Friday, January 30, 2015

Thursday, January 29, 2015

146. Review of SHESH YAK (January 28, 2015)

"For Captive Audiences"



“Ripped from the headlines” is the way reviews often characterize plays inspired by the political zeitgeist in the Middle East and South Asia. Examples: DISGRACED, set in New York but touching on Islamic extremism; the same author’s recent THE INVISIBLE HAND, about an American prisoner of Pakistani terrorists; and the currently running THE ROAD TO DAMASCUS and SHESH YAK. The last two take place in the United States but are preoccupied with Syria, the first dealing with the near future, the second with events of the past.

From left: Zarif Kaibier, Laith Nakli. Photo: Sandra Coudert.
THE ROAD TO DAMASCUS deals with the specter of specific political events and has global implications, while SHESH YAK concentrates on incidents in which its two characters, Jameel and Haytham, participated; it deals with universals such as guilt, redemption, and forgiveness, but it does so on a highly personal level. Despite taking place in 2011, during the Arab Spring, the background could be applied to many circumstances in which someone seeks vengeance for wrongs done under a repressive political regime. In fact, the play, by Syrian-British playwright Laith Nakli, who also plays Haytham, is strikingly reminiscent of a much better play, DEATH AND THE MAIDEN, by Chile’s Ariel Dorfman.

Dorfman’s play, set in a Latin American country, tells of a female political prisoner who was raped by one of her captors. Years later, under a new regime, the rapist happens to visit her home; recognizing him, she binds him so that she can get him to confess his guilt. For much of the play, which also involves the woman’s husband, the rapist sits bound before us during the interrogation.
Zarif Kabier, Laith Nakli. Photo: Sandra Coudert.
In SHESH YAK we’re in the slightly shabby New York apartment (realistically designed by John McDermott and nicely lit by Peter West) of Jameel (Zarif Kabier), a guy in his thirties whose mother keeps calling from Syria to urge him to find a girl and get married. This may be intended to show what a regular fellow Jameel, once a potential soccer star, really is. When the play begins he’s visited by the burly, middle-aged Haytham, a former karate champ, whose severe limp will later be cruelly exploited. Both are Syrian émigrés and Jameel appears overwhelmed with pride to have Haytham, a supporter of the Free Syrian Army, as his guest. Haytham, after all, is about to appear on a TV panel discussion. Apart from its mention of things like the Secret Police, the Syrian conflict is used mainly for context and isn’t the play’s principal subject. In fact, SHESH YAK assumes the audience is familiar with the politics and offers little expository background. It’s almost as if the words “Assad” and “Islam” don’t exist (although an Islamic state and the Islamic Brotherhood are each referred to once).

The enthusiastic Jameel treats Haytham deferentially but, after they begin playing backgammon, he slips his guest a mickey. When Haytham comes to he’s bound and, occasionally, gagged, as the now threatening Jameel questions him, often brutally (oh, that gimpy leg!). Now and then someone phones Jameel, suggesting that what’s happening is part of a planned conspiracy, but the situation remains ambiguous. Gradually, Haytham and the audience learn the reason for Jameel’s animosity.

Shesh Yak (a reference to the numbers six and one on backgammon dice) runs for 80 minutes but seems much longer because of its increasingly static nature, with Jameel circling his prey as he leads up to his big reveal. Their chit-chat adds local color about life in Syria, but offers little of great personal or political interest. Meanwhile, Haytham must grimace in agony as his tormented tormentor torments him; when Jameel’s revelation finally arrives, it’s nothing we might not already have figured out for ourselves. The mildly surprising conclusion that follows is about the only unpredictable thing on view.

SHESH YAK demands a sense of danger and suspense, but neither of its actors, for all their competence, is capable of taking it to that level, and director Bruce McCarty hasn’t been able to inspire anything approaching the necessary cat and mouse tension. It doesn’t take long before you begin to feel almost as captive as Haytham.   

Rattlestick Players Theatre
224 Waverly Place, NYC
Through February 22

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

145. Review of THE ROAD TO DAMASCUS (January 23, 2015)

"Can the First Black Pope Save the Middle East from Nuclear Destruction"



For my review of THE ROAD TO DAMASCUS please click on THEATER PIZZAZZ

Saturday, January 24, 2015

144. Review of HONEYMOON IN VEGAS (January 22, 2015)

"It's a Gamble"


The 1992 movie, HONEYMOON IN VEGAS, written and directed by Andrew Bergman, is a high-octane comedy that, while unquestionably imperfect, remains great fun, much of that because of its charismatic stars. James Caan may overdo his Sonny Corleone shtick as the slickly dangerous gangster, Tommy Korman, but he’s never less than magnetic. Nicholas Cage as Jack Singer and Sarah Jessica Parker as Betsy Nolan, the young Brooklyn couple who fall into Tommy’s clutches at a Las Vegas Casino, are in their youthful prime (she was 27 and he 28), and bring honesty and conviction to their farcical experiences to make them both convincing and hilarious. The famous climactic scene, in which Jack, having inadvertently gotten onto a skydiving plane with “The Flying Elvises,” remains a comic masterpiece. It’s such a memorable conception, you know in advance the new Broadway musical version of the film will be working hard to find a suitably theatrical way to replicate it.

The film’s vivid cinematography and bright locales in Brooklyn, Las Vegas, and Hawaii, and its fast-paced, narrowly focusedif totally implausibleplot, position it perfectly for musicalization. The soundtrack, in fact, has so many Elvis songs, it’s already in musical territory. As an overture, so to speak, to the Broadway show (which began in 2013 at New Jerseys Paper Mill Playhouse), I’d like to describe the movie’s plot, which follows the same arc as the show but differs from it in some significant ways.
Jack, a hapless Brooklyn private investigator without a pot to piss in, has been dating his pretty girlfriend, Betsy, a schoolteacher, for years, while managing to avoid marrying her. It’s not because he doesn’t want to, but because his eccentric mother (Anne Bancroft), on her deathbed, made him promise never to wed. When the frustrated Betsy finally pressures him to tie the knot, Jack succumbs and the pair fly off for nuptials in Las Vegas.  
Once there, though, the powerful gambler Tommy, an attractive middle-aged guy, spots the beautiful Betsy, who so closely resembles his late wife, Donna, a sun worshiper who died of skin cancer, that he determines to get her from Jack by suckering him into a poker game, where he’ll lose so much dough he’ll be forced to let Tommy have Betsy for the weekend. The plan succeeds after Jack, holding a straight flush to the queen, loses what seems a sure thing to Tommy’s straight flush to the king.
Owing Tommy the impossible-to-repay sum of $65,000, Jack has no choice but to let Tommy—who promises no hanky panky—enjoy Betsy’s company for the weekend. But Tommy can’t be trusted, and he intends to spend his weekend with the schoolteacher, not in Las Vegas, but at his gorgeous seaside home in Kauai, Hawaii. Betsy reluctantly agrees to go, but Jack, belatedly regretting the arrangement, follows after them. 
While Tommy uses his considerable wealth and charm to win Betsy’s affections (including his introducing Betsy to his son and daughter-in-law), Jack is sidetracked in Kauai when trying to reach his girlfriend by Mahi Mahi, a wily old cab driver (Pat Morita), paid off by Tommy to keep Jack from finding him. Meanwhile, Tommy lies to Betsy, who’s beginning to feel bad about the situation, that Jack sold her for the weekend to escape a debt, not of $65,000 but of only $3,000. The furious Betsy now agrees to marry Tommy. The pair depart for Vegas, and Jack, aided by his comical right-hand man, Johnny Sandwich (Johnny Williams), makes sure Jack will be unable to book a flight to follow them.
Jack overcomes many obstacles to get to Vegas in time to prevent the marriage; ultimately, in a last-ditch effort, after various re-routings, he boards a plane in San Jose, California, loaded with Elvis impersonators on their way to the very hotel (Bally's in the film, the fictional Milano in the show) where Tommy and Betsy will be and onto whose grounds they plan to make a mass aerial entrance. Jack has no alternative but to dress like an Elvis and make the jump himself. Betsy is already fed up with Tommy, who, when she expresses her reluctance, not only offers her $1 million to marry him but  reveals a seriously menacing attitude when she refuses. Jack’s successful landing brings Betsy back to Jack’s arms and Tommy has to admit defeat.
Even this outline, of course, omits important details, but when a movie is transformed into a musical, a hell of lot more gets thrown out in the condensation process. Musicals require songs and dances, and when they’re underway, plot developments have to wait in the wings. Since Mr. Bergman himself wrote the book for the musical, which has music and lyrics by Jason Robert Brown, we would hope that he knows best about what to cut, what to add, and what to alter in his own material.
Those fond of the film will be saddened to see that we get no idea of what Jack does for a living; that his Brooklyn dentist buddy (John Capodice) has been cut; that Mahi Mahi, now simply Mahi (Catherine Ricafort), has been transformed into a cute Hawaiian hooker who tries to impede Jack’s quest by offering him “Friky Friky,” the natives’ version of nookie-nookie; that one of the movie’s funniest bits, in which Peter Boyle as a Hawaiian chieftain turns out to be a devotee of Broadway musicals who bursts into songs from SOUTH PACIFIC, has been removed; that Tommys actual son and daughter-in-law turn out in the show to be actors hired to fool Betsy; that theres no physical struggle between Jack and Tommy on the grounds of Tommys estate, as Jack tries in vain to shout to the un-hearing Betsy; that Jack catches the Elvis plane, not in San Jose, but in Kauai itself; that Tommy’s threat of violence toward Betsy at the end is dropped so that Tommy remains as likable as possible; and that Jack’s mother, who appears in the movie only in her brief deathbed scene, has become a tiresomely farcical, supernaturalrather than psychologicalleitmotif, popping up in unexpected places (like Tiffany's) to sing arias reminding Jack of a curse she’s placed on him. A silly second act scene in which she appears as a Polynesian statue seriously drags the show down, even though the actress, Nancy Opel, has serious comedic and vocal chops. 

I’d be curious to know why Jack’s $65,000 debt has been changed to $58,000, and why Tommy’s fib about it being only $3,000 is now $800. Of course, by making the latter sum smaller, Jack’s arrangement with Tommy becomes even more outrageous, but I think the audience would have emitted the same audible “ahhh!” of surprised disgust had the original amount been kept.  Still, while relatively annoying, most of these (and other less egregious alterations) don’t seriously threaten the overall entertainment value of the show, which, by the way, pictures the Las Vegas of the movie's era, not the one that exists today. Maybe that's why there isn't a cellphone in sight; had there been, Jack's pursuit of Betsy would have been over much sooner.

Mr. Brown’s deft lyrics are often very amusing, and much of his musicplayed by a great onstage band led by Tom Murraybrings Rat Pack-era jazzy razzmatazz back to life. Since the Vegas depicted here is a retro reconstruction, we hear a Tony Orlando-style entertainer, Buddy Rocky (a terrific David Josefsberg), singing “When You Say Vegas” with lounge lizard panache. The Hawaiian locale allows for island melodies like “Hawaii/Waiting for You.” When Tommy swindles Jack into giving him Betsy for the weekend, the pair join in the delightful Come to an Agreement.

Set designer Anna Louzos creates exuberantly vivid sets that, combining moving units with admirable projections (sometimes animated, like that of a plane landing at an airport), allows the cinematic action to shift instantaneously; she also includes a downstage elevator trap for clever appearances of people and scenic pieces. Brian Hemesmeth’s many stunning costumes make a bold impact, and the showgirls (especially the ultra-long-legged Leslie Donna Flesner and Erica Sweany) wearing his sequined creations in the Las Vegas scenes are among the most eye-poppingly pulchritudinous on the Great White Way. Choreographer Denis Jones provides an assortment of spirited dance numbers, and director Gary Griffin pulls the whole thing together with the necessary energy and imagination; for my money, though, too many bits depend on farcical exaggeration.

Tony Danza’s Tommy, played with silken subtlety, is the most believable of the three leads. Mr. Danza, a trim 63, bears himself with the athletic grace one expects of a former boxer. His Brooklyn background gives him the kind of street smarts to carry off the role of a dangerous Vegas smoothie without having to overdo it. He’s no Sinatra but he sings pleasantly enough, and his second act tap dance is a highlight.

There’s not much to complain about regarding Brynn O’Malley’s Betsy; she’s a terrific singer and an appealing actress, but she’s simply too beautiful and glamorously accoutered and made up (especially that impossibly gorgeous ash-blond hair), making her an unlikely Brooklyn teacher but a prime candidate for Barbie Doll look-alike of the year. Mr. McClure, lithe and amiable, isn't vaguely authentic as a Jewish boy from Brooklyn; his singing voice has a nasally metallic quality, and, while he does all the right things, he never goes beyond skin deep in bringing Jack to life.   

The sequence everyone’s waiting for, with the Flying Elvises, led by a lively Mr. Josefsberg as Roy Bacon (played by the memorably cheerful Roy Gilliam in the film), is carried off with true wit and humor, and goes a long way to lifting the show to a crowd-pleasing level. The way the Elvises move in unison and rhythmically deliver the King’s famous “uh-huh-huh chortle (think I'm All Shook Up ) will rock your roll. These moments help make HONEYMOON IN VEGAS, if not real art, at least the kind of faux stuff youd find in the title city. It’s tired businessman-type entertainment but, judging from the reaction when I went, audiences are likely to find the payoff worth the gamble. 

Nederlander Theatre
208 W. 41 Street, NYC
Open run

143. Review of EVERYBODY GETS CAKE!

“Caution: Not for Those with Low Shtick Tolerance!”





EVERYBODY GETS CAKE! is one of those oddball shows that you’re going to love or hate, laugh your ass off at or view with one eye on your watch. The night I saw it, a small number of people crammed into the tiny Theater C at 59E59, including my guest, laughed almost continuously, sometimes raucously; and then there were us churlish cretins, counting the minutes until the piece was over. Blessedly, for those like me, this took not much more than an hour, although, given my low tolerance for witless non sequiturs, it seemed more like two.
From left: Brent McBeth, Danny Gardner, Joel Jeske. Photo: Jim R Moore/Vaudevisuals.
Don’t let me give the wrong impression, though. EVERYBODY GETS CAKE!, a production of a troupe called Parallel Exit, is produced with considerable skill and polish by a three-man cast (Joel Jeske, Danny Gardner, and Brent McBeth; Ryan Kasprzak takes over for Mr. Gardner on January 24) under the razor-sharp direction of Mark Lonergan. Mr. Lonergan’s achievement, assisted by the choreography of Mr. Gardner and Mr. McBeth, is a nonstop barrage of mostly fast-paced farcical sketches with a surrealistic edge, with each actor-clown making multiple quick costume changes (great costumes by Oana Botez) to play an army of broadly cartoonish characters. Certain images reoccur, including a serial killer, a lonely old man in a nursing home, and torch-bearing villagers (like those in the Boris Karloff FRANKENSTEIN movie), but making sense of this potpourri of nonsense is beside the point. Either the pat of comic butter sticks to the ceiling or it doesn’t.  I suggest distributing seeded rolls to handle all the butter that ends up falling. 
Joel Jeske. Photo: Jim M Moore/Vaudevisuals.
My problem isn’t with the idea of a crazy-quilt, hellzapoppin’ assemblage of comical bits and pieces, whose chief goal seems simply to tickle funny bones, like a theatrical version of a Spike Jones musical routine or those old TV shows, "Laugh-In" and "Monty Python's Flying Circus." It’s simply that, however hard these clowns work (they work very hard, perhaps too hard), using an impressive arsenal of physical, facial, and verbal mugging techniques, their material is too often juvenile and heavy-handed. It’s shtick you want to beat with a stick.   

The performance space—cleverly lit and designed by Maruti Evans—is a white box whose walls and floor are painted with broad arrows pointing up and down, left and right, and in circular directions; there are doors at left and right, a wide door upstage that revolves quickly on a pivot for rapid entrances and exits, and a pair of upper window spaces through which one or the other performers occasionally stick their faces. A talented musician, Ben Model, who occasionally joins the action, sits in a nook where he accompanies the show with bouncy music, both classical, modern, and original (his own). Much of it provides the Mack Sennett-like slapstick shenanigans with a silent-movie feeling. (There are also numerous distinctive sound effects provided by Mike Dobson.)
From left: Danny Gardner, Joel Jeske, Brent McBeth. Photo: Jim M Moore/Vaudevisuals.
As examples of their material, I could cite Mr. Jeske’s frightened Dog Owner, who, as the sound of an offstage dog’s growling is heard, drags himself on as if the dog has one of his legs in its jaws. After pulling himself free, he stands up and says: “So much for ‘Bring Your Dog to Work Day.'” Blackout.There’s a routine that struggles to milk laughs from Mr. Gardner in a pink cow suit, and one that shows Albert Einstein (Mr. Jeske) demonstrating his inability to use a microphone. Even less amusing are the gags based on “Awkward Human Contact,” which are almost as awkward as the one that thinks Mr. Gardner’s slurring his words after a Novocaine injection is side-splitting. Or how about the one that finds hilarity in Mr. Jeske stuffing his jacket with balloons until there’s no more room, followed by a squeaking fart sound and the line, “I think that was me.” Ba-da-boom. Some potentially clever bits go on too long; one allows Mr. Gardner and Mr. McBeth to play a symphony of cell phone sounds, while another, called "Facial Choreography," has all three men show how rubbery their faces are while inserting them in oval picture frames. The gag that made me gag for more reasons than one has Mr. Jeske taking a coffee and donut break while munching enthusiastically on an inflatable hemorrhoid donut. Oh, wit, where hath thou flown?
From left: Danny Gardner, Brent McBeth. Photo: Jim M Moore/Vaudevisuals.
Whether you like the show or not, unless you’re a diabetic or have other diet issues, you’re sure to enjoy the little gift distributed at the end of the show. As the title says, everybody gets cake! 

EVERYBODY GETS CAKE!
59E59 Theaters
59 E. 59 St., NYC
Through February 8

Friday, January 23, 2015

142. Review of DA (January 21, 2015)

"A Shaggin' Good Revival"



For my review of DA, please visit THE BROADWAY BLOG.

141. Review of WINNERS (January 19, 2015)

“The Horror . . . Oh, the Horror!"



As I looked around the L-shaped seating arrangement at the Ensemble Studio Theatre, allowing me to see audience members across the space, I realized mine weren’t the only sleepy eyes watching Maggie Bofill’s lugubrious new comedy, WINNERS. Unlike my response to the similarly titled WINNERS AND LOSERS, at the Soho Rep, I’m afraid I’ll have to ring the loser’s bell on this outing about a dysfunctional suburban family struggling to make it through the recent recession. 
Grant Shaud, Scott Sowers. Photo: Gerry Goodstein.
Brian Mackey (Grant Shaud) has lost his job and taken to teaching himself cooking to fill his empty hours. His attractive wife, Mabel (Florencia Lozano), is the family’s sole breadwinner, upset about Brian’s fecklessness and having a fling with her boss. Their 16-year-old son, Tommy (David Gelles), is an unhappy, rebellious kid who lost his job at the Gap for smoking pot on the job. And 11-year-old daughter Gabby (Arielle Goldman) is a highly intelligent but hugely eccentric kid who dresses weirdly. She also goes around stealing various family items—including her mom’s cell phone, which contains an incriminating text—but only after photographing them. Gabbys the kind of child whos apt to respond to events by saying, "The horror . . . Oh, the horror!" 

When Brian goes to the Gap to complain about his son’s being fired, the boss, Bill (Scott Sowers), who used to work with Brian before they both lost their jobs, hires him to replace Tommy, which only angers the boy more. That’s because Tommy saw Bill taking sexual advantage of another 16-year-old worker at the store, a girl named Mandy, on whom Tommy has a crush.

The two hour and 25-minute play (there’s one intermission) rambles along, detailing the edgy, sexually frozen, relationship between Brian and Mabel; Tommy’s various anxieties; and Mabel’s attempts to get a scholarship to a better school for Gabby. The latter means having to convince Lilly (Polly Lee), Bill’s wife, head of the committee, to favor Gabby. All comes to a head at the Mackeys’ dinner party thrown for Bill and Lilly at which Gabby and Tommy present a bizarre Christmas play Gabby’s been writing as a school project; it which uses the kids’ grievances as thematic metaphors. This leads to serious accusations, a visit to the police station, and, in a wacky final tableau that is more pathetic than moving, familial forgiveness.

Now what did I leave out? Oh, yes. The family has two animals, Buck, a dog, and Marie Antoinette. Perhaps because she felt the plot elements limned above weren’t sufficient, Ms. Bofill has made the pets into characters played by humans (Curran Connor as Buck and Stephanie Hsu as Marie), who wear human clothes (vaguely hinting at canine or feline qualities) and speak to one another in English but bark or meow when people are around. Their animal naughtiness (he roots around in the garbage can, she pees on her mistress’s pillow) is intended for comic purposes, but the whimsy wears off rapidly and you soon begin wishing you had a rolled up newspaper nearby.
From left (at rear): Florencia Lozano, Grant Shaud; (in bed) Stephanie Hsu, Arielle Goldman, David Gelles, Curran Connor. Photo: Gerry Goodstein.
There’s nothing here you haven’t seen in one sitcom or another. WINNERS may be called a comedy, but, for all its comical (even farcical) moments, the tone is more frequently like soap opera, with so much screaming you wonder if the actors’ vocal cords will make it through the run. Pamela Berlin’s direction does little to make anyone believable, her blocking is sometimes awkward, and the pacing too often is funereal. For all its plot complications, the piece seems merely to be running in place, accumulating business but taking forever to reach its goal. If I were looking for places to cut, I’d begin with those un-cute, overworked animals. PETA, where are you when we need you?
From left: Florencia Lozano, Stephanie Hsu, Curran Connor. Photo: Gerry Goodstein.
WINNERS, whose set is by Jason Simms, takes place in multiple locations, including various rooms in the Mackeys’ house, but also at the Gap, at Lilly’s office, and in a car. When the play opens we’re in the kitchen, with a cooking island in the center, backed by a realistic wall with French doors, a door to elsewhere in the house, and a hallway. There’s also a TV screen built into the upstage wall with the image of a microwave on it. But when the scene changes, a small army of time-consuming, rhythm-breaking, although very efficient stagehands enters to remove the furnishings (some slide into the upstage wall), while a few new props or furnishings are brought on. The walls, the hallway, the TV screen, and the doors remain, although the screen image is different. What was realistic in the first scene morphs into a mishmash of locales all using the same background. What’s needed here is a conceptual design—perhaps using projections—that abandons realism and employs simple abstractions to represent the different places, with the stagehands eliminated and the cast alone (they're currently integrated with the stagehands) choreographed to bring on all necessary furnishings.
From left: Grant Shaud, Polly Lee, Arielle Goldman, Scott Sowers, Florencia Lozano, David Gelles. Photo: Gerry Goodstein.
The actors struggle to make their cartoonish characters believable but none succeed in overcoming the weak material. Casting the crucial role of 11-year-old Gabby with someone in her mid-20s is a big boo-boo, but even if the part were played by someone as gifted as a young Dakota Fanning WINNERS wouldn't deserve its name.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

139. Review of I'M GONNA PRAY FOR YOU SO HARD (January 18, 2015)

"Like Father, Like Daughter"




Halley Feiffer, a sharply talented actress-playwright whose career is on an upward trajectory, is the daughter of the master cartoonist, playwright, and screenwriter Jules Feiffer. It’s nearly impossible to ignore this as you watch her scabrously funny yet painfully personal play, I’M GONNA PRAY FOR YOU SO HARD, at the Atlantic Stage 2, since this relentlessly engaging, tragicomic two-hander is about the relationship between Ella (Betty Gilpin, daughter of actor Jack Gilpin), a young actress (and, ultimately, playwright), and David (Reed Birney), her famous playwright father.

The 90-minute, intermissionless play has two scenes, the first and longest being set in the naturalistically detailed kitchen of the Upper West Side apartment where David and Ella live with David’s ailing wife (briefly heard offstage). They’re waiting for the New York Times review—which will be read off a smartphone—of an experimental Off Broadway revival of THE SEAGULL, directed by someone who, to Ella’s distress, cast someone prettier as Nina, with the role of Masha going to the more "interesting" Ella. David, who insists Ella should have played Nina, rants with astonishing rancor about the critics, trying to bolster the highly competitive Ella’s confidence and dismiss any possible negativity her reviews may engender; his fiery slash and burn remarks (peppered with extreme vulgarity and homophobic slurs) may make some reviewers consider the implications of what they write, and how seriously they’re often taken by theatre artists, whether neophytes or veterans.

David, despite his success (including a Pulitzer, two Tonys, and an Oscar nomination), is a loud, ranting, potbellied shlub, the son of Russian Jews, who grew up in Coney Island’s Sheepshead Bay. (See note below.) He’s also a major league substance abuser; as he and Ella talk, he smokes incessantly, downs one glass of wine after another, sucks weed on a bong, and shovels coke up his snout. Nor is Ella a slacker in this neighborhood; like father, like daughter.

But, for all David’s passive-aggressive advice—including his insistence that Ella can best serve her career by writing a play she can star in—the cruelly aggressive part of his personality, partly fueled by the crap he’s drinking, smoking, and snorting, drives him, in the end, to say things that create an unbridgeable chasm between him and his offspring; until then, she’s been so frightfully, even neurotically helpless and hungry for love that if she were a puppy she’d have wagged her tail off in her efforts to agree with every shockingly brutal thing her father says.

After this impasse, there’s a brief blackout as the set (marvelously designed by Mark Wendland and  beautifully lit by Ben Stanton) is altered to create a fascinating statement on fiction and reality; what we see when the lights come up, which takes place five years later, is essentially the same as before, but sufficiently deconstructed to reveal it as scenery for the one-woman play Ella has written about her life and in which she plays 12 characters. David, you see, had insisted that his success stemmed from his ability to use his life experiences in his plays; again, like father, like daughter. In a brilliantly conceived sequence as she’s being interviewed on her phone while being constantly interrupted by calls from others, Ella reveals how similarly monstrous she’s become, which plays out fully when David, whom she's not seen in all this time, shows up to congratulate her.

There’s a lot of vitriolic (and often really humorous) inside stuff here about the pitfalls of a life in the theatre that folks in the profession will relish (when they’re not cringing), even though the major names mentioned—with a sampling of actual ones thrown in to heighten the tone of veracity—are fictional. What’s really at stake, though, is the emotionally catastrophic relationship between father and daughter. Theirs, in fact, is a threateningly incestuous connection with sadomasochistic overtones, including the chilling pleasure they take in digging blackheads out of each other's skin. Ms. Feiffer is cooking with TNT, mixing so much equal quantities of love and hate, that you just know something’s going to blow sky high.

While both characters are drawn with unpleasant characteristics, Ms. Feiffer’s depiction of David —from whom Ella is desperately seeking both approval and advice—is so corrosively nasty (when he’s not being helpfully supportive) that you can’t help but wonder just how much of a drame à clef she’s written. Ms. Feiffer even includes a potentially controversial exchange about using such reality, noting that what's important is not how closely something is to its source but what its emotional effect is when performed. 

When David exhorts Ella to write a play, he insists she avoid doing what’s safe. So, even if Jules Feiffer is nothing at all like this egotistic son of a bitch, just the idea of writing a play about a situation that many will suspect reflects reality (even if exaggerated), and doing it with such devastating yet spellbinding cruelty, is about as risky a way to write a play as any. Eugene O'Neill, you may recall, insisted that 25 years pass before LONG DAY'S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT be produced. 

Trip Cullman’s direction pulls no punches in its excoriation of Ella and David, yet manages at the same time to find an underlying strain of sensitivity and vulnerability in each. Although I think it’s possible to rein in the hyped-up Ella a bit in the first scene, when her brief, enthusiastic responses to David’s fulminations are too insistently frantic, she nonetheless fills her every moment with intensity and depth. In scene one, she’s dressed in everyday grunge, her hair in a ponytail; in the final scene, she’s a knockout, her hair blown out and her considerable curves encased in a tight, red, minidress (costumes by Jessica Pabst), but her emotional life remains boldly honest if extreme. As David, Reed Birney, one of the New York stage’s treasures, may not be what some would consider perfect casting as someone who wears his upbringing like a second skin (think Matthau-Gould-Dreyfuss-Stiller), but this always fearless, nuanced, and insightful actor somehow manages to transform himself so effectively that actors all over town will surely rush to the Atlantic just to watch how a master craftsman does his job. 

Note: One of this play's good laughs comes as David is enumerating his awards. When he mentions "Academy Award," Ella interjects "nomination," which riles him so much he turns on his daughter, who insists she meant it in a positive way. "What are you, a fucking fact checker?" he yells. At the risk of being called the same thing, I cautiously venture to point out that David declares at one point that when he was a teenager in the 1950s and living at Coney Island and Avenue Z in Sheepshead Bay, he went to Times Square by hopping the N train at Flatbush Avenue. This, however, isn't possible from Sheepshead Bay. Also, there was no N train until 1961; before that it was the BMT Sea Beach Line or Sea Beach Express. There's also a reference to a bus route number that didn't exist when David was a boy. Now to cover my ears. 

Atlantic Stage 2
330 West 16th Street, NYC
Through February 15

Sunday, January 18, 2015

138. Review of THE TRAGEDY OF ROMEO AND JULIET (January 15, 2015)


"Parting Was Not Such Sweet Sorrow"



Just as memories of two ill-fated revivals of Shakespeare’s tragedy of young love—one on Broadway and one Off—have begun to fade, along comes yet another earnest but similarly unsuccessful attempt to bring this beautiful play to life. Unlike its predecessors, each of which featured a movie star—Orlando Bloom on Broadway, Elizabeth Olsen Off—the current version, given by a company dubbed Shakespeare in the Square, employs a cast entirely made up of unknown young actors who started their ambitious venture as a club when they were students at NYU; they're now in their fifth season, although this is my first encounter with them. The Square in their name, of course, would be Washington Square Park, just across the street from their present venue in the Judson Gym, where they’ll open an outdoors staging of their next shot at the Bard, MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING (another play with a surfeit of local stagings), in April.
Elise Kibler, Taylor Myers. Photo: Erik Choquette.
Director Dan Hasse has made some bold choices, one of which is to stage an uncut version of the text after comparing the 1623 Folio version with later editions and removing the “errors” that crept in, among them the attribution of “Parting is such sweet sorrow” to Juliet, rather than Romeo. Even more daring (but also more foolhardy) is the decision to do this challenging material with only five actors, each of them playing multiple roles. For example, Taylor Myers not only plays Romeo, but also covers Lady Capulet and the tiny roles of Sampson and Anthony, while Elise Kibler handles Juliet, Benvolio, Friar John, and a servant role. Jack De Sanz’s five roles include the Nurse, Friar Lawrence, and Montagu; Chris Dooly’s duties embrace not only Tybalt, but Paris, the Prince, Lady Montagu, and so on; and Constantine Malahias has the job of doing Mercutio, Capulet, and two minor roles. Without truly versatile and experienced actors, however, the result is anything but a coup de théâtre. The task isn’t impossible, though, as a four-actor version of HAMLET by the Bedlam Theatre (who did the same with ST. JOAN) recently demonstrated.
Taylor Myers, Constantine Malahias. Photo: Erik Choquette.
Would that the care for authenticity that went into restoring the script had gone into other elements of the production. The everyday, and not particularly interesting, street clothes provided by costume designer Liz McGlone remain essentially unchanged, no matter which character is being played, apart from minor adjustments or additions. When the trimly muscular Romeo, dressed in tight black jeans and a gray wife-beater, changes to Lady Capulet, he dons a bustier and black skull cap, but otherwise remains the same. Caps, scarves, and the like help a bit to differentiate the roles, but if you don’t already know the play, you’re likely to be at sea determining who is who. There's nothing in this poor man's WEST SIDE STORY world to visually suggest wealth or privilege. Shakespeare’s own productions may have used relatively few scenic units, but they were notable for the splendor of their costumes, often being the gifts or castoffs of the nobility.
From left: Jack De Sanz, Chris Dooley, Elise Kibler. Photo: Erik Choquette.
The dullness of the costumes is replicated by Phil Falino’s set, a neutrally colored arrangement of simple platforming surrounded by the audience of about 50 seats and fronted by a plain, off-white mat spotted with what look like dirty footprints. An imaginative lighting design might have compensated for the blandness of the set and costumes, but for some reason, Timothy Meola’s lighting allows the night scenes to be played in near darkness. While the effect of people running around in the gloom with lanterns can be momentarily effective, it simply will not do to let actors deliver long speeches entirely, or almost entirely, without illumination. During the balcony scene, Juliet stands at a height, framed by a hanging frame to denote a window, while Romeo, down below, might as well be the Invisible Man. Similarly, the speech by the Prince that concludes the play is delivered by an actor standing a foot or two from a small pool of light, while he himself is so shrouded in shadow he could have phoned in his lines. 
Taylor Myers, Elise Kibler. Photo: Erik Choquette.
The actors are eager and, in other plays might find success; unfortunately, most are simply not up to the task of playing Shakespeare, at least as required under the demands of this approach. Perhaps inspired by Shakespeare’s famous line about “the two hours traffic of our stage,” not actually spoken in this version, they race through the script, completing it in around two hours and 35 minutes (including a 15-minute intermission), consistently eschewing subtlety for the obvious, especially when angling for a laugh. I must admit that the small audience present responded enthusiastically to their efforts, almost giving the impression, at least in the first of the two acts, that this was more a comedy than a tragedy.

There’s no attempt to speak the lines for their poetic values, the emphasis being on sounding as colloquial and everyday as possible. This often helps make the lines more comprehensible, but too many lines are muffled. Most difficult to hear (confirmed by my guest, a young high school English teacher) was Ms. Kibler, whose weak projection isn’t helped much by the pace at which she gabbles. Hopefully, she’ll raise the bar when she makes her Broadway debut this spring in the revival of THE HEIDI CHRONICLES.

Shakespeare in the Square as a company (38 members are listed in the program) appears to be chock-full of energy, spirit, ambition, and determination. There’s a sweet and upbeat vibe when you enter their space. It's their intention to make this into a rowdy, immersive event, with lots of audience participation, in order to recreate the atmosphere of an Elizabethan production. The cast sings to musical accompaniment in a sort of pre-show mini-concert, and there's more of the same during the intermission. 

A small number of audience members are recruited to stand around (looking uncomfortable) during the ballroom scene when Romeo first meets Juliet, and there's also the occasional pointing to people in the audience as a way of underlining something mentioned in the dialogue. But I doubt you'd find the atmosphere rowdy. Perhaps this kind of thing works better and more consistently out of doors than it does in Judson Gym, and perhaps the company will succeed not only in being rowdy but also in being more theatrically effective their next time out. 

Gym at Judson
55 Washington Square South, NYC
Through February 8

Friday, January 16, 2015

137. Review of A BEAUTIFUL DAY IN NOVEMBER ON THE BANKS OF THE GREATEST OF THE GREAT LAKES (January 13, 2014)

"A Savory Play in January on the Boards of Stage II at City Center"


From left: Gerry Bamman, Mia Katigbak, Nina Hellman, Brooke Ishibashi, Heather Alicia-Simms, Jessica Almasy, Christian Felix. Photo: Heather Phelps-Lipton.
Playwrights have long recognized that one of the most effective ways to explore the dynamics of interaction among friends and family members is to gather them at someone’s home for dinner. Not infrequently, dinner in such cases happens on holidays like Christmas or Thanksgiving, the annual eating and greeting rituals when families, no matter how far they’ve scattered, come together for mutual gobbling, guzzling, gabbing, and griping. Kate Benson’s tasty concoction, A BEAUTIFUL DAY IN NOVEMBER ON THE BANKS OF THE GREATEST OF THE GREAT LAKES, is the most recent addition to the Thanksgiving canon, joining other recent examples such as The Pensacola Commons and Jericho.
From left: Heather Alicia-Simms, Nina Hellman, Brooke Ishibashi; above: Ben Williams, Hubert Point-DuJour. Photo: Heather Phelps-Lipton.
Dinner—or its preparation, at any rate—is the gravy lubricating this imaginative New Georges production, produced at City Centers Stage II in association with the Women’s Project. First seen last year in a more limited run at Dixon Place, for which it received near universal huzzahs, the production has returned with most of the original cast. I imagine it will again warrant widespread praise, but I’m not quite ready to give it a Michelin star. A BEAUTIFUL DAY is an offbeat work that not everyone will swallow easily; there was at least one early departure when I attended, which is a shame because, apart from an ambiguous ending, theres a lot here to savor.
From left: Christian Felix, Jessica Almasy, Brooke Ishibashi, Mia Katigbak; above: Ben Williams, Hubert Point-DuJour. Photo: Heather Phelps-Lipton.
Ms. Benson, yet another product of Brooklyn College’s remarkably successful MFA playwriting program, imagines that the Wembly family is assembling for their annual feast at the shore-front Great Lakes home of one of three middle-aged sisters, whimsically named (as is everybody), Trifle (Nina Hellman), Cherry Pie (Heather Alicia Simms), and Cheesecake (Brooke Ishibashi). What makes the otherwise unexceptional event exceptional is the premise that the dinner is viewed as a competitive sports event, a metaphor that director Lee Sunday Evans catches handily and runs with, scoring a theatrical touchdown. (The conceit is reminiscent of Woody Allen's 1972 movie, BANANAS, which opens with sportscaster Howard Cosell commentating on a Latin American revolution, and ends with him doing the same at the consummation of a marriage.) She’s assisted by flawless, perfectly timed teamwork from an ethnically diverseand thereby universalensemble.

The actors generally speak Ms. Benson’s juicily bite-sized lines, with their built-in stumbles and repetitions, directly to the audience rather than to each other; their heightened delivery seems as precisely scored as the specifics of their movements. Each step in the preparation for and execution of the big meal is carried out in perfectly choreographed, almost dance-like staging; although considerable attention has been paid by costume designer Kathleen Doyle to the quirky yet perfectly character-defining clothes everyone wears, there are no props or furniture at all, everything (including the huge turkey being roasted) being suggested through mime, sometimes literal and sometimes fanciful. It's a far cry from James A. Herne's 1892 play, SHORE ACRES, when a full holiday dinner, bird and all, was cooked and eaten during the performance.
From left: Gerry Bamman, Mia Katigbak, Kristine Haruna Lee, Jessica Almasy, Christian Felix, Heather Alicia-Simms, Nina Hellman. Photo: Heather Phelps-Lipton.
Sara C. Walsh’s clever setting has the general appearance of a basketball court, with complex floor markings denoting mapped-out strategy patterns. Upstage is a high, paneled wall containing a door, and a large glass window through which a wall with old-fashioned wallpaper is visible. Above is a windowed room in which two sportscasters, using microphones, observe and comment on the goings-on below, including moment by moment decisions, and even facial expressions.

Instead of names, the sportscasters are designated as # (Ben Williams), who does the “action,” and @ (Hubert Point-DuJour), the color commentary guy; both are new to the production. As they describe the play-by-play, they also engage in occasional banter expressing their own competitive natures. Their dialogue, like that of most sportscasters, is sprinkled with references to the weather and scenery, and there are laugh-worthy memories of Thanksgiving past disasters, like “the Gravy Boat Episode of 1979.” Various sports are alluded to, but football seems the predominant image as we move through four quarters of action in 75 intermissionless (halftime is over almost before it's begun) minutes.

We watch as the three sisters struggle to assemble a large, round table, worrying if there’s enough room for everyone; discover that Cherry Pie’s divorced daughter, Gumbo (Christine Haruna Lee), “a bit of a wildcard . . . who could really foul things up,” as one announcer says, has changed her plans about not coming; and hear the front door buzzer signaling the arrival of the relatives, among them the grandparents, Grandada (Gerry Bamman) and SnapDragon (Mia Katigbak), he nearly deaf, she recently blind, and a slew of granddaughters, their partners, their children (including twins), and a horde of great grandbabies (unseen); 13 of these characters are played by Jessica Almasy and Christian Felix, although just who they are at any moment isn’t always clear.

Things really get hairy when the turkey and its stuffing are being prepared, each move of which is analyzed by # and @ for its gamesmanship and skill, with Grandma SnapDragon showing her mettle in the clutch when disaster threatens. After all the mishaps and fuss, dinner is rapidly devoured, at which point the play, already surrealistic, shifts to a much more bizarre level with an unexpected absurdist conclusion concerning the army of great grandbabies that you'll find either devilishly pertinent or head-scratchingly puzzling. 

A BEAUTIFUL DAY, while never truly hilarious, invokes many chuckles, and you’ll probably grin a lot while watching it. Still, the one-joke concept, like the turkey, does tend to dry out after a while, and you'll have to taste it for yourself to see if Ms. Benson's ending is a desert worth waiting for. 

A BEAUTIFUL DAY IN NOVEMBER ON THE BANKS OF THE GREATEST OF THE GREAT LAKES
Stage II at City Center
131 W. 55th Street, NYC
Through February 7