Saturday, May 31, 2014

16. Review of UNDER MY SKIN (May 30, 2014)


UNDER MY SKIN, a gender-swapping farce that opened recently at the Little Shubert Theatre, is tacky, staged with sledgehammer subtlety, and acted like a thespian version of Hurricane Sandy. It’s also intermittently funny and sexy, and it even deals with a socially important subject, health care insurance. The husband and wife playwrights, Robert Sternin and Prudence Fraser, are highly successful sitcom writers; they developed “The Nanny” for Fran Drescher, whose experience with uterine cancer in 2000 inspired part of UNDER MY SKIN’s plot. The female lead in this derivative piece may not come from Queens, but her Staten Island accent isn’t that far different from Fran Fine’s on “The Nanny.”

Matt Walton, Kerry Butler. Photo: Joan Marcus.

Harrison Badish III (Matt Walton, very good) is the hunky, greedy, and arrogant CEO of Amalgamated Healthcare, whose bottom line takes precedence over the actual needs of its customers. Among the female employees who lust for him is part-timer Melody Dent (Kerry Butler, appealing), a Staten Island divorcée who cares for her dementia and diabetes-stricken grandpa, the kvetching Poppa Sam (Edward James Hyland) and her rebellious teenage daughter, Casey (Allison Strong). Melody and Harrison are in the elevator when it suddenly crashes 14 floors, killing them both (and providing a clever scenic effect). An overweight female angel in white named Angel (Dierdre Friel, funny) appears to inform them of their fates, but they convince her to bring them back to life. She knows she can do it because she’s done it before: “It worked on Liza Minnelli.” However, an error occurs in the Department of Eternal Affairs and, when Harrison and Melody survive, he’s in her body and she’s in his. The actors merely don clothing resembling the other person’s; only the audience can see that the muscular guy in the dress is Melody and the gal in the men’s garb is Harrison. The device takes some getting used to, but it leads to some risqué comic business, such as when the diminutive Melody, wearing Harrison’s sweat pants, gets aroused and a visible bulge grows in her crotch.

Harrison has a luscious but bitchy brunette girlfriend, Victoria (Kate Loprest), whose presence provides inspiration for some sexually mixed-up bedroom activity, with Melody experiencing intercourse from a male perspective. After being fellated, she remarks: “Now I know why they all want that.” There’s considerable byplay surrounding her seemingly inadvertent erections, of which she says: “It does it by itself.” Each audience member will have to deal with this material based on their own comfort level, but there’s no denying there’s a yucky factor mixed in with the yucks. Similarly, the scene where Harrison, in the guise of Melody, has a gynecological exam (from Dr. Hertz, hardy har har) may cause goose bumps.

Kerry Butler, Kate Loprest. Photo: Joan Marcus.

The exam provides a springboard for satirical commentary on health care insurance inequities, and leans toward unexpected seriousness when Melody (Harrison, that is) discovers that she has cancer. Of course, everything works out for the best, and, again through the ministrations of Angel, the gender confusion gets straightened out, Harrison has an epiphany about health care reform, and the expected romantic conclusion arrives. Even Melody’s oversexed BFF Nanette (Megan Sikora; yes, there’s a “No, no, Nanette” crack), who’s as hot to trot as California Chrome, is able to put her considerable assets (accent: first syllable) to good use as the show reaches its, ahem, climax.  

Most of the actors play multiple roles, sometimes shifting from one to another without any effort to hide the transition. Kirsten Sanderson has directed everyone to speak at the top of their voice and to overdo their cartoonish behavior. For example, Ms. Sikora, who clearly has comic potential, shrieks many of her lines and seems to think it necessary for her voluptuous body to be a human semaphore to all men at sea. She does have a great moment, though, when, wearing only her scanty undies, she manages the seemingly impossible task of wiggling into a skintight sheath (naturally, everything she wears is skintight and I wouldn't have it otherwise).

This is one show that would have worked better in a smaller venue. The Little Shubert, despite its name, is capacious, and the various locales of Stephen Dobay’s set often look lost on the expansive stage. A more intimate theatre also might have helped the actors tone down their excesses. The other technical elements work well enough, however, especially the stylish second skins into which Lara de Bruijn’s costumes squeeze Ms. Loprest and Ms. Sikor.

Movies about body swapping are legion, among them being FREAKY FRIDAY, THE CHANGE-UP, 18 AGAIN, DATING THE ENEMY, and IT’S A BOY GIRL THING, some of them involving gender switching. So the idea is really old hat and, if you’re going to write a play in this vein it has to be less broadly written and acted, and more consistently humorous and emotionally honest than this one before it can get under your skin.

Friday, May 30, 2014

15. Review of TOO MUCH SUN (May 29, 2014)


Aside from a terrific opening scene and the sarcastically biting yet warmly human presence of Linda Lavin, there’s not much else to recommend in this sporadically diverting, predictable, and otherwise unexciting dramedy from Nicky Silver at the Vineyard Theatre. A couple of the supporting players, especially Jennifer Westfeldt, provide quality support to Ms. Lavin’s efforts, but the play, efficiently staged by Michael Brokaw, is essentially a star vehicle, with mechanical failures that should have had it recalled.  

Jennifer Westfeldt, Linda Lavin. Photo: Carol Rosegg. 

That opening scene has Ms. Lavin, playing famous actress Audrey Langham, decked out in a loose, red, classical garment and tightly curled wig, alone on stage during the final dress rehearsal of MEDEA, scheduled to open the following night at a major Chicago theatre. She keeps going up on her lines, and soon begins to bicker about her costume’s color, the temperature in her dressing room, her direction, and the very idea of doing MEDEA at all. Her back and forth with the unseen director, whose voice is heard on the loudspeaker, is a priceless depiction of the professional breakdown of a prima donna, one too self-centered even to get right the name of the gofer she sends out for tea. Finally, she gives up and walks out, leaving the company without its leading lady.

Linda Lavin, Jennifer Westfeldt. Photo: Carol Rosegg.

Regardless of her personal issues, such behavior is, of course, unpardonable in the theatre, but because of the personal appeal of Ms. Lavin we too quickly forgive her when, in the next scene, she shows up at the Cape Cod summer home of her daughter, Kitty (Ms. Westfeldt), a disillusioned schoolteacher, and her advertising executive husband, Dennis (Ken Barnett). Dennis has taken the summer off to write a sci-fi novel about an alien with two sons, which the inattentive Kitty confuses with “two suns,” and thus the play’s title; he kvetches about having his unwelcome mother-in-law camping out in his guest room cum office. Audrey and Kitty have long held each other at arm’s distance, Audrey having been too busy with her career to be a properly attentive mother, Kitty being resentful of all the missed opportunities for familial bonding, including when her mother sent an understudy to Kitty’s wedding because she was professionally engaged. The action, as Kitty and Audrey strive to work out their bitter personal issues, is set on the deck of the beachfront home, nicely designed by Donyale Werle, with some scenes played downstage right on a semblance of beach.

Ken Barnett, Jennifer Westfeldt. Photo: Carol Rosegg.

During the play’s two acts we’re introduced to the gay, UCLA-bound neighbor, Lucas (Matt Dickson), the local pot supplier whose best customer is a town policeman; his handsome, widowed dad, Winston (Richard Bekins), a wealthy man with a strong interest in India, with whom the five-time married (six if you count an annulment) Audrey seeks a new life partner as a way of resolving her financial problems; and Gil (Matt Dellapina), the hapless assistant to Audrey’s agent, Duran, whose job it is to get Audrey to return to Chicago for MEDEA, but who winds up staying all summer, hoping to realize his goal of becoming a rabbi (you won’t believe it either). A principal subplot swirls around an unconvincing romance between the closeted Dennis and the pothead Lucas.

Matt Dixon, Ken Barnett. Photo: Carol Rosegg.

As stewed in Mr. Silver’s playwriting pot some of this shows up as lumps of comedy, some as chunks of melodrama, and some as pieces of schmaltz, but very little is more than slightly tasty or chewable. It’s mainly when Ms. Lavin is on stage that we pay attention, not so much to what she’s saying as to how she says it. Reading the script gives you little preparation for the way she’ll take a line and invest it with a vocal shading, gesture, or facial expression that, even when supposedly thrown away, always hits its target with a ping. Even when singing the Brecht-Weill “Surabaya Johnny,” which Audrey performs in an entre-act as preparation for her wedding to Winston, Ms. Lavin shines with honesty and truth. She’s not averse to looking frumpy, as when she first gets out of bed after arriving in Cape Cod, but once she’s met Winston, she shows how smashing she can be with beautifully coiffed hair and wearing several colorfully coordinated outfits designed for her by Michael Krass. Her every gesture, as when she flicks her hair from her forehead, throws off sparkles of star charisma.

Linda Lavin, Matt Dellapina. Photo: Carol Rosegg.

Ms. Lavin brings a sense of familiarity to her acting, making you feel like you know her, not because you’ve seen her on stage or screen before, but because she’s so relaxed and natural, so much like someone you’re sure you know that you feel you could easily go up to her stage character and strike up a conversation. Audrey, for all Mr. Silver’s association of the role with Medea, who killed her children, may be narcissistic in the extreme, but she’s far from being such a monster (as in Ms. Lavin’s role in the playwright’s THE LYONS), even though we can sympathize with Kitty’s feeling of abandonment. Mr. Silver tries to help us understand her more deeply by giving Audrey a big reveal about why she prevented Kitty’s father from ever seeing her after they split up, but the speech, like others in the play used to explain characters’ backgrounds (such as the one about Lucas’s mother’s death), is artificial, put there for dramatic effect and not because the situation earned it.      

TOO MUCH SUN has many witty lines, and some moments of truthful insight that make their mark, but these are not enough to compensate for its various weaknesses. Linda Lavin, however, glows with enough sunlight to cast away its darker shadows.

14. Review of THE ANTHEM (May 28, 2014)



Imagine, if you will, a Woody Allen movie with a scene set in a small Greenwich Village theatre where an intrepid troupe of talented and not so talented players is producing an ambitious new avant-garde musical based on a dystopian novel by Ayn Rand, under the guidance of a highly touted young director-choreographer. For all the efforts of the cast, the more the show struggles for artistic and intellectual significance, the more it takes to keep it from collapsing under the weight of its own pretentiousness. In a Woody Allen film, this would be hilariously funny; in reality, it might make you cringe. That, more or less, was my reaction at the Lynn Redgrave Theatre during much of THE ANTHEM, whose program announces it as “A radical retelling of Ayn Rand’s classic novella: MUSIC! DANCE! CAPITALISM!” As all those caps indicate, someone had their tongue in their cheek when conceiving this stillborn show; would that the cheekiness of those words had been transferred to the stage during its performance, which simply cannot make up its mind just how much it wants to take Rand’s book seriously and how much it intends as satire or spoof.

Randy Jones, Remy Zaken. Photo: Michael Blase.

The director-choreographer behind THE ANTHEM, whose book is by Garry Morgenstein, lyrics by Erik Ransom, and music by Jonnie Rockwell, is Rachel Klein, who did a very imaginative turn on AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS last season, and who some have likened to a latter-day Julie Taymor. Confirmation of that assessment will have to wait until Ms. Klein’s future assignments, however, because THE ANTHEM is simply so overstated in so many ways that it would be best to put it aside as one of those missteps all artists are entitled to as they build their resumés.

Company of THE ANTHEM. Photo: Michael Blase.

Why all the sudden theatrical interest in THE ANTHEM is a question better minds than mine will have to figure out; last season alone, there were two adaptations (for my review of one of them, see Rand herself at one point considered writing it as a play instead of a novella, but the two versions of it I’ve seen offer little support for its dramaturgic possibilities.

The present adaptation takes great liberties with the text, converting it into something like a mash-up of Rand’s book, THE HUNGER GAMES, and BUCK ROGERS (or BARBARELLA, as my theatre companion noted). It’s set in a futuristic world of collectivism, after the world as we know it has been destroyed by war during the Unmentionable Times of the 21st century, where total conformity is the law of the land, and any sign of individualism will lead to serious punishment, perhaps even death. Children are raised by the state, and have no connections with their biological parents.

Ruling this society, within what is called the Grid, is a beautiful woman, Pandora (Jenna Leigh Green), known as First Citizen, in silver platform boots and high-collared black leather tunic. At her side is the second in command, Tiberius (Randy Jones), or Second Citizen, a mustachioed man in a black, multi-buttoned military tunic and officer’s hat, suggesting a figure from a Tom of Finland drawing. Given that the actor playing him was a member of the original Village People (he was Cowboy), this makes a certain kind of sense, I guess. Standing alongside them is the Executioner (Jamyl Dobson), an imposingly tall and muscular black man, his head partly shaved, dressed in tight black shorts, platform boots that make him even taller, and a dominatrix-like (let’s not argue about gender attributions here) leather bra fitted around his bulging pectorals. An offstage voice represents a computer that controls the society’s technical functions. In one of the show’s many unoriginal touches the voice is named Sirius. It appears that different well-known performers read Sirius’s words at each performance; Daphne Rubin-Vega was Sirius when I attended, but the voice is so robot-like and amplified the lines could be read by practically anyone, including the similarly named dame on my Iphone.

The regular citizens in this rigidly controlled society, where one says “we” instead of “I,” all wear skintight, silver Spandex uniforms with harlequin-like diamond designs; on their heads is a small silver garrison cap (like what a roller skating waitress might have worn at a drive-up food joint in the 50s). All they need is an oil can to complete this cutesy Tin Man ensemble. (Ms. Klein did the designs.) Unlike Rand’s original, the characters no longer have old telephone number-like names. Instead their appellations are plucked from classical antiquity; Liberty 5-3000 is called Prometheus (Jason Gotay), a name chosen for himself in Rand’s book, and Equality 7-2521 is now Athena (Ashley Kate Adams; in the novella, Liberty 5-3000 calls her Gaea). Such naming, it might be thought, is a disservice to Rand’s idea of giving people names with numbers as a way of diminishing their individuality. But in a campy show like this, such academic matters are of little import.

Hera (Remy Zaken) is the girl who has been selected as Prometheus's mate, only to lose him to the gorgeous Athena, daughter of the late rebel, Titus the Transgressor; Athena lives in the Uncharted Forest with her band of rebels outside the Grid and free of its control. It’s there that Prometheus meets her when he’s punished for his independent thinking by being sent to sweep leaves. Prometheus manages to avoid being executed because . . . well, there’s a big reveal  involving Pandora that tells us why. Prometheus, designated by the rulers to be a lawyer despite his scientific inclinations, eventually reinvents the light bulb, but when he presents it for approval it's rejected, inspiring him to run off and join Athena and the forest people.

Athena, dressed something like Wonder Woman, wears a rather memorable cape made of a filmy gold fabric that she manipulates like wings, with attachments at her wrists. Like everything else in this over-the-top show, she overdoes the flapping business, diminishing its effect, but the image of the statuesque Ms. Adams in her flaring cape is nevertheless indelible.

War breaks out between those inside and those outside the Grid, the latter representing totally free thought and, I imagine, the advantages of capitalistic philosophy, although this is not of particular concern. On the other hand, the work concludes with the victorious rebels celebrating not simply freedom of thought and independence of behavior, but anarchy, a word celebrated in song and on video screens, where it is flashed over and over. I’m not sure why anarchy has been chosen as the story's ultimate goal, but the Rand specialists say it's something to which her brand of libertarianism was strongly opposed. The word emphasized at the end of her book isn't anarchy but “ego.” The plot, in essence, is an anthem to this concept.

Regardless of whatever political message this raucous hodgepodge intends to convey, it seems mainly interested in the theatrical possibilities of telling its story through a rock-inflected score using extensive choreography and visual effects. Robert Andrew Kovach’s scenic design, sometimes dominated by a mirrored disco ball, converts the acting area into a modernistic, chrome-dominated, sci-fi environment, but it does so with a shmear of cheese. Kryssy Wright provides a lot of colorful lighting effects; there are also strobes used during a slow-mo fight scene. Very little on view, however, is surprising or original, which can be said as well of the music, which is consistently derivative, only sporadically melodic, overly loud, and instantly disposable. The challenge of singing the clunky lyrics to Ms. Rockwell’s tunes must have been a great one for the performers, who often seem to be laboring in a who-can-sing-loudest contest. There are some honest to goodness talents here, such as Mr. Gotay, but the material is simply too banal and overwrought for anyone to bring to it even a semblance of life. Ms. Klein’s decision to have much of the dialogue played as broadly as possible to suggest some kind of stylized manner of speaking sterilizes any germ of nuance and subtlety that might have been lurking in the shadows. THE ANTHEM will not be remembered for its acting.

Ms. Klein makes extensive use of her choreographic abilities, which include not just standard dance routines but a roller skating number and several sequences using the kind of aerial ballet so common now in circus performances, where lithely muscular acrobats do wondrous routines on ropes and hanging fabrics. These are employed as a way of making the forest scenes take on something of a magical atmosphere, reminiscent of A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM. But they do little to enhance the plot and eventually come to seem little more than a self-indulgent directorial gimmick.

With two versions of ANTHEM now under my theatergoing belt, I hope the next one I encounter is the one that starts, “O, say can you see. . . .”  At least that one has a tune to which you can sing along.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

13. Review of RED-EYE TO HAVRE DE GRACE (May 27, 2014)


Once upon a Tuesday not so dreary, I wandered not so very weak and weary over to the New York Theatre Workshop, where RED-EYE TO HAVRE DE GRACE, a 90-minute, intermissionless, musical play, or play with music, about Edgar Allan Poe, is giving some visitors goose bumps. Poe, the 19th-century poet and writer of Gothic mystery tales, among other literary accomplishments, died under mysterious circumstances at 40 in October 1849, impoverished, laudanum-addicted (factually questionable), and mentally unbalanced, after being found in a Baltimore street wearing someone else’s clothes and being too incoherent to explain what had happened to him. The mysterious circumstances leading to his death inspired a group called Lucidity Suitcase Intercontinental to create this piece of devised theatre, which, according to the program, has been in development since 1996, with its principal progress beginning in 2004. Various collaborators came and went over this period, and a full version of the piece was produced in 2012 at the FringeArts Festival Philadelphia, with another staging being given at ArtsEmerson in Boston in 2014 before arriving on E. 4th Street in April.
Allesandra L. Larson, Ean Sheehy. Photo: Johanna Austin.

The team officially credited with the work’s creation consists of Thaddeus Phillips, the director and set designer; Jeremy Wilhelm, who acts and sings in it, as well as playing the clarinet and guitar; his brother, David Wilhelm (the siblings are billed as Wilhelm Bros. and Co.), who plays the piano, upright and grand, and wrote the music; Sophie Bortolussi, who did the choreography; Ean Sheehy, the excellent actor who plays Poe, and looks very much the part; and Geoff Sobelle. What they've fashioned is a marvelously theatrical, non-linear, barely narrative-driven, sung, danced, and spoken performance, which, while definitely possessed of haunting beauty, failed to strike any deep emotional chord in me.

It uses a simple scenic environment of black and red curtains, three tables whose tops are made of doors, so the tables can be moved about by the actors to represent, by the way they’re angled, a multiplicity of locations; an old bed (first seen hanging from above); and various other things suggesting found properties. Drew Billiau’s highly imaginative lighting design makes abundant use of low intensity electric bulbs (even though they didn’t exist in 1849); combined with Robert Kaplowitz’s wide-ranging sound effects, many of them coming from the actors and musical instruments, they help evoke the nightmarish world at the heart of RED-EYE TO HAVRE DE GRACE. One of Mr. Kaplowitz’s gems is a recording of Neil Diamond’s “Done Too Soon,” in which E.A. Poe’s name is mentioned among those of other famous people who (mostly) passed away too young.

Poe married his 13-year-old cousin, Virginia Clemm, in 1835 (“It was a different time,” we’re told), but she succumbed to tuberculosis 11 years later; some of his most famous poems, such as “Annabell Lee,” were inspired by his grief over her loss. These are woven into the play, which is largely a tapestry of his writings, both poetic (like “Eldorado” and “Annabell Lee”—the latter sung in French) and otherwise, including “Eureka: A Prose Poem” (1849), whose pseudoscientific thesis bears a relationship to the big bang theory explaining the inception of the universe, although Poe never considered it anything but a work of art. Much use also is made of news accounts (including a verbatim account by a doctor who attended to Poe before his demise) and of Poe’s letters to his mother-in-law, “Muddy.” A vein of comic relief surfaces when, despite his interests lying elsewhere, the only thing anyone wants Poe to recite of his writings is “The Raven”; when he finally does it’s in a determinedly indecipherable tone delivered at warp speed.  

To help the audience follow the literary allusions, supertitles are projected above the stage; when the poems are presented, it's usually in the form of song, although the singer is not the actor playing Poe but Jeremy Wilhelm, who plays multiple roles, all while wearing the khaki uniform of a National Parks Ranger named Steve. That’s because he serves as a sort of guide to the production, appearing at the start with a clipboard and pencil, Ranger hat on his head, as if he were introducing the play as part of his duties as a guide at Philadelphia's Edgar Allan Poe Museum. Speaking in dry, rapid, non-actorly speech, he seems every bit the friendly, quite humorous museum docent until he suddenly begins singing Poe’s “The Conqueror Worm” in a semi-operatic voice once the action of the play proper begins. In the main, the piece is a dark, feverish vision of how Poe presumably spent his last days. These are mostly aboard a train he mistakenly took to Havre de Grace when he thought he was headed for New York on a speaking tour.

Among the visually compelling takeaways is the speechless but marvelously expressive dancer Alessandra L. Larson, dressed in filmy white (the costumes are by Rosemarie McKelvey), who represents the dreamlike spirit of Poe’s late, beloved wife, and who appears in a variety of sinuously odd ways to dance with Poe, often winding herself around him in surprising configurations choreographed by Ms. Bortolussi; at another point, dressed in a flaring red gown, and fitted with stilts, she does a flamenco-inspired dance with him. At one point, after Poe has sat down and placed a piece of grass-like carpeting under his feet, she appears from under the floor through slits in the matting, an image reminiscent of Laura’s entry in John Tiffany's recent Broadway revival of THE GLASS MENAGERIE, where she enters through a couch.  

As these notes suggest, there’s much here to admire from an aesthetic point of view. Dramatically, however, none of it affected me the way a good reading of any Poe short story or major poem would. Seeking another opinion, I asked that damned bird sitting above my chamber door, “Is there—is there a hit on E. 4th Street—tell me—tell me, I implore!” Quote the raven, “Clever bore.”

Saturday, May 24, 2014

12. Review of THE CITY OF CONVERSATION (May 22, 2014)


How often can you expect to see a play the majority of whose dialogue concerns American politics, and find your eyes brimming over with tears throughout the final scene? For all its power and importance, I don’t think you’ll have such a reaction at ALL THE WAY, Robert Schenkann’s hit play about President Johnson. There’s a much stronger chance you’ll be thus affected, however, by Anthony Giardina’s intense, emotionally moving, yet often extremely funny THE CITY OF CONVERSATION, being given a superlative performance at Lincoln Center’s Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater. This is because the political arguments, for all their intrinsic interest, are the catalyst for a family drama in which differences in beliefs, and the conviction with which these beliefs are held, can rip loved ones apart. A similar drama could conceivably be written about other ways, such as religion, in which we choose to disagree with one another. Thankfully, Mr. Giardina has found a splendid way to use politics as his background, and the results make for first-rate dramatic fireworks.

Jan Maxwell. Photo: Stephanie Berger.
Jan Maxwell rises yet another step higher in the echelons of New York’s top stage actresses in the role of Hester Ferris, a glamorous, left-leaning, Pamela Harriman-like Washington hostess. Her dinner parties are known for their ability to bring politicians of disparate stripes together in congenial surroundings that allow them to work out differences in a bipartisan way that the more hostile world of Capitol Hill offices and conference rooms makes difficult. Into Hester’s exquisitely appointed Georgetown townhouse (designed by John Lee Beatty, at the top of his game) arrive Hester’s son, Colin (Michael Simpson) and his beautiful , blonde fiancée, Anna Fitzgerald (Kristin Bush), both of them just having graduated from the London School of Economics, and ready to join the Washington establishment. But, it soon turns out, Anna holds conservative political views and Colin, despite Hester’s liberal stances, has gone over to the other side.
Kristin Bush, Michael Simpson, Jan Maxwell. Photo: Stephanie Berger. 

The first of the two-hour play’s three scenes takes place in September 1979, during the waning days of the Carter presidency, damaged by his speech on American "malaise," when Hester is involved in efforts to support Ted Kennedy’s bid to challenge Carter for the Democratic nod. She's hosting a dinner for Kentucky Senator George Mallonee (John Aylward), a Republican, hoping to get him to sign a bill put forward by Senator Kennedy. The play then moves forward eight years to October 1987, during the Reagan years, when the issue at stake is the nomination of Judge Robert Bork as Associate Justice of the Supreme Court, a choice viewed as anathema by Hester, but strongly supported by Colin and Anna, now his wife; both hold jobs in the Republican administration  (he as a New Hampshire senator's staffer, she in the Justice Department) and angrily object to Hester’s doing all she can to torpedo the appointment. So vehement is their conflict that--in a precarious turn toward melodrama--the couple use their six-year-old son, Ethan (Luke Niehaus), the apple of his grandma’s eye (and the target of her political lessons), as a pawn to get their way.

Luke Niehaus, Beth Dixon, Jan Maxwell. Photo: Stephanie Berger.

In the final scene, set in January 2009, it’s the evening of President Obama’s inauguration, and Ethan (played by Mr. Simpson), now an award-winning, 27-year-old Bronx schoolteacher, has come to Washington to attend one of the inauguration parties. He and his partner, Donald Logan (Phillip James Brannon), a black doctoral candidate writing his dissertation about the decline of modern liberalism, stop by to visit Hester, whom Ethan hasn’t seen in over two decades. Hester, despite her advanced age, remains as feisty as ever, and, given her constant battles on behalf of the rights of gays, blacks, and women, the occasion of Obama’s election offers considerable opportunity for reflection and reconciliation.

The play, whose time spanning structure recalls Richard Greenberg’s THE ASSEMBLED PARTIES of the 2012-2013 season, sizzles with pointed political repartee as liberals and conservatives spar with one another. Mr. Giardina captures the increasing divisiveness in American political discourse over the past 40 or so years; once we get into the Reagan years, the air virtually reeks of acrimony and disgust, making for some superheated arguments. Ms. Maxwell’s opinions about Judge Bork spew forth with raw fury and frustration, but while Mr. Giardina tries to give the conservatives some humanity, they are dangerously close to being mere straw men set up for liberal self-congratulation. As a liberal, I was delighted by the one-two punches landing on the opposition’s chin but always with the awareness that the set-up was rather artificial, and that any audience member who stood on the red state side of the aisle was probably squirming and ready to put on the gloves.

This inclination to arrange matters to favor Hester’s positions becomes most apparent in the final scene. Much as Hester and Ethan’s reunion and rapprochement is deeply touching, it’s hard not to  notice the playwright’s manipulations in having Ethan turn out to be gay (hinted at earlier when the six-year-old Ethan’s choice of videos is CINDERELLA), with his partner a black historian of modern liberalism, and in having Hester forcibly support the couple’s plans to marry. There’s a mechanical predictability here that simply seems too convenient.

But this is a play, after all, and its ultimate test is how deeply it affects you while you’re watching it. THE CITY OF CONVERSATION, crisply directed by Doug Hughes, is absorbing from beginning to end, even as you’re noting various artificialities along the way. It’s the kind of play whose quality registers so quickly that you can barely wait for the intermission to share your enthusiasm with someone else. Mr. Giardina has excellently encapsulated the principal issues he confronts, and he has put richly listenable words in the mouths of all his characters. Ms. Maxwell’s Hester dominates, of course, with her fashionable clothes and hairstyles; her salty defense of her ideas; her love for her son (despite being fully aware of his mediocrity); her deep devotion to her grandson; and her rancorous attitude toward her ambitious daughter-in-law, whom she compares to the title character in ALL ABOUT EVE.

Kristin Bush as Anna gives a razor-sharp picture of a politically savvy, ruthless charmer, dodgy and seductive at the same time; ultimately she becomes head of the National Endowment for the Humanities (referred to by Hester with cutting sarcasm on the final word). As Jean Swift, Hester’s Arkansas-accented sister and general factotum, Beth Dixon’s adept underplaying offers a perfect balance to Ms. Maxwell’s dramatics. Michael Simpson does a fine job as Colin, but his grown-up Ethan remains too close to his portrayal of his father in scene one. There are well-honed performances by Mr. Aylward as the Kentucky senator; Barbara Garrick as the senator’s snide, bluegrass-accented wife; Kevin O’Rourke as Chandler Harris, the attractive politician with whom Hester is having a longtime affair; and Mr. Brannon as Ethan’s partner.

Although Mr. Beatty’s living room set makes a strong impression, its appearance in 2009 doesn’t seem much altered from that of the earlier years. Even the old, boxy TV, situated in an unlikely corner of the room, is the same, which seems unlikely given Hester’s continued interest in public affairs. Catherine Zuber’s costumes are effective for 1979 and 1987, but Ms. Maxwell’s appearance in the 2009 scene as a dowdy old crone in a terrible wig that makes her look like Norman Bates’s mother in PSYCHO seems surprisingly inappropriate for a woman always so particular about her appearance. It’s one of the few wrong notes in what is otherwise a visually satisfactory production.

THE CITY OF CONVERSATION makes palpable the old saw about how “all politics is personal.” Audiences will appreciate it for its tangy talk, its fine ensemble, its political attitudes (provided you share them), and its reflection of why, increasingly, family get togethers are often prefaced with, “please, let’s not talk politics.” I suspect it will stir some conversations of its own, regardless of which city you see it in.

Friday, May 23, 2014

11. Review of THE LOVESONG OF ALFRED J. HITCHCOCK (May 22, 2014)


Great title, right? Unfortunately, David Rudkin’s play, being shown during the annual Brits Off Broadway Festival at 59E59, is not equally great; although written in blank verse, with brisk, telegraphese dialogue, it’s certainly not a theatrical equivalent to the T.S. Eliot poem whose title it appropriates. In fact, despite its receiving a number of strong reviews, I found it tediously undramatic, something only a devoted Hitchcockian or cinema buff could fully appreciate.  
Roberta Kerr, Martin Miller. Photo: Carol Rosegg.

The private life of Alfred Hitchcock has become rather public recently, what with movies about him starring Toby Jones (THE GIRL) and Anthony Hopkins (HITCHCOCK), both of whom were far more convincing as the portly English film director than the widely praised—and, despite padding, insufficiently portly—Martin Miller, who takes on the role in Rudkin’s drama. Unlike most other film directors, Hitchcock’s personality and presence are very well known because he cleverly exploited them as a way of increasing interest in his work. One of the delights of viewing his weekly TV series, “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” (1955-1965), was to see him walk on to the screen, accompanied by Bernard Hermann’s memorable theme music, to replace in the flesh an outline caricature of his protruding belly, drooping jowls, and pouting lower lip. But filmgoers already were familiar with what he looked like because of his habit of making very brief appearances in each of his films; going to a Hitchcock film was partly about getting caught up in the suspenseful tales he directed and partly about the game of finding Hitchcock, just as readers of the New York Times used to search for “Nina” in the lines of Al Hirschfeld’s caricatures.  
Tom McHugh, Martin Miller. Photo: Carol Rosegg.

Hitchcock’s personal appeal was also tied to his dryly droll sense of humor, deliciously edged in mortician’s black. This comical touch, however, is almost completely lacking in THE LOVESONG OF ALFRED J. HITCHCOCK, which Jack McNamara has directed from a script originally written as a “film for radio,” broadcast in 1993, and that was, as the playwright suggests, probably the first presentation of Hitchcock as a dramatic character. In 2012, the British company New Perspectives asked Mr. Rudkin to adapt his script for a touring production, but, having discarded the original script, he wrote a new version. Whereas in the first version, the only woman shown was Hitchcock’s wife (and collaborator), Alma, he now created the role of Emma, Hitchcock’s mother, to be played by the same actress (Roberta Kerr, excellent), suggesting through this device the Freudian connection between the two principal women in the director’s life.  

THE LOVESONG OF ALFRED J. HITCHCOCK is a psychological biodrama written in nonlinear style, moving freely back and forth in time, to investigate how Hitchcock’s personal experiences at home and in school might have influenced the themes and subjects of his films, such as his seeming obsession with unattainable blonde heroines whose names often begin with “M” (his mother’s name was Emma, it might be noted) and who frequently ended up dead. There are five actors involved, each, apart from Mr. Miller, playing more than one role. References in the play to Hitchcock’s most famous films are allusive, forcing you to rifle through your memories to determine which one is being talked about (VERTIGO? NORTH BY NORTHWEST? MARNIE? THE BIRDS?); audience members with only vague, if any, knowledge of the director’s work will be at sea for much of the time and will wonder what all the fuss is about.

The essentially plotless, internalized drama is like a fever dream in which we view Hitchcock visualizing in staccato bursts the development of his representative images; his love-hate relationship with his mother, who scared him to death as a child, a possible motive for the horrible fates his heroines encountered; his obsession with his weight; his sexual insecurities; his collaboration with screenwriters; his concern about his name (during an exchange with a screenwriter [Tom McHugh] he says “I have no cock”—his nickname was “Hitch”); his wife’s attempt to come to terms with their relationship by writing a memoir; his struggles with his guilty conscience, and so on.   

Scenically, the production is simple. Juliet Shillingford’s set is little more than an off-white, upstage screen, used mainly for fuzzy shadow play images; there are some brief verbal descriptions of moments from Hitchcock’s better-known films, but no actual clips are shown. Azusa Ono’s lighting offers effective visual shading to the general blandness, and Tom Lishman’s sound design provides the effects of birds, trains, theme music, and other sounds associated with Hitchcock’s work.

Hitchcock, of course, was famed as the great “Master of Suspense,” a notion nicely hinted at in a scene where the young Alfred is going to be punished by a Jesuit priest (Anthony Wise) at his school for breaking a window. The priest gives Alfred a choice as to whether he wants his caning now or at a designated time later in the day. Wishing to delay the pain for as long as possible, Alfred opts for the later time, and the priest then offers a detailed explanation of the way in which time seems to stretch as one waits for something to happen. It begins: 

Look up: toward that clock there

The face of the clock

That minute hand.

Look close: its point: it’s moving.

It overtakes the shorter hand beneath: . . .

yet draws that after . . .

From that 12 of noon there . . .

toward that 1 . . .

Yet all this while, you’re thinking:

how is it time can pass at all?

How can that future, other moment ever be here:

when this second, this instant,

this present Now . . .

is lasting so long?

Well before THE LOVESONG OF ALFRED J. HITCHCOCK ended, I, too, wondered, how. How indeed? And that’s about as much suspense as the production musters.

Friday, May 16, 2014

10. Review of PLAYING WITH GROWN UPS (May 15, 2014)


When Joanna (Trudi Jackson) walks out on her husband, Robert (Mark Rice-Oxley), and 9 week-old baby at the end of Hannah Patterson’s PLAYING WITH GROWN UPS, you brace yourself for the inevitable sound of a door slamming. When it does, you realize how far and yet not so far we’ve come since Nora walked out on Torvald at the end of Ibsen’s A DOLL’S HOUSE in 1879. In that play, a wife leaves her family because, oppressed by how wives are treated in a patriarchal society, she needs to assert her independence as a woman; in PLAYING WITH GROWN UPS, a wife does the same thing because, granted that independence (she’s in publishing), she’s unable to balance it with the responsibilities of motherhood and domesticity.  

  From left: Trudi Jackson, Alan Cox, Daisy Hughes, Mark Rice-Oxley. Photo: Carol Rosegg.

Then again, maybe Joanna’s simply suffering from postpartum depression, or as the play’s other woman, a preternaturally mature teenager named Stella (Daisy Hughes) suggests, post-traumatic stress syndrome (as the result of a Cesarean delivery). Nora’s departure, despite all the justification Ibsen gives her, can still prove difficult for some people to accept; much more disturbing is the case of Joanna, an avowed feminist whose anxiety seems more the result of someone living in an age when women are expected to be able to have it all. Instead,  she finds motherhood completely alien to her nature, especially when—despite Britain’s allowance to workers of a year of maternal leave—she’d rather be tending to the work of history’s neglected female writers.
Daisy Hughes, Alan Cox. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Ms. Patterson’s play, part of the annual Brits Off Broadway Festival at 59E59, begins with Joanna blasting Helen Reddy’s “I Am Woman” on her i-pod speakers to cover the sound of her colicky baby’s incessant crying. Soon, Robert, obtuse to his wife’s dysfunctional conduct, announces the imminent visit of his longtime friend and colleague, Jake (Alan Cox), and his date for an evening of dinner and drinks. Jake chairs the university film department in which Robert teaches, Jake specializing in Italian cinema and Robert in British social realism (“Jakes gets Monica Vitti and poor old Robert gets Rita Tushingham,” cracks Joanna); financial problems threaten the department’s future, as does the growing popularity of practical film studies over the theoretical/historical subjects studied by Jake and Robert, which makes them “dinosaurs.” Jake, Robert, and Joanna are all about 40, but Jake’s companion is a 17-year-old high school girl (16 in the script but adjusted for American sensibilities). Jake, an unregenerate bachelor, once was Joanna’s lover, but she opted for marriage to the more stable material represented by Robert. Alone for a moment, Joanna and Jake begin to embrace but her leaking breast milk soils their clothes and, equally disgusted, they leap apart. 

All the action transpires in a living room around drinks and conversation (and offstage wailing, heard on a baby monitor), in a way mildly reminiscent of a defanged, only sporadically venomous WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF? They talk about their work, the department, their pasts, male-female differences, the difficulties of having a career and raising a family (“Bring back wet nurses,” says Joanna), and Joanna’s paranoiac belief that being a mother makes her “nothing” in people’s eyes. Stella, the daughter of a divorced psychoanalyst, is the only one who seems grounded and realistic, although she’s not interested in going to university, and her relationship with Jake is clearly that of a girl in need of a father figure; she’s not only helpful but displays just the kind of nurturing personality that Joanna, brittle, unable to accept a compliment, and probably suicidal, is not. When Jake describes one of Joanna’s three principal traits as her motherliness, she resists the label. Stella, while not as knowledgeable as the others (she doesn’t recognize a poster image of Catherine Deneuve and can offer only Jane Austen as a major female writer she’s read), sometimes seems the most perceptive character, but the playwright has her delivering narrative commentaries to the audience at several places that feel unnecessarily intrusive.  

Most of the lines are no more than snippets of several words each, so the dialogue bounces briskly from one side of the court to the other. The play moves along, going nowhere fast, until a sudden explosion after Jake and Stella have gone to bed on the fold-out couch, but without having sex (she’s saving it). Robert, thinking otherwise (and possibly jealous), bursts in on them shouting about how morally awful what they’re doing is, and the play briefly comes to spirited life, implausible as the situation is.  

All four actors, smartly directed by Hannah Eidinow, do their best to breathe life into the 90 intermissionless minutes of this slight, meandering, dramedy. Still, they can’t do much to make it more than a passable interlude with a central character whose problem—while shared with countless other women—is expressed in a way that makes her seem either psychologically impaired or selfishly incapable of bearing the responsibilities she signed on for when she had a child in midcareer. Her husband may have had blinders on regarding the seriousness of Joanna’s issues, but he’s less to blame for them than Torvald is for Nora's.  

Simon Scullion’s set design is a simple arrangement of three black walls around several pieces of contemporary furniture and a rug. The walls, though, are interestingly highlighted by strips of masking tape indicating where the fireplace, cabinet, window, and so on would be, with the words for these things provided as well; indications are also provided of the heights of the walls and their molding placements, as if they were part of a blueprint. Perhaps the idea is to suggest a dollhouse structure in which the play’s schematics are worked out. Even the play’s title, PLAYING WITH GROWN UPS, suggests an ironic twist on the idea of playing with a dollhouse, with the child here being Stella and the dolls she plays with  the older, but far more childlike characters.
PLAYING WITH GROWN UPS tackles a subject of considerable topical concern. It does so, however, in a not particularly fresh or enlightening way, and the bearer of its message, Joanna, proves more alienating than sympathetic.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

9. Review of A LOSS OF ROSES (May 14, 2014)


There seems to be a strong temptation by producers and theatre companies looking for material to reclaim failed plays from the past and give them another chance. One may wonder why junk like the infamous MOOSE MURDERS would hold such an attraction, but when the playwright is a major figure, like William Inge, it’s quite easy to appreciate the impulse to revive plays like NATURAL AFFECTION, done Off Broadway last year, or A LOSS OF ROSES, now onstage at St. Clements Theatre. Surely, the thinking must go, a playwright so celebrated could not be responsible for such a flop. The cause, dear Brutus, must have lain in the stars, or the direction, or a union strike, or, as Inge himself believed was the case with A LOSS OF ROSES, the changes he was forced to make when readying the script for production. Sometimes, as in last season’s revivals of Van Druten’s LONDON WALL at the Mint or Priestley’s CORNELIUS at 59E59, the results make the effort worthwhile, but more often than not, as with the Inge plays, the revivals are as unsuccessful as the originals, perhaps more so.

Deborah Hedwall, Ben Kahre. Photo: Michael Portantiere.

The premiere of A LOSS OF ROSES in 1959 at least had the benefit of a new young actor, the 21-year-old Warren Beatty, as Kenny Baird—the 21-year-old, grease monkey son of a Depression-era, small-town Kansas widow, Helen (Deborah Hedwall, giving the play’s only distinctive performance). Beatty was nominated for a Tony (and quickly became a movie star, beginning with SPLENDOR IN THE GRASS, script by Inge), but no such charismatic performer appears in the St. Clements revival, blandly directed by Dan Wankerman for the Peccadillo Theatre Company. Ben Kahre’s Kenny is pleasantly handsome in the Patrick Wilson mold, but his acting—which will win no awards—is prosaic, unpersuasive, and occasionally inaudible. Also struggling for a semblance of believability is Jean Lichty as Lila Green (first played by Carol Haney, the original “Steam Heat” dancer in Broadway’s PAJAMA GAME), the local girl who babysat Kenny and otherwise helped Helen out years before and who returns to stay with Helen and Kenny when her career as a tent show actress hits a snag. Lila will board with Helen and Kenny while waiting for her boyfriend, the slick Ricky Powers (Jonathan Stewart), the tent show company’s heavy, to find work for her in Kansas City. Lila is described by Inge as “an extraordinarily beautiful woman of thirty-two, blond and voluptuous, still with the form and vitality of a girl,” a description that sounds much more like Marilyn Monroe than anything Ms. Lichty, who previously played the role for the Arkansas Rep, can muster (and that the toothsome Carol Haney certainly didn’t  fulfill). The movie version, called THE STRIPPER (1963), was actually written for Monroe, although Joanne Woodward ended up playing the role, with Richard Beymer as Kenny. You’d have to be blind not to see trouble brewing in the setup of having the rebellious, hormone-fueled Kenny sharing a small house with this attractive and kind, yet troubled, older woman; when the inevitable sexual crisis arrives it’s almost anticlimactic.
Ben Kahre, Jean Lichty. Photo: Michael Portantiere.
Inge complained in the preface to the script's published version that production pressures forced him to revise the play against his will, for which he blamed its failure (it ran for little more than two dozen performances). Although he incorporated in the published script some of the more useful changes, he otherwise reverted to his original, particularly the play’s ending, which shifts the focus from Kenny’s decision to leave his mother and get a job elsewhere to Lila’s departure for well-paying but shameful work under Ricky’s management. The Peccadillo production is of this published script, but the play remains predictable and dreary. With its vulnerable, mentally unstable, romantically doomed, and suicidal heroine; its love-hate relationship between a lusty young stud and an attractive older woman; its Oedipal mother-son conflict, and so on (including the brief presence of a flamboyantly gay man), the characters and situations are too clearly reminiscent of Inge’s contemporary superior, Tennessee Williams. Williams's THE GLASS MENAGERIE, in fact, inspired Inge to become a playwright.

Harry Feiner, who did the sets, lighting, and projection design, has abandoned walls in his depiction of the Baird homestead, opting for a simple layout of kitchen furniture at stage right, living room couch (“davenport”) and so forth at center, and raised platform up left for the bedroom. Stage left is the front lawn area, and the space immediately upstage of the house also is out of doors. Dominating the set is a painted backdrop of the local town that, under Mr. Feiner’s lighting, changes color atmospherically any number of times; otherwise, however, the lighting is often dismally dark on the actors’ faces, sometimes making it impossible to see them clearly, especially in the upstage scenes. Marianne Custer’s costumes give a general sense of 1933. The doyen of wigmakers, Paul Huntley, did the ladies’ wigs, but Ms. Lichty’s is too untidy.

Inge had had a series of major hits in the 1950s, including such still revived plays as PICNIC, THE DARK AT THE TOP OF THE STAIRS, BUS STOP, and COME BACK, LITTLE SHEBA, but the decades to come proved unkind, beginning with A LOSS OF ROSES. Brooks Atkinson, the New York Times’s chief critic, wrote the following after Inge killed himself in 1973. “Although the environment of ‘A Loss of Roses’ was familiar, the play was dull. The problems and dilemmas of the characters did not matter. It was as if Mr. Inge had lost his gift of seeing living truths in obscure places. For all practical purposes, his career was over.” Sadly, seeing it now, well over half a century after it appeared, confirms Atkinson’s unhappy impression.