Tuesday, February 28, 2017

143. Review: WAKEY, WAKEY (seen February 25, 2017)

“Dying Man Talking”

Will Eno’s Wakey, Wakey is an idiosyncratic, essentially plotless, seriocomic, elliptical, but heartfelt rumination on mortality. It’s about a guy named Guy (Michael Emerson) who sits in a wheelchair and rambles—no other word for it—in a casual, gently humorous way, on issues of life and death. As Guy offers his insights—sometimes vaguely, sometimes specifically, sometimes melancholically, and sometimes jokingly—we guess he must be in some sort of hospice and that he’s dying. 

Around three-quarters of the way through, Guy’s caretaker, Lisa (touchingly played by January LaVoy), a beautiful, chicly dressed (costumes by Michael Krass), woman, enters. With angelic grace and patience, she attends to his needs as he slowly passes. We should all be so lucky.
January LaVoy, Michael Emerson. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Then all heaven breaks loose in a joyous montage of stills and home movies (projection design by Peter Nigrini), bubbles, balloons, disco lighting, and rock music, after which the audience partakes of refreshments in the lobby outside the Signature’s Alice Griffin Jewel Box Theatre at the Pershing Square Signature Center. Could this upbeat, wake-like gathering be the reason for the play’s unusual title, reportedly arrived at only after an extended period when the play went nameless in its ads? (The Internet reports there's an unrelated 2012 movie called Wakey Wakey and an album titled Wakey! Wakey! And just today I passed this similarly named place off Sunrise Highway in Valley Stream. Go know.)
Photo: Samuel L. Leiter
It’s hard not to see in Wakey, Wakey echoes of an Eno idol, Samuel Beckett—Krapp’s Last Tape comes to mind—and perhaps its title is meant as a subliminal nod to James Joyce, Beckett’s mentor. The highly lauded Eno, however, for all his convention-bending dramaturgy (The Realistic Joneses, Open House), is no Beckett or Joyce. He has a gift for unusual situations and quirkily delightful dialogue, and he knows how to get laughs with verbal surprises, but in Wakey, Wakey, he offers little new or revelatory about the human condition. And, while conflict is a standard ingredient in most plays, you won’t find much, if any, of it here.

Guy’s environment, designed by Christine Jones and tenderly lit by David Lander, suggests a combination of the real and the surreal with its stageful of cartons and discarded clothing, signifying, perhaps, the abandoned remnants of a human life; upstage is a tall, unadorned wall, with yet another freestanding wall—one with a door—right behind it. The first wall serves as a screen for numerous images, many from Guy’s life (the childhood photos and videos could very well be of Emerson himself), which he controls via a small remote.
Michael Emerson, January LaVoy. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Although no explanation is given of who the audience is intended to be and why Guy is talking to it, it appears he’s improvising his own eulogy, his last words, so to speak; very little about his life, though, is revealed (the most specific thing, perhaps, being that he was a swimming and diving coach), and we never learn what caused his physical condition. For all his charm and wittiness, he’s an Everyman abstraction (like his name), and he’s here to get some philosophical odds and ends about life and death off his chest before he vanishes through that looming door.  

Much of Guy’s commentary is inspired by the notes on a pack of index cards he rifles through, discarding some, trying to recall what he meant on others, and expanding on ideas from yet others in an almost stream-of-consciousness meditation. Numerous sound effects (top-notch work from sound designer Nevin Steinberg), both realistic and abstract, weave through the discourse, showing the great care the production has taken to fill out the slender script with all the tools at the theatre’s disposal.
Michael Emerson. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Although wheelchair-bound, Guy’s still ambulatory, if shaky, and makes a joke about it when he first rises and says, “I can walk!” like someone in a movie weepie who’s overcome his handicap. With occasional meta-references (he kids about the show’s length, for example), and sometimes directly addressing particular audience members, he contemplates such things as the need to appreciate life while we live it, the implications of time (“Time is your friend and time is your enemy”), speaks of the need for “joy and light” in the face of death, what it is to be human, and how people respond to the approach of highly expected events, like the imminence of death.

He asks us to participate in certain exercises, such as to remember and pay tribute to significant persons in our lives (it’s rumored that the late James Houghton, a mentor of Eno’s, was the play’s inspiration) and tells us not to take life for granted. In a sense, Wakey, Wakey resembles a riff on Emily Webb’s monologue in Our Town, a brief speech I confess moves me more than Eno's hour and 15-minute play.

Happily, Michael Emerson, under the careful direction of Eno himself (Beckett also directed his own work) does a superb job in delivering Guy’s lines with a grounded, friendly, wryly humorous quality that makes you hang on every word, even if you don’t always know precisely what he means. Now and then he alludes to his physical suffering, taking a moment or two to recover, or touches on his failing memory, but his passing is a relatively comfortable one many of us might wish were ours when the time comes.

As Wakey, Wakey moves inexorably toward its anticipated conclusion (climax is too animated a word), its unhurried pace slows . . . to . . . a . . . crawl, making its title seem a misreading for Wake Me, Wake Me. Its acting and production elements score highly, but while some visitors will certainly be touched others are likely to find Wakey, Wakey  too wishy-washy for their tastes.


Pershing Square Signature Center/Alice Griffin Jewel Box Theatre
480 W. 42nd St., NYC
Through March 26

Monday, February 27, 2017

142. Review: MAN FROM NEBRASKA (seen February 26, 2017)

”Midlife Crisis (of Faith)”

Tracy Letts’s Man from Nebraska—a 2004 Pulitzer Prize finalist belatedly getting its New York premiere nearly 14 years after its Steppenwolf premiere in Chicago—focuses on a 59-year-old insurance salesman named Ken Carpenter (Reed Birney). Ken lives a dull, routine-oriented, ultra-polite, Norman Rockwell life as a husband, father, and grandfather in the American heartland, Lincoln, Nebraska, to be exact. He and his faithful wife, Nancy (Annette O’Toole), have two grown daughters, one (unseen) at Brown, the other, Ashley (Annika Boras), living locally with her spouse. 
One night, Ken rushes from his bed to the bathroom and leans over the sink with a towel stuffed into his mouth to prevent Nancy from hearing his convulsive sobs. But she does; under the pressure of her worried questions (she wonders if he’s having a stroke or heart attack), Ken, a churchgoing, pious Baptist, who was “saved” at 12, reveals that he's suffering because he longer believes in God. This so overwhelms him that it threatens to break up his family life. 
By now, we’ve already gotten a sense that something’s been tearing away at Ken’s innards. The first few scenes, in a car, church, cafeteria, nursing home, and living room, despite their dearth of dialogue, suggest the complacent lives of a long-married husband and wife who, while mutually respectful, are resigned to living lives of quiet desperation. Their big issue, as in so many families, is an ailing parent, Ken’s mother, Cammie (Kathleen Peirce, very convincing), whom they visit in a nursing home where they patiently deal with her dementia and breathing problems.

By the time Ken cracks up, David Cromer’s beautifully calibrated direction has drawn us into the Carpenters' lives as he moves the action from one suggestively defined locale to the other with cinematic smoothness. The journey, however, hits some playwriting potholes as Act One (of two) proceeds, but the fine staging and performances manage for a time to keep us on the road. Eventually, though, the potholes deepen and, by Act Two, we begin worrying that the drama’s tires are rapidly losing the air of credibility.

The first hint comes fairly early, when the family pastor, Rev. Todd (William Ragsdale, cheerfully fatuous), rather than engage with Ken in serious discussion, advises that he might restore his faith if he goes off alone somewhere. Ken, clueless, takes this as a cue fly to London, where he served in the Air Force many years before. 
More air leaks out when Pat Monday (Heidi Armbruster, just right), the attractive businesswoman next to him on the plane, comes on to him; she even searches him out later in London. By then, the teetotalling Ken has started drinking booze under the ministrations of his hotel’s friendly, black, female bartender, Tamyra (Nana Mensah, very good), a reader of Pablo Neruda, who introduces him to her white, drug-dealing, artist flatmate, the brash, loud sculptor Harry Brown (Max Gordon Moore, annoyingly brash and loud). 
Even more implausibly, Harry, who’s been chiseling a monumental stone sculpture of Tamyra in an attitude of ecstatic religious supplication, begins teaching Ken, who actually shows talent, to sculpt! Finally, though, Ken, who’s practically abandoned Nancy, is forced by his mother’s passing to return home. 
There he must confront his alienated and resentful wife, who, while he was gone, had to fend off the unwanted advances of her pastor’s obnoxious, randy, 75-year-old dad, Bud (Tom Bloom, obnoxiously randy). As the stars fill the night sky, Ken and Nancy face the struggle of reconciliation.

The idea of a repressed bourgeois man leaving home to light his inner fire, while not new, is certainly ripe for dramatization. However, once Letts (so successful with August: Osage County) sets up his situation, he doesn’t follow through with characters or situations sufficiently capable of avoiding the mantle of contrivance. Instead, everything reeks of clichés and overstatement, and the play gets diverted from its original path. Also, those of little faith may find it difficult to sympathize with a man who practically destroys his family while he goes off to seek his inner hippie in a hedonistic lifestyle because he no longer believes in God. 
Thankfully, the exaggerated relationships and characters are anchored by the brilliance of Tony winner (The Humans) Reed Birney and Annette O’Toole, each of whom gets better every time out. Birney, especially, gets many opportunities to display his emotional palette, from the suppressed pain behind Ken’s reticence to the anguish of his loss of faith to a romp with a bondage-loving woman to a wild, drug-induced, strobe-lit dance, to grief at his mother’s death, and, finally, to his urgent need to patch things up with Nancy.

Daniel Kluger’s versatile background music and diverse sound effects contribute mightily, as does Keith Parham’s lighting, isolating selective units of furniture placed—beneath a looming cosmos of clouds—by designer Takeshi Kata around the stage’s dark expanse. It would be even better if the nearly invisible stagehands in Act One didn’t become so intrusively present in Act Two.

As for the question of whether Ken’s trip to London helps him once again believe in God, I suspect Letts’s halfhearted answer will not be to everyone’s satisfaction. Which isn’t to say that Ken hasn’t found something of value, even if it's something else.


Second Stage Theatre
305 W. 43rd St., NYC
Through March 26

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Thursday, February 23, 2017

140. Review: KUNSTLER (seen February 22, 2017)

"Court Jester"

The Freedom Riders; the Catonsville Nine; the Chicago Eight; Attica; Wounded Knee; John Gotti; the Central Park Five: these markers bring to mind some of the most controversial, milestone legal cases of the second half of the 20th century, often concerned with issues of civil rights, and usually involving widely unpopular defendants. And at their heart—the volatile, outspoken, flamboyant, showboating, politically radical defense attorney, William M. Kunstler (1919-95), a New York-born Jew whose long, gaunt features haloed by a mane of frizzy gray hair showed up regularly in the news media.
Jeff McCarthy. Photo: Heidi Bohnenkamp.
Kunstler is the subject of Jeffrey Sweet’s mesmerizing play of that name, sharply directed by Meagan Fay. Originally seen at the Hudson Stage Company in 2013, it's now at 59E59 Theaters, with the feisty lawyer brought to life in a strikingly magnetic performance by Jeff McCarthy. McCarthy, better-looking than Kunstler but, with his considerable mop of long, white hair acting as a reasonably effective stand-in for Kunstler’s somewhat scantier do, quickly makes you forget their physical disparities. Just as would the original were he alive to do a show about his career, McCarthy electrifies the audience with his brilliance, his passion, and his ability to recount his inside and outside the courtroom antics with verve, commitment, and humor.
Jeff McCarthy, Photo: Heidi Bohnenkamp.
Dressed in a plain gray suit and tie, he creates an animated image of rumpled honesty. He bursts into song or jerky, arm-waving dance movements, alters his voice to mimic people in his narrative, introduces self-deprecating comments, constantly places his eyeglasses on top of his pate, tries out law-related zingers he intends using at a birthday party, and walks off the stage to directly address specific audience members. Sometimes he seems more like a hyperactive college professor than someone once considered America’s most famous lawyer. Now and then, though, for all his vigor, we’re reminded by certain movements (supplemented by Will Severin's sound score of thumping heartbeats) that he’s experiencing symptoms of the heart disease that killed him at 76.
Jeff McCarthy. Photo: Heidi Bohnenkamp.
Sweet’s play wisely sets the play at a university campus in 1995, where Kunstler has been invited to speak to its law students, a choice that has led to protests against his presence; vitriolic offstage voices fill the air.  As they say, the more things change . . .  In fact, at the start, an effigy of Kunstler, adorned with a sign declaring him a traitor, hangs over the podium at which he’s scheduled to speak.

James J. Fenton’s elegantly simple set resembles a lecture hall platform surrounded by 11 marble-like slabs; Kunstler, noting that the law is not something permanently engraved on a slab, uses them to allude to the monoliths in 2001. Betsy J. Adams’s lighting, however, is a bit excessive in underlining each narrative shift; the material is so strong on its own that the multiple cues tend to draw unnecessary attention to the play’s theatricality.
Jeff McCarthy, Nambi E. Kelley. Photo: Heidi Bohnenkamp.
Similarly wise is having the law student who introduces Kunstler, a member of the committee that invited him, be a young, black woman named Kerry (Nambi E. Kelley), who initially opposed his selection. Although the play is dominated by Kunstler’s larger-than-life presence, which could easily have led Sweet to write it as a one-man play, the somewhat uncertain, initially shy Kerry gives Kunstler an ideal foil against which to express his ideas. At one point Kunstler has her read Judge Hoffman’s words from the transcript of the Chicago Eight trial. Although often silent, taking notes, and sometimes looking askance at those remarks (especially the racially tinged ones) she finds questionable, Kelly offers a mirror against which to test one’s own reactions.
Jeff McCarthy, Nambi E. Kelley. Photo: Heidi Bohnenkamp.
For much of the play’s uninterrupted 90 minutes, Kunstler, addressing the audience as if it were the law students to whom he was asked to speak, recounts—with occasional remarks on his personal life—why he became a lawyer, how his career began conventionally enough, how he became engaged in politically sensitive cases, what the substance of the major cases was (Kerry calls them his “greatest hits”), how he tussled with certain judges, and what his thoughts are on the judicial system. Despite the emphasis on legal issues, the colorful dialogue remains easily accessible, while the stories Kunstler tells grow increasingly more compelling. As often happens at such plays, sounds of recognition leap out of people’s mouths as they catch his references.
Jeff McCarthy. Photo: Heidi Bohnenkamp.
Toward the end, Kerry actively engages Kunstler regarding his defense of individuals like mobster John Gotti or Yusuf Salaam, one of the boys accused of attacking the “Central Park jogger.” Salaam was, as Kerry’s postscript reminds us, eventually exonerated, but as Kunstler insists, guilt or innocence “isn’t the point! He deserved the best possible defense whatever he was.” 

Jeffrey Sweet’s Kunstler, though, needs no defense. It’s simply excellent theatre, with a magnificent central character given a splendid performance in a consistently engrossing tale about the weaknesses in our judicial system and the need for more Kunstlers to make it do its job the right way.


59E59 Theaters/Theater B
59 E. 59th St., NYC
Through March 12

139. Review: KID VICTORY (seen February 21, 2017)

“Life’s Not a Cabaret, Old Chum”

Do the allegedly pedophilic leanings of Breitbart News honcho Milo Yiannapolous, circulating in the current news cycle, make your skin crawl? If so, you may find similarly disturbing the subject matter of Kid Victory, the fitfully effective, coming-of-age musical at the Vineyard Theatre. The work of 89-year-old John Kander, composer of the iconic Broadway musicals Cabaret and Chicago, and Greg Pierce—the much younger book writer-lyricist Kander has been working with since the death of his previous partner, Fred Ebb—it dives into the dark waters of a teenager’s sexual enslavement; the results, though, may not be as deep as the subject warrants. (See Room and Don’t Breathe for recent filmic treatments of this subject.)
Originally produced in 2015 by the Signature Theatre, Arlington, VA, the smoothly-performed, intermissionless, two-hour show takes place in a small, Bible-belt, Kansas town, where the shy, withdrawn, 17-year-old Luke (Brandon Flynn, sensitive but overdoing the jitters) lives with his earnestly pious, unquestioningly loving parents. Joseph (Daniel Jenkins, solid) is, until the end, emotionally stifled and reticent; Eileen (the always terrific Karen Ziemba) is a this-side-of-smothering micromanager. Still, for all their idiosyncrasies, they’re really not that much different from what we think of as the average American mom and pop, the kind you see on so many TV sitcoms. Dad struggles to be understanding and mom can't handle minor deviations from her scheme of things.
Brandon Flynn, Karen Ziemba. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Aided by the significant contribution of David Weiner’s superb lighting, Luke’s story is told by artfully moving back and forth between his current life and the previous year. It's gradually revealed that the boat-loving boy was the kidnapped captive of a similarly boat-obsessed older man, a high school teacher named Michael (Jeffry Denman, suitably creepy); the pair met via an online boat-racing game, in which “Kid Victory” was Luke’s (obviously ironic) screen name. Once under Michael’s control, Luke came to see him as a surrogate dad; he later reveals an episode that, while unexplored in the show, brings Stockholm syndrome to mind.
Blake Zolfo, Laura Darrell, Daniel Jenkins, Karen Ziemba, Ann Arvia, Joel Blum. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Set designer Clint Ramos, needing to suggest multiple locales, offers an unfinished basement in which we imagine scenes set, for example, in the family kitchen, Luke’s bedroom (represented by a small mattress), the place where Luke was chained, and the lawn shop where Luke works.
Brandon Flynn, Dee Roscioli. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
In these and other places we watch Luke’s difficulties in relating to his family and friends in the wake of his experience as the older man’s captive (when Luke, presumably, was 16), an experience that has radically changed him. After all, songs like Michael’s “Vinland,” with its lyric “There is always pain before paradise,” are not the most edifying. Luke’s changes, it would seem, also confirmed his uncertain sexual inclinations, as revealed in his disinterest in his sweet, former girlfriend, Suze (Laura Darrell), and his attraction to a gay boy named Andrew (Blake Zolfo) whose shared interest in arson carries a red herring fragrance.
Brandon Flynn, Jeffry Denman. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Luke, seeking to keep occupied, takes a job with Emily (Dee Roscioli, warmly engaging), an earthy, tattooed, hippie type, at her eccentric, struggling lawn store. He finds in her the maternal warmth and understanding his own uptight mother can’t provide; ironically, Emily, for her part, is having her own relationship problems with her estranged, teenage daughter, Mara (Darrell). While a lot in the narrative seems forced and irrelevant, the Luke-Emily relationship is particularly difficult to swallow. Mara’s involvement seems more padding than necessity.
Brandon Flynn, Laura Darrell. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Tying the threads together is a chorus representing Eileen’s religious compeers, each of whom also plays one or more supporting roles, but also available for service as, let’s say, a band of Viking warriors during one of Michael's forced "lessons." Suze and Mara are among these supplementary characters, as are Gail (Ann Arvia, appealing), who practices her quirky brand of amateur psychotherapy on Luke, and the suspicious Detective Marks (Joel Blum, on the mark), charged with investigating Luke’s case.
Daniel Jenkins, Laura Darrell, Karen Ziemba, Dee Roscioli, Blake Zolfo, Ann Arvis. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Despite its imaginative staging by the highly talented Liesl Tommy, with a limited number of nicely choreographed sequences created by Christopher Windom, the piece never fully coheres. It veers from being predominantly musical, with the dialogue in recitative mode, to long passages, especially one toward the end, without any music at all. And, quite oddly, the only non-singing role is Luke.

Much of the score, orchestrated for 10 offstage musicians by Michael Starobin, has that lush, melodic sound you expect from a top notch Broadway composer like Kander, even when the tunes aren’t up to his best. Several, however, do come through to delightful effect. In particular, “What’s the Point,” in which the entire company does a bit of tap dancing to a song asking the purpose of a risk-free life, engages eyes and ears in an old-fashioned show biz kind of way. You can appreciate it as sheer entertainment even if it seems rather disengaged from the mood and subject matter of everything around it.

With musicals increasingly dealing with the nastier aspects of existence it’s a tossup as to how audiences will respond to Kid Victory’s subject matter. Most likely, they’ll appreciate the production while managing their unease regarding how effectively that subject matter is handled. A partial victory, of course, is better than none at all.


Vineyard Theatre
108 E. 15th St., NYC

Through March 19

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

136. Review: THE DRESSMAKER'S SECRET (seen February 14, 2017)

"Fathers and Son"

Kolozsvár, Romania: 1963, shortly after the assassination of JFK. The communists are in power, spies are everywhere, photographing public activities is verboten, food is scarce, and the aging city is getting grayer. A 19-year-old youth named Robi (Bryan Burton, weak, with an awful hairdo), who idolizes the West and wants to escape Romania, lives in a shabby apartment with his dressmaker mother, Mária (Tracy Sallows, bland).  Mária is busy making a dress for Irma (Caralyn Kozlowski, interesting), a beautiful, flirtatious piano teacher and former friend of Mária’s who has recently reconnected with her, nearly two decades after the end of World War II.

Tracy Sallows, Caralyn Kozlowski. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Each woman has secrets dating back to the war, when Romania became a fascist dictatorship, creating a society where friends betrayed friends, some collaborated with the Gestapo, others sought salvation through communism, and the Jews were shipped to German camps.
Tracy Sallows. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
This is the dramatic foundation on which Mihai Grunfeld and Sarah Levine Simon have based their heartfelt but drearily undramatic The Dressmaker’s Secret, a world premiere adapted from the semi-autobiographical novel The Dressmaker’s Son by the Romanian-born Grunfeld, now a professor of Spanish and American literature at Vassar.
Caralyn Kozlowski, Bryan Burton. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
The seething Robi, an electrician, is obsessed with learning from his mother, with whom he shares an intimate bond, who his father is, a man he long thought was killed in the war. Mária, reluctant to divulge the truth, finally reveals that his father could be one of two men with whom she was in love during the war: one is Irma’s brother, Robert (Robert S. Gregory, middling), a former officer in the Hungarian army who remained in Germany after the war, where he prospered as an engineer; the other is Zoli, a Jewish resident of the city’s ghetto, who was betrayed and shipped off to die in Auschwitz. One of the play’s threads is Robi’s attempt to come to terms with his potentially Jewish heritage, which he at first rejects.

The guilt-racked Robert, coughing into his hankie like Camille to reflect his precarious health, returns to Romania. It’s only now he, who possibly had something to do with Zoli’s arrest, discovers that he may be Robi’s father. This further opens the floodgates of responsibility, recriminations, suspicions, and secrets that ultimately lead to a tentative reconciliation. As for Robert’s cough, the smell of red herring is potent.
Robert S. Gregory, Caralyn Kozlowski. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
As dramatized, however, this promising material is presented over a way-too-long two hours and 20 minutes in 15 dawdling scenes that shift back and forth between Mária’s and Irma’s apartments, cafés, and restaurants. The play—perhaps because of its origins as a novel—is structurally flabby, spreading its multiple foci and many secrets too thin, creating only the most tenuous tension or suspense. Potentially thrilling emotional moments are buried under the expository lethargy, distancing us from the characters’ dilemmas when they should be grabbing us by the throat.
Caralyn Kozlowski. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
More egregious, though, is the sluggish, rhythmically flat, and unimaginative direction of Roger Hendricks Simon; just as problematic is the mostly run-of-the-mill acting, more interested in momentary touches of subdued naturalism than in the needs of theatrical expression. The show’s already dull rhythm is slowed even more by the incessant shifts after each scene break. It’s completely understandable why, after the penultimate scene on the night I attended, the audience began to applaud, thinking the show was over.

Performed in 59E59’s tiny Theater C, with the audience surrounding the space, the play doesn’t benefit from Stephen C. Jones’s cheesy, cluttered setting, with the walls covered by black and white photos of Romania, intended to look as if crudely torn from their sources. Jones’s lighting, fortunately, is better and most of Molly R. Seidel’s costumes are, at least, acceptable, especially the fashionable ones worn by the shapely Irma.

Of the actors, only Kozlowski makes an impression, largely, but not entirely, because of her striking face and gracefully erotic physicality. But she should be careful of overdoing certain mannerisms, like the excessive fluttering of her fingers. And this being another play in which nonsmoking actors must feign smoking, isn’t it time someone began giving classes in how to smoke believably on stage?

59E59 Theaters/Theater C
59 E. 59th St., NYC
Through March 5