your breath must be very difficult. Mr. Best’s feat itself is distracting, in that you often find yourself wondering more about the actor’s physical condition than the emotional and psychological issues he’s experiencing. Still, you have to give this guy props for his tour de force of athletic stage acting.
Sheldon Best and Raviv Ullman. Photo: Ahron Foster.

             Despite several flaws, the story remains engrossing, and the job of moving it into today’s world has been done smoothly enough. It sometimes lapses into self-conscious polemics when Colin and Stevens go head to head on social issues; there are too many repetitions of Colin correcting the way people pronounce his name (Coal-in); and there’s a dearth of humor in the generally dour atmosphere. While THE LONELINESS OF THE LONG DISTANCE RUNNER doesn’t have the resonance or significance the film version had in 1962, there's enough here to warrant a visit to W. 16th Street, but my advice is walk, don't run.