Thursday, July 19, 2018

49 (2018-2019): Reviews: THE ORIGINALIST (seen July 17, 2018)

"Monster on the Bench"

For my review of The Originalist please click on THEATER LIFE.

48 (2018-2019): Review: MARY PAGE MARLOWE (seen July 18, 2018)

“Six Actresses in Search of a Character”

One reason there’s such a large cast—18, count ‘em—in Mary Page Marlowe, Tracy Letts’s absorbing new drama at Off Broadway’s Second Stage (after premiering at Chicago's Steppenwolf), is that six of them play a single role, the eponymous Mary Page Marlowe, over the course of 11 non-chronologically arranged scenes covering seven decades.
Grace Gummer, Mia Sinclair Jenness. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Mia Sinclair Jenness plays her at 12, Emma Geer at 19, Tatiana Maslany at 27 and 36, Susan Pourfar at 40 and 44, Kellie Overbey at 50, and Blair Brown at 59, 63, and 69. In one scene, a doll represents her as an infant. Each actress offers a distinctive contribution, as do the dozen other members of the excellent ensemble.
Audrey Corsa, Emma Geer. Photo: Joan Marcus.
For all the exceptional attention her character receives, Mary Page is, on the surface, as she tells a shrink, “unexceptional.” On its surface, her bio bears this out while also suggesting that even the most externally benign existence is a roller coaster when looked at from the long view.

A chronological rearrangement of the moments in Mary Page's life covered by the play would show her as a 10-month old crying in her crib during the doomed marriage of her mother, Roberta (Grace Gummer), and dad, Ed Marlowe (Nick Dillenburg), a philandering, boozing World War II vet; seeking, at 12, her divorced mother’s approval of her singing and getting some disappointing news in return; reading Taro cards with college friends Lorna (Tess Frazer) and Connie (Audrey Corsa), at 19, predicting her presumably predetermined future, and then confessing she’s turned down a marriage proposal.
Kayli Carter, Ryan Foust, Susan Parfour. Photo: Joan Marcus. 
At 27, Mary Page, now a CPA, commits adultery with her boss (Gary Wilmes); at 36, she seeks help from a shrink (Marcia DeBonis), expressing a lack of agency in conducting her life; at 40, recently divorced, she tells her placid 12-year-old son, Louis (Ryan Foust), and distraught 15-year-old daughter Wendy (Kayli Carter), fathered by husband number one, that they must move from Dayton, Ohio, to Kentucky; and at 44, she hits the bottle while discussing, with her now 20-year-old daughter, the troubled fate of her druggy,16-year-old son.
Gary Wilmes, Tatiana Maslany. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Then, at 50, black and blue, she quarrels violently with hubby number three, Ray (David Aaron Baker), after a DUI accident promises to send her to prison; at 59, she chats pleasantly with Ben (Elliot Villar), a dry cleaning clerk, about a quilt; at 63, she has trouble understanding the DVR instructions of her agreeable third spouse, Andy (Brian Kerwin); and, at 69, the very ill Mary Page is hooked up to medical equipment by a friendly nurse (Maria Elena Ramirez).
Susan Parfour. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Letts’s purpose is implied in a Joan Didion quote included in his script:

I think we are well advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not.  Otherwise they turn up unannounced and surprise us, come hammering on the mind's door at 4 a.m. of a bad night and demand to know who deserted them, who betrayed them, who is going to make amends.
Marcia DiBonis, Tatiana Maslany. Photo: Joan Marcus.
As organized by Letts (August: Osage County)—who, with Sam Shepard’s death, is surely America’s foremost actor-playwright—these biographical elements, presented out-of-sequence, jumping from past to future and back again, put the onus on the audience to fill in the blanks relating one to the other. As Letts’s careful stagecraft and convincingly natural dialogue, gracefully abetted by the imaginative, sensitive direction of the sizzling hot Lila Neugebauer (The Wolves), gradually pull things into focus, the connection between the scenes and the varying time periods becomes clearer. We thereby witness how a human personality evolves over time, never standing in one place, but also never abandoning what it once was.
Tatiana Maslany. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Letts's process can be tricky and not all his connections instantly strike a bell; overall, though, the challenge is worth the payoff as we get to know the various women who comprise Mary Page Marlowe, the choices she’s made in her fight for self-worth, the skins she’s shed, and something of what she’s learned on the path from cradle to grave.
Kellie Overbey, David Scott Baker  Photo: Joan Marcus.
The actresses playing Mary Page resemble each other only in the vaguest ways—they’re white and brunette, with frequent changes of hairstyle to accord with period styles. Laura Jellenik’s set is a neutral, two-layer background on which generic, period-indefinite furnishings slide on and off to establish locales. Audiences unprepared for these devices may take a while before they grasp Letts’s premise.
Blair Brown, Brian Kerwin. Photo: Joan Marcus.
But when the final moments arrive and all the Mary Page Marlowes appear together in a marvelously lit (by Tyler Nicoleau) tableau, everything coheres in a striking image confirming the validity of Tracy Letts’s vision.


Second Stage/Tony Kiser Theatre
305 W. 43rd St., NYC
Through August 12

Thursday, July 12, 2018

46 (2018-2019): Review: THE SAINTLINESS OF MARGERY KEMPE (seen July 10, 2018)

"When the Saint Comes Marching In"

For my review of The Saintliness of Margery Kempe please click on THEATER PIZZAZZ.

45 (2018-2019): Review: GET THE BOAT and INNIT

"When Irish Eyes Are Sleeping"

Get the Boat and Innit are one-act plays by Irish female playwrights being given in alternating repertory at the SoHo Playhouse. It’s unclear why these sleep-inducing plays, each running less than 50 minutes, aren’t on the same bill. While both are far too tepidly written and produced to attract a crowd on their own, a double bill might have served as more of an audience inducement. Fortunately, I was able to see both on the same night, one of the few on which they’re being offered, in tandem. 
Eavan Brennan, Siohan Donnellan. 
Get the Boat, by Eavan Brennan, had a curtain time of 6:30 (delayed by around 10 minutes), letting out around 7:20, while Innit, by Colette Forde, went on at 8:30. Anyone attending both had a large chunk of time to kill in SoHo between the two pieces. This odd arrangement was made even odder by the failure to provide even the flimsiest of programs. Thus visitors without benefit of a press representative have no idea of the writers’ backgrounds, or even the names and contributions of anyone else involved. 

Both plays come to New York from the Limerick Fringe Festival, and both are given minimal, aesthetically starved physical productions. Get the Boat is a two-hander featuring playwright Brennan and Siohan Donnellan, but as even the press announcement doesn’t say who plays whom, I had to go online to determine that Brennan is Bridget and Donnellan is Grainne.

Before the play proper begins, a brief video compilation is shown highlighting the abortion controversy in Ireland, which recently led to the passing, by a resounding vote, of a referendum legalizing the procedure in that firmly Roman Catholic nation. Get the Boat was written before the referendum so it’s already a bit dated, but its central concern still has relevance when it comes to the human—as opposed to the legal or religious—side of the subject. With abortion again a hot topic on this side of the pond (the recent Supreme Court nomination, of course), a play about abortion couldn’t be timelier.
Eavan Brennan, Siohan Donnellan.
Get the Boat has a potentially interesting topic: two young women meet in a cabin on a ferry presumably taking them to England (no destination is mentioned) to legally obtain abortions; they argue over their respective reasons for doing so. These strangers, friendly and supportive at first, eventually clash: Grainne, a married woman and mother whose fetus is horribly malformed and perhaps even dying, gets angry when she learns that Bridget, a single mom, is going to abort a healthy child because of her dire financial circumstances. And that’s about it.

Whatever dramatic germ this material holds is crushed by the actresses’ lethargic performances. Although both seem superficially natural, they practically whisper their conversations, show no sense of urgency, only briefly display any theatrical energy, and make their turtle-paced 45 minutes or so seem twice as long. Zzzz.

I assumed that the play was self-directed, although direction of any kind seems little more than an afterthought. I subsequently discovered that a Ruth Smith staged it, which doesn’t remove the fact that weak direction may be the play’s greatest drawback, given that the material deserves better than what it’s presently getting.

Innit, Collette Forde’s one-woman play, also features its writer, who was born in Ireland but raised in Manchester; it, too, fails to a considerable degree from the lack of directorial shaping. An episodic piece, it reveals an angst-ridden, trash-talking, Manchester, England, teenager named Kelly Roberts spilling her guts to a psychologist (“psychiologist,” in her vernacular). The play has multiple, clumsily lit (uncredited, of course) blackouts during which Kelly stands behind a screen so her backlit silhouette can be seen dancing to the driving beat of pop music 
 Colette Forde.

Following a professionally produced video of Forde as the lead singer of a pop-rock band called Snidey Beatz (whose purpose, other than showing Forde’s musical skills, escapes me), we meet Kelly, a grungy girl with a sloppy hair bun, wearing a Catholic school uniform of black miniskirt and white blouse and black tie, part of her blouse perpetually hanging loose, untucked.

Colette Forde.
In each of half a dozen brief sessions with her school shrink she expostulates in brick-thick, vividly colored, Mancunian accent and slang (the title means “Isn’t it?”) about her sexual experiences, including the liberties (short of intercourse) she lets the lads take in exchange for smokes (fags); her conflicts and jealousies with her “dickhead” schoolmates; her place in the school choir and her singing aspirations; her fears of inadequacy and her insecurities about her looks; and her boozing, neglectful dad, long separated from her neurotic, nagging, stingy mam (“a daft bitch and she dresses like a tramp”), whom she’s afraid of one day becoming.
Colette Forde.
Kelly’s monologue, delivered almost entirely in an underwhelmingly disconnected tone, is frequently accompanied by a disdainful, goggle-eyed, mouth agape expression (like “duh”). There’s no plotline at all, merely the ongoing confessions of an alienated girl with implausibly adroit verbal skills.
Colette Forde.
Not once is there the sense of another presence, asking questions or reacting to her. We understand the girl’s pain but, because of Forde’s monotonous delivery, feel none of it on a gut level. Except, that is, for the end, when Kelly prepares for bed, loosens her hair, and lies down in a fetal position.

It was during those few silent moments, when Kelly’s sadness and despair burst through more sharply than anything else in either play, that I was grateful not to have been tempted to close my eyes.


SoHo Playhouse
15 Vandam St., NYC
Through August 5


Friday, July 6, 2018

44 (2018-2019): Review: ON A CLEAR DAY YOU CAN SEE FOREVER (seen July 5, 2018)

"The Search for Melinda Welles"

On a Clear Day You Can See Forever, now being given a well-sung but middling revival at the Irish Repertory Theatre, is better known for three standard tunes—especially its gorgeous title number—than because of anything its insipid book contributed to the history of musical theatre.
Craig Waletzko, Melissa Errico, William Bellamy. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
 Of course, as the product of a collaboration involving the great lyricist and librettist Alan Jay Lerner (Brigadoon, My Fair Lady, Camelot), it comes bearing the usual load of anecdotal baggage, like the fact that its original leading man, movie star Louis Jourdan, was replaced before the opening by the then 35-year-old John Cullum who costarred with Barbara Harris. And director Bob Fosse lost his job to Robert Lewis.

A good idea of the Harris-Cullum combination is preserved here, from a TV show hosted by Cyril Ritchard, albeit the clip has syncing problems. Harris shows why she was such a beloved Broadway presence while Cullum demonstrates his leading man stature and vocal powers in what comes off now as an old-fashioned, British-influenced style. Yet I got more from this video, with its focus on several songs, than the show at the  Irish Rep.
Daisy Hobbs, Melissa Errico, Caitlin Galogly Flori Bagel. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Without those three special songs—the others are “What Did I Have That I Don’t Have Now?” and “Come Back to Me”—and several other contenders, the show would be little more than a Broadway footnote. The score, though, is simply unable to overcome an untenable script that has foiled all comers, no matter how desperate their attempts to reshape it.

When the show premiered on Broadway in 1965, in an elaborate, expensive production costing the then huge sum of $600,000 (top ticket price: $11.90), it ran for a mere 280 performances. It was intended as the first collaboration of Lerner with the equally great composer Richard Rodgers; when their working methods clashed, Rodgers dropped out and Lerner teamed up with another musical luminary, Burton Lane (Finian’s Rainbow), with whom he’d created the score for the Fred Astaire-Jane Powell film, Royal Wedding. Lane, who complained bitterly about the book, later said the time spent working on the show with the undisciplined, substance-abusing Lerner were “the worst two years of my life.”

Although the plot’s source has been associated with Berkeley Square, John H. Balderston’s 1926 play about a man transported back in time to London during the American Revolution, it’s hard for anyone around in the mid-1950s not to recall the enormous fascination of the public with stories of ESP and reincarnation (both serious preoccupations of Lerner) represented, in particular, by amateur hypnotist Morey Bernstein’s bestselling nonfiction 1956 book, The Search for Bridey Murphy.
Melissa Errico, Stephen Bogardus. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Bernstein’s book tells of how a Colorado housewife named Virginia Tighe had, while under hypnosis, recalled in remarkable detail her life as a 19th-century Irish woman named Bridey Murphy. In fact, in pondering why the Irish Rep would choose to revive On a Clear Day when nothing in it is noticeably Irish, it almost seems as if the Bridey Murphy connection was responsible.
Stephen Bogardus, Melissa Errico. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
The hypnotized subject in the show is Daisy Gamble, a young Brooklyn woman equipped, of course, with a stereotypical accent that Melissa Errico, the actress playing her, struggles to get right. Daisy, engaged to a guy named Warren (whose physical presence has been cut from this adaptation), is up for a job where her smoking habit represents a problem. She thus asks a shrink named Dr. Mark Bruckner (Stephen Bogardus) to hypnotize her addiction away.

Daisy, though, who thinks little of herself, is actually a special person. She not only can make plants grow but has a remarkable ability to see into the future, as when she knows the phone is going to ring. She also slips into the past when, under hypnosis, she reveals herself as the reincarnation of an upper-class British woman from the 1790s named Melinda Welles.
Melissa Errico, Craig Waletzko, William Bellamy, Peyton Crim. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
During the scenes in the late 18th century, with everyone (except the observing hypnotist) dressed in period clothing (decently done by Whitney Locher whose weakness is the 1960s clothes), we observe Melinda falling in love with a handsome, womanizing artist named Edward Moncrief (John Cudia, who does a lovely job on “She Wasn’t You”).
John Cudia, Melissa Errico. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Dr. Bruckner, who discovers he can hypnotize Daisy by telepathy, is fascinated by Melinda; as Daisy gradually begins to fall for him and he for her, she jealously assumes he’s mainly interested in the British-accented Melinda. For all her powers, which even play a role in preventing an airplane crash, she often seems completely clueless (no mention, by the way, is ever made of her cashing in on her talents). Of course, by the end, girl finally gets boy, if you can say that of costars who—regardless of their various talents—kissed boy and girlhood away long, long ago. 
Melissa Errico and company. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Director Charlotte Moore has trimmed the show down in the minimalist fashion of John Doyle, eliminating major characters, and supporting the leads with an ensemble of nine, many playing two roles; the bloated 1965 cast had nearly two dozen actors plus singing and dancing choruses swelling the totals by dozens more. A five-piece orchestra, conducted by Gary Adler, and including a harpist, is ensconced in the upstage right corner.
Melissa Errico. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
So little is the original book respected that the current version, rewritten here to include several references that clash with the mid-60s time period (like a reference to "gay guys"), is nearly as radical as the 2011 Broadway revival. That one starred Harry Connick, Jr., as Dr. Bruckner, with Daisy converted to a gay florist named David (David Turner), and Melinda (Jessie Mueller) turned into a World War II-style big band songstress. There was also a poorly received ENCORES! Revival at the City Center in 2000 with Kristen Chenoweth and Peter Friedman that seems to have been more faithful to the original, much to its regret.
John Cudia, Melissa Errico. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
James Morgan’s nearly bare setting, which uses a turntable, is lit by Mary Jo Dondlinger, and depends largely on Ryan Belock’s projections of deliberately crude watercolor sketches to suggest the multiple locales.
Melissa Errico and company. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
The ensemble, notably diverse in terms of race, age, and physical size, sings and moves well enough to Barry McNabb’s minimal choreography but pushes too hard. An ersatz, two-dimensional quality prevents anything they or the leads do from being affecting or humorous. Everything seems forced in the “Sing out, Louise” mode, almost as if in compensation for the silliness of the impossible book.
Stephen Bogardus. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
As the leads, Bogardus and Errico appear miscast. Regardless of their personal charm, attractiveness, and musical talents, there’s a forced, inorganic connection to their characters. Errico, so charming a couple of seasons back in the Irish Rep’s Finian’s Rainbow revival, mugs up a storm in straining for laughs, failing to convince either as the working-class Brooklynite or the elegant Londoner. And, as is true of so many actors today, she seems terribly uncomfortable around cigarettes. Daisy may be a heavy smoker but Errico handles a cigarette like a 10-year-old puffing on a stick of chalk.

Apart from the show’s three standard songs, it’s unclear why On a Clear Day has, within a period of less than two decades, been seen worthy of three revivals, two of them so mistrusting of the original that they had to come up with radical new approaches of their own.    


Irish Repertory Theatre
132 W. 22nd St., NYC
Through August 12

43 (2018-2019): Review: BORDERS (seen July 1, 2018)

"Art for Heart's Sake" 

For my review of Borders please click on THEATER LIFE.

Sunday, July 1, 2018

41 (2018-2019): Review; CYPRUS AVENUE (seen June 30, 2018)

“Baby Face”

Why, one might wonder, did the matinee audience when I attended Irish playwright David Ireland’s Cyprus Avenue at the Public greet this intensely emotional, explosively acted, and muscularly verbal play with such tepidly polite applause?

Could it have been the handling of an infant’s fate in an even more sensationalistic way than what was done in Edward Bond’s Saved (1965)? Could it have been because of the other horrifically violent deeds they’d just witnessed? Could it have been the lack of immediate resonance for a New York audience in the Protestant-Catholic, Unionist-IRA divide that roiled Irish life for so many years and still courses beneath Northern Irish culture?
Stephen Rea, Ronke Adékoluẹjo. Photo: Ros Kavanagh.

Could it have been because the central issue—the bizarre obsession of a bigoted, eccentric, middle-class man—is hard to sit through for an uninterrupted hour and 40 minutes of skewed self-justifications? Or could it have been because the play exists in a world where three of its five characters are determinedly sane while two get by while being murderously batty?

On the one hand, I have to admit being gripped by Ireland’s often corrosively toxic, yet bitingly funny, language; by the singular excellence of the five-member cast brought over from the original staging co-produced by Dublin’s Abbey Theatre and London’s Royal Court Theatre; and—for a few moments, at any rate—by the play’s premise and point of view.

Eventually, though, Cyprus Avenue, named for a Belfast street where the leading character grew up, is unable to maintain a minimal level of plausibility, forcing you to watch its wheels spinning mainly under the power of its vibrant acting, especially that of the marvelous Stephen Rea (The Crying Game) doing his best to make a near-impossible role believable.
Andrea Irvine, Amy Molloy. Photo: Ros Kavanagh.
Rea plays Eric, father of Julie (Amy Molloy) and husband of Bernie (Andrea Irvine), whom we meet being interviewed by Bridget (Ronke Adékoluẹjo), a mental health specialist. Bridget happens to be black, which prompts the oblivious Eric to refer to her with the “n” word. This casual slur reveals a man teeming with intolerance and delusions; in fact, he’s convinced that his newborn granddaughter doesn’t merely bear a resemblance to Gerry Adams, the bearded Irish republican politician and former Sinn Féin leader, but actually is him.
Amy Molloy. Photo: Ros Kavanagh.
 Eric, in scenes both with the therapist and his wife and daughter, expresses with mountainous vitriol his hatred of Adams, the IRA, and Catholics. Despite being Irish born and raised, he insists he’s British and detests his fellow Irishmen. Joining him in volcanic anger against much the same targets is the pistol-packing Slim (Chris Corrigan), a fellow Orangeman, who first appears dressed and masked like a terrorist threatening Eric’s life, whose loyalties he at first mistakes, but eventually is more or less persuaded to kill Eric’s grandchild.
Stephen Rea, Chris Corrigan. Photo: Ros Kavanagh.
I’ll skip further plot details, noting only that when the play ends, the white-carpeted stage (designed, along with the costumes, by Lizzie Clachie), resembles a Shakespearean tragedy. The set, by the way, is little more than an open platform with two white leather settees, perfectly lit by Paul Keogan, and placed between the audience seating on either side.
Stephen Rea. Photo: Ros Kavanagh.
For all its discomfiting dramatic tension and vicious behavior, Cyprus Avenue, sharply directed by Vicky Featherstone, is too exaggerated to take seriously. It’s intended as a devilish satire in the vein of Jonathan Swift on the incivility of our political discourse, wherein people say the worst things possible about their political, religious, or racial opposites, even taking matters into their own hands when pushed far enough. It’s a pertinent theme but hard to appreciate when its chief exemplar is a blooming idiot who tests his conviction by drawing a beard on an infant with a magic marker and putting tiny spectacles on her.

Given the normalcy of Eric’s wife and daughter, who—until things get out of hand—bend over backward to accommodate his outbursts, and the idiocy of his fervent belief that the baby is who he says it is, it’s hard to accept that they didn’t do something about dear old dad’s lunacy while there was still time. But the most egregious overstepping comes in the person of Slim, the second lunatic, who, despite being well-read in the extreme, is ready—for a while, at least—to shoot a five-week old in her carriage.

Corrigan and Rea make a perfect pair as the menacing Slim and the vituperative Eric, although it's the latter, whose slouching gait, curly mop, and memorably sad sack face is what you’ll be paying to see. Nonetheless, it’s a baby’s face that dominates Cyprus Avenue and causes so much bloody mayhem.


Public Theater/LuEsther Hall
425 Lafayette St. NYC
Through July 29