Thursday, July 31, 2014

48. Review of SEX WITH STRANGERS (July 29, 2014)


48. SEX WITH STRANGERS
 
 

There are essentially two kinds of plays (or films) about writers, biographical ones that tell the stories of actual authors, like Shakespeare, Truman Capote, or Mark Twain, and those about fictional writers, like DEATHTRAP or THE SEAGULL. In the former, you at least have the works of the authors to refer to when the writing is discussed, but with fictional authors you have to take the playwright’s word for it when characters offer critical assessments. The latter is the case with SEX WITH STRANGERS, the terrifically written and acted two-act, two-character comedy-drama at Second Stage (originally produced in 2011 at Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre). During much of it we contemplate the work of two diametrically opposed writers without ourselves actually reading or even hearing a word of what they’ve written. Ms. Eason’s often hilarious piece depicts a sizzling relationship between these two sharply contrasted writers, while offering useful insights into how the publishing industry is rapidly changing as it adapts to the demands of the digital age. 
 
Anna Gunn, Billy Magnussen. Photo: Joan Marcus.
 
Olivia (Anna Gunn, of “Breaking Bad”) is an attractive 40ish novelist holed up during a snowstorm in a rural Michigan bed and breakfast to work on her new book when in from the cold bursts another writer, Ethan (Billy Magnussen), a blonde hunk nearing 30. It soon becomes clear that Ethan has sought Anna out because he loved her first book, which went nowhere 15 years earlier, but was recommended to him by a mutual friend, himself a Pulitzer Prize winner. The commercial failure of Anna’s first novel, which received mixed reviews, has made her very insecure about her next work, but Ethan’s determined to coax her into releasing her new book, albeit possibly with ulterior motives.

While Olivia, a school teacher by profession, is generally cool and reserved, Ethan is something of a force of nature, a man-child who’s equal parts wide-eyed little boy, self-promotional manipulator, self-deprecating clown (he keeps calling himself an "asshole"), and disingenuous sexual predator. He’s also a very successful author of two books that were on the New York Times best seller list for five years. This fact, combined with the various attributes of success accompanying his celebrity, gradually sneak under Olivia’s at first resistant skin and seriously impress her.
 
Billy Magnussen, Anna Gunn. Photo: Joan Marcus.

Although Ethan has aspirations to write a serious novel, his best sellers were nonfiction works called SEX WITH STRANGERS and MORE SEX WITH STRANGERS. They morphed into book form after beginning as a blog based on his descriptions of the sex he had with a series of women he met and discarded. The blogosphere exploded with interest in his brutally frank writing, most of it true but some admittedly made up, with some of the women themselves blogging about his accounts. A movie based on the book is in the works, and its development forms one of the plot lines.

The snowstorm has knocked out the bed and breakfast’s Internet and Wi-Fi, and the place has no TV, making Ethan feel totally lost (“What if you have to look something up?” he screams) without electronic access to the outside world. Inevitably, chemistry and Ethan’s natural inclinations take over, and by the end of scene one the inevitable happens, indicated by a stage direction to be repeated several times before scenes reach blackout status: “Sex is imminent.”
 
Anna Gunn, Billy Magnussen. Photo: Joan Marcus.

Over the course of the play’s two hours and 15 minutes, Ethan and Olivia carry on an intensely sexual relationship tempered by Ethan’s attempts to move Olivia’s career forward by rebranding her first book and even changing her name. When the second act, set in Olivia’s Chicago apartment, opens, Olivia, whose career is starting to flourish, has done some Google research on Ethan, and read his book, so when they get together again and she lets him know how upset she is with him about his chauvinistically cruel behavior toward women, emotional sparks fly as he tries to justify himself and argue that he’s not as dangerous as Olivia fears. His sharp shifts in personality cause speculation about who the guy really is, the ruthless Lothario signified by his penname, Ethan Strange, or the decent, ambitious writer, Ethan Kane, his actual name. Strange or Kane, Olivia, for all her objections to his tasteless behavior, struggles not to give in to his sexual magnetism.  

Ethan’s seemingly selfless efforts on Olivia’s behalf lead to her getting a lucrative contract offer for her new book from a major publisher, even though the publisher wants to put the book out as an e-book rather than a hard copy, a concept Olivia earlier had difficulty accepting. With the money being dangled in front of her, she’s ready to abandon her ideals. However, her choice ignites a conflict set off by Ethan’s wish for her to abandon the publisher and instead give him the book for publication on a new app he’s launching to promote upcoming writers. His passion to include her book sparks an act of betrayal, which seriously damages their relationship.

The play ends with a scene set a year and a half afterward, a conventional technique for allowing us to see how far each character has moved over that time span. There’s nothing very surprising in what we learn, but Ms. Eason ends the play in a smartly ambiguous way, although my theatre companion overheard a woman complaining that the ending was a copout. I can’t offer details without providing spoilers but the situation the playwright sets up is appropriate to a dilemma that doesn't need the playwright to resolve definitively.   

The give and take between Olivia and Ethan as their relationship evolves is priceless, with the relatively prim and proper, highly educated Olivia playing straight man to the self-educated Ethan’s whirlwind ardor; despite the contrast between them, both in age and temperament, each character clearly finds the fulfillment of a deep need in the other, and the actors’ honesty and vulnerability make every moment vibrant with stage magic. Mr. Magnussen has the showier role, and brings to it much of the same comic vitality and aggressive charm he revealed last year in Christopher Durang’s VANYA AND SONIA AND MASHA AND SPIKE, for which he received a Tony nomination. Like that play, this one gives him several opportunities for showing off his impressively ripped torso, but it also allows its actors many moments in which to display their acting chops, from the broadly comedic to the powerfully dramatic.

Director David Schwimmer handles his actors with sensitivity, and gets from them more colors than in a rainbow. Each line, whether it be a single syllable, like “Oh,” or one with many words, is invested with subtextual meaning. Mr. Schwimmer’s physical staging is fine, including the nicely choreographed, steamy sex scenes that end several scenes (before blackout interruptus).

Andromache Chalfant’s bed and breakfast set seems a bit abstract and nonspecific. I also was surprised that a home in rural Michigan would have a front door leading directly to the outside without a storm door there as well. Olivia’s Chicago apartment is supposed to be so filled with  books that Ethan even comments on it, yet all we see of this is a normal bookcase, like one any moderate reader might have. Japhy Weideman’s lighting captures the various times of day and weather conditions, while Fitz Patton’s sound design adds to the reality of this world with perfectly timed ring tones, texting sounds, and phone vibrations.

If I had to list the five outstanding new, non-solo, plays of the season, I’d pick: AN OCTOROON, THE FEW, THE CITY OF CONVERSATION, ARRIVALS AND DEPARTURES, and SEX WITH STRANGERS. In fact, given the latter’s open ending, I’m already looking forward to the sequel, MORE SEX WITH STRANGERS.

Monday, July 28, 2014

47. Review of MALA HIERBA (July 27, 2014)


47. MALA HIERBA
 
 

If we were to listen to the thoughts of one of this play’s characters, Tanya Saracho’s MALA HIERBA (at Second Stage Uptown’s McGinn/Cazale Theatre) might be viewed as a contemporary take on the story of Lilith, a demon-like female in Jewish folk mythology, who was married to Adam before the more docile Eve was created, but who refused to be subservient and therefore left him. The Lilith character is Liliana Cantu (Marta Milans), the stunning, Mexican trophy wife of a wealthy drug magnate living in the Rio Grande Valley on the Texas border. Like any employee holding a profitable job dependent on someone else’s whims, this woman in her late 20s is constantly engaged in a struggle to strengthen her status by strategizing to make the most of her assets. Her husband, Alberto, we learn, has been married so often she refers to him as Henry the Eighth, so she’s quite aware of the precariousness of her position. At first, this is expressed mainly through her seeming vanity; her hours are filled with an obsession to look perfect for her husband, clothing, makeup, hair, and the creeping presence of body fat (she’s a former bulimic) being her pet preoccupations.


Marta Milans, Sandra Marquez. Photo: Joan Marcus.
 
We never meet Alberto, whose 55th birthday is being celebrated at the house with a big, expensive party. His threatening offstage presence is palpable, however, and the characters constantly worry about his moods; among his habits is tranquilizing others by feeding them Tafil pills, and having sadistic sex with his wife. Those closest to Liliana include her whiny, spoiled, cocaine-snorting, foul-mouthed, bratty stepdaughter, Fabiola (Ana Nogueira, sensational), a 25-year-old out-of-control case of arrested development who lies about attending college and manipulates Liliana to get clothes, jewelry, money, and even her brand new car (truck, actually, a Ford Expedition). “Why are you the best?” she asks her stepmother. “You are my favorite of my dad’s wives, you know that? Totally mean it.” Liliana, sensing the danger Fabi represents, and thinking she needs her good will, grits her teeth and gives in to her insistent demands.

Ana Nogueira. Photo: Joan Marcus.

Yuya (Sandra Marquez), the older woman who raised Liliana, now works as her maid, confidante, and enabler, and serves as the play’s voice of reason. Finally, there’s Maritza (Roberta Colindrez), a butch lesbian artist from Chicago, dressed in black 80’s blazer and skinny jeans; once Liliana’s girlfriend, she shows up, to Liliana’s initial distress, even though it’s in response to a desperate phone message Liliana left her in a moment of panic. After they reignite their relationship, Maritza tries to persuade Liliana to give up her glamorous lifestyle and run off with her back to Chicago. Liliana—dubbed by Maritza’s mother the “bad seed/weed” alluded to in the title—is torn between her love for Maritza, her sense of responsibility for her family’s wellbeing (her dad’s medical bills, her mother’s house, her sister’s tuition), her unease with her marriage, and Yuya’s pragmatic advice on how to get rid of Maritza and use her wits to make the best of things. Nothing is free in this life, including the supposed benefits of marriage to a wealthy and powerful man.  

Marta Milans, Roberta Colindrez. Photo: Joan Marcus.

These pressures lead to a melodramatic confrontation with Maritza on a dirt road, at which point Ms. Saracho opts for an implausible resolution; without giving away what happens, I can observe that the plot not only stumbles into unlikeliness but that a huge hole remains unfilled as it moves to its conclusion.  

Marta Milans, Roberta Colindrez. Photo: Joan Marcus.

Much of the action in this 90-minute, intermissionless, drama transpires in Liliana’s bedroom, at stage right, with the area at left available for exteriors. A scene later in the play takes place in a motel but if you don’t listen closely you’ll assume it’s the same place. (Raul Abrego did the set design.) Since there’s no obvious difference between the two rooms, the bed as seen in Liliana’s room is unable to match the script’s description as “The best that money can buy and the tackiest money can buy”). In the motel it’s the site of a sex scene between the curvaceous Liliana, wearing very sexy, scanty black lingerie, and the bone-thin Maritza, fully clothed; for all its kissing and groping, though, you should see the movie BLUE IS THE WARMEST COLOR if this is what you’re looking for. Live mainstream sex scenes like this in small venues like the McGinn/Cazale either have to really break barriers or find some way to suggest what’s going on without actually showing it.

Jerry Ruiz’s direction is not much more than satisfactory; the more physical scenes, including the several moments of violence (credited to fight director Thomas Schall but certainly the director’s responsibility as well), are unconvincing, possibly because the actresses are being too tentative. And surely, when Yuya makes up the bed in the first scene, the director should ensure that the actress does a better job. My wife would never let me get away with all those saggy creases.

On the other hand, Mr. Ruiz elicits a couple of strong performances. Ms. Milans, who hails from Madrid, is a pleasure to look at and delivers her lines with authority; it’s too bad she lacks the tangy color of actresses like Penelope Cruz or Sophia Vergara. While her English sounds almost American (she also speaks five other languages), I hope it doesn't sound racist to suggest that a spicier Latina accent would be helpful.  Much stronger is Ana Nogueira’s Fabi; she electrifies the stage with her needy, greedy, self-centered behavior, only to reveal true vulnerability when her father finally puts his foot down. Her single false note isn’t her fault; Ms. Nogueira is at least a head shorter than Ms. Milans, and clearly not as voluptuous, but when she dons a fashionable dress of Liliana’s she likes (Carissa Kelly did the fine costumes), it fits her like a glove. Sandra Marquez’s Yuya, whose dialogue, like Liliana'a, is littered with Spanish expressions, is every inch the smart cookie who helped shape the south of the border hot tamale she serves. Ms. Colindrez as Maritza slouches about in mannish fashion but her low-key manner grows dull; she was much more memorable in last season's FUN HOUSE, where she also played a lesbian. 

Jen Schriever’s lighting and Jill BC Du Boff’s sound design—including an excellent selection of Latin transitional music—help make the production watchable and listenable. Ms. Saracho’s dialogue, with its constant mingling of Spanish and English, its profanity, and its considerable infusion of black comedy (funnier on the page than stage), is alive with colloquial vitality.

MALA HIERBA, boiled down to its essentials, is the familiar story of a disillusioned spouse who considers running away with someone else, the twist here being that the lover the spouse wants to hook up with is of her own gender. The playwright has created an interesting enough dramatic world in which to revisit this story, but the working out of the plot runs into difficulty and leaves one with a feeling of incompleteness. The Mexican-born Ms. Saracho, who writes for HBO’s “Looking,” is a playwright to watch, though, and MALA HIERBA shows the good seeds of a promising career.    

Friday, July 25, 2014

46. Review of SUMMER SHORTS 2014: SERIES A (July 24, 2014)


46. SUMMER SHORTS 2014: SERIES A
 

 

I greatly enjoyed much of the writing in the three one-act plays included in the first program of this year’s edition of SUMMER SHORTS at 59E59 Theatres. I did not, however, greatly enjoy their performances. This annual event, in which rising and established playwrights receive low-budget stagings of their new one acts in two programs, Series A and Series B, has opened with a trio of plays loosely tied together by themes of friendship, loss, and recovery, the losses being largely in the form of death, but of other things as well.

From left: Alex Breaux, Shane Patrick Kearns. Photo: Carol Rosegg.

All three plays—performed seriatim, with no intermission, over an 80-minute span—use the same neutral set of horizontal wood slats, designed by Rebecca Lord-Surrat and lit by Greg MacPherson—looking much like the interior of an unfinished (or deteriorating) structure, set before a sky backdrop. It serves as anywhere the action needs to be, much the way a noh stage does. In Roger Hedden’s “The Sky and the Limit” it’s a mesa in some Southwestern desert where two stoner buddies, Aldie (Alex Breaux) and George (Shane Patrick Kearns), are out hiking. When the play opens George is lying flat on his belly, having landed thus after leaping from another mesa. Although he’s badly shaken and is experiencing pain, he seems otherwise okay, and is soon engaged in casual chatter with Aldie. Aldie, while concerned for his friend’s dilemma, treats it as essentially inconsequential, just a secondary mishap in the course of their excursion into the great outdoors. Questioning George about his mobility and receiving positive replies, Aldie asks, “Can you do the hokey pokey and turn yourself around?”

As George gradually recovers the guys banter about George’s foolish leap; the crooked shape of George’s penis (which, George learns, is common knowledge among their mutual friends); George’s love affair with a girl named Shawnee, whom he intends to marry on this spot because of its beauty; and Shawnee’s parents, a country club couple named Ruth and Lloyd Potter. Talk about the wedding leads to their role-playing as the snooty Lloyd and his wife, and to the revelation that the wedding might be a Jewish one. Some potentially laugh-worthy lines emerge.

ALDIE: Shawnee Potter is Jewish?

GEORGE: Yeah, on her mother’s side.

ALDIE: Dude, that’s the side that counts.

GEORGE: What do you mean?

ALDIE: It’s women who carry the Jew gene.

GEORGE: Who decided that?

(Pause.)

ALDIE: Yahweh.

GEORGE: Who’s that?

ALDIE: God.

GEORGE: God? I thought his name was “God.”

ALDIE: The God of the Old Testament. But it’s against the Jewish religion to ever say his name. They call him G dash D. If they absolutely have to—and then they whisper it—G dash D.

The playwright milks the Jewish angle for additional humor as the conversation about the wedding and the mimicking of the Potter parents continue. The satire at the expense of these upper-class snobs is priceless, including the news that Ruth, like them, is a pothead (the boys themselves light up, of course). But, suddenly, the mood shifts when George takes a turn for the worse and the play veers sharply in a new and unwelcome direction.

After a brief pause, a scene taking place 40 days later follows, when Ruth (Allison Daugherty), dressed incongruously for a hike in the desert, shows up at the mesa, where she finds Aldie (wearing a laughably amateurish beard), who’s been camping here since the incident with George. Ruth wants Aldie to fly home with her and Shawnee, who she thinks might benefit from his company. This last scene seems tacked on and its revelations that Shawnee’s in therapy and Ruth’s not Jewish seem unnecessary.

On paper, Mr. Hedden’s script is hilarious; I must have snorted or barked with laughter a dozen times when reading it. During the production, though, I was dismayed to hear little but scattered titters and chuckles. The actors, while perfectly natural and believable, have been directed by Billy Hopkins to speak rapidly and underplay, which muffles laugh after laugh. Of the two leads, the mush-mouthed Mr. Breaux is notably lacking the comedy gene, at least with this kind of material. The play needs more than naturalistic acting to work; its humor is bound up not in physical behavior but in smartass and often ribald humor that the characters should enjoy getting off on when speaking it as much as we do when hearing it. So much is simply thrown away that the comedy remains as flat on its belly as George in the first scene.   

The second play, by Tony-winning playwright Warren Leight (SIDE MAN), is “Sec. 310, Row D, Seats 5 and 6,” not an easy title to remember, and it, too, has much to recommend it. I’m sure my friends Jerry and Larry, avid basketball fans, would appreciate it much more than I because of all its inside commentary on the countless fiascos of the Knicks over the course of the past two fruitless decades. Still, even the basketball-challenged, like me, can appreciate the way Leight integrates the ongoing personal issues over those decades of three friends who share two season tickets at Madison Square Garden.

From left: Peter Jacobson, Geoffrey Cantor. Photo: Carol Rosegg.

Two rows of seats (benches, actually) are seen, both presumably filled with fans during an eternal Knicks game that sees, in the eponymous front row, Josh (Cezar Williams), Eddie (Geoffrey Cantor), and Roman (Peter Jacobson) in varying combinations of two. Segments of frustrating games that are probably etched in loyal fans’ memories are viewed as time moves forward, one scene morphing into another as someone edges his way in or out past the invisible spectators to either side. (Unfortunately, these exits and entrances got more consistent laughs than anything else in the performance, although I had no idea of what the audience found funny in them.) As the characters intermittently respond in anger or desperation to the ineptitudes on the court, we learn of their romantic, marital, and familial issues. These keep evolving, sometimes with amusing developments, as when Eddie’s wife leaves him for another woman, or even poignant ones, but through it all, the one dependable thing in their lives is that the Knicks remain constant losers, no matter who the players or coaches are.

“Sec. 310, Row D, Seats 5 and 6,” directed by Fred Berner, is a clever enough time-passer, but it remains more interesting as a concept than as a fully realized human experience. The characters, for all the changes in their lives, look and act the same in the mid-1990s, when the O.J. Simpson case was distracting sports fans, as they do in more recent times. Despite their being at basketball games, they talk in ordinary conversational tones, becoming loudly vocal only when there’s something to bitch about in the game. Much like the tone in “The Sky and the Limit,” the talk is mostly passionless and dry, which can also be said for the final play, “Riverbed.”

Adam Green, Miriam Silverman. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
 
In that piece, by Eric Lane, and directed by Matthew Rauch, we see a young married couple, Adam (Adam Green) and Megan (Miriam Silverman), who've been living an idyllic life in a house set on a riverbank. His profession isn’t mentioned but she’s an art history professor at a local community college. One Saturday morning, while she was teaching an adult ed class on Caravaggio’s “The Beheading of St. John the Baptist” and Adam was home caring for their young children near the dock, he turned for a moment to see a deer and, when he turned back to the dock his daughter, Lucie, had disappeared. Adam and Megan tell us all this, and then recount the aftermath, how the police came to her class to report the accident, the unsuccessful search for the child, the “what ifs” they couldn’t help asking, and how they coped with the loss, including the issue of forgiveness.

The vast majority of the dialogue is in the form of direct address, much of it in the present tense (“We do this,” “I do that,” and so forth) with only sporadic moments during which Adam and Megan speak to one another. It is, in fact, more like the reading of separate but related diaries than a play in the conventional sense. The writing is sensitively poetic and delicate but terribly restrained, just like the actors delivering it, as they speak with buried emotions, almost smiling in their effort to demonstrate their self-control. Feelings are talked about, but remain largely unexpressed, hinted at but more to be imagined than experienced. All well and good, but like so much else during the evening, fine actors have been reined in by their director and given no opportunity for passionate expression. I was especially disappointed to see such a polite performance from Ms. Silverman, who was so powerful in last year’s FINKS at EST.

SUMMER SHORTS, Series B, will offer three more one-acts, by Daniel Reitz, Neil LaBute, and Albert Innaurato. I look forward to quality writing, of course, and hope the productions will have some of the emotional lightning that failed to strike in Series A.  

Thursday, July 24, 2014

45. Review of PIECE OF MY HEART: THE BERT BERNS STORY (July 23, 2014)

45. PIECE OF MY HEART: THE BERT BERNS STORY
 

 

For the second time in less than a year, the song that gives this new jukebox musical its title is rocking a New York stage. Written by Bert Berns and Jerry Ragovoy, it was featured in last season’s A NIGHT WITH JANIS JOPLIN, whose Broadway production closed in February; a planned reopening Off Broadway in April was canceled at the last minute. Had it not been, there would have been two major Off Broadway shows simultaneously featuring not only “Piece of My Heart” but “Cry Baby,” another Joplin hit written by Berns and Ragovoy. While A NIGHT WITH JANIS JOPLIN was also a jukebox musical, it centered on a great singing star and the songs she sang, delivered in an approximation of a concert performance interlarded with personal anecdotes; PIECE OF MY HEART, as its subtitle indicates, is a bio-musical about songwriter and record producer Bert Berns, a name few, apart from musical aficionados, recognize today.

PIECE OF MY HEART makes Berns out to have been something of a guitar-playing singer as well (the program cover depicts him in semi-Elvis mode), although there’s no way of knowing if he was as skilled in this department as Zak Resnick, who plays him. The rock ‘n roll and soul songs he wrote were recorded by many top artists, none of them named Bert Berns (and barely any of whom are mentioned in the script). Bert Berns, in fact, was only one of several names he used, but the show doesn’t touch on this.

Zak Resnick, Gabrielle Ruiz, Derrick Baskin. Photo: Jenny Anderson.

In telling “the Bert Berns story,” book writer Daniel Goldfarb dramatizes Berns’s brief but impressive career from 1960 to 1968, when he died of a heart attack at 38. Having suffered from rheumatic fever at age 15, Berns constantly lived under the shadow of death, and the show keeps harping on the necessity of living life to the fullest while you still can. According to the libretto, Berns, the Bronx-born son of Russian-Jewish parents, was fond of quoting the ancient Jewish philosopher Hillel: “If I am not for myself who is for me? And being for my own self, what am I? And if not now, when?” the last sentence being repeated several times during the show. Hillel’s words stand out amid a plethora of dialogue for which banal would be a compliment.

Teal Wicks, Zak Resnick. Photo: Jenny Anderson.
 
Since every jukebox musical seems to need a frame, Goldfarb provides one by introducing Berns’s daughter, a struggling singer-songwriter named Jessie (Leslie Kritzer), living on the West Coast, who receives a mysterious phone call from a tough-sounding New Yorker to come East for an important reason he’ll divulge only when he meets her. The man she encounters in her dad’s old office in the famed songwriting emporium known as the Brill Building (fast becoming a stock Broadway setting) is an Italian-American nicknamed Wazzel (Joseph Siravo), a middle-aged man who looks, sounds, and behaves like a refugee from “The Sopranos”; Bern’s one-time manager, he’s concerned about the need to protect Jessie’s father’s musical legacy. Her mother, Ilene (Linda Hart), he informs Jessie, is on the verge of selling the rights to Bert’s catalogue for a large sum of money, without getting her kids’ okay. This opens the door to Wazzel’s recounting his memories of Berns, memories that will be countered by those of Ilene, as their stories are enacted in flashback, with younger versions of Wazzel (Bryan Fenkhart) and Ilene (Teal Wicks), a one-time go-go dancer, playing out  their lives as their older counterparts look on.

Derrick Baskin, Zak Resnick, Bryan Fenkhart. Photo: Jenny Anderson.

Like BEAUTIFUL: THE CAROLE KING MUSICAL and so many other shows of this ilk, PIECE OF MY HEART: THE BERT BERNS STORY tells of the trials and tribulations, musical, professional, and personal, of its eponymous subject. Unlike BEAUTIFUL, its recreation of Berns’s life isn’t about how he came to write his many hit songs (a remarkable 51 in seven years), but looks mainly at how he lived his life as a songwriter, producer, friend, lover, and husband. Naturally, we get the standard clich√©d glimpse into the ruthless world of record producing in the 1960s, with recording sessions featuring major producer Jerry Wexler (Mark Zeisler); there’s even a scene with a young Phil Spector (the actor is uncredited), whose ideas on how to produce “Twist and Shout” Berns adamantly rejects, leading to his own career as a big producer.

Although some of the biographical material (like the over-extended scenes about Berns’s visit to pre-Castro Cuba, where he ostensibly was influenced by Latin music) is based on fact, it’s hard to determine how much is true and how much claptrap; there’s a strong feeling that the balance falls on the latter. For example, the name of Berns’s daughter—born only months before Berns died—has been changed from Cassandra to Jessie (to make her “an amalgamation,” says the program), even though Cassandra Berns and her brother Brett are two of the lead producers. For all the efforts to show Berns’s seamier side, there’s clearly an air of hagiography here; you have to take what you get with a chunk of salt.  

The biggest problem is the decision (√† la MAMMA MIA!) to use Berns’s music for storytelling purposes, finding ways to incorporate it that somehow are related to the events being enacted. For an egregious example, think of Berns’s ultimate heart attack and the show’s title song. Then there’s “Cry Baby,” sung to a crying infant in a bassinet. Moreover, since, of the 26 songs performed, only nine have both lyrics and music by Berns, most of the lyrics can’t even claim to be autobiographical. Even if they were, their lack of chronological connection to Berns’s life would invalidate this way of telling his story. (It’s also curious that Berns’s lyricist collaborators get no mention, giving the impression that he wrote each song entirely on his own.) Forcing the songs into the drama creates an uncomfortable feeling that at least some of the drama was created to match the songs.

There’s no question that Berns made a striking contribution to the music of his generation (he was posthumously inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2009), but, despite his having written many successful tunes, it’s unlikely that most theatergoers, even those around during the 60s, will recognize them. Many will be familiar with “Piece of My Heart,” “Twist and Shout,” “Here Comes the Night,” “Hang on Sloopy,” “I Want Candy,” “Tell Him,” and “Cry Baby,” but I wonder how many can hum the tunes of “Heart Be Still,” “If I Didn’t Have a Dime (to Play the Jukebox),” “Show Me Your Monkey,” or “I’ll Be a Liar”? Not that this is a bad thing, as one aim of the show is to reintroduce Berns’s music to a public that, by and large, has forgotten most of it. And some of the songs do deserve a new life, among them “I’ll Be a Liar,” sung with fierce determination by Linda Hart’s Ilene when accused by her daughter of not telling the truth about Berns (sample spoiler: he didn’t go to Juilliard). But, in general, few of the songs hold up as distinctively as they may once have, and, even with Garry Sherman’s new orchestrations, there’s too generic a period feel to many of them. Played as dramatic arias within the storyline, they take on feelings and attitudes that may have had nothing at all to do with what inspired them, or how they were interpreted by the artists who once made them popular.

Set designer Alexander Dodge’s opening image on the stage at the Pershing Square Signature Center is an iconic one of an abstract New York skyline with a bold shaft of light illuminating a stool slightly off center. Surrounding the space is steel scaffolding on the upper level of which sits the eight-member orchestra. The atmosphere is what one might expect for a cabaret-type show, and we get that impression when Bert and others enter for the opening number, but the show has multiple locales to recreate, which it accomplishes through sliding units that provide just enough scenery and props to establish locales. It’s all standard stuff for shows like this, just as are Ben Stanton’s multifaceted lighting and David C. Woolard’s mostly period costuming. All very professional and respectable, but, like the show itself, not particularly different from what you’ve seen many times before.

The singing is first rate, as is much of the acting, although Bryan Fenkhart’s Young Wazzel overdoes the stereotypical thugishness, and Zak Resnik’s Bert seems increasingly melodramatic, especially all those times he grabs his chest when facing a crisis. Both Ms. Hart and Teal Wicks are outstanding as Ilene, the slender Ms. Hart with her tough Jewish mother routine, and the beautiful Ms. Wicks as Ilene’s younger self, in whom we can sense her older persona’s sharp pragmatism. Ms. Kritzer, always a talent to admire, is not particularly charismatic as the rather downbeat Jessie. Derrick Baskin as Hoagy Lands, the black soul singer Berns was forced to betray—at least in the script—by replacing him on “Twist and Shout” (with the Isley Brothers, unmentioned), does a fine job in an undeveloped role, and the sleek De’Adre Aziza, who played Nina Simone and Odetta in A NIGHT WITH JANIS JOPLIN, makes a strong impression as Candace, the sensual black woman with whom Berns has a love affair before meeting Ilene.

From left: Mark Zeisler, Teal Wicks, Leslie Kritzer, Bryan Fenkart, Derrick Baskin, Linda Hart, Joseph Siravo, De'Adre Aziza. Photo: Jenny Anderson.

Denis Jones’s direction and choreography do what’s needed to keep the multi-scened, time-spanning material moving, but, even played at a mostly up-tempo pace, and with several numbers that get your pulse racing and your toes tapping, the two hour and 20 minute show tends to drag because its inherent drama is so thin and its lines so uninspired. As presented here, the conflicts are simply not big enough to twist and shout about, and the major suspense lies in waiting for that preordained moment when a piece of Bert Bern’s heart gives out. Still, when the company assembles for the curtain calls and gives its all with reprises of two big numbers, your own heart may jump as you find yourself clapping along with everyone else.

Monday, July 21, 2014

44. Review of THE PIANIST OF WILLESDEN LANE (July 16, 2014)

44. THE PIANIST OF WILLESDEN LANE
 

Twenty years ago the Manhattan Theatre Club produced Diane Samuels’s KINDERTRANSPORT, a moving drama about the 1938-1940 rescue operation that sent nearly 10,000 Jewish children from Germany, Austria, Czechoslovakia, Poland, and the Free City of Danzig to protection in British homes and schools. Most never saw their families again. Each of those children had a story to tell, of course, and a number of them have appeared in English as memoirs of one sort or another. One is The Children of Willesden Lane: Beyond the Kindertransport: A Memoir of Music, Love, and Survival, by Mona Golabek and Lee Cohen, which has been adapted for the stage by Hershey Felder as THE PIANIST OF WILLESDEN LANE. This touching, exceptionally well performed solo piece, directed by Mr. Felder (himself a renowned performer of solo plays about great musicians), originally was seen at Los Angeles’s Geffen Playhouse, and has been produced at other leading venues. It has opened in Theatre A at 59E59, and is a must-see, both for its sophisticated, deceptively simple presentation and the virtuoso performance of Ms. Golabek herself as she tells the story of her mother, Lisa Jura Golabek, who fled Vienna as a Kindertransport child in 1938.  

Mona Golabek. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Ms. Golabek, a successful concert pianist who hosts a classical music radio program and who was taught by her mother, just as her mother had been taught by hers, introduces herself at the opening, on a black set (designed by Trevor Hay and Mr. Felder) dominated by a Steinway grand piano. The rear wall carries large, decorative picture frames in whose openings numerous projections (the excellent work of Andrew Wilder and Greg Sowizdrzal) will be seen, illustrating the story she tells. She wears a simple black dress (designed by Jaclyn Maduff) with gently puffed short sleeve. Her auburn hair (actually, a too obvious wig) is styled in a page boy cut with bangs; it hints at the youthfulness of the role she'll be playing, but also doesn’t seem out of place as the character matures. Ms. Golabek soon transforms into her mother, Lisa Jura, as a 13-year-old girl growing up in elegant, artistically abundant, prewar Vienna as the talented daughter (she had two sisters) of a pianist mother and high-class tailor. She tells us that when the Nazis begin tormenting Austria’s Jews, as most vividly represented by Krystallnacht, November 9 and 10, 1938, she was sent to Britain as part of the Kindertransport mission, leaving her sister and parents behind. The play recounts her various experiences in England, where she was treated kindly, and where her talents as a musical prodigy helped her get into the Royal Academy of Music, even though she also had to work in a factory sewing army uniforms. We learn of her friendships with other Kindertransport children and of her eventually playing piano in the lounge of London’s Howard Hotel, where she met the handsome French resistance officer she would one day marry. As her story progresses we get a taste of London life during the blitz as it was experienced by Lisa and her friends, including the destruction (and ultimate reconstruction) of the hostel she stayed at in Willesden Lane. Although her parents died, her two sisters survived the war, several years after which she immigrated to the United States, where she was followed by the French officer, Ms. Golabek's father.
Mona Golabek. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
As Ms. Golabek narrates she embodies different characters, male and female, old and young, altering her voice enough to convey the accent or gender of the person she’s representing. Although she doesn't do Jefferson Mays-type transformations, she manages to make it perfectly clear who’s talking. She never rushes, always taking care to be precise, both in the way she moves her hands to mime something, or in how her graceful body language expresses various emotions. Her acting seems at the start a bit tentative, but that impression gradually fades as we become ever more absorbed by her sweetness and sincerity, not to mention the innate interest of her story. Most remarkably, as she plays both Lisa and the other characters, she often sits at the piano to accompany herself with a variegated concert of mostly classical music, playing with delicacy and passion but never, until the final number, Grieg’s “Piano Concerto in A Minor, op. 18; third movement,” getting swept away by emotion. Throughout, no matter how complex the music—which includes familiar classics from Beethoven, Debussy, Chopin, Bach, and Rachmaninoff, with two nods to popular music in “Strike Up the Band” and “These Foolish Things (Remind Me of You”)—she performs with seeming effortlessness, the piano playing seeming more an extension of her acting than a performance of its own. I sat in the second row and could swear she never broke a sweat until she attacked the final Grieg concerto. I don't profess to know much about either classical music or virtuosic piano playing, but I definitely was caught up in the beauty and technical expertise of Ms. Golabek’s artistry.
Hershey Felder’s direction is perfectly in tune with the needs of the material, and is supported by an expert sound design by Erik Carstensen and significantly varied lighting by Christopher Rynne. THE PIANIST OF WILLESDEN LANE reminds us of a horrendous time in modern history, but it is an uplifting work that demonstrates both the resilience of the human spirit and the indescribable power of great music when exquisitely played from the heart. Brava.

A postscript, if I may: the Kindertransport story is a particularly timely one, as it reminds us of a moment not that long ago when Britain’s humanitarian impulses allowed it to open its arms in a time of crisis to 10,000 Jewish children who were in harm’s way. It’s impossible not to think of the catastrophe brewing right now in Texas over the plight of over 50,000 immigrant children fleeing repressive societies in search of a better place to live. In 1938, with war looming, the English people were facing a situation of life and death that would soon cause severe food and fuel shortages in their island nation, but despite the hardships they were about to endure, no one then or later spoke out against the arrival of the children the way so many are now doing in our country. Take, for example, the words of Gregg Griffith, who lives next to the shelter in Oyster Creek, Texas, where many of the children have been housed, as reported in the New York Times (July 17, 2014, p. 1): “That’s my tax money taking care of a foreign national. . . . I don’t want to take care of a foreign national. It’s not my problem. . . . I sort of feel like we should be taking care of our own first.” The situations, of course, are not really the same, but what’s happening now is definitely a humanitarian crisis involving threatened children; whatever the solution, saying one doesn’t want one’s tax money helping a mass migration of indigent kids because they’re not our own was not the way the British handled their problem 76 years ago.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

43. Review of ATOMIC: THE MUSICAL (July 15, 2014)

ATOMIC: THE MUSICAL
 

Usually, when an explosive device fails to go off we call it a dud. On the other hand, when a show turns out to be a dud we often call it a bomb. You can use either word to describe ATOMIC: THE MUSICAL, a new show (originally produced in Australia) at the Acorn Theatre, directed by Damien Gray, about the development of the A-bomb. The notion of musicalizing the multifaceted story of the Manhattan Project, which created the bombs that devastated Hiroshima and Nagasaki, is not a new one. As recently as 2005, DR. ATOMIC, John Adams and Peter Sellars’s generally well-received opera about the bomb, which focuses on scientist J. Robert Oppenheimer during the project’s last days, premiered at the San Francisco Opera House, followed by several other productions, including one at New York’s Metropolitan Opera in 2008. ATOMIC, which should have chosen a title less reminiscent of the opera, examines the story mainly from the viewpoint of Leo Szilard (1898-1964), the Hungarian-born Jewish physicist who studied under Albert Einstein in Germany, which he fled in 1933, and who came to New York in the late 1930s to take a position at Columbia University.
Jeremy Kushnier. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Szilard (Jeremy Kushnier), who discovered how to create the chain reactions that made the atomic bomb possible, was one of the less well-known Manhattan Project scientists, which included such geniuses as the German Edward Teller (Randy Harrison) and the Italian Enrico Fermi (Jonathan Hammond), not to mention Oppenheimer (Euan Morton). He was outspoken in his belief that the principles of atomic energy should be used not for mass destruction but for mankind’s good. But he was caught up in the frenzy of a project that had to race against the clock to create the A-bomb before it happened in Germany, which had an even more advanced nuclear research program. He believed that once America had created the bomb it would be able to defeat Germany by simply revealing its existence. The fact that Szilard and so many of his peers were Jewish made their race to defeat the Nazis even more urgent. When Germany surrendered even before the bomb was completed, Szilard thought there’d be no use for the bomb, and was sorely distressed when it was dropped on Japan. Whether this was the right decision or not remains a hotly debated question, and is visited toward the end of ATOMIC, but despite all the serious issues and complex personalities forming the background to this story, the show remains mired in banalities and inconsequential personal matters, many of them surrounding Szilard’s relationship with Trude Weiss Szilard (Sara Gettelfinger), a pediatrician. For some reason, the play shows them as married, but that didn’t take place until 1951. 
Jonathan Hammond, Jeremy Kushnier. Photo: Carol Rosegg.

Unlike the tighter focus of DR. ATOMIC, this episodic show—with book and lyrics by Danny Ginges and Gregory Bonsignore and music and lyrics by Philip Foxman—covers the immediate prewar years, as well as the years during World War II when the Manhattan Project was born in New York, moved to Chicago, and grew to immense size. An attempt is made to hold it together by framing it within the context of the 1954 hearings during which Oppenheimer (Euean Morton) faced a Congressional hearing that stripped him of his security clearance because of his communist sympathies. This sometimes seems, though, more an opportunity to introduce Oppenheimer’s unusual persona—shown here as a pedantic pontificator with a streak of showmanship—than to elucidate Szilard’s story, which was not the subject of the hearings.
Randy Harrison, Jeremy Kushnier. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Another frame is provided by an opening scene showing a Japanese couple in Hiroshima having a quiet morning conversation (in their native tongue) when—BAM!—a blast of white light and noise indicates they’ve been evaporated. Toward the end, this scene is repeated at somewhat more length, but the explosion is accompanied by a slow-mo choreographed scene (staged by Rick Sordelet) in which, amid the bright lights, Szilard is seen physically annihilating the couple (Bam! Pow! Crunch!, it almost seems to shout), as in a guilty nightmare where he feels himself responsible for their deaths. The show doesn’t end here, though, and continues wrapping up loose ends for at least another 10 minutes. At nearly two and a half hours (with one intermission), these scenes only extend a show that has long overstayed its welcome, never having demonstrated why it was necessary to make a musical of this historically interesting but not especially theatrical material. Chain reactions, radiation, protons versus neutrons, thermodynamics, anyone?
Jonathan Hammond, Alexis Fishman. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Although music dominates the show, there are a significant number of spoken scenes that, had they been sung, might have qualified ATOMIC as a rock opera. Apart from a couple of songs, such as Enrico Fermi’s “America Amore” and the Andrews Sisters-like “The Holes in the Donuts,” sung by a trio of women (Sarah Gettelfinger, Grace Stockdale, and Alexis Fishman) dressed like Rosie the Riveter, the show is a series of big-voiced, familiar-sounding rock anthems, most of them filled with platitudinous and heavy-handed lyrics that sometimes rhyme and sometimes don’t. The “Donuts” number, choreographed by Greg Graham, is suggestive of a more appealing stylistic direction the show might have taken by using pastiche numbers influenced by wartime tunes.
Euan Morton. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
A neutral setting of open-framed boxes, designed by Neil Patel to suggest the periodic table, allows for the many scenes to move quickly from one to the other without the need for cumbersome set changes; a long, six-legged table on wheels, moved about by the actors, figures in nearly every scene. The set allows for a myriad of rock concert-like lighting—strobes included—by David Finn, but even with all the light cues the visual elements eventually become dull and repetitious. Emma Kingsbury’s period costumes are generally effective, especially the Rosie the Riveter clothes, and Fermi’s reddish suit stands out, but not much else in this department is especially memorable. The white silk negligee worn in one scene by Trude, attractive as it is, seems decidedly out of character.

Photo: Grace Stockdale, Jonathan Hammond, Alexis Fishman. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Given the dimensions of the subject matter, it’s clear that numerous shortcuts had to be devised to tell the story. The number of characters had to be greatly pared down, the scientific jargon reduced to a minimum (although there are several mouthfuls to digest), the personalities simplified, and some comic relief inserted. This means, for one thing, that important historic figures are caricatured rather than treated seriously, most egregiously Fermi, depicted as an oversexed, Italian-accented refugee who seems more interested in being in America because of its sexual opportunities than for the opportunity to pursue his scientific interests.
The cast, in good voice, sings its collective heart out, and, given the drawbacks of the material, does its best at making the characters lively, if not believable. Szilard, unlike Oppenheimer, is not the most charismatic physicist around whom to construct a rock musical, although Mr. Kushnier does a fine job in the role. Lurking in the story, however, is someone who, though her story is important for other reasons, might be worth the effort of dramatizing it (but not necessarily making it into a musical!). This is Leona Woods (Alexis Fishman), the only woman on the Manhattan Project team. Putting her life on the stage might create the right sort of theatrical chain reaction.   

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

42. Review of THE LONG SHRIFT (July 14, 2014)

42. THE LONG SHRIFT

 
Given his status as one of the hottest (and most controversial) film and theatre entities on the planet, it seems appropriate to assume that James Franco—currently starring on Broadway in OF MICE AND MEN—could, if he wished, have had his pick from a large pool of new plays with which to make his Off Broadway directing debut. Unfortunately, the one he happened to choose, novelist Robert Boswell’s THE LONG SHRIFT, which opened the other day at the Rattlestick, is a static, generally lifeless, and clumsily composed slice-of-life drama in the pseudo-Sam Shepherd tradition about the potentially potent subject of high school rape. It’s torpidly staged with scant imagination and nary a shred of theatrical urgency, and acted with flat-line monotony that only now and then blips into life. If my wife had gone with me she’d have been saying someone should stick a pin in these actors.  
 

 
Scott Haze, Allie Gallerani. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Much is made in the media about Mr. Franco’s polymath interests, his program bio noting that he is “an actor, director, screenwriter, producer, teacher and author.” This makes him sound like the second coming of Orson Welles. To add to the many academic programs he’s been enrolled in, I’d recommend graduate courses in directing. His Wikipedia entry touches on his several other talents, none of which, however, have been put to very good use in THE LONG SHRIFT. Had he himself played the leading role, though, instead of the ineffably boring Scott Haze (who has appeared in several of Franco’s films), perhaps the stultifying evening might have had more dramatic interest than it does. That might have meant using another director, of course, which would have been all to the good, as Mr. Franco is no Orson Welles.
Annie Gallerani, Scott Haze, Ahna O'Reilly. Photo: Joan Marcus.
The gabby play runs 95 minutes, without an intermission, although at least four or five spectators, regardless of the discomfort to themselves and others, squeezed their way through the narrow rows to take their leave well before the final curtain. Most of the action takes place in a seedy, faceless, tiny, Houston apartment (designed by Andromache Chalfant), cheaply paneled and with a standard hollow wooden door that never seems to close properly. (The Rattlestick has a penchant for such cruddy locales.) This “hovel,” as they call it, is where Sarah (Ally Sheedy) and Henry (Brian Lally), have been forced to move after selling their house to pay the legal costs of defending their son, Richard (Mr. Haze), when, at 18, he was accused of raping the homecoming queen at Lancaster High School. For this assault, if it actually happened as reported, he spent five years in prison before the girl recanted her story and his sentence was reduced. When the play begins, not long after Richard’s incarceration, the cynical Sarah and Henry, a feckless Viet Nam vet, bicker over their perceptions of Richard’s guilt. Sarah, who won’t even visit Richard in prison, believes he did it and Henry stands up for his son.
The main action begins in the second scene, set ten years later, just when Lancaster is preparing a 10th year reunion for the class of 1999. Richard has recently moved in with his widowed dad. Who should show up at the apartment but Beth (Ahna O’Reilly), the rich girl whose testimony sent the working-class Richard to jail and who, for reasons to be uncovered, did an about face and got him released. Having suffered the consequences of the trial and his conviction, Beth—who’s greeted with a faceful of whiskey—seeks forgiveness, redemption, or whatever, although the incessantly simmering Richard refuses to hear what she has to say. Another visitor soon arrives, this being the attractive, enthusiastic, but rather oblivious Lancaster student body president, Macy (Allie Gallerani), in charge of the reunion; I’d like to know, by the by, in what high schools students are allowed to run reunions. Her dimwitted idea is to have Richard—his notoriety makes him a celebrity, doesn’t it?—be the keynote speaker. (She’s airheaded enough to let him put a move on her.) And Beth, naturally, will share the stage with him. Further, she agrees to do so wearing a dress of Richard’s late mother. This is only a sample of the improbable and implausible writing raging through Mr. Boswell’s play.
Richard’s speech—held before a curtain with a reunion banner on it—turns out to be a disaster during which he removes his shirt to reveal a large black swastika tattoo on his chest, a sign of the rites of passage prison life required. The lack of any strong negative reaction from the invisible crowd of former students and teachers to his diatribe against their failure to support him is yet another dramaturgic puzzle.  
The play also indulges in a totally unnecessary dream scene between Henry and Sarah, played in green light, in the middle of which there’s a flashback, all of which seems amateurish and unnecessary. Burke Browne’s lighting, here and throughout, is decidedly inferior, with the actors’ faces frequently being so poorly illuminated as to make their expressions indecipherable from my seat at the rear of the theatre. This, too, must ultimately be laid at Mr. Franco’s door.
The play concludes with its only truly dramatic confrontation as Beth and Richard air their issues, but all this does is suggest the play that might have been, and the theatrical tension that should have driven the action from the start. There are valuable ideas hiding amidst the problematic writing, especially concerning the effects of rape accusations on victims and alleged perpetrators. Just yesterday, the front page of the New York Times ran a major story on a college rape and its aftermath: http://www.nytimes.com/2014/07/13/us/how-one-college-handled-a-sexual-assault-complaint.html?_r=0.
Hopefully, Mr. Franco will direct for the stage again, if only in an effort to wipe the slate clean and start afresh.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

41. Review of FUERZA BRUTA: WAYRA (July 11, 2014)


41. FUERZA BRUTA: WAYRA

 
 
 
FUERZA BRUTA means “brute force,” which is a pretty good way of describing the nonstop energy of this show’s no-holds barred assault on an audience’s ocular and aural receptors. This Argentinean explosion of immersive theatre, created by Diqui James, which has been performed in many international venues, is back at the Daryl Roth Theatre, where an earlier incarnation enjoyed a run from 2007 to earlier this year. The new production is called WAYRA, which means “wind” in Quechua, certainly a suitable word for a show whose effects depend to such a great degree on powerful wind machines. Critics who’ve seen it before note that much of what they saw in its most recent incarnation as FUERZA BRUTA is being repeated; since I never saw the show before it was all new and, technically, at any rate, memorably impressive.

FUERZA BRUTA. Photo: Jacob Cohl.  
 
Content-wise, WAYRA might be considered a demonstration of sheer technological wizardry devoid of characters, plot, or any semblance of story, with occasional flashes of potential drama that ultimately blend into the relentless display of lights, acrobatics, flying, head-pounding taped and live music, and treadmill running, with the audience on its feet throughout in a large, high, dark, open, and fog-filled space. When the show begins, we see a man in white walking and running on a treadmill, being passed by others who slide by him only to fall backward into an invisible trashcan, as others take their place. Plastic tables and chairs also rush by to meet the same fate, as do large framed portals filled with paper, Styrofoam, and cardboard, through which the man on the treadmill smashes, sending shards everywhere. At one point, he’s shot (BANG!) and collapses, his shirt all bloody. Not to worry, as he’s soon up and running again. Meanwhile, a group of fiery percussionists on a raised stage at one side begin banging away and singing (music by Gary Kerpel) in what sounds like Spanish but--because the words are mostly drowned out by the noise--could as easily be a made-up language like what you hear at CIRQUE DU SOLEIL.

Soon, a pair of  female aerialists start flying above us, hanging sideways as they race around and bounce off a huge, Mylar-like curtain that slowly surrounds the audience. It’s hard to tell if they’re happy or angry, but they’re definitely not placid. This hyper-expressivity runs throughout the show.
 
FUERZA BRUTA. Photo: Jacob Cohl.

In another feature, clearly the most spectacular, a transparent pool slides into place over the audience and, as water rushes into it, cast members go dashing, crashing, careening, sliding across, and banging their  fists on it. You stand there, craning your neck (as during so much of this aerially-oriented show) to watch these activities directly overhead, wondering about the safety of having a large pool made of some Lucite-like material filled with water and half a dozen performers suspended over a couple of hundred spectators. Then the pool descends slowly so you’re able to actually raise your hands and touch it, reaching out to the performers, who touch back (albeit with the plastic between them and you), all the while noting how the lighting keeps changing the colors of the water and actors’ bodies.
 
FUERZA BRUTA: WAYRA. Photo: Jacob Cohl.
The audience often has to move to make way for the technical equipment, such as when a giant disk-like sheet of silver-coated fabric is pushed to the center of the space. Suspended horizontally on either side are a man and woman who do a frantic sequence of movements as they attempt (or seem to attempt) to get to the other side of the disk, whose orientation shifts frequently. As with all the other performances in WAYRA, they display admirable acrobatic agility and skill, but a serious nod of respect also must be given to the hardworking technical crew whose efforts at controlling the movements of the disk and aerial wires are quite visible during this routine.  
 
FUERZA BRUTA. Photo: Jacob Cohl.

In another remarkable number, you help move a heavy clear plastic sheet, crisscrossed with white tape across the space over your head, only for a wind machine to blow the plastic higher and higher until it forms a gigantic dome. You’re essentially inside a balloon, and a male and female aerialist (joined later by another man) do a sequence of movements on the outside surface, also flying in through large holes whose covers they remove. A willing audience member even gets hooked up to the apparatus and, legs locked around the female performer, flies off into the upper reaches of the space before returning safely to terra firma. Then a large tube is joined from the wind machine to one of the holes in the surface of the inflated plastic, and the male performer does various acrobatic things while suspended in this wind tunnel, as bits of paper swirl all around him (there’s a lot of confetti to clean up when the show is over).

FUERZA BRUTA: WAYRA. Photo: Jacob Cohl.

As the lights continue changing or strobe-flashing, the music blasting with a hypnotic beat, the audience dancing and moving about as they clap or wave their hands overhead, and performers even dancing with you, you feel as if you’re in some postmodern rave, but even as you enjoy yourself, it’s hard not to worry about your safety or even about how people manage in such close, confined quarters (don’t go if you’re claustrophobic) to maintain their personal space and respect that of others. The show could easily be dismissed as mindless sensationalism, but it’s hard to ignore the input of some rather clever and ingenious minds in conceiving and putting it all together so seamlessly.

At the conclusion, a shower spigot opens above and those at the center of  the space get soaked. Amazingly, the mostly young audience under the sprinkler stayed right where it was. In fact, my theatre companion, a woman in her mid-30s, raced right to the water to participate in this joyful ritual. She emerged soaked but happy, but after 70 minutes of standing and stretching my neck upward, this septuagenarian has to admit he was glad to still be dry as he hastened out into the warm summer air at Union Square.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

40. Review of THE LION (July 9, 2014)


40. THE LION
 

 
The setting (designed by Neil Patel) at City Center II is a semicircular upstage wall, painted a mottled tan and brown, vaguely suggestive of a recording studio or cabaret stage, with a single door, three chairs, half a dozen guitars of varying sizes and styles (mostly acoustic with one electric) standing on their bases, and several mikes. During the ensuing performance, Ben Stanton’s lighting will play exquisitely across the space, following its ever-changing emotional arc.
 
Through the door enters a handsome young man—his chiseled features convey something of a cross between Colin Firth and Jeremy Renner—in his 30s, with a mane of wavy, blondish brown hair, wearing a bluish-gray, well-tailored suit, with a crisp white shirt and tie. Later, he’ll remove his jacket to reveal a classy set of suspenders. This is Benjamin Scheuer, songwriter, composer, guitarist extraordinaire, and writer of THE LION, presented by the Manhattan Theatre Club. Under Sean Daniels’s flawless direction, he’ll hold you in his thrall for the next 70 minutes as he sings and talk-sings about his life.
 
Benjamin Scheuer. Photo: Matthew Murphy.

Speaking the lines of all the characters, he focuses mainly on his relationship with his polymath of a dad, Rick, an economist, lawyer, mathematician, and gifted guitarist. Ben, whose mom is English, tells of his two younger brothers, and how he and they learned music from their beloved dad. A wonderful tune about his father’s making him a toy banjo out of a cookie tin is heard early on and late. But as Ben grew into his teens, his father, to whom he was attached mainly through the music they shared, began to treat him more harshly than his boyhood misdemeanors warranted; his father, who had began having serious headaches, died of a brain hemorrhage when Ben was fourteen. The connection between his father’s ailments—especially the depression of which Ben learns much later—and his treatment of his son is never made explicitly, but is easy to imagine. The theme tying Ben’s story together is his constant preoccupation with trying to come to terms with his love-hate relationship with Rick, a man so admired and loved by many people in prestigious positions that a book of encomiums about him was produced. Ben had great difficulty reconciling the man others knew from the father he remembered.
 
Benjamin Scheuer. Photo: Matthew Murphy. 
Ben, his mother, and brothers moved to England, but Ben eventually returned to New York and became a rock musician, playing at CBGB, among other venues. He tells of his love affair with Julie, which ended when she decided to travel the world, and then of the central and defining development in his life thus far, bone cancer, the suffering this produced, and his ultimate cure. A song about how one grows by weathering life’s storms emphasizes a principal dramatic theme. Always anxious to play music like his dad, he eventually learns to play music like himself. By this time, the tie is off, the suspenders lowered, his socks removed, and the man Ben is shines through.

Mr. Scheuer recounts the emotionally fraught tales of his familial and romantic loves while seated in one or the other of the room’s chairs, always with a guitar on his lap, through his original music and lyrics, some rhymed and some not. Apart from the loud, insistent chords of defiant rock on his electric guitar, played during his rock musician phase, Mr. Scheuer’s folk/folk-rock music has an appealingly direct, storytelling quality, the melodies and rhythms usually being subordinate to or  supportive of the  words, which he delivers with easy charm and poignantly affecting richness. He isn’t equipped with a superbly musical voice, but with one that is perfectly attuned to the kind of personal and directly touching music he composes. There’s a quality of naturalness, ease, and niceness about him that makes you feel that, after little more than an hour in his company, you not only know but trust him.   

With his charismatic looks, sweetheart of a smile, perfect timing, and accessible feelings, Mr. Scheuer could easily be a movie star. Who knows, perhaps this lion will roar one day from the silver screen. In his sensitively conceived new solo musical, THE LION, Ben Scheuer is one big cat that can truly sing, “within my gentle paws I’ve got devastating claws.” Grrrrr.