Wednesday, July 31, 2013

67. Review of NOBODY LOVES YOU (July 30, 2013)



Plays spoofing or critiquing trite TV game and reality shows aren’t especially new. In 1966 I was in a play at La Mama by Bruce Kessler called THE CONTESTANTS, an off-color parody of TV’S long running QUEEN FOR A DAY; I played the slick, insipid MC. More recently, GOOD TELEVISION, seen at the Atlantic, was a fairly serious look into the cynical behind-the-scenes maneuverings of a reality show about addiction. The latest entry into the field is a 90-minute, intermissionless, satirical musical called NOBODY LOVES YOU, with book and lyrics by Itamar Moses and music by Gaby Alter, at the 2econd Stage Theatre. It comes to New York after a successful premiere last summer at San Diego’s Old Globe Theatre. Like THE CONTESTANTS, its intent is to mock its subject, in this case a reality show called “Nobody Loves You” that’s like a BIG BROTHER and BACHELOR mash-up, attempting to create romantic attachments among contestants rooming together in the same house (hot tub included). Replete with its own slick, insipid MC, Byron (an outstanding Heath Calvert), it does so with a fair degree of wit, intelligence, and theatrical pizzazz, but ultimately is as insubstantial as the material that inspires it.

            Jeff (a fine Brian Fenkart), who’s writing his doctoral dissertation, lives with his girlfriend Tanya (the always excellent Leslie Kritzer, in one of three roles). Tanya is addicted to “Nobody Loves You,” but Jeff, whose specialty is ontology—which, explains Wikipedia, is about the nature of being, becoming, existence, or reality—dismisses such shows as pure fakery. His attitude so irks Tanya that she leaves him, intending herself to become a contestant on the show. Jeff, hoping to win her back, also tries to get on the show. However, Tanya doesn’t make it and he does because Nina (Ms. Kritzer again), the producer, thinks his negative attitude about the show’s phony reality will help boost its drooping ratings, which it does. Jeff not only chooses to analyze (as the subject of his dissertation) how the TV show plays with perceptions of reality, he also finds love in the person of Jenny (Aleque Reid, very good), the assistant producer, a would-be filmmaker who holds similar views on the show’s fraudulence. As Jeff and Jenny work out their budding relationship, five other broadly drawn characters vie not to be voted off the show and told: “It’s time to pack your things and leave this house. Because? Nobody loves you.” They are Christian (Roe Hartrampf), whose name defines his preoccupation; Megan (Lauren Molina), a sexed-up blonde with a frizzy perm; Dominic (Rory O’Malley), a clueless dude who’s eternally confused; and Samantha (Autumn Hurlburt), a dizzy redhead with a fondness for liquor who learns that the key to success is to love yourself. A sixth contestant who is voted off before we learn much about her is Zenobia (once again, Ms. Kritzer), a Latin sexpot. Other characters are Chaz (Mr. O’Malley), Jeff’s stoner-type roommate; and Evan (also Mr. O’Malley), Jenny’s gay friend, an inveterate blogger and Twitterer, who has one of the show’s few standout numbers, composed mostly of tweets and hashtags. Everyone is talented and appealing, but their roles are mostly paper-thin caricatures.

Left to right: Rory O'Malley (kneeling), Bryan Fenkart, Autumn Hurlbert, Roe Hartrampf, Lauren Molina, and Heath Calvert.

            There are a few good laughs, but I didn’t find the show as laugh-out loud funny as others seem to have; a semi-running gag that gets two or three tries is to have someone think that Jeff’s interest in ontology means he’s an eye doctor (ontology-optometry, get it? Oy). The first to make this connection is Jeff’s girlfriend Tanya, which, given his scholarly inclinations, makes his interest in her beyond belief. The music, for the most part, is like so much we now hear in musical theatre, essentially rhythmic support for clever lyrics and rarely anything you’re likely to hum, even after hearing it a dozen times. It’s serviceable, does its job, and is quickly forgotten. Still, it does serve to sell Itomar Moses’s highly inventive lyrics in such numbers as “So Much to Hate,” in which the play’s two cynics share their disdain for things we all take for granted.

            Mark Wendlund has provided a sleek, minimalist set of chrome pillars, platforms, and balconies that allows for scenic pieces to slide in and out and magically appear from or disappear into the floor, something that more and more well-budgeted designers are doing. Ben Stanton does wonderful work with the colorful, often flashy lighting, and Jessica Pabst’s smart costumes help define each character distinctly. Michelle Tattenbaum’s direction and choreography move everything along briskly, with effective movement for the several dance-like routines.

            I can’t say nobody loves you to this sometimes engaging, sometimes bland, but always polished musical. All I can do is speak for myself.   

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

66. Review of SHIDA (July 29, 2013)



Jeannette Bayardelle is an exceptional performer. She is a passionate, committed, and versatile actress, and is gifted with a voice powerful enough to make you both remove your assisted listening device and let the sound waves blow-dry your hair. In her new, one-woman musical, SHIDA, at Ars Nova on W. 54th Street, she has added to those talents the accomplishments of book and lyric writer and composer. Backed by a four-piece ensemble of keyboard, drums, guitar, and bass, on a simply designed set that places the musicians upstage behind translucent plastic panels, with a semblance of a fire escape downstage right, she tells the story of Shida, a high-IQ African-American girl who grows up in the Bronx wishing to be a writer and struggles to overcome the difficult circumstances she encounters. It is a story of survival despite all odds. As demonstrated by the truly appreciative applause the night I saw it, when many theatre professionals were present, some audiences will surely find it moving and inspirational. Others, like me, may find it predictable and clichéd. I have a feeling I’m in the minority, but so be it.
Ars Nova on W. 54th between 10th and 11th Avenues.

            To tell this purportedly true story she plays half a dozen characters, shifting from one to the other rapidly and with the simplest means, as in so many other shows requiring an actor to play multiple roles (MURDER FOR TWO being a recent example). We first meet Shida as a surprisingly well-read, fourth-grade school child at St. Mary's Catholic School, where she meets Ms. Smalls, the sensitive teacher who encourages her interest in writing poetry like Phillis Wheatley. At school she is befriended by Jackie, a double-dutch jumping home girl embodying stereotypical speech and physical mannerisms—smarmy side to side head movements, disingenuous eye popping, both hands flipping the second through fourth fingers open and shut, swaggering hair tossing, and calling Shida “girl” on every other line. Jackie, for all her jiving attitudes, becomes Shida’s lifelong and sincerest pal and is there to help her when things come crumbling down. And they certainly do when, after five years of sexual abuse by her mother’s boyfriend, “Uncle Steve,” an abortion, her mother’s losing battle with cancer, a failed relationship with a woman who looks like a man, crack addiction, prostitution, and beggary, she questions God’s existence but ultimately finds redemption during a stint in rehab. Shida eventually emerges on top, ready to move forward at City College and take advantage of her abilities.

            We’ve seen stories like this before, and there are no surprises in store. The minute little Shida begins talking to her “Uncle Steve,” who is helping her prepare for her spelling bee, you know where the relationship is going. Still, even after five years of his being “on top of me,” to which her mother turns a blind eye, she seems to overcome her trauma; after initially falling off in her grades, she turns things around and becomes a straight-A student. When she enters NYU on a scholarship and befriends Joe, a nice white guy who tutors her in math, you know something not kosher will happen, which does when he turns out to be a drug dealer and, despite her protestations, talks her into getting high. This, of course, starts her on the road to perdition, largely, it seems, because she can’t shake the traumas of her childhood and her mother’s death, which, tragic as they are, seem, given the strength of Shida’s character, forced motivations. Her mother remains sainted in her eyes, even though it took her five years before she kicked out the freeloader who was serially raping her daughter; it seemed to me that this was something she might have figured out earlier despite Shida’s keeping silent about it. In other words, common as such experiences may be in many people’s lives, they appear contrived here for the sake of dramatic expediency.

            Although there are spoken passages, most of the show is sung, with 20 songs listed in the program, each marking a step in Shida’s evolution as a young woman. As the show’s press release notes, they cover a variety of styles, including rock, jazz, R&B, and gospel music; there is also a bit of hip-hop from one of Shida’s boyfriends, but its inadequacy is recognized by Shida herself and quickly ended. All the songs are listenable, but too many sound alike, and some seem to have been written merely to offer Ms. Bayardelle opportunities to demonstrate her ear-splitting belting powers in the vein of DREAMGIRLS’ “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going.” So assured is Ms. Bayardelle of her vocals that in one number, while she is in the middle of one of her highest and loudest notes, she actually breaks character along with the fourth wall to encourage the audience to clap! I wasn’t sure how we were supposed to take her story seriously after that. Director Andy Sandberg never should have condoned such self-promotion, regardless of the audience's laughter.

            SHIDA deserves to be seen for the performance of Jeannette Bayerdelle. The friend I saw it with, an experienced young theatre professional, was extremely impressed. Like me, she was disappointed in the material, but that didn’t seem enough to dampen her strong enthusiasm. Hopefully, that will be your reaction as well.  Ms. Bayerdelle deserves to be seen (and, more importantly, heard). Her show? Well you can't get one without the other.

Monday, July 29, 2013

65. Review of ROGERANDTOM (July 28, 2013)



Try to pay attention to this unusual play’s setup: Penny (Suzy Jane Hunt) and Rich (Richard Theriot) are a young couple whose marriage is dissolving, and Rich has come to their apartment to pack up more of his stuff in the white boxes that litter the place. Soon, Rich and Penny are bickering. The apartment, ingeniously imagined by David Esler, and many of its principal features (like stoves and bathtubs), are depicted by outlining them on the floor in ground plan style, but there are also several simple pieces of furniture and even an actual toilet, sink, and fridge; everything is black, white, or gray. There are no actual walls but we can tell where they would be by the vertical strings running from floor to ceiling at significant corners. There is also a practical door. The audience is in two segments, sitting on either side of the apartment and facing both it and each other.  Penny is awaiting her brother, Roger (Eric T. Miller), who promised to come from upstate to see a play with her written by their brother, Tom, who has been estranged from Roger for five years, but she asks Rich not to let on about their marriage being on the rocks. She calls Roger and a cell phone ringing in the audience turns out to be Roger's, who has been sitting in the theatre (right behind me) under the impression that he has been watching a play written by Tom. He leaves his seat and walks onto the stage where he discovers that he’s a character in the play, and that, even though he and Tom actually have no sister, Penny insists that’s who she is, while Rich, who is an actor named William (played, of course, by Richard Theriot), serves to explicate the situation for Roger, who agrees with great hesitancy to enact himself with these made-up characters, so as to see where this is all leading in regard to his being there in the first place. Get it?

Suzy Jane Hunt (left), Rich Theriot (center), and Eric T. Miller in ROGERANDTOM. Photo: Taylor Hooper.

            ROGERANDTOM, Julien Schwab's exceedingly clever puzzle of a play, was first done by the same company (Personal Space Theatrics) in 2003, and now being revived at the Here Arts Center, is a surrealistic Pirandellian exercise in interrogating the reality-illusion divide of theatrical performance; as it progresses it gets only more imaginatively complex as it shatters the fourth wall into many pieces and reveals even to its characters that they can’t trust their own reality. Penny is totally committed to being the character she plays, since that’s precisely who she is, and she is devastated to discover that there’s an audience out there watching her (before this discovery she has even peed as if in the privacy of her bathroom) and that she can walk through walls. Rich is an actor-explicator with the ability to expressively and good-naturedly explain to the befuddled Roger what he’s going through, even showing him the script to demonstrate (as an audience member confirms) that everything they’re experiencing is already written down and that nothing is left to chance. Roger is supposedly a real blue-collar guy, who finds that he’s a character in a play designed to reconcile him with his brother, Tom, the playwright, who has written previous plays about him. He goes along, more or less, with playing at being this character while simultaneously undermining all the theatrical conventions that we normally take for granted in suspending our disbelief.

            The three performers have the challenging task of making all this metatheatrical trickery real on multiple emotional and comical levels, without winking at the audience. It is to their great credit that they do this with consistent truth and honesty, although, here and there, one can detect minor actorly tics that threaten to but never do give away the game. Still, the performances are enormously helpful in making the mystifying developments seem perfectly natural within the world being portrayed, and for this director Nicholas Cotz deserves warm appreciation.

            ROGERANDTOM’s plot developments grow increasingly complex but I find them less interesting for themselves than for the opportunities they provide to enhance the playwright’s dramaturgical conceit. This is one of the more novel Off-Broadway pieces on display at the moment, one that I might have enjoyed even more had the air conditioning been working. But perhaps the A/C in Penny and Rich's apartment had been turned off and I was simply sharing their reality. 0r maybe the A/C was blasting away in the apartment but, like the empty beer bottles the actors drank from or the unplugged-in phone they spoke on, I was supposed to imagine it was on. Or maybe . . .

Sunday, July 28, 2013

64. Review of I FORGIVE YOU, RONALD REAGAN (July 27, 2013)





In 1981, President Ronald Reagan, faced with a nationwide strike by 13,000 federally employed air traffic controllers, warned that if they did not go back to work, every single one would be fired. Led by their determined union, the controllers resisted, convinced there was no way that the president would follow through on his threat. But he did, sending all those highly skilled, well-paid workers, many of them veterans of Viet Nam, onto the unemployment lines. A small number, however, both for personal reasons and because they accepted the argument that it was illegal for federal employees to strike, stayed on the job. This historical choice is the basis for John S. Anastasi’s sometimes gripping, but too often clumsy, drama, I FORGIVE YOU, RONALD REAGAN, at the Beckett Theatre on Theatre Row.

            The action is set in the Riverhead, Long Island, home of Ray (PJ Benjamin) and Jane DeLuso (Patricia Richardson). Craig Napoliello’s rather substantial set depicts their living room and, a step up at stage left, kitchen. The shingled roof overhead is seen on a scrim bordering the top of the set; when required, the scrim becomes a projection screen for flashback video clips of Reagan and the strikers, for notices of the current date, and for animated green air traffic control signals; it also becomes transparent when we see Ray up there in his attic hideaway.

The opening scene is set in August 1981 when Ray and his best friend and next-door neighbor, Buzz Adams (Robert Emmet Lunney), a fellow controller whose life Ray saved in Viet Nam, are awaiting news about the strike. They wear wigs and makeup (both too obvious) to suggest them as men in their late thirties. The remainder of the play takes place in 2004, when Ray, now silver-haired, and Buzz, practically bald, are no longer friends because Buzz crossed the picket lines, causing Ray, who lost his job and career, to thoroughly despise him. Ray ekes out a living as a general contractor, and Jane, who hoped to retire from teaching if the strike were successful, is the chief breadwinner, further curdling Ray’s hatred of Reagan and Buzz. Ray has done well for himself, but his wife died ten years ago, and he still grieves for her. The still attractive Jane, who loves her husband but is increasingly fed up with his angry outbursts and simmering vitriol, finds comfort (but not sex) in Buzz’s friendship, which only sends the jealous Ray into further paroxysms of rage. Jane and Ray’s 26-year-old daughter, Tess (Danielle Faitelson), is a feckless would- be actress, coddled by Ray, who (regardless of Jane’s more realistic attitude) blindly believes she will one day be a star. But, in the play’s schematically contrived structure, she falls in love with Buzz’s “Mr. Perfect” son, David, a successful young union attorney, setting up a situation for emotional fireworks when Ray discovers the relationship and blaringly insists that Tess break off her engagement. (ROMEO AND JULIET is invoked in an attempt at comic relief.) Meanwhile, Ray, more aggressively obstinate and obnoxious than Archie Bunker (Mr. Benjamin is a dead ringer for Carroll O’Connor), but without his humor, shows signs of dementia, and is obsessed with sneaking off to his attic where, with a poster of Reagan on the wall through which an X has been drawn, he uses a Nintendo set to recreate his long-gone air traffic experiences. The play moves into some bizarre psychological territory here, especially when Buzz enters the attic while Ray is in the process of guiding an airliner through a dangerous landing, and is unable to snap out of his fantasy world.

            The play makes an earnest attempt to confront issues of guilt, parental responsibility, marital friction, delusion, and friendship as each of the four characters struggles to work out his or her interpersonal relationships and as Ray and Buzz face off against one another (verbally and physically) over that crucial moment when each made a different, life-defining choice. I FORGIVE YOU, RONALD REAGAN’S title is something of a spoiler, so it shouldn’t be surprising that the conclusion is benign, but the journey to that point is filled with emotional shrapnel that the characters must keep dodging to survive.

            The audience also must dodge the play’s melodramatic excesses, its too-obvious expository passages, a final resolution that lacks credibility, and a leading character in Ray whose unpleasantness becomes trying. The direction by Charles Abbott has not been able to overcome these deficiencies. Mr. Benjamin’s performance as Ray is uneven; he has some very strong scenes, and is particularly excellent when doing his air controller scenes, but he often overacts, tipping the character into stereotype. Ms. Faitelson is believable as the spoiled daughter, especially when she stands up to her father’s demands, and Mr. Lunney is also good, although Buzz’s attempts at decency toward someone who so reviles him strain credulity. Best of the bunch is Ms. Richardson’s long-suffering Jane; for all the pressures her character must bear, she remains grounded and real, keeping her seething feelings under wrap but nevertheless apparent.

            I FORGIVE YOU, RONALD REAGAN reminds us of a moment in recent American history that many of us have nearly forgotten, but that still rankles in the minds and hearts of those who were most affected. One of the most disturbing images flashed on the screen is a clip of New Jersey governor Chris Christie praising Reagan’s decision to follow through on his warning. Hearing Gov. Christie’s words, delivered with a smiling smarminess, make it hard to accept the words in this play’s title. I wonder how anyone negatively affected by that strike of over 30 years ago would feel on hearing Christie's comments. Forgiving? I think not.

63. Review of MURDER FOR TWO (July 26, 2013)

63. Review of MURDER FOR TWO

When we enter the McGinn/Cazale Theatre to see MURDER FOR TWO, which won Chicago's 2011 Jefferson Award as best new musical, we see a false proscenium arch framing a stage carefully arranged to look more or less scenery-less, its rear brick back wall prominent and accented by a red curtain hanging upstage right. A grand piano and various props inspired by the game of Clue are noticeably displayed. The walls downstage of the arch are richly paneled, just like the wide pillars at either side supporting it, each with swinging doors built into them. A green border outlines the false proscenium, with many bulbs that flash on and off when needed. (The terrific lighting is by Jason Lyons.) This is Beowulf Boritt’s attractively designed metatheatrical background for what turns out to be an occasionally entertaining but disappointingly overdone two-man musical  about a murder investigation (book by Joe Kinosian and Kellen Blair, lyrics by Mr. Blair, and music by Mr. Kinosian).

The McGinn/Cazale Theatre, at Second Stage Uptown, on Broadway and W. 76th Street.
            Only a piano is used for the songs, but it is played with over-zealous show biz virtuosity by the two stars, Jeff Blumenkrantz, who enacts all the suspects, and Brett Ryback, who portrays Marcus, the investigator. The piano playing is woven into the physical staging, as the actors play on it both in turn and in tandem, not only while singing but to provide musically accented background to the action in which they themselves never stop participating. At the end, as a coda, the actors move a mirror into place to reflect their hand movements during a medley of complex playing.

            MURDER FOR TWO is a spoof of Agatha Christie-type murder mysteries and the game of CLUE, with the earnest but sometimes stumbling young plainclothes cop (who, in Mr. Ryback, suggests a cross between a young Rob Lowe and Billy Crudup), interrogating a series of eccentric characters in a wealthy New England home; true to the genre, even he himself becomes a suspect. Mr. Blumenkrantz, whose multiple roles require protean powers, is tall, lanky, and bald, characteristics he works hard to exploit. To jump from role to role, which he seemingly accomplishes sometimes in midsentence, he may don a pair of round-rimmed glasses, put them on his forehead, hold his hands a certain way, alter his voice or accent, change his posture, use an identifying hat or prop (like a pink silk scarf or feather boa), and so on.  Everything is played at racing speed; the actors must have little body fat left at the end of the show. Pantomime creates most of the props, including using two fingers to “shoot” someone, and there are excellently executed sound effects (by the ubiquitous Jill BC Du Boff) to heighten the presence of the invisible props, as when something drops. For some reason, though, the sound of a cell phone ringing (the trigger for Mr. Blumenkrantz to give dirty looks at the audience as if it comes from them) sounds more like a landline phone than a cell. Visible props are scarce, but memorable, especially a suitcase that opens to reveal severed body parts.

            The plot has Marcus Moscowicz investigating the shooting death of “great American novelist” Arthur Whitney, whose body is presumably lying on stage amidst his many famous books; their titles are often used for punning jokes. Marcus is a policeman who thinks he will be promoted to detective if he solves the case in the hour before the real detective arrives, and therefore passes himself off to the suspects as if he already holds the rank. Constantly citing (or singing about) “protocol,” Marcus narrates the action while engaged in it. The stereotypical suspects include Barrette Lewis, a ballerina; Dahlia, the victim’s Southern belle wife; Dr. Griff, a gruff psychiatrist (who is also Marcus’s shrink); a nastily bickering old couple, Barb and Murray (Murray accuses Barb of being the killer); a dozen mischievous choir boys with Brooklyn accents, there to sing at the dead man’s birthday party, and performed by Mr. Blumenkrantz on his knees; and Steph, a niece who is writing a thesis called “How to Assist in the Solving of a Small-Town Murder.” Everybody has a motive for wanting Whitney dead (he exposed their secrets in his books), complicating the investigation but mirroring classic murder stories. There will be other deaths before the evening ends (an audience member is recruited to play a second corpse), and, of course, the murderer is not who you might have chosen yourself (that is, if you’re able to keep up with or remain interested in the many deliberately squiggly plot developments).

            Mr. Kinosian’s music is mainly rhythmic support for Mr. Blair’s rapid-fire and often very clever lyrics, and many of the songs are more in the telling-the-story vein than extended numbers dealing with a theme. But these also have their place, and I particularly would like to hear “A Friend like You” (I think that’s its title) again. Mr. Kinosian’s book is in the Marx Brothers style of anything-goes silliness, often surrealistically so, always in search of a cheap guffaw.  An early example is when a character calls the police and dials Domino’s Pizza instead, even reciting the seven-digit, so-clearly-not-911 number, and doesn’t hang up until ordering pizza for the assembled witnesses.

            There’s a lot going on in this 90-minute tour de farce, and the actors do everything in their power to achieve its many technical demands, but, despite Scott Schwartz’s usually inventive staging, he hasn’t been able (or perhaps is unwilling) to tamp down the frequent shouting, which, especially in the case of Mr. Blumenkrantz, often borders on the shrill and charmless. And shrill ain't funny. The effect is of an overly extended vaudeville sketch, taken beyond its limits, with two talented singer-actor-pianists demonstrating their theatrical dexterity and versatility. These actors have those qualities; what’s missing is the “x” factor that makes good farce hilarious, not just occasionally amusing.

            MURDER FOR TWO doesn't pack enough comic heat to be a killer.  

Friday, July 26, 2013

62. Review of JEZEBEL AND ME (July 25, 2013)



Earlier this year the Atlantic Theater Company produced Craig Lucas’s THE LYING LESSON, which dramatized a situation in which the eccentric movie star Bette Davis decided to purchase a house in a small town in Maine. It was 1981, Davis was 73, and her career was on the wane. Carol Kane played Davis in a doomed attempt to capture the outsized star’s notable mannerisms of voice and gesture. This is what I wrote:

A good deal of time is occupied with Davis reciting Hollywood anecdotes, especially when she can push verbal pins into Joan Crawford, her filmic rival in WHATEVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE. Cinema buffs with a taste for the campier efforts of Davis and Crawford’s twilight years might enjoy these reminiscences, but the chances are they’d find them passé. Perhaps if Carol Kane’s portrayal of Davis the diva were more authentic, the piece might at least have had performative—if not dramaturgical—excitement, but, alas, all that Ms. Kane shares with the flamboyantly dramatic movie star are large eyes and short stature. Her voice, diction, gestures, and general behavior are entirely wrong, and if you’re at all familiar with the original, you’ll be unable throughout the otherwise monotonous proceedings to accept the performance on its own terms, since without at least a believable replica of the original, there’s nothing else to grab on to here.

Now, Elizabeth Fuller’s autobiographical two-hander, ME AND JEZEBEL, originally produced Off Broadway (15 performances at the Actors Theatre in 1994), has been revived at the Snapple Theatre Center; those Bette Davis eyes, made even more prominent by the huge black-rimmed eyeglasses she wore in her later years, are on view in another unsuccessful stab at bringing the screen diva back to life.  Much of what I wrote above can be applied to this endeavor, a dramatization by Ms. Fuller of her own best-selling book (ME AND JEZEBEL: WHEN BETTE DAVIS CAME FOR DINNER . . . AND STAYED . . . AND STAYED . . . AND STAYED . . AND . . .) about a time in 1985 when the 77-year-old actress, needing a place to work on her memoirs during a New York hotel strike, stayed at Ms. Fuller’s home in Westport, Connecticut, saying it would only be for a day or two, but remaining for 32 days. Reportedly, the play has been performed over the past two decades in Prague, Slovakia, Munich, Edinburgh, Warsaw, Athens, Sydney, Melbourne, and Brazil.

            Bette Davis’s flamboyant persona has always attracted the attention of drag artists, so it is not surprising to note that, in ME AND JEZEBEL, she is performed by a man, Kelly Moore. In the current revival of THE SILVER CORD, at St. Clements, Mrs. Phelps, the leading character, is also being played by a man, a highly distracting casting choice for a role in a serious drama specifically written for a woman. In ME AND JEZEBEL, Davis’s role is written to exploit her noted tics and purported fondness for bitchy one-liners, the kind of things drag specialists love to play, although an actress, Louise DuArt, noted for her celebrity impressions, played the part in 1994. (In fact, she replaced a man, Randy Allen, who became ill and passed away.)  Mr. Moore—who creates a passable enough resemblance to Davis with makeup, wig, and costume—is far too feeble an actor to sustain more than the most shallow level of believability. His attempts to capture Davis’s distinctive accent, timing, and hand and body movements are unconvincing; his breathing is erratic, he is physically awkward, and he seems unable even to hold a cigarette correctly. It’s likely that the director, Marc S. Graham (who staged the 1994 original), is to blame, but, except for one or two instances, whenever Davis has to smoke, which—given her nicotine habit—is often, Mr. Moore merely flicks his lighter and fake-lights his cigarette, then fake-smokes it. (His costar, Ms. Fuller, does the same.) And when he pours himself a drink, he fake-pours non-existent alcohol from an empty bottle, and fake-drinks from an empty glass. This, of course, is the height of amateurism, and it pervades too much of the performance.

            Ms. Fuller plays herself. In the 1994 version, Ms. Fuller she did the same. I assume she’s performed the role many times since but I will refrain from commenting on her development as an actor.

           Her play, despite its being based on a true experience, seems designed to exploit all the familiar Davis-isms, including the same tired Crawford references peppered throughout THE LYING LESSON. Davis, like Sheridan Whiteside in THE MAN WHO CAME TO DINNER, is the demanding celebrity guest who needs constant attention and turns the host’s home life upside down. Ms. Fuller is a self-described Bette Davis idolator, so the opportunity to be the star’s hostess, even at the expense of tension with Ms. Fuller’s reluctant husband, is not to be missed. However, for all her sincerity, her character seems uncomfortably sycophantic. There are, of course, heartwarming moments, stemming partly from the efforts of Ms. Fuller (who claims psychic abilities) to channel her late grandmother, Old Ma, and Davis’s late mother, Ruthie; the friendship Davis forms with Fuller’s four-year-old son, Christopher; and a charming letter of gratitude the star writes when she finally leaves. There is no coda about any subsequent relationship between Davis, who died four years later, and Ms. Fuller, and one suspects there was none.

            The core event dramatized here will be of some interest to those who remember Bette Davis’s contributions to screen acting, and who share in the nostalgia for the golden age of Hollywood. For serious theatre fans, however, they’d be better off revisiting Davis’s great performances on TCM. JEZEBEL would be a good place to start.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

61. Review of CIRQUE DE SOLEIL: QUIDAM (July 24, 2013)



I took my 19-year-old granddaughter to this touring production of the Cirque de Soleil’s QUIDAM, which premiered in 1996, and is the ninth show in the Cirque’s remarkable history. It would have been nice if we had been able to fly through the air on ropes, rings, or draperies while searching for the appropriate “will call” desk to pick up our press tickets at Brooklyn’s gigantic Barclays Center, and to have leapt, cartwheeled, or flipped over the ubiquitous security guards searching bags and scanning bodies with wands. My granddaughter had never seen a Cirque de Soleil show before; a college cheerleader, she was delighted with the show’s often astonishing acrobatics, and had a thoroughly good time. I had some reservations.

            If you’ve ever seen a Cirque show, you’ll know what to expect in QUIDAM. Eerie, Middle Eastern-sounding music with lyrics in a mysterious, made-up language; incredible sound and lighting effects, with smoke machines going full blast; a series of superb acrobatic acts, including eye-popping aerial stunts and balancing routines, all of them displaying not only the unbelievable things the human body is capable of, but doing so with atmospherics designed to enhance the sheer beauty of the human form. There are, of course, oddball clowns and even a theme that presumably ties everything together, but I doubt that anyone really pays much attention to these elements, which serve merely to provide a thin veneer of context to the sequence of awesome presentations. For an overview of the kind of themes and acts involved, I suggest you check the Wikipedia entry on the show:

            Unlike Cirque's recent TOTEM, seen in a tent erected on the Citi Field grounds this spring, QUIDAM is being presented in huge arenas, like Barclays Center, and the show--at least at this venue--is less effective as a result. Our seats were pretty good, or would have been for a Nets game, but the stage seemed to be in a galaxy far, far away, with the faces of the performers indistinguishable from one another. Often, we were unable to tell who was male and who female. The vast space of the arena tends to depersonalize the performances when you can’t see the performers’ expressions. At TOTEM, performers roamed the aisles at certain moments. Not so here. Binoculars would be a useful item to bring along if you’re going, even if you think you’ll be fairly close.

The technical effects and costumes are less spectacular than those in TOTEM, which had particularly remarkable projections that remain embedded in my memory. There’s a very funny sketch toward the end during which three spectators are pulled from the audience to participate, hilariously, in the making of a silent movie set in a Wild West saloon. This seems to be a standard routine, however, since it also is used in OLD HATS, the Bill Irwin-David Shiner comic revue recently at the Signature Theatre. I don’t know who originated it, but its originality can certainly be questioned.

I’m not a basketball fan so it’s unlikely I would ever have visited Barclays Center were it not for a show like QUIDAM, even though this super-arena sits in a part of downtown Brooklyn very familiar to me from my childhood. (The huge box stores across the street on Atlantic Avenue used to be the locale of a major wholesale meat market where my father purchased goods for his butcher shop in the 1950s.) As this show demonstrates, however, filling so huge a space with a non-sporting event is a daunting challenge; even with large sections closed off, there still were many empty seats. I’m probably more grateful for the opportunity to have seen the place than to have seen QUIDAM, but my granddaughter was more excited about the show. After all, she’d already seen two basketball games at Barclays.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

60. Review of DANCING ON NAILS (July 23, 2013)



America, of course, is once more having “a national conversation on race,” a conversation that never seems to end. I had my own private conversation about the subject last night as I rode home on the A train from DANCING ON NAILS, a play by Paul Manuel Kane, at Theatre 80 St. Marks, in the East Village. An African-American woman, in what I imagine to be her mid-60s, was having a spirited but polite conversation with a young white man in his early 20s in the seat before me. This combination alone, even in today’s generally liberated climate, raised my curiosity, but when the young man soon got off the train and I took his seat, I quickly realized that he did not know the woman, since she immediately engaged me in conversation as well. The only people with whom I’ve had such an experience on the train have tended to be drunk or otherwise unstable, but this lady was simply a pleasantly garrulous individual who liked to talk. Before long, the conversation somehow turned to race, including my saying how unlikely it was that she and I would have been chatting on the subway like this when we were young. I was prompted to say this because DANCING ON NAILS concerns the relationship between a white man and a black woman in 1953 New York. I then recounted the basic plot to the woman.

            Sam Heisler (Peter Van Wagner) is a 50-year-old Jewish bachelor who lives in the Bronx but owns a successful hardware store in Greenwich Village. His bookkeeper, who manages the store, is his 38-year-old sister, Rose Levitt (Lori Wilner), who lives rent-free in a basement apartment provided for her by Sam. Her somewhat loutish husband, Joe (Michael Lewis), is a cab driver and would be clarinetist whose behavior has cost him his job, forcing him to earn what he can cleaning cabs and serving as a gofer at the taxi garage. Rose, unable to bear children, wants to adopt a child. She gets the reluctant Joe to agree but they need $15,000 to qualify for the adoption process, and their finances are too severely limited to earn it on their own. Joe insists that Rose, despite her objections, must ask her brother for the money. But Sam is in no state of mind to pay attention to his sister’s needs. He has hired a young “colored” woman, Natalie (Jazmyn Richardson), to work as his stock clerk and, as he gradually learns more about her, finds himself falling in love with her. Natalie, who needs the job but who desperately wants to study at Juilliard to become an opera singer, is unaware of Sam’s true feelings, but Rose knows them and decides to take action.    

The idea of a working-class, middle-aged, Jewish man in 1953 New York falling in love with his black employee and planning to propose to her has strong dramatic potential, although maybe not as strong as playwright Kane may believe. I was 13 in 1953 and remember well how family and friends spoke about blacks, who, even in otherwise liberal homes, were likely to be treated as second-class citizens and referred to as “shvartzes.” The subject matter of DANCING ON NAILS is enough to keep you attentive during its hour and 45 minute, intermissionless, length, but the play is simply too superficial (an example being Natalie’s fondness for MADAME BUTTERFLY, which hits us over the head with the obviousness of its mixed-race romance), its characters too stereotypical, and its few attempts at humor forced. An example of the latter is when the presumably unsophisticated Natalie visits an Italian restaurant for the first time and pronounces minestrone as “myne-strown.”

The actors still seemed to be feeling their way through the material on opening night, and the ensemble had yet to fully find its footing. Technical problems were evident in the way scenes were joined; a scene would end with an anticlimactic and poorly timed fadeout and there would be an unnecessary delay before the start of the following scene. Full disclosure: the director, Allen Lewis Rickman, is a former student of mine, best known as an outstanding actor in Yiddish-related material. I suspect his experience in the highly colored emotional theatrics of Yiddish theatre may be responsible for some of the acting choices on display, especially in the work of Peter Van Wagner, who shouts and shrugs in a way that overemphasizes Sam’s ethnic background and makes him too obnoxious for the pathos in the role to be conveyed. The best work is provided by Lori Wilner as Rose, despite the difficulty of accepting her as 38. (Equally difficult to buy is Mr. Wagner as a 50-year-old.) She brings a quiet cynicism and restrained desperation to her performance that suggests a level of reality the other actors fail to match.   

DANCING ON NAILS is an earnest attempt to come to grips with a time and place in American racial relations that is still within the living memory of many people. In today’s world, where interracial marriages, at least in certain parts of the country, are taken for granted, it may be hard for some to appreciate how far we’ve come. The lady on the train was certainly appreciative of our progress. This play serves as a useful reminder, even if watching it now and then feels a tad like what its title says. Perhaps thumbtacks would be better.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

59. Review of THE CIVIL WAR (July 19, 2013)

Left to right: Jim Stanek, Alyce Louis Alan, Adam Fontana, in THE CIVIL WAR.


An hour and a half after leaving WANDA’S MONSTER near Union Square, I was sitting at the Lucille Lortel watching another play aimed at kids, but this one was for somewhat older ones and its subject was a real monster, America’s Civil War. Arthur Perlman’s THE CIVIL WAR, a small but ambitious musical recounting the horrendous conflict that saw America at war with itself in the 1860s, may have “education” written all over it, but, for all the horrors it depicts, it turns out to be a damned good show. Maybe too good for its own sake, since a one-hour musical about a conflict that took well over 600,000 lives is not necessarily something you want to walk out of with a lighter step than when you went in.

            Provided free to children (grades 3 to 9 are aimed at) as part of a special program by the excellent Theatreworks company, THE CIVIL WAR--a touring show in its New York premiere--uses a cast of only five multitalented performers, four men and a woman, to cover the war’s history. That history is embedded in the personal stories of a runaway slave, Zac (Max Kumangai), who goes to war for the Union army; his former owner’s son, Will (Adam Fontana), once his boyhood pal, who fights for the South; a girl, Jackie (Alyce Alan Lewis), who so wants to join the Confederate army that she enlists as a drummer boy, hiding her gender; and an Irish immigrant named Johnny (Jim Stanek) who joins the Union army.  

            Most of the music is traditional, including “Father Abraham,” “Dixie,” “Free at Last,” “The Fighting 69,” and “When Johnny Comes Marching Home Again,” but, strangely, “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” is omitted. An energetic new song, "The Tale of the Blue and Gray," credited to Jeff Lunden (music) and  Arthur Perlman (lyrics), is seamlessly woven into the show's musical fabric. The music is cleverly integrated with the highly episodic book, which encompasses, sometimes tongue-in-cheek, the principal highlights of the five-year hostilities. A running theme is the repeated attempts of the Union army to capture Richmond, Virginia, with one famous general after the other—all portrayed by the Falstaffian Michael Thomas Walker (who also gives us a rotund Lincoln) as fatuous braggarts—until the appearance of Ulysses S. Grant. To illustrate the progress of certain major battles, a wall map is used on which magnetized Northern or Southern flags are placed over the named locales.

Jim Stanek (left) and Michael Thomas Walker in THE CIVIL WAR.

            Although each actor has a principal role, they also play others, switching from gray to blue civil war caps to indicate which side their characters are on. They perform with sprightly energy, sing effectively, move in well-imagined choreographic patterns (created by Tracy Bersley), and even do an Irish jig at one point. The company works fluidly as a true ensemble and deserves warm plaudits for its enthusiasm and sincerity. The performances don’t seek subtlety, but manage nonetheless to be truthful and convincing even when their roles sometimes border on the cartoonish; one amusing scene, for instance, has two male actors playing women wearing hoop skirts, but with only the hoops showing and not the skirts.
Left to right: Adam Fontana, Jim Stanek, Michael Thomas Walker in THE CIVIL WAR.
            Director Jonathan Silverstein must be given a tip of the hat (regardless of its color) for bringing this potentially problematic material to life with imaginative flair on an essentially bare stage. Designer Kevin Judge furnishes the space with just a few crate-like boxes and four vertical panels on wheels, seen at first with a rough painting of the Stars and Stripes linking them together. During the action they are maneuvered into intriguing new combinations, and their surfaces provide flaps and openings that allow for additional visual interest. They can also be tilted and used in battle as tank-like weapons. Sydney Maresca’s costumes, deceptively simple, allow the characters to remain strictly in period while adding additional accents when needed to suggest the differing characters wearing them. Half a dozen poles serve as universal props, being brooms, guns, or carrying poles as needed. Tying the visual elements together into a truly effective whole is David Lander’s wonderfully diverse lighting, including the strobe effects he employs for several slo-mo battle scenes or the specials that illuminate a soldier who has died in combat.

            THE CIVIL WAR succeeds in squeezing an enormous amount of material into an easily digestible hour of entertaining pedagogy. The personal stories are stereotypically familiar, but they clearly dramatize the choices that some people had to make in those trying times. Despite the deaths we witness (and there are several), the tone veers toward the elegiac only momentarily, and the spirit is mostly upbeat and inspiring. This may not be true to history, but the important points are made effectively enough to register with most young people. We learn, for one thing, that despite the need for cannon fodder, the North at first refused to enlist black soldiers. “Your kind ain’t allowed,” says a recruiter, and the would-be soldier replies, “They need 300,000 and they’re showing me the door,” which surely registers with many kids. (In 1863, necessity forced a change in the law, which certainly didn’t stop anti-black feeling in the Union army.) Another important one is that not everyone in the South saw the war as having to do with the slavery issue. Many fought because they simply believed they had to defend their rights from the government’s encroachments.
Left to right; Jim Stanek, Adam Fontana, Michael Thomas Walker, and Alyce Alan Louis in THE CIVIL WAR.

Naturally, in such a reductionist piece, some standard points, necessarily or not, will be overlooked. For example, no mention is made of Lincoln’s death, not even during the postscript segment that concludes the show. And, even though Gettysburg is touched on, Lincoln’s address there is not.  There’s nothing new, of course, about carnage being the source of entertainment, and if one child in ten emerges from THE CIVIL WAR with a better idea of what transpired than they had when they went in, the show will have done its job.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

58. Review of WANDA'S MONSTER (July 19, 2013)



On Friday, July 19, at 10:30 a.m., a day before my 73rd birthday, I entered my second childhood when I visited the Vineyard Dimson Theatre on E. 15th Street to see WANDA’S MONSTER, effectively staged by Adrienne Kapstein. This is a musical version of a popular 2002 children’s book by Eileen Spinelli, with music and lyrics by Laurie Berkner and a book by Barbara Zinn Krieger. Only around 25 people were present in the audience, the majority of them preschoolers, some of them looking as if they had just popped out of the oven. TV comic actress Rachel Dratch was in my row with her tiny tot taking part in whatever little activities the actors asked of the children.

            It’s hard to critique a show like this, since it’s geared for such a young audience. Perhaps the best gauge of how well it’s working is to watch the reaction of the kids. Although this was definitely not the most clever or imaginative children’s show I’ve seen over the past year, it worked its spell just fine and, aside from the usual dashes to the bathroom, the little ones were good as gold.

            The 60-minute show, much of which is sung to sprightly pop tunes and simple lyrics (“Monster Boogie” seems to be well known), is about five-year-old Wanda (Laura Hankin, who’s actually a young woman), who talks to her stuffed animals, which she thinks are real, and who is afraid of the  monster she thinks is living in her closet. I’m sure a lot of people reading this are going to think Spinelli’s stolen their story since most of us have had similar fantasies in our early lives (and many of us still have them).  Wanda’s eight-year-old brother, Bobby (Nick Flatto, another grownup actor), is the designated cynic, and Granny (Jamie Kolnik) is her big support. No parents are visible in Wanda’s world, although we know they disapprove of her fantasies. The monster (amusingly played by James Ortiz) is a big, purple, fluffy, clumsy, shy, Maurice Sendak kind of guy, with large horns and long claws; he’s the kind of shy critter who’s more afraid of his own shadow than anyone could be of him, making him just the sort of fearsome thing that kids need to lovingly embrace if they’re going to fall asleep at night.

Bobby, unlike any 8-year-olds I’ve ever known, wears a bowtie and skinny jeans, while  Granny is unlike most grannys any kid seeing this show is likely to have met; she’s a hot-looking, Joan Jett-type biker chick rocker in zebra-striped tights and a black leather jacket. This is an innovation not in the original book, where Granny is more conventional. But she belies her image by saying things that ease Wanda’s anxieties and getting her eventually to bid her monster farewell. She also opens the show with a medley of songs accompanied by two male backup singers.

The show, presented by Making Books Sing, looks like it’s built to travel. The set is sufficient to establish we’re in Wanda’s bedroom, and the closet is a framework structure that can turn around so we can watch the monster while he’s in it. The costumes are bright and cheerful (although I wish the kids’ clothes looked more like what kids those ages really wear), and the monster makes a big impression on the tots. So if you’ve got a theatergoer in the making around, you might want to boogie him or her down to see the monster on E. 15th Street.

57. Review of THE DESIGNATED MOURNER (July 18, 2013)



There is some very interesting chatter going on in the Shiva Theatre, on the first floor of the Public Theatre. The chatter is embedded in, or should I say embodies most of, THE DESIGNATED MOURNER, Wallace Shawn’s play, which originally was staged at London’s Royal Court Theatre in 1996, had its New York premiere in a South William Street venue seating only 20, and, with the same three actors from that production, is now being revived in front of 99. The play is in two acts, and, the night I saw it, enough people to fill all the seats at the 2000 performance had departed after the first act, which lasts about an hour and 45 minutes. Even before that, after only half an hour or so, two men clomped out noisily, making me wonder if Mr. Shawn, watching them go from his seat on stage in the role of Jack, might offer some comment, much as he had when a couple of latecomers arrived about 10 minutes into the show. He told those people not to be too concerned, that nothing much had happened, and that he’d merely been talking about this and that to the audience before they arrived. No one else came late, but had they, even toward the end of the three-hour performance, Mr. Shawn could almost as easily have said the same thing, i.e., that nothing much had happened and he’d merely been talking to the audience about this and that. But therein lies the rub, since you must pay attention in order to appreciate that more than this and that is being said. The problem is that the style of the writing and performance can easily deter the kind of strict attention the material requires.  

            THE DESIGNATED MOURNER does have a plot, more or less, and concerns three people living in an unnamed country, possibly Latin American, under a dictatorial rule. The political activities in the background are never made precisely clear. When the conservative government begins to fear an uprising by guerrilla forces, it purges thousands of citizens, imprisoning and executing many intellectuals, regardless of how tenuous their relationship to the rebels. Jack is a disaffected English professor, his father-in-law is a noted poet named Howard (Larry Pine), who wrote on politics in his youth, and then there is Jack’s ghostlike wife, Judy (Deborah Eisenberg), her sharply angled face wearing eerie whitish makeup with her lips brightly reddened; Jack has cut himself off from Judy and Howard, even taking up with Peg, a lemonade stand girl. Jack considers Howard a “highbrow” and fears the elimination of “lowbrow” culture if the revolution succeeds. He recounts how he expressed his growing disdain for highbrow culture by defecating on a book of John Donne’s poetry. Howard and Judy meet their demise, leaving only Jack, who is not unhappy to see their loss and who remains as the designated mourner, the one who remembers those no longer with us, in this case the effete artist-intellectuals who did nothing to assert their responsibility in their oppressive society.

Wallace Shawn and Deborah Eisenberg in THE DESIGNATED MOURNER.

Described thusly, the play would seem to demand some sort of dramatic action, but Shawn deliberately avoids providing it. What we learn of the political background comes out in long, discursive monologues, only occasionally broken by flashback conversation, with the characters speaking, for the most part, directly to the audience. The actors sit in chairs or on a double bed upstage. Movement is minimal. No one raises their voice, the tone remains civilized and conversational, and a fundamental sincerity is conveyed, but never in a confrontational or overtly emotional way. When the evening ends, if you’ve stuck it out, you may be hard put to isolate clearly what on earth you’d been listening to for so long. You might take away some thoughts on complacency in a totalitarian society where the elite are allowed to survive until they come to be seen as a potential threat; you may wish to meditate on the difference between highbrow and lowbrow culture, and what this means for society; you may contemplate the idea of intellectuals struggling unsuccessfully to stay above the fray in a fascist dictatorship; but no real effort is made to make this or any other point the play’s driving force. You come to the theatre, you listen to the chatter, and you go home, either to go over in your mind what you’ve just experienced or to simply move on to something else. To emphasize the casual nature of the experience, Mr. Shawn simply walks off through a door at the end, waving goodbye. He then reappears on the auditorium floor to again wave the audience home. There is no curtain call.
Wallace Shawn, Larry Pine, and Deborah Eisenberg in THE DESIGNATED MOURNER.

With three superb actors speaking the words (and Mr. Pine, Mr. Shawn, and Ms. Eisenberg are definitely that), the majority of them delivered by the always affably entertaining and incisively acidic Mr. Shawn, there is definitely enough here for some audiences. Those who saw the earlier New York performance (with the same cast and director, André Gregory) were reportedly absorbed in the venue’s living room-like ambience, where they were like guests invited to share in their hosts’ rambling ruminations.  In the larger space of the Shiva, intimate as it is for most purposes, that sense of communal interplay—at least to someone who missed the 2000 version—seems lost. The seating is on bleachers, with the all the chairs covered in white cotton slipcovers, their numbers stenciled on in black. They face a wide stage on which John Lee Beatty’s set presents walls painted to resemble concrete slabs, much as in a prison (a motif continued into the auditorium), and there are doors at both sides of the stage, as well as a window at stage right suggesting an odd jumble of windowpanes. There are a few pieces of furniture, dominated by a double bed at center. In one of the few modest pieces of staging, all three characters sit or lie on the bed, which is where Howard, presumably ill, remains most of the time. In act two, with Howard gone, the bed and most other furnishings are piled together under a gray cloth against the rear wall.

Apparently, to make sure we don’t miss anything, each actor wears a mic that is placed on him or her by a stage assistant in full view of the audience. In act two, standing mics are used. The effect may be intended to heighten the self-dramatization of the speeches, although I did appreciate the enhanced audibility of the speaking.  

To a certain extent, logorrhea can be engrossing when, as is the case here, what is being said is clever enough, but when the pacing and performance style resist traditional theatrics over an extended time period, boredom and restlessness are sooner or later bound to arrive. If your appetite runs in this direction, you will find enough here to satisfy you. I was only half-satisfied.