Saturday, May 11, 2013

Archive for 2012-2013: 143 reviews

 I begin this blog with the 143 archived reviews I wrote for a small circle of friends during the 2012-2013 season, which were sent to them by e-mail. They are not dated but I began doing this in November 2012. Because of my involvement in an important New York theatre organization, during the 2012-2013 season I saw nearly 280 shows, on, Off, and Off-off Broadway. Some reviews are very brief, some more extensive, but all were written quickly to capture my response to what I'd just seen. They are not intended to compete with the highly qualified reviews of the professional NY critics, but enough people told me they enjoyed them to keep me writing them, despite my busy schedule. I hope you find them interesting, and maybe sometimes fun, even when you totally disagree with my opinion. For the 2013-2014 season I will attempt to review every show.

1.      HOW 2 B A NEW YORKER
HOW 2 B A NEW YORKER, in the nightclub-like environment at Sofia’s Downstairs on W. 46th Street, is a revue-like series of rapid-fire comic sketches revolving around NY history and character types. It’s clearly intended for the tourist trade, yet only a handful of audience members tonight identified themselves as out-of-towners. Everybody wants to be a NU YAWKA! It’s written and performed by two amiable young actors, Margaret Copeland, a Manhattan native, and Kevin James Doyle, a Woody Harrelson type from Ohio. She’s a really good looking blonde, something like Kyra Sedgewick but prettier, he’s an average-looking bald guy; they work well together, but she’s got the edge in comic talent, especially when it comes to varying her characters and accents.
     The material is so-so funny, but there are a few good laughs, as they perform on a tiny stage, using multiple hats and jackets, supported by still and video projections behind them. There’s a buffet dinner of salad and pasta (quite good) and a cash bar, and you sit at long tables with other theatergoers facing you (we met a nice couple), but have to shift your chair to see the stage. Sightlines are bad, so sit up front if you go.
Nathan Englander’s THE TWENTY-SEVENTH MAN, at the Public, deals with a frightening episode in postwar Soviet-Jewish relations, when Stalin, paranoid about the loyalty of Soviet Jews, rounded up the major writers of Yiddish literature and had them executed. This very powerful material is dramatized by having four such writers thrown into a dreary jail cell, where they argue about their relative standing in the literary community, and their feelings about the Stalinist regime. One, played by Chip Zien, believes he has saved himself by toadying to Stalinism; even he, though, when confronted by a government agent (Byron Jennings), is unable to betray his colleagues in order to save his own neck. Unfortunately, the play bogs down in excessive talk and weakens its potential impact. The good performances include one by Ron Rifkin, but none can save the play from losing steam even before its hour and 40 minutes have expired.
     Plays about Jews and Judaism are everywhere this season, just as are plays with “golden” in their titles: GOLDEN AGE, GOLDEN BOY, THE GOLDEN LAND, and GOLDEN CHILD, all of which are now running. It’s so confusing I even got a press rep’s announcement for GOLDEN AGE that invited me to GOLDEN CHILD.
P. H. Lin’s ZELDA AT THE OASIS is a very weak two-character play, although Gardner Reed as Zelda is very good to look at, especially in the clinging, gold satin gown she wears throughout. Her acting is only adequate in a tough role requiring that she go from one hallucination to another, as the other actor, Edwin Cahill, plays a wide assortment of men and women in her life, F. Scott being the most prominent. Cahill is totally out of his depth, although he plays a hot piano, and the script and staging are disposable. Cusi Cram’s RADIANCE, produced by the Labyrinth Theater Company, is a little better, and has strong possibilities in its dramatization of how the copilot of the Enola Gay apparently behaved when he had second thoughts about agreeing to go on THIS IS YOUR LIFE and shake hands with the Japanese minister who had come to America to raise money for the Hiroshima Maidens. But it is defeated by awkward writing, clumsy staging, and mediocre acting. The enterprise seemed ersatz from beginning to end. ZELDA was a bore; RADIANCE was at least watchable.
4.      GIANT
 GIANT, at the Public, is a rambling, expansive, musical adaptation of Edna Ferber’s rambling, expansive novel of that name, forever embedded in moviegoers’ minds because of the rambling, expansive movie classic starring Rock Hudson, Elizabeth Taylor, and James Dean. John Michael LaChiusa’s music is melodic and beautifully sung by an excellent cast, but it’s more in the vein of operatic recitative than specific songs, and only one number stands out in a conventional way, an upbeat song called "Jump," sung and danced by a Mexican ranch hand (the role played by Sal Mineo in the movie) before he goes off to die in WW II.
     The show covers too much material in its three hours duration, and is dramaturgically inert, yet it somehow keeps you involved in the 27 years during which we watch cattle baron Bick Benedict (Brian D’Arcy James) and his beautiful Virginia wife, Leslie (Kate Baldwin), deal with their downtrodden Mexican ranch hands; the rise to wealth of Bick’s rival, Jett Rink, who strikes it rich from oil on his land and becomes a symbol of Texas’s boorish, nouveau riche aristocracy; the coming of war; the marriage of Bick and Leslie’s bookish son, Jordy, to a Mexican girl who is the victim of racial prejudice; marital disillusion, and many other things before it draws to a close. Some of it makes for very satisfying theatre; some of it never comes to life. Despite a lovely production, this show is not for everyone. And, if you know the movie, it will never succeed in replacing those indelible images of Rock, Liz, and Jimmy set against the wide expanses of the Lone Star State. 
5.      A SUMMER DAY
A SUMMER DAY, at the Cherry Lane, is a Norwegian play translated and directed by Sarah Cameron Sunde. Its main attraction is Karen Allen of Raiders of the Lost Ark fame; she plays the Older Woman, a middle-aged woman who lives in a house near the sea and continues to stare blankly out the window, as if waiting for her husband to come home from a fishing excursion on his small boat. The husband drowned during such trip many years ago as she and a friend awaited his return. As the Older Woman, visited by the older version of that friend, remembers the night he died, she narrates the events as they are reenacted by her younger self and her husband; she shadows the action and even embraces the Younger Woman at one point, although, of course, this is not meant literally. Except for brief scenes at the beginning and end, she serves mainly as a “poetic” narrative voice, and has no interaction with the others.
     The words are banal, there is an inordinate amount of repetition, the mood is bleak, and the overall effect is one of undercooked Bergman. There is some nice lighting, dependent--as is becoming increasingly common on the New York stage--on projections (the stark walls of the set become inundated with churning sea effects) and the acting is competent, but the production is essentially a dramaturgic form of Ambien.
 6.      THE GOOD WIFE
In THE GOOD WIFE, Gretchen Mol is just as stunningly beautiful in person as you’d imagine afterseeing her on the large and small screen, but she is in a decidedly unbeautiful, clumsy, and artificial contrivance of a play that her acting chops are simply not good enough to overcome. I can’t say much for her costars, although Alfredo Narcisco as Mol’s onetime boyfriend, now a happily married cop, is probably the standout. Even the reliable Mark Blum struggles to no avail with a terribly written role.
     Mol plays a psychologically troubled woman with a penchant for making major life mistakes and blaming others for them. The plot is instigated by her accusing a gay, teenage boy, the son of her alcoholic, onetime counselor (Blum), against whom she bears a grudge, of molesting her four-year-old autistic daughter; the child (unseen) does not speak but somehow convinces her mother that something bad happened when the boy--a Goth, of course--babysat for her. This implausible event cascades downward to wash over the mother’s closest friends and soil their relationships, until the mother, depressed by what she hath wrought, seems poised to make one final decision. A smart decision would be to avoid this mistake. 
THE LAST SEDER, which is playing in the Mint Theatre’s venue on W. 43rd, is about a dysfunctional Jewish family that comes together for the family’s last seder at their home before it’s sold, since the patriarch, played by Gregg Mullavey (of “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman”) fame, is fading away from Alzheimer’s.
     The extremely episodic plot, with its four feuding sisters, its emotionally burdened matriarch, and the various love complications of everyone involved, is sluggishly directed and performed, although it does have some touching moments, especially during the seder itself; the script simply has too many problems bogging it down. Nor is the production helped by a poorly conceived setting.  
But even worse is NAKED HOLIDAYS, right across the street, which is about the most amateurishly written and performed show I’ve seen in months. It’s a comic and musical revue of holiday-themed sketches with sexual undertones (OVERtones might be a better word), but it has lots of nudity for those who like that sort of thing. I wonder who that might be. If it’s you, I advise getting there early. Seats are general admission and sightlines are bad. My view was blocked by the guy in front of me, and I had to twist myself into a pretzel to get a good look at the proceedings.
INNER VOICES is three one-act, one-performer musicals. The first two are forgettable, the last one—about an Afghan girl raised as a boy but now forced to come out as a woman—more impressive but still nothing to write home to mother about, so I won’t write anything else about it here.  
MIES JULIE, Yael Farber’s adaptation of Strindberg’s classic MISS JULIE, is another thing altogether, an impressive reimagining of the play as set on a farm in the desolate Eastern Cape Caroo, South Africa, and performed with a mixture of stark realism and choreographic theatricality, including a torrid sex scene. It explores the underbelly of South African racial politics in a potent way, but does lose a bit of steam as it lurches toward its shocking climax. The leads, Hilda Cronje and Bongile Mantsai, are both splendid actors and dancers, and their sensual physicality is exciting to witness. 
THE PIANO LESSON, at the Signature, is a rousing revival of a rousing play--a true achievement. I wish I had more time to describe its myriad excellences, but you can rest assured this one is worth your while. 
No time to comment at length on the four shows I saw this weekend, so here’s a few words about each of them: THE WHALE is, by far, one of the most powerful pieces of theatre I’ve seen this season; Shuler Hensley gives a fantastic performance as a 600-pound man. IVANOV is a snore, with talented but overactive actors trying to animate one of Chekhov’s lesser plays. Ethan Hawke, Austin Pendleton, and Joely Richardson lead a talented cast in a play whose leading character never stops talking about how depressed he is. VANYA AND SONIA AND MASHA AND SPIKE is an often hilarious comedy about a modern family enmeshed in world of Chekhovian references. Great performances by each of the characters in the title, and by others as well. The funniest of the 130 plays or so I’ve seen since late June. MURDER BALLAD is a high-quality, sung-through, intimate rock opera about a New York murder stemming from a love quadrangle; brilliantly staged in an environmental setting suggesting a night club, it has four memorable singer-actors, but I would have liked more variety in the consistently aggressive music and lyrics.
The revival of David Henry Hwang’s THE GOLDEN CHILD, at the Signature Theatre, tells the fascinating story of a Chinese family in Fujian, China, between 1918-1919. The wealthy landowner, Eng Tieng-Bin (Greg Watanbe), returns to his three wives—the domineering, opium-smoking First Wife (Julyana Soelistyo), the manipulative Second Wife (Jennifer Lim), and the beautiful Third Wife (Lesley Hu)—after three years of doing business in Manilla. He brings back with him his newfound Western ways and tries to introduce them to his tradition-bound family. The changes this requires, such as the abandonment of women’s bound feet, the adoption of Christianity in place of ancestor worship, and the replacement of polygamy by monogamy, create strong dramatic possibilities.
     The play, however, has difficulty in finding the right tone in its struggle to make the supposedly Chinese-speaking characters sound both colloquial and formal, and to convey the conventions of their daily life in a way that suggests rigid formality (Chinese theatre elements play a small role in this) and more ordinary behavior. Some dramatic scenes veer dangerously toward overacting, but, on the whole, the play’s picture of China in transition is quite fascinating and worthy of a visit. The idea of a society in transition is also at the core of GIANT, which I also discussed on FB, so seeing these two shows on the same day was rather instructive. 
BAD JEWS by Joshua Harmon, at the Roundabout’s tiny Black Box Theatre in the basement of the Laura Pels Theatre on W. 46th St., is not the broad yiddishkeit comedy its name suggests, but is a rather compelling, if imperfect, dramedy about a young woman, her two male cousins, and the blonde shiksa one of the cousins brings home to attend the shiva for the family’s deceased grandfather.
     The central action is sparked by the young woman, Daphna’s, desire to inherit the grandfather’s gold chai symbol, which her cousin Liam also desperately wants. This conflict incites some remarkably bitter arguing between the cousins, mostly about their relative attitudes toward Judaism. Traceee Chimo as Daphna gives a remarkable performance as the neurotically pushy advocate for her Jewish roots, while Michael Hagen fights back with stinging intelligence in defense of his own assimilationist beliefs and against what he perceives as Daphna’s inauthentic Jewishness.
     The performances of Philip Ettinger as Liam’s seemingly feckless brother, Jonah, who tries not to get involved in the fray, and Molly Ranson as Melody, the friendly outsider to whom Liam wants to give the chai as an engagement gift, are also outstanding. This is a fine discussion drama, somewhat similar in its preoccupation with the authenticity of one’s religious beliefs to DISGRACED, now at the Claire Tow Theatre, in which Islam is the subject of concern. BAD JEWS has some dramaturgic problems, like how do you get people off stage so others can talk about them, and also an implausible ending, but during its 90 minutes of intermissionless action it remains deeply engrossing. You will see much in it to reflect on if you’re Jewish, but even if you’re not you should find it worth your attention. And it’s only $20 bucks, I think, for a ticket. 
Jackie Sibblies Drury’s WE ARE PROUD TO PRESENT A PRESENTATION . . . , at the SoHo Rep, is about a group of young actors, three black and three white, trying to put together a play about the genocide of the Herero tribe of Namibia in Southwest Africa early in the 20th century. The ambience is that of a rehearsal, with the audience seated on folding chairs right on the edge of the acting area, but the piece veers from improvisational-sounding but actually scripted dialogue to highly theatricalized sequences as the "actors" struggle to tell the largely undocumented story before shifting gears to introduce internal racial politics in the company and, by extension, modern America. It combines realism and stylization in equal measure, and, while you will not learn anything new about racism during its 90 minutes, you will be thoroughly engaged by the intensity and talent of the memorable ensemble giving the performance. 
A TWIST OF WATER, by Caitlin Parrish, is a Chicago play, where it was nominated for a Jefferson Award. It is about the troubled relationship between a black teenager and her gay white father in the aftermath of the father’s husband’s death in an accident when his car crashed into a lake. The girl, feeling alone after the loss of her beloved dad, wants to reunite with her birth mother, which she does, but not with the happiest results. Throughout, the living father, Noah, weaves a poetic narrative of Chicago, as projections of the city’s history flash on the background. This seems to be an attempt to make the city’s evolution as a home, its catastrophes, and its rebuilding a metaphor for the play’s central conflict and resolution, but the connection is too tenuous to strike sparks and its existence is more baffling than enlightening.
     The play is filled with questionable directorial choices (for example, people standing around in 8 degree weather in spring jackets without scarves or gloves, or with no jackets at all, and complaining about the cold but doing little about it). There’s a natural emotion generator when the daughter first meets her mother, but that would happen in any play and can’t be credited to the writing, acting, or direction. The actor playing Noah’s schoolteacher colleague and gay lover, Liam, is supposed to be 26, but looks 16. And so on. To take a cue from the high school scenes, I’d give this play a C. 
THE PERFORMERS closed tonight after a few weeks of previews and a handful of performances. Just as I had been told, the audience seemed to love it. The friend who accompanied me laughed loudly through much of it, and, while aware of its weaknesses, he enjoyed much of it nonetheless. I wasn’t able to stir up much enthusiasm, however, and despite laughing at a few of its jokes I felt very uncomfortable listening to its nonstop profanity and determinedly dirty humor. I love the smutty routines of the great comics, like George Carlin, Lenny Bruce, and all the rest, but this show actually made me feel uncomfortable, since the level of its wit was so consistently low. I’m afraid my ultimate feeling is that it deserved an early burial. Gone and soon forgotten. 
Let me make this simple. THE GOLDEN LAND, a Yiddish-English musical produced by the Jewish National Theatre--Folksbiene, is wonderful. That’s W-O-N-D-E-R-F-U-L. To paraphrase one of its songs, "Oy, oy, I liked it." My time is limited at the moment so here’s a blogger’s review with which I wholly agree. (I didn’t paste it in here.) I hope you shlep your tuchus down to Baruch and kvell at this delightful assortment of songs that capture the Jewish immigrant experience from the late 19th century to the founding of Israel. You don’t have to be Jewish to like THE GOLDEN LAND. 
22. CONEY 
David Johnston’s CONEY at the New Ohio Theatre at 154 Christopher Street is set on a recent August day at Coney Island. It attempts to weave around half a dozen disaparate stories into a cohesive whole, something like films such as BABEL and CRASH, perhaps, but to very little effect. Despite some scattered acting highlights, especially Andrea Gallo as a blowsy alcoholic with a carny past, CONEY, overlong at two hours plus, is no Cyclone of a play. 
SCANDALOUS is a heavy-handed biomusical that makes the same egregious error in dramatizing its subject’s life as CHAPLIN. It tells practically her entire life story, with huge amounts of narrative exposition spoken either by Aimee Semple McPherson or members of the ensemble to fill in the gaps and goes on and on for over 2 and a half hours. It isn’t as bad as I expected, I must admit, but it is riddled with serious problems, including a ho-hum score, stereotypical characters, and a book that gets duller as the evening proceeds, even as its drama intensifies. A fascinating life has been reduced to a monotonous musical. Carolee Carmello in the lead is on stage almost throughout and expends enough energy to light up the Rockaways, but despite her powerhouse vocal chops she tends to overact and is ultimately unconvincing as someone who reportedly had extraordinary charismatic gifts. 
THE OUTGOING TIDE, by Bruce Graham, at 59e59, is a domestic drama about a man (Peter Strauss) with Alzheimer’s who chooses to end his life before he has to endure the indignity of life as a vegetable in a facility. This news must be digested and responded to by his long-suffering, but loving, wife, Peg (Michael Learned), and his somewhat diffident son, Jack (Ian Lithgow, John’s son). The situation is simple but fraught with dramatic tension, especially since the man still is lucid and physically competent most of the time; it’s those increasingly common moments when he loses that lucidity and physicality that are eating at him. It’s a touching dilemma and, depending on your own experiences and sensibilities, you will either weep (as many in the audience did) at recognition of the story’s familiarity, or question whether a man who still retains a modest degree of the prowess in which he’s always taken pride should be allowed to end his life (which action, by the way, will also provide a useful financial bonus to his family if staged so it seems accidental).
     The dominant performance is that of Strauss, playing Gunner, a working-class character with strong Philly roots; since the play, like so many others recently, uses flashbacks, it’s interesting to see him play both the increasingly forgetful, shambling character he’s become and his younger, physically impressive self.  But Strauss isn’t quite the actor to pull off this kind of transformative acting, and he isn’t thoroughly convincing as the struggling Alzheimer’s victim, tending to overdo the accent and the movements. The other performances are rather quiet, but there is not much given them to do other than to react to Gunner’s predicament. Ms. Learned does rise to the occasion toward the end as Gunner’s choice becomes more settled, and she offers a picture of quiet nobility in the face of imminent loss that many will find moving, even if they disagree with where she stands on Gunner’s plan.
     The set is a simplified version of a lakeside house, inside and out, with a too obvious scrim upstage made even more obvious by being inadequately lighted. This is the second Alzheimer’s-themed play I’ve seen in a week (the other was THE LAST SEDER); neither of them impressed me deeply, although THE OUTGOING TIDE is better crafted and more worthy of a visit. 
RESTORATION COMEDY, at the Flea, is Amy Freed’s high-camp reimagining of what an audience might have experienced during the Restoration period (roughly, 1660-1700), famed for the occasional bawdiness of its comic plays and the reportedly intimate relationships between certain actors and upper-class audience members. Unfortunately, although there was undoubtedly some raunchy interplay between spectators and performers, it was never the in-the-face kind reflected in the Flea’s hyper-energetic production. Still, younger audiences will have a lot of fun interacting with the attractive young cast (members of the Flea’s Bat theatre company), who wear an assortment of colorful costumes and wigs, some of them suggestive of the Restoration period, and others a mélange of contemporary and indeterminate periods.
     The setting, with the audience seated on three banks of seats surrounding an open space where the “pit” would have been located, gets to intermingle with and talk to the actors during the preshow period, the intermission, and post-show dance party to upbeat modern music. Free drinks are served (two were enough to make me a little woozy).
     The play that all this supports is a conflation of a couple of actual Restoration comedies, excised of most of the highfalutin language of the originals and of their deeper social meanings so that what remains are the sexual situations, with the cast, if not the more discerning spectators, constantly reveling in their discovery of the double entendres they find in every line. Ultimately, this grows tiresome, but for those into high-camp sexual high jinks, lots of it homoerotic (male tushies are often exposed and squeezed), this show may be your cup of English tea.  
CIRCUS OZ: FROM THE GROUND UP, at the New Victory Theatre in Times Square, is a children’s show touring here from Melbourne, where the company began in 1978. Although it seeks to push the idea of diversity, including a speech by an indigenous Australian praising mankind as a fruit salad, it is essentially a variety show of acrobatics, tinged with broad (if not especially funny for adults) comedy, some of it campy, thematically tied together by that famous photo of steelworkers sitting on a beam overlooking 1930s Manhattan while casually eating their lunch. Within this framework you see a pole climber doing marvelous physical stunts while inching up and down a vertical pole, lots of flying bits, trapeze acts, balancing acts (including one where a woman juggles a table and a bunch of balls with her feet as she lies on her back), tightrope walking, multiple people riding on a single bike (but not as many as you’ll see in many Chinese acrobatic shows), some remarkable twirling, balletic movement while hanging from ropes (like those hotel commercials where a woman dangles from draperies), juggling, and so on. It’s performed to continuous music (mostly rock) played by an onstage band, so there are few longeurs.
     You’ve probably seen these kinds of acts before, and none of them were truly eye-popping, like what you sometimes see at Cirque du Soleil, but, given the good spirits of the Australian company, it’s hard to deny that the intended audience was in seventh heaven.   
FOREVER DUSTY, written by Kirsten Holly Smith and Jonathan Vankin, and starring Ms. Smith as Dusty Springfield (1939-1999), is a paint-by-numbers juke box musical, with banal paint-by-numbers dialogue, about the late British pop singer of 1960s and 1970s fame (“Son of a Preacher Man,” “You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me,” etc.). Presented at New World Stages on W. 50th Street, it surrounds the star with a small company of supporting players to enact multiple people in her life, all of it an excuse for Ms. Smith to sing Dusty’s most famous songs, linking them together either as numbers she performs while recording or before an audience or as storytelling devices in which they figure as an expression of her personal problems. The show tells us about her career issues, her lesbian love affair with a black woman, the trouble she ran into when she deliberately played before a racially mixed audience in South Africa, her drug and alcohol addictions, and her death at fifty from breast cancer. The set is essentially a bare wall against which we see a slide show of projections showing places, headlines, videos, and other images reflective of Dusty’s life.
     Smith gives a tour de force performance as Dusty Springfield, and resembles her more closely than Rob McClure resembles Chaplin, although the wig she wears for much of the first half doesn’t have a high enough beehive, and she could use a few more wigs to capture the changing times. Her voice is strong, but throatier than the original’s, and lacks its musicality, but she should be commended for her valiant effort to remind of us of Springfield’s talent. While she includes many of Springfield’s hits, some of the most famous, like “The Look of Love” and “If You Go Away,” are omitted. A better singer, but a weaker actress, is Christina Sajous, who plays Claire, Dusty’s lesbian lover. For the real Dusty, check her out on YouTube. For a moderately reasonable facsimile, check out this artistically weak but still mildly enjoyable show. Despite its weaknesses, I have to admit that I found it more enjoyable than many more highly touted shows I’ve seen this month.   
INGENIOUS NATURE, at the SoHo Playhouse on Vandam Street, is an odd bird of a show, being a two-man production. One is the writer, Baba Brinkman, a 34-year-old, white Canadian, who does 99 percent of the talking; the other, a Brit named Jamie Simmonds, is a DJ cutting and scratching his own musical and sound score to Brinkman’s nonstop rapping. The evening’s subject is sexual evolution, boiled down to the rap artist’s personal quest for a compatible sexual partner. Creationists are summarily mocked off the face of the earth and made the butt of some funny lines.
     The set is nothing but projections of a dating site and similar images, and Brinkman ultimately asks the audience to use their cell phones to text responses to questions whose sexually oriented answers—including whether you are currently ovulating—are instantly calibrated as onscreen statistics. Brinkman essentially raps the entire 80-minute show, and gives a tour-de-force performance that requires close listening to follow his complex analysis, but he is always accessible and often witty, so you may find this unusual show more enjoyable than it otherwise might sound.  
LET’S KILL GRANDMA THIS CHRISTMAS, at the Theatre at St. Clement’s, is about as stupid a comedy as I’ve seen this year. It’s set in a very realistically depicted, large, Victorian home whose occupant, Grandma Cathy (Roxie Lucas), has let it go seriously to seed. Just short of her 80th birthday, Granny is about as foul-mouthed and mean-tempered a creature as you’re likely to encounter, at least at first sight. But she gradually begins to seem more human as the truly inhuman natures of her family members, who arrive at her home to celebrate Christmas, come gradually into focus. The action revolves around a plot to kill her in order to get her money. Enough said. I appreciated the loud voices of the actors, which meant I didn’t have to use an assistive listening device, but otherwise the acting was as unsubtle as this jackhammer of a play, which was about as unfunny as the unemployment rate.    
DEAD ACCOUNTS, Theresa Rebeck’s new comedy at the Music Box, is a moderately entertaining if dramaturgically uneven work about a Cincinnati family whose prodigal son, played by Norbert Leo Butz, returns from New York to his parents’ modest home. His manic behavior, apparently not much different than his ordinary behavior, reflects his current problems with a snobbish, Mayflower-descended wife (Judy Greer), who wants a divorce, and his having embezzled $27 million from the “dead accounts” at the bank for which he works. He seeks refuge in the embrace of his zealously Catholic mother (Jane Houdyshell) and his spinsterish sister (Katie Holmes). Along the way, satirical barbs are constructed around the themes of the Midwest vs. New York environment (trees, the air, etc.), predatory banking, religion, and sex, among other things. Meanwhile, the sister’s romantic life gets a boost from her encounters with her brother’s old school buddy (Josh Hamilton).
     The play’s principal energy derives from Butz’s hyper-caffeinated performance, far too over the top for my tastes and too close for comfort to this actor’s work in previous shows. Everyone else does quality Broadway-level work, including Katie Holmes (albeit in a not especially demanding role), and the play simply peters out once its points have been made and its energy expended. There are no artistic, intellectual, or thematic breakthroughs here, the comedy is only sporadically laugh-inducing, and the net result is yet another mediocrity in a progressively depressing Broadway season.  
Folks, this depressing Broadway season is now a little less depressing thanks to the recent arrival of A CHRISTMAS STORY, THE MUSICAL, the delightful family show based on the classic Jean Shepherd tale (and film) about a 1940s Indiana boy named Ralphie (an adorable Johnny Rabe) who craves a Red Ryder BB rifle for Christmas. This is an indisputably entertaining, lively, and highly polished, nostalgia-driven show (book by Joseph Robinette), with a glowing cast of grownups and kids that sparkles like the lights on a lit-up Christmas tree. Dan Lauria, playing Shepherd, narrates the story, set largely in a cozy home surrounded by huge panels magically suggesting giant swirls of snow; we follow Ralphie’s attempt to convince his parents (played by the excellent John Bolton and Erin Dilly) to get him the rifle, only to be told continually, “You’ll shoot your eye out,” an admonition echoed by his schoolteacher, Miss Shields (a terrific Caroline O’Connor). Along the way we are treated to many bubbly and amusing songs (music and lyrics by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul) and inventive dances (choreography by Warren Carlyle).
     This is another show with extraordinarily talented young kids (playing multiple roles) capturing much of the limelight, none more so than a tiny (3 foot 11 inch) 9-year-old named Luke Spring who, in a number where he impersonates an old-time gangster in black suit and white fedora, literally stops the show with an incredible display of Lilliputian tap-dancing. The show’s story is, perhaps, a bit too thin for the two hours and ten minutes (which includes one intermission) it takes to tell it, but otherwise, this visually sumptuous, melodically tuneful, unabashedly sentimental yet also hilarious greeting card of a show will catch you by the heartstrings and never let them go. If you’re still thinking of what to give someone you love for Christmas, especially if that person is a child, think no further. Then again, even if that person is as old as I am (see Methuselah) you won’t go wrong. The show closes on December 30, so hitch up your reindeer and get a move on!  
David Mamet’s crown has gotten rather tarnished lately, and THE ANARCHIST, at the John Golden, does little to restore its former sheen. Two major actresses, Debra Winger (in her Broadway debut) and Patti LuPone (Broadway diva of divas), play, respectively, Ann, a sort of parole officer, and Cathy, a onetime anarchist who has been in jail for decades because of her involvement in a terrorist-related crime in which two cops were killed. Cathy pleads (or, one might say, bloviates) for her release, claiming to have found Christ and promising to enter a convent to do good, and to donate her substantial inheritance to the families of those whose deaths she caused. Ann, who has overseen Cathy’s case for years but is now retiring, engages in a final interrogation to determine if Cathy’s claims of redemption are trustworthy enough so that she may recommend release. She is the state, using its great power to control the life of this inmate, and distrusting everything Cathy says, although toying with her in hopes that Cathy will betray her accomplice, Althea, still at large.
     This two-character confrontation has the possibility of strong drama, but Mamet so overloads it with pompous philosophical arguments and artificially inflated dialogue—especially by Cathy, who speaks professorially as if she were determined never to end a sentence with a preposition—that the totally humorless argument grows ever more unreal and the characters increasingly like stick figures put on stage to illustrate Mamet’s points. Cathy appears to be a target for Mamet’s conservative ire against liberalism, but it’s hard not to sympathize with her in the face of Ann’s icy demeanor. I read a critique that suggested Mamet had offered a sucker punch to liberal sympathies for Cathy toward the end, making Ann the heroine, but I must have been sleeping because I never heard it land. Why anyone would ever have thought this a play for today’s Broadway stage is another conundrum I am also unable to answer. It is closing much earlier than expected.  
WORKING, Off Broadway at 59e59, is a revival of the Studs Terkel-inspired 1978 Broadway
musical based on interviews with a wide assortment of working people. It is a production by the Prospect Theatre Company, whose redoubtable artistic director is Brooklyn College MFA alumnus Cara Reichel. The much larger original company has been pared down to six, three men and three women, all of them highly proficient actor-singers, performing 26 roles. The original songs, by Stephen Schwartz (who created the original adaptation), James Taylor, Mary Rodgers, Susan Birkenhead, Craig Carnelia, and Micki Grant, has been supplemented by two new numbers by Lin-Manuel Miranda. Each character gets to express his or her feelings about their jobs, and there is also considerable input about joblessness, which I found particularly poignant because of someone very close in precisely that position despite being talented, likable, responsible, attractive and so on.            
     The show is very well staged by director Gordon Greenberg and choreographer Josh Rhodes on Beowulf Borrit’s simple set consisting of a black mesh background that allows for some action to be staged behind it (although not especially well lit there), and for the musicians to be mostly screened from view on an upper level. Occasionally, projections, now de rigueur in so much New York set design, are flashed across this background. A row of reel-to-reel tape recorders run along the upper level, much like the TV sets one often sees in Wooster Group productions, and we occasionally hear segments of the original tape recordings used by Terkel in the book of worker interviews he compiled in 1974.
     Despite the generally tuneful quality of the songs, the effective production values, and the chameleon abilities of the versatile cast, the show ignited for me only in a few select numbers. This is to be expected when there is no real interchange among characters and you have instead a series of 14 numbers linked only by the tenuous theme of what people do for a living and how they feel about it. The show stopper, for me, at any rate, is “It’s an Art,” a high-energy, funny, and perfectly sketched expression of a charismatic waitress’s energetic affection for a job others might have thought sheer drudgery. Donna Lynne Champlin sings and dances the hell out of it. Still, kudos also go to the show’s other fine performers—Kenita R. Miller, Joe Cassidy, Nehal Jōshi, Jay Armstrong Johnson, and Marie-France Arcilla—who demonstrate that what they themselves do is, of course, “an art.” 
The current revival of ANNIE, THE MUSICAL makes you feel good the minute you enter Broadway’s Palace Theatre, with its huge proscenium arch filled with dozens of white sheets and garments hanging from clothes lines going every which way to form a magnificent curtain that captures the exuberant feeling the ensuing show provides. The night I went, Lilla Crawford, who plays Little Orphan Annie, was out, having experienced an onstage mishap the day before, so I’ll be going back to view her performance in January, but her understudy, Taylor Richardson, was every bit the Broadway professional, gave an amazingly polished performance regardless of her having had few opportunities to practice it before a live audience. The talent on view among Broadway’s kids never fails to astonish me, and ANNIE delivers, not only with kids like Taylor Richardson, but a supporting cast of children and adults (and a remarkably well-trained dog playing Sandy) that helps her carry this visually spectacular, thematically heart-tugging, and melodically absorbing show. Taylor not only looks just right, especially when she dons Annie’s red dress with white borders, but dances with grace, acts with charm, and sings with power, albeit in a tone somewhat deficient in vibrato.
     Outstanding adult performer in the mostly sterling company is Australian actor-singer Anthony Warlow as Daddy Warbucks, who sings beautifully and adds considerable depth to his cartoon-like billionaire character. Brynne O’Malley is exquisite as Grace, Warbuck’s assistant, but the usually wonderful Katie Finneran, in the great comic role of Miss Hannigan, works too hard at making this blowsy harridan of an orphanage operator funny, and is the only minor drawback to an otherwise splendid revival. Although one could call this a schmaltzy piece of comic-strip nostalgia, ANNIE’s Depression-era background is strikingly relevant to today’s America, which could use as much of its redheaded heroine’s optimism (and a billionaire Republican’s willingness to work with Democrats) as it can muster.     
36. BARE 
BARE, a rock musical (by Jon Hartmire and Damen Intrabartolo) that evolved from a sung-through rock musical of some years earlier (which I didn’t see), is at New World Stages, where the most memorable element is the projections flashed upon a wall divided into cubicle-like spaces, with a section that can open and close like a huge door. Most of the projections are of the faces of the boys and girls at a Catholic high school, put together montage style and lit to suggest stained glass windows; the kids are putting on a production of Romeo and Julie under the direction of a Sister Joan (Missi Pyle), a pretty young nun whose liberal ideas (she allows the subject of contraception to be raised in class) put her in jeopardy with the headmaster, the seemingly open but actually uptight Father Mike (Jerold E. Solomon). The core action concerns a budding love affair between two boys, one who is not ashamed of his gayness (Taylor Trench); the other (Jason Hite)—cast as Romeo in the school play—is confused by his sexuality and so unwilling to admit his true feelings that he impregnates the pretty girl (Ivy Judd) who loves him. Ultimately, his fate is not dissimilar to that of Shakespeare’s fated lovers, and we all learn a lesson of tolerance before the lights go out.         
     My tolerance level, however, was breached by BARE’s insistently brash, tuneless music, commonplace lyrics, and hardworking but generally uninspired performances. Apart from one fantasy number, where Sister Joan dolls up as a pop star Virgin Mary supported by a trio of girls in glittering, silver costumes (think Supremes), everyone in the cast fades as quickly as the markings on a Buddha Board.   
THE VELVETEEN RABBIT is a kiddy show based on the classic children’s book about a boy’s stuffed rabbit that wants to become “real,” and manages, briefly, to do so. It’s being done at the DR2 Kids Theatre near Union Square. Lots of kids were using booster seats; I could have used one, too, since the dad in front of me had a head as big as “Harvey” The show was sweet and cleverly done, but it began at 1:00 p.m. (actually, it began late, at 1:20, to accommodate the latecomers), which is my nappy time, so I dozed and dreamed of bunnies for a few minutes when I should have been watching one on stage. That’s okay, though, since it’s only 40 minutes long. This was another show I’d love to have been able to see with a five-year-old. But I’m plum out of them at the moment.  
Paula Vogel’s A CIVIL WAR CHRISTMAS, at the New York Theatre Ensemble, makes worthwhile viewing for this holiday season, not only because it offers a bunch of intertwining stories, mainly uplifting, revolving around the last Christmas of the Civil War (in 1864), but because it coincides with Spielberg’s epochal film about Lincoln, who is also a major figure in this play. So you get to learn your history and enjoy it, too. The work falls on the borderline between play and musical, as it includes numerous traditional songs, in snippets and complete renderings; technically, it could be called a play with music. The very talented actors in the racially mixed cast play multiple roles, including Bob Stillman, the lanky actor who capably plays the sixteenth president. There are fine performances by Karen Kandel, K. Todd Freeman, Sean Allen Krill, and many others in what is actually a superb ensemble piece that doesn’t focus on any particular character.
     Vogel weaves her stories together to show people on both sides of the conflict, including John Wilkes Booth and his co-conspirators, who muff their attempt to kidnap (not assassinate) the president; a black child who gets lost in Washington when separated from her mother during their flight north from slavery; Mrs. Lincoln’s attempt to find and purchase a Christmas tree (still a novelty at the time) as a present for her husband; Lincoln’s foolhardy adventure retrieving a gift for his wife he’d left behind, and so on. We see the coming and going of heroic black soldiers fighting on the Union side; the black bourgeoisie of Washington in the persons of the Wormley family; the Confederate and Union military leaders, Lee and Grant, and so on; they appear in a Brechtian panorama created on designer James Schuette’s large, bare stage consisting mostly of planking on walls and floors, with minimalist set pieces representing both what they are in reality and what they can be used for theatrically. A horse is played with wonderful mimicry by an actor (Jonathan David) who also performs several human roles. Under Tina Landau’s imaginative direction, all movement is perfectly coordinated, and scenes are distinguished by the brilliant area and mood lighting of Scott Zielinski. All that prevents this slightly overambitious piece of theatre from being fully effective is its unnecessary two and a half hour running time; at least a half an hour could have been cut.  
WHAT RHYMES WITH AMERICA?, by Melissa James Gibson, is being given a fine production at the Atlantic on W. 20th Street, but is not likely to brand its image on your brain as an example of outstanding new American playwriting. Once again we have a sullen, alienated teenage girl, Marlene (Aimee Carrero), unable to connect with a troubled adult, a father named Hank (Chris Bauer), who is undergoing a bitter divorce from his wife after losing his job as an economist. He picks up some income as a spear carrier at the opera, where he is criticized for his lack of onstage involvement by a colleague, a sassy black woman (Da’Vine Joy Randolph); she’s a would-be actress who gets to do an extended bit from Macbeth when she shows him how she auditioned for the play. Marlene works at a hospital where, thinking she’s simply a volunteer, Hank goes to visit her and ends up befriending Lydia (Seana Kofoed), a 40ish woman whose father just died there. She’s never had sex, but, for whatever reason, is ready to begin with Hank; as this is getting underway at his apartment he allows himself to be distracted by a phone call from his wife, with whom he argues and shouts his love while ignoring the woman whose bra he removed only seconds earlier. She soon drops him, telling him to picture her breasts; when he says he does she insists he now forget them completely as he’ll never see them again. Reconciliation with his daughter is suggested before the play concludes.
     None of this adds up to a play, unfortunately, although the scenes are all well written, if sometimes implausible (like the one with the phone argument). But scene writing, even with juicy dialogue, is not playwriting, and this play doesn’t add much to the season’s gallery of unhappy marital, parental, and sexual relationships. Nor is it helped much by a cavernous white set resembling an MRI machine; its sterile ambience may be suitable for the hospital scene but makes no sense for backstage scenes at the Met, or the intimacy of a bedroom sex scene (no bed, just a mattress). Two scenes have father and daughter converse on opposite sides of an apartment door that isn’t there, obviously suggesting the emotional distance between them but also being out of sync with the staging of the other scenes.  
     One final note: it seems that many stage actors are very health conscious and do not actually smoke. In play after play, however, they are called upon to do just that and it’s instantly apparent to anyone who does or has smoked that they’re faking it. They don’t inhale and they are clearly uncomfortable holding their cigarettes or flicking the ashes. They take singing lessons, dancing lessons, acting lessons, and voice lessons; there’s clearly a need for some enterprising person to open a studio to give actors lessons in how to smoke.  
P.S. JONES AND THE FROZEN CITY, at the New Ohio Theatre, parodies the comic book superhero genre with a story about a youth named Pig Shit Jones (Joe Paulik), who is quite happy working on his family farm shoveling pig droppings, with which he is liberally splattered, while his dandified, epicene brother, Benjamin (Preston Martin), departs for an important position in the Frozen City. Soon after, P.S. discovers a huge green hand (manipulated, like all the puppets in this show, by a very visible puppeteer), amid his manure mountains, and simultaneously is recruited by the ghost of a Gunslinger (Steven Rishard), straight out of a spaghetti Western, to help him take vengeance on the Great Glass Spider in the Frozen City. With the help of the giant hand’s superpowers, the dimwitted P.S. becomes a superhero, soiled cloak, goggles, and all, and encounters various kooky characters and adventures until he fulfills his quest.
     Not only the hand, but a number of major oddball characters are played by highly imaginative puppets; most clever is the spider-woman villainess (Sofia Jean Gomez), who rolls about on a converted office chair accompanied by a pair of supposedly invisible, black garbed actors operating her multiple mechanical legs in perfectly coordinated movements. All of this silliness is accompanied by comic strip-style video images and projections (including the “Wham,” “Bam,” etc. effects familiar from the old Batman TV series).
     José Zayas’s lively production puts us in the land of blatant campiness again (as per RESTORATION COMEDY and THE BUTT-CRACKER SUITE, to name recent examples), and whether you laugh at it or squirm (I did a little of both, but definitely more of the latter) depends on your tolerance for over-the-top acting, overdone hillbilly accents, goofy sound effects, nut cake dialogue, outrageous costumes, and nuance-free zaniness. Good golly, Miss Molly, this must be the season to be jolly.  
If P.S. JONES AND THE FROZEN CITY isn’t campy enough, there is always CHRIS MARCH’S THE BUTT-CRACKER SUITE: A TRAILER PARK BALLET waiting at another downtown venue, the HERE Arts Center. And that’s where I ventured to view this inoffensive, deliberately cheesy, and sometimes quite diverting take on THE NUTCRACKER SUITE, which envisions it as the daydream of a young girl named Clara who wants a pair of ballet shoes for Christmas. Her redneck dad punishes her by making her sit on a toilet seat while he and his wife, who wears beer cans for curlers, make love in their trailer (a real one—topped by a Jesus, Mary, and Joseph crèche—that forms the main part of the set). The little girl is not so little, since she’s played by Chris March, the obese creative force behind the show: producer, costume designer, director, etc. His huge, gelatinous belly on full display in a tight, white t-shirt, his face dressed with cutie-pie makeup, his hair adorned by a Shirley Temple wig, and his waist by a large, pink tutu, he dreams the Christmas dreams of all trailer trash kids, which is to say a succession of dance numbers reflecting the most immediate concerns of anyone who lives amid the cultural icons of the trashocracy in the Deep South.    
     As a wide-ranging assortment of familiar and not-so familiar pop-rock and Christmas tunes (“Here Comes Suzy Snowflake,” “Tequila,” “All I Got for Christmas Was this Ugly Sweater,” etc.) mingled with conventional and upbeat versions of the NUTCRACKER score blasts over the loud speakers in this intimate theatre, a succession of well-choreographed numbers dominated by a corps de ballet of half a dozen pretty and furiously smiling girls passes before our eyes, some of them involving a male dancer dressed as the Nutcracker character replete with giant full head mask. Throughout, video projections of scenes from famous TV Christmas shows (including “Charlie Brown”), commercials, and movies play upon the trailer façade.
     With little rhyme or reason (who needs rhyme or reason?), other than to get us laughing, the dances show us a bevy of dancing beer cans (Old Milwaukee Beer, if you want to know), emerging from a refrigerator; a bunch of Spam canisters doing a Spam ballet; a trio of very well crafted, balletic flamingoes, the effect created by black light technology; a flamenco-inspired ballet backed by a large, foam-rubber tequila bottle spinning on a turntable; a tap dancing line of bowling pins; an ugly sweater ballet in which all the sweaters get to light up like Christmas trees; a crazy ballet in which Joseph and Mary toss baby Jesus around like a Frisbee; a Hanukkah routine in which the girls dress up in black robes and curling side locks as Hassids, with menorahs hanging from their necks while dancing to “Hava Nagila” and the “Draydel Song” (makes perfect sense in a redneck trailer park, right?); a leg lamp ballet inspired by the movie, A Christmas Story, that comes close to replicating the more elaborate leg lamp number in Broadway’s current A Christmas Story musical; a Miracle Whip dance performed to Barry Manilow’s “It’s a Miracle” (groan!); a Wonder Bread (spelled Wunda Bred, of course) ballet; a laundry line ballet, and so on. If you think this might eventually grow tiresome, you’re absolutely right, but, since this low-rent but high energy extravaganza lasts only 80 minutes, it ends before you barf up all that beer, cheese, spam, tequila, Miracle Whip, “Wunda Bred,” and dirty laundry.
     Is it funny? Sometimes (the hyena behind me seems to have thought “all the time”). Is it entertaining? Mostly. Will you like it? Who the hell knows? 
Phil Coulter, who stars in SONGS I LOVE SO WELL at the Irish Rep, is an Irish songwriter, record producer, musician, and singer, although his fame appears to reside largely on the Emerald Isle and among those on this side of the pond who are fond of contemporary Irish music. He’s a well-preserved 70-year-old who offers a cabaret-like show in which he accompanies himself on the grand piano as he sings a slew of his own songs, many of which seem to be familiar to the people visiting his show; when invited to sing along, many in the house seem quite familiar with the words. Some of his material is purely instrumental, designed to show off his piano playing, including a nonverbal rendition of the classic “Danny Boy,” with which he opens the show. The songs are tied together by his low-key chatter, delivered in a mild Irish brogue, much of it in the vein of “and then I wrote.” He also effectively recites a couple of Irish-tinted poems, although I didn’t catch every word.
     Almost as if to vouch for his reputation, a video of famous Irish talking heads, including Van Morrison and Liam Neeson, speak on his behalf, and other videos accompany much of the performance, including a few numbers in which an overhead camera allows us to watch his piano playing projected on the screen.
     Onstage with him and his piano is a lighted Christmas tree and a wreath, as well as the stained glass window effect from the Dublin Guildhall set used in the Irish Rep’s revival of Brian Friel’s THE FREEDOM OF THE CITY; the holiday effect is appealing, made more so when Coulter tells us he actually performed once in the actual Guildhall. He himself hails from Derry, which he salutes in “The Town I Loved So Well,” a moving song to that city’s idyllic and, later, battle-torn, past.
     Dressed in a dark, three-piece suit in the first act, and a white dinner jacket and black bow tie in the second, Coulter is a genial host, and his music is melodic and easy to listen to (and sing) in a Muzak sort of way (which was its destiny, he informs us); in fact, it’s perfect accompaniment to an afternoon theatre snooze. Coulter is not an Irish tenor, by the way, but sings in a slightly gravelly key that is pleasantly average. On the other hand, he comes to life late in the show—which should have been in one act, not two—when he does a Jimmy Durante tribute (of all people), capturing “The Schnoz” in spot-on style. Joining him for several numbers, also late in the proceedings, is his wife, Geraldine Branagan, a once popular singer who left the business to raise the couple’s six kids but is now performing again. A striking woman, slightly oversized, with big blonde hair and dressed in glamorous black, she sings with excellent phrasing and feeling but, like her husband, doesn’t have the strongest or most musical of voices.
     All in all, this is a harmless, old-fashioned endeavor I’d expect to see in a cabaret, and not on a legitimate theatre stage.     
If you think you’ve had your fill of annual holiday season screenings of IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE in theatres and on TV, you might find it amusing to see the story told in the form of an old-time radio play, which is exactly how it’s being presented at the Irish Rep in a production flawlessly directed by Charlotte Moore that falters only in the casting of one role, albeit a crucial one. The Irish Rep’s tiny basement stage, where Julian Sands recently gave his solo Pinter performance, is no longer the bare space it was for Sands, but has been converted into a replica of a 1946 radio station, replete with “on the air” and “applause” signs that light up, and with a sound effect area for the many background sounds famously used in radio scripts.
     A cast of four men and two women play all the characters in this family classic, which adaptor Anthony E. Palermo has stripped down to an intermissionless 70 minutes. (No credit is provided for the writer of the original story or the screenplay adaptation.) Everyone is dressed effectively in the styles of 1946, and the actors behave as “actors” when they’re not “on,” coming to life as “characters” when they read their hand-held scripts. When cued to do so at the ends of scenes, the audience applauds loudly, and mock commercials for products to reduce various gastric ailments are given in the play’s interstices.
     Quality work is done by all, but most especially by veteran Peter Maloney, who wears many hats to play the angel Clarence, the villainous banker Mr. Potter, the pharmacist Gower, and the Italian immigrant Martini. As Clarence, he puts on a white top hat whose peak is rimmed with white feathers, a charming touch. He moves seamlessly from character to character, perfectly embodying the essence of the roles made famous by Henry Travers and Lionel Barrymore. At the other end of the acting spectrum, in the role of George Bailey, so unforgettably associated with Jimmy Stewart, is the relentlessly uncharismatic Max Gordon Moore, whom I thought memorably miscast as Jack Tanner in the Irish Rep’s MAN AND SUPERMAN, earlier this season, and who has somehow landed yet another plum role here for which he is in way over his head. Jim Parsons was a disaster when playing a Stewart role in HARVEY this summer, and Mr. Moore is no Jim Parsons. Nevertheless, the production is smooth enough to cover even for his lack of charm and will appeal to everyone who still has a tiny bit of room left in their hearts for this still throbbing bit of Christmas nostalgia.  
Red Bull Theater artistic director Jesse Berger, who staged that company’s current revival of Ben Jonson’s Elizabethan comedy, VOLPONE OR THE FOX, at the Lucille Lortel Theatre, writes in his program notes: “Jonson himself said that the aim of comedy should not be to provoke easy laughter by slapstick farce and bawdry,” yet his own production, colorfully set and costumed in the 1607 Venice called for by the script, is precisely guilty of doing just that. It’s as broad a staging of the play as you could imagine, even to the point of having the three foolish men—each named for a particular bird—gulled by Volpone make bird-like cawing sounds when they exit after receiving their comeuppance. The only actor who is able to seem both comically idiotic and real is octogenarian Alvin Epstein, as Corbaccio (“The Raven”), but Rocco Sisto as the lawyer Voltore (“The Vulture”) and Michael Mastro as the merchant Corvino (“The Crow”), while physically impressive, struggle to be both believable and funny. Tovah Feldshuh as Fine Madame Would Be, who looks wonderful, gives a technically fine comic performance, but is too outrageously cartoonish to be honestly amusing.
     Even bigger problems loom in the hollowly zany performance of Stephen Spinella as the lecher/con man Volpone (“The Fox”), who fools the three birdmen into giving him their riches (and Corvino his wife) in the hope that Volpone will name one of them his heir. Perhaps Spinella might work as a con man, but as a dirty old man lusting for a victim’s wife, he’s as convincing as someone like Chris Christie shilling for Weight Watchers. Even more disappointing is the play’s real comic fulcrum, Volpone’s sidekick, Mosca, given a thoroughly unconvincing performance by a drearily costumed Cameron Folmar; he works so hard at being the clever, Arlecchino-like trickster, that I feared someone might slip in the trail of sweat he left behind him.
     I’ve seen several revivals of this famous play, and, for all its historical and literary values, only one has convinced me that it’s still stage worthy. That one was Larry Gelbart’s updated 1974 version, Sly Fox, set in 19th century San Francisco, which starred the great George C. Scott. It was essentially a new play, with modernized jokes and language; Jonson’s Renaissance original is too long and bloated with outdated shtick to survive if given anything like a faithful revival. And, for all its excesses, the Red Bull rendition is just that.  
Clifford Odets’s classic Depression-era boxing drama, GOLDEN BOY, about the struggle of Joe Bonaparte, a poor, second-generation Italian-American who is equally adept at playing the violin and knocking people out, to decide between his artistic and materialistic aspirations (a struggle reputedly faced by Odets himself), is being given a rousing, if not fully satisfying, revival by Lincoln Center Theater. The production is at Broadway’s Belasco Theatre, where the play had its premier in 1937, with Luther Adler as Joe. The 21-year-old William Holden played Joe (who is also 21) in the 1939 movie version (check it out on YouTube), and while he had neither Joe’s ethnic nor New York qualities (although he did sport a mop of curly black hair), he had a charismatic presence and physical beauty sadly missing from Seth Numrich’s vigorous but, ultimately, merely ordinary interpretation in this often spirited revival. Numrich also looks too slight to be a powerful boxer, especially when we see the arms and chest of Michael Aronov, who plays Joe’s brother-in-law Siggie.
     Like too many of the male leads, Numrich never quite gets inside his character, despite his efforts to look and sound like a cocky fighter from a tenement in one of the outer boroughs. There’s a great deal of shouting in the production by him and others (such as Danny Mastrogiorgio as Tom Moody, Joe’s manager, and Anthony Crivello as the dandified gangster, Eddie Fuseli, actually referred to as “queer”). Much of the play is performed pedal to the metal, with the cast often directed to aim more for speed and theatrical effect than subtlety and nuance. This makes an already melodramatic play even more so, yet director Bartlett Sher has nevertheless found a way to convert Odets’s theatrical contrivances into riveting, even emotionally moving, theatre. Despite an intensity that often seems forced, the play’s core dramatic conflicts spring to life and hold your interest for nearly three hours; the story and the characters are as vividly painted as in a graphic novel, which comes across even more effectively in Michael Yeargan’s striking sets of a tenement apartment, boxing manager’s office, park bench, and boxer’s gym and locker room. Assisting enormously are Donald Holder’s bold, chiaroscuro lighting and Catherine Zuber’s spot-on period costumes, all of which capture a feeling not unlike that of a George Bellows painting.
     Not all the performances are overblown, of course, and those that most affected me belonged to Tony Shalhoub as Joe’s immigrant father, Mr. Bonaparte (Lee J. Cobb in the movie), and Australian actress Yvonne Strahovski (who starred in this season’s Dexter on TV) as Lorna Moon (Barbara Stanwyck in the film), the Newark dame Joe falls for. Each brings a restrained believability to their roles, allowing for the fireworks they light to stand out in stark contrast when circumstances demand them. Each also has mastered their respective dialects more convincingly than many of their colleagues.
     All that glitters may not be gold, but the precious ore in GOLDEN BOY can still shine, even if sometimes mixed with dross.      
The scenery for GOLDEN BOY and GLENGARRY GLEN ROSS must be very tasty indeed because the actors in both shows are feasting on it, chewing it up as if it were fresh from the Cooking Channel. The cast in GLENGARRY contains some outstanding scenery chewers, and sold-out houses are paying premium prices to watch them dig their fangs into David Mamet’s exposé of ruthless business practices exemplified by the scurrilous real estate salesman that populate this play. With two exceptions, a detective (Murphy Guyer) and a suckered customer (Jeremy Shamos), every character gets at least one aria where he goes profanely ballistic, shouting excoriating expletives that typify the Mamet method we missed so dearly in the just closed THE ANARCHIST.
     Scenery chewer in chief, of course, is the great Al Pacino, playing Shelly Levine as a once successful but now shaggy, dog eared loser, pleading, threatening, cajoling, haranguing, and even bribing the office manager, John (David Harbour), for the leads that will bring him viable real estate clients. Looking perhaps a bit too seedy to be a convincing salesman, Pacino practically sings the part, finding musical variations, replete with stammering exclamations and pregnant pauses, on the themes of obnoxiousness and desperation. Similar themes also rush through the dialogue and actions of his costars, Richard Schiff, John C. McGinley, and Bobby Cannavale, all of whom do nastily energetic work in their relentlessly ruthless drive to close a sale and score highly in an office sales competition.
     Pacino seems intent on earning every penny of his $120,000 weekly salary (plus a hefty piece of the profits), and his costars, earning considerably less, do their best to match him. Cannavale, in particular, is as convincingly slimy a huckster as you can imagine, and his slippery attempts to befuddle a customer who wants to get his money back are among the production’s highlights.
     The play’s first act is three set pieces acted by three different pairs of characters, all of it intended to set up the situation worked out in act two. Pretty soon, though, it becomes clear that what we’re seeing is more a high-powered acting exercise than a serious X-ray of pitiless capitalism, but if you’re in the market for a theatrical demonstration of testosterone-fueled male dynamics as performed by masters of the craft, GLENGARRY GLEN ROSS is your ticket. 
Penny Fuller’s theatrical career includes her being one of the actresses who took over the lead in the original Broadway production of Barefoot in the Park, which I saw in 1964. She’s had a solid, if not spectacular, career since then, and I was delighted to see her in the (mostly) one-woman show 13 Things about Ed Carpolotti, in the tiny Theatre C at 59e59. I’m happy to report she’s just as pretty at 72 as she was at 24, with her high cheekbones, deep-set blue eyes, and carefully frizzed blonde bangs and pony tail. Her still slender figure looks quite fine in a straight, brown skirt, a beige, silk blouse, open at the neck, and matching heels.
     Fuller’s role is Virginia Carpolotti, widow of the eponymous Ed, who tells the story of her relationship with her late husband and of the enormous debts he left her after he died. Her narrative takes us back at one point to 1955 when, to cover up for having been necking with Ed in a car, when she was supposedly at the movies, she makes up the story for her parents of a Marie Wilson film, My Friend Irma Goes West, during which she imitates the comic costars, Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis. The show also lets her assume the voices of others in her narrative, notably an Italian hoodlum who is after her for the money he loaned Ed. One wonders whether Virginia, who seems quite capable of handling her mixed up affairs, despite a suggestion of helplessness, would be quite as naïve as she claims; several times she declares she doesn’t understand her daughter’s jokey comments, such as one about Ed’s hospital being Dickensian, or her question, now that Virginia is president of her husband’s company, as to whether she would recognize Cuba.
     The one-hour piece, originally a straight play (by Jeffrey Hatcher) in which Fuller starred, has been turned into a musical with book, lyrics, and music by Barry Kleinbort, who also directed. It’s performed on a postage stamp-sized stage, where Fuller is joined by musical director Paul Greenwood, at a grand piano; he joins her for a two-part harmony in one song and engages in some brief chatter as well, but, in the main, if not technically, this is a solo show. Apart from the piano, there’s nothing on stage but an easy chair and small side table. The audience sits jammed in at little cabaret tables. Fuller’s sweetness, intelligent readings, and heartfelt (if somewhat vocally diminished) singing are all one needs to enjoy this melodious, lighthearted, but disposable, work, which the star’s polished expertise prevents from becoming too precious or sentimental. 13 Things makes up for at least 13 recent shows about which the less said the better. 
MY NAME IS ASHER LEV, at the Westside Theatre, is the kind of play that will interest many serious New York theatergoers. Like so many other shows this season, it is about a Jewish family, although not the kind one is likely to see at the theatre, even if the play is about them. As you may know if you’ve read the Chaim Potok novel from which Aaron Posner has adapted this work set in the 1950s, the Levs are a family of Brooklyn Hassids. Aryeh and Rivkeh Lev are so religious that they cannot accept the idea that their son, Asher (Ari Brand), could possibly want to be an artist, something they consider sinful as per the Torah’s teachings. But Asher happens to be a prodigy, and even at the age of six is in conflict with his parents, particularly his devout but loving father, over his preoccupation with drawing. Once the conflict is set up, it continues through the years. We see Asher at age ten, thirteen, and eighteen, when he has a major exhibition in New York. At each step the conflict deepens, but it is always the same conflict.
     Asher’s warmhearted mother is sympathetic, and even Aryeh begins to slowly come around when he realizes how famous and financially successful his boy is becoming. But Asher, believing he must be true to his vision of artistic truth and not become a “whore” by denying it, portrays his mother in a crucifixion image, with himself and his father to either side, thereby expressing his view of her as an anguished soul torn between her love for her son and her husband. The parents see the picture at Asher’s big gallery opening and we watch as their pride in his accomplishment turns to ashes as they view his obviously shocking portrait of them.
     Posner, in his 90-minute, intermissionless, adaptation, is unable to cover all the years in Asher’s journey easily, so he resorts to having Asher narrate the story, using flashbacks. A considerable amount of stage time is thereby consumed by this earnest narrative. While only one actor plays Asher, Mark Nelson plays the father, a wise family rebbe, and Jacob Kahn, a famous Jewish artist, once religious but now secular, who becomes Asher’s mentor and entrée into a world of liberal thought no ordinary Hassid would ever join. Jenny Bacon makes a striking transformation from the wig-wearing Rivkeh to the roles of a fashionable gentile gallery owner and a nude model (whose posing is seen only from the back). There is a lot of talk about why it’s necessary for Asher to paint pictures of Jesus and nude females, what being an artist means, how one can be a pious Jew and also an artist, and so on. Much of the play has a didactic tone as we hear Asher debate these issues with both his father and Kahn; it is often interesting but not always very dramatic, allowing the play to become unduly talkative. At the end, Asher, even in the face of a biting diatribe against him in the New York Times, has somehow come to terms with his unique situation, even if at the cost of having seriously hurt his parents.
     Ari Brand is intense and urgent as the conflicted artist, but he doesn’t have many colors on his palette and conveys the same troubled earnestness as a six-year-old as he does as a teenager. The other actors have a chance to show more variety, but only Jenny Bacon succeeds in offering something of the chameleon quality required. The rich-voiced Mark Nelson is always satisfactory, but does not really make his Jacob Kahn that much different than his Aryeh Lev, unless the intention is to underline both the similarities and differences between the two father figures in Asher’s life.
     The entire play is set in a space designed by Eugene Lee that serves equally well as a Brooklyn apartment and an artist’s studio, among other locales; its garret-like windows allow for James F. Ingalls’s subtle lighting to underline the play’s dramatic undercurrents. 
The hottest new playwright in town is Amy Herzog, who has received many glowing notices for her recent 4,000 MILES at Lincoln Center, her current THE GREAT GOD PAN at Playwrights Horizons, and the out-of-town production of BELLEVILLE, soon to arrive in New York. Charles Isherwood wrote in his New York Times review that THE GREAT GOD PAN was “haunting,” but that it “may not satisfy theatergoers looking for highly charged drama with tidy resolutions. Its assemblage of scenes . . . can seem arbitrary, its dramatic pulse distinctly soft.” When I emerged from the theatre, I admit to having felt satisfied with the results, but on the subway ride home, after talking it over with my wife, I began to doubt my original feelings and to suspect I had been more impressed by the strong performances than by the play itself. Ultimately, I realized I was one of those whose responses Isherwood was so casually dismissing.
     This slight, conventional, 90-minute, intermissionless play begins with a meeting between Frank (Keith Nobbs), a heavily tattooed, gay massage therapist, and  up and coming journalist Jamie (Jeremy Strong, believable), a childhood friend Frank last saw 25 years ago when each of them was 7. Frank declares that he is filing charges against his own father for having abused him during his childhood. The father’s own admission of guilt indicates that he may have abused Jamie and others as well, and Frank wants to know what Jamie remembers. Jamie, who remembers nothing, is flustered by the news and, aware of his own relationship problems, begins to wonder if he has been suppressing his memory of whatever may have happened. Encounters with his mother (Becky Ann Baker), father (Peter Friedman), former babysitter (Joyce Van Patten), now suffering from dementia, offer nothing concrete but do manage to increase Jamie’s fear that he may actually have been abused. The situation also leads to serious conflict with his pregnant girlfriend, Paige (Sarah Goldberg, very good), a nutrition therapist, whom he informs of what Frank told him, while leaving out the part about his own possible involvement. When she finds out that he held this information back from her, she is furious and mentions things about his recent sexual behavior that she thinks may have been influenced by such experiences, if, indeed, they really happened. Meanwhile, we see Paige conducting therapeutic sessions with an anorexic girl, Joelle (Erin Wilhelmi), during which she struggles with her own emotional problems, although the play does not explain what relationship these have to Jamie’s difficulties. Finally, when Jamie is unwilling to hear Frank describe what Frank’s father allegedly did to the children he molested, Frank writes it on a piece of paper and hands it to Jamie to read when he is ready. The play ends right there, and Jamie’s memories of what may have happened remain clouded and unresolved.
     Throughout we listen to the characters struggle to recall minor and major things from the past; some things have stuck, some have vanished. This is true for everyone, of course, and whether deeper therapy can help Jamie recover his submerged memories is undisclosed. So, essentially, the play is about Frank coming from nowhere into Jamie’s life, suggesting that Jamie may or may not have had a horrendous experience as a child, which causes Jamie’s psyche to begin crumbling, merely because of the possibility of what may have happened: curtain. Yes, Mr. Isherwood, I agree that many theatergoers will be disturbed by the lack of a “tidy resolution,” or at least by the lack of something more dramatically compelling.
     Fortunately, Herzog has a good ear for dialogue and is able to create people who are recognizable and offer actors something to bite into. But, in this play at any rate, she seems to want to handle big ideas while not having found a suitable context for doing so. The characters and their aspirations and fears remain unfulfilled, merely figures on a dramatist’s writing desk waiting for a play in which to breathe more fully.  
     Before writing GOLDEN AGE, now at the Manhattan Theatre Club’s Stage 1 at City Center, Terrence McNally expressed his passion for opera in two other plays, MASTER CLASS and THE LISBON TRAVIATA. For me, the only one of this trio that works is MASTER CLASS. The opera background is the only true link among this trio, as each has its own themes, characters, and even time periods. GOLDEN AGE, as the program tells us, takes place “Backstage at the Théâtre-Italien in Paris on the evening of January 24, 1835, the first performance of Vincenzo Bellini’s last opera, I Puritani.” The central character is Bellini (Lee Pace) himself, so where do we find him during most of the opera’s premier performance, which is going on in the theatre proper, offstage? Backstage, of course, where not only he, but all the principal singers—the rotund soprano Giulia Grisi (Dierdre Friel); the bald, stubby bass, Lablache (Ethan Phillips); the conceited lady’s man of a baritone, Tamburini (Lorenzo Pisoni); and Rubini (Eddie Kaye Thomas), the bearded tenor, proud of his ability to hit the note of “F.” Their efforts in the opera are incidental while their backstage relationships are central, even during the course of the opera itself. And, of course, others deeply interested in the opera ignore it as well (apart from what little they can hear from backstage); these include the presumably bisexual Bellini’s lover and patron, Florimo (Will Rogers), and a rival soprano diva, La Malibran (Bebe Neuwirth), who has come to Paris explicitly to view the production, in which she herself might have starred. Toward the end of the play, the aged composer Rossini (George Morfogen, replacing F. Murray Abraham) ventures backstage, more concerned, it would seem, to express his heartfelt compliments to Bellini than to sit through the grand finale of the grand opera he so warmly appreciates.
     Yes, you have to accept McNally’s conceit that even Bellini himself would prefer to rant and rave and engage in a panoply of emotional theatrics (partly owing to his suffering from TB, bloody hankie and all) in his backstage world—equipped with a piano on which he occasionally plays, regardless of any consideration that perhaps the audience might hear him—rather than to actually witness the performance; what need, when others, especially Florimo, can so easily check out the proceedings and report back regularly? Now and then, we are allowed to hear snatches of the opera being performed out of our view.
     There are plenty of doings in this backstage world, but very little real plot, which makes the two and a half hours of Bellini and company’s innocuous personal issues ever harder to take, especially since the play’s tiresome attempts at humor can be summed up by the running joke of the baritone Lothario’s constantly stuffing his pants with fruits and vegetables to make his cocksure behavior present in the flesh as well as in his attitude. The cast is uniformly spirited but there are too many stylistic differences among them, ranging from the overtly melodramatic flailing of Bellini to the farcical carryings on of Grisi and Tamburini to the restrained cynicism of La Malibran to the simple realism of Rossini. I was particularly disappointed in Neuwirth, a longtime favorite; although she looks lovely, her diminutive size (underlined when she stands next to the very tall Lee Pace) makes her unconvincing as a 19th-century diva.  
     Fortunately, Santo Loquasto’s imaginative creation of a backstage environment, Jane Greenwood’s excellent period costumes, and Peter Kaczorowski’s nuanced lighting give the proceedings a visual appeal that helps soften the play’s dramaturgic and performative weaknesses. 
The 2012 Pulitzer Prize-winning drama, WATER BY THE SPOONFUL, by Quiara Alegría Hudes, opens soon at the Second Stage Theatre, where it is being given a respectable production under the direction of Davis McCallum. The play is the second in a trilogy Hudes is writing, the first, ELLIOT, A SOLDIER’S FUGUE, having been a Pulitzer finalist, but the plays are meant to stand alone, making knowledge of the others unnecessary. Despite its having received the Pulitzer, or perhaps because of it, I was disappointed because the play was so distinctly lacking in the ability to make me willingly suspend my disbelief. The fact that a theatrical character is, by its very nature, an artificial construct doesn’t mean you can’t believe in it if it is true to itself and to the world in which its author places it. Thus I give myself totally to the Tin Man, Scarecrow, and Cowardly Lion in THE WIZARD OF OZ because they satisfy this requirement.
     WATER BY THE SPOONFUL, however, is not a fantasy; despite certain theatrically stylized liberties, it is mostly realistic. The principle nonrealistic artistic conceit is the presentation of an Internet chat room during which the participants speak the words they’d normally be writing; instead of communicating with keyboards and monitors they simply direct their words toward the audience, even if the person they’re addressing is right next to them. This is acceptable as far as it goes; once we catch on to the idea that the handful of correspondents, scattered about on disparate pieces of home and office furniture, are sharing a virtual, not an actual space, and that the names and photos projected on the wall behind them are their screen identities (Haikumom, Chutes and Ladders, Orangutan, and Fountainhead), we can appreciate their interplay as we come to realize that they are all struggling with crack cocaine addiction and that this is a Narcotics Anonymous site. But once their relationships go deeper than mutual support and criticism (with the site administrator, Haikumom [Liza Colón-Zayas], censoring any vulgarity), and move from the virtual into the real world, I had really serious problems in believing that any of this was really happening.
     For example, Orangutan (Jean Sue Kim), a young woman of Japanese ancestry who was abandoned and raised by a white couple in Maine goes to Japan to teach English and decides to search for her birth mother. Meanwhile, she has become thoroughly infatuated with the uptight middle-aged black man she knows only as Chutes and Ladders (Frankie Faison). She becomes so desperate for his affection he decides to sell his car, leave his job, and fly to Japan to join her. Instead of traveling to where she’s living, in Sapporo, he flies instead to Tokyo, which is like going to Chicago instead of New York, so, despite her frustration, she has to take a leave from her job to meet him. When he arrives, he leaves her waiting outside customs for hours because he is so sick to his stomach he must spend the time barfing in the bathroom. Finally, he emerges into the waiting area and not only meets the girl for the first time, but also only then exchanges real names with her. I’ll take the Cowardly Lion any day.
     The play has too much of this kind of thing, including an assortment of crack addicts all of whom are middle-class, highly articulate professionals. There are, undoubtedly, educated  crack heads, but to have all of them on this level rings as false as the way the actual chat room conversation is conducted. And, as my son, who accompanied me, asked, since when is crack a major drug among such people in this day and age?
     Meanwhile, the chat room stories are only half of the dramaturgical equation. There’s also a major plotline about Elliot (Armando Riesco), an Iraq war veteran and would-be actor who makes a living as a sandwich guy at Subway; he speaks with an authentic Spanglish street accent, and is haunted by a war experience (rather vaguely expressed) with an Arab. He has been raised by his beloved Puerto Rican aunt Ginny, who has just died and whose funeral he’s busy arranging with his slightly older cousin, Yaz (Zabryna Guevara), an adjunct professor of music who has a big scene in which she gives a lecture about how John Coltrane revolutionized jazz by introducing dissonance, clearly a subtextual reference to the beautiful dissonance in people’s relationships. This plotline blends with the chat room stories when we learn that Haikumom (real name: Odessa) is Elliot’s birth mother, whom he strongly resents for having been so incapable of caring for him he had to be raised by her sister (maybe he also resents that fact that the actress playing Odessa doesn’t look a day older than he). And it is only through a really implausible plot device that Elliot—himself a pill popper because of his Iraq experiences—goes on line and learns about Odessa’s work with crack addicts, so each step the playwright makes to blend the two plotlines only serves to emphasize the essential problem she set up for herself and the difficulty she faced in resolving it. Her theme of people needing people, and of the human need to communicate, is deeply felt but, in this context, artificially presented, and thus rings false. Also running through the play like a leitmotif are references to water, in both its destructive and creative aspects, but these provide literary, not dramatic vitality.
     Even the set design is unable to reconcile the play’s dramatic threads. Neil Patel’s set of sliding panels with cube-like segments (used for a generous amount of projections by Aaron Rhyne) is generally abstract so that it can encompass multiple locales; for the most part it works efficiently, but when the action moves at the end to Puerto Rico, to which Elliot and Yaz have traveled, we are suddenly faced by a realistic background painting of a waterfall, completely out of sync with the approach followed in the rest of the play.  
If, like me, your teenage years were spent in the 1950s, you’ll clearly recall the impact of the 1955 film version of William Inge’s 1953 Pulitzer Prize-winning play, PICNIC, about how people in a small Kansas town react to the arrival of a sexy young drifter named Hal Carter. Seeing the current Roundabout revival at the American Airlines Theatre brought memories of the movie flooding back.
     The original stage version starred Ralph Meeker as Hal, with Janice Rule in the role of Madge, the town beauty, and Paul Newman making his Broadway debut in the secondary role of Hal’s local friend, Alan Seymour. Newman understudied Meeker (and ultimately replaced him), while Joanne Woodward did so for Rule. As every theatre and film buff knows, Woodward and Newman fell in love, married, and remained so until Newman died in 2008.
     The movie starred the 37-year-old William Holden as Hal, who should be around 22, and the up-and-coming sex bomb Kim Novak, then 22, as the 18-year-old Madge. Despite the disparity in their ages, there was real chemistry in this pairing, as you can see for yourself ( after Holden stops dancing with Millie (Susan Strasberg). To one 15-year-old boy, Novak’s sex appeal was never as alive as in her dance scene with Holden. In the picture, it’s set during the picnic noted in the title, but in the play it takes place on the lawn of Madge’s house, where the middle-aged lovers, Rosemary and Howard, join in. The movie scene is enormously enhanced by the song being played in the background, “Moonglow,” which became a huge hit because of the film. In the current revival, several nondescript but upbeat pop tunes are used.
     So PICNIC has very personal vibrations for many people of a certain age. Seeing anyone other than the now iconic images of Holden and Novak as Hal and Madge would have to be disappointing, unless some casting genius were able to find their equivalents among today’s young actors. Sadly, with Sebastian Stan as Hal and Maggie Grace as Madge, that isn’t the case. Stan, who goes through large chunks of the play with his muscular upper body, oiled to look like sweat, on display, is physically attractive, but his acting tries too hard to capture the loutish, uneducated Hal’s crudity and overt sexuality, and often seems more forced than natural. (Hal seems very much a reflection of Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire, down to his ripped shirt. Happily, he never screams out “Ma-a-a-dge!”)  
     Maggie Grace’s Madge is unconvincing as a proper young woman who suddenly finds herself driven by a powerful attraction she is unable to suppress; in addition, she’s awkward and occasionally struggles not to step over her own feet. Novak was not a great actress, but she had the sensual thing down right, and when she rhythmically walked her way into the dance with Holden, you could practically hear the male hearts beating in the theatre.
     Despite lacking such powerful magnetism in its central characters, this production, directed by the red-hot Sam Gold, nevertheless makes seeing PICNIC worthwhile. The play has a number of colorful characters, several of whom reveal the amusingly dizzying effects of sexual forces bubbling beneath the surface of repressed, small-town Kansans, and most of the secondary characters are well drawn. The play clearly underlines various gender issues with its depiction of conventional and nonconventional male and female behavior, and how people struggle to deal with the roles they’ve been assigned or have assumed for themselves; on the other hand, it asks that you accept certain dramatic possibilities, such as that Madge will actually leave home to follow Hal (who has run off to Tulsa by hopping a freight train), someone she’s met only the day before. When I expressed my doubts about whether this would happen in reality to my 21-year-old granddaughter, who accompanied me, she disagreed, saying such a thing was not at all unusual, and even cited someone she knows who did something similar (although not after only a day’s acquaintance).
     Particularly successful among the actors is Elizabeth Marvel as the spinsterish Rosemary (the great Rosalind Russell in the movie), who is reduced to begging her middle-aged beau, Howard (the dependable Reed Birney) to marry her, as he has often promised. Birney is excellent, as are the redoubtable Ellen Burstyn as Mrs. Potts and the always reliable Mare Winningham as Mrs. Owens, Madge’s mother. The rest of the cast acquits itself well.
     The two houses that form Andrew Lieberman’s set are here placed next to each other in a strange arrangement, with the Owens house dominating the upstage area and Mrs. Potts’s house jutting on from stage left. This leaves a triangle of grassy space at stage right, backed by an enormous wooden fence that reaches to the rafters. There is absolutely no hint of the sky, much less of the moon, despite textual references to these things. Most shots of other productions on the Internet show a house at either side, with an expanse of sky up center, sometimes with a full moon suspended there. Perhaps the intent is to suggest how fenced in the small lives of these characters are, or perhaps the director wanted to be able to locate the main house upstage center so he could stage a few scenes inside it, as in a doll house, with the action just visible through the windows. Whatever the reason, the set looked off kilter and realistically unconvincing, and was not conducive to the romantic feeling a vision of the sky overhead might have created.
     PICNIC remains a viable theatre piece. It moves swiftly, has a full complement of laughs, and contains pathos, romance, and sex. This production is respectable and sometimes highly effective. But it lacks the throbbing sexual tension that would have made it memorable.:
Maybe it’s because I’m already starting to lose my hearing, but, despite being warned, I didn’t need to protect myself with earplugs during the almost continual assortment of percussive displays that constitute the principal reason for seeing MULAN, THE MUSICAL at the Peter Jay Sharp Theatre. This Chinese import, presented by the Red Poppy Ladies’ Percussion, Ltd., features a dozen young women from Beijing, and tells the ancient story of Mulan, the girl who allows herself to be conscripted into the army as a boy in order to prevent her aged father from having to go instead. At the end, of course, when her true gender is revealed, she is celebrated for her bravery and filial piety. Western familiarity with the story is based on the Disney animated feature film about Mulan, but there is no other connection between Disney and this show.
     In essence, the story is acted out in a sequence of thirteen episodes, with titles like “A Stormy Night,” “Gongfu,” “At School,” “Working and Playing,” and so on. There are a few passages where dialogue or snatches of song are heard, all in Mandarin, but, for the most part, everything is in pantomimed movement or precision drill-style choreography. The movements, poses, and occasional vocalization are strongly influenced by traditional Chinese opera (jingju), and there is even a sequence where the performers engage in mock battle using the flexible, red and white striped “spears” seen on the jingju stage, although without the incredible acrobatics associated with that form.
     Since the movements and lack of dialogue only now and then have an apparent narrative meaning, the story is conveyed mainly through projections on an upstage screen. The images combine supertitles explaining some new development in the story with video and stills meant to enhance the onstage action, such as flying arrows during a battle scene. But many images are abstract and seem chosen mainly for aesthetic effect rather than narrative meaning. Ultimately, the mélange of projections comes off like theatrical chop suey. Some of the supertitles, which were occasionally out of order when I saw the show, are, sorry to say, written in Chinglish, and the bottom half of one lengthy supertitle was hidden by an onstage scenic element.
      The main course here is the company’s extraordinary drumming talents. Each scene is merely an excuse to set up a new drumming sequence, with most ot the percussion being produced on a variety of traditional instruments, small and large, although there are also routines where the drummers pound on desks and other objects. The drumming, of course, is accompanied by dynamic poses. Seeing a dozen lithe young women performing unbelievably complex rhythmic patterns in perfectly synchronized precision is an experience not soon forgotten, although I was glad that the show lasted only 70 intermissionless minutes. I’m unable to say, however, that an hour later I was hungry for more. 
When the doors to the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre’s auditorium open prior to the start of Sharr White’s THE OTHER PLACE, the entering audience sees not only the curtain-less stage with its spare set and preshow lighting, but the solitary figure of an actress sitting nearly statue-still in an armchair at center, her shapely legs crossed, isolated in a softly focused spotlight. Her face is hard to make out but she is dressed in a tailored suit and heels. If you watch her closely you’ll see she’s concentrating on writing notes on a pad in her lap, but her movements are nearly indiscernible. As the moment for the show to begin arrives, she moves more noticeably and when the lights come up she rises and begins to speak in a strong, determined voice, delivering a lecture on a new medication to an audience of doctors. The actress is Laurie Metcalf, and she’s about to offer a tour de force revelation of what first-class acting is all about.
     Happily, she’s involved in a vehicle perfectly designed for her dramatic talents. The theatre season is past its midway mark, but the real rush of shows, both on and off Broadway, has yet to begin; that will come in March and April, when productions vie to get on the boards in time for the seasonal awards. So there may be more affecting and effective plays and performances yet to arrive, but they will have to contend with the high water mark set by Metcalf and THE OTHER PLACE. 
     Actually, the play is not really new to New York. It was given a highly praised premier in March 2011 in a production also starring Metcalf (nominated for a 2011 Drama Desk Award), so this is simply its Broadway premier. As might be expected, Metcalf’s competition for the DD’s Best Actress Award—which covers both Broadway and Off Broadway—was tough: Nina Arianda in Born Yesterday, Stockard Channing in Other Desert Cities, Frances McDormand in Good People, Michele Pawk in A Small Fire, and Lily Rabe in The Merchant of Venice. McDormand was the winner, and, since she was already nominated for her role in The Other Place, Metcalf isn’t eligible again for that award. But I’d be extremely surprised if she’s not a nominee for this year’s Tony (which covers only Broadway), so compelling and authoritative is her artistry. 
     She plays Juliana, a brain specialist who has patented a pill for dementia that will probably make billions. However, as we see her undergo various episodes in which she confuses illusion and reality, the play gradually reveals that she is herself suffering, not from the brain cancer she suspects, but from dementia, a diagnosis she defiantly refuses to accept. Her personal life has engraved deep chasms in her psyche as she copes with the memory of a daughter who ran off one day and whose fate has never been determined, and with her fraying marriage to an oncologist, Ian (the very good Daniel Stern, in a role unlike any I’ve ever seen him in on screen). A scene toward the end, where Juliana barges in to the family’s Cap Cod home (“the other place”), and confronts a young woman she believes is her daughter, opened the spigots in my tear ducts. Metcalf brings anger, insecurity, jealousy, cruelty, love, cynicism, and distrust to Juliana’s crumbling stability, and to watch her go from the self-assured woman we see at the beginning to a rumpled creature finally able to confront the demon she is facing, is both emotionally devastating and theatrically fulfilling.
     Zoe Perry, Metcalf’s actual daughter, plays the several other women in the play, and shows that the acorn did not fall far from the tree, while John Schiappa (from the original production) effectively plays the other men.
     Joe Mantello’s direction is perfectly calibrated to elicit all the play’s affecting (and humorous) facets, and the set by Eugene Lee and Edward Pierce is thoroughly conducive to expressing the play’s thematic and dramatic substance. It consists of a surrounding, semicircular, wall of open, interlocking frame-like squares and rectangles, suggesting, perhaps, the problematic gray matter that lies at the heart of the play, while Justin Townsend’s lighting, the video and projection designs by Will Cusick, and the sound design by Fitz Patton are among the most creatively potent of any available this season. If there’s a place on Broadway you’re sure to find good drama acted to within an inch of its life, that place is THE OTHER PLACE.   
There are a lot of cats screeching in this revival of Tennessee Williams’s 1955 play at the Richard Rodgers Theatre, but none needs a shoe thrown at her as much as Scarlett Johansson. From the moment the curtain rises and Johansson’s Maggie “the Cat” begins speaking to her alcoholic husband, the ex-football hero Brick Pollitt (Benjamin Walker), in a monotonous stream of anger and sarcasm, she seems more a candidate for the ASPCA than a seductive vamp trying to lure her sexually ambivalent spouse into bed with her.  Costume designer Julie Weiss hasn’t helped matters much in giving this Maggie a rather dumpy-looking slip that doesn’t come close to doing for Johansson’s figure what the one worn in the 1958 movie version did for Elizabeth Taylor 55 years ago. Here she is, if you need proof: Taylor’s Maggie would be hard for any man to resist. She also makes you empathize with Maggie’s dilemma; Johansson elicits not a whit of compassion for her plight.
     Benjamin Walker’s Brick, like Sebastian Stan’s Hal in the current revival of PICNIC, spends much of Act I shirtless. But, good-looking as he is, he fails to suggest the inner ravages of a man whose self-doubts and sense of alienation have eroded his soul to where he’s never without a glass of whiskey, waiting for that “click” that will signal his having totally separated himself from his problems, the way a room goes dark when you click off a switch. The late Paul Newman, who played Brick opposite Taylor, remains the consummate actor in this role.
     On a side note, this season appears, thus far, to be an homage to Taylor and Newman. There was the Public Theatre’s musical version of GIANT, of course, which brought back memories of Taylor’s performance in the 1956 film version, while Taylor’s Martha in the 1966 movie of WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF? was compared positively by many to Amy Morton’s portrayal in the current Broadway revival. And, as I reported recently, Newman did not play Hal in the movie of Picnic, but he played Alan Seymour while understudying Ralph Meeker’s Hal, and eventually took over that role himself.  (Ben Brantley in his New York Times review mistakenly claimed that Newman originated the role of Hal.)
     The production’s Big Daddy and Big Mama aren’t strong enough to overcome the deficiencies of Maggie and Brick. Ciarán Hinds’s fully bearded Big Daddy comes closest to the mark with a reasonably colorful performance as the wealthy plantation owner who insists on getting to the truth of matters only to learn that the positive news about his illness is a lie and that he is dying of cancer. Debra Monk’s Big Mama, dressed in hunter green, too often borders on hysteria in her concern for Big Daddy’s welfare, making it clear why Big Daddy is so willing to admit how much he despises her. But should the audience feel the same way about her?
     This production has been over-directed by Rob Ashford, who allows each character one or more chances to vent his or her spleen at operatic levels; he also uses a variety of poorly motivated staging tricks to keep the actors moving around the bedroom set in which all the action takes place. Brick, despite a painful ankle injury that has placed his foot in a cast and forced him to use a crutch (in addition to the one symbolized by his whiskey), walks about continuously, every now and then falling down and struggling to get up. And the bed gets a workout, of course, although not for its usual purposes. In the long scene between Brick and his father, each has to mount the bed at one time or another, at one time both together, merely to have somewhere other than one of the multiple chairs available to flop on during their conversation. Michael Park as Brick’s greedily ambitious brother, Gooper, and Emily Bergl as his equally avaricious wife, Mae aka Sister Woman, generally acquit themselves well, although they both get their arias, Park in particular.
     The expansive bedroom in Big Daddy’s Mississippi plantation home consists of a wall-less semicircle of four huge sets of French doors, with billowing curtains, and a high, hexagon-shaped ceiling of exposed rafters from which hang a pair of old electric fans and a huge chandelier. The chairs are rattan, with cushioned seats, making nonsense of a line about how expensive it would be to upholster one of them. As befits an expensive Broadway production, the lighting and offstage sounds (especially a raging storm) and music do what they can to create a hothouse atmosphere. But, as this staging of  CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF demonstrates, you can’t have a hothouse without heat.    
     Scotland’s Traverse Theatre won the 2012 Best of Edinburgh Award (shared with MIES JULIE) with this play by David Greig, with songs by Gordon McIntyre. It was a big hit when it first opened in 2008, and has since toured the United States, Ireland, the U.K., Canada, and Australia. Its current incarnation is at the Clurman Theatre on Theatre Row. This intimate venue was half empty at the midweek performance I saw, and I’m afraid my own response will not help round up additional theatergoers.
     This is a two-actor play with songs, not a musical; the poetically folksy, guitar-accompanied songs scattered through the show are mainly to provide emotional vibrations, and do nothing to tell the story or illuminate the characters. These are Bob (Matthew Pidgeon) and Helena (Cora Bissett), the latter obviously a reference to the similarly named figure in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Shakespeare’s romantic comedy seems to have inspired playwright Greig to write a play about two contemporary, Scottish, would-be lovers on Midsummer night in Edinburgh. Midsummer’s plot is concerned with how two unlikely lovers fall for one another on a Midsummer weekend filled with eventful happenings. That’s about the extent of the Shakespeare influence.
     Bob and Helena, both 35, are loveless, single losers. Desperate, Helena goes to a pub and picks up Bob, a petty criminal, for a one-night stand. Bob has to turn over a stolen car to a buyer for 15,000 pounds and then deposit the money in the bank for the gangster who hired him. Bob and Helena unintentionally develop a relationship beyond having sex, although they’re not willing to admit it. Bob, unable to deposit the money before the bank closes, decides to splurge it with Helena on a night of drugs, booze, and Japanese bondage. When the overweight, older gangster finds out, he chases Bob but drops dead before his fist hits Bob’s face. The lovers set off for Europe to fulfill their dreams.  
     This simple story seems a lot more complex when you watch the play because all of it is enacted by two actors playing not only Bob and Helena, but the other mildly colorful characters—an autistic-seeming child, a Goth teenager, a bank guard, Helena’s angry sister, Bob’s teenage son, etc.—who figure in the action. The play is structured in story theatre style, with Bob and Helena narrating, sometimes speaking in the author’s voice, sometimes in their character’s voices, while rapidly shifting course from direct address to the audience to actual dialogue in the play proper. This can get confusing, so it’s wise to listen closely. The very colloquial, profanity-laced dialogue is spoken with Scottish accents.
     There is a small number of juicy scenes, such as one in which Bob is having difficulty peeing because he has an erection, so he engages in an extended conversation with his penis. No nudity is involved, however, as the stand-in for Bob’s member is a red Elmo doll that figured in a previous scene. Nor is there nudity in the scene in which Bob and Helena have sex in a variety of positions, during which Bob’s lines, not heard by Helena, reveal his inner thoughts as he struggles to complete the act successfully.    
     For all the play’s potential on paper, it comes to life only sporadically on stage. Clocking in at an hour and 45 minutes, without an intermission, it flags far too early, and the two actors, who also sing and play the guitar, while talented, simply didn’t have the charisma to keep me interested for very long. The play requires actors capable of giving a tour-de-force performance; Matthew Pidgeon and Cora Bissett play people facing a life-changing moment—a principal theme is the need to have the courage to change and not stay in a rut—but they are too sweet and lacking the edge these characters require if we want to see how love alters them. In a play like this, the lovers must not only fall in love with each other, but the audience must fall in love with them. This didn’t happen for me, even though I wish I could have warmed to Midsummer on this midwinter night.
Much as those of us of a certain age could probably sing the lyrics to many of the songs in this juke box revue of Harold Arlen’s music, it’s a sad reality that many younger people would look glassy-eyed if you asked them even to hum such tunes as “Get Happy,” “World on a String,” “Accentuate the Positive,” “Down with Love,” “Blues in the Night,” “Paper Moon,” or “Anyplace I Hang My Hat is Home.” Try asking the average college student if they’ve ever heard of “Come Rain or Come Shine,” “Stormy Weather,” “That Old Black Magic,” “I’ve Got the Right to Sing the Blues,” or“The Gal That Got Away.” Most of Arlen’s songs, like so many in the great American songbook, are now largely the domain of old-time show biz aficionados or seniors passing their days in nursing homes. About the only numbers that young and old alike will easily recognize are the evergreens from The Wizard of Oz, half a dozen of which close out this show. The final number is “Somewhere over the Rainbow,” reportedly voted the greatest song of the twentieth century.
     If you brought an Arlen-deprived youngster with you to St. Luke’s Theatre to see THE WONDERFUL WIZARD OF SONG, the odds are you’d lose all credibility in their eyes when the show was over. Sad to say, the Arlen songs I’ve mentioned, so deeply embedded in the bloodstream of people raised in the U.S.A. during the thirties, forties, and fifties, are given only so-so performances by the four modestly talented singers in this low-rent presentation. A mediocre trio of male singers, calling themselves The Three Crooners (George Bugatti, Marcus Goldhaber, and Joe Shepherd) and a young African-American woman (Antoinette Henry), of Rubenesque proportions, offer conventional renderings of Arlen’s music, none of them coming close to the level of the Sinatras, Bennetts, Garlands, Fitzgeralds, Hornes, and so on who made these tunes immortal (or so we once thought). The standout is Ms. Henry, dressed for most of the show like a 1940s-style night club chanteuse, a la Billie Holiday (but without the gardenia), in a full-length, blue evening dress and long white gloves. Her powerful voice often borders on shrillness, though, and her interpretations lack depth or originality.
     The singers are not helped by a piano accompanist (Andrew Simpson) whose aggressive key pounding sometimes threatens to swallow them, by Gene Castle’s cheesy choreography and direction, or by the commonplace dialogue George Bugatti has written to link the songs and give the audience some sense of who Harold Arlen was. The simple set shows several panels at either side plastered with movie posters and pictures of Arlen, while an upstage screen provides a background for still and video projections, the most interesting of which are home movie clips Arlen took during the filming of The Wizard of Oz.
     Harold Arlen was indeed a wonderful wizard of song; The Wonderful Wizard of Song lacks such a wizard and is not nearly as wonderful.  
There is a tiny theatre in the basement of the Irish Repertory Theatre that you reach by going down a flight of stairs and walking along a series of narrow corridors. It is an overheated, claustrophobic space, which is just the right setting for Charlotte Jones’s 80-minute two-hander, AIRSWIMMING, set in a nondescript room—part bathroom, part inmates’ cell—at England’s St. Dymphna’s Institution for the Criminally Insane. A small picture of Dymphna, the patron saint of the criminally insane, as she is called in the play, is the only decoration. There is a single, small window, high on a wall. In this extremely cramped environment, where the low ceiling over the stage and audience is composed of beams and steam pipes you can practically reach up and touch, are Dora (Aedín Moloney) and Persephone (Rachel Pickup), who have little to do except mop, scrub, and scour. Dora, soon called Dorph, is short, homely, and direct; she speaks in a lower-class accent, and displays a somewhat masculine demeanor. Persephone, who will assume the name of Porph, is tall, slim, and beautiful; her speech and movements betray her upper-class background. Both are dressed in drab maid-like uniforms. The year is 1924.
     Dorph has been incarcerated here since 1922; Porph is the bewildered newcomer who has no idea of why she’s here, declaring there’s been some mistake and that her family will soon come and take her away. But she is deluded. In fact, Dorph and Porph are the fictionalized versions of two women, Miss Kitson and Miss Baker, actually committed to an institution (real name, St. Catherine’s) by their families for having had babies out of wedlock. Left there to rot, no one ever claimed them and they remained forgotten by the outside world as well, it would seem, as by the institution itself, until released in 1972, half a century later, creating a national scandal. No information is provided in the program about the real-life situation that inspired the play, originally produced in England in 1997, but this article from a contemporary newspaper will help those who might be interested:,1765389
     We see only these two women in a series of scenes set over the fifty years of their residence in the institution, where they have been declared “moral imbeciles,” and watch as they develop an inseparable bond of friendship. For much of the play, the seemingly stronger-willed Dorph acts as the protector and nursemaid over the delicate and high-strung Porph, but later in the play it is Dorph who begins to break down and needs the affection and care of Porph to survive. At one point, she tries to drown herself in a bathtub (the third onstage bathtub scene I’ve witnessed this season). The characters, who lose all sense of time and eventually have no idea of what year, or even what decade, they’re living in, create a fantasy life to help them pass the days. Porph believes she is channeling Doris Day and, wearing a ratty blonde wig, sings Day’s most popular songs and references things from her life, such as her support for animal rights. Dorph imagines herself a male military officer; she is also prone to cite arcane references to heroic women—the best known being Joan of Arc—of the past who overcame dire circumstances. One way Dorph and Porph enjoy themselves is to imagine they are doing synchronized swimming, and there are moments, especially in the poignant closing moments, when they move their arms and bodies in swimming movements, giving the play its unusual title.
     There is very little reference to any other inmates or to persons working in the institution. We don’t know anything about who the women are in contact or what news they have of the outside world, although the fact that Porph knows so much about Doris Day suggests they have access to movies, records, and other forms of information. Dorph is seen reading at several times.
     Aedín Moloney and Rachel Pickup both deserve applause for performances that manage to be both touching and funny. Under John Keating’s sensitive direction, they never wallow in self-pity but, except at the rare moments when life overwhelms them, they maintain a lively and loving interest in each other and the fanciful things they imagine in order to help survive their Kafkaesque ordeal. The fact that this story is based, even if very loosely, on something that really happened in the civilized country of England in the mid-twentieth century is astonishing, which only deepens the echoes of this surprisingly affecting little play that continue to haunt me.  
To what lengths would a woman desperate to regain custody of her five-year-old girl go to in order to achieve that goal? What would be her moral boundaries if faced by this dilemma, especially if the clock was ticking in her quest? Assume it’s 2009 and she’s an attractive, capable saleswoman of Saturn cars who earns a nice commission on every car she sells. Since she has to impress the social worker who is looking into her suitability as a mother, would she take occupancy of an empty, foreclosed house in an exurban neighborhood, in order to suggest a respectable lifestyle? If she encountered there a disheveled, young, homeless man already squatting there—one ready to assault any intruder with a two-by-four and so given to conspiracy theories about the “military industrial complex” that he refuses even to step outside—would she befriend him and convince him to pretend to be the plumber when the social worker comes to inspect the premises? When, after she learns she has only a few days left before she loses her job because of Saturn’s imminent folding, would her need for money so blind her that she would go to any lengths to sell a car to a middle-aged man whose interest in sex rather than buying a car from her is obvious within five minutes? What about after he takes her out to dinner, wangles his way into her home, and refuses to leave, promising to buy the car if she goes with him someplace else, away from that menacing housemate? When she returns to her home and finds that her housemate has gone on a rampage, destroying the kitchen and writing “WHORE” on the fridge in excrement, would she not merely fight back in self defense when he threatens her with that handy two-by-four but, when she has him at her mercy, cold-bloodedly smash in his skull? Would she then, with tremendous effort, slowly, oh, so slowly, drag the corpse out through the sliding glass doors, to dispose of later in some undisclosed way? Would she then come back in and, almost as if she did it every day, methodically clean up the blood and feces and broken furniture? And when, at the salesroom the next morning, would she, when confronted by the wife and told that the man was both jobless and penniless (unlike the wife, who admits to having money), and had no intention of buying the car, lie that she and the man were in love and were going to run away together as a way of extorting $10,000 from the wife in return for giving him up? Would the wife actually give it to her? And, finally, would she, using a fake lease, successfully convince the otherwise sharp-eyed social worker that she was fit to have her child returned to her?
     These are some of the questions audiences will have to ask themselves if they are going to accept as plausible the action in BETHANY, a play by Laura Marks, having its world premiere at City Center under the auspices of the Women’s Project. This is one of those plays that makes you want to shout at the characters, the playwright, the director (Gayle Taylor Upchurch)—someone, anyone—for thinking they can fool an audience so easily. (Perhaps they can, since the applause was far from cool.) BETHANY is clearly intended to make the audience ponder the immoral lengths to which someone might go to achieve some worthy goal, but, if the options are so contrived and the choices so implausible, the play becomes little more than an abstract exercise in relative morality with little basis in reality.
     One reason many might visit this production is the presence of America Ferrera (TV’s Ugly Betty) as Crystal, the central character. Ferrera gives a perfectly professional performance but there’s little she can do to make her character or the circumstances convincing. None of the other capable performances is able to rise above the material, nor is the set—a simplified one that serves as both a kitchen and a Saturn showroom, with a backdrop showing a Levittown-like exurb as seen from the air—especially noteworthy. The most memorable moments, theatrically, are the fight between Crystal and her housemate, intended to be viciously brutal but actually rather clumsy, and the lengthy sequence during which, using spray cleaner and paper towels, she cleans up the bloody mess. If only the play itself could have been given the same treatment.  
In 1983, a rather naive, young actor named James DeVita saw British star Ian McKellen do his one-man, autobiographical play, ACTING SHAKESPEARE, in New York and had an epiphany. Never having had a clue as to what made Shakespeare special, he suddenly realized how great acting could make the Bard’s words exciting and accessible. He then determined to overcome his personal limitations and become a classical actor. Three decades later, having built a career in classical theatre, mainly in the Midwest, he got permission from McKellen to adapt ACTING SHAKESPEARE for his own performance. At first, he used McKellen’s own autobiographical words for the non-Shakespearean parts of the narrative, but eventually realized the show needed to be about him, James DeVita, not Ian McKellen; he then thoroughly rewrote the narrative around his own life. The result is IN ACTING SHAKESPEARE, now at the Pearl Theatre.
     IN ACTING SHAKESPEARE is a two-act solo performance, running two hours-plus, in which Mr. DeVita recounts his stumbling journey toward classical actorhood, including his growing up on Long Island as the less than well-educated son of a fisherman; his three years as a first mate on a fishing boat; his unsuccessful attempts at college before being accepted at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee; his struggle to overcome his acting problems, including his New York-area accent (there’s an extended bit in which a Kristin Linklater-type teacher tries to get him to say the “o” in “monarch” correctly); his first professional job in Shakespeare, when he was cast as a spear-carrier in a Colorado Shakespeare Festival production of OTHELLO, starring Jimmy Smits, whose performance he watched in awe; his work in a touring production of KING LEAR, staged by a Japanese director (obviously Suzuki Tadashi, who goes unnamed); his listening to recordings of great English actors doing Shakespeare; his successful, long-term engagement with the American Players Theatre in Wisconsin; and various aspects of his private life.
     Interwoven in the narrative is the story of Shakespeare’s own journey, from an apparently education-deprived background in Stratford to a magnificent career in London; the implication is that there are definitely correspondences between DeVita’s life experiences and Shakespeare’s. Through it all, DeVita speaks directly to the audience in both his own voice and those of his teachers and others in his life, including women, while changing to a variety of English accents to express, often in humorous ways, Shakespeare’s own experiences. One nicely done bit, for example, shows Richard Burbage as a somewhat dimwitted actor being directed by Shakespeare the first time he had to read “To be or not to be” at rehearsal, and questioning the playwright about the meaning and necessity of words like “contumely,” “fardels,” and “bodkin.”
     At several junctions, Sir Ian himself materializes to deliver some lines in his own voice, with DeVita doing what he can to imitate the inimitable actor.
     However, if you’re mainly interested in the acting of Shakespeare’s plays, not DeVita the actor or Shakespeare the person, you’ll be seriously disappointed. Judging by the script, only about one sixth of the performance is of Shakespeare’s words; everything else is about the actor or the playwright. When Shakespeare’s speeches do appear, they usually emerge from the narrative itself, so that they assume a natural, honest connection to DeVita’s life. Among the handful of plays quoted from are RICHARD III, HENRY IV, PART I, HAMLET, and OTHELLO.
     DeVita is a good-looking, well-built, average-sized man in his early fifties, who wears just cowboy boots (which he admits are meant to give him additional height), jeans, a white dress shirt, open at the collar, and a black suit jacket that he uses in a variety of ways, such as an apron, when needed. The stage is bare except for scenic flats stacked at the rear, and the only props are a leather shoulder bag, a cane, a crate-like box, and a chair, all of which serve multiple functions. Although the lighting is generally unassuming, there are several moments when sound and lights combine to create surprisingly effective moments.
     DeVita has a distinct charm and a facility with Shakespeare’s words that allow him to invest them with insightful readings that make them immediate and comprehensible, but he is not without his own actorish tics and mannerisms. You see how hard he’s working to create his effects, and this robs him of the ease and complete naturalness that might otherwise invest him with star quality. James DeVita had a life-changing experience when he saw Ian McKellen in ACTING SHAKESPEARE. I’d be surprised if some young, aspiring actor were to have a similar experience when seeing James DeVita in IN ACTING SHAKESPEARE.  
 61. THE SUIT 
Eighty-seven-year-old British director Peter Brook is still at it. I’ve been following Brook’s remarkable career ever since I saw his epochal MARAT/SADE and A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM back when my hair not only was black but when I actually had the hair to make that claim. In 1991 I even published an award-winning book, From Belasco to Brook: Representative Directors of the English-Speaking Stage, in which I included a lengthy discussion of Brook’s career until that time. His latest piece, co-directed, designed, and composed with Marie Hélène Estienne and Franck Krawczyk, is THE SUIT, now playing at the BAM Harvey Theatre.
     The production has been performed at various international venues, including Paris, where it was first done in French, and will continue to tour, with trips scheduled to as far away as China. It has received predominantly positive reviews, including one from Ben Brantley of the New York Times who said it wrought “devastation by enchantment.” When the performance ended tonight, the audience continued clapping far longer than I’ve witnessed any audience doing so all season, although only a few people actually stood (a custom that has become commonplace on Broadway, even for mediocrity). I clapped dutifully, but with far less enthusiasm, I’m afraid. Not because the show was bad, but because it simply wasn’t THAT good! The applause for the far worthier THE OTHER PLACE was considerably briefer.
     If you’ve seen Brook’s productions over the past three decades, you’re sure to recognize his signature artistry; this aesthetic evolved during the latter part of his career, after he’d spent months traveling in Africa with a troupe of actors, performing for villagers under the most restrictive conditions. The components include a nearly bare space, a rug, and a minimum number of scenic props with multiple creative possibilities; onstage musicians who may also participate in the action; the use of mime to suggest minor props; a small cast, etc. In THE SUIT we have a rectangular coral-colored rug to denote the main acting area; a dozen or so wooden chairs, painted in bold primary colors—red, green, orange, blue; half a dozen metal clothing racks on wheels, in different sizes; a table. Not much more is visible, apart from a musician’s keyboard, but the Harvey’s famed architectural look of pitted and peeling walls (first seen when Brook’s MAHABHARATA played there in 1985), was fully exposed on the open stage.
     The fable-like story is set during the apartheid era in a South African suburb, Sophiatown, known for its rich cultural life, but scheduled during the action for demolition so its inhabitants can be forced to move elsewhere at the government’s request. Philemon (William Nadylam), a middle-class law clerk, comes home one day to find his beautiful wife, Matilda (Nonhlanhla Kheswa), in bed with another man, who flees, leaving his suit behind. To punish her, Philemon requires that the suit, on its hanger, become part of their daily lives, dining with and even sleeping with them, as a constant reminder of Matilda’s transgression. She sadly submits to this humiliation and, later, when she has joined and become active in a women’s club, she, Philemon, and others attend a party at which she sings joyfully, only for Philemon to bring forth the suit to publicly shame her. Soon after, she dies, presumably of a broken heart, and it belatedly dawns on the heartbroken Philemon how cruel he has been.
     To tell the story, the actors engage in various theatrical exercises using the minimal props with which they’re provided, their body movements making it clear that they’re riding a bus, for example, or engaged in other behaviors. A memorable scene occurs when Matilda slips an arm through one of the suit jacket’s sleeves to create the impression of her lover caressing her. We’ve seen this convention before, but the actress does an exceptional job of evoking the sensuality of the experience. Two additional actors (Jared McNeill and Rikki Henry) play several others in the story, and, like the leads, give excellent performances. Most affecting for me was the absolutely stunning Ms. Kheswa, who, while not gifted with an especially outstanding voice, is quite touching and magnetic during her several singing opportunities.
     A lot has been written about the relationship of this tragic love story to the dire circumstances in which, as black South Africans, the characters are enmeshed. Brook told The Wall Street Journal, for instance, “This most extraordinary human situation between a man and a woman could not have taken this strange and frightening form except when minds are so warped. Something becomes a pressure cooker in the mind.” Despite the several references to local socio-political issues, these all seemed extraneous to what is surely a universal example of the extremes to which jealousy can drive an otherwise rational person. I found nothing particularly South African in the story; what I saw could have happened anywhere.
     The music, which combines familiar tunes with original material, is quietly effective in supporting the action, and there’s even a deeply moving rendition of the classic song about lynching, “Strange Fruit.” The three musicians, while not given any lines, move in and out of the action as additional characters when needed. Philippe Vialette’s exquisite lighting and Oria Puppa’s costumes (she also did the scenic pieces), especially the lovely outfits worn by Matilda, do much to make this slight piece of theatre physically appealing; Matilda’s garments include a close-fitting slip that she fills in a way that would have done wonders for Scarlett Johansson in CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF.
     During the party scene, three members of the audience are brought onstage to take part in the festivities. I’d read that Ben Brantley had been pulled onstage, to his dismay, but that he’d actually found the experience rewarding. I was seated on the aisle in row G so I felt totally secure from this invasion of my privacy. Sure enough, however, when the time came, an actor came rushing up the stairs and asked if I wouldn’t join him onstage; “Not really,” I nervously responded, and he took instead a young woman who was right behind me. I watched as she and the other two victims, another young woman and a man about my age (think Methuselah), improvised the roles of party guests, to the great delight of the BAM audience. During the curtain calls, after they’d already returned to their seats, they were once again shanghaied so they could take a bow. My relief at not being there to share the moment with them was perhaps the greatest pleasure I derived from THE SUIT.  
There’s a theatre critic/journalist I know who, when asked in person his opinion about something he didn’t like, rolls his eyes and says, mournfully, “Oy vey.” I expect he’ll groan “Oy vey” when questioned about his response to COLLISION, Lyle Kessler’s new play (which clocks in at an hour and 40 intermissionless minutes) being given a reasonably well-acted but quickly forgotten—except for one thing—performance at Off Broadway’s Rattlestick Theatre by the Amoralist Company.
     Kessler, best known for his 1983 ORPHANS, soon to be revived on Broadway with Alec Baldwin and Shia LaBeouf, sets the action in the dorm room of an unnamed college where a weak-willed student named Bromley (Nick Lawson), already ensconced there at the start of the semester, comes under the influence of his newly arrived roommate, Grange (James Kautz), a smooth-talking manipulator and possible psychopath, who immediately decorates the space with supposedly cool posters of iconic rebels like Janis Joplin, Ché, Bob Marley, and Kurt Cobain (are these folks still on college students’ radar?). Grange’s proclivity for playing mind games with those insecure people he feels he can control soon brings within his web a pretty blonde coed, Do (Anna Stromberg), and the campus’s allegedly most popular teacher, the aging Prof. Denton (Michael Cullen), a professor of philosophy. Grange says he wants to strip them of their “veneer,” to expose their true, authentic selves, absent of hypocrisy. In one scene Grange has sex with Do while Bromley hides under the covers in the neighboring bed. Although shocked to discover that Bromley was there all along, Do (short for Do Re Mi, not doe a deer, she declares), who otherwise seems intelligent enough, allows Grange to convince her, against her better instincts, that she should now have sex with Bromley. In another scene, Grange, having invited the professor to the dorm room, persuades Bromley to strike the professor until he falls down, merely as a way of exercising his power.
     Grange is obsessed with making video recordings of his conversations with his friends. In the second half of the play, he talks Renel (Craig muMs Grant), a black gun dealer, to sell him his entire stock of standard and automatic pistols. (All of this transpires in the dorm room.) Do, Bromley, and the professor think that Grange is going to make an action-oriented video with them, and needs the guns for that purpose. The dealer, who speaks in an exaggerated black street dialect, is clearly dangerous and street smart but allows himself to be duped into accepting a check, rather than cash, for the weapons. When he angrily returns to insist on his money, he is quickly disarmed and killed by the professor, who bashes his head in with a statuette. The body is simply stashed under a bed, its legs sticking out, and when Bromley and Do return, there is very little sense of shock at what’s just happened. The quartet of weirdoes, who now believe they’ve evolved into a family (each has a depressing family history), turn toward the audience and, with the suggestion that mass violence is in store for this college campus, point their weapons at it as the lights go down.
     Originally intended as a black comedy, the play was reportedly revised in the wake of the Newtown shootings to take on a more somber hue as a straight drama, but the effect is still unsettling, suggesting—albeit unconvincingly—the potential for violence in the most innocuous of people. Kessler’s clunky dialogue is filled with pretentiously intellectual dialogue touching on the existence of God and various pseudo-philosophical issues, and names like Nietzsche and Schopenhauer are casually tossed about. The characters are paper thin (how anybody in their right mind could find the charisma-challenged Grange and his ideas attractive is harder to figure out than E=MC2), the action is implausible (see above), there is an uncomfortable racist tinge to the depiction of the drug dealer (given the evening’s best performance by Mr. Grant), and the production values are unmemorable, especially the palpably phony scenes of violence. There is one redeeming factor, however, inappropriate as it may be; in a brief nude scene, Miss Stromberg displays a strikingly robust and well-shaped body. Still, shouldn’t the audience be expected to view her disrobing in terms of its dramatic meaning rather than as a stimulus of prurient thoughts? COLLISION is one theatrical accident for which you’ll wish they had sold insurance at the box office. Oy vey!  
Because of my misgivings about this production, the minute I got home after seeing WORKING ON A SPECIAL DAY at 59e59 I was pulled to the computer like a fly on a frog’s tongue. I was simply unable to overcome my desire to see if there were any clips on YouTubefrom the Italian movie, A SPECIAL DAY (Una Giornata Particolare), from which the play was adapted. A SPECIAL DAY starred the extraordinarily beautiful and talented Sophia Loren and Marcello Mastroianni, two of the greatest screen actors of the late twentieth century, Italian or otherwise. I found a couple of extended scenes from the unsubtitled, undubbed version, and my misgivings were confirmed. YouTube can be wonderful, but it can also poop on your party when you use it to compare performances of the same material when performed by ordinary actors who are competing against icons.
     This 75-minute production, cosponsored by New York’s The Play Company and Mexico City’s Por Piedad Teatro, was adapted for the stage from Ettore Scola and Ruggero Maccari’s screenplay by Gigliola Fantoni, and directed and performed by Ana Graham and Antonio Vega, two Mexican actors who also translated it into English with Danya Taymor. The film, while mainly about two characters, Gabriel and Antonietta, who dominate most of the action, also has a number of minor characters, such as Antonietta’s six kids, her husband, and a porter, observed in exquisite detail as they start the day in the first scene.  
     The conceit of this stage production is to have its two actors play not only Gabriel and Antonietta, but everyone else as well. They perform on a stage consisting of nothing but the space’s own plain black-painted walls, with two door-less openings at stage left. A few props lie here and there (a table, a piece of luggage, books, etc.), but the play relies equally on props and scenic elements drawn on the walls with chalk by the actors as they perform. We see a birdcage, with a bird in it; a large, open window upstage; another, smaller window at stage right, and other things, such as a shelf with salt and pepper, a clock, and a hanging lamp, drawn when needed. When something needs alteration, like the closing of a window, the actor erases what must be changed and draws a new picture over the now smudgy space. The action takes place mostly in the apartments of the two protagonists, as well as on their apartment building rooftop; it moves from place to place fluidly. Like an Alan Ayckbourn play, the two characters sometimes share the same space, although he’s in his apartment and she’s in hers. For the most part this works, and when one character goes to another’s apartment, we hear the offstage sound of feet running up or down the many steps from one apartment to another several floors away.
     The other characters are mostly heard from offstage, either by the actor going offstage and changing his or her voice from there, or while saying the lines deadpan from an onstage position but in as unobtrusive a way as possible. Sound effects of alarm bells, phones, and doorbells are made by the actors themselves, but there are recorded effects as well, including a plane, and, most importantly, a loudspeaker announcer outside narrating the events of May 8, 1938, when a parade was held in honor of Mussolini and the visiting Hitler, whose speeches are also heard.
     During this special day, frumpy housewife Antionetta is home doing the wash; preoccupied with housework, she’s too busy to attend the parade and ceremonies, even though they’re nearby; meanwhile, several floors away, Gabriel, is about to blow his brains out with a pistol. When her bird flies out the window and lands at Gabriel’s, the pair are brought together. They become immediate friends, she the unappreciated drudge whose life is completely lacking in romance, he an educated, appealing, and presumably attractive radio announcer who has lost his job. As they warm up to one another, each desperately seeking some release from their private torments in a shared moment of intimacy with another human being, she kisses him passionately, only for him to violently reject her because he is gay and angry that she expects him as a man to respond only one way, which he demonstrates by forcibly clutching her crotch. We have thought, perhaps, that he lost his job because of something subversive he said to which the fascist state took umbrage, so his homosexuality is intended to come as a surprise; being gay, of course, was in its own way a subversive act at the time. Still, Antonietta’s chemistry gets to him and they ultimately do have good sex, which seems completely out of character for Gabriel. Could the film have thrown it in to satisfy Marcello’s millions of female admirers, even though Gabriel insists, after the sex, that “it doesn’t change things”? The special day ends as Antonietta’s family comes home and Gabriel is taken off to prison.
     If you’re going to adapt a film, even one as unfamiliar today as A SPECIAL DAY (which the YouTube clips show to be very good, indeed), and boil it down to a two-hander based on characters played by still-remembered, world-class stars, then you’d better do something really special with it production-wise or in the casting of the actors. The directorial notion of drawing the props on the walls, and having the characters do other voices and sound effects, has a certain ingenuity, but it has to be executed with unique ability and technical precision. Here, it remains merely a clever idea performed with no special visual or physical artistry. When things are erased, the result simply looks sloppy. The film’s highlight scene, where Gabriel and Antonietta have a riveting confrontation on a rooftop amid white linen being hung up to dry, is replicated more or less on stage, but compared to its filmic realization, which I’d rate at a 10, it comes off as a 1. Here’s the film scene; it’s in Italian but it doesn’t matter with these actors. Be patient and watch it build.
     The actors in WORKING ON A SPECIAL DAY are competent professionals, who adapt their native Mexican accents so they sound Italian; they are not, however, attractive, charming, or gifted enough to even approach the levels of loneliness, sensuality, and desperation so powerfully conveyed by Sophia and Marcello. Then again, who is? 
Hamish Hamilton’s THE VANDAL, at the Flea Theatre, runs only an hour and 15 minutes, so I’ll try to focus much of my response on what happens in it. This is a three-character play set in Kingston, New York, with three contiguous locales: a bus stop (with a bench) outside a hospital; a liquor store; and a graveyard. (Yes: there are lines about how ironic this is. For example: “That’s like the one thing the city planner got right, like if you have to go to one or other of the other two places, and you’re able to stumble out alive, at least there’s the liquor store waiting for you. We’re at the center of the triangle, (points at hospital) Dying, (points at cemetery) Dead, (points at liquor store) Drunk.”)
     One cold winter night, a Woman (Deirdre O’Connell), as the script calls her, whose husband died of cancer at the hospital after three years of suffering, is waiting on the bench for a bus that’s late when a garrulous, skinny, 17-year-old Boy (Noah Robbins) in a hoody, who says he’s been visiting a recently deceased friend’s grave, begins talking to her; he insists on asking her questions despite her obvious desire to ignore him. He tells her that his mom died when he was delivered via a C-section, and that she reminds him of his French teacher. He claims in a long story (sort of like the one about the dog in Zoo Story), that the teacher had an affair with a student who then killed himself by burying himself alive, a gruesome death whose method he carefully describes. He shares other horrific stories about people he knows who died. She soon opens up a bit, and grudgingly goes to buy him a six-pack and Ranch Doritos. The liquor store’s proprietor, the Man (Zach Grenier), is suspicious of her because other people, usually homeless men, have come on similar errands on the first Friday of every month; he reveals that he knows she’s doing it for his son, Robert, although he doesn’t say much more than that; however, he declares his wife isn’t dead, that they’re just divorced. He also drills her on why she’s using someone else’s credit card, forcing her to come up with an explanation since the name on the card is that of her late husband’s nurse. (The Woman stole it for revenge because her husband was in love with the nurse.)The Woman brings the Boy the beer and chips, and begins to drink with him, starting with a small bottle of Jim Beam. As she begins to get drunk, she berates the Boy for lying about his mother being dead, but he clings to his version of reality. He leaves her and, soon after, she stumbles through the cemetery, looking for him, only to be found there by the Man. He drinks the remaining beers and reveals more about himself. The Woman says she came there to vandalize the cemetery with Robert, which she proceeds to do by tagging “TITS” on the tombstones in lipstick. One of them, he says to her dismay, is his wife’s, which exposes his lie about her being dead. Then he tells her something else about the Boy that takes the play to another level beyond its deceptively naturalistic tone, but I’ve already provided too many spoilers, so I’ll leave it at that.
     The stories the characters share veer from truth to fiction, and the play’s essence lies in the willful lies they tell, which stem from various motives. The lies seem necessary both as ways to face life’s anguish oneself and to help others do so as well. The Boy, for example, desperately wants the Woman to be his mother, so she makes up an elaborate story about how she died but came back to life. There is a black humor scattered throughout the stories, and the audience often laughs, although not much of it struck me as very funny. If you peruse the plot summary I provided, the degree of plausibility in the sequence of events can easily be questioned (as can having so much of the play take place in the freezing cold), but the often imaginative dialogue keeps you interested in what happens next.  
     Under Jim Simpson’s capable direction, Deirdre O’Connell, who took the role of the Woman when Holly Hunter had to bow out because of a scheduling conflict, gives a strong and multicolored performance, and both Zach Grenier and Noah Robbins are effectively believable as well. But nothing in the play or in their characters made me care much about them, and, when the play ended not that long after it had begun, I was happy it was over and I could get home early enough to watch something better on TV.  
65. LE CID 
If you were a student in my theatre history class back in the day, you would have been required to read Pierre Corneille’s LE CID, the 1637 neoclassical tragicomedy that rocked the French Academy because of its too free application of the unities of time, place, and action. The play remains an important masterpiece in the canon of French theatre, where it demands actors who command the technique of speaking alexandrine verse, such as those in the Comédie Française. It is rarely produced in America, whose familiarity with French theatre of its period is strictly limited to the comedies of Molière. For the Storm Theatre, a small Off-Broadway company, to even dream of attempting an English translation of LE CID (not to be confused with the Charlton Heston-Sophia Loren epic movie about the same title character, EL CID) should be seen as an act of sheer hubris unless it is able, through sheer force of will, brilliant staging, and inspired acting, to overcome the huge obstacles it presents.
     These are not physical obstacles, by the way, as the play requires only a single set; if the locale changes, it remains within the same general space (i.e., the palace), and there’s no need for any scenic alterations. Here, the set is a simple archway on a platform several steps up from the main acting area at one side of an arena stage arrangement. The look is vaguely classical and the cyclorama behind the arch can take on different colors according to the lighting designer’s choices. The space is a tiny theatre (I counted 64 seats) located in the basement of the Church of Notre Dame, situated at the corner of 114th Street and Morningside Drive, near Columbia University. If you’re venturing there from distant reaches of the city, you’ll be hoping the effort is well worth the trip.
     I’m afraid that, unless you’re an educator or theatre buff with an overwhelming desire to see a rare American staging of this play, you may find you’ve come on something of a fool’s errand. This is not to say that the production is horrible; it does have redeeming features, but these are simply not strong enough to provide the desired payoff. In fact, my companion for the evening wanted to leave after the first act, but I made him stay the course; he ultimately whispered to me during act two that it actually was a pretty good play. What seems to have compelled him was the intriguing development of the action, in which Don Rodrigue (Jeff Kline), the handsome beloved of the beautiful Chimène (Meaghan Bloom Fluitt), must maintain his honor by killing her father, the Count (Brian J. Coffey), after he insults Rodrigue’s own father, Don Diègue (George Taylor). This places Chimène in the difficult position of either marrying the man who killed her father, or taking revenge on him instead. Since the concept of honor is an obsession with everyone in this hermetic world, its permutations become the subject of lengthy speeches that twist this way and that as the characters rationalize their responses. To some degree, we are aided in following the arguments by Richard Wilbur’s rhymed-couplet translation, but most of the actors are hampered by this material, struggling to project not only the heightened reasoning required but the powerful emotional undercurrents so necessary to their relationships.
     Peter Dobbins’s pedestrian direction does little to illuminate the characters, and the performances range from amateurish to acceptably professional. Best are the three older men, George Taylor, Brian J. Coffey, and, as the King of Castile, Spencer Aste, but the leads, while physically attractive, are dully wooden, incapable of handling either the intricate intellectual demands of the verse or its passionate underpinnings. What a great role Don Rodrigue would have been for a young Jimmy Smits! No comment is necessary for the remaining cast members.
     Courtney Irizarry’s period costumes work nicely to suggest the world of the Spanish aristocracy, but more than costumes are needed to overcome the dramatic tedium. However, despite a generally low-key approach to sound and lighting throughout, for some reason the curtain call is staged as a sound and light show, with rock music accompanied by alternating bursts of colored lighting. Perhaps more along these lines might have helped juice up what came before. 
ALL THE RAGE, Martin Moran’s entry into this year’s solo performance sweepstakes, is performed on the spacious stage of Theatre Row’s Peter Jay Sharp Theatre, where the set evokes a loft-like locale, with a large wooden table standing at center on a Persian rug. At stage left is another table, with an overhead projector, and up left is a rolling cork board with a large map of the New York subway system. Later, another rolling demo board is pulled down right on to display a large map of Africa. On the large table is a globe and an attached desk lamp whose conical shade is directed at it like a spotlight. Overhead are various functional lights, that Moran can turn off and on at will. The upstage wall is painted to look like brick, and a projection screen overhead can be pulled down to use as needed. The screen, globe, rolling boards, and lights all come into play in Moran’s deft hands as he uses them to illustrate his rambling, often funny (if not overwhelmingly so), and sometimes sad, narrative memoir.
     Moran, a slim man in his early fifties, dressed in jeans and a buttoned shirt, is a friendly, fairly unassuming presence. He has had a decent career in as an actor (including SPAMALOT on Broadway, which he references), and in 2004 received a Drama Desk nomination for his one-man play THE TRICKY PART; based on his own book about his having been sexually abused from the ages of 12-15 by a camp counselor. In ALL THE RAGE, this admittedly gay actor talks briefly about that experience because it relates to his bigger theme, which covers a number of other personal stories in which he tries to explore his longstanding incapacity for giving full vent to his anger; the chief examples are when he had a hostile confrontation with his father’s mean-spirited second wife, and when he re-encountered his childhood abuser, years later, when the man was dying in a veterans’ hospital. In these situations, despite the pain these people had brought to him, he found a way to fight through his anger to find forgiveness. When he did finally explode at something in rage, it was at a careless New York driver who might have killed him, a moment that provides one of the biggest laughs in the show.
     Much of the narrative concerns his efforts to discover a way to help suffering humanity. Hoping to do this in Africa, he is turned down by Doctors without Borders because his background makes him unprepared for the rigors of the job, but his fluency in French (which he uses to a considerable degree in the play) allows him to find part-time work as an interpreter for African immigrants seeking political asylum. This experience, which makes up a good chunk of the narrative, leads to his developing a close friendship with a Muslim man from Chad, who suffered torture and was forced to leave his family behind; it also provides him the opportunity to make excellent use of his globe and maps. Other images related to his stories are projected from a laptop or from the overhead projector. When he talks of various locations in New York, he places a marker on the subway map to denote each place.
     The evening moves swiftly under Seth Barrish’s skillful direction. Moran manipulates the lights, rolling boards, projections, and so on, smoothly and without a hitch, as he paces around the large space, varying his delivery from gentleness to fury as the moment requires. His scattershot material, ranging as widely as it does, is neither consistently nor overwhelmingly interesting, but Moran’s engaging likability, and his frequently surprising insights, compel attention; the hour and 20 minutes that pass prove just long enough. ALL THE RAGE may not be all the rage with many theatergoers, but, compared with what else is out there this dreary season, you could do worse.  
WOMEN OF WILL is a two hour and 50 minute investigation of the way Shakespeare’s treatment of women evolved. It uses two actors, Tina Packer and Nigel Gore, to both talk about and perform a healthy number of scenes involving female characters; while some may quarrel with the level of Ms. Packer’s artistry, there’s no denying that this woman not only knows her Shakespeare but that when it comes to performing him she means business. The work has been in development over a period of fifteen years during which Packer acted in and directed numerous Shakespeare plays with Shakespeare and Company, the group she headed for many years in Lennox, Massachusetts (it is now run by Tony Simotes). It was first produced in 2010 with the subtitle THE OVERVIEW, and then, presumably in a sequel, as THE COMPLETE JOURNEY in 2011, with the entire piece then given at the Colorado Shakespeare Festival.
     The British-born, trained, and accented Packer’s extensive investment in Shakespeare’s works led her to discover a pattern in his handling of female roles. She writes in a program note, “I was not particularly looking for a pattern; it came of its own accord. But once I had seen it, I couldn’t let it go.” The production is dedicated to explicating this pattern, both in lecture-like terms and in acted scenes. Packer discovered that there are five major cycles in the way Shakespeare wrote about women, wherein his “consciousness of what life was really about . . . appeared in his exploration of feminine ways of power in both women and men, and the effect the women could have on the way we run our lives.” She gives each cycle a name and, aided by Mr. Gore, performs substantial scenes from representative plays in each cycle. Those she is now presenting differ somewhat from those she offered in earlier versions, and it’s not unlikely that she is still tinkering with the selections.  
     The production begins with a scene from THE TAMING OF THE SHREW, which Packer soon dismisses as too uncomfortably anti-female to continue doing, although she and Gore offer several different ways in which the scene could be interpreted. She then moves along to the first cycle, which she terms “The Warrior Plays,” the characters she chooses to portray being Joan of Arc and Margaret of Anjou in \HENRY VI, followed by Elizabeth Woodville in RICHARD III. The second cycle, “The Sexual Merges with the Spiritual,” is represented by Juliet in ROMEO AND JULIET. Cycle three is “Living Underground or Dying to Tell the Truth,” represented by Rosalind in AS YOU LIKE IT and Desdemona in OTHELLO, which she presents in rapid alternation, switching from one to the other and back again, before beginning cycle four, called “Chaos is Come Again,” about ambitious women, the single character chosen being Lady Macbeth in what amounts to a tab version of the Scottish play. Finally, cycle five, “The Maiden Phoenix,” features Marina in PERICLES. Gore plays all the chief male roles opposite her in this eclectic group of plays. The play ends after Packer and Gore speak Shakespeare’s words about the baby Elizabeth in HENRY VIII. No scenes involving Gertrude, Cleopatra, Ophelia, or many other major female roles are included, and most are not even mentioned. If they had been, we would have been there for another several hours.
     This problem of length, in fact, is the production’s ultimate Achilles heel. At nearly three hours, WOMEN OF WILL is longer than practically any show I’ve seen all season, including WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF? I would probably have gotten restless even if the performers were Dame Judy Dench and Sir Derek Jacoby, but since they weren’t, you can imagine the task Packer and Gore have in keeping their audience engaged. Those familiar with Shakespeare’s plays will fare best at this event; others, despite the noble attempt to clearly articulate the dramatic, historical, and character issues required to appreciate the scenes, will drift off as if Bottom in A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM had sprinkled sleepy dust on their eyelids. I noticed an avid theatergoer friend of mine, seated a few seats away, catching up on his z’s quite unconcerned that he was sitting in the front row where the actors could surely see him.
     Tina Packer is, unbelievably, 74-years-old. I say unbelievably because I’m sure there are few women who have the stamina to do a nearly three-hour show in which they not only are on stage continuously, except for a 10-minute intermission, but play so many demanding roles and also keep turning off the thespian spout so they can engage in lengthy and detailed explanations of Shakespeare’s intentions. These academic segments are often quite illuminating, especially when Packer goes into the monarchical successions of the Wars of the Roses plays, but there is so much to digest and experience in this Bardic pantheon that interest eventually wanes. Packer is a full-throated actress, built like a small tank, and dressed for much of the time in tights, high boots, and a tunic; for some scenes she dons a green velvet gown, for the role of Marina a pink silk one. With her boyish, short-cropped red hair atop a still pixie-like face, she resembles an aging Peter Pan.  Watching her maintain her energy level and vocal power throughout will make you want to say, like the lady in WHEN HARRY MET SALLY, “I’ll have what she’s having.” She brings a lifetime of Shakespearean experience to the production, and even though she only occasionally rises to true excellence in her interpretations, she must be respected for her intelligence and presence. I didn’t care much for her Juliet, among others, but seeing this septuagenarian as that teenage girl nevertheless make you forget her age and concentrate on her readings. In the final actual scene, her very youthful Marina was truly touching. I wouldn’t pay to see an actress of her age play such roles (although I did once see Dame Judith Anderson play Hamlet when she was in her dotage), but in the context of this production, there were lessons to be learned from the professionalism of Tina Packer’s work. 
     Nigel Gore, who appears to be in his fifties, wears jeans and a polo shirt throughout, except for when he plays Pericles, when he dons an odd jacket made of shredded cloth strips. He is a good actor, and plays his many parts quite capably, while also offering helpful commentary during the academic sections (which are often presented as a kind of friendly repartee between the stars). He is solid and serviceable, but he lacks star quality.
     The visual components are suitably spare, just a large Persian rug, a few small pieces of furniture when needed, and a minimum of props. A half-dozen metal scaffolds lined up against the upstage wall and covered in black mesh form the scenic background. The space is three-quarters round, with the area closest to the actors lined with cushions. The lights are also minimalist, sometimes being manipulated by the actors themselves, but they are often used strikingly, as are the subtle but still powerful sound effects that underscore much of the action.
     At the end of the show, audience members are invited to write something on the wooden railings separating sections of the seating. When I looked, others already had written lines from Shakespeare. My comment was: “Brevity is the soul of wit.” But I might equally well have written, “If it were done when tis done ‘twer best it were done quickly.”  
On Sunday, I saw THE JAMMER, a play at the Atlantic Theatre Company, about roller derbies in 1950s Brooklyn, but was not feeling well (probably a stomach virus), so I won’t be writing anything about it. I actually ran out shortly before the end and wound up barfing my brains out in the street outside the theatre. “Hey, daddy! Look at the drunk tossing chunks!” I returned to the theatre a night later to see the following.  
I learned something new from this innocuous new play by Paul Bomba at 59e59: when someone falls on the subway track in front of an oncoming car, the conductor yells “Man under!” Other than that, the play offers very little enlightenment about the human relationships it attempts to explore in its depiction of two young men and two young women searching for love in all the wrong places.
     Jeff (Paul Bomba, the playwright) shares a New York apartment with Martin (Curran O’Connor). We don’t know what Jeff does for a living, but Martin seems to have some sort of office job that requires a coat and tie. Down the hall lives Jennifer (Veronique Ory), an ordinary girl living, unhappily, with her boyfriend. She and Martin, who share a love for the Yankees, seem to have promise as a couple but he is crippled by his inability to express his feelings, despite the signals she emits. He is a giver, someone able to help others with their problems, but is unable to take care of his own. Jeff, for his part, is suffering from the death two years before of his fiancée, whose wedding dress he practically worships. One evening, while waiting at the edge of the subway platform, he has an impulse to toss himself in front of the oncoming train. He doesn’t, of course, but he returns home to declare that he shared a look with an attractive girl who seemed to have the same impulse. This leads him and Martin on a quest to find the girl, which Jeff finally manages to do. But she, Lisa (Briana Pozner), has been aware of this search and, after she makes herself available to him, turns out to be something of a sexy nutcase who enjoys nothing more than lying in the well between the tracks and allowing a train to run over her, a “thrill” to which she introduces Jeff. Her favorite hangout is a graffiti-scrawled subway tunnel hideaway, a sort of subterranean temple, where she and Jeff hook up. The hour and fifteen-minute, intermissionless, play follows the romantic developments of this foursome, with few surprises, little humor, some pseudo-tragic hokum, and a dearth of memorable characterization.
     The tiny Theatre C at 59e59, a black box whose configuration changes for every show, is set up for a proscenium-type (actually, end stage) presentation, with the downstage edge of the living room floor, about 10 inches off the theatre’s floor, bearing a painted yellow line to suggest a subway platform. The space in front of the stage becomes the subway tracks, and the living room becomes the subway hideaway through projections of graffiti on its walls, as well as on those surrounding the audience. Set designer Julia Noulin-Mérat is unable to provide more than low-budget chintziness to the overall effect.
     The acting is standard issue, with only the prematurely gray Curran Connor, who brings a certain charm to Martin’s romantic clumsiness and diffidence, able to provide anything truly interesting. The direction does little to enhance the proceedings, and the sight of the actors dashing off to change for their next scene, before the stage is fully dark, is disconcerting. I had a better time reading the press rep’s colorful description of the play than seeing the work itself. My admonition to potential visitors is, “Play under!”  
One of the more intriguing pieces of pure theatre I’ve seen this season is THE MAN WHO LAUGHS, being given by the Stolen Chair troupe at Urban Stages on W. 30th Street. It’s based on a little-known novel by Victor Hugo that has received other dramatizations as well as being made into a silent film in 1927. It also has had many cultural reverberations, not least of which is the Joker in the Batman story. The Stolen Chair company first staged it in 2005, and it is now being produced with a different cast. What makes it memorable is that it is done entirely as if it were a silent movie, with the actors on a stage fitted with a false proscenium with painted tab curtains. A scrim serves as a background for the projected title cards, and also to enhance the filmic effect.
     The six-member company, under Jon Stancato’s very imaginative direction, collaborated in the staging of this 90-minute, intermissionless theatre piece, which employs an adaptation by Kiran Rikhye that effectively evokes the melodramatic style of the old silents. Pianist Eugene Ma sits at a piano on auditorium level, just beneath the stage, and accompanies the action with his original score, which perfectly captures the music one would hear at an old-time movie performance. All the handsome and clever visuals (sets and lighting by David Bengali; costumes by Julie Schworm) are hued in tones of black, white, and sepia, to suggest a cinematic look, and the actors’ movements are an excellent recreation of the more flamboyantly stylized attitudes we associate with those movies. Something similar was tried in the now vanished CHAPLIN earlier in the season, but this show’s artistry comes off even more successfully because it is a low-budget labor of love. This is not a campy exercise, mind you; it takes very seriously the task of recreating the true ambience of movie from the days before The Jazz Singer revolutionized movies.
     The freely adapted story, borrowing from Hugo and the 1927 movie, is a piece of Gothic horror and sentimentality, set around the beginning of the 18th century, about an abandoned boy, Young Gwynplaine (Noah Schultz), who is set upon in a snowstorm by a band of comprachicos, a strange gang who kidnap and disfigure people so they can put them to work in side shows. They carve a permanent smile upon his face before they have to make their escape. The boy rescues a baby from its dying mother and brings it to the cabin of Ursus (John Froehlich), a “misanthropic violinist” whose initial reservations are overthrown as he decides to shelter the boy and infant. The baby, he soon discovers, is blind. She and the boy grow up in the care of the violinist and, nineteen years later, they have formed a traveling side show act, with the girl, Dea (Molly O’Neill), billed as “The Beautiful Blind Girl” and Gwynplaine (Dave Droxler), now a clown, as “The Man Who Laughs.” Although he succeeds in garnering audience laughter, Gwynplaine is depressed because he wants to be recognized as a serious actor. He is also in love with the Mary Pickford-like, blonde-tressed Dea, and she with him, but he is seduced by Josiana (Rebecca Whitehurst), a sexy duchess in a Louise Brooks hairdo and a sleek black dress that practically shouts “vamp!” She and her companion, an effete lord (Raife Baker), are merely toying with Gwynplaine out of boredom. The action and music grow increasingly melodramatic, as the drama works itself out to a tragic conclusion.
     Everyone in the cast does a wonderful job, but my favorite is Dave Droxler in the title role. His face, made up in silent movie fashion but with a device that attaches a never-ceasing grin to his features, combines the handsome and grotesque in a haunting manner. Seeing his plaintively expressive eyes floating above the distortion of his huge lips is a pitiful sight that brings to mind one of Marcel Marceau’s classic routines in which he plays a man who also has a smile permanently implanted on his face and does everything in his power to alter his expression. In Gwynplaine’s highlight scene, Droxler does a routine during a side show in which he displays a masterful ability at Marceau-like mime movement, including skillful walking and running movements.
     The principal drawback to this otherwise intriguing work is that, for all the plot development it provides, it contains several scenes that drag on way past their dramatic interest has passed. Either these scenes need cutting or additional scenes need to be cut into the action for more variety. With so much of the action dependent on pantomimic acting, the conceit can wear thin without additional novelty in the plotting. Nevertheless, although this review, like the play it’s based on, ends on a less than happy note, you’ll be very glad you caught THE MAN WHO LAUGHS.  
Tonight, when I returned home after seeing BODEGA BAY, a new play by Elisabeth Karlin at the tiny Dorothy Streisin Theatre on W. 36th Street, my wife asked me what I thought of it; my response was one of my more expressive grunts. I added, however, that no matter how bad I thought it was, I was sure some critic would find all the good things in it to which I was blind. Sure enough, when I checked this out I found that, although the show has received only a few online notices thus far, all of them were positive: the reviewer for BACKSTAGE said “Elisabeth Karlin has fashioned a smart play on the theme of seeing and being seen. She’s also written a fairly effective and involving detective story. . . .” A blog called EDGE added, “Every part of this production works. From great writing and tremendous acting, to creative set design, this play is surprisingly good.” And TIMES SQUARE CHRONICLES weighed in with an equally upbeat response.
     So why did I grunt? Because the play seemed to me—despite a mild chuckle here and an effective performance there—amateurishly written, acted, directed, and designed, and overlong at a little more than two and a half hours.
     Karlin’s episodic dramedy follows the peregrinations of 37-year-old Louise Finch (Sarah Louise O’Connor), as meek and mousy a Staten Island woman as you’re likely to meet, as she makes a cross country trip trying to track down the apparently sex-crazed and otherwise unbalanced mother who abandoned her and her brother, Scottie (Brian McManamon), when they were children. Her goal is to ask her mother for the money to pay for the expensive rehab program the meth-addicted Scottie needs in order to get his life back on track. Her quest takes her to a variety of locations and into the company of various eccentrics until, at the end, when she arrives in Bodega Bay, California, she seems to finally have discovered the elusive Mrs. Finch, although the playwright tries to leave this ambiguous when the lights finally go down. She also, in the process, has found not only herself, but love.
     Bodega Bay, as some may remember, is the site of Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds, to which reference is made in the script, but—according to a promotional comment I came across afterward—the play also is said to contain a couple of hundred references to Hitchcock trivia; I didn’t know this when I entered the theatre, and, apart from the specific references to The Birds, I still have no idea of what the other references are, nor do I care. And even if I did, watching a play in order to check my knowledge of something that speaks to a trivia-obsessed subset of movie fans does not have a high priority on my list of theatergoing goals.
     Aside from Sarah Louise O’Connor as Louise, all the other actors play multiple roles, with the lanky actress Rae C Wright, covering five of them, none convincingly, despite her attempt at different accents (her Hispanic accent sounds Russian). The best overall performance belongs to Gerardo Rodriguez as Juan Garza (could this be a hidden reference to Jimmy Smits and "Outlaw"?), who, thankfully, uses an authentic Hispanic accent to play the private eye who helps Louise track down her mother and also falls in love with her. Nancy Rodriguez portrays four characters, but stands out only as a coworker of Louise’s; she nails the woman’s Staten Island speech patterns with laser accuracy in a telephone monologue. Ms. O’Connor, who is on stage almost throughout, has an affect something like that of Dianne Wiest, with her low-keyed, crinkle-eyed, smiling through-her-tears delivery, but she does this from beginning to end, showing barely any change, and her shy neediness grows increasingly annoying as the play wears on.
     The numerous scenes require numerous rearrangements of the few basic pieces of furniture that serve for all the different locales; this means frequent pauses as stagehands come out to move the pieces around. The actual set remains fixed—two walls with venetian blind-covered windows—no matter where the action takes place; at least the windows allow for variations in color according to how they are lighted. The positive side of these scene changes is that they are all covered by songs sung by Nat King Cole, which, in the end, is what I most enjoyed about this otherwise undistinguished production. I hate to say it, but, for me at any rate, BODEGA BAY is one for the birds.  
Here’s what an online publicity release has to say about BLOOD PRIVILEGE, playing at the tiny Richmond Shepard Theatre on E. 26th Street near Second Avenue:
Orphaned and vulnerable early in life, Elizabeth Bathory rose to become one of the most powerful women in Europe. However, she was not left untouched by her struggle and, possibly insane, she is reputed to have tortured and murdered over 600 women.
Bathory’s life was one of the inspirations behind the vampire myths, including Sheridan Le Fanu’s CARMILLA and Bram Stoker‘s DRACULA.
In BLOOD PRIVILEGE, playwright Don Fried looks behind the legend to where truth, myth and horror collide. The play explores the corruption that comes with absolute power and the doom that pursues those who seek it.
     Okay. I’m willing to admit that sounds interesting enough. Too bad that this promising material has been made the basis for what is without a doubt the worst excuse for a professional theatre production I’ve seen all season. Compared to it, BODEGA BAY is HAMLET. Play, direction, set (excuse me: I mean 3 pieces of wooden furniture and a mirror), lighting, costumes, and acting were beneath comment (including a former Brooklyn College MFA student). This underprivileged play needs a transfusion.
For only the second time this season, a person who was supposed to join me at a play failed to show up last night at La Mama’s Ellen Stewart Theatre because of a scheduling oversight. The play was a universally lauded, Off Broadway revival of THE GOOD PERSON OF SZECHWAN (aka THE GOOD WOMAN OF SETZUAN), Brecht’s modern classic about the difficulty of being good in a world dominated by greed and selfishness. Normally, my being stood up like this wouldn’t be a big deal, since so many shows I’ve been visiting haven’t been worth the time spent watching them, but THE GOOD PERSON came with higher than usual expectations. Thus I was disappointed that my friend, who sometimes accompanies me to half a dozen or more plays in a month, would be missing out on something really worthwhile; also, that a perfectly good ticket had to sit in my pocket since it was too late to turn it in for someone else’s use. It turns out that I was right to feel this way, since the production, apart from a few drawbacks, was memorable. So rather than bitching with my friend about what we’d just seen as we rushed to the subway afterward, I lost a chance to share some of those rare good vibes while I was still embraced by them.  
     THE GOOD PERSON, of course, is a parable in which three ancient gods (Vinie Burrows, Annie Golden, and Mia Katigbak, all in white costumes and white wigs) come to Szechwan in a wearisome search for a single good person, only to find that the only such individual is a poverty-stricken hooker named Shen Tei (Taylor Mac). They reward her with a gift of money and she buys a tobacco shop, but almost immediately is set upon by those seeking to take advantage of her newfound good fortune. In a flash, her livelihood is threatened; only by assuming the alter ego of a fictional male cousin, the ruthless Shui Ta, is she able to stop being a fount of generosity and do what is necessary for her own and the shop’s survival. Eventually, Shui Ta’s appearances go from brief visits to lengthy ones as it is impossible to stem the greedy demands on Shen Tei’s goodness. Meanwhile, she falls for an unemployed flyer, Yang Sun (the very good Clifton Duncan), who is mainly interested in her money and who gets her pregnant. Afterward, Shui Ta is suspected of doing away with Shen Tei, and he is put on trial before the three gods, who serve as judges. Left alone with them, Shen/Shui expresses the impossible moral dilemma s/he has been placed in by the gods’ seemingly willful demands on people’s goodness. The play ends with a narrator (Lisa Kron) asking the audience to make up its own mind about how a good person can exist in a world where everything but goodness thrives.     
     Like Brecht’s other “parable play,” THE CAUCASIAN CHALK CIRCLE, this material demands highly theatricalized staging, and a company of versatile actors who can carry off the required stylization. Another famous American production of the play, which I saw, was done in this same venue in 1987, directed by Andre Serban, with young Diane Lane in the cast. Serban was a master of theatricalism, and his production took advantage of the space’s ample dimensions, with the audience seated around the perimeter of an arena-like environment. Director Lear DeBessonet is also up to the task of creating the appropriate theatrical world for Brecht’s nonrealistic action and characters, and most of her actors fulfill their roles with skill and panache. The set is placed at one end of the large, rectangular room with the audience stretching away from it on bleachers. What they see is a stage around four feet high, with half a dozen steps leading to the auditorium floor. Actors sometimes enter and exit via a trap (thus the high stage) and via the auditorium (thus the steps). The set itself a series of risers, with small, crudely constructed, cardboard box-like houses placed on each level; the effect, with each “house” lit from within, is of a town set upon a hillside. Way up at the very top of the risers is a small band, the Lisps, which accompanies the action, provides musical sound effects, and sings the occasional songs sprinkled through the text. César Alvarez wrote the excellent music set to Brecht’s lyrics (in John Willett’s translation).    
      Some actors play multiple roles, the most effective being Lisa Kron as both Mrs. Mi Tzu, the nasally annoying landlady (in black horn-rimmed glasses and black wig), and Mrs. Yang, the handsome flyer’s Streisand-like mother, with long, enameled fingernails. 
     The standout performance, and one of the season’s most striking, belongs to drag queen Taylor Mac as Shen Tei/Shui Ta. With his slender physique, high cheek bones, and shaved head, he need only change from a red, form-fitting dress to a pinstriped suit with shirt and tie to go from role to role, adding a mustache to disguise his clown white face with its hyped-up eye makeup to establish Shui Ta’s masculinity. He never indulges in campy excess when playing Shen Tei, but manages to suggest her femininity with expert control of movement and gestures, while he is convincingly masculine when he has to assert Shui Ta’s authority. He sings well, moves like a dancer, and acts with both feeling and wit, even adlibbing when something goes wrong. 
     Nearly all movement and behavior is choreographed, and there are several full dance numbers (staged by Danny Mefford) that interrupt the action. Movements are frequently heightened by a sound effect provided by the band. Costumes, props, and scenic pieces have the feel of found objects, even the footlights being converted coffee cans.  
     There are, of course, several drawbacks to this otherwise effective production. For one thing, at least fifteen minutes can be lopped off its 2 hours and 45 minutes by eliminating the bluegrass music overtures to each act. This music was delightful, especially the unusual percussion provided by a drumset in an attaché case, but it really had nothing to do with the show per se. The play runs out of dramatic steam midway and definitely needs all the theatrical juicing up a clever director can give it, so adding all this concert music isn’t of much help in preventing later restlessness. Also, despite the often comic nature of the business, the show comes off as mildly amusing, not funny, and the humor can seem a bit strained, especially as everyone plays their roles with abandon, often with excessive mugging, in order to sustain its manic energy. And finally, the language, for all its colloquial qualities, nevertheless has that stilted “translated” quality that sounds unlike the English we speak in everyday life; this is made more noticeable by the action being set in a fictional China, where the foreignness of the world we are watching is made even more palpable. 
     THE GOOD PERSON OF SZECHWAN, despite these cavils, remains one of the Off Broadway season’s highlights, and I only wish I could have shared my response with the good person of Brooklyn who stood me up. 
The Irish Repertory Theatre has done a commendable job in breathing new life into the musical DONNYBROOK!, a 1961 Broadway flop with music and lyrics by Johnny Burke and a book by Robert C. McEnroe. Its source is the popular 1952 movie, THE QUIET MAN, directed by John Ford, starring John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara, set in the colorful, quaint Irish village of Innisfree. The show stars Broadway baritone James Barbour in Wayne’s role of Sean Enright (Sean Thornton in the film) and Jenny Powers in O’Hara’s character of Mary Kate Danaher (Danagher in the movie; Ellen Roe Danaher on Broadway). The Broadway production starred Art Lund and Joan Fagan, names now known only to theatre trivialists. For some reason, the female lead’s name has been changed from Ellen Roe Danaher for the Irish Rep revival. 
     DONNYBROOK’s book hews closely to the film’s basic plotline, in which the brawny hero is an American (from “Pittsburgh, America,” as the local priest keeps saying), who returns to Innisfree, where he was born, to settle down after retiring from a successful boxing career that ended when he killed a man in the ring. He is determined never again to lift his fists in anger. He falls in love at first sight with the tempestuous, flame-tressed Mary Kate, and we have a bit of a TAMING OF THE SHREW romance between the two strong-willed leads. But Mary Kate’s brother, the fiery Will Danaher (Ted Koch; Victor McGlaglen in the movie; Philip Bosco on Broadway), angry because Sean has outbid him in the purchase of a piece of property, refuses to let his sister wed the American, even starting a fight with him and calling him a coward when Sean refuses to fight back. Only when he’s convinced by Mikeen Flynn (Samuel Cohen), the local matchmaker, that wealthy widow Kathy Carey (Mildred Dunnock in the movie, where she’s called the Widow Tillane),would like to marry him, does Will give in to his sister’s marriage; he knows he could never live with two women in the same house . But when he finds out that he’s been duped (the widow prefers the matchmaker), he refuses to give his sister her promised dowry. This means nothing to Sean, but Mary Kate is enraged by Will’s stamping on tradition, and Sean’s refusal to confront Will cools her ardor for him. Ultimately, she decides to leave him, but Sean forcibly prevents her from boarding the train, and he demands the dowry back from Will, only for the couple to take the currency and tear it up. This leads to the donnybrook that gives the show its title, with Sean and Will mixing it up in a slugfest only partly shown on stage, with most of it taking place offstage and watched by the onstage townspeople whose reactions tell us how it’s going. This fight was the movie’s highlight, with the burly McLaglen and the powerful Wayne giving it their all across the Irish landscape, but the somewhat less imposing presences of Koch and Barbour don’t do the scene justice, nor does the fact that so much of it is offstage help much. Sean bests Will, and they become buddies, and the other relationships are nicely resolved as the show comes to its foregone conclusion. 
     Before the show, an elderly Irish lady I’d never met addressed me in the lobby and said she didn’t care much for the movie. When I asked why, she said, in a lovely brogue, “It’s not oos [us].” I suppose she meant that all those charming villagers, with their accents, taste for spirits, and readiness to brawl at the slightest provocation, were simply too stereotypical and shallow to represent her image of the Irish. Her reaction reminded me of the uproar that surrounded one of Ireland’s most famous plays, THE PLAYBOY OF THE WESTERN WORLD, when it debuted at the Abbey Theatre in 1907 and many Irish found its depiction of Irish villagers offensive. It’s hard to deny that the men and women of DONNYBROOK! match the familiar stereotypes of so many  plays and movies set in rural Ireland, but this is a small objection to the appeal such characters always have had when well performed. 
     The performances are here are somewhat uneven, but most are quite engaging, particularly the Mary Kate of Jenny Powers, who captures the temperament and sexual appeal of this straightforward Irish lass, and whose radiant smile when singing makes a spotlight superfluous. James Barbour, however, despite his booming baritone and evident musical talent, seems out of place as Sean. My impression is that he appears comfortable only in costume dramas, like JANE EYRE, where his Shakespearean bearing and orotund tones are less stagey and more appropriate. In a show about everyday modern characters, he struggles to seem real and sincere. The impression he gives when singing is of someone demonstrating his vocal powers, not of a truly engaged character from whom song issues naturally. In a role so closely associated with an iconic star, Barbour’s lack of comparable charisma is a serious drawback. Kathy Fitzgerald as the widow, Samuel Cohen as Mikeen Flynn, Ted Koch as Will Danaher, and David Sitler as Father Finucane are all solid, as are those in the lesser roles of the townsfolk. 
     Charlotte Moore’s direction keeps everything moving at a suitable clip, with high energy operative throughout, but there are some clumsy moments as well, not helped much by the difficulties imposed by the Irish Rep’s odd physical space. There is a chase scene, for example, that is staged so that Sean runs after Mary Kate around the house standing upstage with only a narrow passageway at one side for them to squeeze through as they go round and round. Barry McNabb’s choreography is limited, but it fits the abilities of the company and does a serviceable job. On the other hand, the set is by far the most successful I’ve seen this season at the Irish Rep, with that upstage house set on a turntable and built so that its walls can open in different configurations to reveal a number of contrasting interiors. 
     Johnnie Burke’s score is pleasantly listenable and more enjoyable than I expected of a show that ran for only 68 performances. However, the two standout numbers in this revival are not from the original score but are interpolations of songs with Burke’s lyrics and music by Jimmie Van Heusen: “It Could Happen to You” and “But Beautiful” are both exceptional numbers that are part of the American songbook but predate DONNYBROOK!’s creation. 
     Despite its weaknesses, DONNYBROOK! has been given a respectable revival that is fairly painless to sit through. In a season that has given New York a revival of one of Broadway’s most famous bombs, MOOSE MURDERS, a show that proved once again why it’s such a stinker, DONNYBROOK! comes off smelling like shamrocks.  
During the intermission at yesterday’s matinee of Paul Downs Colaizzo’s REALLY REALLY at the Lucile Lortel Theatre, two gentlemen in their sixties sitting next me were trying to figure out which character was which. “Cooper, he’s the one who raped the girl, right?” “No, that was, wait, what’s his name?” “Was it Davis?” “Which one is Davis?,” and so on. There are only seven characters in REALLY REALLY, and, while their names are all generic American, after an hour-long first act in which their names are repeated continually, it’s pretty amazing that two theatergoers would still not know who was who. Their conversation continued: “So the one who gets raped, that’s who?” “The blonde girl?” “Isn’t that somebody’s daughter?” “Yeah, a playwright or something.” At this point, I jumped in to be helpful. “She’s Zosia Mamet and her father is David Mamet.” “David Mamet?” “Yes, he’s a famous playwright.” “Right. I know David Mamet. Did he write this play?” And so on, including their belief that Zosia Mamet’s character, Leigh, actually had been raped, which, I pointed out, was still very much in question.  
      Now I’m the first person to be confused by who’s who in plays with lots of characters (not the case here), and also by plays where important plot details are drawn very sketchily or left hanging for purposes of deliberate ambiguity (this does apply). In REALLY REALLY, the detail about whether Leigh was raped is actually the central dramatic question in the play. The action is set in the off-campus houses of two female college students, Grace (Lauren Culpepper) and Leigh, and four male students, Johnson (Kobe Libii), the sole nonwhite; David Hull (Cooper); Matt Lauria (Davis), and Evan Jonigkeit (Jimmy). Most of them are the children of very well-to-do parents, and the school is clearly for the privileged. The language, especially of the men, is frat-brother filthy, especially during the incessantly raucous discussions of sex. In fact, based on the profanity, one can understand thinking that David Mamet might have written the play (although I suspect the guys sitting next to me might not have made that connection). On the other hand, the way women are crudely objectified suggests the influence of Neil LaBute. 
     Early on we learn that Leigh, who is in a relationship with Jimmy, had sex with Davis at a boisterous party thrown by Cooper while Jimmy was out of town. When Jimmy finds out, he becomes jealously enraged at Leigh, who counters his aggressive accusations by declaring that the sex was nonconsensual. This sets off alarms that soon have all the characters enmeshed in a quest to either find out if that’s what really happened, or if Leigh (quite capable, it turns out, of concocting major lies to get her way) is fibbing as some sort of power play. Davis, who at first seems one of the most serious and least shallow of this gaggle of totally self-involved students, insists he can’t remember what happened that night because he was blind drunk. The story has been reported to the college officials and his entire future seems threatened. But one of the other students did overhear something revelatory when Davis and Leigh were alone together at the party, and Jimmy ultimately squeezes it out of him. Not long after, playwright Colaizzo offers a graphic scene that removes any lingering shred of ambiguity about what actually transpired. The play concludes with a speech by Grace, representing a student group called Future Leaders of America: “And so, future leaders, what we have learned is with persistence, grace, a plan of attack, and that secret weapon of ours—healthy selfishness—we can accomplish any feat. We can acquire any goods. And we can get exactly what we want.” 
     With its echoes of both Mamet’s potty mouthed dialogue and LaBute’s misogyny, the play fires on all cylinders to reveal the shallow, corrupt, and selfish substrata of America’s privileged youth, and much of it definitely holds your attention as the characters bicker among themselves, everybody more concerned with serving their own needs than with any higher moral ground. But, while David Cromer keeps the action moving at a rapid pitch, with the two principal locales being depicted by frequent rearrangements of the same furniture and scenic elements, the acting too often is overwrought and the characters essentially force their obnoxiousness on you rather than letting it emerge more subtly. Much of the dialogue is intended to be funny but the audience at the performance I saw laughed only fitfully, apart from some young women sitting near me whose screechy giggles seemed to come on every line.  
      Zosia Mamet, now in the zone because of her precisely limned characterization of Shoshanna, Lena Dunham’s friend with the rapid-fire, monotone delivery on HBO’S GIRLS, is mostly successful in avoiding Shoshanna’s most obvious mannerisms, although it isn’t always easy to divorce her from the distinctive comic image she’s created on TV. She is surrounded by a talented, if over-directed, cast, including Aleque Reid as Leigh’s snarky sister, who appears in Act Two determined at all costs to punish the alleged rapist. She is involved in one of the play’s less plausible moments when, after lying to Cooper that she had been at the party when the rape occurred, says that she lost a pendant that night and threatens to tell the police it was stolen if she doesn’t get it back. What happens when Cooper anxiously searches for the missing jewelry seemed so contrived my wife jumped all over it when we talked about the play. 
     Paul Downs Colaizzo is a talented young dramatist who makes a strong impression with this play, and will surely be heard from again. REALLY REALLY is among the best new plays of the season, but that may, of course, be saying more about the season than about the play itself.
Did you know that there was a lacuna in Jesus’ life that scholars have been trying for many years to fill in? Did you also know that many believe that Jesus spent those “lost” or “missing” years in India? And to go one step further, did you know that he spent those years in India as a hippie-like, foul-mouthed wanderer who joined a punk rock band featuring two Indian guitarists; abandoned Abigail, his equally profane girlfriend from Galilee; gave up his music to settle down as a carpenter with his Indian bride, a servant girl named Mahari; had a son with her; and then, when he learned that Jerusalem was in chaos caused by the warring Romans, abandoned Mahari and his son so he could return to help his people? Well, while the first and second questions are based on actuality (there is such a gap and there are people who believe in the doubtful India notion), the third is the conceit of playwright Lloyd Suh, who dramatizes it in his comedy JESUS IN INDIA, directed by Daniella Topol. The play, produced by the Ma-Yi Theatre Company, comes to New York after premiering at San Francisco’s Magic Theatre a year ago. 
     The relatively empty stage at St. Clement's Theatre evokes a desert by the draping of a lumpy beige cloth across the floor, with a dromedary suggested by a two-seater structure built of wooden boards, a large camel head, and a set of rollers. An interior is merely a few Persian rugs, and a house built by the carpenter hero is constructed of several thick pieces of unpainted lumber assembled as we watch. The costumes are all modern day grunge, with some touches of local color for the Indians. Everyone speaks colloquial English in the kind of dude-like locutions heard in movies like BILL AND TED’S EXCELLENTADVENTURE. There’s also a stereotypical scene of two guys getting stoned and having the usual doper dialogue, part of it involving a philosophical Indian guy explaining to Jesus his bloated religious perceptions about giving up Hinduism in favor of Buddhism. 
      At first the cheeky premise seems mildly amusing, even provocative, and there is some risibly vulgar dialogue (because half of it is spoken by Son of God) between the 18-year-old Jesus (Justin Blanchard) and Abigail (Molly Ward), the girl who loves him, as they cross the desert into India. Jesus has come here because he’s “lost” and searching for his destiny, like so many other rootless teenagers. When he goes off on his own and meets up with the caricature-like Gopal (Vedant Gokhale), a mung bean farmer turned punk rocker (who shares a joint with him), he’s invited to join the punk rock band fronted (until Jesus arrives) by another caricature, the spoiled maharaja Sushil (Neimah Djourabchi), whose horrible riffs include his favorite number, “Aaaargh,” which is nothing but a loud scream to the unmusical shrieking of an electric guitar. Jesus, who says he doesn’t play an instrument, and would be happy to simply stand at the rear and keep time, picks up a hint or two about playing the bass, and instantly becomes a terrific singer and musician (Blanchard's musical talents are well displayed), but the experience leads to his realization that what he really wants is to be a carpenter and to marry the adolescent servant girl, Mahari (Meera Rohi Kumbhani, who, in a weirdo oedipal twist, also plays Jesus’ mother, Mary), whom he has impregnated. When Abigail, whom he carelessly abandoned in the desert years before, and whose long absence from the play does it little good, returns to tell him that his father, Joseph, is dead and he’s needed back in Jerusalem, he quickly decides to go home and fulfill his earthly mission, even if means leaving his new family behind. By this time the humorous tone of the early scenes has evolved into something more spiritual, and the play has taken on a split personality. 
     The acting is uniformly good, and Molly Ward is especially strong when playing Abigail’s hippie persona; at the end, her character has become uninterestingly serious. This is true of the play as well; its central conceit grows wearisome and the laughs grow sparse, although Suh must be commended for his command of dude-speak. Still, it’s never totally clear what drove Jesus to take his journey, nor is the nature of what he’s discovered about his destiny made fully manifest. I’d suggest that what the play needs at this point is a visit from JESUS CHRIST SUPERDUDE. 
FROM WHITE PLAINS is a four-character play at the Signature, written and directed by Michael Perlman. He and his four actors are all graduates of Brown University. The premise is straightforward: a 30-year-old gay filmmaker, Dennis (Karl Gregory), wins the Academy Award for his movie, WHITE PLAINS, which dramatizes his traumatic high school experience when a gay friend of his was so overwhelmed by the gay-bashing treatment he received from a bullying schoolmate that he killed himself. His acceptance speech mentions the bully’s name, Ethan (Aaron Rossini), which immediately leads to Ethan’s being shunned by friends and losing his job, even though he shows remorse for what happened 15 years earlier. An online dialogue between Ethan and Dennis continues as Ethan tries to apologize and Dennis refuses to relent in his public revenge for his friend’s death. A reluctant resolution of their relationship concludes the play, but by this time Ethan’s life needs serious rebuilding.
     Dennis’s unrelenting sense of victimization, during which he grows more rather than less hostile as his more emotionally balanced lover, Gregory (Jimmy King), tries to ameliorate his attacks, grows wearisome. Despite its promisingly dramatic situation and the possibility of strong ethical discussions, the playwright goes for melodrama and his choices aren’t always believable. For instance, Dennis stumbles through his Academy Award acceptance speech because he failed to prepare one in advance, but he is totally fluid when he creates his online diatribes. There’s also a totally implausible encounter on the subway between Gregory and Ethan’s best friend in which, without knowing who the other is, they discuss the situation in which their friends are involved. And all the actors are more or less androgynous, so there’s little distinction between the straight and gay characters.
     Tristan Jeffers’s set, by the way, is yet another in which a single living room interior serves as more than one residence; there are even scenes where two sets of characters inhabit the space at the same time without actually being in the same room. This latter device was also used in GRACE, earlier this season, and the use of the same furniture (although moved around in different arrangements) for two locales is seen in REALLY REALLY.  
The driving idea behind Josh Koenigsberg’s THE MNEMONIST OF DUTCHESS COUNTY at the Beckett Theatre, directed by Laura Savia, is fascinating, but the execution is not all that could be desired. It’s inspired by an actual case study published in 1968 by a Russian psychologist about a man of the 1920s who “was a fivefold synthesthete with an astonishing memory” BUT who went undiagnosed until he was an adult. This man then made a career with a professional memory act. Such people are called mnemonists (with a long e, as in “knee”), and thus the play’s title. It’s not a word I knew before; ditto synthesthete, which is someone whose five senses all respond to the same external stimuli, i.e., you smell, taste, hear, and feel everything you experience.
     Milo (Henry Vick) is a doofus of a security guard who happens to have an astonishing memory. His best friend, a fellow security guard named Joey (Malcolm Madera), brings him to a research psychologist, Dr. Hulie (Brit Whittle), and the professor becomes so fascinated by his abilities he gets him to participate in a study for a book he wants to write. Although a bit clumsily written, this part of the plot is plausible, although one wonders why no one ever thought to investigate Milo’s condition before. Unfortunately, the play settles for depicting Milo’s private life in an overly conventional way by making him the kind of sad sack who spends his time in a local bar where he’s in love with the pretty bar owner, Gina (Ava Eisenson). I won’t spend time on the ups and downs of their relationship, or of what happens to the other characters, but will note only that the bar’s drug-dealing, hip-hop spouting, wheeler-dealer bouncer, Tito (Aaron Costa Ganis), realizes that Milo could be a money-making machine if he appears at local colleges (in Dutchess County) doing a memory act. We get to see Milo doing this, and he performs a couple of routines with an audience member apparently picked at random; the results are mind bending enough to make you wonder how the actor carries it off without the seemingly guileless and embarrassed spectator being a plant. If you watch closely, you may be able to figure out the tricks.
     Milo is a sort of idiot savant, with poor social skills, and an inability to understand much of what he remembers so astonishingly. But Koenigsberg seems unsure of just how dumb-smart the character is, and, especially toward the end, Milo—after experiencing a number of emotional crises—seems much more intelligent than earlier in the play. Still, Vick’s performance is something of a technical, if not artistic, tour de force, and, despite the artificiality of the plot and its many inconsistencies the play holds your interest, For a play about memory, THE MNEMONIST OF DUTCHESS COUNTY is not so easy to forget. 
The Access Theatre is located in an old building at 380 Broadway near White Street in Tribeca. To gain access to it you press a button outside and wait for the buzzer, then (if you don’t want to wait for the elevator) climb four long flights to a nondescript door that lets you in to a small lobby, from which you enter a rather tatty looking performance space that has several rows of cushioned theatre seats on risers. For HAMLET, presented by a company called Bedlam, the stage floor facing the seats has been set with 20 or so folding chairs and you sit on them facing the actual theatre seats, which is where the action of the first act (there are three) is performed. You are asked to take your belongings with you into the lobby during the two intermissions and when your return you find a different seat each time facing the area you sat in for act one or sitting along its walls. The walls around the permanent seats are painted black and when the lights go out for the scenes on the battlement the huge word “Elsinore” glows phosphorescently on the back wall. For acts two and three there are nothing but a few chairs and the dingy white walls of the stage space. Barely any scenic elements get between you and the play, although there is an empty hanging picture frame, and a wire with colored lights hung in front of a cheap white curtain unfurled from the ceiling for the play within a play. The actors wear everyday modern clothing, the men in commonplace grunge-wear, the one woman (Andrus Nichols) in a sleeveless, close-fitting tunic dress with a thick cinch belt, tights, and low boots.
     I say one woman because that’s all there is, folks, to play not only Gertrude and Ophelia, but Marcellus, the Ghost (shared with another actor), Guildenstern, Voltemand, the First Player, the Sailor, and the Second Clown (gravedigger). All the other roles are played by three men, with the actor of Hamlet (Eric Tucker) restricted to that role and the small one of Francisco. He also directed this challenging exercise in doing a barely cut HAMLET (it clocked in at around 3 hours 15 minutes) with four actors (actually, there’s a fifth, uncredited and usually masked somehow, who plays a couple of minor roles, including Fortinbras).
     The actors make maximum use of minimal props and lighting (the flashlights in the darkened space when the ghost walks on the battlements are very well deployed), and they change from role to role with only the slightest alteration of clothes or personal props: the actor of Horatio/Polonius/Laertes/the Ghost/etc., need only to put on his glasses or a hat for us to know who he is. All this theatrical tomfoolery would be irrelevant if the actors were out of their depth playing Shakespeare, so it’s a pleasure to report that these guys are not bad; not great, but not bad. None of them are physically ideal for any of the principal roles they play, and it’s unlikely they’d be cast in these characters in a conventional production, but they somehow manage to overcome their personal limitations to create an intimate engagement with Shakespeare’s greatest play, speaking the lines as if they really mean something personal, yet switching effortlessly from role to role without skipping a beat.
     There is considerable movement and action, all perfectly timed, and the scenes in which the actors, using only four chairs, conjure a multiplicity of plot developments, or those played on a patch of fine brown dirt strewn on the floor for the graveyard scene, are expertly managed. The carefully choreographed duel scene uses metal swords within the close confines of the stage space, with weapons violently swinging not far from spectators’ heads.
     The concept does grow thin after a while, for after all one of the delights of seeing a good, modern Shakespeare production is to experience beautiful costumes and lovely sets and lighting, as well as a variety of faces, voices, and bodies, yet for those who believe all that is nothing compared to the brilliance of Shakespeare’s language, this staging will serve their needs well. Those who don’t know the play well may struggle to differentiate one character from another, but for Hamlet lovers the problems will be minimal. Eric Tucker’s Hamlet is fiery and passionate, and he brings great clarity and terrific energy to his Dane, although he has a tendency to mug a bit too much. The other actors do decently in discharging their exhausting responsibilities, but they go on at such a rapid pace that their diction is sometimes not sharp enough to make what they’re saying instantly comprehensible. Tom O’Keefe as Claudius, the gravedigger, and others, delivers too many lines in borderline mushy-mouth, but the clarity of the overall interpretation helps him from losing our attention.
     I once saw a 12-actor Hamlet, directed by William Ball and starring Dame Judith Anderson (she was in her 70s); it was awful on a number of fronts, one of them being its inability to surmount the limitations in its cast size. This production, on the other hand, shows that what was really missing was the directorial imagination and performative ambition displayed by this quartet/quintet of ambitious thespians.  
The Mint Theatre on W. 43rd Street is devoted to reviving forgotten and overlooked plays, and their earlier ventures this season have been effective, in the main. KATIE ROCHE, an Irish play by Teresa Deevy, one in a series by this playwright the Mint has been devoting itself to for a few years, was given only one previous New York staging, when it came here in 1937 as part of the visiting Abbey Theatre Irish Players’ repertory and had five performances at the Ambassador Theatre.
            Years ago, I wrote a brief essay on it in my Encyclopedia of the New York Stage, 1930-1940: it begins, “The Abbey Theatre made a poor choice by opening its 1937 engagement with this ‘half-hearted comedy’ (Brooks Atkinson—NYT), given a mediocre performance. Its author was a mute from birth who had won a Dublin play contest with it.” Atkinson might just as well have been writing about this lethargic and, for the most part, insipid 2013 staging, one that might have benefitted if director Jonathan Bank 1) had found a way to light a fire under his somnambulistic, testosterone-challenged leading man, Patrick Fitzgerald, and 2) had cast someone in the title role whose squeaky, high-pitched voice didn’t make her sound like she was a mouse caught in a trap. 
This revival of David Ives’s evening of six hilarious sketches is one of the best things available Off Broadway. Performed at 59e59 in honor of the play’s 20th anniversary, it is given a splendidly directed (by John Rando) production with a terrific team of actors who play a variety of roles with comic élan. If anyone has to be singled out, it’s clearly Carson Elrod, who moves seamlessly, and sometimes unrecognizably, from role to role. And the guy is seriously funny.
     The set (Beowulf Boritt), lighting (Jason Lyons), sound and music (Ryan Rumery), and costumes (Anita Yavich) all work perfectly to present these six linguistically brilliant pieces, beginning with “Sure Thing,” in which a guy (Elrod) tries to pick up a girl (Liv Rooth) in a restaurant, but keeps altering his words as a “ping” goes off in response to her reaction and he (and then she) is allowed to revise accordingly as time momentarily stands still. There’s a marvelous piece about three chimps (Elrod, Rooth, and Matthew Saldivar) who are part of an experiment in which they’ve been placed before typewriters on the premise that if left alone to peck away the day will come when one of them would write Hamlet. The actors’ monkeylike shenanigans as they discuss their dilemma had the audience in stitches. Another bit has to do with a teacher (Elrod) instructing a woman (Jenn Harris) in a universal language, while “Philip Glass Buys a Loaf of Bread” is a spoof of how the famous avant-garde composer’s (Elrod) simple act of buying a loaf of bread might look and sound, with all its repetitious phrasing, if carried out in the style of a Robert Wilson-like production (Glass composed music for various Wilson works). “The Philadelphia” finds a way to express how people’s feelings can be represented by likening them to the states of mind suggested by particular cities, like Philadelphia, where you never get what you want, or Los Angeles, where everything is always sunny. “Variations on fhe Death of Trotsky,” despite some memorable moments, ends the evening on something of a downer, though, as its concluding tone is much darker than what has come before. Still, this is an evening to savor, but, as the title reminds you, make sure you catch it before it closes. 
On Saturday, I saw three shows. At 12:30 it was a show for 4-6 year olds called GRUG, performed at the New Victory Theatre by three actors from Australia’s Windmill Theatre. It took a half hour and was perfectly charming, but, being the only adult in the house without a kid accompanying me, I was on my best “I’m not a perve” behavior. The play is based on a popular children’s book about the top of a weird Australian tree that falls off and becomes a creature living underground who receives a number of intriguing parcels in the mail. It’s actually a puppet show in which the performers both speak the words and manipulate the doll-like puppets in full view of the audience. The kids loved the worm character, manipulated by two sticks attached to its either end.
     That half hour was the day’s highlight. It was followed by CLIVE, Jonathan Mark Sherman’s egregiously tedious adaptation of Brecht’s BAAL, a play I’ve always detested, and that CLIVE made me hate even more. The star power of Ethan Hawke as the dyed blonde, nihilistic rock star into which the leading role has been converted, is totally wasted, as are the presences of Vincent Donofrio and Zoe Kazan in supporting roles. Hawke also directed this solipsistic drek.
     More effective was THE PILO FAMILY CIRCUS, a bizarre, nightmarish drama about how an innocent young man, after nearly running over a clown, is forced to become a clown himself in a company of vicious, evil circus performers who are responsible for many of the world’s catastrophes. The piece, presented by the Godlight Company at the New Ohio Theatre on Christopher Street, has a hallucinogenic, dreamlike quality, but is so depressingly downbeat as you watch the central character, Jamie/JJ the Clown (Nick Paglino), struggle to break free of the clown personality that has been magically forced upon him (think Jekyll and Hyde), that it leaves a sour taste in your mouth. Still, it is given an outstanding low-budget production that makes it necessary to give the director (Joe Tantalo) and his creative team props for their imaginative efforts on the technical front. All the creepy characters, including acrobats, a man with a fish’s head, and a fortune teller, are acted at full blast; Nick Paglino (with one half of his face in clown makeup, the other left untouched) goes beyond the call of duty in capturing the tortured dilemma of his bipolar role, although you sometimes want to tell him he doesn’t need to let every single stop out all the time. The clowns in this weird play look like most others you’ve seen but they are truly bizarre and deliberately unfunny. I’ll never look at clowns the same way again. 
Drag queen and playwright Charles Busch adapted the children’s book BUNNICULA for a kid’s musical being given a lively production at the DR2 Kids Theatre on E. 15th Street. This 65-minute piece engages its young audience of kids from around 4 to 10 with its tale of a suburban family that brings home a bunny from a movie theatre that was struck by lightning during a showing of DRACULA. When the fruits and vegetables in the fridge go completely albino, suspicion falls on the bunny, which has been named Bunnicula and seems to have Transylvanian vampire attributes. There is a college professor dad (Abe Goldfarb), his lawyer wife (Erin Maguire), their two teenagers (Ashley Campana and John Garry), and their dog Harold (Robert Anthony Jones) and cat Chester (Prescott Seymour). The bunny is a hand puppet whose eyes blaze red when his bloodthirsty cravings are stimulated. Chester’s efforts to get rid of the rabbit end up with the latter in an animal hospital that’s more like a loony bin with a crazy head doctor (Abe Goldfarb), but ultimately Bunnicula’s vampire personality becomes secondary to the cat and dog learning to live and love with it, since we should do our best to accept everyone else’s  differences. Or something like that.
     The show has some spooky moments but it’s mostly right up the alley of most kids (only a few of whom had to leave to take care of their own bodily urges). The music (by Sam Davis) and lyrics (by Mark Waldrop) are cute and bouncy, and there’s some campy humor when Harold the dog disguises himself in an outfit made of fruits and veggies taken from a garbage can with the help of a couple of cats he befriends in the city. With a fart reference here, and a pee reference there, your kids will feel right at home.
     PASSION, a revival at the CSC on E. 13th Street of the Sondheim musical that starred Donna Murphy on Broadway some years back, is very much worth seeing, but by adults, not children. Its story is of Giorgio (Ryan Silverman), a handsome, mid-19th century Italian military officer in love with a beautiful, but married, woman, Clara (Melissa Errico). He is sent to a military post where he meets a plain-looking and very ill woman, Fosca (Judy Kuhn), cousin of the post’s commander, Colonel Ricci (Stephen Bogardus). To Giorgio’s dismay, Fosca falls in love with him; nevertheless, her passion eventually overcomes his great distaste for her, especially when Clara is unable to leave her husband and child to run away with him. This very dramatically romantic story, told with nary a touch of humor, is minor Sondheim and has few songs that non-Sondheim fans will know, but it is consistent both musically and theatrically and, in this elegant production, grips you for the entirety of its hour and 45 minutes of uninterrupted performance.
     John Doyle, who directed and designed the set, must get credit for staging this work with supreme taste and sophistication. The set is merely a slightly raised platform of shiny, marble tiles, with distressed edges; the rear walls and pillars are painted black, there are a few simple curtains that the actors pull open or closed at the rear, and two ornate mirrors hang on the rear wall upstage of the pillars. The only furniture consists of a few black chairs, used in different configurations, and a small writing box placed on the floor rather than on a desk. Jane Cox’s exquisite lighting, Ann Hould-Ward’s excellent costumes (especially the gorgeous dress worn by Clara), Jonathan Tunick’s orchestrations, and a beautifully staged company of actor-singers make this an exceptionally tasteful revival. Errico, Silverman, and Kuhn are marvelous, and the performances of Bogardus and Tom Nelis (as the post’s physician) provide superlative support. This is a PASSION you can get passionate about. 
One of the things contributing to this year’s dreary New York theatre season is how few shows are being headlined by someone of superstar or, at least, household-name, familiarity. All we’ve had has been Al Pacino, Jessica Chastain, Scarlett Johansson, and, just recently, Edie Falco. Each has taken their lumps, for their own performance flaws, for those of the shows they’re in, or even for both. Al, Jessica, and Scarlett have been plying their wares on the Great White Way, but Edie has chosen to perform Off Broadway (in the THE MADRID). Joining here there is the 76-year-old Vanessa Redgrave, in THE REVISIONIST, at the tiny Cherry Lane Theatre. This is, of course, a credit to her integrity as an artist. (As you may know, she’s also famous for her controversial leftwing politics, including her support of the Palestinian cause, and for rejecting an offer to be made a Dame of the British empire.) Not so creditable, however, is the vehicle she’s chosen for this visit. The play is by her co-star, Jesse Eisenberg, the scrawny film actor and occasional writer, whose performance as Mark Zuckerberg in THE SOCIAL NETWORK was nominated for an Academy Award. I have not listed him among the headliners mentioned above because, while many know who he is, my gorge rises at dubbing him a big star.
     THE REVISIONIST is about David (Eisenberg), a young American writer of Jewish heritage who visits a distant Polish relative in the grimy port city of Szczecin on the Baltic. She is his grandfather’s cousin, Maria (Redgrave), a Holocaust survivor whose family was killed by the Nazis, and who only met David once before, when she visited America back in the 90s (the play is set sometime during the George W. Bush presidency). David, 29, is an obnoxious, self-centered pothead, who has come to Maria’s tatty apartment to revise the book he’s writing before it goes to press. For some odd reason, he thinks that coming to this dreary apartment (he has no plans to sightsee) will overcome his writer’s block so he can finish the job, He behaves with irritating selfishness toward the plainspoken, kind, and sometimes funny Maria, who does all she can to accommodate his unpleasant ways (including his turning facedown the family pictures she so proudly displays in a bedroom); gradually, as his needs become more desperate, he—whose family relationships are practically nonexistent—finds in Maria someone who becomes a powerful maternal presence, a family member to whom he can reach out. In the midst of all this we meet Maria’s friend, Zenon (Daniel Oreskes), a crude cabdriver who speaks no English, giving Maria and David a chance for some linguistic pranks at his expense when they teach him the wrong English words (like “shit” and “asshole”) so they can hear him use them inappropriately in what are supposed to be hilarious malapropisms. The fact that they are attached to Polish sentences and have to be translated by Maria back into English for the joke to register is not an especially risible device. As usual in plays like this (RED DOG HOWLS, earlier in the season, comes to mind), the relationship between David and Maria comes to a head when she willingly offers to tell him her deepest secret, something related to a choice she made about her family relationships after the war. However, no sooner does David find in Maria the comfort he requires than she turns on him and forces him to return to America.  
     Without Vanessa Redgrave to anchor this clumsy, hole-ridden dramedy, the audience would surely have been streaming for the doors before its intermissionless 100 minutes were concluded. The tall, white-haired (worn here in bangs), and usually majestic Ms. Redgrave, now slightly stooped, plays Maria with a heavy Polish accent and, indeed, engages in a considerable amount of Polish dialogue with Zenon. The accent, and her low-key approach to the role, make her sometimes hard to understand, but she gradually draws you in and makes you care about Maria, despite how many inconsistencies there are in how she’s written. For one thing, she has no trouble understanding the rapid-fire gabbling of her co-star, with all his pompous locutions, yet she has difficulty following the simplest colloquialisms. In one instance, when told to keep things light she thinks it refers to turning on the lights. And the sudden shift in her treatment of David comes out of nowhere, despite the rationales she attempts to offer. This denouement comes off seeming like a desperate ploy to arrive at a dramatic conclusion. Perhaps it’s meant as retribution to suggest how Maria felt when David turned her family photos down, although there’s been nothing in the play until then to hint at her retributive nature.  
      Eisenberg must be the most ungainly presence on a New York stage. He is as skeleton-like skinny as a Tim Burton character; he plays David as such a grungy, gawky, neurotic, pot-smoking, febrile bundle of nerves, that his jerky, uncoordinated movements, with his soles rarely planted on the floor, suggest a jumpy puppet on a string. Most of his lines are projected in an underplayed, rapid fire delivery, even thrown away under his breath; given how innocuous many of them are, this may not be a bad thing. (By the way, how on earth did David smuggle a lid of grass into Poland by hiding it in a sock in his carryon? And why would he have taken the risk if he was planning on staying only a week?)
     You may not get another chance to be in such close proximity to a great actress like Vanessa Redgrave, so for that alone you might wish to see this play. But the experience might have been so much more if only THE REVISIONIST had a revisionist of its own.  
Perhaps you remember the handsome Chinese actor John Lone, who made something of a splash on stage and in films during the 1980s and 1990s. Lone’s films included ICEMAN, in which he played a caveman, and M. BUTTERFLY, in which he was the Beijing Opera female impersonator with whom Jeremy Irons falls in love. Lone, born in Hong Kong (his real name was Nk Kwok-leung), was actually a well-trained Beijing Opera (jingju) performer who made his first big impression in America when he starred in David Henry Hwang’s first two plays, F.O.B. and THE DANCE AND THE RAILROAD, the latter produced in 1981. In it, he had the opportunity to display his Chinese opera skills within the context of a play about two Chinese laborers working on the transcontinental railroad in 1867. Lone now works mainly in films and TV for Asian audiences, so their gain is our loss, but if you want to see the play that brought him his first shot of fame, it’s in revival now as part of the Signature’s season honoring playwright Hwang.
     The play itself is a rather thin, 70-minute exercise that seems to have been conjured up as an excuse for introducing Chinese theatre techniques into a drama about Chinese characters in an American context. The concept is laudable, but, apart from the considerable number of sequences using Chinese theatre movement, there is not much else of interest on display. Chinese traditional theatre makes great use of song, but very little is in evidence, probably because the traditional singing style makes great demands on its performers’ vocal ability. I saw the current production with my friend, Dr. Mo Li, who was raised in Beijing and is a scholar of Chinese and Japanese theatre; his father is a major Beijing Opera set designer. According to Dr. Li, the Chinese men who slaved away on the American railroads in the 19th century were mostly from southern China, especially the provinces of Fukien and Canton. The theatre performed there is largely singing oriented, while the movements displayed in the production are more likely to be encountered in Beijing Opera, not Cantonese opera. Moreover, he said, the show’s movements are primarily martial, such as one sees when generals march into battle, and, for all their flashiness, have very little to do with the dramatic activities presented in the play.
     Of course, theatre artists have the right to take liberties with such things, especially when their audiences are likely to have little knowledge of the technical details behind what they’re seeing. I, for one, appreciate the idea of using Asian performing techniques in a modern play written by an American; the Asian context of two Chinese railroad workers is sufficient excuse for choosing this way of telling their story.
     The two characters are named after their original interpreters (Lone’s co-star was Tzi Ma). Lone (Yuekun Wu) finds that the only way to escape the drudgery of his labors on the Central Pacific Railroad, on which he’s been working for three years, is to climb nearby “Gold Mountain,” as the workers have dubbed it, and practice his theatrical skills. He carries himself with grace and nobility, and has a certain philosophical attitude toward life. To him, the other workers, who send their earnings home to China, are “dead men.” The recently arrived, 18-year-old Ma (Ruy Iskandar) is a less-educated, but innocently ambitious young man who admires Lone and wants to be trained by him so he can return to China and become a wealthy actor, ignoring the fact that Lone, for all his abilities, is himself nothing more than a lowly laborer. Apart from Ma’s efforts to convince the reluctant Lone to teach him, and some time spent as we watch the difficult exercises Lone puts him through, the only dramatic conflict concerns a strike against “the white devils” by the workers for higher wages and fewer hours. The strike seems little more than a device to give Ma time to study under Lone’s tutelage. Toward the end, Lone enact the story of their journey to America in traditional Chinese style, accompanied by offstage Chinese music. This play within a play is the evening’s highlight.
     The play, well directed by May Adrales (Lone directed the 1981 original), is performed on Mimi Lien’s attractively abstract set, which, aided by the evocative lighting of Jiyoun Chang, creates the craggy silhouette of the mountainside and the vast sky beyond. Jennifer Moeller’s costumes resemble those of nineteenth-century coolies, and the actors wear wigs with long queues attached (Lone’s is useful for a sequence in which he rotates his head to spin it around and around).
     Although Yuekun Wu shows evidence of having studied Chinese theatre techniques, which affects his bearing even when in normal conversation with his fellow actor, neither performer is sufficiently interesting to sustain interest in this emotionally skimpy play. Even before their dance was over I was thinking of my trip home on the trans-borough subway.   
“There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy,” said Hamlet to me as we exited last night from LUCY LOVES ME at the Intar Theatre way over on the West Side at 10th Avenue and W. 50thStreet. This was in response to my question as to why this play by prolific playwright Migdalia Cruz, which has received two previous productions outside New York, so excited Intar that they decided to offer it in New York. Perhaps it was because the play was developed as part of Intar’s Maria Irene Fornés Hispanic Playwright-in-Residence Laboratory, but if so, the laboratory produced a rather odd concoction calling itself a play. According to the promo on it, “Lucy dreams of not having to deliver pizza, Cookie dreams of a cabaret career, and Milton dreams of bleeding. Lucy delivers a pizza to Milton. Milton randomly calls Cookie. And when Cookie invites him over, Lucy answers the door. Is this a recipe for love?"
     I have too many things on my plate today to spend my time chomping away at this lugubriously cooked recipe for disaster, so I’ll just add that the director, pardon the expression, is Lou Moreno, and the actors are Gerardo Rodriguez (the standout in the otherwise tasteless BODEGA BAY of recent memory), as Milton, who enjoys bathing in chicken blood; Bertha Leal as Lucy, the pizza girl; and Annie Henk as her bizarre mother, Cookie. All are decent ingredients needing a better recipe to bring out their flavors.  
If you’re looking for a wild ride on the wings of theatrical imagination, you won’t do any better than taking the F train to the York Street Station in DUMBO and walking four short blocks to St. Ann’s Warehouse, where the Kneehigh Theatre Company’s THE WILD BRIDE is presently packing them in. The Kneehigh, of Cornwall, England, is, of course, the brilliant group that brought their magical theatricalization of the classic romantic movie, BRIEF ENCOUNTER, to Broadway a few seasons back, and they are up to their usual way more than kneehigh standards in THE WILD BRIDE, a remarkably effective, musical retelling of the protofeminist folk story, THE HANDLESS MAIDEN.
     The expansive St. Ann’s stage is set up center with a strange, leafless tree, part branches and part ladders, a few circular platforms to the left and right, including one for the small orchestra, and a floor strewn with leaves. Heard almost continuously throughout the action is a cornucopeaia of musical selections, mostly new but also filled out with wonderful jazz, folk, bluegrass, and other tunes. Each of the five actors is multitalented; all are skilled dancers, several are excellent singers, and one is a virtuoso violinist. Even when not dancing in the charmingly choreographed (by Etta Murfitt) set numbers, the actors move in rhythmic, graceful ways in time to the ever present musical background. The rhyming dialogue, much of it delivered as narration directly to the audience, also adds to the theatrical storybook atmosphere. Humor and sexual byplay are other featured elements that enrich this creatively inspired construction.
     As in similar “devised”theatre pieces, like Peter Brook’s recent THE SUIT, the performance is filled with inventive theatrical touches, some of them unforgettable. When the central character, struggling to survive without hands in a hostile world, needs food, a shower of dimly lit bulbs overhead is imagined as a pear orchard, each pear numbered. As she looks up at them a bulb, manipulated by an actor holding a rope at the side, descends and she stretches forth her head so she can take the bulb in her mouth; miraculously, the bulb, still lit, comes out of its socket, so she can then play with it before making it her meal.
     The story, whittled down to its essentials, tells of how the Devil (Andrew Durand)—a pleasant young man in a fedora and a brown, three-piece, Depression-era suit, who says he likes to “upset the apple cart”—tricks the poverty-stricken Father (Stuart Goodwin, using what sounded like an Irish accent) into giving him whatever is in his backyard in return for gifts of clothing and jewelry. All the Father thinks he’s giving up is his barren old apple tree, but he overlooks the presence of his daughter. From this point on, the Devil seeks possession of her, but her purity repels him and he decides to wait until that purity is soiled so he can “put his hot fingers all over her.” This incites him to make the Father chop off her hands (otherwise she’ll burn in hell, says the Devil), after which she goes off into the forest and becomes a feral creature in a crown of twigs. Despite her filthiness and handicap (first indicated by hands dipped in red paint, then by bloody bandages), a kilt-wearing Scottish Prince (Stuart Goodwin, again) falls in love with and marries her. But war breaks out and the Prince (by now the King) departs, leaving his wild bride behind. When he returns, after seven years of struggling to survive in the forest, he learns that her eyes have been gouged out and her tongue cut off as the result of letters he sent his mother (depicted as a large painting, with an actress’s hands protruding from it), but the letters were a deception of the Devil’s. Ultimately, of course, all turns out well, the Devil admits his failure, and the bride’s hands, which the King had replaced with a blade for one and a pitchfork-like device for the other, grow back, and all—including their little boy, played by a puppet—live happily ever after.
     The expressive genius behind the telling of this simple story belongs to Emma Rice, the director and adapter, who has come up with one thrilling effect after the other, always within the limits of what can be created with a limited budget and boundless imagination. The talented ensemble, in which three actresses play the daughter at different stages—the Girl (Audrey Brisson), the Wild (Patrycja Kujawska), and the Woman (Etta Murfitt)—is consistently superlative, the choreography by Edda Murfitt is perfectly in touch with the material's folk quality, Martin Rippeth's lighting is exceptional in its ability to create a variety of fantastical effects, Simon Baker's sound design takes you to another dimension, and Sarah Wright's puppets (a deer, a bird, a child) are dexterously built and handled.
     My wife thought the major drawback was that the show’s two-hour length was more than the material could bear. I can understand how someone might feel that way, since this is, after all, a fairytale about characters that are more images or outlines than fully-developed people, but, for me, the experience was thoroughly enthralling from beginning to end. I strongly recommend an engagement with THE WILD BRIDE. 
Down in the depths of New York, at 46 Walker Street in Tribeca (the space normally used by the SoHo Rep), a downtown troupe called A Theater Reconstruction Ensemble is performing a play wieth the hard to remember title, SET IN THE LIVING ROOM OF A SMALL TOWN AMERICAN PLAY, by resident playwright Jaclyn Backhaus, who also appears in it. This group’s project is to investigate realistic acting as represented by the plays of American dramatists of the ‘30s and 40s. According to the program, when they tried to get the rights to plays of that period, even less well-known ones, they were consistently turned down by agents and literary estates for no stated reason, although the company suspected it was because of fears they’d do something distressingly “experimental” with the material. Those who recall what the Wooster Group did with THE CRUCIBLE might know what they were afraid of. So director Johnb Kurzynowski says he “sat down together with . . . Jacklyn Backhaus and together we began the process of identifying and extracting various elements from the plays we had work shopped—recurring themes, iconic characters, the building blocks of dramas of that era.” Presumably, these were works like Odets’s AWAKE AND SING!, Miller’s DEATH OF A SALESMAN and ALL MY SONS, Williams’s THE GLASS MENAGERIE, and others in which family issues within the matrix of American social and political values are crucial.
     The result of the company’s attempt to examine American realism is SET IN THE LIVING ROOM . . . , which depicts the stressful familial and romantic conflicts that surround a son who returns home after his stellar college football career ended when he crashed a car that not only injured him but killed his girlfriend. The “experimental”aspect of the work is that it is presented as a rehearsal, beginning with the actors sitting around a table reading the lines, with the stage manager (Nick Smerkanich) speaking the stage directions. Now and then the reading stops as the actors ask questions or make corrections. At this point, we see something interesting happening as the naturalism of their personal comments contrasts with the acted realism of their characters, but this conceit is soon abandoned and the rehearsal morphs into a blocked out one, although a few characters tend to stand outside the action while the others relate to them as though they were in their assigned stage places. I have no idea of why such choices were made, and the entire point of interrogating realistic acting methods seems to fade in favor of what is essentially a typical performance of a play, albeit in rehearsal clothes in a bare space, and with a few directorial gimmicks added in for creative seasoning.
     The play itself comes off as a surprisingly respectable pastiche of what it is attempting to replicate, but without the artistic imagination of Miller, Odets, Williams, or the slightly later Inge (who seems to be referenced with all the staircase activity). The young company, supplemented by Off Broadway veteran Tina Shepard, is competent enough (many are graduates of NYU’s theatre program), but once act one is ended, and the intermission arrives, the idea of what they’re doing has been conveyed and there doesn’t seem a compelling need to return for act two (although I did, of course).
     There was no talkback after the show, but I, for one, would like to have asked what the company thinks it has discovered that somehow enlightened them about the subject they were exploring. Did they believe they made any breakthroughs? Was there something they did that brought realism to a new level? Did they have some revelation about training for this “style.” For me, they were on the brink of doing something interesting during the first 20 minutes or so when they contrasted their seemingly off-the-cuff remarks with those of the play they were rehearsing. Did they believe they’d somehow embodied that kind of “in the moment” honesty when the play moved from the table (which, of course, remained present throughout) to their feet? Perhaps if they had, I might not have felt that the exercise had lost its impetus by the end of act one. On the other hand, their decision to play the final scene in a near whisper, as if that’s how people talk in real life when there’s no paying audience listening, as period music played behind them on a continuing soundtrack (another “theatrical” device used throughout), demonstrated the ultimate dilemma of the most realistic acting: how do you speak in a truthful, sincere, totally believable way so that not only your fellow actors but an audience (especially one in a larger space than this) can hear you? That is, if an actor speaks in a full theatre and no one hears him, did he make a sound?  
A.R. Gurney’s 1991 play, THE OLD BOY—set in an expensive New England boarding school catering mainly to a clientele of old money WASPS, and proudly declaring that not only has it gone coed but that it is now open to Jews (who “raise the level of discourse”) and blacks—has been revived by the Keen Theatre Company at the Clurman Theatre. Though the promos say it’s been revised, director Jonathan Silverman told me afterward that the only significant revision is some cutting done to a brief commencement speech given at the end by the leading character. Too bad, because the play is definitely in need of revision to make it more effective today, when its treatment of homosexuality seems rather dated.
     Not that gay people in 2013 have shed all the heavy burdens they bear in this increasingly liberal world; it’s just that, however brave the play’s handling of these issues may have seemed in the early 1990s, Gurney’s approach now seems dated and unconvincing. Topicality is a dangerous dramaturgic concept; the fact that certain subjects are even being expressed can sometimes overshadow the integrity of their expression.
     Sam (Peter Rini), a charismatic politician who works for State Department and who is being groomed for his state’s governorship, has returned to the boarding school to give its commencement address. Also present is Harriet (Laura Esterman), the wealthy mother of Perry (Chris Dwan), there to make a gift to the school of an indoor tennis complex in honor of her late son, who was a fine tennis player and who, although his mother says he died of an accidental drug overdose, actually died of AIDS. Accompanying her is the attractive Alison (Marsha Dietlien Bennett), Perry’s widow and Sam’s former lover. We soon see that sexual tension between Sam and Alison remains alive, although she reminds him that it was his influence that led to Perry marrying her. Sam was the designated “old boy,” a senior student mentor to the incoming Perry when the younger boy entered the school. We see their relationship in flashbacks set in the late 1960s, where we watch Sam advise Perry that his love of opera and his agreement to play Viola in a school production of TWELFTH NIGHT are, among other things, bound to have people label him as “a fag.” Perry denies being gay, especially in a scene while the boys are out driving, and Sam keeps using the term “faggot.” But a few moments later, Perry admits to having had a sexual encounter with a man, confirming the rumors about him. Sam then set about straightening Perry out by setting him up with Alison in what, of course, was doomed to be an unhappy marriage. Sam, warned by Bud (Cary Donaldson), his aide, to beware of saying anything controversial in his speech, nevertheless delivers comments that express sympathy for the plight of people like Perry, leading to Bud’s angry departure and the possible end of Sam’s political ambitions, something of which the guilt-ridden Sam was fully aware when he began to speak.
      Although given an attractive presentation in a set backed by a heavily paneled wall adorned with portraits of past schoolmasters, Jonathan Silverman’s production is mostly low-keyed and lethargic; there are too many times you want to poke the actors with a pin and get them to pick up the pace and raise their energy levels. Peter Rini as Sam looked the part of an attractive young politician, but lacked the necessary charisma. The casting of Chris Dwan as Perry is a major miscalculation; if a major element in the play is whether the character is gay or not (at least for the characters), why cast someone whose presence screams out the minute you see him that he’s a refugee from THE BOYS IN THE BAND? Three people I discussed the production with agreed with me that the only believable portrayal was Laura Esterman’s as Perry’s upper-class mother, although another friend thought the actress was merely repeating the same performance she’s given in many other plays. Marsha Dietlein Bennett’s Alison is attractive but dull; and why is she wearing a white dress whose sides are so open they reveal large portions of her back and waist? Is that what one would have worn to a commencement at a fancy boarding school?
     Fortunately, THE OLD BOY clocks in at around 75 minutes, sans intermission; unfortunately, THE OLD BOY is old hat.   
"It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God." The only thing this Biblical quote has in common with Lucas Hnath’s new play, ISAAC’S EYE, at the Ensemble Studio Theatre on W. 52nd Street near 11th Avenue is the phrase “eye of a needle,” but the eye in question here is a human eye, not the little hole in the needle through which you draw thread. Nothing actually is threaded through a needle’s eye in the play, but the needle and the human eye do meet when the ambitious young scientist Isaac Newton (Haskell King) convinces his rival scientist, the older Robert Hooke (Michael Louis Serafin-Wells), to carry out an experiment concerning the nature of light by inserting a needle into Isaac’s tear duct. And there’s even an extended scene played with Newton sitting in a chair with the needle appearing to be sticking out of his eye. Not only that, but someone is actually credited in the program as “Needle Consultant,” which I don’t expect to be a contested category in this year’s awards season.
     The theatre is one flight up in a grungy old factory-like building with a tiny lobby into which the audience squeezes before being allowed into the small, uncomfortable performance space, where two banks of seats forming a V face a dingy gray concrete wall punctuated by tall, dirty, industrial-size windows. The set is nothing more than a large blackboard, several smaller ones, and a small table and a couple of chairs. Cardboard placards with writing on them are also present. Much of the action consists of writing with chalk on the blackboards or on walls and windows, as when Hooke lists all of his breakthrough accomplishments in an attempt to belittle the unknown Newton.
     Despite being set in the seventeenth century, ISAAC’S EYE is not written, costumed, or performed as period drama. Even though the play tells us that Newton had white hair when he was very young, no attempt is made to suggest this in Haskell King’s appearance. The characters speak and behave very much as everyday people might in 2013, including the frequent use of profanity, which makes its themes of professional rivalry and the lengths that people will go to in the interests of scientific research seem immediately familiar and accessible. The 25-year-old Newton has a kind of brazenly insinuating college-boy snarkiness, while Hooke is like any arrogant and self-involved professor you’ve ever encountered. While the themes and relationships are serious, there’s also a tongue-in-cheek, anachronistic, self-referential quality to the writing, resulting in a comfortable blend of serious debate and humorous one-liners. A narrator character (Jeff Biehl) even informs the audience (by writing on the blackboard) of what in the play is true and what is not (a lot). So there’s an “as if” quality to the proceedings that allows you to believe just as much as you want to about how closely the play hews to reality; we know, for instance, that Newton did stick a needle in his eye, but we don’t really know the reason, regardless of the rationale given for it in the play.
     The central conflict between the scientists, which provokes the needle in the eye experiment, is a disagreement over whether light consists of particles (Newton) or waves (Hooke). The conflict is exacerbated by Newton’s ambition to become a member of the Royal Society, of which Hooke is an influential officer. There is also a conflict between the life of the farmer (Newton) and that of the city dweller (Hooke), with Hooke casting envious eyes on the life Newton so eagerly seeks to leave. Another part of the tapestry is a concocted love rivalry built around Catherine (Kristen Bush), an apothecary and Newton’s beloved.
     Once the play’s premise and funky style are established in act one, there isn’t much more to look forward to in act two. For all the consistently clever dialogue, and the finely tuned characterizations, the play’s dramatic pulse gradually weakens; the characters are too obviously artificial constructs and sustaining interest in them, while sitting on an uncomfortable chair for over two hours, is a test of one’s endurance, if not near the level of putting a needle in one’s eye. But Lucas Hnath definitely has a unique voice worth listening to and I’ll look forward to seeing his next effort.   
Okay, boys and girls. Let’s see a Broadway musical! What, you’re only 8-years-old and don’t think you’ll have a good time? Why, what did you think Broadway musicals were for? Grownups? How about ANNIE? Or what about MATILDA, coming very soon? And then there’s MARY POPPINS, although that’s closing now. But you can certainly enjoy Disney’s NEWSIES and get your comic book thrills at SPIDER-MAN: TURN OFF THE DARK. Of course, THE LION KING is still roaring, and there’s still WICKED for all you tots who want to see what’s on the other side of the rainbow. Oh, wait a second, I forgot to mention the newest kid on the block, RODGERS AND HAMMERSTEIN’S CINDERELLA, which just opened at the Broadway Theatre. Hey, kids! Isn’t Broadway just the child-friendliest place on earth?
     In point of fact, a hell of a lot of adults were having a grand old time at CINDERELLA the other night, and, like many of the little girls in the house, many a woman of a certain age could be seen capering in the aisles in a sparkling tiara. This spectacularly produced show, which had three earlier incarnations on television over half a century ago, is now receiving its Broadway premier, and all the stops have been pulled out to make it an engaging, fun, tuneful, and eye-popping experience. The costumes are lavish, the sets are stunning, the cast is talented, and the music is . . . well, okay! The names of the late Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II may be attached to the show, but none of the songs compares with the classics associated with OKLAHOMA!, CAROUSEL, THE KING AND I, SOUTH PACIFIC, and others in the Rodgers and Hammerstein album. The closest, I’d say, would be “It’s Possible” and “Do I Love You Because You’re Beautiful.”
     The classic fairytale of Cinderella has been given a humorous revision by Douglas Carter Beane, who has injected some of his trademark quirky humor into the familiar story. Cinderella, called Ella (Laura Osnes), is mistreated by her stepmother, Madame (Harriet Harris), and her two (only two) stepsisters, Charlotte (Ann Harada) and Gabrielle (Marla Mindell). But the mistreatment in this retelling is relatively benign, the stepmother is more goofy than evil, one of the sisters is comically short and chubby, and the other—who becomes Ella’s ally—tall and angular and in love with a political firebrand, Jean-Michel (Greg Hildredth), who slightly resembles Nathan Lane. The handsome prince (Santino Fontana) is humorously proud of his martial abilities but otherwise naïve and silly until he learns to take command from his scheming regent, the effete Sebastian (Peter Bartlett). Cinderella’s fairy godmother first appears as the crazy old hag, Marie (Victoria Clark), but at the proper moment transforms magically into her dazzling real self, even to the extent of flying over the stage to spread her fairy dust. (Clark’s singing, by the way, is especially memorable.) Aside from the political angle in which the prince, influenced by his love for Ella, willingly agrees to alleviate the economic problems of his downtrodden people, all the conventional pieces are in place, including the pumpkin that magically becomes a gorgeous coach drawn by a team of sparkling horses, the ball (with the hands of a giant clock upstage getting ever closer to midnight), and the business of the glass slipper, although with another twist in the way it fits into the dramatic puzzle and onto Ella’s foot.  
     The tongue-in-cheek humor works most of the time, often with knowing nods to the audience’s familiarity with what comes next, and the general tone is lighthearted, spirited, upbeat, and sweet. No real threat to the spunky Ella—a protofeminist, of course—is ever present in this mostly benevolent world, and we never doubt for a minute that everyone will live happily ever after. Kids will love it for its visual and auditory delights, its appealing lovers, its comedic highlights, its raccoon and fox puppets who morph into human coachmen and then back to their natural selves, its flying godmother, and its sometimes gymnastic choreography, but some adults may wish they were watching something with more bite and depth than just another retelling of a children’s story they grew up with. Then again, RODGERS AND HAMMERSTEIN’S CINDERELLA is really a multimillion dollar children’s show, so it’s kids who will get most from it. Unless you’re bringing your young ones with you, you’ll have to make sure you don’t forget your inner child.  
94.  ANN 
Holland Taylor, who has made a fine career out of playing elegant older women, has written a one-woman show she also stars in about Ann Richards, the feisty ex-governor of Texas who died in 2006. Actually, ANN (at the Vivian Beaumont) is not quite a one-woman show, as a long scene has Gov. Richards talking on an intercom to her offstage secretary (Julie White). Richards, who, after she lost her bid for a second term in office, gained a wide following among liberals by her frequent appearances on TV shows, like Larry King’s, is perfect material for a show not only because she was so colorful and spontaneous, but also because she projected a basic honesty and concern for people. Her well-groomed good looks, accompanied by beautifully coiffed white hair and tasteful attire, made her very telegenic, and her earthy sense of humor always made listening to her entertaining and informative.
     Ms. Taylor has done an astonishing job in recreating Ann Richards’s persona. With a marvelous white wig and exquisite white business suit she looks as much like the original as one could wish, and she carries herself and speaks with all the vigor and spunkiness we associate with the late governor. Ms. Taylor is 70-years-old, but she has great reserves of energy; except for an intermission, she is onstage talking constantly for two hours, a feat she must do twice two days a week. Not once did I see signs of flagging physically or vocally, and her final moments showed a surprising surge of electricity.
     Taylor begins and ends the play with a commencement address that allows us to learn some facts about her biography (including her marriage, divorce, alcoholism, and rehab) as we see photos of her rural Texas background projected on an upstage screen. The setting, designed to look like a formal platform at some unnamed Texas university, smoothly transforms to her governor’s office, where she engages in numerous one-sided phone conversations, then shows us a New York office she moved into following her gubernatorial defeat, and finally returns to the university platform, where her closing comments manage to include a description of the funeral she received after she died of cancer. 
     Richards’s liberal policies are mentioned scattershot throughout the play, but the one that got the Lincoln Center audience excited to where there was an eruption of applause was her position on the need for gun control. Hearing a major Texas politician come out strongly against concealed weapons was a terrific moment in the current climate, especially when she suggested that people who carried guns should be required to wear them hanging from their necks so you’d know immediately who it was that could shoot you. She also wisecracked that allowing Texas women to carry concealed weapons was absolutely foolish as they’d never be able to find them in their handbags when needed.
     However enjoyable it is to listen to and watch Ms. Taylor’s embodiment of Ann Richards, a two-act, two-hour performance is more than the subject can bear. The compilation of random political and personal phone calls that make up much of the dialogue has no driving dramatic point, so the effect is rambling rather than propulsive, and there’s no conflict or suspense to keep us involved. All we can do is wonder at how remarkable Ms. Taylor’s performance is, and wait for her next vivid theatrical moment, not Ann Richard’s next vivid political or personal action. Still, seeing Ann come back to life in this stage play only makes me wish she could do so in real life. She added something to the discourse that no one has ever replaced.   
Not many plays by living Nobel Prize winners come to New York, so JACKIE, by the reclusive Austrian writer Elfriede Jelinek, produced in Gita Honegger’s translation by the Women’s Project at the City Center II Theatre, is a rare opportunity to see one. The play is tough, being a rather abstract, literary, stream-of-consciousness monologue by Jackie Kennedy (Tina Benko). The production is set in Marsha Ginsberg’s flawlessly replicated vision of a dilapidated swimming pool, showing both the inside of the rusty, leaf-strewn pool and the floor from which the pool is entered and exited via a steel pool ladder. But even to enter and leave that pool floor requires Jackie to do so through a trap door. (No pool is mentioned in the script, so the choice of an abandoned pool will suggest various hell or limbo-like meanings to each viewer.) And Jackie's not quite alone, as she shares the space with three man-sized dummies wrapped in duct tape, with their names—Jack, Ari, and Bobby—written on their torsos, and two tiny dummies, possibly representing babies lost to miscarriage (chlamydia is referenced in the play).
     Much of the play concerns John (Jack) Kennedy’s affairs, and sarcastic references to Marilyn Monroe abound (including a bunch of Marilyn-like Barbie dolls, one of which is mutilated to comical effect); there also are some disturbing lines describing the gore associated with Kennedy’s assassination. Another thematic line is fashion. In this regard, Ms. Benko first appears in trench coat, headscarf, and large sunglasses, which she removes to reveal a lovely, peach-colored chiffon dress designed by Susan Hilferty. Nevertheless, this Jackie is not the coolly genteel and sophisticated person so familiar from public images of her; she is far more bitter, ironic, and witty than the one we were allowed to view. The overall impression is of an iconic person deconstructing her own public image as an American icon of femininity, and perhaps, as someone has written, sharing responsibility for the shallow image she’s allowed the patriarchal society to build around her.
     This might have been a colossal bore were it not for Ms. Benko’s extraordinary tour de force performance reciting the dense, nonlinear speeches in which she and her imaginative director, Tea Alagik, have found dozens of fascinating transitions and opportunities for strikingly theatrical physical movement. Aiding immensely are the potently surprising lighting of Brian H Scott and the intense sound effects created by Jane Shaw. Among the combined lighting and sound effects are the numerous occasions when it seems Jackie is being photographed in a burst of a camera’s flash accompanied by the shutter snapping like a bullet shot.
     As it was, I’m not sure I understood all of what I was hearing, but I was generally intrigued enough to keep me interested and even chuckling at some of the amusing, pun-filled lines sprinkled throughout the script. For example, “I cast myself as a cast—plaster, but not plastered, and not my waist. My waist isn’t cast in plaster, and my hair isn’t plastered, it’s lacquered.” And even these lines work, when they do, because of Ms. Benko’s very smart delivery.
     JACKIE will have limited appeal. For all its positives as a performance piece, it remains a challenging and cerebral work that will puzzle and annoy some theatergoers. The more I think of it the more I believe I appreciated what was done with it more than I enjoyed the play itself.  
96.  NEVA 
Neva refers to the river of that name in St. Petersburg, where the action of this drama is set in January 1905. Three people occupy a tiny circular stage in the Anspacher Theatre at the Public Theatre complex; there is one prop, a chair, and the only light comes from an electrical device downstage that the actors manipulate as needed to illuminate the space. When the play ends, it is turned toward the audience and we see that it’s an electric heater, which accounts for the stark, reddish color cast on the actors, who are otherwise in shadow. This design choice may be intended to suggest how artists are often in the dark when it comes to their awareness of the world outside the theatre, but it grows tiresome and dull well before the play’s 80 minutes are up.
     NEVA is by Guillermo Calderón, a Chilean playwright (who also directed) being given his first English-language American production with NEVA, which has been smoothly translated by Andrea Thome. It has received critically praised productions in Spanish in several international contexts, including Moscow. Calderón (a CUNY graduate student in film a decade ago) has imagined a time, not long after the death from TB of the great playwright, Anton Chekhov, when his widow, the famous Moscow Art Theatre actress Olga Knipper (Bianca Amato), shown as something of a diva, is in a St. Petersburg theatre with two local actors, Aleko (Luke Robertson), from a wealthy family, and Masha (Quincy Tyler Bernstine), an incipient revolutionary; they are waiting for the rest of the cast to show up so they can begin rehearsals of THE CHERRY ORCHARD. As they wait, they engage in talk about Chekhov, even re-enacting his death; the art of acting; sex; and politics; some of this is amusing, but most of it is charmless. Much of the language is anachronistically modern. The play gradually shifts to talk of the political revolution going on just outside, for this is the time of Bloody Sunday, the 1905 uprising in which the czar’s militia turned its guns on striking workers, slaughtering many of them. (It was the prelude, of course, to the Russian Revolution of twelve years later.) Possibly, the actors who haven’t yet arrived at the rehearsal have been caught up in the violence. The dramatist, having grown up during the years of Chile’s Pinochet dictatorship, has a strong sympathy for the people who suffer under oppressive regimes, which his other plays reportedly express as well.
     Calderón has said, “What’s the point of seeing a theatrical work when, because of politics, people are dying every day?” Well, there are plenty of points, as artists living under oppressive regimes have always demonstrated. Despite Calderón’s wish to make some connection between what he apparently sees as the mundane concerns of the three actors huddled in the theatre and the greater issues reverberating in the streets outside, his points are vaguely articulated, being further muzzled by the stylistic choices in the writing and production. Too much of the play comes off like acting exercises designed to show the actors’ expressive range (and they happen to be quite expressive); the very long political speech at the end, spoken at machine-gun speed by the suddenly angrily politicized Masha, may be technically impressive but its ideas go by so fast that they barely register; instead the listener focuses on the elocutionary skill of the actress in being able to say so much at such a pace without stumbling.
     It’s good that the Public is seeking new voices from the international theatre world, thereby addressing a serious lack in New York’s theatre scene, but I’m not convinced that NEVA does much to fill the gap. Hopefully, the Public will do better next time. My suggestion, though, would be to never say NEVA but I suspect others commenting on this play will make similar cracks. For a much stronger play that ties political events transpiring in the streets to a group of characters whose lives are powerfully influenced by them, fast forward 62 years to DETROIT '67, which I'll report on soon. 
I’m a big Edie Falco fan and, until now, would have thought nothing she did could be wrong, which only goes to show you how wrong I was. Liz Flahive’s new play, THE MADRID, stars Ms. Falco as Martha, a woman with a comfortable family life, including her aged mother, Rose (Frances Sternhagen), her 21-year-old college student daughter, Sarah (Phoebe Strole), and a husband who cares for her, John (John Ellison Conlee). She also has a couple of caring neighbors, Danny (Darren Goldstein) and Becca (Heidi Schreck), who have a tall 16-year-old, Dylan (Seth Clayton), who suffers from a condition that creates actual growing pains. (He speaks in the sing-song intonations of Shoshana on GIRLS, only slower.) Martha also has a job teaching kindergarten; the one child we see in the play’s opening classroom scene is a very well-groomed little blonde girl (Brooke Ashley Laine), who is slightly aggressive in the questions she asks Martha. During this scene, Martha suddenly rises, tells the child she’s now the teacher, and walks out, leaving her job and her family, and not telling anyone where she is. When her daughter tracks her down, we learn she’s living in a shabby room in a rundown apartment house, the Madrid, with no phone. She’s saved her money by working in a bar for several years (a fact not known to her family), and gives Sarah $10,000 not to reveal her whereabouts. She never says why she left or why she’s so happy living like this, nor does she say—and the play doesn’t ask—why, if she was so obviously disgusted with her marriage, she didn’t simply ask for a divorce.
     Regardless of whatever else happens in this dull and plodding play, this question lingers throughout, and is never answered. At the talkback following the play, at which the dramaturg and two actors (Frances Sternhagen and Seth Clayton) were present, this was the preeminent question on the audience’s mind, and the three representatives of the play could do little but speculate on what causes Martha to leave. From what they said, the director, Leigh Silverman, also had little to offer in this regard.
     So we have a presumably realistic play with the motivation behind the chief character’s major life choice unexplored, compounded by various other illogicalities, such as having her college student daughter replace her in her teaching job (tell me where this would happen); thinking nothing of giving her daughter $10 K to keep her ratty apartment’s location secret, even though it’s bound to be found out; refusing to see her mother in the hospital after she has a car accident, and so on. Yet, at the very end, when the family home furnishings are being sold she shows up at the tag sale and, as her daughter lies sleeping on Martha and John’s bed, snuggles up to lie alongside her, although with no apparent intention of remaining. WTF?
     So, okay, it’s a lousy play, but at least it gives Edie Falco a chance to perform live in a role that surely must allow her opportunities to show why she’s been so successful on TV in shows like THE SOPRANOS and NURSE JACKIE. Not! For one thing, she’s on stage only around 50% of the time, not even as much as the actress playing her daughter. For another, her performance, as Dorothy Parker famously said of Katharine Hepburn, runs the gamut of emotions, from A to B. There isn’t a single big scene that lets her strut her stuff.
     Playwright Flahive is a producer of NURSE JACKIE. Might this have had something to do with Ms. Falco’s decision to do this clunker? 
98.  DETROIT ‘67   
In 1967 the music of Motown, inspired by Detroit’s black population, was thriving and many in that community saw in it the seeds of Detroit’s revival as a major city. But seething beneath the surface were serious problems of social inequality and police brutality toward blacks, problems that erupted on July 23 into one of the worst riots in American history, with 43 people killed and Gov. George Romney bringing in the military to supplement the city’s inadequate police force. Detroit would never recover from the horrors of this outbreak of burning, looting, and shooting.  
     In DETROIT ’67, her new play set against this backdrop, and playing at the Public’s Shiva Theatre, fledgling playwright Dominique Morisseau, plunks us down in the cinderblock-walled basement of Chelle (Michelle Wilson) and her brother Lank (Francoise Battiste) as they and their close friends, the smooth-talking Sly (Brandon J. Dirden) and the foxy lady Bunny (De’Adre Aziza), prepare the place for a party intended to earn some money. Lank and Sly hope to make things exciting with the new 8-track tape player they’ve acquired, although the very conservative Chelle, who lives her life within the confines of tried and true rules, objects, preferring to listen to her Motown music on 45s. Before the party begins, however, Sly and Lank bring home a white girl they rescued when they found her beaten up in the street. The cautious Chelle is outraged by the presence of the attractive girl, Caroline (Samantha Soule), because she fears the reaction when news leaks of this white girl’s presence in the home of black folks. Caroline, who has been robbed of her purse, is a bar employee; we eventually learn what her problem is, but it turns out to be minor in the play’s scheme of things. Still, she’s a cool customer and is perfectly at home among blacks; to Lank’s surprise, she even loves Motown music, but this only shows how limited his perception of the white world is. (One of the biggest laughs comes when Bunny, realizing how comfortable Caroline is in this world, shouts out with joy, “She’s a nigger lover!”) Despite Caroline’s well-meaning demeanor, Chelle is enraged to detect a growing affection between her and Lank. She is even more upset about Lank’s decision to use the money their father left them to go into business with Sly in a liquor store; some may be reminded of Walter Younger’s unfulfilled dream of using his father’s insurance money to open a liquor store in A Raisin in the Sun. Then the riots break out nearby, with the flashing lights of police cars visible through the basement windows, and the frightening sound of tanks heard rumbling through the streets. Chelle and Sly are at the liquor store they’re planning to open when they find themselves in a tragic confrontation with the cops; in this case, however, the dream will not be deferred.
     Unlike NEVA, where the connection between revolutionary action in the streets outside and the lives of the actors in the theatre is never effectively dramatized, DETROIT ’67 makes moderately good use of the outside socio-political environment to bring dramatic life to the people it portrays inside these basement walls. Despite the militant black power fist painted on the rear wall, and the preoccupation of the characters with black cultural signifiers (and language, including the constant reference to other blacks as “nigger”), no one is shown as anti-white. They are disgusted with and frightened by the racist actions of the white police, who systematically oppress the black community, but they don’t spout racially loaded comments, and simply want to be let alone to fulfill their destinies as decent people. Thus Chelle’s dismay at Caroline’s presence is not because of prejudice against her skin color, but simply because she knows the presence of a white girl in this household is bound to bring trouble in its wake. 
     Director Kwame Kwei-Arman has infused this promising, if imperfect, play with energy and passion. The cast is uniformly solid, forming an artistically integrated ensemble. The occasional playing of Motown highlights creates the right feeling, and the actors’ occasional transitions into dance movements adds visual interest. Dominique Morisseau is a playwright worth watching and DETROIT ’67 is a play worth visiting. 
99.  OLD HATS 
Bill Irwin and David Shiner are once more the princes of New York clownery with their new show, OLD HATS, at the Signature Theatre. This has to be one of the most delightful theatre events of the season, as these two veteran funnymen seem ageless in their physical dexterity and comedic spirit. OLD HATS is given in the format of an old-time vaudeville show within a gorgeously red false proscenium with a placard stand at stage left announcing each act’s title in an attractive digital style, showing that while the show may be old hat in format it’s new hat in technology. Mr. Irwin even has a memorable scene in which he creates some awesome effects interacting with an Ipad. To further this tech-oriented theme, the acts are often backed by marvelous video projections, including one that shows Mr. Irwin’s face blown up to giant size so that when he opens his mouth wide the flesh and blood Mr. Irwin can step into it through a slit in the screen and out of it in another image on the other side.
     The show is composed of a sequence of comic and musical acts whose quality barely dips, and that show the full range of these artists’ mimic and comedic skills. They wear costumes that are surrealistically clown-like exaggerations of everyday clothing and that allow their limbs the room to create all sorts of limber movements. Except for one classically pathos-ridden hobo scene by Mr. Shiner, they don’t wear clown makeup. They do sometimes put on funny faces, though, like the glasses and large nose worn by Mr. Irwin in a scene that does wonders with the contents of a large pot full of stringy spaghetti. In another bit, they wear bright false teeth smiles and slicked down wigs to play rival politicians in a broadly slapstick political debate. A number of bits revolving around the juggling of their oversized top hats reveal the technical perfection of their art. The humor is mostly in good taste, only occasionally skirting the edges, as when Mr. Shiner and Mr. Irwin play baggy pants commuters on a train platform sharing each other’s pills and reacting accordingly. When Mr. Irwin takes a certain pill from Mr. Shiner, the sudden rise in his pants tells us instantly what it was; Mr. Irwin has the hardest time trying to beat the thing down. In another scene, Mr. Shiner is a pony-tailed, lounge lizard-type magician and Mr. Irwin is his broadly smiling, buxom, blonde female assistant; their slick, dance-like moves are worked out precisely to a Latin rhythm.
     This magician routine requires an audience volunteer, and a young woman is brought on stage to be sliced in two. Real as she seemed at the performance I attended, she was so accommodating it made me wonder if she was a plant. Specific audience members are frequently addressed, especially those in the front row. Mr. Shiner often looks at some old lady and, doing a quick phone gesture, mouths the words “call me.” Four audience members come on stage to participate in a brilliantly comic routine about the making of a silent cowboy movie, with Mr. Shiner as director and cameraman. Without the audience members seeming totally authentic and eager to be there this number can easily flop, but the shanghaied performers when I went carried out their duties to awkward perfection, putting the audience in stitches.  
     To top it all off, the show is accompanied by a terrific orchestra placed outside the proscenium at stage right, and led by a pianist (and ukulele player) and singer named Nellie McKay. This petite blonde artist, wearing a bow in her hair, wrote the wonderful jazz-pop songs she sings, always with some sharp social commentary to catch your ear. She ties the whole show together and, near the end, joins her male costars for a bit of tap dancing on stage.
     OLD HATS is the kind of top hat entertainment that makes all the theatrical tedium I sit through worth it.  
100.  HONKY
Urban Stages is the venue for Greg Kalleres’s HONKY, an often sharply stinging satire on American racism, well directed by Luke Harlan. The venue’s name is appropriate for a play in which we learn that, allegedly, in the modern world of advertising, “urban” is a euphemism for black people. In fact, the play has a field day with the way people use words to express, disguise, or hide racist attitudes. It touches on nearly every imaginable stereotype of race-related thinking, often very amusingly; eventually, despite some cuttingly funny revelations of how many of us think about people who belong to races other than our own, the play’s singular theme plays itself out. This is a work whose theme dominates its situations and characters, all of which are straw men set up to provide targets for a machine-gun barrage of racially motivated lines and actions.
     The title, says the playwright in a New York Times Artsbeat column, was chosen because there really is no word equivalent the N-word in impact when referring pejoratively to white people. “To find something even close to the power of the N-word you have to use well-known slurs that refer specifically to heritage or race,” since “‘white’ refers to so many different types of people that a reference to it as a skin color has no negative historical relevance in this country.”  
     The principal races in HONKY are black and white; its premise is that Thomas (Anthony Gaskins), a black designer working for Sky Shoes, a white-owned sneaker company, has come up with a wildly colorful sneaker for the youth market. At the play’s start, we see a live enactment of a TV commercial created by white ad man Peter (Dave Droxler). It shows two silhouetted black boys doing some slickly choreographed basketball moves that culminate in one boy holding up a sneaker like a pistol and shooting the other boy dead. A slogan pops up on the rear wall, “Sup now.” We learn that the commercial has inspired a real shooting, and the company head and his designer—whose upbringing in a wealthy white neighborhood led to his black friends calling him “honky”—debate the validity of using violence to sell sneakers. The boss insists that the sneakers need to have ghetto cred before the white teen market will consider them cool enough to buy. The designer is furious, and wants vengeance. The ad man who created the commercial visits a shrink, Emilia (Arie Bianca Thompson), when he begins to feel guilty about the shooting (white guilt is a continuing motif); the shrink is an attractive black woman, allowing for further twists of the racial knife. She also is Thomas’s sister, throwing more salt on the racial wounds, as she denies having racist feelings, insisting she sees only people, not their color, while the skeptical Thomas becomes increasingly preoccupied with his blackness. The plot takes a number of turns, including having Thomas become the lover of Peter’s blonde girlfriend, whose attitudes toward race at first seem obtuse but grow more complex as the play proceeds. There is also a subplot about a pharmaceutical company that sells Driscotol, a pill intended to suppress racist thoughts; at the end, the company president, the ad man, and the shrink do a TV commercial shilling its benefits. Consumerism, the advertising industry, and drug companies all receive sharp bites on the butt.
     Structurally, the play is very episodic, with one sketch-like scene rapidly following the other, but everything moves swiftly and with high energy. Some of the discussions are surprisingly cogent, and the playwright is not afraid to confront commonly discussed subjects, such as who has the right to say the N-word, usually in a fresh and spirited way that offers both humor and food for thought. The walking on eggshells problem of how to speak about race without being offensive—or how people of one race should speak to or refer to another—sets up multiple opportunities for ironic thrusts. Just today, there was a news item about Gov. Christ Christie having referred to the first black female leader of the New Jersey state assembly by her race and gender rather than by her name, thereby stirring up a hornet’s nest because of his “racist” statement. Playwright Kalleres says, in fact, that just hearing the R-word, “even implied, will make a white person lose sleep.” Whether the rhino-skinned Christie is such a white person is another matter.
     To allow for the multiple scenes to speed along smoothly, Roman Tatarowicz has designed a simple, modernistic, boxlike structure with sliding panels upstage for exits and entrances. The walls make excellent screens for Caite Hevner’s imaginative projections of stills and videos, which are flashed upon them during the scene shifts as thumping rock music of one sort or another keeps the play’s energy flowing.   
     The ensemble plays this sometimes heavy-handed material with gusto, and, despite the overall effect being akin to a comic fever dream this honky left the theatre thinking about just how deeply racism affects us, no matter how much we deny it. And it will take more than a pill to make it go away. 
It was a pleasure to return to TALLEY’S FOLLY, Lanford Wilson’s 1979 two-hander, which I first saw at Off Broadway’s now defunct Circle Repertory Theatre, starring Judd Hirsch and Trish Hawkins (it later moved to Broadway). That production was memorable, and so is the current one, with rising comet Danny Burstein as Matt Friedman, the balding, 42-year-old, Jewish accountant from St. Louis, wooing the blonde, gentile, 31-year-old spinster from Lebanon, Missouri, Sally Talley, played here by the luminous Sarah Paulson. Set on the fourth of July, 1944, it takes place on the platform of the ruined, gazebo-like boat house built in the Victorian era by Sally’s grandfather, as Matt, having driven all the way to the Talley family's rural estate, pulls out all the stops to win her hand.
      A love story with two apparently mismatched lovers is a marvelous challenge for a playwright, and Wilson was totally on his mark in capturing the problems such a relationship might stir up. The pairing, especially as captured by the luminescent lighting of Rui Ruta on Jeff Cowie’s perfectly romantic ruin of a lake boathouse, is magically compelling, and Michael Wilson’s sensitive direction has drawn as much humor, political wit, and affectionate byplay from his actors as possible. Schmaltz, of course, is unavoidable in such a situation, but it’s leavened here with enough intelligence and humanity to make it palatable; besides, there’s still nothing quite like the feeling in the theatre of that little tear trickling its way down your cheek despite every effort you make to contain it.
     Burstein is as wonderful in the role of the acerbically charming, gruff, fast-speaking, volatile, and nevertheless secretive Matt as was the role’s originator, and the exquisitely delicate Paulson is every inch his equal as the reluctant lover, Sally, equally secretive, whose big reveal makes her coupling with Matt the ideal solution to their troubled relationship. If I had to nitpick, I’d have to say that Burstein tends to go just a tad too far in his Jewish inflections and hand-waving gesticulations, but I doubt that most people will find this problematic.
     The play is not perfect, of course, and its dramatic momentum requires sharp transitions from lightheartedness to darkly serious, from pleasantries to passionate outbursts, that sometimes seem contrived. Nevertheless, watching these two master actors take these moments and steer them through the Scylla and Charybdis of plausibility and melodrama is worth a dozen acting classes. I’ve seen at least three previous productions of TALLEY’S FOLLY, and wasn’t looking forward to seeing yet another one. Now that I have, I wouldn’t mind seeing this one again.
Davis McCallum’s production of Shakespeare’s HENRY IV, PART I, at the Pearl Theatre is an unimpressive journeyman version (or as my theatre companion said, “workmanlike”) of this history play about the rebellion of Harry Percy (a.k.a. Hotspur: Shawn Fagan), son of the Earl of Northumberland, and his supporters against the monarchy of King Henry IV (Bradford Cover) in the early 15th century. It is also the play in which Henry’s son, Prince Hal (John Brummer), cavorts with the fat, bragging knight, Falstaff (Dan Daily), whose earthy humor and cowardly behavior make him one of Shakespeare’s most beloved characters.
     The Pearl stage has been deprived of its proscenium in order to create as broad a playing space as possible for the multiple-scened action, set in a more or less timeless era notable only for the large kegs of sack set up at the rear as a permanent backdrop but intended specifically to represent the Boar’s Head Tavern, where some of the action transpires. The costumes are a blend of modern and traditional, and the casting is both colorblind and gender-blind. Most of us have become used to colorblind casting, especially in Shakespeare, where the performance matters more than the actor’s skin color (although it can, in certain cases, be distracting). Gender-blind casting, where men play women and women men can still be a stumbling block, unless carried off with great skill. It sometimes seems, as here, to be done as a way of cutting down on the number of actors a production has to cast. Thus, to take one example, the sturdily built Chris Mixon, who plays Thomas Percy, Hotspur’s brother, also portrays Mistress Quickly, the tavern hostess, which he acts with suitably feminine mannerisms and only a few costume elements to suggest her being a woman. What happens, for me at any rate, is that I become so aware of the acting exercise I become diverted from the play. Not a good thing, I would say.
     None of the performances rises above the B- level, although Dan Daily’s Falstaff might arguably deserve a B. Wearing a fat suit, the already large actor (I saw him last night at the Theatre Row Diner) looks the part, but he simply doesn’t have the vocal power and interpretive nuance to give more than a competent performance. John Brummer’s Prince Hal and Shawn Fagan’s Hotspur are unmemorable, although it must be said that, because of the lighting, their performances—and others—were virtual spit-fests of saliva spewing. If what was being sprayed about on the Pearl stage whenever an actor opened his mouth to speak in profile is any indication of what comes out of the mouths of people in ordinary life, then maybe we should all be walking around with surgical masks over our faces.
     The production runs three hours long, and the slog seems longer (unlike another three-hour play seen this weekend, THE FLICK, reviewed later). When the curtain calls concluded I was ready to bolt so I could rush from 11th Avenue to 8th to catch the A-train for the journey home. Unfortunately, Mr. Daily stepped forth from the company lineup to make a pitch for donations to the theatre, and put the already sleepy audience on hold. I didn’t get home until past midnight, and then had to rise early to go into Manhattan to catch a children’s show at 11:00 a.m. My report follows.
My kids are grown so I regret having no little ones of appropriate age to accompany me to all the professional children’s shows I get to see. On the other hand, I wouldn’t make a priority of taking a little one to PIGGY NATION. Like so many others in the genre, it’s a musical (book/lyrics: Richard Rosser; book: Alec Wells) based on a reputedly popular series of children’s books. The venue is the third floor theatre at the Snapple Theatre Center on W. 50th Street, a building that also houses the current revival of THE FANTASTICKS.
     This is a low-rent production, performed with a single piano, a painted cloth backdrop, and a non-Equity cast. Normally, the latter wouldn’t be an issue, but in this case the general lack of professional polish demonstrated by the cast was heightened by their lack of union accreditation.
     In PIGGY NATION, Sammy Hamhock (David Rosenberg) is the piglet son of Hank Hamhock (Anthony Police), a sort of cop whose job is give tickets to people who display “piggy behavior.” Thus the story illustrates all the little things that people do that are “piggy”; you don’t “pick your snout,” leave dirty diapers on park benches, allow your porcupine to poop in people’s gardens, etc. But Officer Hank himself soon learns that he too can be guilty of piggy behavior, and both he and all the other animal characters learn as well that you must be able to apologize when you misbehave.
I wouldn’t say the company should apologize for foisting this show on the public, since, despite the lack of any noteworthy singing talent (and the presence of a few real clunkers), the actors all are fully invested in their cartoonish antics, and their spirited performances keep the audience of tots and their anxious parents engaged for the hour-long performance.
Two and a half hours after seeing PIGGY NATION I was seated at Playwrights Horizons, watching a suitably adult presentation, THE FLICK, by red-hot dramatist Annie Baker, directed by her usual collaborator, the similarly in-demand Sam Gold. Having been spoiled by a season in which 80 per cent of the shows seem to run 80-90 intermissionless minutes, having endured a three-hour trudge through HENRY IV the night before, and having only just left a second-rate children’s show, I was prepared to hunker down for yet another snooze-fest at what I knew was going to be a three-hour, slowly paced production. SURPRISE! THE FLICK turned out to be the promised three-hour, slowly paced production I was expecting, but it also turned out to be mesmerizingly interesting. This is not to deny that in one scene, played in the dark, I did allow myself to close my eyes and slip into a semi-doze, but what I lost in that brief interval was insignificant compared to what I gained from the work as a whole.
     When the curtain rises (remember the curtain?), the blinding light of a movie projector high at the rear of the stage is all we can see. Triumphant movie music signals that the film being shown, presumably behind us, is nearing its end. Then the flickering light goes out and we gasp at seeing the interior of a small, single-screen, suburban movie theatre in Worcester County, Massachusetts, with the seats facing us, and the fluorescent lights as bright as we’d expect after the movie audience has filed out and the cleaners have entered to sweep the aisles.
     The perfection with which this familiar environment has been realized becomes even more believable as the action begins, with the theatre’s workers, the bald, 35-year-old Sam (Matthew Maher) and the Urkle-like, spectacle-wearing, college-age black man, Avery (Aaron Clifton Moten), doing their clean-up job. Avery is a new hire and Sam is teaching him the ropes. Sam is a lonely guy in love with the green-haired projectionist, Rose (Louisa Krause), whom he believes is a lesbian, and from whom he would like to learn how to run the theatre’s 35-mm projector, which would mean a sort of promotion for him. Rose and Sam convince the very reluctant, squeaky clean Avery to participate in a scam they operate that allows them to resell a small number of tickets and earn around $10 or $11 dollars of “dinner money” every night. Avery, who speaks with relatively emotionless, almost robot-like inflections, is a nerdy film savant who, despite its low pay, wants this job so he can watch films for free. He believes no great American film has been produced in the past ten years, and that the last such movie was Tarantino’s PULP FICTION. As he and Sam get to know each other and become friends, he reveals his remarkable film knowledge by answering Sam’s questions in which two seemingly unrelated film actors are mentioned, with Avery connecting them through a series of films as per the “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon” game. One day, when Sam is away attending the wedding of his “retarded” brother, Rose, who always dresses in the same shapeless black blouse and slacks, finds herself sexually drawn to Avery, whose response is not what she expected. When Sam returns, he sees that the dynamic has changed among the three employees, and his jealous resentment becomes palpable. Avery is also preoccupied with convincing the man who is planning to buy the theatre to retain the 35-mm projector and not use digital projection, which he believes will be the death of cinematic artistry.         
     What suspense the play generates revolves around the “dinner money” scam, the romantic interests of Rose, Sam, and Avery, and the future of the theatre. Near the end, the characters are faced with a serious ethical problem, and we wait anxiously to see how they will resolve it. With these essential ingredients playwright Baker capably brings her play to its ultimately satisfying closure.
We watch these lonely, striving characters in their hermetically sealed world of reality and illusion, struggling to articulate their feelings, growing increasingly familiar only to discover how little they actually know about each other. The trick that makes all this so original is that each scene in the episodic structure seems to be taking place in real time. It’s almost as if you’re involved in a photo-realist dramatic presentation. There are long, sometimes very long, pauses in the conversations (40 minutes go by at one point with only a couple of pages of dialogue spoken); characters often stumble in trying to express their thoughts; nothing dramatic seems to be happening as the aisles are swept or a piece of gum is scraped from a chair. But something is always happening, and every moment is actually fraught with feeling and concentration, even if it seems to be taking forever to go from point A to point B. Many of the things the characters say are hilarious, brightening the potentially cloudy atmosphere with unexpected levity. By the end of the performance you feel that while you may not really know these characters, you have come to know and care about them on a far deeper level than you do about the people in many more conventional dramas.
     Under Sam Gold’s precisely timed staging, Motet, Maher, and Krause create a perfectly blended ensemble that leads to complete involvement in their lives and aspirations. Motet, in particular, deserves special praise for his low-key, subtly suppressed performance; toward the end of the play, he has a moment that I will not spoil but that shows us a side of him that will blow you away. Aided by David Zinn’s startlingly believable set and Jane Cox’s effectively lifelike lighting, THE FLICK is very different from most other plays you will have seen. It’s not for everyone, but, if you’re patient, the payoff will be rewarding. Just make sure you’re well rested before you see it; otherwise, the temptation to take a nap may be too strong to resist. 
Not long after leaving THE FLICK, I was in the tiny basement theatre at the Irish Repertory Theatre, watching FOR LOVE, a “dark blue romantic comedy” by the talented Laoisa Sexton, who also plays one of its three women starved for love and sex during the economic downturn in Dublin. Like the current revival of PASSION at the CSC, this play begins with a woman, Val (Jo Kinsella), having sex by sitting on top of a man (the handsome John Duddy, who plays all the men in the play). Unlike in PASSION, this engagement turns out to be a misfire, probably to be blamed on the characters’ excessive drinking before they stumbled into Val’s flat. The man rises and takes a pee in the woman’s fridge before departing, which becomes a reference point for later in the play.
     Then we meet Tina (Georgina McKevitt), an attractive shopaholic married to a sweaty man who physically repulses her, and Bee (Laoisa Sexton, the dramatist), a pretty bank teller, seated in the BMW of a married man (his baby carrier is in the back seat) whom she allows to diddle her with his hand, but—for the moment—no further. Before long we’re introduced to the three women in more detail, much of their history and feelings revealed in direct address monologues. Bee and Val are co-workers, and they have several heart to hearts across the stage on their cell phones. Bee, despite her youth, is on the verge of becoming a grandma (she had her son when she 14), and has difficulty facing this development. Val is a bosomy, plus-sized woman whose potty mouth ejects one vulgarity after another (the play contains a bucketful of profanity, some of it very funny). Much of the charm of all this comes from the authentic accents of the actors, all of them from the old sod. There are so many Irishisms in the dialogue, the program even contains a glossary: did you know that “poncey” describes “a place or person who is posh,” that “bulling” means “furious,” that a “slapper” is a prostitute, that a “mickey” is “a man’s genitalia,” and that a “minger” is someone “who is sexually unattractive”? I’ll leave out the phrase given for female genitalia, if you don’t mind.
     FOR LOVE is given on a practically bare stage (no set designer is credited) and, since it’s very close to the spectators, the shouting sometimes gets a bit too loud for comfort, especially since there’s so much of it. This isn’t to deny that the acting is actually quite vivid and smart; it’s just that some of it, especially that of Jo Kinsella, might have been toned down for so intimate a space. The audience seemed to find most of the play witty enough to laugh at, and there were indeed a few good zingers, but the characters and their behavior never earned my full belief and I was unable to become earnestly involved in their issues. Maybe, with all the people dressed in bright green shirts, hats, and sunglasses parading the streets of midtown Manhattan on Saturday, many of them loutish and drunk, I’d simply had a bit too much of the St. Paddy’s ambience to appreciate more of it in such close proximity.
The honest truth about THE LYING LESSON, the new Craig Lucas dramedy at the Atlantic Theatre Company, is that it is stale, flat, and unprofitable, despite the presence of the usually delightful Carol Kane and the promising newcomer Mickey Sumner (Sting’s daughter) in its only two roles.
     It is summer 1981 at a large home in a small town in Maine; outside, a violent thunderstorm is raging. Movie star Bette Davis (Kane), who has come here to buy the property, suddenly finds herself in the dark when the lights blow after a terrific crash of thunder and lighting. She lights a couple of candles that just happen to be waiting for her, but takes refuge when she hears someone trying to get in. After a few moments, a lanky young woman named Minnie Bodine (Sumner) crawls in through the window over the sink, but Bette holds her off with the large kitchen knife she’s grabbed for protection. It looks like we’re in for a conventional thriller as Bette and Minnie spar over what each is doing there. Pretty soon the play settles down into a suspense-less tale about the 73-year-old Bette’s having come here to live during the declining years of her career, and her interest in meeting again a man she recalls romantically having known when she visited this town on a family vacation 60 years ago. Minnie, an eccentric local yokel, begins their relationship by declaring she has no idea of who Bette is; she only seems to recognize the distinguished actress when the song “Bette Davis Eyes” is mentioned. As the plot progresses, we see that neither the movie star nor the local is telling the truth, and the play plods along until we learn what is true and what is lies.
     A good deal of time is occupied with Davis reciting Hollywood anecdotes, especially when she can push verbal pins into Joan Crawford, her filmic rival in WHATEVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE. Cinema buffs with a taste for the campier efforts of Davis and Crawford’s twilight years might enjoy these reminiscences, but the chances are they’d find them passé. Perhaps if Carol Kane’s portrayal of Davis the diva was more authentic, the piece might at least have had performative—if not dramaturgical—excitement, but, alas, all that Ms. Kane shares with the flamboyantly dramatic movie star are large eyes and short stature. Her voice, diction, gestures, and general behavior are all wrong, and if you’re at all familiar with the original, you’ll be unable throughout the otherwise monotonous proceedings to accept the performance on its own terms, since without at least a believable replica of the original, there’s nothing else to grab on to here.
     Ms. Sumner, who is making her Off Broadway debut, shows promise, but tends to overdo Minnie’s quirkiness, with a broad Maine accent that my theatre companion found phony, and a host of mannerisms designed to show Minnie’s physical awkwardness.
     Pam McKinnon’s lackluster direction (nowhere near the quality of her work on VIRGINIA WOOLF) did little to enliven the production, and the set and lighting were unexceptionable. And that’s the God’s honest truth.
The title of THE NORTH POOL, Rajiv Joseph’s new play at the Vineyard Theatre, refers to a nonexistent swimming pool on the grounds of Sheffield High School, where the play takes place. Instead of there being a pool at the site, there is a large concrete bomb shelter built during the Cold War days of the 1950s and named the North Pool to deflate any fears students may have had about being taken there during an attack. This deception is one of many that emerge over the course of this 85-minute, intermissionless drama (performed in real time), during which a zealous vice-principal, Dr. Danielson (Stephen Barker Turner), interrogates an 18-year-old Middle Eastern student.
      All of the action takes place in the administrator’s authentically dreary office, scrupulously realized by Donyale Werle. It is the last day of classes at a large public high school before spring break, and, while the rest of his classmates have gone home, Khadim Asmaan (Babak Tafti), a recent transfer student from an elite private school, must visit the vice-principal’s office, although he says he has no idea why. Danielson, who, over the course of the next hour and a half, uses passive-aggressive ploys to play both good cop and bad cop, makes Khadim serve a period of detention in his office for having skipped a class, and then begins to question him across a wide spectrum of subjects, including his possibly planning to bomb the school. His incessant prodding, with questions that are largely red herrings, at one point leads Khadim to accuse Danielson of racism. Khadhim is the wealthy son of Syrian immigrants, adept at six languages, and capable when pushed far enough to turn his own sharp intelligence and smug sense of superiority on his tormentor. What lies behind Danielson’s obsessive questioning does not become clear until the end, when we learn that the heart of his quest concerns the suicide of Lia, a troubled student who made a sex tape; both were intensely interested in her.
     As the interrogation proceeds, the men continually explain themselves and their behavior with words that turn out to be untrue; fairly soon, as more honest revelations pour forth, we begin to suspect everything that they are saying, and the disclosures pile up in an almost “can you top this” pattern of soul baring. The result is a melodramatic structure that creates a mounting sense of disbelief in anything they disclose. At the end, none of it adds up to very much, apart from showing us how far perception can be from what we take to be the truth. What begins as a promising cat and mouse drama descends into such excessive implausibility that its latter half is increasingly difficult to accept.
     This is not to deny the effective work of Mr. Turner and Mr. Tafti. The former is convincing as a supercilious, officious, gregarious, and artificially friendly high school administrator. Mr. Tafti, although clearly older than 18, carries himself with the awkward shuffle of an insecure teenager, shy and self-effacing until pushed to where his inner self rises to cross words with a nasty authority figure.
      If I were searching for a good theatrical swim, I’d search elsewhere than THE NORTH POOL.
Another musical has made it to Broadway, this one being a somewhat trimmed down (by 20 minute) version of the show that first opened at the La Jolla Playhouse in California last year. Unusually, the Broadway production of HANDS ON A HARDBODY has the same cast as the La Jolla staging, including the two best-known members of the company, Keith Carradine and Hunter Foster, both Broadway vets. Despite their presence, this is an ensemble, and Carradine, for example, hasn’t a word to say (although he sings along and moves about with the rest) for at least 20 minutes. The real star is a red Nissan pickup truck that dominates the stage from first to last and is capable of moving around in different patterns as pushed by the cast, and even to turn on its lights and honk on cue.
      The truck is there because it’s the object of everyone’s attention as the prize in a marathon competition at a Nissan dealership in Longview, Texas, where the struggling management hopes the attention it creates will draw customers during a time of economic hardship. The concept of this contest proved so appealing, in fact, that an Academy Award-winning documentary was made of it in 1997, and that film became the show’s immediate inspiration. The book was written by Doug Wright, best known for I Am My Own Wife, and its music was composed by Phish frontman Trey Anastasio and Amanda Green, the daughter of Adolph Green and Phyllis Newman (if you don’t know who these theatre greats are, you can check them out on Wikipedia); Green also wrote the appealing lyrics. The songs are mainly in the country, honky-tonk, mariachi, and gospel veins, and include social commentary, emotional problems, and religious aspirations in their themes. They make good listening, and can go from sentimental ballads to rafter-raising jubilation, but sometimes tend to sound too similar to other songs in their genres.
      When I first learned the show’s core subject, an endurance contest to award whoever could stand longest next to a pickup truck with at least one hand on it, I wondered how something so narrow in scope could be turned into a Broadway musical, even if the characters are allowed brief breaks at set intervals to take care of physical needs. My fears were somewhat justified, since, despite an excellent, well-rounded company and some strong musical numbers, the show doesn’t totally succeed in overcoming the stasis of its basic premise.
      An effort has been made to infuse the action with physical activity, but since the major choreographic routine—clever and well executed as it is—forces the actors to move around while keeping a hand on the truck, the dancers are unable to break free for more expressive dancing. The movements of the truck itself are very significant, but no truck can compete with the rhythmic flexibility of the human body, and the conceit of a “dancing” hardbody eventually grows thin.
       Somewhat in the vein of shows like A Chorus Line or Working, each cast member has a distinctive story to tell and sing. There are ten contestants, each desperate to win the $22,000 truck (its mid-90s price), and each given plenty of opportunity to sing about what he or she will do with it should they win. Carradine plays JD Drew, an oil rig worker who was injured some months back and lost his job; despite the pain in his legs, he perseveres with the help of his devoted, if overly solicitous wife, Virginia (an excellent Mary Gordon Murray). Foster is the arrogant, rough-edged, red neck Benny Perkins, who won a previous contest, but who seeks to win as a way of filling in the gaps in his empty life following his wife’s leaving him and his son’s deployment to Iraq. There’s a stolid Marine, Chris Alvaro (David Larsen), suffering the effects of his own recent deployment; a deeply pious fat woman, Norma Valverde (Keala Settle), believing God is on her side; a sexy Texas blonde, Heather Stovall (Kathleen Elizabeth Monteleone), desperate to get off her bicycle and into the truck; an overweight black man, Ronald McCowan (Jacob Ming-Trent); a pair of youngsters who fall in love, Kelli (Allison Case) and Greg (Jay Armstrong Johnson); a Tex-Mex fellow, Jesus Peña (Jon Rua), who needs money for veterinary school and who considers himself a victim of racism; and, finally, there’s Janis Curtis (Dale Soules), an older, whiskey and cigarette-voiced, trailer-trash type, supported by her rail-thin husband, Don (William Youmans). There are also the dealership’s managers, the slightly sleazy Mike Ferris (Jim Newman) who tries to help the blonde in order to get sexual favors in return, and his assistant, the perky Cindy Barnes (Connie Ray), hoping that she and Jim won’t lose their jobs if the business goes under. Finally, Frank Nugent (Scott Wakefield) is the local radio celebrity who keeps his audiences up to date with the contest’s developments.
     Visually, HANDS ON A HARDBODY is not competing with your usual Broadway production. The costumes capture the Walmart chic that characters like these would wear, and the set is little more than the truck itself, backed by a washed-out billboard that depends on expressive lighting to keep it from being simply boring. But it’s determined plainness gives the show a simplicity that makes it stand out from all the spectacle in the standard Great White Way products surrounding it. Still, I couldn’t help feeling that the nearly blank billboard dominating the stage might have been used for interesting projections to give the recital of each character’s troubles some more visual excitement.
      After 91 hands-on hours, the contest has a winner, of course, and the show’s interest lies largely in the way each loser drops out—one from sheer exhaustion, another from eating too many Snickers, another from sleepwalking, another from hallucinating, and so on. There are also the personal sufferings of these forgotten, working-class folk to keep us well-fed theatergoers interested, the problems of family and poverty that drive them to stand in the broiling sun without sleep for days until their limbs go numb for the chance of winning a shiny red pickup.
     Like all of the contestants, the show is worthy of respect for its depiction of working class America, but it falls away before its own struggle for survival ends. You won’t have trouble keeping your hands on this hardbody of a musical, but when it’s over you may not be certain as to just how big a winner HANDS ON A HARDBODY really is. 
New York’s two hottest playwrights of the moment are both young women, Annie Baker, whose THE FLICK is dividing audiences on its merits at Playwrights Horizons, and Amy Herzog, whose BELLEVILLE is doing the same at the New York Theatre Workshop. In the current run-off, I’d have to give THE FLICK the nod as the more original and consistently effective of these plays. BELLEVILLE, which has gained some traction as a psychological thriller, seemed nothing of the kind to me; despite those who’ve argued against it being, instead, a portrait of a youthful marriage on the rocks, it’s hard to avoid seeing that as its essential raison d’être.
     Abby (Maria Dizzia) and Zack (Greg Keller) have moved to Paris so that he can take a job there doing AIDS research for Doctors without Borders; we’re led to believe he graduated from medical school. They seem an attractive couple, apparently in love, but also with cracks beginning to show in their relationship. Before long, the cracks widen into fissures, and the play shows just how wide those grow before the marriage crumbles. Each has psychological issues to contend with, and we eventually begin to wonder at just how little they each know of each other. To help create dramatic complications, Herzog introduces Abby and Zack’s landlord, an amiable Senegalese named Alioune (Phillip James Brannon) whom Zack believes he has befriended but who now demands the four months back rent Zack owes him (a matter of which Abby is ignorant). Later, we meet Zack’s less amiable wife, Amina (Pascale Armand), whose preoccupation is her infant child.
     All the action transpires in Zack and Abby’s oddly angled, top-floor apartment in Paris’s Belleville neighborhood, known for its racial diversity. Abby has been on antidepressants ever since her mom died a few years back; Zack’s dependency is on pot, which he now smokes at every opportunity. Abby is somewhat culturally obtuse; she offers Alioune a Christmas cookie only for him to have to remind her that he’s Muslim. Her off-kilter personality is also responsible for cutting remarks she sometimes makes to Zack, who, at first, seems a soothing, solicitous spouse, worried for his troubled wife. An unexplained visa problem for which Zack is somehow responsible means that if they leave for the USA, they won’t be able to return. Abby, unable to find anything to keep her rooted here, longs for home, where her sister is expecting a baby. Trouble begins to brew when Abby comes home to find Zack, who says he stayed home from work, masturbating to Internet porn. When he continues to stay home and Abby questions him about it, he tries to blow her off. She seems tied to the daily phone calls from her dad, but Zack takes her phone and won’t let her receive the calls, possibly out of jealousy.  Meanwhile, another character of sorts begins to appear now and then—a large kitchen carving knife. The knife may be the reason some think the play a thriller, but it proves to be nothing more than a shiny red herring, and the only bleeding it causes comes from Abby’s misuse of it to deal with an injury to her toenail.
     Anne Kauffman’s direction tries to build up suspense with its languorous pace, long silences, and moody lighting (even with all the lights turned on the apartment remains gloomy in the nighttime scenes). Finally, as we learn more about Zack’s mendacity, the tension does increase until he makes a final, fateful decision and brings the drama to an unsettling conclusion, albeit an ambiguous one. The last scene is performed in simple French by Alioune and Amina as they clean up the apartment, throwing all of Zack and Abby’s possessions into garbage bags, but precisely what happened before then is left to the audience to decide. Key lines they speak are, “It’s not a catastrophe,” and “Let’s go. We’ve got lots to do,” indeterminate comments that leave a cloud of vagueness hanging over what has just transpired.
      Herzog leaves many questions unanswered in this wishfully atmospheric drama, such as how Abby could have been so ignorant of Zack’s behavior and the nature of his position in Paris. Even Alioune seems to know more about Zack’s character than she does.
     Maria Dizzia and Greg Keller give strong performances as fragile, emotionally unstable people, and Pascale Armand and Phillip James Brannon offer solid support but all their efforts do not add up to anything significant, and the play comes off as neither original, believable, nor compelling, just another drama about how little we know each other because of all the lies we use to define ourselves. If you want to see something really memorable set in this Paris neighborhood, I’d skip BELLEVILLE and see THE TRIPLETS OF BELLEVILLE (on DVD) instead.
     110. HIT THE WALL
Ike Holter’s HIT THE WALL, at the Barrow Street Theatre, was inspired by the Stonewall riots of 1969, when the police department’s homophobic policies reached a disgusting pinnacle of violent oppression. As you probably know, on a sweltering June night that year, the cops conducted a raid on the Stonewall Inn, a popular gay bar (also frequented by straights) on Christopher Street, only a short distance from the Barrow Street Theatre, resulting in the gay community’s fighting back in a series of riots and protests that are credited with having given rise to the “gay pride” movement that is still with us.
      This historical event is the core of the drama, but it’s not a documentary depiction and, if you wandered in to the play without knowing anything of the historical context you’d be completely lost, other than to see that something bad happened between the police and gay folks back in the late 1960s. This lack of context is, for me, one of the show’s most glaring problems, and its condensation of the events of several nights, with the cops represented by a single, monstrous example, oversimplifies history in the interests of polemics and melodrama. Similarly, there is no coda informing the audience of the aftermath of the rioting, which seems all compressed into the events of a single evening.
      The homosexual characters are all extreme stereotypes, such as a black transvestite (Nathan Lee Graham), a cross-dressing lesbian (Rania Salem Manganaro) who gets manhandled by a cop, a black lesbian who prefers being called a dike (Carolyn Michelle Smith), a fast-talking pair of very swish young men, one black (Gregory Haney) and the other Puerto Rican (Arturo Soria), a handsome guy in a suit straight out of MAD MEN (Sean Allan Krill), and so on. Everyone is either flamboyant, promiscuous, horny, or smartass sassy with rapid-fire putdowns. Romantic relationships happen instantaneously. Dramatically, there is a series of brief scenes focused on different characters, all of them leading up to the raid, which is a theatrical highlight staged in slow mo (by ubiquitous fight director J. David Brimmer) with excellent lighting (designed by Lauren Helpern) and strobe effects accompanied by pulsating music (sound design by Daniel Kluger and Brandon Wolcott).
     Apart from its several effective performances and some well-staged moments by director Eric Hoff, HIT THE WALL is not high on my list of this year’s hits.
Lanford Wilson’s 1975 play, THE MOUND BUILDERS, which he considered his favorite, is in revival at the Signature Theatre under the direction of Jo Bonney. The play was originally staged by Wilson’s close collaborator, Marshall Mason, who had a genius for evoking the lyrical realism of Wilson’s plays through the expert ensemble casts he directed at the old Circle Repertory Theatre in Greenwich Village. Whatever magic Mason was able to weave is definitely not present in this flatfooted revival in which a cast that should be an integrated ensemble is somehow out of sync with both the play and with each other.
     The title refers to an ancient tribe of Native Americans whose past is being unearthed from beneath huge mounds by a team of archaeologists led by Prof. August Howe (David Conrad) and his assistant Dr. Dan Loggins (Zachary Booth). The dig was begun in the summer of 1974 in the town of Blue Shoals, Illinois, and the results of that summer are narrated into a tape recorder, with accompanying slides, in 1975. The narration offers material about the nature of the ancient civilization that reflects ironically on the characters in the play; August's his narration is a frame for extended flashbacks in which we see August and Dan, with their wives, staying at a lakeside summer home in Blue Shoals. It is owned by the father of Chad Jasker (Will Rogers), a local who hopes his father’s real estate investments on the lakefront will become vastly profitable when an Interstate highway comes through, eliminating the mounds and the lake as well. Chad is also staying at the house, where his attraction to the women there creates a destructive atmosphere, shattering August’s marriage among other things; a scene with a shirtless Dan suggests his interest in men as well. His financial goals lead to a confrontation with the archaeologists, whose aim is to maintain as a tourist attraction the important site on which they’ve expended blood, sweat, and tears. This brief précis gives only the barest outlines of the play, of course, and there are all sorts of interpersonal issues that arise, not only with Chad but among everyone dwelling in the house. These include August’s attractive wife, Cynthia (Janie Brookshire), a photographer; their adolescent daughter (Rachel Resheff); Dan’s pregnant wife Jean (Lisa Joyce), a gynecologist; and August’s ailing sister, Delia a.k.a. D.K. (Danielle Skraastad), a novelist and recovering drug addict, estranged from her brother; seated throughout on a couch at center stage, she offers dryly negative comments on everything around her.
      None of the actors is able to truly inhabit their roles, making it impossible to create a believable ensemble. Several are simply guilty of overacting (too much shouting), while others seem out of touch with their characters’ inner lives; nuance is sorely missing. If one of the things the play is intended to reveal is how the absorption of the archaeologists in the ruins of the past is so total that they allow their own lives and relationships to fall into ruins, we need more than just the sense of that absorption. We must also believe in what’s happening to them in the here and now.
     The house they’re staying in is designed (by Neil Patel) to look almost deconstructed and distressed, to the point that you can look through the narrow slats that compose the walls and floor, but the effect is bland and forgettable.
For it to work, THE MOUND BUILDERS needs a company and director with the archaeological tools to excavate its themes and relationships and bring them back to life. In this production, the play remains buried within its own artistic mound.


A friend pointed out the coincidence of her having seen the very interesting trailer for a forthcoming film of Shakespeare’s romantic comedy, MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING, shortly after she’d seen the play with me. I checked it out online, and found its strictly modern-dress approach, in black and white, quite intriguing, and at the opposite pole from the lush and gorgeous movie of the play made by Kenneth Branagh in 1993, set in the Renaissance. The staging of MUCH ADO by Arin Arbus, running at the Duke Theatre on 42nd Street, places the action in the early 20th century, “prior to World War I,” according to the program, and uses an essentially bare stage to conjure up Messina, Sicily. The setting, designed by Riccardo Hernandez, is a simple platform covered in shiny, wood-patterned tiles. There’s a tree up right and a swing that comes down from the rafters when needed, then ascends when not. Black screens stand at the rear. And, given the difference between the theatre and film, that’s all that’s really needed.

Also needed are well-balanced leading actors in the roles of the leading couple, Benedick and Beatrice, whose constant comic bantering is a subterfuge for the love they feel but resist admitting. Jonathan Cake makes a suitably dashing and comically serious/seriously comic hero, often speaking directly to specific audience members, although his actorish mannerisms sometimes grow too prominent. His costar, Maggie Siff, however, is unable to compete with him in their love battles, being vocally uninteresting and emotionally charmless. She’s also dressed in a bland costume that only serves to further undermine the vitality of her presence. The result is an artistic imbalance that undermines the central purpose of the play. The remaining cast members range from good to competent, but the humor of which the play should be brimming, has been toned down to offer a somewhat darker palette; John Christopher Jones’s language mangling Dogberry is responsible for most of the laughs.

This is not to deny the production its general effectiveness in keeping the action moving, the story clear, the dialogue cogent, and the atmosphere—sometimes abetted by a wandering accordion player—alive.   

Simply stated, there’s nothing much about which to be ado in this production.


There have been too many things to do and shows to see this past week for me to keep up with writing these comments, so, regretfully (for me, if not for you), I’m reduced to offering only brief remarks on the last five shows I’ve visited. Hopefully I can get back on track by next week, although April is going to be hell month because of all the Broadway shows rushing in to become eligible for awards consideration before the deadline guillotine falls. Of course, there will also be an abundance of Off Broadway shows, so every nook and cranny of my schedule will be filled with theatergoing. I will be eating, drinking, sleeping, and excreting theatre. (Is that more information than you need?) My own committee’s deadline is April 21, after which I go into hibernation for a week as we hunker down day and night to come up with our nominations based on the 250 or so shows we will have seen.

We start with BELLO MANIA, a circus show for kids at the New Victory Theatre, starring the remarkable clown Bello Nock. If you look him up online you’ll see a youngish man who wears his hair (I call it blonde, others say it’s red) straight up like a crown; he’s not too young because he has an 18-year-old daughter Annaliese, who is one of the supporting performers in his show. She’s a gymnast with a perfectly shaped Junoesque physique that is the equivalent of two normal gymnasts in size, which makes her graceful routine on a hanging ring something rather out of the ordinary to watch. If she were slim and lithe it would be just another act, but her plus-sized anatomy makes what she does even more remarkable.

Still, we watch BELLO MANIA for the Chaplinesque pantomimic skills of her dad, an unusually gifted acrobat who does his thrilling yet hilarious routines on a high wire, a trampoline, a bicycle that keeps falling apart, a tiny bicycle even a child can’t ride, and so on. There was considerable interaction with kids both on stage and in the audience, and one memorable number included Bello’s bringing a woman on stage (not a plant; I checked with others who saw the show) and involving her in doing a William Tell skit with him. He fashioned a bow out of a balloon and then proceeded to have her “shoot” invisible arrows at a series of large red balloons he held as if they were apples, while the William Tell Overture played in the background. The results were hysterically funny. At the show’s close he climbed a pole set in the front of the auditorium and did a series of comical acrobatic bits at its top as the pole swayed to and fro near the theatre’s ceiling and he reached for a balloon that had gone astray there. Awesome!

After BELLO MANIA, I saw MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING, which I covered in my last report, and after that ended I popped into my third show of the day, LAST MAN CLUB, downtown (and downstairs) at 1 Sheridan Square, where Charles Ludlam’s Ridiculous Theatre used to hold court in campy days of yore.

This unassuming little play written and directed for the Axis Theatre by Randy Sharp is something of an eye-opener (although you may need protective goggles). It’s set in Oklahoma in the 1930s during the horrendous drought of the Dust Bowl years; unlike the Joads, who, in Steinbeck’s THE GRAPES OF WRATH, represented the Okies who left their farms and fled to migrant work in California to escape the ravages of the Dust Bowl’s arid lands, the family in LAST MAN CLUB has stayed behind, waiting for the endless drought to end. They and others like them belong to Last Man Clubs, standing for their concerted effort to outlast nature’s curse. We see only a table and some bare furnishings in the family’s house; no walls are shown, and the entire scenic space is wrapped in creased and soiled gray curtains. Dust and sand seem to be everywhere, and when two outsiders enter, it cascades from their heads when they take off their hats. Meanwhile, there is the constant soundscape of wind and dust that never lets us forget the bleak and parched conditions in the world outside.

The grizzled, dirt-covered outsiders turn out to be feckless con men, hoping they can talk the house’s oddball inhabitants into giving up their savings as an investment in a rainmaking invention. The interaction between these outsiders and the family makes up the heart of this simply structured play, but it is surprisingly well acted, especially by the two con men, Middle Pints (George Demas) and Henry Taper (Brian Barnhart), the latter claiming to be a scientist and clearly uncomfortable in the role of swindler. If you’re seeking a piece of strikingly atmospheric theatre, done on a dime budget, LAST MAN CLUB won’t blow dust in your eyes but you’ll certainly think it did. The production reminded me of Spencer Tracy’s Brooklyn-accented comment about Katharine Hepburn in PAT AND MIKE: “Not much meat on her but what there is is ‘cherce.’”

There’s no rest for the weary on this job, so the next day saw me visiting New York in the 1940s and 1950s for BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY’S at the Cort Theatre; lunch from the hotdog vendor on the corner would have been more fulfilling. This adaptation of Truman Capote’s beloved novella by Richard Greenberg reportedly stays truer to its source than the even more famous movie version starring the inimitable Audrey Hepburn. The film toned down the sexual adventures of the story’s iconic heroine, Holly Golightly, eternal representative of the poor girl from nowhere who comes to the Big Apple with dreams of conquest on her mind. Unfortunately, Greenberg is unable to find a suitable approach to transfer the episodic story to the stage. What he provides is a succession of clunky scenes, tied together by the narrative speeches of Fred (Cory Michael Smith), the attractive, sexually ambivalent young writer Holly befriends at their mutual boarding house, who tells the story years later, when he has become successful.

Even with this second-rate script the play might have worked if its self-dramatizing, ambitious, neurotic, and yet lovable heroine had been played by anyone who could somehow capture the charming appeal that Hepburn brought to the role, miscast as she may have been (Capote thought so, at any rate, and would have preferred Marilyn Monroe). Emilia Clarke, of TV’s GAME OF THRONES, is truly miscast. Like Hepburn, she speaks with a British accent (which Holly, who hails from the rural South puts on as an affectation, but which is natural to the UK born and bred Clarke), but her voice is shrill and monotonous, and her attempts at charisma mostly grating. To be fair, she is battling an image that few actresses would be able to stand up to, and the play she’s in does little to help. Still, without a Holly Golightly you can love and weep for, how can you love BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY’S?

            F#%KING UP EVERYTHING, like COCK earlier in the season and THE MOTHERFUCKER IN THE HAT before it, uses the top row of keyboard keys to fill in the letters of a word that some media outlets refuse to print. Whatever else this accomplishes, it does help to draw attention to this rock musical, which it will need desperately once the reviews appear, I’m afraid.

FUCKING UP EVERYTHING, to spell out the word that must be spoken in the play in one variation of another at least a trillion times, is about two friends, a sexy rocker named Jake (Jason Gotay), who vaguely resembles Adam Lambert but without the flash, and Christian (Max Crumm), played by the actor who won that TV show a few years back about the search for a Danny to star in a Broadway revival of GREASE. Whereas Danny might be seen as a 1960s version of Jake, Christian is a nerdy guy who makes his living as a puppeteer (hand puppets that resemble those on Sesame Street or AVENUE Q). Jake is a lady’s man; Christian, who has a supposedly comical Eastern European last name and is Jewish, has a hard time connecting with girls. Cute, bespectacled Ivy (Dawn Cantwell) loves Jake, but doesn’t let him know; instead she has a relationship with stoner musician Tony (Douglas Widick). Christian falls in love with Juliana (Katherine Cozumel), a pretty, would-be singer and ukulele player. Jakes moves in for the kill and Christian walks in on the big kiss. Christian and Jake quarrel but make up. They then participate in an attempted ménage a trios with sexpot rocker Arielle (Lisa Birnbaum). The guys even sing about Arielle’s areolas. (You needed to know that, right?) Jake doesn’t do as well as one might have thought in this adventure. Christian and Juliana reunite, Ivy and Jake find they’re a natural fit, and stoner Tony comes out of the closet to mate with his monosyllabic drummer (George Salazer).

A familiar plot, no? Yes. Not that familiarity always breeds contempt. It does here, however, because, apart from a few cute performers, there’s nothing else going on in this low-budget enterprise being given at the Electra Theatre on 8th Avenue near 42ndStreet. The music is only occasionally listenable; much of it sounds remarkably tuneless and off key. Despite many desperate attempts, humor is in amazingly short supply, as witness the witless name of Jake’s band, Ironic Maiden. Enough with this show already. It’s too fucked up.  

THREE TREES by Alvin Eng is the season’s first from the Pan-Asian Repertory Theatre, where I have a personal connection. All I’ll say is that it’s about the relationship between famed Swiss artist Alberto Giacometti and the existentialist Japanese philosopher Isaku Yanaihara; Yanaihara posed for Giacometti in Paris in the 1960s, but the artist had enormous difficulty in capturing the philosopher’s essential being. The play suggests that Yanaihara was not only Alberto’s muse, but, as an outgrowth of the tribulations of his artistic involvement with Giacometti, had an affair with his wife, Annette (Leah Cogan). Giacometti’s less well-known artist brother, Diego (Scott Klavan), who bears what seems a jealous grudge against Alberto, also is involved in the action.    

The dialogue examines various viewpoints regarding the artistic process. In his program notes, Eng writes: “When we become enraptured by a portrait, are we under the spell of the artist or model? Can spiritual ownership of a portrait ever be assessed?” If you are inclined to ponder such questions, as was my guest, an art specialist, you may wish to pay THREE TREES a visit. But be prepared for languorous pacing, persistent seriousness, and performances that don’t rise above adequacy.

118. SAGA

SAGA, at the Baruch Performing Arts Center, is a collaboration between Wakka Wakka Productions and the Nordland Visual Theatre company. The result is an exceptionally powerful puppet play, filled with tragedy, comedy, violence, and sex. Under the direction of Gwendolyn Warnock and Kirjan Waage, half a dozen puppeteers, all dressed in black with huge horse’s heads masking their faces, manipulate hand puppets and bunraku-like puppets that resemble Jim Henson’s creations to tell a story set in Iceland in 2008, when that nation’s three major commercial banks collapsed, creating vast economic turmoil. We see the effects of the crash on one family, the father, Gunnar (Kirjan Waage); the mother, Helga (Andrea Osp Karlsdóttir; and their boy, Oli (Andrew Manjuck). Led on by the predatory lending practices of the banks, the family builds a large house, buys an expensive jeep, and in other ways takes on crushing debt, only to have it all ripped away in the tidal wave of financial ruin that crashes over them. Helga and Oli leave for Norway, where she gets work, and the marriage falls apart. Gunnar, aided by what seems a vengeful spirit of Iceland’s past, goes on a maniacal rampage against the bankers and anyone else he feels created the problem, and bloody mayhem ensues; even the spirit goading him on gets his. The story, although taking place in distant Iceland, could as easily represent our own nation’s recent plight.

The remarkable thing about watching this taut little drama, which lasts only an hour, is how believable the puppet characters become. Voiced by their manipulators, using Icelandic accents (which have that familiar Scandinavian lilt), they sound remarkably natural in a dry and offhand but theatrically authentic way, which creates a wonderful blend of the real and the unreal as we see and hear their overtly puppet-like personae behaving and talking like recognizable human beings. There are strikingly memorable special effects, such as a house on fire and a car crashing into a Jacuzzi. A flashback to when Gunnar met Helga allows for a hilariously believable sex scene as the couple go at it with the vivid use of a friendly finger, a munching mouth, and a perky penis. Having puppets perform the sex, as well as the horrifically brutal scenes at the end, allows for just the right separation between illusion and reality that audiences would never accept if live actors were involved. Seeing a body part chopped off, no matter how gorily presented, is far more watchable when it’s a puppet hand than a presumably real one, and I’m sure there isn’t a porn star who could get his member to stand to attention with military precision on cue the way that Gunnar the puppet does.

            Unfortunately, this special little production is not attracting crowds. Only around half the house was filled on Friday, when I saw it, despite its low price of $35 a ticket. On the other hand, the mediocre LUCKY GUY, soon to open on Broadway, is selling premium seats for $350 on weekends, and there aren’t enough to go around.


Helen Hayes was one of the greatest Broadway actresses during much of the mid-20th century. Anita Loos was a highly successful screenwriter and novelist, most famous, perhaps, for her depiction of the roaring 20s in her classic story, GENTLEMEN PREFER BLONDES. Hayes and Loos were friends, and Loos wrote HAPPY BIRTHDAY for her as a way for the actress to move away from the historical characters with which she’d recently been associated. Its 1946 production was a hit and ran for 564 performances. Seeing it in a rare revival by TACT (The Actors Company Theatre) at the Beckett on Theatre Row makes one wonder about what could possibly have been so fascinating about it as to have made it such a success? Clearly, it must have been the special talents of Ms. Hayes in the central role of Addie Bemis, a mousy, prudish librarian, living with an abusively drunken father; under the influence of a few pink ladies and other concoctions served up at Newark’s Mecca Cocktail Bar, Addie suddenly becomes the life of the party, finds love, and gets her father off her back. Hayes won the first Tony Award for her presentation (actually, she shared it with Ingrid Bergman, who won for JOAN OF LORRAINE).

I wrote, in the 1940-1950 volume of my ENCYCLOPEDIA OF THE NEW YORK STAGE, that in the original production, the more Addie “imbibes, the more the bar becomes a virtual paradise of color and light where anything can happen. Bottles are brilliantly illuminated, large dollar bills keep coming from her purse, her stool rises to twice its height, ordinary clothing becomes spectacular, and strangers become buddies.” Aside from the last item, very little of the other effects are created or even sought after in Scott Alan Evans’s sluggish, uninspired staging, which keeps everything literal, although there is one fairly interesting touch. When Addie and Paul Bishop (Todd Gearhart), the bank teller on whom she has a crush, hide from her father under a table, a huge cloth, representing the tablecloth, rises to the ceiling so we can see the couple huddling together in their secret place.

Playing Addie is Mary Bacon, an otherwise respectable actress, who is totally unable to make Addie convincing, and whose performance is often embarrassingly strained. Her best moment comes when she displays a pleasant singing voice to render Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “I Haven’t Got a Worry in the World,” written for the original show. But it would be impossible to say of her, as Brooks Atkinson said of Hayes, that she acted “with the sincerity and magic of an honest actress who enjoys the sentiment, warmth and showmanship of popular comedy.” Perhaps the talented Karen Ziemba might have succeeded in the role; she’s certainly wasted in the thankless role of Grace, the bar owner. HAPPY BIRTHDAY is not very happy, after all. 


One of Hollywood’s most popular actors, Tom Hanks, is making his Broadway debut in Nora Ephron’s LUCKY GUY, and, despite the tremendous business the show is doing, what happens on stage is decidedly iffy. The play is a biodrama about the crime reporter and columnist, Mike McAlary (Hanks), who died of cancer at age 42; a major question it raises is why Ms. Ephron thought his career worthy of a play. True, he was a rising comet in tabloid journalism during the 1980s and 1990s, but I would venture that most Broadway theatergoers rarely read him, since the Daily News, the New York Post, and Newsday, are not found on as many theatergoers’doorsteps as the New York Times, where the same stories also were covered, if not as colorfully. McAlary got the scoop on some major events, of course, most especially the Abner Louima case about police brutality carried out on an African immigrant; this incident occupies only one in a succession of episodic scenes, and a late one at that, and is not the core of the drama.

Is the play seeking to show how competitive and ruthless the life of a tabloid journalist is (something, but not much, is made of a rivalry with columnist Jimmy Breslin); is it a tale of courage in the face of adversity (McAlary went from his chemo treatment directly to Louima’s bedside for an interview)? It’s probably a little of both, but the career and life of this particular journalist was too brief to truly qualify as representative, so the play struggles to find drama in his relationships with his colleagues and his long-suffering wife, Alice (the talented Maura Tierney, in a non-demanding role). About two thirds of the biographical material is delivered in direct address narration by a group of journalists in McAlary’s circle; the other material is standard issue biodrama of no particular interest or originality. Projections, many of newspaper headlines, play a major role in informing us of what the background is to particular scenes.

Since much of the action concerns McAlary’s constant jumping from paper to paper and then back again as his reputation grows, the musical chairs-like steps in his career become too confusing to bother about; I don’t think most of this is of great importance to the average audience member. There are a few promising touches of humor early in the play, when we’re getting used to the narrative device. For example, Courtney B. Vance, as editor Hap Hairston, refers to the city’s rich and poor, pointing for the former at those in the expensive premium seats, and for the latter at those seated in the balcony. And when we’re introduced to a smoke-filled newspaper office, more smoke is called for and a stagehand comes on spraying smoke from a machine. These kinds of shared jokes with the audience soon vanish, reappearing far too infrequently.

Nearly everyone, including McAlary, comes off as one-dimensional, and if you asked me to differentiate one reporter from another, I’d have a hard time doing so. To a degree, this is because George C. Wolfe’s direction, in an effort to hype up the action and keep things moving with energy and speed, has all the actors speaking rapidly at full volume nearly all the time, so one narrative speech ends up sounding like another, the only difference being that this actor is tall, that one is short, this one is bald, that one has hair, this one is fat, and that one is thin. All are stereotypes of the hard-driving, profanity-spewing, whiskey-chugging, fast-talking, chain-smoking reporters we’ve seen in dozens of plays and films dating back to THE FRONT PAGE and others.

Hanks resembles McAlary facially, but is 15 years older than the journalist was when he died, and he’s considerably wider at the waist. Much of the play deals with an even younger McAlary, making the age disparity seem even greater. This robs the play of some of the pathos it might have evoked if a younger actor played the role. There’s no question that Hanks brings to the stage much of the nice guy charisma, sensitivity, and intelligence he projects on screen, but the role as written gives him too few notes to play, and he only begins to deepen his dimensionality in the second act, when we see him suffering the effects of a car crash and, later, cancer,or when he speaks about his feelings after winning the Pulitzer Prize. But these moments are digressions from a character of boundless ambition and drive whose activities give him little opportunity to do other than bluster, brag, or make demands.

LUCKY GUY is scheduled to close on June 16. You may consider me a lucky guy to have been able to see it. I am. But don’t consider yourself unlucky if you miss it.


TOTEM, The most recent version of CIRQUE DU SOLEIL to visit New York, has set up its tents on the parking lot at Citi Field, which you can get to cheaply by the 7 train; if, like me, you don’t have access to that line and have to drive, get ready to fork over $20 for the privilege of parking there. The show lasts two and a half hours, the half hour being occupied by an intermission, absolutely necessary so that the large audience can wander into the concession areas and spend big money on food and souvenirs. Everything is monetized here, including your photos; you’re not allowed to take pictures of your friends and family but must wait for one of the company photographers to do so for you so they can sell the results to you afterward. I advise you to bring your own snacks; the prices charged are over the moon.

This commercial aspect aside, the show itself is the usual spectacular assortment of acrobats and clown acts, with weirdly beautiful music and remarkable costumes, lighting, sound, and visual effects; I was especially awestruck by the projections on a raised oval platform of images that were startlingly real, such as water washing up on a beach. The integration of live action and projections was unbelievable. In fact, I can’t recall how many times I kept saying “unbelievable!,” or “Oh, my God!” when I saw the different artists defy gravity, perform impossible balancing or juggling feats, or fly through the air in complex patterns only to land with eye-popping accuracy on predetermined spots.

Like all previous CIRQUE shows, this one will amaze you not only at the physical things human beings are capable of doing, but at the exquisite beauty, strength, coordination, focus, and physical perfection of many in the company. What can I say? There are many wonders here to behold, and you won’t be bored for a second.


Jason Robert Brown’s two-character musical, THE LAST FIVE YEARS, in revival Off Broadway at Second Stage, under the author-composer’s direction, was originally done Off Broadway in 2002, after debuting in Chicago the previous year. Starring Norbert Leo Butz and Sherie Rene Scott in that version, it won a slew of awards for its semiautobiographical account of the disintegration over five years of a romantic and then marital relationship between a beautiful, blonde gentile, Cathy Hyatt (Betsy Wolfe), an aspiring actress from the Midwest, and Jamie Wellerstein (Adam Kantor), a young Jewish writer from Spring Valley, NY.

Running around an hour and a half, with no intermission, it’s an efficient, briskly paced, tuneful, very well performed, largely sung-through show, to which the audience, including the friend who attended with me, responded enthusiastically; it appears to have a cult following and is even now in production as a film. My friend pointed out that a couple of its songs have become relatively mainstream because of the airtime they’ve gotten from Jonathan Schwartz’s radio show. Still, it’s a musical that’s never been on my radar, so it was entirely new to me.

Derek McLane’s set presents an open stage with a deep blue, brick-like rear wall against which scaffolding on several different levels allows a visually attractive arrangement of the musical ensemble of piano, violin, two cellos, bass, and guitar. Simple set pieces, like a door, rowboat, or car seat, slide on or off, and a pretty assortment of windows flies in now and then to suggest a landscape of apartment house windows. Excellent use is made of Jeff Suggs’s still and video projections on varying sized picture frames that also fly in as needed. Evocative lighting by Jeff Croiter brings the simple scenic plan to life.

The show begins with Cathy’s singing sadly about the end of her marriage, followed by Adam’s paean to the “Shiksa Goddess” with whom he’s just fallen in love. Each scene that follows allows the characters to sing something that takes the relationship backward or forward, since the play’s structure tells Cathy’s story from the time she and Adam split up after a five-year relationship, and Adam’s story from the time he fell for Cathy. Although they appear together occasionally, they sing every number but one as a solo, joining only in the middle when he proposes in a Central Park rowboat. Early on, we see his career taking off, while hers is going nowhere. We then see her resenting his paying more attention to his writing than to her. Success leads him to eye all the women now paying attention to him. She finds the struggle to get acting work depressing, and is unable to share the pride he takes in his achievements. He has an affair. Toward the end, we see how happy Cathy is after her first date with Jamie, only for it to be followed by his lamenting the crumbling of their marriage.

The reverse chronology part, of course, is reminiscent of Sondheim’s MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG, based on Kaufman and Hart’s 1930s play of the same name, and Pinter’s BETRAYAL. But here, because each number is sung solo without the interplay of another character, if you’re not listening very closely and don’t know the structural premise going in you may be confused by the chronological mishmash until you figure out what’s been happening. This, at least, is what happened to me, which is why I look forward to listening to a CD of the show to get a better idea of its dramatic development.    

While telling the story on two separate time tracks may be inventive and, for those familiar with the material, attractive, my response was to feel alienated from the characters; the premise also seemed to make Adam and Cathy alienated from each other. It’s hard to feel compassion for people who you see acting out their love lives in artistic vacuums. And with two beautiful, talented young people who seem to have everything going for them (even with the sensational-looking Cathy’s disappointing career arc), but whose breakup is indicated only in solo songs and not in personal interaction, you have to wonder what the hell they had to complain about, other than her being less successful than he. It reminds me of Herman Mankiewicz’s reaction to the Kaufman and Hart MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG: “Here’s this playwright who writes a play and it’s a big success. Then he writes another play and it’s a big hit, too. All his plays are big successes. All the actresses in them are in love with him, and he has a yacht and beautiful home in the country. He has a beautiful wife and two beautiful children, and he makes a million dollars. Now the problem the play propounds is this: How did the poor son of a bitch ever get in this jam?”


GOOD WITH PEOPLE, a two-hander by respected Scottish dramatist David Harrower, now having its US premiere at 59e59 as part of the Scotland Week celebrations, received a rave today from Ben Brantley in the New York Times, and it was warmly welcomed by critics on the other side of the pond, but I found it only fitfully engaging, and even then more because of the staging and restrained, if sometimes too low-key, performances of Blythe Duff and Andrew Scott-Ramsey. Much of what is on stage is the product of directorial imagination; the script has barely any stage directions, and doesn’t mention, for example, the extended scene where Scott-Ramsey stands facing upstage, entirely nude, taking a shower by pouring a bottle of water over his head, or the one where Scott-Ramsey and Duff enthusiastically perform a Scottish dance.

            The set is intended to suggest a hotel in Helensburgh, Scotland, and consists of nothing but a heavily patterned rug and a chair surrounded by the small theatre’s black walls. A simple lighting plot making use of a small number of instruments allows for the action to shift from the lobby to a hotel room to its bar without straining the audience’s imagination.

            The slight dramatic action involves the return to his home town of Helensburgh of Evan (Scott-Ramsey), back from serving as a nurse in Pakistan, where his duties involved aiding the Taliban as part of a deal to tamp down their aggression. Helensburgh, once a thriving port town, has gone downhill since the introduction there of a British naval base harboring nuclear subs, and there has long been animosity between those the naval base brought in and the local population. Evan, now in his mid-20s, grew up in Helensburgh after his dad got a job there. The sole remaining hotel, where Helen (Duff), in her mid-40s, is a manager, has barely any customers, but she nonetheless acts icily officious when Evan checks in. He’s returned after many years because his parents are remarrying after a period during which they were divorced. Her behavior is, to a great extent, fueled by her remembrance of him having bullied her son, Jack, at least a dozen years earlier. The bullying incident, once over, had little effect on the son but it fed Helen’s resentment. Tension between Evan, who carries a chip on his shoulder (he actually complains of shoulder pain), and Helen, who is trapped in an unhappy marriage, develops incrementally and subtly and evolves into a combination of animosity and sexual attraction. After his overnight stay, he departs; Helen and he have, during their brief encounter, resolved their differences.

            The dialogue is composed of brief, sometimes elliptical sentences, delivered naturalistically. Because there’s no furniture, the floor becomes an important acting area, with lighting suggesting different locales. Theatrically, this is a mood piece, where nothing much happens on the surface, and everything important goes on beneath the skin. Occasional laugh lines lighten the mood, but very little of the play reached me deeply.  


If you haven’t seen the British film that inspired KINKY BOOTS, the new Broadway musical at the Hirschfeld Theatre, I suggest you should rent the DVD; you may find it both a funnier and more sensitive presentation of this story about a black drag queen and his success as a designer of what the title hints at. Several people I know who’ve seen the new show loved it, so mine may be (as it often is) a minority opinion, but I came away feeling that it was simplistic, two-dimensional, contrived, overly sentimental, insufficiently funny, and equipped with a score that, by and large, was unexceptional. Perhaps some of these remarks can be directed at the movie as well, but at least on screen there is a level of authenticity that makes the material seem real. On Broadway, as musicalized with a book by Harvey Fierstein (the go-to man when campy gayness is required) and music and lyrics by Broadway newbie Cyndi Lauper (also no stranger to camp), everything seems overblown and contrived. Or maybe you’ve never seen a black drag queen who flaunts his sexuality in outrageously flamboyant ways and is a master of one-liner wisecracks.
     The book, which hews closely to the screenplay, is about a shoe factory in the provincial town of Northampton, England, that is on the verge of closing after its beloved owner, Mr. Price (Stephen Berger), dies. His son, Charlie Price (Stark Sands), is not interested in taking over the business, and has moved to London with his fiancée, Nicola (Celina Carvajal), to go into real estate marketing. When he meets and befriends the drag queen Lola (Billy Porter), whose real name is Simon, he gets the idea of altering the factory’s product by filling a niche market for the kinds of glitzy boots favored by persons of Lola’s persuasion, and hires Lola as his designer. Meanwhile, his relationship with Nicola tanks when she shows no sympathy for his business plans, while, as per hundreds of similar plots, the pretty and loyal factory worker Lauren (the  very fine Annaleigh Ashford), who has been panting for Charlie all along, steps in as a replacement. A conflict between Don (Daniel Stewart Sherman), a burly, homophobic worker and Lola is resolved after a boxing match between them—Lola, a trained boxer, allows Don to beat him—and homophobia is defeated once and for all (what if Lola actually was a wimp?). Both Charlie and Lola seek to gain their father’s approval, Charlie via his resuscitation of his late dad’s business, Lola through his performance at his dad’s nursing home. The new business model succeeds in a splashy closing number at an international fashion show in Milan when Lola’s “Angels,” a chorus line of drag queens, show up to model the new line of kinky boots, and the theatre rocks to a number that sounds uncomfortably close to Kool and the Gang’s “Celebration.”
     The attractive set consists mainly of a large brick wall with windows and a sign indicating the outside of the factory, and, when the panels of which it composed slide away, the interior of the factory, with its 19th-century ironwork. The scene occasionally shifts elsewhere with slide on units, but for most of the show we’re inside the colorfully gritty shoe factory. The principal relief from the factory clothes worn by the workers is the flashy garments worn in the several drag queen numbers; some of the men in the Angels chorus have strikingly feminine, long-legged appearances, even in their sequined bikinis. If you’ve ever seen a good drag show (or even LA CAGE AUX FOLLES), you’ll know what I mean. When Lola has her big solo toward the end, “Hold Me in Your Heart,” an anthem that comes off like a DREAMGIRLS “I’m Telling You” wannabe, she wears a stunning gown adorned with a chiffon scarf that flies artfully up in the air when she moves her arm; it’s then revealed that the scene is in a nursing home and that her disabled father is watching in his wheelchair. The incongruity of her attire in such a place struck me as typical of the kind of overkill of which the show sometimes is guilty. 
     The breakout performance would appear to be that of Billy Porter, and perhaps he will gain the accolades that playing a role like Lola is designed to inspire. He certainly has the looks, the moves, and the voice to carry it off, but I never felt that his acting went beyond the surface to make this drag queen truly distinct from the stereotype that such characters usually reflect. When he needs to get a laugh, he sometimes does so with an overstated growl or grimace; subtlety is sorely missing. Everyone else on stage is highly polished and professional, but the bar doesn’t rise high enough to make anyone truly memorable. Jerry Mitchell’s direction and choreography doesn’t break any new ground, and the show too often seems forced and manipulative; even the audience’s laughter at various bits of staging or acting seem like knee-jerk reactions to conventional shtick.
     Given the dearth of major musicals and musical performances thus far this season, I will not be at all surprised if KINKY BOOTS rakes in a substantial number of award nominations. But, as is so often the case, that will be a reflection of the state of Broadway musicals, not of the real quality of the show.
125. FINKS
American history is filled with horrendous events, trends, and practices that have gone against the grain of the country’s claim to be the world’s exemplar of freedom and equality. One such moment is the frenzy during the mid-20th century when reactionary elements in Congress smeared as dangerously subversive any left-leaning liberal, a mania that grew especially onerous in the late 1940s and1950s when the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) chose to focus on people in the entertainment industry. Various films and plays have dramatized this nightmare period when friends ratted on friends, naming names even when those names belonged to people who had done no more than attend a meeting or sign a petition favoring some group that would later be considered a communist front; often, of course, the allegations were totally false. Besides, there was actually no law forbidding the existence of the Communist Party.
     Anyone tarred with the suspicion of having been even slightly associated with communism was in danger of being blacklisted, meaning his or her employment could be terminated by a major film or television producer (the theatre was more lenient) unless the person involved not only recanted but provided Congress with the names of others that person knew to have been similarly involved. Writers went to jail, actors committed suicide or collapsed from the pressure, and many simply went into other fields when no one would employ them in their chosen profession. Major films and plays that have treated this period, directly or indirectly, include THE CRUCIBLE, AFTER THE FALL, THE WAY WE WERE, THE FRONT, ARE YOU NOW OR HAVE YOU EVER BEEN, and so on.
     Among the popular performers whose careers were seriously damaged were Jack Gilford and his wife, Madeleine Gilford, both now deceased. In FINKS, at the Ensemble Studio Theatre, their playwright son, Joe Gilford, has written a very smart and valuable play about the blacklist (whose existence was denied by those who used it), changing the names of his parents to Mickey (Aaron Seretsky) and Natalie (Miriam Silverman), and conflating their experiences with those of others who were summoned as witnesses before HUAC. Some witnesses appear in the play under their real names, such as actor Lee J. Cobb (Thomas Lyons) and director Elia Kazan (Jason Liebman), both of whom named names (gaining them the appellation, “fink”), while others do so under fictional names. This makes the play something of a drame à clef, wherein those in the know will recognize the choreographer Bobby (Leo Ash Evens) as a stand-in for Jerome Robbins (who named Madeleine Gilford), and actor Fred Lang (Ned Eisenberg) as a substitute for actor Philip J. Loeb. By the way, some theatergoers may think that the lead investigator for HUAC was Sen. Joe McCarthy, but that blot on American history was already gone by 1954, and he was succeeded by Rep. Francis Walter (Michael Cullen), a Democrat but similarly driven by a reactionary attitude toward potential commies in show biz.
     Gilford has told the complex, multilayered tale, in which themes of courage and cowardice, integrity and betrayal, democracy and oppression, jostle one another in every scene of the episodic but cleverly staged, thoroughly engaging production. Jason Simm’s set consists of a few pieces of living room furniture and a large desk, with freestanding interior wall and door units that can revolve easily to show exterior walls when needed. A piano at one side allows for scenes in the period’s integrated night club, Café Society, to play its part. The action moves quickly from locale to locale, often with the dialogue from one scene overlapping with that of the one that follows it. All the performances are strong (I especially liked Miriam Silverman’s multidimensional work as Natalie), and several actors play more than one role.
     Gilford’s ability to compress so much history into a compact play of around two hours 15 minutes is impressive. By focusing on Mickey and Natalie’s lives he makes the play more immediately human than would a docudrama, but there is sufficient material based on actual (or effectively edited) testimony to make the skin crawl when face to face with how people behaved under the glare of Congress’s power and public scrutiny. When Natalie is on the witness stand, we see how we would like to believe we would have acted under the glare of public scrutiny—she gives the committee tit for tat so powerfully that she is cited for contempt and hauled away. But, the play surely means to ask, how would we have responded, when not to name names or beg for redemption might mean the end of one’s career, and the potential impoverishment of one’s family?
     Great credit for making this complicated script work must go to director Giovanna Sardelli, who also staged the recent NORTH POOL at the Vineyard. The director’s hand is visible in the high quality of all the performances, the excellent transitions from scene to scene, the imaginative use of EST’s confined space, and the careful balance between comedy and drama. She is aided by Gina Scherr’s excellent lighting, which, together with Jill BC DuBoff’s sound effects, creates the effect of flashbulbs popping whenever a witness is called to the stand.

     EST is out of the way on W. 52nd Street near 11th Avenue, but FINKS makes the effort to get there well worth the trouble. (For those who drive, I noticed that there’s plenty of parking on the street after 6:00 p.m.) It is definitely one of the season’s stronger plays and I feel it is my civic duty to turn fink and rat it out. 
Michael Urie is a well-known TV star, mainly from his role on UGLY BETTY, which I’ve never watched. But he’s also done a lot of theatre work, and his stage skills, on display in Jonathan Tolins’s one-man play BUYER AND CELLAR at the Rattlestick Theatre on Waverly Place in Greenwich Village, are quite impressive. This slim, attractive, young actor plays Alex More, a character seemingly much like his own persona, in a paper-thin but often very entertaining play inspired by Barbra Streisand’s vanity book, A PASSION FOR DESIGN, in which Flatbush’s great Jewish diva luxuriates in describing (and photographing) the extravagantly tasteful décor of the Malibu home she shares with husband James Brolin. One feature of that home is a mall-like basement composed of shops (spelled shoppes) in which she has organized her vast collection of “stuff,” from dolls to clothing.
      The idea of such conspicuous consumption by a major star appears to be fodder for a gay man’s imagination (I’m presuming that the playwright is gay), so Tolins creates in Alex an out-of-work, gay LA actor (he lost his job as the mayor of Disneyland’s Toontown for telling a rotten kid to shove something up his ass) who takes a job as the caretaker of Streisand’s private mall. His VW Jetta is so rundown looking when he arrives that Barbra’s personal assistant makes him hide it in the bushes. His job involves merely looking after the precisely arranged goods in the shoppes (which he pronounces “shop-pees”), but one day the diva herself appears and engages him in a role playing game where she acts as a customer and he as the shop(pe)keeper. When she expresses interest in buying a certain doll he responds with such clever repartee that the pair are soon engaged in a can-you-top-this kind of exchange. Slowly, a relationship evolves between them, and Alex, thrilled to the gills about it, reports back to his diva-obsessed boyfriend, who is hungry for details. Alex even becomes Barbra’s coach in preparing for a film of GYPSY she’s planning to make. But the boyfriend soon grows jealous of Alex’s relationship, one that ultimately leads to Barbra’s seemingly putting the moves on Alex after she invites him into her family room to watch TV. When he realizes that her real interest is in seeing whether his hair color is the right one for the pillows she plans to purchase, he explodes angrily, after which he is fired. His relationship with his lover is patched up, and the story of his job with Barbra Streisand becomes the fond, if lengthy, anecdote that constitutes the play we’ve just been watching.
       At the very start of the evening, Urie tells the audience that nothing that they’re about to watch is true, that it’s all a figment of the writer’s imagination after he encountered Streisand’s book. By the end of the evening, even though only one actor has been playing multiple roles, it’s hard to shake the illusion that it all could have happened, that, in the nutty world we sometimes believe eccentric celebrities inhabit, anything is possible. Urie is extremely adept at playing both the charmingly appealing Alex, with his conventional gay mannerisms, and Streisand, switching from Alex to Streisand and back again instantaneously. For the singer, he lifts a shoulder, holds his hand in a femme attitude, squints, and purses his lips, transforming his voice into a reasonable semblance of hers, not so much in sound but in intonation. He never overdoes it, though, so that by the end of the performance, we get to see in Streisand not only the kooky star we’re familiar with, but someone resembling a real person with her fears and cares. And, of course, Urie also offers us clear images of Alex’s boyfriend and Streisand’s assistant. There’s also a wonderful scene in which James Brolin wanders into the mall, giving Urie a chance to play the manly, deep-voiced star.
     This tour de force solo show is performed on Andrew Boyce’s simple, yet elegant box set provided with only a small white table, a white chair, and a white piano bench. The rear wall has white wainscoting on the lower half, and the walls all around are lit by Eric Southern in varying shades of the kind of muted designer pastels we associate with tasteful home decorating. Occasionally, the rear wall also accommodates projected images in outline form, such as assorted doors and windows.
     Director Stephen Brackett, playwright Jonathan Tolins, and actor Michael Urie have collaborated effectively to create a lightweight yet always stylish piece of theatre. If La Streisand has a sense of humor about herself, I can even see it being performed for guests amidst the modish furnishings of her Malibu living room. However, as Urie notes in his opening remarks, she’s famously “litigious,” so maybe that wouldn’t be such a good idea after all.
MATILDA, the multi-award winning British blockbuster based on Roald Dahl’s popular children’s book about a preternaturally brilliant little girl, is probably the most anticipated new musical of the season. Matthew Warchus’s production turns out to be rapidly paced, visually impressive, and marvelously choreographed (by Peter Darling), with a couple of noteworthy performances, but marred by Tim Minchin’s unmemorable score, lyrics (also by Minchin) that get muffled in the several choral numbers, a somewhat awkwardly structured book (by Dennis Kelly), some excessively loud and cartoonish acting, content that will sail right over the heads of many American children who will be a main marketing target, and a dark, sadistic tone that is likely to scare some youngsters; others may simply be bored (as seemed to be the case among nearby kids by the second act). A friend suggested it may simply be too British for American young sters.
     The standout performance is that of Bertie Carvel, who cross-dresses to play Miss Truncbull, the horrendously mean-spirited, hugely oversized headmistress—winner of the hammer throw in a past Olympics—of the school where Matilda is sent by Mr. and Mrs. Wormwood (Gabriel Ebert and Lesli Margherita), her horrifically stupid and cruel parents (her father insists on referring to her as a boy). Both parents are played in exaggerated, comic-book style. Miss Trunchbull is also extremely overstated, but Carvel, a British actor who originated the role three years ago in London, manages to offer enough comically nightmarish colors to keep it creatively interesting. Another standout is the child who played Matilda the night I saw the show; there are four Matildas playing the role in alternation (the other kids in the cast also have alternates), so I can only vouch for Milly Shapiro, a big-voiced, tiny American girl (Matilda is supposed to be 5-years-old) who has mastered her British dialect, as well as all of the stylized movements, while also managing to command the stage whenever she’s on it despite (or perhaps partly because of) her somewhat odd physical appearance. The only other principal performer who is a true standout is Lauren Ward, who plays Miss Honey, the sweet young schoolteacher who recognizes Matilda’s genius and takes her to her heart.
      I wish I could have taken MATILDA the show to my heart, and perhaps many will, but I was unable to do more than admire its aspirations. There’s a lot more I could write about concerning this musical, but I’m sure there’ll be a surfeit of professional commentary on it once it opens officially.
Robert Brustein, described by Wikipedia as a “theatrical producer, critic, playwright, and educator,” has donned his playwright hat to pen THE LAST WILL, the final part of his trilogy about Shakespeare’s life, now in the June Havoc Theatre at the Abingdon Theatre complex. Austin Pendleton both directs and plays the bard, who was considerably younger (52) in his final year (1616) than Mr. Pendleton (73), who, with his white hair and baggy-eyed face, seems more convincingly close to the grave than someone two decades younger.
      The play avoids trying to sound Elizabethan and uses contemporary language to reflect on why Shakespeare’s will, one of the few personal documents he left behind, bequeathed his “second-best bed” to his wife, Anne Hathaway (no, not THAT Anne Hathaway), played by Stephanie Roth Haberle. It all has to do with his suspicion that she committed adultery. The others in the play are his lawyer, Francis Collins (David Wohl), who writes the will, his daughters, Judith (Christianna Nelson) and Susanna (Merritt Janson), and his leading actor, Richard Burbage (Jeremiah Kissel). There’s also a lot of to-do about Burbage’s interest in getting all of Shakespeare’s plays published, and the playwright’s resistance because of his fears about pirating. Brustein squeezes in many familiar historical references, but in a manner that makes them seem topics that might come up in normal conversation, so academics will enjoy (or not) hearing things they already know and checking Brustein for his accuracy.
        In the course of the drama, during which we see Shakespeare’s gradual decline into dementia, Brustein weaves bits of Shakespeare’s plays into the dialogue, so that the situations in his life allow us to reflect on the biographical appropriateness of the lines. Jealousy over a handkerchief corresponds, for instance, to Othello, while concerns about his family’s loyalty offers an opportunity for the speaking of King Lear’s “How sharper than a serpent’s tooth” and other familiar lines.
      The action takes place at Shakespeare’s home in Stratford, with Stephen Dobay’s set consisting of a beige-colored rear wall made up of horizontal wooden planking; at either side are large, carefully molded sculptures resembling, I imagine, crunched-up paper. A bed (presumably that second-best one), a desk, and a couple of chairs supply the few furnishings. Laura Crow’s costumes vaguely suggest Elizabethan garments, although why Shakespeare fumbles about in bare feet is not explained.
       The performances are polished, but the one most will pay attention to is that of Pendleton as a decrepit Shakespeare. I find him mannered and unconvincing in serious roles, where his casually throwing lines away so that his emotional outbursts can seem impressive by contrast, and his conveyance of distress by holding the backs of his clenched fists against his brow come off as artificial. His hangdog, sad-sack demeanor works better in the quirky comic roles for which he’s probably best known.
      The play will likely be of interest mainly to those fascinated by the life of the English language’s greatest writer; so little is known of it that Brustein (like many before him) is free to speculate on what it might have been like. I know a very serious theatergoing couple who wept openly at the play’s handling of Shakespeare’s demise. I, on the other hand, longed for the sweet swan of Avon to sing his last song. That bed—second best or not—just looked too tempting.
GOLDOR $ MYTHYKA, produced by New Georges at the New Ohio Theatres, is a semi-bizarre comedy by Lynn Rosen with lots of noise and surrealistic effects designed to tell the story of a couple of Dungeons and Dragons fanatics who drive armored trucks loaded with cash. When the economy tanks and their jobs are eliminated, they drop their ordinary names of Bart (Garrett Neergaard) and Holly (Jenny Seastone Stern) to assume the pseudonyms of Goldor and Mythyka and carry off a heist of $7.4 million dollars, subsequently becoming heroes to many of the unemployed and disenfranchised who think this is the answer to the American dream. Ultimately, reality catches up to them. In fact, reality preceded the show because it is based on a true story wherein the crooks came to be known as the “Goth Bonnie and Clyde.”
      The hour and 40 minutes show is narrated by a rapper-style DJ (Bobby Moreno), who continually comments on the action into his amped up mic, often while hovering over one or another of the actors. Stylized movement and raucous rock music are used frequently, and the lighting does what it can to create the proper phantasmagoric effect. The result is an forgettable mishmash from which flight becomes a compelling option. The rest is blessed silence.
BULLET CATCH is a magic show written, directed, performed by Scottish actor Rob Drummond. The title refers to a famous illusion which has had many versions (including one by Penn and Teller) and is reputed to have caused several deaths and injuries when something went wrong. In this one-hour show, in the tiny Theatre C at 59e59, several other tricks come first, with the bullet catch coming last.
     Drummond, a pleasant young man with thick, occasionally impenetrable Scottish accent, spends most of his time on stage doing his patter, talking to the audience and getting them in the mood for his various feats. These all include audience participation involving a single volunteer. In the performance I saw, a middle-aged man with a British accent took part. The illusions were all familiar and, as always, mystifying. For example, Drummond had the man pick up any book he wanted from a pile on the floor. The man chose one, was told to open to any page, and to find a word on it. Then he was asked to write the word on a yellow post-it, which he did, using the book cover to write on. The paper was passed around through the house, and everyone saw that the word was “adversaries.” Drummond talked some more and then “guessed” at the word, which, of course, he got correctly. Another trick involved him and his volunteer each holding the edge of a small table with a cloth over its top, which then began to levitate. For this illusion, Drummond explained how it was done, showing a lever he controlled that was hidden under the cloth and attached to the table’s bottom. This, of course, was intended to convince the audience that everything he was doing was a deception, not real magic.
     After a few more such tricks, he spent a long time talking about the historical background of the bullet catch; the purpose, clearly, was to create fear in the audience because of the potential danger. In fact, before he actually did the trick, one of the members of my group ran out because she was unable to watch it. For those interested in this trick’s history and nature, see
      Drummond, using a gun he said was a Berretta, made a big thing about loading it before our eyes. One bullet was marked in red so it could be identified later. However, the gun jammed and a female technician came out and managed to unjam it. We later learned privately from someone at the theatre that this wasn’t part of the act, and hadn’t happened before. With the firearm fixed, Drummond put on protective ear muffs and goggles, and aimed the gun at a plate mounted on a stand. He pulled the trigger and the plate shattered. Then he gave the gun to the volunteer, who was instructed to aim it at Drummond’s mouth. This man had never fired a gun in his life yet he was supposed to not only do so now but to aim it so perfectly that it would enter Drummond’s mouth, where he would catch it in his teeth. Drummond gave him a series of signals, the man fired, Drummond went down, and he died a bloody death, with a bullet through his mouth. NOT. Drummond did go down but he then lifted his face and showed a spent bullet in his teeth. Big round of applause. Curtain.
     This was a decent presentation, and Drummond’s illusions were acceptable, but there was too much talk for my taste. Others thought him terrific; for me, his low profile demeanor and emphasis on the background to the tricks made the show too much like a lecture, scary as its subject matter may have been. For low-key magic, I prefer the remarkable work of David Blaine, whose mind-blowing tricks always seem newly fashioned, even if based on classics of the trade.
Tanya Barfield’s new play, THE CALL, in the Peter Jay Sharp Theatre at Playwrights Horizons, is a conventional well-made play set in an urban apartment and focusing on two young couples, one white and one black. The couple occupying the apartment is white—Peter  (Kelly AuCoin) and Annie (Kerry Butler); they are attractive, upwardly mobile, and well educated. The other couple is Peter and Annie’s close friends, who happen to be both black and lesbian—Rebecca (Eisa Davis) and Drea (Crystal A. Dickinson); they, too, are attractive, upwardly mobile, and well educated. The only other character is an African neighbor of Peter and Annie’s, Alemu (Russell G. Jones). Annie and Peter decide to adopt an African child, a decision that constitutes the core action of the drama, which investigates the dilemmas faced by any well-meaning couple attempting to carry out such a project. As the difficulties mount (principally, the child turns out to be considerably older than what they originally had been told) Annie begins to doubt the wisdom of her decision, leading to her and Peter seeing fissures opening in their marriage. Rebecca and Drea try to be helpful but only increase the friction, while the gregarious African man tells a lengthy story from his own experience designed to serve as a lesson in how they should proceed.    
     The subject of intercultural adoption is worthy of dramatization, of course. Playwright Barfield is herself a gay, bi-racial woman who has two adopted kids, and she has gone on record to declare how difficult she’s found the experience, despite her undying love for her children. She has written about this play that it’s not only about adoption: “It’s about race, midlife, Africa and marriage. It’s also about taking a leap, as terrifying as it may be. It’s about stepping outside your comfort zone and committing to something bigger than yourself. It’s about recognizing the power of change and then actually doing it. About being an active member of society—the global society—and improving upon it. It’s about hearing the call to be something more, and then taking that call. As uncomfortable as it may be.”
    Still, her play strikes me as schematic and didactic; moreover, a subplot about Rebecca’s brother and Peter, and the brother’s death from a dirty hypodermic needle in Africa, suddenly balloons into a big reveal toward the end and threatens to overwhelm the play’s central problem.
      Rachel Hauck’s set is the most fully realized I’ve seen at the Sharp this season; it uses a partial revolve to allow the action to shift from a realistic living room to the nursery, the latter first seen with dark red walls and then, after a scene in which Annie does some cursory painting, in a shade of beige. None of the performances is less than professional, but none offer anything I wouldn’t have expected to see from any cast of talented New York actors. Russell G. Jones’s supporting role as the ebullient and wise Alemu is the most colorful, and he gives it an appealing charm, but, like the other characters. there is a stereotypical quality to Alemu that prevents him from being truly unique.  
     THE CALL is earnest and thoughtful; it simply didn’t call loudly enough to stir my feelings.
Kara Manning’s SLEEPING ROUGH, directed by Sam Buntrock at the Wild Project on E. 3rd Street near Avenue B, is a deftly written, lightly poetic, three-person play about a family’s inner turmoil in the wake of a young son’s death from an IED in Iraq.
     Joanna (Kellie Overbey) is an attractive New Jersey artist verging on 50 whose emotional distress at the death of her son in a war she calls “a lie” incites her to burn a series of American flags, actions which not only get her in trouble with the law but lead her daughter, Izzy (Renata Friedman), a beekeeper (a.k.a. apiologist) living in Brooklyn, to worry for her mom’s sanity. Seeking to escape the USA, Joanna flees to London, where her handsome ex-husband, Mark (Quentin Maré), a BBC announcer whose career is beginning to slide, lives not too happily with his second wife, Winifred (who never appears). Izzy (short for Isabel but appropriate for someone who works with buzzing insects) leaves her bees in the care of a friend in order to track down her mother, who is living in a squat in London with artist friends, and painting stenciled images of her son on city walls. All this leads to confrontations among Joanna, Izzy, and Mark, during which they work out their issues; Mark, for example, although fond of his daughter, feels guilty for his having been a neglectful father while she was growing up. During the action, we learn various things about bee culture and the role in the hive of the queen bee; at one point, Izzy gets a phone call from home informing her that her queen has died. Finally, everything  culminates in a reconciliation of sorts, and, when Joanna appears in a red dress at the end, watching Izzy teach Mark the rudiments of beekeeping (her queen having been replaced), the link between her and the bees is evident, although not especially meaningful.
     The action is set on a sparely dressed stage whose cinderblock walls have been painted light gray. Simple benches line the walls, as well as fluorescent strip lights. At the rear are dozens of identical cardboard storage boxes, neatly piled on one another, apparently meant to suggest the inner contents of these people’s lives; in one scene, Joanna rifles through several boxes containing the detritus left behind by her deceased son. Suspended overhead is a large, shiny baffle whose translucence allows light to filter through from the instruments above. The effect is of a rather cool, neutral, almost sterile, environment that allows the action to be wherever the dialogue suggests, although the playwright’s stated objective is for the scenery to somehow evoke the atmosphere of London.
      Further contributing to the feeling of sterility is the dramaturgic technique of having much of the story narrated directly to the audience by each of the characters. This expository method allows a lot of the background chinks to be filled in easily, enabling us to learn about the characters’ pasts and what they are thinking and feeling now, but it often seems a way to dodge the responsibility of dramatizing these things. The acting ensemble is tight and polished, and was much appreciated by friends of mine. For me, though, too much of it—even Joanna’s grief—is on a restrained, low-key, almost polite level; while admiring the actors’ skills, I never felt deeply invested in their concerns. In fact, if I hadn’t been in the first row, I might have found myself doing what the title indicates. 
 It had to happen one day in such a theatergoing-intensive season. And it did last night at this inanely titled and ham-fisted sci-fi musical produced by the Negro Ensemble Company at St. Clements Theatre. This is a production of such mind-blowing ineptitude that you have to applaud the game cast members—several of them rather talented—for not simply stopping the show and grabbing the first bus, subway, cab, or spaceship for home.
     The antiquated sound system, using head mics that make everyone look as though they have huge face moles, produced wildly erratic feedback sounds that snapped, crackled, and popped, sometimes with such earsplitting ferocity that the spectators practically jumped out of their seats. At one point, an actor ad-libbed a brief apology. Charles Weldon’s staging looks as though he’d delegated the job to Snow White’s Dopey, although I'm convinced Dopey would have done better. The actors sometimes find themselves in the dark when they should be lit, and vice versa. Entrances and exits come and go with no apparent knowledge of how you get actors on and off. It may be called a musical, but music is rarely used for transitions. And the music itself is prerecorded, so actors often have to wait a beat or two before the stage manager gives the cue.
     This is one of those shows where anything that can go wrong will go wrong. On the night I attended, the coup de grace arrived when, during an energetic song and dance number, an actress’s Afro wig flew off and she responded by picking it up and dancing with it as though it were a cheerleader’s pompom; she kept smiling, though, and the audience responded by applauding. 
      The ultimate indignity is the misleading advertising of Sheryl Lee Ralph, of DREAMGIRLS fame, as being in the company; in fact, her entire performance consists of perhaps two minutes of voiceovers as someone speaking from the future. Her program bio comes before all others and takes up half a page, but she never appears. However, even if Beyoncé herself were to arrive from outer space, there would be no future in store for FUTUROLOGY.
One of New York’s hottest tickets at the moment is a one-woman play all the way over on 37th Street near 10th Avenue, at the Baryshnikov Arts Center. Perhaps “one-woman” is a misnomer, as the actor we see is almost as much a monkey as a human being. That’s because American-born, British-raised actress Kathryn Hunter is performing the role of Red Peter, the simian narrator of Franz Kafka’s “Report to an Academy," in which he tells an assembly of academics about his experience of responding to being captured in Africa by learning to speak and in other ways behave like a human being, thereby enabling him to become a renowned music hall artiste. His academic discourse uses subtle satire to criticize the state of humanity.
     Anyone can easily access Kafka’s tale and read it for themselves, but what is remarkable about this less-than-a-full-hour presentation is Ms. Hunter’s performance. It is set on bare stage with a podium at one side, a small stepstool (with several bananas on it) at the other, and a large screen upstage onto which is projected, for much of the talk, a photo of a “Hagenbeck” monkey much like what Red Peter would have looked like.
       Ms. Hunter spent a great deal of time doing research into monkey behavior in preparing to play Red Peter, and the result is a striking demonstration of her mimic gifts. The actress, who is perhaps five feet tall, appears in bowler hat, morning suit, white shirt, and bow tie, her every move reflecting monkey-like behavior. She speaks in a husky, British-accented voice, perfectly suited to the material. The 55-year-old actress displays a stunningly limber body, perhaps from years of yoga. A full split, for example, in which position she remains for an extended sequence, leads to an awesomely pretzel-like manipulation of one leg in the kind of maneuver one might expect only from a much younger contortionist. Her loping walk, her arm extensions, her head scratching, her occasional monkey-sounds, all contribute to the image of a real ape-like presence, making her disquisition all the more believable.
       Kafka’s story is open to a variety of allegorical interpretations, but there is only one way to interpret Kathryn Hunter’s performance: brilliant.
Nathan Lane’s star turn in THE NANCE, which plays like a vehicle written expressly for him, will not disappoint this great performer’s legions of fans, although some may feel they’ve seen him do roles like this before, most recently as Pepper, the flamboyant friend of the gay male couple on TV’s “Modern Family.” Lane plays the title character, a standard comic role in prewar burlesque, where the character’s effeminacy was used as the basis for countless jokes based on homosexual innuendoes.
     THE NANCE is an attempt to dramatize the homophobic atmosphere in which gay men (lesbians are barely referenced) lived in the prewar years. The specific focus is on the world of burlesque, where the Nance was a stock character and not necessarily reflective of the actual sexual orientation of its performer. In 1937, when New York’s Republican mayor, Fiorello LaGuardia, decided to flaunt his conservative bona fides by cleaning up or shutting down burlesque, known for its off color humor and striptease acts, the Nance made an easy target as a sign of burlesque’s degradation. 
     Lane plays Chauncey Miles, an overtly gay Nance performer at the Irving Place Theatre (which actually was a burlesque house). We see his private as well as public life, watching him covertly pick up the handsome young man, Ned (Jonny Orsini), in a Greenwich Village Automat, for example, while also seeing a considerable amount of him in performance on the burlesque stage. The play explores his relationship with Ned, who becomes his live-in lover (and also gets work in the burlesque theatre), and with his burlesque friends, the Phil Silvers-like top banana Efram (Lewis J. Stadlen), and a trio of strippers, Sylvie (Cady Huffman), a leftwing activist; Carmen (Andréa Burns), a faux Latin bombshell; and Joan (Jenni Barber), a flashy platinum blonde.
     Ann Roth’s period costumes and Japhy Weideman’s lighting, which have to reflect both off and onstage worlds, do so with panache. John Lee Beatty’s well-designed revolving set enables the action to move swiftly from one locale to another--the Automat, backstage at the Irving Place, onstage for the burlesque skits, a courthouse, and Chauncey’s colorful basement apartment, where yet another bathtub awaits a naked actor to step out of it; in this case, it is Mr. Orsini’s anatomy that is on display, both rear and front. If the 2012-2013 season is to be remembered for anything, it will be for the proliferation of bathtub scenes, of which there have been well over half a dozen.
     The sad, hidden lives of people like Chauncey are ripe for dramatic exploration but THE NANCE’s ambitions are never fully realized. The episodic play comes off more as a dramatized history lesson, made to seem even more so by its preoccupation with resuscitating lots of old burlesque bits, much as did SUGAR BABIES, a popular show some years back devoted specifically to that purpose and without the political baggage. These bits, with each joke emphasized by a wink and a drum beat, are academically interesting but not really that funny anymore.
     Jack O’Brien’s staging, especially of the burlesque scenes, capably suggests a sense of the late 1930s; the opening scene of gays cruising the Automat has a wonderful Hopper-like feeling. Joey Pizzi has created wonderful bits of burlesque choreography, all of it abetted by a live band playing an original score composed by Glen Kelly; in fact, THE NANCE might easily be called “a play with music.”
   Least effective of the actors is Mr. Orsini, whose Ned never convinced me that he was an ignorant young rube who falls for the much older Chauncey. The strippers are all stereotypes, but it was interesting to see Cady Huffman’s Brooklyn-accented Sylvie reflect the period’s socialist opinions. In the role of the Nance’s baggy pants comic partner, Mr. Stadlen has all the right New York Jewish qualities to capture the style, but the true genius at making these tired jokes work, when they do, is the irresistible Mr. Lane. His timing and byplay with the audience are perfect, and he also has the gift of bringing to the offstage Chauncey the depth required to convey his tragic dilemma. But the character as written never goes that deep, and the effect created is of dramatic setups designed to display Mr. Lane’s comic-tragic sides; the play fails to become an organic picture of a man trapped in a social dilemma from which he will never be free.
If you grew up moving to the sounds of Motown music, with tunes like “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” “I Heard It Through the Grapevine,” “My Girl,” “My Guy,” “Please, Mr. Postman,” and on and on, you’re pretty likely to be “Dancing in the Street” when you leave the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre after seeing the newest jukebox musical, MOTOWN. You’ll be entirely within your rights to consider the show clumsy, cluttered, and overly long, and to reject it as an example of a high-quality Broadway musical. But while you’re watching it you’ll probably find it hard to resist falling under the spell of the close to 60 songs, most of them classics but several of them new, that come at you almost nonstop for 2 hours and 45 minutes.
     Tying all the songs together, if rather loosely, is the story of the great record producer Berry Gordy (Brandon Victor Dixon: good singer, weak actor), who created the Detroit company that brought African-American pop music into the mainstream with performers like the Temptations, the Four Tops, Gladys Knight and the Pips, Mary Wells, Lionel Ritchie, Smokey Robinson, the Contours, the Commodores, Martha and the Vandellas, the Marvelettes, the Miracles, Jackie Wilson; and let us not forget Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, the Jackson 5, and Diana Ross. Each of these acts is replicated in the show, with several of them—Smokey Robinson (Charl Brown), Marvin Gaye (Bryan Terrell Clark), and Diana Ross (Valisia LeKae) playing major roles in the enactment of Gordy’s life.
     The 83-year-old Gordy himself wrote the book, based on his autobiography, and his lack of skill at writing a Broadway musical is obvious in the show’s overly episodic structure and awkward dialogue sequences. The show attempts to present not only the trials and tribulations of Motown over a quarter of a century (it concludes with a 25-year anniversary celebration set in 1983), but to demonstrate the course of American black history from the time of Gordy’s childhood as a fan of boxing champ Joe Louis through the Civil Rights era, the death of President Kennedy, the Detroit race riots of 1967, and the Vietnam War. It also, in the second act, changes direction and becomes the story of the Supremes and of Diana Ross’s separation from them to become an international superstar (as well as Gordy’s wife).
     The numbers follow one another with mind-numbing speed; countless costumes and wigs do a fabulous job in communicating where and when each scene occurs, as the cleverly nimble scenery, mostly a flexible arrangement of vertical and horizontal sliding panels and pillars capable of assuming multiple arrangements, keeps shifting from scene to scene, often abetted by still and video projections. The lighting, as might be expected for a show like this, is very flashy and there are some striking effects, especially a couple of brilliantly realized silhouettes—one of the Jackson 5 and one of Diana Ross—against a brightly colored cyclorama. The realistic scenic inserts that sometimes appear clash with the overall feel of a big, stylized Las Vegas revue. The choreography is sometimes outstanding, but, after the first act, there doesn’t seem to be enough of it. Overall it’s hard to deny that the show would work much better if it had taken a more revue-like approach, omitting the dramatized biographical scenes and offering the expository material in some more creative way.
      In order to squeeze in so many songs, some of them had to be abbreviated, which may disturb purists. Others may be disturbed to see their favorite stars impersonated by singers who, while talented in their own right, can never fully capture the vocal and charismatic qualities of the originals. Valisia LeKae struggles with the early Diana Ross, but, as the character moves from shy teenager to glamorous diva, she becomes more believable and, when she appears as the classic Diana in gorgeous gowns and high-styled wigs, she is as reasonable a facsimile as you might desire. A standout when I saw the show was Raymond Luke, Jr., a kid who alternates with Jibreel Mawry in the role of Michael Jackson as a child in his Jackson 5 days. The audience went nuts for him, partly, of course, because of his singing and dancing abilities, but also because of the enormous affection most people still have for the late superstar.
     MOTOWN will not garner acclaim as a path breaking musical; it is rather standard stuff for its genre. But the energetic, enthusiastic, rhythmically infectious, and emotionally satisfying sounds of Motown, even if not quite up to the original renditions, will be enough for most audiences. I won’t be surprised if this show is in for a long life and that it will soon go platinum. 
THE BIG KNIFE, Clifford Odets’s angry 1949 diatribe against Hollywood venality, corruption, and mendacity, has not been seen on Broadway since its original production, which starred John Garfield in the leading role of Charlie Castle, filmdom superstar. In the new Roundabout production, directed by Doug Hughes, the role is played by current rising star, Bobby Cannavale, but the result is decidedly uneven. While he has the charisma and intelligence to play Charlie, a movie star who is torn over whether to sell his artistic soul in exchange for a $3.5 million, 14-year contract (imagine what that money would amount to today), Cannavale is unable to make the clunky, pretentious Odets dialogue sound believable, and his characterization comes off as forced and artificial. On the other hand, Richard Kind, as the powerful, crafty, and nefarious studio boss, Marcus Hoff, gives what I believe to be one of the season’s finest supporting performances. Best known for his goofy, comic acting, Kind, whose character must pull out every trick in the book to overcome Charlie’s insistence that he’d rather quit acting than sign the contract, displays a range and power that is truly impressive.
            John Lee Beatty’s set, showing the spectacular interior of a movie star’s home, creates a living space most of us would die for, and all the other technical elements required to make us feel the late 1940s atmosphere are well realized, but director Doug Hughes—who does his best to pump up the energy and speed up the action—is generally stumped by the problem of making the formulaic plot and its implausible premise believable. In a nutshell, Charlie, an inveterate womanizer, is ready to abandon his career and a guaranteed fortune because his idealistic wife, Marion (Marin Ireland), from whom he’s already been separated twice, is against his signing a 14-year contract. All that stands in the way of Charlie’s quitting his profession is Marcus’s threat to reveal that Charlie was responsible for a car accident that killed a child but for which Charlie’s friend was persuaded to take the rap by spending 10 months in jail. They don’t make ‘em like that anymore, folks.
The Royal Shakespeare Company is visiting New York with this revival of Shakespeare’s JULIUS CAESAR, performed at BAM’s Harvey Theatre by an all-black cast within the context of an African nation's politics. A program note cites a connection between Nelson Mandela and Shakespeare from the days when Mandela was imprisoned in South Africa, but it’s hard to specify that country as the precise locale. The costumes blend modern dress with elements of Roman garb, such as the togas (black for some reason) worn by the senators in the scene of Caesar’s assassination.
     The show opens with a large choral group of extras milling about on the steps and ground level of a crumbling amphitheatre, designed by Michael Vale, singing, dancing, and carrying around election posters with Caesar’s image on them. At the top of the steps and facing away toward the rear of the stage can be seen the head of a huge statue of Caesar; later, when he is overthrown, the statue is toppled, much like that of Saddam Hussein a decade ago. The opening revelry provides a rather joyous contrast to the dark drama that soon follows, as the conspirators begin to plot Caesar’s murder. Everything is spoken at high decibel level with authentic-sounding African accents, there is a uniformly effective level of intensity, and the acting is dynamic and forceful. Director Gregory Doran lets all the stops out too often, though, and there are few scenes of quiet reflection, but the first act, in particular, builds effectively toward the killing and the subsequent orations by Brutus (Paterson Joseph) and Mark Antony (Ray Fearon). Hovering over the action throughout is the presence of a witch doctor-like Soothsayer (Theo Ogundipe) whose muscular body is, like his face, covered with white ash.
       Act Two, with its persistent emphasis on combat situations and lots of macho shouting and physical bravado, is a letdown, but this is partly a problem of the play, whose most interesting action is the rising tension of Act One as the conspirators plot and then carry out the dictator’s death. The clever oratory of Brutus defending the action and Anthony more successfully decrying it is in good hands; both Mr. Joseph and Mr. Fearon do excellent work, each displaying powerful vocal equipment and a charismatic personality.
       The audience response at the end was extremely enthusiastic but if I could have left after Act One I would have appreciated this JULIUS CAESAR much more.
I went from JULIUS CAESAR to THE DANCE OF DEATH with low expectations for a good time. One bleak play followed by another is not really a fun way to spend the day. I’m happy to report, however, that the Red Bull Theatre company at the Lucille Lortel in Greenwich Village is offering a worthwhile revival of this Strindberg classic from 1900, partly because Joseph Hardy’s direction somehow manages to find comical inflections in the often unappetizing situations; it shows even more vividly than usual how indebted Albee’s WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF? is to this razor-sharp dissection of a marriage in which the partners viciously slice each other up while nevertheless maintaining their love for one another.
      Daniel Davis (best known as the butler, Niles, on Fran Drescher’s “The Nanny”) is Edgar, a frustrated military officer living on a desolate fortress island with his wife, Alice (Laila Robins); he gives an extremely magnetic portrayal of a charmingly sadistic husband. The white-haired Mr. Davis, despite being too old for the role at 67, has all the qualities of an old-time stage star, with a remarkably resonant voice and commanding physical presence that make you forget his age. Ms. Robins is equally vibrant as his wife, whose stage career ended when she married Edgar and moved with him to this forbidding place. She brings high theatricality to her scenes when called for, and can, in her way, be as conjugally cruel as her nasty spouse. Derek Smith as Gustav, Alice’s cousin and potential lover, is the weak link in the triangle; despite his generally restrained and believable performance, he lacks the masculine sex appeal the play requires and in other ways seems miscast.
     THE DANCE OF DEATH, then, is not deadly at all, although I’m certain that if the play were written today it would run for an intermissionless hour and a half, not two and a half hours with an intermission.
The prolific Richard Greenberg, whose output has ranged from the excellent to the mediocre, is back in more or less excellent form, at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, with this Manhattan Theatre Club production. THE ASSEMBLED PARTIES, a touching and funny dramedy about upper-middle class Jews, sensitively directed by Lynne Meadow, stars two pencil-thin actresses, Jessica Hecht and Judith Light, as matriarchs of related families, one living in a sprawling, 14-room apartment on Central Park West and the other in Roslyn, Long Island. Ms. Hecht plays Julie Bascov, who had a brief career as a film star before marrying Ben (Jonathan Walker), a businessman; when the play begins, she is the mother of college student Scotty (Jake Silberman) and 4-year-old Timmy (Alex Dreier). Her sister-in-law, played by Ms. Light, is Faye, wife of Mort (Mark Blum) and mother of Shelley (Lauren Blumenfeld). Act one takes place on Christmas Day, 1980, and the occasion is the annual family dinner. Visiting is an outsider, Jeff (Jeremy Shamos), Scotty’s college friend, who becomes a family stalwart. Act two takes us to Christmas day, 2000. Death has claimed several of those seen in act one, and the effects of twenty years on the lives of the people we’ve come to know are revealed.
     It’s hard to write about the play without giving away too many spoilers; I’ll leave the professional critics to provide additional plot details, and will confine myself to general comments on the play and production. Greenberg has fashioned a solid Broadway family play about people that many of us will be familiar with, especially if we grew up in a Jewish-flavored New York City or Long Island environment. The references to local institutions, like the Roosevelt Mall in Garden City, the long gone Alexander’s Department store, or places like Boca Raton, will strike a warmly familiar—and sometimes hilarious—note, and relationships like that between Faye and her idiosyncratic daughter will be appreciated both on a universal level and on a very private one; I’m convinced you’ll come away thinking you actually know these people. Also good for laughs, given the liberal biases of the characters, are the politically pointed barbs slyly referencing Reagan in 1980 and Bush, Sr. and Jr., in 2000. 
     The structural device of having the same characters visited after twenty years is not a new one, of course, but, if we’ve become truly invested in them it can’t help but be fascinating to see how they’ve changed over the years. Greenberg succeeds superbly in getting us involved in their lives so that, when we see them again after two decades, we’re in for both shock and delight as we discover how they’ve aged and coped with both the triumphs and tragedies with which they’ve had to deal. Think back on your own life twenty years ago and contemplate how vastly it has changed as loved ones died, often way before their time; how financial crises have altered your existence, for better or for worse; how people’s promising trajectories have turned to disappointment; or how healthy human specimens have encountered unexpected physical setbacks.   
     To cover so much ground, Greenberg is forced to rely on artificial means to guarantee that characters can share their stories in intimate groups while the others are offstage. To a degree, he is helped by having the locale be an apartment of such great size that people who’ve been visiting it annually for years still get lost in it. We sense its spaciousness by how cleverly Santo Loquasto uses a revolving stage to expose different rooms. And there are some revelations that come toward the end in classically melodramatic fashion to help neatly tie up all the loose ends. But none of this really matters because the characters are so well-etched, speaking richly theatrical language that combines both literary quality with everyday naturalism.
     Everyone is perfectly cast, but Hecht and Light are simply marvelous in roles that seem fitted to them like a glove. Hecht has a sort of theatrical lilt to her voice that does not sound like anyone I’ve ever known, and she sometimes sounds artificial, but as the performance wears on she captures your heart and makes you forgive what first sounded somewhat mannered. But it is Judith Light’s Faye that really takes one by force and makes it impossible to stop the tears from falling. Her New York-Jewish intonations are absolutely authentic sounding, and her physical transformation from 1980 to 2000 is engraved beautifully in her walk and gestures. Here, too, she slightly overshadows Hecht, whose physical transformation is less believable, especially when she dons her mother’s gorgeous silk dress for the 2000 Christmas gathering. In it, she seems hardly to have aged at all. Both actresses are given aria-like speeches toward the end, and both deliver the goods, but it is Light’s revelatory story that most effectively puts the cap on a charming, rich, and deeply rewarding two and a half hours in the theatre.  
Beginning in March 1997, Leslie Bricusse and Frank Wildhorn’s JEKYLL AND HYDE ran at the Plymouth Theatre for 1,543 performances, breaking that theatre’s previous long-run record despite mixed reviews. It has returned to Broadway, at the Marriott Marquis Theatre, in what’s described as a “re-vamped” version with a “contemporary rock score,” and with American Idol runner-up Constantine Maroulis in the lead, for what is scheduled as a limited run through June 30, 2013. This is only two months away, but I wouldn’t be in a hurry to see it, unless you’re not worried about having your eardrums ruined, or don’t mind that song after song seems intended to outshout the one that preceded it in a battle of the decibels.
      Maroulis, with his trademark mane tied in a ponytail for the scientist Jekyll and loosened in a cascade of wavy locks for the monstrous Hyde, doesn’t change his makeup for the transformation, as per the practice in previous versions of the show; he merely removes his spectacles, dons a cape-like coat, and waves his hirsute head around like Medusa to become the beastly murderer. As Jekyll, the actor, wearing mutton chops and being much too thin for a Broadway leading man, looks more like a refugee from a Chekhov play than a brilliant British scientist cum physically powerful serial killer. Both his acting and his English accent are unconvincing, but he has the vocal chops to scream the overly amped, rock-inflected tunes he is required to bellow to where you think he’ll burst his vocal chords. His chief support is from his talented and beautiful female costars, Teal Wicks as his fiancée, Emma, and R&B singer Deborah Cox as his prostitute mistress, Lucy. Both have fine voices but nothing they do can overcome the mediocre score, boring book, or unimpressive staging, for all director-choreographer Jeff Calhoun’s attempts to capture the foggy atmosphere of late 19th-century London. One sign of the show’s directorial weakness is the decision to have so many numbers delivered straight to the audience, even when the singers are addressing someone else on stage.
     For all its problems, I’d much sooner have been at MOTOWN again than forced to sit through this uninspired production. There are two sides to Dr. Jekyll’s personality, the good and the bad. There is only one side to this revival of JEKYLL AND HYDE.
Narcissistic, solipsistic, self-indulgent, artsy, pretentious, and unnecessary are words that kept racing through my mind, when I wasn’t fighting the temptation to doze, as I watched Alan Cumming’s essentially one-man production of MACBETH at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre. This is the second solo MACBETH I attended this season, the previous one being the exceedingly low-rent version called THAT PLAY: A SOLO MACBETH, starring the barely know Tom Gualtieri, at Stage Left Studio on W. 30th Street. I disliked that one too, for not dissimilar reasons, but it has to be admitted that, despite Cumming’s international fame as a film, TV, and stage star, his Scottish-accented performance, well done as it sometimes is, does not seriously outshine that of the much lesser known Gualtieri.
     The Cumming version, a big hit in its brief run last summer at the Lincoln Center Festival, is a production of the National Theatre of Scotland. It is staged so that the star is an inmate in an insane asylum, brought there, it would seem, after attempting to physically harm himself. The antiseptic set consists of very high walls covered with lime-green tiling; an observation window is high up in the rear wall, and a steep metal staircase leads to a door on stage left on the same level as the window. There are several metal, hospital-type beds, a sink, and a few props that come into use, including an old-fashioned baby doll. And, of course, there’s a bathtub! If you’ve been following my reviews, you’ll recall my amazement at how many people are taking onstage baths this season, offering numerous glimpses of naked butts and, on occasion, other body parts. Just in the past few weeks Broadway skin gazers have ogled bathtub ready flesh in BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY’S and THE NANCE. Now we get to gaze on the anatomical niceties of the carefully preserved Mr. Cumming.
     The production’s conceit, then, seems to be that Cumming is a madman whose obsession is the enactment of the entire play of MACBETH. When you think of it that IS a rather crazy thing to do! To fulfill this nonsensical conceit, there are two white-coated attendants, a man and a woman. At first, they speak to the Cumming character by mouthing inaudible words of comfort as they introduce him to the looming loony bin, but late in the performance—which they occasionally watch from the observation window, or during entrances requiring them to treat the patient (sometimes with a hypodermic needle)—they speak a few lines each in the roles of specific minor characters. This makes no sense in the context of the concept, just as there is no logic to their lack of intervention during the various bloodstained scenes that see Cumming’s body smeared bright red.
     Cumming is a fine actor, of course, but I have no interest in seeing him or any other actor play one role after the other in a Shakespearean drama, stepping from side to side, or doing whatever is necessary to separate one character from another. Anyone not very familiar with MACBETH will find this exercise a total mystery, and even if you know the play you may be tempted to tune out. When I go to a production of MACBETH, I want to see all the characters come to life, with the variety of faces and voices that requires. I don’t want to see a single actor trying to show how versatile he is by playing young and old, male and female, in what will ultimately be a stagy mishmash designed to burnish the actor’s reputation rather than to elucidate the play. Many in the audience at the Barrymore, I admit, felt otherwise, rising in a rush at the curtain call as if hailing the arrival in Rome of Julius Caesar.
     For me, these famous lines from MACBETH came to mind:
Methought I heard a voice cry “Sleep no more!
Macbeth doth Murder sleep”—the innocent sleep,
Sleep that knits up the ravell'd
sleave of care,
The death of each day's life, sore labor's bath,
Balm of hurt minds, great nature's
second course,(50)
Chief nourisher in life's feast—
I, however, would amend a few words so that it read: “Sleep once more! Macbeth doth nurture sleep.”
If you read the Wikipedia entry on Lyle Kessler’s 1983 play ORPHANS, which first appeared on Broadway in 1985, you’ll discover how successful it has been over the course of its 30-year life, both in the USA and abroad (including Japan). Tom Waits was reportedly so overcome by its Steppenwolf production in Chicago, starring John Mahoney as Harold, Terry Kinney as Treat, and Kevin Anderson as Philip, that he remained in his seat after the audience had left, unable to move. Although I didn’t search every seat, I’m not sure anyone was similarly touched at the end of last night’s performance of the current Broadway revival, starring Alec Baldwin as Harold, Tom Sturridge as Philip, and Ben Foster as Treat (replacing Shia LaBeouf). I briefly chatted with Rex Reed as we walked together down W. 45th Street afterward, and, as one might expect, he was not shy about his negative response.
     The plot concerns a couple of oddball orphan brothers, Philip and Treat, living in a rundown house in North Philadelphia (designed here by John Lee Beatty). Treat is a petty thief and Philip seeming slowwitted and so protected by his older brother from outside influences, other than the TV (which has made him a film savant with a passion for Errol Flynn), that he is essentially feral in his behavior. He is not even permitted to open a window for fear that he will become sick from the outside air. One night, Treat brings home a friendly, middle-aged drunk, Harold, who proceeds to pass out on the floor. Treat and Philip put him in a chair, bound with rope and gagged with duct tape. When he wakes in the morning, Treat has gone out and Philip is guarding him. Taking advantage of Philip’s boundless innocence, Harold manages to unbind himself, and to gradually take control of the situation from the two brothers. An orphan himself, Harold turns out to be a well-heeled Chicago gangster of some sort who offers Treat a lot of money to become his bodyguard from the hoodlums who are after him. Treat, a ticking time bomb of violent emotions who acts before he thinks, resists, but is eventually more or less tamed by the aggressively smooth-talking and clever Harold, who likens him to a Dead End Kid from the 1930s and 1940s movies. Before long, he is taking pride in his new Armani-garbed image, although never able to suppress his propensity for explosive violence when he believes he’s been insulted. Philip, portrayed by Mr. Sturridge as a remarkably athletic feral youth, leaping about like Spider-Man from floor to table, table to couch, couch to staircase, and so on, takes advantage of Harold’s teaching (his mantra is “Let me offer you some encouragement”) to become an avid reader of classics, and to improve his otherwise negligible social skills. The play explores the power balances between the brothers, and between them and Harold, until the final scene, intended to provide a powerful conclusion to the proceedings as the two brothers find themselves wrestling with each other in a tragically unexpected way.
     The production is not without its merits. It moves swiftly and its characters are all theatrically dynamic and magnetic, and each actor offers something fascinating to watch. But Daniel Sullivan’s pumped-up direction abandons nuance and overdoes the physical activity and comic business to the point that the play’s underlying pathos struggles to emerge, and when the curtain falls we are more impressed by the showiness of the performances than by any powerful emotional response we should be feeling.
     I would praise Mr. Baldwin to the skies if his role didn’t seem merely a darker version of his character of Jack Donaghy on “Thirty Rock.” And he has, of course, played other sardonically humorous yet dangerous men in his various films. Ben Foster is perfectly acceptable as the volatile Treat, but Tom Sturridge’s Philip is a head-scratcher, partly because it’s unclear about what the character’s psychological issues are. The actor is markedly lithe—even monkey-like—as he leaps about set, but his speech and gestures are strongly reminiscent of severe autism or some other such condition. He is a film savant because of all the movies he watches on TV, and has total recall of a TV announcer’s comments, yet he is astonishingly naïve about the world outside the house, not even knowing what a map is or what the expression “on the lam” means. While it is likely that his performance will get a lot of attention, for me it was an assortment of theatrical tics that didn’t add up to a consistent characterization.
     Despite these objections, ORPHANS is enjoyable to watch and will keep you entertained. It may also have you wondering what all the fuss surrounding it has been about.