291-300. YOUR MOTHER’S COPY OF THE KAMA SUTRA (Friday, April 11)
VIOLET (Saturday, April 12: matinee)
THE VELOCITY OF AUTUMN (Saturday, April 12: evening)
THE MYSTERY OF IRMA VEP (Tuesday, April 15)
CABARET (Wednesday, April 16: matinee)
THE CRIPPLE OF INISHMAAN (Wednesday, April 16: evening)
THE COMPLETE AND CONDENSED STAGE DIRECTIONS OF EUGENE O’NEILL VOL. 2. (Thursday, April 17)
HEDWIG AND THE ANGRY INCH (Thursday, April 17)
CASA VALENTINA (Friday, April 18)
INVENTING MARY MARTIN (Saturday, April 19)
As the official theatre awards season comes to an end, I note that I’ve seen approximately 300 shows of every type: musical, drama, revue, revivals of modern and classic plays, one-man/woman shows, magic shows, circuses, shows clean as a whistle and dirty as porn. Being human, I missed half a dozen shows I might otherwise have attended, but for those I’ve seen I wrote a review of almost every one. My time this week having been consumed by awards deliberations, I can offer only brief reviews of the final 10 shows for those who may be interested in my general response.
291. YOUR MOTHER’S COPY OF THE KAMA SUTRA
Zoë Sophia Garcia, Rebecca Henderson, Chris Stack. Photo: Jeremy Daniel.
This weirdly named new play by Kirk Lynn, directed by Anne Kauffman at Playwrights Horizon’s Peter Jay Sharp Theatre, has nothing to do with the Kama Sutra, although sex plays a significant role. In the first act, Carla (Zoë Sophia Garcia) insists that she and her fiancé, Reggie (Chris Stack), replicate all their previous good and bad sexual experiences over the course of a year to see if they’re compatible, and without secrets, before marrying. Before doing so, Reggie seeks the advice of his ex-gal pal, a mediator named Tony (a mannered Rebecca Henderson), who has her doubts; still, Reggie goes ahead with the plan. Meanwhile, the action keeps shifting to scenes involving the relationship between a teenage couple, Sean (Max Brawer) and Bernie (Ismenia Mendes), which is interfered with by another teenager, the devilish Cole (Will Pullen), who creates a crisis when he slips the girl a “date rape” drug. We only learn later that act one has been running on two different timelines, and that Bernie, who now needs healing from her own sexual misadventure, is the daughter of Carla and Reggie. Act two connects the dots, but is principally about the push and pull territory between an angry Reggie and his depressed daughter; despite its familiarity and excessive yelling, it has some sizzling writing. The first act is erratic and the second unfulfilling. At the very least, the Kama Sutra would have been sexier.
Sutton Foster. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Sutton Foster shows why her acting and singing chops make her one of today’s top Broadway stars, although she doesn’t get to dance in Leigh Silverman’s excellently directed revival of VIOLET. This is a “road” musical, like LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE earlier in the season, about a journey with a very special goal; it’s based on a book by Doris Betts, The Ugliest Pilgrim. The show, by Jeanine Tesori (music) and Brian Crawley (book and lyrics), originally seen Off Broadway in 1997, had a one-night City Center Encores showing in 2013, and is now being given a Roundabout-produced Broadway version at the American Airlines Theatre. Ms. Foster plays the title role, a resourceful but touchy and defensive 1964 farmwoman from North Carolina’s Blue Ridge Mountains whose face was seriously scarred by an ax accident caused by her father (Alexander Gemignani) when she was 13 (the young Violet is well played by Emerson Steele); after years of being ridiculed and stared at, she seeks to regain her prettiness by traveling through the South on a bus to Oklahoma where she believes a TV faith healer (Ben Davis) can make the scar disappear. She meets a couple of uniformed soldiers on the way, the white Monty (Colin Donnell, wonderful) and the black Flick (Joshua Henry, outstanding, especially when singing “Let It Sing”). Despite her assumed unattractiveness (the scar is not shown), Violet becomes romantically involved with each, a bit of magic realism perhaps. This being 1964, the show’s temperature rises because of the contemporary Civil Rights fever in the background. VIOLET lacks the pizzazz of a big Broadway musical, but its tuneful country, bluegrass, and gospel score, creatively modest production, colorful supporting cast—some in multiple roles—and the sensitive, complex, yet nonetheless big bang-for-your-bucks performance of Ms. Foster make it one of the best musicals now on the Great White Way.
From left: Joshua Henry, Colin Donnell, Sutton Foster. Photo: Joan Marcus.
293. THE VELOCITY OF AUTUMN
Estelle Parsons, at 86, dominates Eric Coble’s flimsy two-character dramedy, at the Booth Theatre, with the remarkably unflagging energy of a woman half her age. She plays Alexandra, a grumpy, feisty, resilient 79-year-old buzzard, who refuses to let her children move her into a nursing home and out of the Brooklyn brownstone she’s lived in for decades; she’s filled her living room with Molotov cocktails, prepared to blow not only the house but half the block to kingdom come if she doesn’t get her way. This prompts her older children (unseen) to summon Chris (Stephen Spinella), her youngest, a ponytailed, gay, middle-aged artist who raised his mother’s ire when he moved away to New Mexico many years ago. As expected, Chris and Alexandra work out their issues over the course of the action, but the piece is riddled with implausible moments and behavior. Despite the exaggerations, many will respond sympathetically to the play’s question of how children should deal with an aging parent, but the fun is in seeing the octogenarian star adding another eccentric character to her trademark gallery of them, going full steam (and shouting much of the time) for 90 minutes, doing all she can to blow air into this flat tire of a play. Mr. Spinella is an only moderately effective counterforce to the velocity of Ms. Parson’s performance.
294. THE MYSTERY OF IRMA VEP: A PENNY DREADFUL
This is the 30th-anniversary revival, at the Lucille Lortel Theatre, of Charles Ludlam’s 1984 parody of Gothic stage and film melodramas (like Hitchcock’s REBECCA). Written for Ludlam's Ridiculous Theatrical Company, it's directed by Ludlam's former associate, Everett Quinton, and stars two versatile actors, Robert Sella and Arnie Burton, who make multiple quick changes to play eight roles, male and female. Here’s the Wikipedia plot summary: “Mandacrest Estate is the home of Lord Edgar, an Egyptologist, and Lady Enid. Lady Enid is Lord Edgar's second wife, though he has yet to recover entirely from the passing of his first wife, Irma Vep. The house staff, a maid named Jane Twisden and a swineherd named Nicodemus Underwood, have their own opinions of Lady Enid. Enid is attacked by a vampire, and Edgar seeks answers in an Egyptian tomb, briefly resurrecting the mummy of an Egyptian princess. Returning home with the sarcophagus, Edgar prepares to hunt down the werewolf he blames for the death of his son and first wife. Meanwhile, Enid discovers Irma locked away, supposedly to coax out the location of precious jewels from her. Wresting the keys to Irma's cell from Jane, Enid frees Irma only to discover the prisoner is, in fact, Jane herself, actually a vampire, and the killer of Irma as well as her and Edgar's son. Nicodemus, now a werewolf, kills Jane, only to be shot dead by Edgar. In the end, Enid prevents Edgar from writing about his experiences in Egypt, revealing she was the princess herself, the whole thing an elaborate sham by her father to discredit Edgar. The two reconcile.” I saw the show at an early preview so I won’t review it here, but there’s nothing wrong with noting that my guest loved it.
Michelle Williams. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Yes, Kander and Ebb’s CABARET is back at Studio 54 again; it’s essentially the same Roundabout revival, directed by Sam Mendes and Rob Marshall, that opened in 1998 starring Alan Cumming as the Emcee and Natasha Richardson as Sally Bowles, even to having Mr. Cumming return to fill his Tony-winning role. Once again, the orchestra seats have been removed, with the Kit Kat Klub’s seedy ambience created by tiny cabaret tables. (Be warned, the snacks and drinks will require the equivalent of billions of Weimar Marks.) That production, which closed 10 years ago, ran for 2,377 performances, with multiple cast replacements (I saw Mollie Ringwald as Sally) and became Broadway’s third longest-running revival. Sally, the second-rate British performer mired in the trashy night life of pre-Nazi Berlin, is now in the hands of blonde-bobbed Broadway newcomer, Michelle Williams, of Hollywood fame. Despite the glow of her yellow hair, however, the Kit Kat Klub’s lights seem to be burning a bit dimmer than usual. Ms. Williams is a very good screen actress, but, while she has an interesting vibrato, she doesn’t quite generate the theatrical charisma associated with the part; her facial and bodily expressiveness is often more enigmatic than sexually dynamic. Mr. Cumming, of course, brings his heralded blend of mystery, charm, and decadence to the Emcee, the roles of Frau Schneider and Herr Schultz are excellently handled by Broadway vets Linda Emond and Danny Burstein, and Bill Heck is appealing as the bisexual Cliff. There’s no doubt that CABARET’s score is far superior to that of any new musical in the 2013-2014 season, and that “Wilkommen” alone blows everything else out of the park. So CABARET is certainly worth a visit by those not familiar with it (if any such creatures still exist); Alan Cumming alone is worth the price of admission. The show just seems a tad tired and could probably have used a longer rest before so quickly returning to its old haunts.
296. THE CRIPPLE OF INISHMAAN
Pat Shortt, Daniel Radcliffe. Photo: Johan Persson.
This is a superb revival at the Cort Theatre of Martin McDonagh’s engrossing, touching, and often hilarious 1996 play, starring Harry Potter, er, I mean Daniel Radcliffe, as Cripple Billy (Mr. Radcliffe), a seriously handicapped 17-year-old on the isolated Irish island of Inishmaan. When, in 1934, Robert Flaherty arrives to film MAN OF ARAN, Billy, despite (or because of) his deformed body and stumbling gait, is chosen from among all the islanders to try out for a Hollywood film, and is flown to Los Angeles for a screen test; this alters not only his life but those of the colorful townspeople who always belittled him. The script turns a number of surprising corners before coming to its satisfactory conclusion. A brilliant ensemble, wonderfully directed by Martin Grandage, brings all the sharply etched, richly accented characters to ruddy-faced life. I could write encomiums to, among others, the veteran actresses Gillian Hanna and Ingrid Craigie as Billy’s aunties, Sarah Greene as the flame-tressed (with temperament to match) Helen McCormick, and the remarkable Pat Shortt as the Dickensian Johnnypateenmike. Mr. Radcliffe, who sounds as authentically Irish as any of his costars, has become something of a regular Broadway visitor in recent years and demonstrates why he’s increasingly recognized as one of England’s best young stage actors.
297. THE COMPLETE AND CONDENSED STAGE DIRECTIONS OF EUGENE O’NEILL VOL. 2
I missed the first “volume” (2011) of this ongoing project, which is downtown at the Theatre for a New City. Since what I viewed was an invited dress rehearsal all I’ll say is that this is a clever, one hour and 25-minute piece of devised theatre by a group called the Neo-Futurists in which four versatile actors, two men and two women, using a spare space with carefully chosen props, enact—in mime, apart from a few vocalizations—O’Neill’s extensive stage directions in five early one-acts from 1913-1915 (“RECKLESSNESS,” “WARNINGS,” “FOG,” “ABORTION,” and “THE SNIPER”), as they’re read into a microphone by a seated actor at a desk. The directions are so detailed one can figure out the plots even without dialogue; the results, as adapted and directed by Christopher Loar, are far more comic (intentionally) than the usually dour playwright intended.
298. HEDWIG AND THE ANGRY INCH
Neil Patrick Harris. Photo: Joan Marcus.
This is essentially the Neil Patrick Harris (Nell Patricia Harris?) show, in which the uber-talented TV star gives a rock-em, sock-em, knock-em in the aisles tour de force performance at the Belasco Theatre. He plays the flamboyant title character, a transvestite rock singer—born in East Berlin and raised there and in Kansas—giving a concert in New York; his “angry inch” (also the name of his six-member band) is the result of a genital rearrangement gone wrong. Hedwig wears a number of seriously fabuloso wigs and costumes while fronting a punk/glam rock/R&B band that includes the terrific Lena Hall as Yitzhak, his indeterminately gendered partner, who transforms from cropped-hair butch drag into leggy showgirl regalia at the rousing climax. First seen Off Broadway in 1998, starring John Cameron Mitchell (who co-created it with Stephen Trask and also starred in the 2001 film), HEDWIG has been energetically revived under Michael Mayer’s direction, with a satirically fresh beginning suggesting that the show took over the Belasco only at the last minute, when the previous tenant, a six-hours plus musical version of the war movie, THE HURT LOCKER, closed in mid-performance. (Look for one of the faux HURT LOCKER programs littering the floor; they’re hilarious.) Joining a transvestite-heavy season, it may not be your typical Broadway fare, reveling as it does in gay raunchiness, risqué spectator wrangling, and blaring music (to the detriment of some lyrics), but Mr. Harris and company will keep most audience batteries charged for all 95 minutes of its funny, sad, and, as the title hints, angry presentation.
299. CASA VALENTINA
From left: Nick Westrate, John Cullum, Gabriel Ebert, Tom McGowan. Photo: Matthew Murphy.
Harvey Fierstein’s new play, directed by Joe Mantello at the Samuel Friedman Theatre, ventures into unusual and potentially fascinating territory with its truth-based depiction, set in 1962, of a group of presumably heterosexual men who used to gather every summer at a Catskills bungalow colony (the play’s title is the place’s nickname) where they could indulge their secret passion for dressing and making up as women, albeit without being campily effeminate. The production, which has received mostly warm reviews, and which my usually hypercritical wife enjoyed, failed to reach me, though. Toward the end of the first act Mr. Fierstein steps into George Bernard Shaw’s shoes to offer a serious discussion drama about the issues of transvestitism and homosexuality, as seen from an early 1960s perspective; its arguments are educationally interesting but dramatically inert. Moreover, the dialogue is stilted, the characters artificial, and the dramatic structure old-fashioned and unconvincing, especially the plot device regarding a character's personal transgression. Perhaps if these cross-dressing men were described as the well-educated members of a classical acting company I might have been able to find them credible; instead, their perfect diction, grammatically correct sentences, and theatrical voices only serve to distance them from reality. The company includes some of New York’s leading actors, among them John Cullum, Reed Birney, Patrick Page, Larry Pine, Gabriel Ebert, and Nick Westrate. Mare Winningham as the woman who runs the bungalow colony with her husband (Mr. Page) is one of the play’s two actual females. Apart from Reed Birney, who brings something special to every role he plays, including his Bette Davis-like role in CASA VALENTINA, it’s the real women who bring believable femininity to the stage here, not those who playact at being female and, as performed in this play, seem little more than bizarre.
300. INVENTING MARY MARTIN: THE REVUE OF A LIFETIME
This being a preview rather than a review of INVENTING MARY MARTIN, which opens April 27, and which I saw at an early preview showing, I must begin with my personal Mary Martin story, or my “almost” Mary Martin story. In 1951, when I was still10, Mary Martin was a household name because of all the publicity generated by her performance in SOUTH PACIFIC. The show’s hit songs were played on the radio all the time, and TV appearances by Ms. Martin and her costar Ezio Pinza were common. When a theatergoing neighbor and family friend told my parents she had a ticket for SOUTH PACIFIC, then in its second year, that she couldn’t use, it was decided I’d take it, even though it meant I’d have to take the IRT subway from Saratoga Avenue in the nearby Brownsville section of Brooklyn all alone, get off at Times Square, and ask directions to the theatre. No one seemed to be concerned about the potential dangers of putting a 10-year-old kid on the subway and sending him to Manhattan unaccompanied, which shows how much has changed over the past 64 years. When I got out of the subway station a cop instructed me on where to find the Majestic Theatre, and I got to see the first Broadway production of SOUTH PACIFIC, some of which I still remember. Unfortunately, Mary Martin had just left the show and the star replacing her was the then only 21-years-old Martha Wright, so I didn’t see the original star, thus my “almost” Mary Martin story. When the show was over, my parents were waiting outside for me, having driven in by car; they took me to the original Lindy’s, where we actually saw the great comedian Milton Berle saunter in for a late-night snack. (Ten years later, by the way, I played the “Professor” in a summer stock production of SOUTH PACIFIC, which has always had a warm place in my heart.)
Mary Martin and Ethel Merman were the two great musical comedy actresses of the day, of course, and no pair of stars since has ever gained the same acclaim as rivals for the throne of Broadway’s musical queen. Merman, because of her brassy belting voice and personal mannerisms, is the one whose style most often tempted impersonators, and there have been Merman-based one-woman shows centered on her career. Martin’s qualities were less idiosyncratic and less immediately recognizable when imitated, which may have been behind the decision to create a revue around her that uses three singers to sing her songs, none of them attempting to sound anything like her. A similar revue about Merman would probably be a travesty, since the most distinctive thing about her was her idiosyncratic voice, not the shows she starred in. With Martin, as the show’s title suggests, it was the nature of her career that counted, as she went from one type of show to another before finally retiring. The concept is rather thin, as most theatre stars, Merman included, have succeeded because of their ability to reinvent themselves.
All this is by way of introducing INVENTING MARY MARTIN: THE REVUE OF A LIFETIME, an intimate show at the York Theatre, conceived and written by Stephen Cole, and starring the brunette Cameron Adams, the redheaded Lynne Halliday, and the blonde Emily Skinner, with the sole male performer being Jason Graae, who serves as the M.C. while singing and dancing with the ladies. Mr. Graae also does an extended comic number borrowed directly from a 1953 TV sketch in which Ms. Martin, wearing a long, sack-like dress, converted it into a number of historically different styles to show the evolution of women’s clothing during the 20th century. Mr. Graae offers biographical information on Ms. Martin’s career, and, this being a musical revue, the company performs the best-known songs associated with Mary Martin’s Broadway career, such as “I Got Lost In His Arms,” “A Cockeyed Optimist,” “Peter Pan,” and, of course, the grand finale, Cole Porter’s “My Heart Belongs to Daddy,” which she introduced on Broadway in 1938’s LEAVE IT TO ME! and sang in two films,1940’s LOVE THY NEIGHBOR (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ww743OGLgZk) and 1946’s NIGHT AND DAY (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r404pTC_qGI). But there’s also a robust sampling of less familiar songs from the singer’s career, such as “Il Bacio,” “Most Gentlemen Don’t Like Love,” and “Swattin’ the Fly.”
And now, ladies and gentlemen, a new season begins.
And now, ladies and gentlemen, a new season begins.