Saturday, September 28, 2013

105. Review of NATURAL AFFECTION (September 28, 2013)


In 1963, leading American playwright William Inge’s NATURAL AFFECTION opened on Broadway with a sterling cast led by Kim Stanley as Sue Barker; Harry Guardino as her lover, Bernie Slovenk; and Tom Bosley as their raucous, alcoholic friend and neighbor, Vince Brinkman. Rising young British director Tony Richardson (recently married to Vanessa Redgrave) staged the play. A newspaper strike reportedly hurt the show’s publicity but the negative critical reaction was probably even more damaging, and the play lasted only 36 performances. Howard Taubman in the New York Times faulted the play for being contrived, lacking plausible characters, and having a hollowness in its central relationship between Sue and her teenage son, Donnie (Gregory Rozakias). One is tempted to imagine that the performances, especially that of the great Ms. Stanley, were at least worth the price of admission, but they, too, met with a negative response.
Kathryn Erbe and Chris Bert. Photo: Marielle Solan.

           A decade later an Off Broadway theatre on the 15th floor of a building at W. 46th in the Broadway district gave the play its first New York revival, one of the very few it has received anywhere over the years. Directed by Israel Hicks, it had no major stars (Sandra Seacat played Sue and Nathan George was Bernie) and another Times critic, this one named Howard Thompson,  reviewed it very positively, saying Inge, who had just committed suicide, “would have watched it with quiet satisfaction.” He noted that “A play, which when read seems merely to arrange unappetizing people and clanging sexual frustrations, now comes to life strongly and vividly, perhaps for the first time.” He also observed, in a note redolent of the time, that the role of Sue’s lover was being played by a black actor, which he said “rates, admirably, no elaboration.” (Director Hicks also was black.) Perhaps, at this moment, the play somehow illuminated the hopelessness and despair that had led Inge, an alcoholic and a homosexual in a homophobic world, to take his own life.

            NATURAL AFFECTION, in a production directed for TACT by Jenn Thompson at the Beckett Theatre, has returned to New York for its first revival since 1973. (Several reviews, including the one in the New York Post, mistakenly claim the 1963 premiere to have been the play's first and last New York production before this one.) Kathryn Erbe is Sue, Alec Beard is Bernie, John Pankow is Vince, and Chris Bert is Donnie. Apart from Mr. Pankow’s standout performance, the production falters seriously and the play brings to mind Taubman's original critique. The sad thing is that, as Thompson’s review reveals, the play, while seriously problematic, requires someone with the right key to open its lock.

            Inge, previously preoccupied with small-town Midwestern life in 1950S classics like PICNIC, BUS STOP, COME BACK LITTLE SHEBA, and THE DARK AT THE TOP OF THE STAIRS, turned to the Chicago urban scene for NATURAL AFFECTION, being especially concerned with the rash of violence in the news that made city life at the time so disturbing. His play seeks to root out the source of such acts by depicting a domestic situation that reflects the changes being experienced in contemporary social relations. The heroine, Sue, is on the cusp of these changes, being a successful department store buyer who had placed her baby boy in an orphanage (the father, a bellhop, had run off) only for him to grow up as a troublemaker and be sent to reform school (a.k.a. "work farm") for stealing a car and assaulting a woman.

            Sue, unusual for the time, lives openly with Bernie, a younger man who has trouble earning a decent living. A male chauvinist, he refuses to marry Sue because he’s embarrassed by the inequality between them. Sue, in fact, pays the rent on the handsome apartment they share; he also happens to be carrying on with Vince’s floozy wife, Claire (Victoria Mack). When Sue’s son, Donnie, is allowed home on leave, with the possibility of not having to return if his mother takes him in for the year that would end his incarceration, a dangerous triangle emerges; at the points are the resentful, pitiless Bernie; the unstable, troubled Donnie; and the confused Sue, who tries to make up for her years of neglectful motherhood by smothering her son with “natural affection”; her behavior eventuates in Donnie’s putting an incestuous move on her.

          Further drama is injected into this troubled little world by Vince, who makes good money but is in trouble over his taxes. Vince, who knows full well Claire’s relationship with Bernie, also is burdened by repressed homosexual longings, hinted at in the second act when, smashed to the gills, he carries on outrageously as he and his wife prepare to go out to the Playboy Club on Christmas Eve with Bernie and Sue. As the tensions surrounding him gradually increase, Donnie loses control in a sudden act of extreme violence.

            All this sexual, alcoholic, and incestuous carrying on clearly brings to mind the work of Inge’s friend, Tennessee Williams, whose SWEET BIRD OF YOUTH is alluded to satirically; Vince refers several times to Chance Wayne’s castration by recalling how they “cut off his paraphernalia.” But Inge’s writing here is coarser and less poetic than that in Williams’s plays, too much of the plotting is contrived and melodramatic (especially toward the end), the dialogue is often clichéd (Sue to her juvenile delinquent son: “Now run along like a good boy”), and the subtextual acting required to cover up the dialogue's artificiality is sorely lacking.

            The actors, most noticeably the usually reliable Ms. Erbe, play only the surface of their roles, making it hard to accept the motives driving their behavior. Director Jenn Thompson, as my theatre companion, an experienced theatre director noted, fails to get the company to focus on the reality of their conflicts, and, with everything seeming rushed, doesn’t create textured performances with effective pacing and nuance. Mr. Pankow, so good as the loudmouthed TV producer on HBO’s “Episodes,” plays a not dissimilar but far more varied role here; he has little to do in act one, but in his big second act scene he manages to go way overboard playing the boorish, drunken clown yet never loses his sense of truth; when he calms down and has an intimate scene with Bernie, sitting on the edge of a bed, his disgust with his life is palpable; with his line, “It’s awful hard for two men to show that they like each other,” we feel his quiet desperation.

            Design-wise, we are once again in a typical stage apartment, this one created by John McDermott, abetted by the wide space of the Beckett stage, which allows for a bedroom at stage right, a living room with upstage kitchen at center, and a hallway at left showing the entrance to the Brinkmans’ apartment. The set has an unconvincing cheapness, most obvious in the thin, wooden door of Sue and Bernie’s apartment, and the not very well painted stripes on the hallway wallpaper. Original music, used in the 1963 production (and considered one of the show’s few highlights), is eschewed in favor of moody jazz recordings; Toby Algya’s sound design includes some recognizable pop tunes played at extreme volume levels by teenage Donnie on the record player, including James Brown’s “I Feel Good,” although I wonder if that's what this particular white boy would have been listening to in the early 1960s. David Toser’s costumes, in the “Mad Men” vein, are unexceptional, and some of Donnie’s clothes are questionable for a kid of his age; I was there, so I know. And, unless it can be argued that Sue is an orthodox Jew, wig designer Robert Charles Valance should have to wear Ms. Erbe's sheitl himself when she's not using it.  

            I wish I had a more affectionate response to this revival. I can understand how the play stumbled in its first production. But I wish I knew a bit more about just what Thompson saw that made that 1973 version work.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

104. Review of PHILIP GOES FORTH (September 26, 2013)



During the 1920s George Kelly was one of America’s most promising playwrights, his first three Broadway plays being THE TORCHBEARERS (1923), THE SHOW-OFF (1924), and the Pulitzer Prize-winning CRAIG’S WIFE, each of them made into movies (including remakes); these plays, especially the first two, continue to be revived. Subsequently, Kelly (uncle of movie star Grace Kelly) found it hard to sustain this level of success, and, after a rather unfair appraisal of PHILIP GOES FORTH (1931) from New York Times critic Brooks Atkinson, he didn’t write another Broadway play until 1936, and after that not until the mid-1940s; none of his later plays were hits. He often wrote about the theatre and about self-centered people who need to learn the truth about their deficiencies. Now, the Mint Theatre, which stakes its reputation on the revival of forgotten plays, has attempted to breathe new life into PHILIP GOES FORTH, but the production fails to do much more than locate an erratic pulse. There’s still life in the old play, but, a few moments aside, it would require a larger shot of artistic adrenaline than is injected here to make it stand up and dance.

From left: Bernardo Cubria, Cliff Bemis, and Christine Toy Johnson. Photo: Rahav Segev.

Carole Healey (left) and Christine Toy Johnson. Photo: Rahav Segev.
            When originally produced, it was deemed a didactic satirical comedy. Commonweal critic Richard Dana Skinner called “a happy if uninspired comment on that youthful egotism which expresses itself in a desire to run away from practical affairs and ‘do something significant.’” The youth alluded to is Philip Eldridge (Bernardo Cubria), 23-year-old son of the millionaire businessman Mr. Eldridge (Cliff Bemis), who lives in an unspecified city 500 miles from New York. Philip works for his dad, and shows every sign of being as able a businessman as he, but son and father clash when Philip, influenced by the advice of friends, decides he wants to go to New York and become a playwright. The time is early in the Depression (the play has a single reference to “the Crash”), when people are happy to have a job, any job, but Philip is willing to chuck it all rather than finding time to write during his free time from his cushy position. His worried but maternally compassionate Aunt Marian (Christine Toy Johnson) supports him (there is no mention of his mother), and he also receives grudging approval from the flamboyant matron Mrs. Oliver (Carole Healey), who once wrote a play herself, and much stronger backing from her daughter, Cynthia (Natalie Kuhn); Cynthia loves him and naively believes, without ever having seen a word he’s written, that he must be a wonderful writer.

Bernardo Cubria and Natalie Kuhn. Photo: Rahav Segev.

He cuts his ties to his unhappy father and moves to New York where the residents at his boarding house include a depressed pianist-composer, Haines (Brian Keith MacDonald); a pretty, eccentric young poetess, Miss Krail (Rachel Mouton); and his offbeat, insincere old college friend, Mr. Shronk (Teddy Bergman), who has a hand in Philip’s writing. The landlady, Miss Ferris (Kathryn Kates), was once one of America’s leading stage stars. Philip, who has true business ability, is succeeding very well at a job not unlike the one he had with his father, and also has managed to write a play, although we learn from Mrs. Ferris that he hasn’t been at his typewriter for some time. She takes a close interest in her residents and, with brutal honesty, ultimately lets Philip know how talentless he is. His aunt, Mrs. Oliver, and Cynthia show up at the boarding house, followed by Mr. Eldridge; can reconciliation be far behind?  

Philip says at one point that his plays will be about life and avoid typical happy endings; in the sense that he fails at his goal PHILIP GOES FORTH’s ending could be considered unhappy. But Philip’s dilettantism and immaturity is so clear from the start that—barring a specifically satirical purpose—it would have defied belief to have him succeed as a dramatist. So the ending is, indeed, conventionally happy and sentimental, especially when Philip’s father, so resistant to his son’s becoming a playwright, makes one of those close-to-the curtain revelations designed to make you feel warm and cozy about the gruffer examples human nature.

Bernardo Cubria (left) and Teddy Bergman. Photo: Rahav Segev.

The play is not especially dated, and its characters and situations remain generally plausible, if stereotypical, with much of the dialogue smart and listenable. The Mint’s production manages to maintain an audience’s interest through some decent performances, appropriate pacing, and fluid movement, but the effort falls short of artistic success. Only two performances exceed the familiar stock company level so common at Off Broadway revival houses—Natalie Kuhn as the sweet and optimistic Cynthia, who makes you sympathize with the disappointment she will feel when she eventually discovers Philip’s literary ineptitude, and Cliff Bemis, whose convincing ease and honesty as Mr. Eldridge avoids making him a pompously unappealing patriarch.

Bernardo Cubria (left) and Cliff Bemis. Photo: Rahav Segev.

Kathryn Kates (replacing Jennifer Harmon shortly before the show opened) as the former Broadway star, Mrs. Ferris, has a cynical, Thelma Ritter-like earthiness that seems out of character for a former stage star, who should be grander and more theatrical. Carole Healey’s wealthy socialite, Mrs. Oliver, brings colorful vivacity to her scenes, but her British accent is too stagey and reminiscent of those used by moneyed matrons in early 30s movies. Teddy Bergman as Mr. Shronk offers an oddball performance without any lifelike qualities, and Bernardo Cubria makes Philip a petulant, charmless, spoiled brat. While director Jerry Ruiz’s staging is generally effective, he needs to have worked more closely with his actors to shave off their artificial edges and reach more deeply into their hearts.  

Steven C. Kemp has designed two substantial sets for the Mint’s tiny stage, which often surprises with how far it can go under such limited circumstances. His first act set of an all white formal living room is eye-catching, but the obtrusively bright green room he conjures for the boarding house parlor is both garish and unconvincing. Carisa Kelly’s costumes aren’t able to overcome budgetary obstacles; too many have a make-do lack of authenticity. Christian DeAngelis’s lighting is effective, especially the gobos he uses in act one to suggest sunlight hitting the rear wall through unseen arched windows.

Despite these drawbacks in the Mint’s realization, the play displays a stage worthiness that should tempt other companies looking to revive little-known plays by once important dramatists. (Another example on the horizon is William Inge’s NATURAL AFFECTION, which I’m seeing Saturday. ) You’ll need to go forth to PHILIP GOES FORTH, though, to see if you agree.    

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

103. MR. BURNS: A POST-ELECTRIC PLAY (September 24, 2013)



Imagine that the world’s nuclear power plants have suffered some form of apocalyptic meltdown and that electricity is no longer available. People will have to find alternative means by which to survive, of course, but whatever innovations they create to get by will not, simply on a practical basis, be enough because survival without pop culture would be too depressing. In Anne Washburne’s MR. BURNS: A POST-ELECTRIC PLAY, at Playwrights Horizons, the post-apocalyptic cultural standard is  TV’s long-running, socially aware, cartoon series “The Simpsons,” which the characters struggle to reconstruct from memory. If, like me, you're only faintly familiar with this show (nothing against it, just a matter of time!), you’re going to be at a serious loss when watching MR. BURNS, even though it has many things that you might find theatrically innovative and witty.

            The play begins at night around a campfire somewhere in New England where a handful of survivors are occupying themselves remembering the lines from a “Simpsons” episode. (Reportedly, this is how the show's creation began, with the company--called the Civilians--doing something similar.) One, in particular, Matt (Matthew Maher), has the best recall, but keeps stumbling over key lines. A man named Gibson (Gibson Frazier) wanders in and, after being held at gunpoint until he demonstrates his peaceful intent, engages in a back and forth as the others seek to know if he has any knowledge of friends and family whose fates are unknown. He also soon is able to participate usefully in their “Simpsons” exercise, and adds the extra skill of being familiar with Gilbert and Sullivan, some of whose songs, like “Three Little Maids from School,” will figure in the action. All of this is played more or less straightforwardly and shows promise of developing in interesting directions.

            The next scene is seven years later, and the action is set in an abandoned factory building  where the same people are now a full-blown theatre troupe energetically rehearsing their reconstructed “Simpsons” episode. There is still no electricity, so they must use natural light and candles for illumination. Their survival seems to be dependent on presenting these episodes in competition with similar troupes, and a barter system has been established for buying and selling lines and even complete episodes. The material itself keeps morphing as the actors adapt it based on their memories and proclivities. The actors also enact musical commercials and do a lengthy medley of famous pop tunes, which they dance (with fun MTV-like choreography by Sam Pinkleton) and sing around a car husk rolled in on a primitive platform. Suddenly, there is catastrophic gunfire and the act ends. This scene, while more theatrically heightened than the first because so much of it concerns performance, has a lot of excellent material, but by now the Simpsons thing is beginning to wear thin and it’s becoming unclear where everything is headed. Still, some elements of a plot remain.

            After a 15-minute intermission (the play runs 2 hours and 10 minutes), we are 75 years in the future, and the entire set is that of a stage with an old-fashioned false proscenium within which the set proper shows the stern of a houseboat. (The talented designer is Neil Patel.) Whatever plot the first act may have suggested is gone. We never learn what happened at the end of act one or what its outcome is. We are now totally in the world of theatrical production, with a full-scale performance of a musical version of the “Cape Feare” episode of “The Simpsons,” inspired by the two CAPE FEAR movies, the first starring Robert Mitchum as the bad guy and the remake with Robert De Niro in the role. (Many other cultural references pile up as the show within the show proceeds.)

            This act is performed with broad theatricality, including footlights (the lighting is by Justin Townsend) casting eerie shadows on the actors' half-masked faces (the surprising source of the lights is revealed at the very end). The Mitchum/De Niro role is enacted by Montgomery Burns (Gibson Frazier), the series villain who employs Homer Simpson (Matthew Maher) at the Springfield nuclear plant he owns; he is portrayed as a radioactive, Green Goblin-like maniac who murders the Simpson family and then, in a loudly screamed scene that goes on forever, pursues Bart (Quincy Tyler Bernstine) with a samurai sword. (Fight direction is by J. David Brimmer.) Michael Friedman’s music comes into its own here, blending recognizable TV and other tunes with original ones, creating a pastiche of the familiar and unfamiliar. The action is a mélange of theatrical styles, from Greek tragedy to melodrama to Grand Guignol to commedia dell’arte to musical comedy.

The connection between act one and act two is purely thematic, and whatever happened in act one is forgotten. Steve Cosson’s overtly “experimental” production mingles realism with out-and-out theatricality, allowing him to play with imaginative movement, lighting, costumes (by Emily Rebholz), and sets. Everything is put to use in the interests of expressing the idea of society’s need to hand on its stories as cultural artifacts that inevitably assume mythical proportions, but that keep evolving in terms of society’s needs. Or perhaps something else, as this is the kind of material that allows for multiple interpretations. Here, for example, is the playwright herself on the play's meaning:

When people ask me what this play is about—and I will be honest, I hate that question; if a play can         be summed up in one word or phrase it probably isn’t worth the time—I usually say it’s about storytelling.  Which is true.  But there are all kinds of storytelling.  There are stories we create from the air, for fun, and there are the stories which are meant to be acts of remembering.  Our culture—national, family, peer, personal—is defined, not so much by what has happened to us, but by how we remember it, and the story we create from that memory.  And since we don’t really create stories from the air—since all stories, no matter how fanciful, are in some way constructed from our experiences, real or imagined—all storytelling is a remaking of our past in order to create our future.
All this may sound pretty cool on paper, and the show does have some memorable bits, but well before it concludes it grows irksome and self-conscious. The funniest parts are those lifted from “The Simpsons"; they are, fortunately, well performed by a valiant ensemble, including, in addition to those already mentioned, Susannah Flood, Nedra McClyde, Jennifer R. Morris, Colleen Werthmann, and Sam Breslin Wright. Each of their characters is listed in the program by the actor's own first name, except for Nedra McClyde whose role is Edna Krabapple in the cast list but Nedra in her bio. Most are difficult to identify in their masked roles, and the program offers no help.

            Since MR. BURNS: A POST-ELECTRIC PLAY is a parody that keeps finding new ways to explore its central concept, it jumps along from scene to scene hoping for the best. Many have jumped along with it and proclaimed it brilliant. There are moments that flicker to life with artistic inspiration, but, for me, the creative floodlights simply aren't bright enough to illuminate the basic premise. A lot of energy could be saved by cutting down the wattage by at least half an hour.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

102. Review of ARGUENDO (September 22, 2013)



Something there is that loves a courtroom drama. Good ones can hold an audience’s interest for years, even when the outcome is known. And millions tune in regularly to televised court cases when they cover sensationalistic crimes, as with those of O.J. Simpson and Casey Anthony, to cite two of the many. But, for the sake of argument (which is what "arguendo" means), are general audiences as willing to watch a courtroom drama that has no criminals, but is instead a debate about the intricacies of a particular law? Will they be enthralled by a case about freedom of speech brought before the Supreme Court, where there is no criminal involved, but just the petitioner and the respondent presenting their positions and answering the questions of the justices? Will they stay focused when many of the questions and most of the answers are couched in dense, rapidly spoken legalese, with frequent citation of precedents? Will it avoid being boring? Perhaps, if the case is juicy enough and the issues of great concern; then again, it might not.

From left: Vin Knight, Maggie Hoffman, Mike Iveson, Susie Sokol, Ben Williams. Photo: Joan Marcus
            In ARGUENDO, the new 80-minute, intermissionless play being presented by the highly respected experimental theatre company called Elevator Repair Service (ERS), all the dialogue is taken from actual transcripts of a January 1991 Supreme Court hearing, down to the verbal stumbles and "um, um" hesitancies made by each speaker. Some additional verbatim material from interviews made by people involved in the case is also included, as are some final comments from Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who was not yet a Supreme Court Justice, but who is brought on at the end to offer some mildly humorous reflections on decorative aspects of the justices’ robes; this helps confirm the ho-hum satirical nature of what comes before.

:Mike Iveson, Ben Willians. Photo: Joan Marcus.
            The case itself is Barnes v. Glen Theatre. The petitioner, who doesn’t actually appear, is Michael Barnes, prosecuting attorney of St. Joseph County, Indiana. The respondent, who also is absent, is Glen Theatre Inc., et al., and the case is heard by the Rehnquist Court (1990-1991), consisting of Justices Rehnquist, O’Connor, Scalia, Kennedy, Souter, White, Marshall, Blackmun, and Stevens. The case, which had been heard and appealed on several occasions before making it to the Supreme Court, concerned the attempt of the Glen Theatre and Kitty Kat Lounge of South Bend, Indiana, to stop enforcement of a statute that made it illegal for dancers to perform nude, without benefit of pasties and a G-string, on the grounds that the law was a violation of freedom of speech. The arguments that proceed examine the need to preserve freedom of artistic expression versus the need to protect the moral values of the citizenry and the protection of women from  rape and other forms of abuse. There is plenty of judicial meat here to chomp on for those so inclined, but to truly relish it you must first cut away some of the lawyerly fat and gristle. 

            I suspect that, without some mitigating theatrical elements, listening to the legal arguments being batted about by the advocates representing each side would be a deadly dull experience, although surely catnip for lawyers and others similarly dedicated to the intricacies of the justice system. ERS, under the direction of John Collins, has found a tolerably entertaining approach to staging this material; in it, both sides are equally represented while simultaneously underlining the all-too human fallibilities of the nine men and women comprising this court of last resort. In one wordless scene, for example, we’re told that we’re watching how the justices come to their decisions; what we see is the robed dignitaries earnestly playing Rock, Scissors, Paper. At the play's end, a recorded number from Gilbert and Sullivan’s Iolanthe, part of which pokes fun at the British legal system, brings things to a conclusion.

            Today, when you can see beautiful naked showgirls standing in Times Square alongside Elmo and Spiderman, their only concession to modesty being the painted designs on their bodies, the preoccupation of the law in the not too distant pre-Internet era with the need for nude dancers to wear pasties and g-strings in private clubs for adults seems remarkably quaint. Yet, despite the hairsplitting discussion in which some of the most commonsense queries are posited even by conservatives like Justice Scalia, and in which the petitioner's remarks, for all their legalistic acumen, show how silly they are, at least in retrospect, it’s astonishing to learn that the court split 5-4 in favor of allowing the law to stand because it was deemed not to violate the first amendment.

            Following a streetside TV interview with a stripper from Michigan named Rebecca Jackson (Maggie Hoffman), who flew all the way to Washington to hear the case, the play moves inside the court’s chambers, where a handful of actors in judicial robes and seated on rolling leather chairs play all the justices. They listen, first, to the arguments of the petitioner, in favor of retaining the law, presented by Mr. Ennis (Mike Iveson), and then to those of the respondent, presented by Mr. Uhl (first played by Ben Williams, but mainly by Vin Knight). None of the actors playing the justices play only one of them, and the same justices are played by multiple actors, so you don’t identify with any actor as a specific person, and have to wait for them to be  identified by name. Despite the faithfulness with which the transcript is treated, the actors keep subverting the seriousness of the occasion via comically heightened line readings, the way the justices sit or slump in their chairs, or the use of extensively choreographed sequences in which they roll into new configurations, or even slide on their chairs down the ramps at either side of the upstage platform on which they’re first seen. (The functional set is by David Zinn.) Late in the play, whatever seriousness might still accrue to the occasion is blown sky high in a Walpurgisnicht of satiric dancing (surely a comment on all the play's disputation trying to define dance), including Mr. Knight's stripping down to the altogether (except for his shoes and socks), as the entire legal system seems to be symbolically crumbling before our eyes. Despite his striking classic nude poses, this was not a thing of beauty to behold.

            Most notable of the show’s visual elements are Ben Rubin’s projections, the majority of which consist of white on black (as on microfilm) court records reflecting those cited in the arguments. They zoom in and out, whirl about, move from side to side (often timed to a justice’s swiping hand movements), and in other ways remain constantly active, never staying in place long enough for you to read them in close detail but giving you a clear enough idea of what they’re saying before they move on. The final image of the show has them drifting off into space as in the famous STAR WARS crawl.     

            This is the kind of production that will split viewers into opposing sides: the bored and the not bored. I would have to side with the bored, at least much of the time, not because I don’t believe ERS has pulled off an inventive theatrical stunt (it has), but because I found the actual substance of the arguments, while often fascinating and even sporadically--if unintentionally--funny, simply too dramatically inert. A hearing before the Supreme Court is essentially a combination of speeches and questions and answers, with a professional reliance on technical language and special manners of address. It is not the more everyday language you hear in a jury trial, for example, where all the legal content must be made comprehensible to a jury of laymen. And the drama never rises to the kind of crescendo we associate with witnesses being drilled by lawyers for the defense and prosecution. This is a largely intellectual exercise that stands or falls on how well it conveys its points via artistic means. Score one for the BORING side.

Although there are passages in ARGUENDO that are crystal clear and intriguing, a great deal requires close attention; however, the rapid pace and directorial monkeyshines eventually create a barrier that draws attention away from the ideas. This also happens with the dizzying, nonstop barrage of projected words being manipulated on the screen; they become more of a distraction than an enhancement. 

Based on what I've said here, I declare, for the sake of argument, i.e., arguendo, I was bored. Now it's your turn.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

101. Review of WOMEN OR NOTHING (September 22, 2013)



If you’re a movie lover you probably count some of the 16 movies of the Coen brothers, Ethan and Joel, among your favorites. Ethan has also tried his hand at playwriting, but to date he has focused on one-acts, and WOMEN OR NOTHING, at the Atlantic Stage Company, is his first full-length play. Sorry to say, it is not only not a BARTON FINK, BLOOD SIMPLE, FARGO, THE BIG LEBOWSKI, or NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN; it is not even a THE MAN WHO WASN’T THERE or THE LADYKILLERS, among the few relative clinkers in the Coen oeuvre. Its mild pleasures are transitory and disposable, and make you appreciate how difficult it is to transfer screenwriting talent to the stage.

            The basic premise on which this dramedy is built is so implausible that you wonder at how the play could have gotten this far. Two highly educated, successful, and attractive lesbians, living in a beautiful New York duplex with a spiral staircase, want to have a child. They thereupon decide to trick a man whose genes are likely to produce a terrific offspring into having sex with one of them, Laura (Susan Pourfar), a 40-year-old, internationally famous, classical pianist. Laura, a short-haired brunette, who calls herself a “gold star lesbian” because she’s never had sex with a man, is hesitant, but her lover, Gretchen, a longhaired, blonde beauty unable to conceive, is so into the idea that she finds every conceivable argument as to why having a baby by artificial insemination is a horrible one. The idea of adoption is given short shrift. The playwright appears so taken with the contrivance of a lesbian seducing a straight guy that all rational thought about the implications are dismissed for one flimsy reason or another.

A plan is concocted whereby Chuck (Robert Beitzel), a handsome lawyer in Gretchen’s office, divorced but with a 12-year-old daughter Gretchen has met and admired, will be invited to the women’s apartment to have dinner with Gretchen, but learn on his arrival that she’s been detained and that Laura, a “neighbor,” has been recruited to occupy his time. This, the conspirators are convinced, will allow Laura to get him in the sack. An important point is that he’s moving to Florida (which is the tired butt of some unnecessary jibes); therefore, Gretchen argues, he’ll be out of the picture and won’t even know he’s the father of the baby that’s sure to result from this one-night fling.
 Despite all the ethical issues that get so casually shredded in the women’s plan, not to mention Laura’s agreeing to something that should be sexually revolting to her, we have a situation where Chuck must not only succumb to Laura’s charms but must be able in only one shot (which turns out to be a doubleheader) to make Laura preggers!! Of course, Chuck arrives, spends the evening chatting pleasantly with Laura about a host of issues, and falls into the trap. In order to follow this impossible scenario, Chuck never asks why they are having sex in an apartment Laura says she doesn't live in. Nor does he raise the issue of using protection. The next morning, Laura’s glamorous but eccentric mother, Dorene, played by the marvelous Deborah Rush, embarrasses Laura with a surprise visit, figures out (more or less) the shenanigans that are underway, offers her comically off-the-wall yet perceptive commentary, and departs. Before she goes, however, she has a one-on-one with Chuck, during which he delivers the plot twist (a good example of dramatic irony) that—unbeknownst to the women—subverts the basis for the entire conspiracy. Chuck, too, will have his major moment of discovery before he takes his leave, but since the play begins on one day and ends on the next, we never learn if Chuck’s sperm hooked up with Laura’s egg.
            Described like this, there seems to be a lot of plot in WOMEN OR NOTHING, but, actually, the plot, for all its plotting, is essentially an excuse for talk, especially in the long act 1, scene 2, scene between Laura and Chuck in which they discuss various things around a table. The principal blocking involves Laura’s using a shaker to make a mixed drink, using overstated masturbatory (male version, if you please) movements; this is a rather cheap laugh director David Cromer aims for at least three times. Putting Laura and Chuck together is necessary so that Mr. Coen can establish the relationship that will bring the pair together for their bedroom escapade; this pumps up the stage air with chatter that, while momentarily interesting, concerns Laura and Chuck's personal attitudes toward several subjects (therapy, self-respect, genes, being human, childrearing etc.) that, for the most part, have little to do with the forward movement of the play.

            The need to fill these folks’ mouths with words, words, words is especially noticeable in the case of Dorene. Here we have an obviously sophisticated woman who, for no apparent reason other than to give her something hopefully fascinating to say, begins to talk openly and without shame in front of her daughter about all the men she cheated with. As Dorene has never shared this information during Laura’s 40 years on earth, it comes as a complete surprise to her astonished daughter, but this is immaterial; it occupies time, gets a few laughs (as when she casually announces that Laura’s math tutor “stuck his finger in my anus”), and, since one of the lovers mentioned is Jack Kerouac, tints the proceedings with a frisson of historicity, regardless of it being completely fictional.

            Everything transpires in Michele Spadaro’s attractive set, with the side walls lined with shelves bearing objets d’art and books; a tastefully modern dining table and chairs are at stage left and a living room arrangement at right (with, remarkably, the couch up against the side wall—as in most apartments—and not facing the audience in the room’s middle, as per the stage convention). The rear wall, with two windows showing in forced perspective the apartment house across the way (a rather unappealing view for so successful an artist as Laura), carries a number of paintings selected to show Laura and Gretchen’s tastes; these are deliberately undermined when Gretchen, hoping to get Chuck in the mood, replaces a painting of a pianist with one of a nude. The set’s most unusual element is a second floor, shown via a partial ceiling over the living room area, with a spiral staircase upstage right leading to it. We can see a piano there, but Laura never goes up to play it. A lot of money seems to have been spent for a useless reminder of Laura’s profession.

           Both Ms. Feiffer nor Ms. Pourfar are competent pros but they don’t bring much charm to their roles. Ms. Pourfar is saddled with a character who refers to herself as being "insufferable," so she has a couple of strikes against her from the get-go. Mr. Beitzel is a believable Chuck, a nice guy who wonders if his awareness of his own niceness is somehow not so nice; he also offers another set of eye-popping abs and pecs to the growing list of New York actors who must be making it de rigueur to add weight lifting to the their résumés. The takeaway memory from WOMEN OR NOTHING is Ms. Rush’s Dorene; with her perfectly coiffed blonde bob, pale white, still-tight skin, and stylish gray dress and pearls complementing a dry as a martini comic performance, managing with perfect aplomb to say absolutely ridiculous things without losing her dignity. While the scene and her dialogue seem overly contrived to gather chortles by their unexpected contrast with the figure of gentility her appearance creates, they are the single most enjoyable part of the performance.

            As the subject matter might imply, words like sperm and semen get plenty of play time, and inspire ribald (but only mildly amusing) quips as when Laura imagines that the answer to a request for the manly fluid would be, “Will you be having it inside or all over your face?” This kind of humor seems out of place in the play’s world, and hints at a cynical attempt at laughter at any price.

            One of the play’s themes is that life can’t be controlled and that things will take their own course. You can ponder that while deciding if this play is worth a visit.

Friday, September 20, 2013

100. Review of STOP. RESET.



Regina Taylor’s STOP. RESET, at the Signature’s Linney Theatre, which she also directed, is a blah blah yada yada “tone poem on memory and change” based on a potentially promising academic/sci-fi premise. It is produced with elaborate and sophisticated technical expertise but is theatrically flat, vague, and pretentious.

The Signature Theatre Center at Pershing Square.

The play imagines a Chicago publishing house devoted to black literature presided over by the 70-year-old Alexander Ames (Carl Lumbly), the recent victim of a stroke, who grieves over his son, senselessly shot while standing in the street. The effects of his stroke, however, are visible neither in his speech nor in his rather limber movement. Because of the advent of technology and social media, and the consequent decline in book sales, the business is going downhill;  since it is a subsidiary of a much larger corporation, Ames is being forced to cut his already skeletal staff of four down by one. Having built the business from scratch, he is reluctant to downsize further but, forced to do so,  he decides to interview his employees. Each has an interview scene except Jan, a 59-year-old woman who has been with him the longest. The only reason she never has her interview is because she’s been sent out to buy coffee and, with a snowstorm swirling, all the Starbucks stores nearby are closed; when she comes back she’s practically frozen to death. Each of her coworkers, Deb (Michi Barall), an Asian-American woman; Tim (Donald Sage MacKay), a white man; and Chris (Teagle F. Bougere), a black man, is asked during their uncomfortable interviews whom they would fire if it were up to them;, this is a decidedly unprofessional question and one that the workers do their best to navigate. These scenes are the most effective in the play.

            Meanwhile, the janitor, J (Ismael Richardson Córdova), a bizarre young man of indeterminate racial makeup, who seems to be an avatar from the future, goes around the office with a squeegee and duster, while stealing computer data on a memory stick and talking to someone we don’t see, the way people do with Bluetooth devices in their ears. He seems engaged in some kind of beyond-digital game, racking up points so he can get to a higher level. He gradually captures the boss’s attention and eventually assumes a position of authority, being hired to move the company into the future by abandoning books as we know them, and going beyond e-books into some ambiguously futuristic experience involving capturing the entirety of a person’s memory (his “soul,” says Ames) and reliving it, or something like that. There's a lot of talk about how, in 100 years time, race and gender issues will be little more than pixilated concerns. As a sort of pseudo-magical realist style invades the premises the script becomes increasingly dense; I found it easy to tune out to J's mumbo jumbo or how Ames, going off into some kind of spiritual transport, was responding to it.

From left: Carl Lumbly and Ismael Cruz Cordova. Photo: Joan Marcus.

However talented the actors may be, they all struggle to make their versified language sound believable, and their cardboard characters to seem real, expending a lot of professional energy in getting through an intermissionless hour and 40 minutes of tedious drama. Ms. Taylor demonstrates once again how unwise it can be for a playwright to stage her own material, as she is unable to coax the play to life or to make clear or compelling whatever it has to say about what the onslaught of technology augurs for mankind’s future.

Neil Patel’s attractively sleek, white office, with glass panels used for projections and other technical effects combined with floor to ceiling bookcases—a perfect combination of the new and the outdated—is combined with a marvelous array of verbal and pictorial images—many of African-American faces and writing related to the Civil Rights movement—designed by Shawn Sagady. We don’t go to the theatre to watch sets and video projections, however; their purpose is to support dramatic writing, not to be appreciated on their own. 

If there were a way to stop and reset this play, you can bet I would have done it.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

99. Review of ROMEO AND JULIET (BROADWAY) (September 18, 2013)



In the spring of 1959, when I was a theatre major in my freshman year at Brooklyn College, I desperately wanted to be cast as Romeo in the upcoming department production of ROMEO AND JULIET, and I practiced for weeks to prepare for the auditions. No luck, but I did get cast in the tiny part of Balthasar, Romeo’s “man.” Every time I’ve seen a production of the play since then, I’ve waited for Balthasar to speak his few lines to see how I should have handled them in my own fledgling performance. For the record, then, let it be said that Joe Carroll, who plays Balthasar in the current revival of ROMEO AND JULIET at the Richard Rodgers Theatre, is just fine and I learned something for the next time I play the role. Oh, yes, the production also stars Orlando Bloom (of movie fame) and Condola Rashad (recently so good in THE TRIP TO BOUNTIFUL) as the star-crossed lovers, in this first entry of what promises to be a rather abundant season of Shakespeare productions, on and Off Broadway.

            David Leveaux’s modern-dress staging pictures the Capulet family as black and the Montagues as white, but nothing in the direction suggests that the enmity between the two families is specifically racial. Lord Capulet (the always remarkable Chuck Cooper), when needled at the masked ball by Tybalt about Romeo’s unwanted presence there, tries to calm the black Tybalt down by speaking favorably of the white Romeo, just as he does in most productions where color is not an issue. Tybalt’s attitude toward Romeo is nasty in the original, and remains so here without any additional emphasis on racial hatred, so the conflict between the Montagues and Capulets remains a given, lacking clearly defined motivation, just as it does in Shakespeare. All we need to know is that the two families dislike each other, and the color separation simply clarifies who is on which side, although Juliet’s nurse is played by a white actress, Jayne Houdyshell; perhaps this is intended as a touch of irony by having a white person cast as a servant in a black household.

            A side note: the production is being advertised as the first  Broadway revival of ROMEO AND JULIET in 37 years, since one starring the late Paul Rudd (not today's actor of that name) and Pamela Payton-Wright at the Circle in the Square in 1977. But I just happened to note in the program for Regina Taylor's STOP. RESET at the Signature Theatre that her bio claims not only that she was in a ROMEO AND JULIET at Broadway's Belasco Theatre in 1988, but that she was Broadway's first black Juliet. Further research disclosed that there was indeed a production of the play at the Belasco in 1988, along with two other Shakespeare plays, but that they were not counted as part of the season and were part of a Public Theatre program for New York City schools. So technically, one could argue that Ms. Taylor is correct, and one could argue that the current production's claim about how long it's been since ROMEO AND JULIET has been seen on Broadway is correct; at the same time, one could argue the opposite for both claims.
Orlando Bloom. Photo: Carol Rosegg.

            The play begins with a loud bang, followed by a metal bar along the front of the stage bursting into flames and a white dove flying in and landing on a large metal bell. At this moment, the actor playing Friar Laurence (Brent Carver) enters to speak the prologue. Then, following a street fight that breaks out with knives and chains between the Capulet and Montague servants, Romeo enters on a revved up motorcycle. Fabio Toblini has created a look for the young men suggesting a cross between WEST SIDE STORY and British rock, with skimpy jackets, T-shirts, and skinny jeans. Christian Carmago’s Mercutio resembles a young Keith Richards in his tight leather jacket, bushy hair, and bony movements, and Orlando Bloom wears an abbreviated motorcycle jacket/sweater with zippers and a hoody, a white, body-hugging polo, ripped jeans, and red leather shoes. Not all the costumes fit this look, of course, and Juliet wears dresses and shifts, while her mother, played by the very buff Roslyn Ruff, her hair clipped close to the head, wears an armless, formfitting, floor-length maroon dress, with a gold band around one of her well-toned biceps. One of the more questionable costumes is that of Friar Laurence, whose traditional cassock is here replaced by a pale blue hoody.

Condola Rashad and Orlando Bloom. Photo: Carol Rosegg.

            The rapidly paced action is played against Jesse Poleshuck’s set design, essentially consisting of a thick rear wall, placed in front of the cyclorama, painted with a fuzzy Renaissance-style mural of several haloed saints on which graffiti has been sprayed; it separates into multiple sections to form new arrangements that allow for speedy shifts from scene to scene. The wall also has rungs that actors can climb up and down on. The church bell noted earlier hangs at stage left throughout. An assortment of gray wooden chairs serves for whatever furniture is needed. When Juliet’s balcony is needed, an odd, Japanese bridge-like contraption, which seems strangely out of place, flies on at left, suspended in midair and presumably leading to Juliet’s room somewhere in the wings. David Weiner’s lighting design, abetted for some reason by bars of metal with gas jets that flame up on cue, adds color and romance when needed.
Orlando Bloom and Condola Rashad. Photo: Carol Rosegg.

            The actors playing the teenaged lovers and their friends are all far older than their characters, which is rather traditional given the difficulties very young actors have in playing Shakespeare. Franco Zeffirelli’s great 1968 film of the play achieved the rare feat of succeeding with 16-year-old Olivia Hussey and 17-year-old Leonard Whiting, but when famous actors are involved it’s more common for them to be in their late twenties, thirties, or even older. Laurence Olivier was 36 when he costarred (unsuccessfully) as Romeo on Broadway with Vivien Leigh as Juliet, who was 27, in 1940. Modern Broadway Juliets include a host of actresses of a certain age. In 1923 alone, when there were three Broadway Juliets, Julia Marlowe was 58, Ethel Barrymore was 44, and Jane Cowl was 40. Eva Le Gallienne, then an infantile 24, did it Off Broadway seven years later, but when Katherine Cornell gave Broadway its great revival of 1934, she was 41, while her Romeo, Brian Aherne was a mere 32. It’s hard to deny that, traditionally, Juliet has been more of a cougar than a teenybopper.  

Condola Rashad. Photo: Carol Rosegg.

Orlando Bloom remains slim and lithe, and makes an attractive, energetic, and effective Romeo, despite his admitted lack of Shakespearean experience. My nearly 22-year-old granddaughter, Briar, had no trouble accepting Mr. Bloom in the role, and said that he was exactly what she’d always imagined Romeo to look like. Ms. Rashad, given the play’s history on Broadway, is practically a minor, and she gives a respectable performance, some scenes being a bit of a struggle (like her death scene in the tomb) and others (like that on the balcony) being quite touching. Her voice is a bit too high-pitched and, although very attractive, she is also rather formidable-looking; at nearly 5’ 11”, she’s nearly an inch taller than her Romeo. (Oh, THAT’s why he wears those thick-soled and heeled shoes!)

            The direction, for all its cleverness, is not all it could be. Because the young men are played by older actors, however, including the 42-year-old Christian Camargo as Mercutio, director Leveaux seems to have felt it necessary to amp up their hi-jinx, so they often engage in playful teenage antics, jumping all over each other as if to work off their excess energy, which gets rather tedious, as does the director’s choice of having the actors, including Ms. Houdyshell’s nurse, emphasize with physical gestures every possible bawdy word or inference. The audience laughed dutifully at these bits, but much of it is unnecessary. Among other directorial touches is the very lengthy kiss Romeo plants on Juliet's lips when he first meets her at the ball, done in full view of anyone who cares to look; no one does, for that might have put an end to Romeo and the play right there. On the other hand, when Romeo first sights Juliet across the crowded room, Mr. Leveaux has her all the way up stage right, with Romeo far away down stage left, with dancers in between them. So while he, if not some seated in the audience, can easily see Juliet at this moment, no one, except the audience, can see him kissing her in what appears to be the middle of the ballroom. In another doubtful touch, when Juliet takes the potion and seems to die, the bed she is lying in flies up to the top of the stage, where it remains until the tomb scene when it descends again. Ms. Rashad must lie there, unmoving, all the while, surely not the most comfortable situation. I wonder if Katherine Cornell would have consented to such a directorial choice.  
            To guarantee that Shakespeare’s dialogue is easily comprehensible, the verse often goes out the window in order to break the rhythm into more prose-like speech. The several fight scenes, well-staged by Thomas Schall, are exceedingly swift and fluidly performed, with knives mostly standing in for swords. Percussion and cello music accompanies much of the staging, with the drummer (David Van Tiegham, who composed the helpful original music) in a side balcony at stage left and the cellist (Tahirah Whittington) in one at stage right. And, in one of the few nods to the casting’s racial divide, the ball dancing has a Caribbean ethnic (tribal, Briar suggested) flavor; “movement direction” is credited to Nancy Bannon. In general, then, the approach is to make the material accessible, and it must be admitted that the audience seemed to be with the production every step of the way. There was a standing ovation, but this is now so common on Broadway, it can ordinarily be ignored as a sign of a show's success.  

All the actors give commendable, if not brilliant, performances, with one exception. Mr. Camargo’s Mercutio is lively and animated, and his “Queen Mab” speech is delivered with clarity and flair; many productions of ROMEO AND JULIET often receive their finest performances from the actor in this role. Ms. Houdyshell, always excellent, makes no breakthroughs here, either comedic or pathetic. Geoffrey Owens's Prince is appropriately authoritative, Brent Carver’s Friar is intelligent but dull, Conrad Kemp’s Benvolio is too given to shouting, Corey Hawkins’s Tybalt is monotonously nasty, and Justin Guarini’s Paris is bland. There is one truly conspicuous performance, however, that of Chris Cooper as Lord Capulet, playing this frequently neglected role with a spectrum of emotions demonstrating his remarkable power, not only at conveying fatherly love, humor, and warmth but at blowing the roof off with fiery anger and disgust. This is a plus-sized talent (physically and emotionally) who must move on to play bigger and greater classical roles. He would be a phenomenal Lear and a great Falstaff.   

            Very soon, New York will have another ROMEO AND JULIET, starring Elizabeth Olsen (24-years-old), and the unknown Julian Cihi, a graduate student in theatre at NYU. There should be plenty of things to say about that Off-Broadway version, at the Classic Stage Company, in comparison with the Bloom-Rashad one on Broadway. Till then, parting is such sweet sorrow . . .