Monday, February 23, 2015

Sunday, February 22, 2015

159 (2014-2015) Review of RASHEEDA SPEAKING (February 19, 2015)

"Pinkins and Wiest: A Provocative Odd Couple"



If the amount of hilarity generated in an audience were any indication of its success, the New Group’s production of Chicago playwright Joel Drake Johnson’s RASHEEDA SPEAKING—originally seen at the Windy City’s Rivendell Theatre—would qualify as the laugh riot of the still young year. Although this icy-hearted viewer was an infrequent participant in the evening’s jocularity, he nevertheless found himself rather taken by Johnson’s often penetrating, if also occasionally implausible, depiction of racial tensions simmering under the surface of a mundane workplace situation.
Tonya Pinkins (rear), Dianne Wiest. Photo: Monique Carboni.
The New York production, given an acutely observed staging at the Pershing Square Signature Center by well-known actress Cynthia Nixon, making her directorial debut, benefits from an exceptional ensemble led by Tony Pinkins and Dianne Wiest. Pinkins plays Jaclyn, a prickly African American lady with a towering hairdo and a shoulder chip to match who’s been working in the office of Dr. Williams (Darren Goldstein), a surgeon, for the past six months. Wiest plays her coworker, Ileen, who’s been there eight years.
Darren Goldstein, Tonya Pinkins. Photo: Monique Carboni.
Early one workday morning, prior to the arrival of Jaclyn, who’s been on sick leave for five days, Dr. Williams asks Ileen—whom he’s promoted to office manager, despite there being only two employees—to keep a record of Jaclyn’s behavior, which he needs as documentation; he’s dissatisfied with Jaclyn and wants to fire (actually, “transfer”) her. This, of course, is not such a simple thing in a world where Human Resources vets every such request for evidence of bias, especially when minority employees are involved. The timid, naively agreeable Ileen is very uncomfortable with the request, which is tantamount to spying on her friend, but she allows her attractive boss to manipulate her into acquiescing. Thus begins a tense cat and mouse game forcing her to behave deceptively in the face of Jaclyn’s rightfully suspicious and deliciously devious retaliatory reactions.
Dianne Wiest, Patricia Conolly. Photo: Monique Carboni.
Jaclyn gives Ileen plenty of fodder for her notebook (which Jaclyn surreptitiously examines); Jaclyn’s behavior, as with her officious treatment of an elderly patient named Rose (Patricia Conolly), will not endear her to most audience members. But she’s a complex person, with engaging qualities that partly mitigate her unpleasant ones. And her various takes on being black in white America sting like a bee.

Despite convincing-sounding dialogue, however, some moments seem forced for the sake of stirring controversy or getting a laugh, as when Rose politely tells Jaclyn that her behavior comes from her desire to take revenge for slavery. Rose may be an old biddy, but there’s nothing about her to suggest a total idiot. Another frisson-inducer is when the mousy Ileen agrees to carry a gun as protection from Jaclyn, whom her family has warned her may be dangerous. And the name in the title, explained as a common reference by middle-class white men for a type of working-class black woman, came as a big surprise to this middle-class white man, although it does set the stage for a funny tag line.

That the cast—performing on Allen Moyer’s perfect rendition of an office/waiting room, realistically lit by Jennifer Tipton, and appropriately clothed by Toni-Leslie James—manages to overcome the play’s shortcomings and make what transpires both believable and funny is a tribute to their talent and Nixon’s guidance. Goldstein underplays his supercilious, egotistic, I’m- not-a-racist doctor with a laidback vibe suggestive of comedian Louis C.K., while Conolly brings her veteran comedic chops to the elderly Rose.

Of course, the show belongs to Wiest and Pinkins, the former playing a somewhat ditzier version of the vulnerable, verge-of-tears hummingbirds at which she’s so adept. She’s wonderful in the early scenes, especially when faced with the dilemma of being asked to spy, but the way the play forces the character to evolve isn’t totally convincing. Pinkins steals the spotlight, making Jaclyn—with her workplace grievances, such as complaints about toxins in the air—a completely recognizable pain in the butt, but she’s still able, despite being so annoying, to find the human being inside and make you empathize with her.

After ninety minutes with RASHEEDA SPEAKING’s thought-provoking office politics, racial grumbling, and employee-on-employee espionage you’ll be glad to get back to your own job where, surely, nothing faintly like this ever happens.

The Pershing Square Signature Center
Romulus Linney Courtyard Theatre
480 W. 42nd Street, NYC
Through March 22

Thursday, February 19, 2015

158 (2014-2015): Review of KILL ME LIKE YOU MEAN IT (February 18, 2015)

"Style over Substance"

Sarah Skeist, Nathan Darrow. Photo: Carrie Leonard.

STOLEN CHAIR
presents
A Stage Noir
Written By
KIRAN RIKHYE
Directed By
JON STANCATO
Music by SEAN CRONIN
Set Design by MICHAEL MINAHAN
Lighting Design by DAVID BENGALI
Costume Design by ANGELA HARNER
Props & Graphic Design
by AVIVA MEYER
Stage Management by BROOKE BELL
Fight Choreography by NOAH SCHULTZ
CAST
Ben Farrell Nathan Darrow*
Lydia Forsythe Natalie Hegg*
Vivian Ballantine Sarah Skeist
Tommy Dickie David Skeist*
Detective Jones Jon Froehlich*
Phil / Understudy Raife Baker*
*Appearing courtesy of the Actors’ Equity Association
Technical Direction by NATHAN FRIESWYK
Master Electrician JACOB PLATT
Assoc. Lighting Designer CALVIN ANDERSON
Welding by SCOTT MILLER
Production Carpenter SCHUYLER BURKS
Dramaturgical Support by EMILY OTTO
Wardrobe & Production Assistance by MATHILDA SABAL
Hairstyling Assistance by
LEAH GALLAGHER
Production Assistance by ADAM KERN
Intern MICAELA YANG
House Manager JUNI LI
Photography by CARRIE LEONARD
Artwork by KURT HUGGINS &
DAVE DROXLER
Marketing Associate ERIKA LEE
Stolen Chair General Manager
ROBYNE MARTINEZ
Musicians:
SEAN CRONIN, EVAN ARNTZEN,
SKYE STEELE, JON CHALLONER, SHANNON HARA, JOE MACDONOUGH,
SCOTT DAVIS, ADAM BRISBIN, NATHAN ELLMAN-BELL
KILL ME LIKE YOU MEAN IT was original created in 2006 by Stolen Chair with David Bengali, Jon Campbell,
Tommy Dickie, Sam Dingman,
May Elbaz, Liza Green, Aviva Meyer, Emily Otto, Cameron Oro, Kiran Rikhye, Jon Stancato, and Alexia Vernon.


For my review of KILL ME IF YOU CAN, please click on THEATER PIZZAZZ.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

157 (2014-2015): Review of THE SUBTLE BODY (February 17, 2015)

"East Meets West, or Tries To"



In THE SUBTLE BODY, Megan Campisi’s subtly engaging, but only fitfully funny, historical comedy about cultural misunderstanding, John Floyer (Michael Zlabinger) is an offbeat British physician who, with his wife and personal secretary, Charlotte (Stephanie Wright Thompson), travels to China in 1702. His goal is to learn the secrets of Chinese medicine in the hopes of writing a book that will revolutionize Western medical practice in the manner of William Harvey, his idol. Unable to make any progress, he arranges to meet Doctor Zhang (Ya Han Chang), a wise, bearded practitioner of traditional Chinese medicine, sharing with him tidbits of knowledge about Western medicine in exchange for insights into Chinese methods. Serving as intermediary in these efforts is Translator Wang (Johnny Wu), a handsome young man whose impeccable, British-accented English is the result of his having been educated by missionaries. Charlotte is present at the meetings to write down what transpires, and she and Wang soon find themselves attracted to one another.
Michael Zlabinger, Stephanie Wright Thompson. Photo: Erik Carter.
Floyer, a parody of stuffy, narrow-minded, Eurocentric pomposity, offers useless examples of Western medical insights from Aristotle and others that Doctor Zhang finds typically barbaric and unenlightened. On the other hand, when Zhang—master of a 4,000-year old tradition—makes accurate diagnoses of Floyer and Charlotte’s physical conditions via their pulse beats, the British doctor—himself a renowned pulse expert—is astonished. (He scores one of the play’s best lines when he reveals his obstinate inability to accept the advantages of what he’s learning: “It might work in practice, but doesn’t work in theory.”)
From left: Stephanie Wright Thompson, Michael Zlabinger, Ya Han Chang, Johnny Wu. Photo: Erik Carter.
However, Floyer’s inability to comprehend Zhang’s metaphoric reference to an intangible essence in the pulse called the “mo” baffles him, and he demands a more concrete explanation, although he finally has his eureka moment when hes able to relate it to something in his own experience. Zhang, for his part, grows impatient with Floyer’s impractical information. Meanwhile, Charlotte decides to leave him and marry Wang, albeit in the position of second wife to first wife Wang Furen (Ms. Chang, again). Unlike what you might expect if you’ve seen the 1991 Chinese move, RAISE THE RED LANTERN, the arrangement proves quite compatible.
Michael Zlabinger, Stephanie Wright Thompson. Photo: Erik Carter.
Campisi may write with her tongue planted in her cheek, a tone supplemented by the light comedy manner of the production, but she makes no attempt to suggest that the foundation of her play—John and Charlotte’s research journey to China—is pure fiction. There was, indeed, a Dr. John Floyer (1649-1734), who made his mark by, among other significant breakthroughs, introducing the practice of pulse measurement, for which he created a special watch; the watch, in fact, has a part in Campisi’s play and is even mentioned in a projection at the conclusion. His wife, though, was named Mary, not Charlotte, which only heightens Campisi’s playful, if misleading, attitude toward history. Floyer, also noted as an advocate of cold bathing (which features in one scene), had wide-ranging scientific interests, among them Chinese medicine. He never made a trip to China, however, which would have been a momentous journey at the time. Nor was he anything like the bumptious Floyer in the play. And the idea of an upper-class British woman divorcing her husband and becoming a Chinese translator’s second wife . . . ? You HAVE to be kidding. 

[After posting this I found a respected reviewer's coverage of the play, in which he writes, after mentioning Floyer: "A true man of the Englightenment, he traveled to China in 1702, hoping to trade his Western scientific knowledge for an awareness of Asian healing wisdom. Among other things, he returned with an understanding of how to measure a patient's pulse rate, by calculating it over the course of a minute with the aid of a watch. If you believe Megan Campisi's play . . . Floyer lost his wife, Charlotte, in the process." If even reputable critics take such misinformation at face value and repeat it, one realizes how dangerous a game writers like Campisi play when they don't bother to acknowledge their distortion of the facts.]
Stephanie Wright Thompson, Johnny Wu. Photo: Erik Carter.
While the play—which combines conventional dialogue with narrative monologues—isn’t meant to be taken seriously as the depiction of an historical episode, it does score several amusing points in its demonstration of cultural confusion, even on so basic a level as when Floyer meets Zhang and offers his hand to shake while Zhang, for his part, is in the process of bowing. (I know, it’s been done before.) My guest at the play, who makes his living as a consultant to Japanese businessmen going to work for American companies and Americans going to work for the Japanese, appreciated the way the play captured such moments, which are as common in intercultural relationships today as they ever were.
Stephanie Wright Thompson, Ya Han Chang. Photo: Erik Carter.
THE SUBTLE BODY, a production of the Brooklyn-based Gold No Trade company, is competently directed by Michael Liebenluft, and reportedly played to sold-out houses in Shanghai. It is performed in both Mandarin and English, the Mandarin either being translated simultaneously by Translator Wang or projected on a screen above the stage. All of the English is subtitled in Mandarin. (As too common with such theatre subtitles the ambient lighting tends to wash them out and make them hard to read.) Grant Zhong did the actual translations.

Cate McCrea’s unit set, a simple structure of bamboo poles nicely lit by Mary Ellen Stebbins, fits into one corner of the tiny Theater C black box at 59E59 Theaters, with the audience facing it along two walls. The period costumes designed by Isabelle Coler are simplified versions of early 18th-century British and Chinese clothing, most of them combining an attractive combination of off-white/beige with touches of powder blue. An appealing percussive sound design by Eric Sluyter keeps the scene transitions lively. This being a romantic fantasy, both Charlotte and John are much younger and more attractive than their historical counterparts. The acting standout is Ms. Chang, who speaks only in Mandarin, but who demonstrates considerable versatility in bringing wily wisdom to the male role of Doctor Zhang and wifely authority to the female role of the first wife.

THE SUBTLE BODY offers some fundamental comments on the differences between Chinese and Western medicine, at least as these existed over 300 years ago, and one of the performances will even be followed by a panel discussion involving medical specialists, but medicine is merely the fulcrum for a play concerned with how peoples of dissimilar cultures negotiate their differences. Despite being so preoccupied with human pulse rates, it never quite managed to make mine race. 

59E59 Theaters
59 East 59 Street, NYC
Through March 1

Saturday, February 14, 2015

156 (2014-2015): Review of THE ICEMAN COMETH (February 12, 2015)

"Set 'em Up, Joe. I've Got a Nearly Five-Hour Story You Ought to Know"


For my review of THE ICEMAN COMETH please visit THE BROADWAY BLOG.



Friday, February 13, 2015

155 (2014-2015): Review of EVERYTHING YOU TOUCH (February 8, 2015)

"Fashion's Fools"



Like a good soldier, a reviewer must stick by his post to the bitter end. Civilians, however, can make a dash at intermission, as did a number attending EVERYTHING YOU TOUCH, Sheila Callaghan’s new dramedy at the Cherry Lane in a co-production of the Rattlestick Playwrights Theater, True Love Productions, and The Theatre@Boston Court. (Its premiere was in Pasadena last April.) Unlike my companion, who was generally positive about the work, I sympathized with the early departures from this kinky play about the fashion business.
Tonya Glanz, Christian Coulson. Photo: Joan Marcus.
EVERYTHING YOU TOUCH features two plot lines or, perhaps, a single plot running on two separate chronological tracks that converge in the second act. One thread transpires mainly in 1974, the other today. Because the staging (by Jessica Kubzansky) and writing don’t always make clear the jumps back and forth in time, and because an abundance of distracting theatricalist tics often get in the way, it may not always be easy to see clearly how the storyline develops or what it all adds up to.
From left: Allegra Rose Edwards, Miriam Silverman, Chelsea Nicolle Fryer, Christian Coulson, Nina Ordman. Photo: Joan Marcus.
In 1974 Victor Cavanaugh (Christian Coulson, of HARRY POTTER) is a pencil-thin, passionate, chain-smoking, British-accented, flamboyantly dressed, New York fashion designer with his own clothing line/store; this narcissist so ruthlessly demeans one of his models for not living up to his cutting-edge vision that she kills herself. Suicide, he cynically declares in an effort to avoid the guilt, “is the most BANAL choice a human can make,” a comment that will come back to haunt him. 

Flash forward to today: Jess (Miriam Silverman) is a sloppy, self-hating mess of a 40ish woman, an overweight, seriously unkempt, and catastrophically unstylish New York worker at an “upstart doctom.” She’s just learned that her mother, who’s been living in Little Rock, and whom she hasn't seen in a decade, is dying; leaving behind Lewis (Robbie Tan), the coworker who loves her, she sets off to visit Mom before she passes.
From left: Allegra Rose Edwards, Miriam Silverman, Nina Ordman, Chelsea Nicolle Fryer. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Victor’s muse and lover is the attractive Esme (Tonya Glanz); she has designer aspirations of her own, beginning with a line inspired by the Vietnam War. A rivalry for Victor’s attention shows up in the shape of Louella (Lisa Kitchens), a young woman from Little Rock who’s won a radio contest and has come to Victor’s for a VIP makeover. Before long, she displaces the jealous Esme, who, pregnant by Victor, leaves to settle in Little Rock. 
Miriam Silverman, Tonya Glanz. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Jess—a potentially suicidal victim of self-inflicted man-issues—conjures up a vision of a guy to accompany her to Arkansas. Among the traits Jess wants in this man is for him to look like her father, who died when she was two, and whom she hopes will transform her into the beautiful woman she believes she must be before her fashion-conscious mother can really see her. This dream man—apparently real in every way, including sexually—is Victor, exactly as we’ve seen him four decades earlier, although he says he’s a gypsy cab driver. Things get increasingly tricky from here on, but the loose ends do eventually get tied up (see above for clues). If this kind of loopy“magic realism” or whatever you want to call it appeals to you, you can find it at the Cherry Lane.
Back: Allegra Rose Edwards, Chelsea Nicolle Fryer; front, from left. Miriam Silverman, Christian Coulson, Nina Ordman. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Although some scenes have straightforwardly realistic narratives, the play is lacquered over with the kind of “experimental” devices that have become a stock in trade of many unconventional playwrights, including, “inner monologues” in which characters describe what they’re thinking or doing (happily, Ms. Cavanaugh self-referentially comments on this at one point). The dialogue veers sharply from heightened poetic language to conversational prose, although it often crackles with smarmy wit (“Your dick is like a failed hard drive”). Some of the richly salty invective directed at fat female butts is worth preserving, but I found the play’s most notable takeaways to be visual, not verbal.
Allegra Rose Edwards, Miriam Silverman. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Francois-Pierre Couture (could there be a better name for a play about fashion?) has created a neutral-colored box set with entrances down left and right, and one up center that opens and closes like a guillotine blade. As lit by Jeremy Pivnick the walls are either opaque, transparent, or translucent, and serve as a background for Adam Flemming’s numerous projections. Segments of the walls are like windows for the display of various props. 

Given the episodic plot's time-spanning nature, Couture’s unit set is not especially unusual; the most distinctive design feature is Jenny Foldenauer’s witty costumes, especially those that mimic and satirize the over-the-top excesses of high couture runway shows (the best scenes in the production). The women’s clothes work best, but those worn by Victor, supposedly a sine qua non of sartorial splendor, most often resemble the tastelessly garish cast-offs of a glam-rock British boy band. He never looks better than when he appears toward the end in a simple black sweater and stone-washed jeans.
From left: Allegra Rose Edwards, Miriam Silverman, Nina Ordman (sitting), Robbie Tan, Chelsea Nicolle Fryer. Photo: Joan Marcus.
The costumes are an intrinsic part of this fashion-crazed world, which the play fitfully satirizes, but what most incessantly distracts your eye from the dramatic developments is the use of three long-limbed actresses (Allegra Rose Edwards, Chelsea Nicolle Fryer, and Nina Ordman) playing both the models who parade on Victor’s runway and—prepare yourselves—much of the furniture; they also sometimes serve as a chorus for spoken passages. When they’re not on the runway, the models, clomping about in high-heeled platform shoes, wear appropriately skin-toned, skintight body suits (one of them brown) that suggest the nudity of department store mannequins. Positioned by director Kubzansky, the models—as a comment on the objectification of the female form—become chairs, tables, and even a car, with appropriate accessories attached to their heads or bodies: backs with steering wheels, heads encased in gumball machines or topped by phones, a bucket of Chinese takeout, etc. They also move what nonhuman props there are off and on: several seem to be assembled from the body parts of discarded mannequins. 
Robbie Tan, Miriam Silverman. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Although the leads are played by talented actors, they’re only occasionally able to meet the play’s demanding requirements. Ms. Silverman, so outstanding in EST's FINKS two seasons ago, attacks her role with her usual intelligence, but has too much gravitas for a role needing the eccentricity of a Lena Dunham. Ms. Glanz, mainly in her earlier scenes, provides the right electric presence, while Mr. Coulson’s nervous behavior, which has him constantly, smoking, pacing and lying about on a table, eventually grows annoying. Distracting as they are, I preferred watching the models.

Cherry Lane Theatre
38 Commerce Street, NYC
Through March 29

Thursday, February 12, 2015

154 (2014-2015): Review of THE EVENTS (February 11, 2015)

"Eventful"


About the only thing that references Norway in David Greig’s unusual play THE EVENTS, now playing at the New York Theatre Workshop in a production by Scotland’s Actors Touring Company, is “The Norwegian Coffee Song,” sung early on by a choir gathered around a piano. However, the play’s inspiration, so to speak, is the catastrophic murder spree conducted by Anders Breivik in 2011, when he used a van bomb to kill eight people in Oslo and then shot another 69 at a summer camp. Since nothing in the play specifically references these events, you might never connect the dots, although the play itself, for all its ambiguities, gradually makes clear that it’s trying to come to terms with what it calls a “mass shooting event.”
THE EVENTS, directed by Ramin Gray, was an award-winning hit at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 2013. It has subsequently toured Europe and the U.S. for two years, and also been produced in Austria and Norway in the language of those countries. It’s both linear and nonlinear, poetic and prosaic, contemplative and dramatic, and written in a combination of direct address monologues and straightforward dialogue, both occasionally elliptical.


The work grew out of a research trip to Norway by author Greig and director Gray in 2011, during which they met the female vicar-community choir leader who became the central character. According to the program notes, the people they spoke to included “an anthropologist, post-traumatic stress specialist, and a survivor of the massacre. . . .” Early in its development, THE EVENTS created a ruckus because of a fallacious report that it was going to be a musical about the Breivik tragedy; it’s nothing of the sort. The action occurs in Scotland, not Norway, and everything has been subsumed into a universal meditation on the meaning of violence and hatred, as well as the power and love of community.
Clifford Samuel, Neve McIntosh. Photo: Matthew Murphy.
The auditorium faces the vast space of the New York Theatre Workshop’s large stage area, devoid of conventional scenery and with its brick walls completely exposed. As efficiently designed by Chloe Lamford and lovingly lit by Charles Balfour, there’s a set of low risers upstage, gold drapes that rise to cover part of the rear wall, a piano, tables with coffee and the like at stage right, and stacks of stackable chairs—everything suggests a neutral space for a  church choir’s rehearsing. What follows blends the singing of a choir of 20, under the direction of Claire (Neve McIntosh), a lesbian preacher of liberal beliefs, dressed in tight jeans and a black shirt with a minister’s collar.
A young man, the Boy (Clifford Samuel), begins to talk to Claire after she welcomes him to join the choir. As he begins a monologue about an aboriginal boy and his reaction to ships bringing white convicts to Australia, with their religion, violence, and disease, it’s not clear who he is, but as the piece proceeds we begin to realize he’s the youth who carried out a mass murder at the church. However, he’s also multiple other people, real and imagined, including a right wing ideologue to whose ideas the boy was exposed and a journalist, with whom Claire engages. She, you see, was hiding with another woman when the killer found them and asked which one he should kill. Suffering PTSD, she has become relentless in her attempts to come to terms with the slaughter. At the end, she visits the killer in his prison. What will be her response: revenge, empathy, forgiveness?  
The playwright himself, in an interview, offered the following as his themes:
How do you explain the inexplicable; who is us and who is the other; what does it mean to immerse yourself in a group; what does it mean to be alone; how do we heal; is understanding possible in the face of great evil; why are these sorts of events perpetrated, so often, by lost young men; are humans innately good or innately bad; did we evolve to be a tribe or to be multicultural; did we evolve to be kind or cruel; is there a soul… goodness… that does seem a lot of themes. In the end I think the them [sic] of the Events is… how do we understand ourselves.
Throughout, the action, which slips around in time, is interrupted by beautiful, sometimes spiritual, music, composed by John Browne, and exquisitely sung by the choir as conducted by pianist Magnus Gilljam. Unusually, a different local choir—representative of the spirit of community—appears each night; they not only sing, but—using scripts or pieces of paper—occasionally interact with Claire. At one point, Claire has them doing the kind of relaxation exercises common in beginning acting classes. Their somewhat self-conscious presence opposite the polished Ms. McIntosh only makes their human qualities more palpable, deepening our concern for answers to the unanswerable questions surrounding why horrors such as Breivik’s murders occur. The night I attended, the excellent choir was the Village Light Opera Group.
Neve McIntosh (right, second step), Choir. Photo: Matthew Murphy.
THE EVENTS, which runs 90 minutes, is too often confusing, and it has infusions of irrelevant artiness, such as the class exercises, or having the Boy put on a display of expert rapid rope jumping as he delivers one of his longer monologues. But it’s continually interesting, and the Scottish-accented Ms. McIntosh and the British-accented Mr. Samuel are both fine actors, although it would have helped for him to differentiate among his characters. Ms. McIntosh has been with the play all along yet, during the curtain calls, was so overwhelmed with emotion and gratitude to the evening’s choir that huge pools formed in her eyes, a tribute to her sensitivity and commitment to a work that is clearly of great meaning to her. THE EVENTS won’t answer the questions it raises (no person or work of art can), but it will probably make you try to think about them yourself.
New York Theatre Workshop
79 E. 4th Street, NYC
Through March 22



Wednesday, February 11, 2015

153 (2014-2015): Review of A MONTH IN THE COUNTRY (February 10, 2015)

"More Like a Month in the Theatre"




It looks like Chekhov, it sounds like Chekhov, it feels like Chekhov . . . Guess what? It’s Turgenev! Ivan Turgenev’s (1818-1893) A MONTH IN THE COUNTRY, now playing at the Classic Stage Company, was written between 1848 and 1850, published in 1855, premiered in 1872, and had its first major success in 1879. It was written nearly half a century before Anton Chekhov created Russia’s greatest dramatic masterpieces. In 1909 it was revived by the Moscow Art Theatre, with Konstantin Stanislavsky playing Rakitin in a production that established it in the modern repertory.
Taylor Schilling, Peter Dinklage. Photo: Joan Marcus.
As in Chekhov the play takes place on a country estate; its unhappy major characters suffer from unrequited love; a languid despair lingers in the air, mingled with world-weary humor; there’s a doctor hanging around; asides are common (although here spoken directly to the audience, which Chekhov avoided); and money plays a significant role in at least one romantic relationship. (Unlike the fate of the title characters in THE THREE SISTERS, by the end of A MONTH IN THE COUNTRY everybody seems to be leaving for Moscow.) It may not quite achieve the depth and texture of the master, but, even as Chekhov-lite, the play is both dramatically strong and psychologically truthful enough to have been able to receive numerous international productions over the years. Its first New York production arrived in a 1930 Theatre Guild version, with Alla Nazimova as Natalya.
Taylor Schilling, Peter Dinklage. Photo: Joan Marcus.
As translated by John Christopher Jones, the CSC revival, thankfully trimmed to a two-hour playing time from a more usual three, has the tone of a light comedy of manners and romance. The language, using words like “terrific,” “weird,” and “lousy,” is much more American in flavor than, say, the British-inflected versions of Constance Garnett and Emlyn Williams (the only two—of many—to which I had immediate access). One never senses, though, that Turgenev’s language is considered by some critics to be more beautiful than that of any of his countrymen. The production, directed by Erica Schmidt, languishes in the kind of stagnant atmosphere often found in misconceived Chekhov revivals. This isn’t to deny the laughter that greets the play’s more amusing lines; it’s just that, apart from moments scattered too far from one another, there’s a heaviness about the goings on that often sucks the spirit out of them.
Taylor Schilling, Mike Faist. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Natalya Petronova (Taylor Schilling) is the bored, moody, and beautiful 29-year-old wife of rich landowner Arkady (Anthony Edwards), 36. Her closest friend is Rakitin (Peter Dinklage), 30, a guest at Arkady and Natalya’s country estate, deeply in love with Natalya. She teases him along with her affections without ever committing to him. (The relationship is based on that of Turgenev and the married Pauline Viardot, a famous opera singer to whom he was slavishly devoted for many years.) Natalya’s true affections lie with Aleksey Belyaev (Mike Faist), the handsome, charming 21-year-old tutor to her 10-year-old son, Kolya (Ian Etheridge), to whom Natalya’s 17-year-old ward, Vera (Megan West), is also strongly attracted. Aleksey may seem perfectly suited to Vera, but he secretly longs for Natalya although unable, because of the circumstances, to express these feelings. (Ms. Schmidt, however, inadvisedly chooses to insert a moment showing Aleksey and Natalya rushing by, partly clothed, as if in the throes of a sexual encounter.)
Mike Faist, Megan West. Photo: Joan Marcus.
The family doctor, Shpigelsky (Thomas Jay Ryan), proposes to Vera that she marry his friend, the unattractive, foolish, middle-aged, but wealthy landowner Bolshintsov (Peter Appel), a proposal that, only after circumstances between Natalya and Aleksey sufficiently depress her, she ultimately accepts. (Natalya is complicit in subverting Vera’s potential rivalry.) The complex web of desires and rejections, and the suspicions of Natalya’s husband, force Aleksey and Rakitin to depart for Moscow, leaving behind the saddened Natalya. Meanwhile, Shpigelsky has convinced Lizavetta (Annabella Sciorra), a companion to Arkady’s mother, Anna (Elizabeth Franz), to marry him. In one of the funniest scenes, he rattles off his defects to her. Ms. Schmidt’s staging also suggests in mimic action—as they shift furniture during the scene breaks—the blossoming love of two servants, Matvei (James Joseph O’Neil) and Katya (Elizabeth Ramos).
Taylor Schilling. Photo: Joan Marcus.
For all its preoccupation with external romantic complications, Turgenev’s play is mainly concerned with the internal lives of its characters, and requires exceptional acting to bring them to life. Although larded with name actors from popular TV series, films, and Broadway, the company offers nothing exceptional in their performances. Ms. Schilling and Mr. Dinklage in the leading roles are certainly competent (Mr. Dinklage—who’s married to the director—has the best male voice in the production) and each has their moments, but their work, like that of their co-actors, is not particularly memorable, nor penetrating. Mr. Faist as Aleksey is attractive enough, but he’s decidedly bland and charmless, forcing us to wonder why he’s supposedly such magnetic chick bait. Ms. West’s Vera makes a believable teenager; still, like her more experienced senior partners, she can do little to inject much interest in the proceedings.

Mark Wendland’s odd unit set, beautifully lit by Jeff Croiter, is neither indoors nor out, maintaining—for interiors and exteriors—with only a change of furniture or rugs, the same low wooden wall surrounding the three-quarters round space, with a background of birch trees on the rear wall. It’s in the vein of various skeletal Chekhov revivals, like Andrei Serban’s THE CHERRY ORCHARD at Lincoln Center in 1977, an approach that can be effective; however, the transparent/translucent canopy, with two large windows in it, hung over the set like a rectangular lampshade, is an unnecessary distraction. Tom Broecker’s period costumes are pretty, yet some of the hairstyles, like Ms. Schilling’s, are over 160 years out of date. 

Turgenev’s play should pass like two pleasant hours in the country, not a month in the theatre.  

Classic Stage Company (CSC)
136 E. 13th Street, NYC
Through February 28th



Tuesday, February 10, 2015

152 (2014-2015): Review of APPLICATION PENDING (February 6, 2015)

"Application Approved"



Proof that the Internet can help rocket someone to stardom can be found in the career of Christine Bianco, a petite actress-singer-impressionist whose YouTube videos often show her rapidly transforming from one famous diva to another. Go ahead, Google her! (She's also performed in FORBIDDEN BROADWAY.) Her notable gift for chameleonlike characterizations is the impetus for APPLICATION PENDING, an 80-minute, one-woman farce by Greg Edwards and Andy Sandberg, directed by Mr. Sandberg, in which she plays all of the 40 or so characters, male and female, old and young (including children), and almost all of them non-singing.
Christina Bianco. Photo: Joan Marcus.
APPLICATION PENDING, at the Westside Theatre (Downstairs), satirizes the crazy desperation of parents trying to get their kids into a kindergarten at Edgely Preparatory Academy, an exclusive private school in Manhattan. The play is set in a well-appointed office (nicely designed by Colin McGurk and lit by Jeff Croiter), where it’s the first day on the job for the new pre-primary admissions officer, Christine, a sweet young divorcĂ©e with a little boy of her own, a Catholic parochial school pre-K student. 
Christina Bianco. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Soon, the phones (the one in the office and Christine’s cell) are ringing off the hook as one parent after the other calls to persuade Christine to accept their child, using a succession of nutty ruses, and even engaging in warlike strategies against other parents. Meanwhile, Christine has to deal with the Mother Superior at her son’s school, Edgely’s sports coach, a government investigator, her creep of an ex-husband, a snotty rival admissions officer at another school, two gay fathers with a kid named Sutton Lupone Garcia, and a host of others. One is the cruelly demanding headmaster, Mr. Bradshaw, who insists—despite Christine’s other responsibilities and her plea that she needs to spend the time with her son—that she be responsible for a big school banquet that evening and who threatens to fire her if she doesn’t come through.

Anyone in their right mind, no matter how needy, would quickly have told her employer to take this job and shove it, but Christine—who really wants to be a kindergarten teacher—bravely soldiers on, doing her best to satisfy everyone’s demands, remaining pleasantly accommodating regardless of the rising tide of insanity in which she’s struggling to swim. Ultimately, of course, the worm turns, and the plot finds reasons to allow her to go from victim to victor and give her tormentors the shaft they all richly deserve.
Christina Bianco. Photo: Joan Marcus.
APPLICATION PENDING is basically an excuse for Ms. Bianco to demonstrate her extreme versatility as she makes lightning fast transitions, usually during phone conversations between Christine and whoever she’s talking to, morphing instantaneously into Southern belles, macho dudes, Jewish housewives, snooty one percenters, good old boy politicians, haughty nuns, smarmy bureaucrats, ditzy dames, and even George Clooney. Each is clearly defined, not only by vocal tone, rhythm, and accent, but by physical alterations in the way Ms. Bianco holds her head, changes her position, gestures, stands or sits, or otherwise changes her behavior. The characters, of course, are all broad cartoons, just as the play itself is little more than an extended but quite meaty“Saturday Night Live” sketch..

Some of it is truly comical, and the preview audience laughed frequently and even raucously at many points. One of the funniest characters is Edgeley’s self-described Native American administrator, a politically correct fanatic who bridles at every word Christine speaks that might somehow be considered ethnically offensive, such as “warpath” or even “chief.” A comment she delivers about “heritage enriched” kids made me blow a laugh gasket; otherwise, while the show is consistently amusing and often chuckle-worthy, the phone business begins to get repetitive and there are a few laugh-starved stretches. Nonetheless, it cracked this hard nut frequently enough to rate it one of the funniest pieces of the season.

Christine Bianco’s ability to juggles multiple plot balls in the air as she shifts effortlessly from role to role, using her phones and other props with split second timing, is a tour de force that will certainly lead to even wider attention. Her material in APPLICATION PENDING may not be for the ages, but it would be tough to find someone else who could make it work as well. Decision on applicant Christine Bianco: Application Approved.

Westside Theatre (Downstairs)
407 West 43rd Street, NYC
Open run



Monday, February 9, 2015

151 (2014-2015): Review of SNOW ORCHID (February 7, 2015)

 "The Bloom Is Off this Orchid"




Joe Pintauro’s SNOW ORCHID, now in revival at Theatre Row’s diminutive Lion Theatre, was originally staged at the Eugene O’Neill Theatre Center in Waterford, CT, in 1980. It made its New York debut two years later at the now vanished Circle Repertory Company with a cast led by Olympia Dukakis and the late Peter Boyle as husband and wife Filumena and Rocco Lazarra. Their gay older son, Sebb, was played by Robert Lupone (who also acted it at the O’Neill), and the other son by Ben Siegler. When revived at the Gate Theatre in Nottinghill, England, in 1993, the revisions included an additional character, Doogan, Sebbie’s boyfriend. The current New York revival reportedly has undergone further revisions, although no new characters are involved.
Stephen Plunkett, Angelina Fiordellisi. Photo: Jeremy Daniel.
Any changes that have been made, however, are not enough to save the play from its weaknesses, and the mediocrity of the Miranda Company’s production only makes things worse. SNOW ORCHID is a conventional, two-act, kitchen-sink melodrama about an Italian-American family in Brooklyn’s Greenpoint neighborhood; it takes place in 1964, when the Vietnam War was beginning to heat up. The blowzy, middle-aged mother, Filumena (Angelina Fiordellisi), born and raised in her beloved Sicily, is reminiscent of Italian earth mothers like Serafina in Tennessee Williams’s THE ROSE TATTOO (and many other roles in the Anna Magnani mold). Her husband, Rocco, has the potentially volcanic emotional vibes of Eddie Carbone in Arthur Miller’s A VIEW FROM THE BRIDGE, a play whose smoldering atmosphere seems one likely inspiration for Pintauro’s effort.
From left: Stephen Plunkett, David McElwee, Robert Cuccioli. Photo: Jeremy Daniel.
Rocco (Robert Cuccioli) returns home from a lengthy stay in a mental institution after some sort of unexplained breakdown but finds that, no matter how he’s changed physically (he’s slimmed down and dresses nattily) or emotionally (thanks to “downers”), no one wants anything to do with him. That’s because he was an abusive husband and father; despite his sincere efforts to turn over a new leaf and rebuild his family ties, he's hated with unremitting vitriol by Sebbie (Stephen Plunkett), who can never forgive him for his former violence. We must accept this behavior at face value as it all happened in the past; the repentant Rocco, at least in Mr. Cuccioli’s reasonable and sympathetic persona, seems nothing like what we hear about him.
From left: Angelina Fiordellisi, Robert Cuccioli, David McElwee, Stephen Plunkett. Photo: Jeremy Daniel.
Sebbie (short for Sebastian, a saint famous as a pincushion for arrows) is his brother Blaise’s (David McElwee’s) rival for Filumena’s love (she admits to favoring Sebb); the Oedipally afflicted Sebbie, whose homosexuality is soon exposed, has an almost incestuous relationship with his mother; in a scene meant to shock, he gives his mother a deep “Hollywood kiss”; in another he exposes his genitals to his father (and us), cynically asking for a sexual favor. Filumena, meanwhile, is an agoraphobic who hasn’t been able to step out of her apartment for years; much of the play concerns Sebbie’s efforts to get her outside. She, too, rejects her husband, despite his earnest efforts to seek forgiveness. Why, given her neuroses, nastiness, and fading looks, Rocco wants her back so much is a question for wiser heads than mine.
Angelina Fiordellisi, Robert Cuccioli. Photo: Jeremy Daniel.
The play tumbles along, exploiting the complex family relationships, but, despite occasional incendiary flare-ups, remains curiously flat and uninvolving, no matter how much happens on the surface. Much of this is owing to the bland direction of Valentina Fratti, who fails to incite the necessary atmosphere of operatic passion; she settles instead for too much low-energy conversation, draining the play of the pace, tension, and aggression it requires.  Scenes of great intimacy are approached with undue timidity: Sebbie and Filumena’s kiss is wimpy, and, when Rocco rubs Vick’s onto Filumena’s breast, he slips his hand down her slip only slightly yet worries about the medication hurting her nipples.
Stephen Plunkett, Robert Cuccioli. Photo: Jeremy Daniel. 
Ms. Fratti is also seriously hampered by Patrick Rizotti’s chintzy set. SNOW ORCHID, with its multiple interior locales in the Lazarra household, requires either a fully naturalistic home (like the two-story one in the 1982 production) to create the mundane world in which these people live, or some combination of realism and nonrealism. Instead, the cramped stage, a very poor venue for this particular play, contains an arrangement of tall white walls whose surfaces are covered by what seems translucent paper through which the wooden beams holding them together are intentionally visible.
Timothy Hassler, Robert Cuccioli, Stephen Plunkett. Photo: Jeremy Daniel.
The various wee rooms, with their necessarily minimal furniture, are indicated only by shifts in lighting (efficiently designed by Travis McHale) and it takes some time before it’s clear what each area represents. The confusion is only compounded by all the eavesdropping the play demands, when supposedly unseen people are standing right in the line of sight of those they’re overhearing. Moreover, one wall tilts awkwardly, and the whole structure seems ready to collapse at any minute. A low budget, of course, may be partly responsible; if so, why choose a play with such demanding physical requirements if your solution is going to be so inadequate?
Robert Cuccioli, Angelina Fiordellisi, David McElwee. Photo: Jeremy Daniel.
As Filumena, Ms. Fiordellisi (artistic director of the Cherry Lane Theatre) uses a rich Sicilian accent that sometimes slips but she nonetheless manages to convey her character’s hot-blooded temperament, sometimes fiery, sometimes profane, sometimes pious (she’s a devotee of St. Anthony, whose statue is a major prop). She certainly looks the frumpy yet still sensual Sicilian mother-wife, especially as costumed by Brooke Cohen. However, Mr. Cuccioli, who has played Broadway musical leads, has the looks, bearing, and grooming of Emile de Becque in SOUTH PACIFIC. I almost choked when Sebbie called him “an ol’ man with his teeth fallin’ out.” Try as he may, and he tries valiantly, Mr. Cuccioli appears out of place in this working-class world. Neither Mr. McElwee (who looks too old for his high-school-age part) nor Mr. Plunkett can do much more than offer stereotypical characterizations, while Timothy Hassler, who appears late in the play as Doogan, isn’t around long enough to make an impression.

Orchids actually play a role in THE SNOW ORCHID, and bear a symbolic value, like the roses in Frank Gilroy’s THE SUBJECT WAS ROSES, but Mr. Pintauro’s dramaturgical flower needs more nourishment than it gets here if it’s ever going to blossom. 

THE SNOW ORCHID
Lion Theatre
410 W. 42nd Street, NYC
Through February 28