Thursday, May 18, 2017

11 (2017-2018): Review: THE LUCKY ONE (seen May 16, 2017)

"Oh, Brother!"
For my review of The Lucky One please click on THE BROADWAY BLOG.

10 (2017-2018): Review: HAPPY DAYS (seen May 17, 2017)

"End of Days"

Happy Days, Samuel Beckett’s minimalist exercise in existential angst (originally called Female Solo), first written and produced in French and then given its English-language premiere at Off Broadway’s Cherry Lane in 1961, is not unlike a piece of classical music. Everything in the stage directions is fastidiously laid out, every i dotted and t crossed, but each artist interpreting Winnie, its principal role, nonetheless finds something new, something personal, something nuanced that makes its performance unique.
Dianne Wiest. Photo: Gerry Goodstein.
Numerous international actresses of renown have tackled Winnie, which some consider a “Hamlet for women.” In 2014 New York saw Brooke Adams (with Tony Shalhoub as Winnie’s rickety husband, Willie) play the role. Currently, two-time Academy Award-winner Dianne Wiest (with the excellent Jarlath Conroy) has buried herself in the role, so to speak, for a production that opened last spring at the Yale Rep and is now at Brooklyn’s Polonsky Shakespeare Center under the aegis of Theatre for a New Audience. The skilled director is James Bundy, dean of the Yale School of Drama and artistic director of the Yale Rep.
Dianne Wiest. Photo: Gerry Goodstein.
Winnie is an incredibly difficult role, requiring the actress to be immersed in a mound of earth on a brightly lit stage (lighting by Stephen Strawbridge) from the waist down throughout Act One, and to play the entire second act further embedded in the mound, with only her head showing. Izmir Ickbal’s set, a sprawl of scorched earth under the vast expanse of a palpably artificial blue sky lit by a “blazing” sun, is subverted by a false proscenium, hanging velvet curtain tabs, and scallop-shell footlights suggesting a music hall ambiance. 
The design, perhaps, was inspired by Beckett’s words calling for “a pathetic unsuccessful realism, the kind of tawdriness you get in a 3rd rate musical or pantomime, that quality of pompier, laughably earnest bad imitation." In Beckett’s early thoughts, he considered a place that had been struck by missiles. Given the state of today’s world, it might not be long before someone places Winnie in a missile crater. End of Days, anyone?
Dianne Wiest. Photo: Gerry Goodstein.
Winnie’s garrulity, while seemingly straightforward, simple, and concrete, is nonetheless shrouded in ambiguity, with only vague hints about her past and present circumstances. Her stream of consciousness chatter is delivered to the mostly uncommunicative Willie, whose role has a mere 47 words. Usually (except for a sequence shortly before the final curtain) Willie, who lives in a cave, remains hidden or partly hidden behind the mound, where he reads an old, yellowing newspaper. There are numerous opportunities for laughs in Winnie’s lines, including references to sex and personal hygiene.
Jarlath Conroy, Dianne Wiest. Photo: Gerry Goodstein.
Winnie, “a woman of about fifty,” in a black bodice (costumes by Alexei Visel), her shoulders and arms bare, wakes up each day and goes to sleep to a loud bong. In Act One she gets through the eternal day, on which the sun never sets, with no shade to protect her. When she opens her parasol, it bursts into flames. Her actions are limited to a ritualized sequence of behavior involving a specific assortment of hand props taken from a large bag. Most are for her personal grooming but there’s also a revolver, whose presence suggests a way out of her situation. Meanwhile, In Act Two, although she’s not free to use it any longer, it’s only inches from her face.
Dianne Wiest. Photo: Gerry Goodstein.
Despite her debilitating condition, Winnie does her best to remain composed and optimistic, remembering bits and pieces of her life, sometimes recalling a snatch of poetry, sometimes praying, and finding enough inspiration from even the slightest hints of positivity to cheerfully announce what a happy day it is. In Act Two, when Bundy’s staging hides her neck and has only her head showing, she seems little more than an insignificant blond raisin drying in the sun, as she imagines that the unresponsive Willie might be dead. Regardless, she maintains her bright (now aged) face while fighting more evidently than before to restrain her sorrow and suffering.
Jarlath Conroy.Photo: Gerry Goodstein.
Apart from that of the less impressive Brooke Adams’s performance, described here, memory and the relative similarity of each performance prevents me from accurately comparing Wiest’s Winnie with the four or five others I’ve seen. Hers, naturally, is as good as any. It does seem, though, that Act One’s pacing, with so many long pauses, is a bit draggy and that Wiest, as my companion also noted, seems more concerned with her moment by moment thoughts than any ultimate objective; the same problem also affected Adams’s portrayal. However, Wiest, faithfully carrying out Beckett’s detailed business, perfectly matches her own winsomeness to Winnie’s struggle to maintain an upbeat attitude in the face of the inevitable. Lovers of Beckett and Wiest will have little to complain about.
Dianne Wiest. Photo: Gerry Goodstein.
Wiest's voice is marvelously musical, and she sometimes seems to sing her lines, giving them a metric regularity. She uses her instrument with considerable variation, especially when changing it rapidly to mimic someone she remembers, like Mr. Shower (or Cooker), or to shift from one emotional level to another, beautifully capturing each subtextual inference, comic and poignant.
Jarlath Conroy, Dianne Wiest. Photo: Gerry Goodstein.
Toward the play’s end, Willie appears in formal attire, “dressed to kill,” says the script, wearing a “Very long bushy white Battle of Britain moustache.” He struggles on hands and knees to reach Winnie. Or is it the gun he’s after? Beckett himself said he didn’t know. On the night I went, Willie’s mustache, its glue having failed, drooped precariously from the motionless actor’s face. Was it an accident or a directorial nod to some existential enigma? With Beckett you never know.


Theatre for a New Audience
262 Ashland Place, Brooklyn, NY
Polonsky Shakespeare Center
Through May 28

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

9. (2017-2018): Review: DERREN BROWN: SECRET (seen May 13, 2017)

“It’s How’d He Do It Time”

I almost called this review “The Atlantic's Got Talent,” since Off Broadway’s respected Atlantic Theatre Company is taking a breather from its usual focus on plays and musicals to present a mentalist act of the type you often see on “America’s Got Talent” (and, presumably, its British original). That, however, does nothing to diminish the head-spinning impact of the routines performed by Derren Brown, a charming British chap who offers two hours and 40 minutes of mind-boggling mental mischief.

 You may, in fact, find you have more to discuss with your theatergoing companion(s) afterward than following a standard play or musical. I saw it on the Saturday matinee before Mother’s Day, and my wife and I were still talking about it on Sunday at our family gathering, where we couldn’t help describing the highlights to everyone else. All you can think of after a show like this is “How’d he do it?” Just be prepared to argue for or against your ideas without losing your temper. 
Derren Brown.
I can’t offer any opinions here, though, mine or others, since Brown requests that reviewers keep secret what he does in this show. If you want a good idea of Brown's skills, I advise you to begin by checking him out here and then looking at his many YouTube videos. 

Brown, a trim, attractive fellow in his mid-forties, appears in Act One tieless, in a well-tailored, three-piece brown suit. In Act Two, he wears a white tie and tails. His set, designed by Takeshi Kata, and lit, mainly with a bluish hue by Ben Stanton, is little more than faux-brick walls. Directors Andrew O'Connor and Andy Nyman, who wrote the script with Brown, keep the action moving briskly. 

Much of his act depends on using audience members, who are selected at random when they catch the Frisbees he flings into the house. Brown carefully emphasizes the randomness of their selection so that no one suspects him of using stooges. Throughout, a  roaming videographer screens close-up images on the upstage wall of people's reactions to their minds being blown or of items used during the performance. 

If you’re a fan of this stuff, you’ll probably have seen similar things in other shows, like 2013’s more elaborate Nothing to Hide, at the Signature, with magicians Helder GuimarĂ£es and Derek DelGaudio. In that one, a stuffed monkey was tossed around as a way of finding random participants and assuring the audience there were no plants. Brown makes a big thing of this, at one point even asking an audience member to inspect his ears to show he’s not wearing a tiny receiver.

Suffice it to say that Brown provides a lot of interesting, lightly humorous palaver (written by Andy Nyman, Brown, and Andrew O’Connor), much of it about Brown’s psychological training to detect what people are thinking via their facial and body language. Regardless, you need more than such training to carry off most of his routines. 

During Act One you sometimes feel there’s too much talk in proportion to the actual tricks, if I may call them that. I suspect, though, it’s all carefully planned to make the show increasingly dramatic in Act Two, when the tension grows with each routine, leading to the grand finale. And, while you’re still scratching your head over it, an even more surprising surprise awaits you.

But my position demands my secrecy and, not being the president of the United States, I put great value on my ability to keep my mouth shut when it comes to highly classified entertainment information. I assure you, though, that Derren Brown: Secret will stay with you when it’s over. And that's no secret.


Atlantic Theatre Company
336 W. 20th St., NYC
Through June 25

Monday, May 15, 2017

8. (2017-2018): Review: VENUS (seen May 12, 2017)

“Bottom Feeders”

When director Lear deBessonet’s visually elaborate but notably uneven staging of Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Suzan-Lori Park’s play Venus begins, actress Zainab Jah carefully dons a body suit that closely matches her chocolate brown skin and creates a strikingly realistic, near-nude impression of the play’s subject, Saartjie (also Sarah, Sara, and Sartje) Baartman, a.k.a. the Venus Hottentot.
Baartman’s huge buttocks—a feature not uncommon among the Khoikhoi women (sometimes referred to as Hottentots and Bushmen/Bushwomen) of what is now South Africa—made her a profitable exhibit in England for several years after 1810, not long after slavery in Britain was abolished. She died in France in 1815.
Baartman has long been a topic of socio-political interest to academics, which also has been true of Parks’s play since it premiered at the Public Theater in 1996. Aside from its obvious concern with various sensitive concerns (female body image fetishism, female subjugation and commodification, colonization, slavery, freak shows, scientific racism, and the like), Venus' fascination lies principally in its historical narrative—when it’s not fabricating fictional material—about Baartman’s experiences. One debated aspect of those experiences is the degree to which she herself, mistreated as she was, had agency in them; the play suggests she knew very well what she was doing.
As a play, Venus, now being revived at the Pershing Square Signature Theatre, is overlong (nearly two and a quarter hours) and frequently lifeless. Much of it is juvenile and lacking in wit, and its structure as misshapen as the woman whose story it dramatizes. Poetic dialogue mingles uncomfortably with the prosaic. Fortunately, it gets a finely nuanced performance from Jah, who brings charm and intelligence to playing this unusual, abused, enslaved, yet determined woman.
The choice of literalizing Baartman’s appearance is perhaps meant to make us feel complicit in her exploitation when we gaze at her. It does, however, feel as though it’s Parks herself who’s complicit in her exploitation. Some might prefer seeing the Venus Hottentot depicted without prostheticsor at least such a realistic oneas in John Merrick's presentation in Bernard Pomerance’s The Elephant Man, a play that has much in common with Venus. Projections of period illustrations of her could easily help us envision her appearance.
Written in 31 chronologically arranged scenes, Venus tells a straightforward story in highly theatricalized terms. A top-hatted narrator, the Negro Resurrectionist (Kevin Mambo), who brings to mind the storyteller in Brecht’s Caucasian Chalk Circle, comments for our edification, occasionally sings solo (music by Brandon Wolcott), plays dramatic characters, and introduces each scene by announcing its number from 31 on down; this device backfires once you find yourself counting how many scenes remain before you finally get to “1.”
As so often in dramatized historical accounts (Shakespeare’s a good example), the playwright uses her research, not for a literal transcription of events but as the basis for an artistic work in which characters are conflated, people are assigned actions they never did, and, in various ways, the historical facts are elided to make a point. Such alterations can be tricky, especially for audiences who check the facts online the minute they get a chance.

J.T. Rogers’s Oslo, for example, takes liberties with the complex story of the 1993 Oslo Accords but in a way that manages not to break the eggshells he steps on. Parks also gets away with soft-shoeing over some factual eggs but we get scrambled ones on several occasions. This is most apparent in Act Two, when she creates a romantic relationship between Baartman and the Baron Docteur (John Ellison Conlee), a physician that the play (not history) claims took her to Paris both as his mistress and to advance his scientific reputation.

The talented deBessonet's effortful production can do little to blanket the play’s weaknesses. Act One, using a familiar show business-as-life metaphor, is presented as a carnival-like sideshow (with an excellent set by Matt Saunders; amusing period costumes by Emilio Sosa; and versatile lighting by Justin Townsend); the ensemble serves as a chorus, as freaks, and as cartoonish characters, some of whom perform broadly as if they’re in an old-fashioned play. In the ensemble are such fine actors as Hannah Cabell, Birgit Huppuch, and Tony Torn but you may still wish the curtain could be drawn on them.
Exaggerated costumes, brightly colored wigs, clownish overacting, and cross-gender campiness can’t hide the doomed struggle to create an appropriately satirical environment. Much extravagantly unfunny business is involved, like a trial scene with a chorus of white-wigged British judges. At times it feels that someone's sucked the music out of what should have been a musical.
Act One’s ostentation—except for a few occasions—is abandoned in Act Two, which clashes stylistically with what's preceded it. It's located in a white set that serves mainly as a Paris bedroom and a medical establishment, with fake heads looking down from overhead like witnesses in an operating theatre. The bedroom is shared by Baartman and the Baron Docteur for unconvincing romantic scenes that, apart from a few heightened moments, abandon the hi-jinx of Act One for realistic domestic soap opera. 
Bottom line: this Venus is one Hottentot not hot to trot.


The Pershing Square Signature Center
480 W. 42nd St., NYC
Through June 4

Sunday, May 14, 2017

7. (2017-2018): Review: IPHIGENIA IN SPLOTT

"A Gift from the Greeks"

So, what’s Splott? It’s an historic district in Cardiff, the capital of Wales. The singer Shirley Bassey grew up there. And who’s Iphigenia? She’s a daughter of the ancient Greek king Agamemnon, the subject of two fifth-century B.C. plays by Euripides, Iphigenia in Aulis and Iphigenia in Taurus. According to the myth, she was about to be sacrificed by her father at Aulis to calm the angry goddess Artemis so the Greeks could cross to Troy when the deity replaced her at the last minute with a deer. She was whisked to safety in Tauris, where she became a priestess and was forced to ritually sacrifice uninvited foreigners. 
Sophie Melville. Photo: Mark Douet.
Iphigenia in Aulis (last revived locally in 2015 by the CSC) has been a gift for composers, filmmakers, and playwrights, who've adapted it for their mediums, the plays including recent ones by Caridad Svich, Charles L. Mee, and, in the present case, Gary Owen’s absorbing Iphigenia in Splott. Apart from its title, however, it mentions neither Splott nor Iphigenia. Now playing at 59E59 Theaters as part of their Brits Off Broadway season, it stars Sophie Melville in the searing performance that gained her acclaim following the play’s premiere at Cardiff’s Sherman Theatre before it played to sold-out houses in Edinburgh and at England’s National Theatre.
Sophie Melville. Photo: Mark Douet.
Very little in Owen’s play will remind you of why he calls it as he does. It’s not until the end, when the heroine makes a noble sacrifice that you may realize the connection, since, in Euripides’ play, Iphigenia, in agreeing to be slain so the Greeks can sail, chooses the general good over her own desire to live. The choice in Iphigenia in Splott is a big one also intended for the general good but it’s more mundane, as is the entire environment in which the action transpires.

Owen’s Iphigenia is Effie, a good-looking but reckless young Cardiff woman carrying on as an impoverished, ballsy, love-starved, nasty, foul-mouthed, working-class, booze-lapping, drug-addled slut. Or, at least that’s how we may initially think of her, a view she emphasizes as she tells a story that ultimately reveals the inadequacy of our first impressions.
Sophie Melville. Photo: Mark Douet.
Wearing leopard-spotted leggings and a sleeveless, knit top under a gray hoodie, her blonde hair pulled up in a knot, Effie tells her story as she reenacts it, speaking directly to us in a Welsh accent as thick as shepherd pie. We’re told at the start that what we assume is the “stupid slag, nasty skank” before us has us in her debt and that she’s come to collect on it.

She then launches (perhaps spews is more accurate) an account of her crummy life in a rapidly declining community, where she shares a flat with another young woman; her drinking binges and their follow-up puking and hangovers; her sex life with her fond but oafish boyfriend, Kev, musclebound from the waist up but with legs like cheese straws; her one-night hookup with Lee, a soldier who lost a leg to an IED in Afghanistan; her falling in love with him and what happened when he knocked her up and broke her heart; and the healthcare tragedy stemming from budgetary cutbacks that led to the surprising sacrifice for which she claims we (or, at least, the British public) owe her big time.

The ending, which suddenly turns the play into a tract against funding reductions in the social welfare safety net, serves the purpose of making Effie an unexpected, even revolutionary heroine but it comes so quickly and with such point that it can’t avoid the reek of propaganda. At this time of preoccupation with national healthcare, it’s instructive to hear about the UK’s NHS problems; however, for an American audience, a version of this play aimed at the projected results of repeal and replace might have been more explosive.
Sophie Melville. Photo: Mark Douet.
Owen’s writing is potent, vivid, profane, and illuminated by verbal and physical variations that allow Melville to range from nasty to angry to aggressive to vulnerable to sweet to pathetic to cocky in a split second. The agile, quicksilver actress brings an emotional arsenal to Effie that fills every nook and cranny not only with fiercely human feeling but with piercing shafts of humor.

O’Riordan moves Effie like a restless leopard around the three red chairs in Hayley Grindle’s black box set, its perimeter lined with tubular fluorescent lights, with a standing installation of horizontal fluorescents looking like a crumbling venetian blind, brought fascinatingly to life in Rachel Mortimer’s brilliant lighting scheme. Underscoring Effie’s monologue is Sam Jones’s wonderfully subtle soundscape of thrumming, percussion, and other effects.

Sophie Melville’s stage creds were put even more to the test the night I attended. Around five minutes before the final curtain, when the dramatic tension was building steadily, a man in the second row and seated near the audience left wall of Theater B, where there’s no aisle, broke the mood by suddenly rising and struggling to get out. Long story short, he was trying to get help for his companion, a young woman having a health issue. As an usher bustled about in the row, the valiant actress did her best to continue.
Sophie Melville. Photo: Mark Douet.
At last, the house lights popped on, the stage manager came running down the center aisle from the rear of the house, and the performance was suspended until the woman could be removed. The house manager apologized and, after five more minutes, the show resumed, with Melville amazingly picking up at the same emotional level she’d been at when the interruption occurred.

Just as British society owed a debt to Effie’s fictional sacrifice, the audience at this play owed Sophie Melville something for her real one. Needless to say, they paid it back with love.


59E59 Theaters/Theater B
59 E. 59th St., NYC

Through June 4

Saturday, May 13, 2017

6. (2017-2018): Review: A DOLL'S HOUSE, PART 2 (seen May 11, 2017)

“Who’s That Knocking at the Door?”

The final stage direction in A Doll’s House, Henrik Ibsen’s 1879 examination of marital relations, declares: (From below is heard the reverberation of a heavy door slamming.

The opening stage directions in Lucas Hnath’s (The Christians, Red Speedo) multi-award-nominated sequel, A Doll’s House Part 2, read:

(The room is empty.)
(Silent and empty for awhile.)
(Until. . .)
(Until there’s a knock at the door.)
(Then silence.)
(No one comes to answer it.)
(Then knock-knock.)
(And another knock at the door.) 
Laurie Metcalf, Jane Houdyshell. Photo: Brigitte Lacombe.
In Part 2, a commanding, black version of that famous door, whose slamming in Ibsen's drama became a symbol in the women’s rights movement (a purpose Ibsen denied having), is placed near the upstage center apex of Miriam Buether’s spare, nearly unfurnished, diamond-shaped set.

Anyone familiar with Ibsen’s still frequently revived classic knows who’s knocking. It’s Nora (Laurie Metcalf), of course, estranged wife of banker Torvald Helmer (Chis Cooper). In A Doll’s House, Nora, unable to bear being her patronizing husband’s little pet, walks out, slamming the door behind her, abandoning not only Torvald, but her three young children, and going off in search of her own individuality. In Hnath’s play, 15 years have passed, and Nora’s back, with a mission.
Chris Cooper, Laurie Metcalf. Photo: Brigitte Lacombe.
The question of what happened after Nora left has intrigued many writers. Although he called what he did “barbaric,” Ibsen himself, in an attempt to prevent others from doing it first, came up with an alternative ending in which Nora didn’t leave. Among other efforts was the flop 1982 Broadway musical, A Doll’s Life, and the well-regarded 1979 What Happened after Nora Left Her Husband by Austrian Nobel Prize-winner Elfriede Jelinek.

Nora, thought dead by the locals (an impression Torvald has done nothing to prevent), is determined to get an official divorce. Now a financially well-off (pseudonymous) writer of feminist books, she needs the divorce—for which Torvald never filed—to protect her from prosecution for having behaved like an unmarried woman; given the patriarchal laws, only Torvald, who’s reluctant to comply, can grant it. Hnath dramatizes her efforts to figure out her options in five separate scenes, each of the last four introduced by a character's name emblazoned across the set in huge letters.
Jane Houdyshell, Laurie Metcalf. Photo: Brigitte Lacombe.
Nora, an advocate of free love, holds the radical belief that marriage must be abolished and that, in 20-30 years, people will wonder how they could ever have been so stupid as to have accepted it for so long. Still a grand manipulator, but now using reason rather than lapdog charm, her ideas provide fodder for considerable contemplation, if not necessarily agreement.
Laurie Metcalf, Chris Cooper, Jane Houdyshell. Photo: Brigitte Lacombe.
A Doll’s House Part 2 is always entertaining, frequently funny, and quite thoughtful; it’s also often unconvincing. There are times it produces the impression of having been forged by a playwright noting the choices made by a gathering of four gifted actors who’ve been asked to improvise plausible backstories for what they'd been doing over the past 15 years and how those who were deserted would react to Nora’s return. In other words, it's occasionally hoist by its own cleverness.
Laurie Metcalf, Condola Rashad. Photo: Brigitte Lacombe.
Hnath doesn’t attempt to mimic Ibsenian language; his words are more or less contemporary, even using profanity that would have shocked Ibsen’s audiences as much as or even more than his subject matter. Of course, when we hear the old servant Anne Marie (Jayne Houdyshell) say “shit” in a Victorian setting we too are shocked—into laughter, not disgust; this only serves to underline the impression of a sharp-witted playwright’s playful “what if” exercise.

Hnath’s heightening of the play’s theatricality so that it can’t be taken as Ibsen-like realism allows New York’s hottest director, Sam Gold (The Glass Menagerie), to stage it so that the blocking, using only a handful of simple chairs, can sweep freely about the expansive stage. The actors often come to the lip of the stage, facing the audience directly with their backs turned to whoever it is they’re addressing. In one of the most dramatic scenes, Torvald and Nora even sit and lie throughout on the floor.
Laurie Metcalf, Jane Houdyshell, Condola Rashad, Chris Cooper. Photo: Brigitte Lacombe.
This relatively stylized approach lets Nora, in her long, full-skirted, period dress (costumes by David Zinn), move and behave in decidedly anachronistic ways, slouching on chairs or sitting with legs spread widely. It may also help some viewers to justify the colorblind casting of Condola Rashad as Nora’s grown daughter, Emmy, who has little sympathy for her long-absent mother’s dilemma.

Anything with Laurie Metcalf is worth seeing; to have her onstage throughout this play’s intermissionless 90 minutes is alone worth the price of admission. Her loose-limbed comic approach, in which she can be both persuasively argumentative and hilariously comic (those sardonic facial expressions!), give the production tremendous zest. You may not love this Nora but it’s hard not to love this actress. The marvelous Jane Houdyshell’s presence is another plus. She makes Anne Marie—resentful of Nora’s ingratitude for her having given up raising her own kids on behalf of Nora’s—amusingly feisty and believably aggrieved.
Laurie Metcalf, Condola Rashad. Photo: Brigitte Lacombe.
Academy Award-winner Chris Cooper, back on Broadway for the first time since 1979’s Of the Fields, Lately, is less flamboyant than his costars, but creates a surprisingly sympathetic Torvald. His big argument with Nora shows him at his righteous best. While there are stylistic differences among the other actors, the one performance that fits least well is Rashad's, technically adept but projecting a cold, wide-eyed, slightly robotic quality.
Laurie Metcalf, Chris Cooper. Photo: Brigitte Lacombe.
There have been three New York productions of A Doll’s House (one of them called Nora) in the past two years. Now that we know Nora’s ultimate fate, perhaps it’s time to put Nora and her problems aside and learn whatever happened to An Enemy of the People's Doctor Stockmann and his family 15 years after his discovery that his town's baths were polluted.


John Golden Theatre
252 W. 45th St., NYC
Through July 22