I begin this blog with the 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. As a nominating member of an important New York theatre awards committee, I actually saw hundreds of 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.
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.
Simply stated, there’s nothing much about which to be ado in this production.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?”
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.
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.
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.