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.
2. THE TWENTY-SEVENTH MAN
3. ZELDA AT THE OASIS
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.
6. THE GOOD WIFE
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.