Saturday, August 30, 2014

57. Review of PLAYGROUND (August 29, 2014)


The Brick, 579 Metropolitan Avenue, Williamsburg, Brooklyn.
My first trip to The Brick, a tiny storefront theatre on Metropolitan Avenue in Williamsburg, was to see Derek Spaldo’s comedy-drama PLAYGROUND, which he also directed for its brief run of less than two weeks. The funky neighborhood is the ideal environment for Mr. Spaldo’s play, set largely in a Brooklyn bodega. PLAYGROUND is oddly engrossing despite all the ways it subverts our familiarity with conventional realistic dramaturgy and performance. Mr. Spaldo, who’s from Rutherford, NJ, cites iconoclastic writer-director Richard Maxwell as one of his influences. [Note: Mr. Spaldo has informed me in an e-mail that, while he has worked with Mr. Maxwell, "there is no specific language in any of our press releases that references Mr. Maxwell as an influence." I stand corrected; what follows, then, is my assumption of an influence, based on what I saw, and not on anything Mr. Spaldo has specifically acknowledged.] In an article called “Richard Maxwell and the Paradox of Theatre,” British academic Theron Schmidt discusses Mr. Maxwell’s work.
The seemingly simple aesthetic form of performances by Richard Maxwell and the New York City Players, in which actors speak and move with minimal emotional affectation and in which the scripts are constructed largely out of apparently insignificant elements of everyday speech, seems to baffle academic and popular critics alike. We read into these choices a set of apparent contradictions and paradoxical strategies which seem to challenge our conception of how theatre works. So Philippa Wehle in Theatre Forum and Robin Pogrebin in the New York Times both grapple with the curious way in which they come to have emotional investment in the characters in Maxwell’s plays, with Wehle asking “what is the appeal of these curious stock figures who barely move and who deliver their mundane monologues in a flat monotone […]?” (75) and Pogrebin puzzling that “[s]omehow the less demonstrative their behavior, the deeper they seem” (1). Paradoxically, [the characters]and their troubles seemed unusually vivid and moving.”
I’m not very familiar with Maxwell, and I don’t intend to make a close comparison of Mr. Spaldo with him, but I can verify that Mr. Spaldo’s play corresponds in a number of ways to what Mr. Schmidt just described.  
From left: WooJae Chung, Aron Canter, Sarah Willis, Michal Morin. Photo: James Benson.  
Let’s set the scene: the interior of The Brick is the standard one shared by many tiny Off-off venues, a narrow room, once a commercial establishment, boxed in by brick walls, with around 50 seats on risers. The seats face a spare acting space with a simple white panel for a backdrop, a rectangular folding table at stage right, a folding chair against the stage right wall, and two folding chairs upstage left. The only scenery visible is in your imagination, if even there. A few items, including a bottle of water, are on the table.   
The four characters are a scruffy, Korean-born high school senior and bodega employee named Chris Spinella (WooJae Chung); Chris’s 22-year-old bodega coworker, Ezekiel (Aron Canter); a girl in Chris’s English class, Kayley (Sarah Wills); and Dad (Michael Morin), Kayley’s father, who owns a gas station/garage. When the play begins and the lights (designed by Rachel Chatham) come up sharply, Chris and Ezekiel are standing next to each other, nearly shoulder to shoulder, facing front, holding a very, very long pause. After the dialogue begins, the actors, who are close enough physically to the characters they play to sustain credibility, generally perform while standing more or less rigidly, usually while facing the audience, and moving in semi-robotic fashion. The dialogue isn’t spoken robotically, however, and is usually inflected with believable emphases and intonations, but the very deliberate pacing and limited movement create a heightened reality that draws you in and grabs your attention. A fight toward the end is staged with deliberately simulated punches and kicks, yet, because it doesn’t hide its artificiality, is more powerful than many ambitiously realistic stage combats directed by specialists.
Surprisingly, given the dramatic flaccidity of the characters and plot, this formalized staging makes you focus more than you might expect on what the characters are saying. On the other hand, PLAYGROUND thankfully concludes after 50 minutes; any longer and longeurs would have set in. 
In an interview, Mr. Spaldo mentions his use of overheard speech as the basis for at least some of his dialogue. This gives the characters an abundant pool of authentic street talk, replete with the familiar profanities. On the surface, the conversations are about nothing of importance, but there are subtextual streams exploring—no, let’s make that expressing— issues of masculinity, parental responsibility, and personal aspiration among those with dead-end occupations. Just because they're there, though, doesn't mean these issues offer any form of enlightenment. The plot, which leads to an act of violence, is more like several slices of life (thin ones, at that) than a carefully constructed enterprise with fully articulated people. We learn as much as we need to know to sustain dramatic interest and then, with no clear problem having been set forth and no clear resolution to what appears to be an evolving relationship between Chris and Kayley, the play simply ends.
Here's a rough plot outline: Chris and Ezekiel, on a bus, talk about this and that, mainly Chris’s ex-girlfriend and the frequency with which Ezekiel masturbates. Kayley tells Dad that she’s enjoying school. He wants her to work at his gas station this weekend and she wants to go to a dance. Chris and Ezekiel chatter at the bodega about their unseen boss, Daveed, and about strategies for picking up girls. Kayley enters and recognizes Chris from class. He says he wants to "fuck" their teacher, to which she registers mild distaste. Dad complains about problems at his business; the work versus dance conflict returns. Dad goes to the bodega and asks for Daveed but is treated rudely by Chris. Chris later tells Ezekiel that Dad, a total stranger, might be gay; a mildly comic back and forth about homophobia and racism ensues. Kayley’s dance night is spoiled when her friend backs out. She’s not feeling well, so Dad, whose driving license has been suspended, is forced to pick her up by cab. Chris tries to kick Dad and Kayley out of the store. Chris mimes spray painting a wall (which I think is supposed to represent Kayley’s car). Kayley says Dad is mentally ill (although no sign of this has been visible). Dad fights with Chris and Ezekiel knocks Dad out. Chris apologizes, sort of, concluding with coarse references to Kayley’s body. The typically affectless Kayley says, “I don’t know how to respond to that. You hurt me.” Curtain.
The characters, despite their artificially imposed movements and demeanors, seem somehow familiar, but in a creepy way. They remind you of people you’ve encountered somewhere, but not of anyone you want to know. Creepiest of all is the ponytailed Chris with his disaffected attitude, his disregard for social niceties, his mumbled crudity and stupidity. The neon question of why a Korean born man raised in Flushing is called Chris Spinella is never raised, adding another layer of bizarreness to the goings on. Fortunately, Mr. Chung captures just the right note of alienation and cold arrogance to make Chris chillingly yet fascinatingly repellent. Almost as weird in a different way is Ms. Willis’s Kayley; at first, she seems the most sympathetic and redeemable character, but, despite her mild protestations at Chris's nastiness, and the tension in her relationship with Dad, she remains essentially disengaged, even when her father has been beaten to a pulp.
All the actors are fully committed to Mr. Spaldo’s approach, making the experience that much more problematic. You want to dismiss the play as shallow hokum but its peculiar atmosphere denies you the opportunity. Nonetheless, Mr. Spaldo’s style has severe limitations, and unless he has more substantial material with which to exercise it, I fear there'll be more brick walls in his future.  

Friday, August 29, 2014

56. Review of AND I AND SILENCE (August 28, 2014)



Regardless of its simple words, the title of Naomi Wallace’s AND I AND SILENCE, at the Signature Theatre, has an odd syntax that makes remembering it less easy than one might think. That may be because it derives from an Emily Dickinson poem, “I felt a Funeral, in my Brain,” where, with a comma missing in Ms. Wallace’s title, it appears in the following verse:

As all the Heavens were a Bell,
And Being, but an Ear,
And I, and Silence, some strange Race
Wrecked, solitary, here—

Neither the poem nor Dickinson figure in any noticeable way in the play. The relationship of the poem’s meaning, which is said to describe the mind’s descent into madness, to the play’s themes seems tenuous at best, but I’ll leave it to the more literarily inclined to enlighten me about the connection.

From left: Rachel Nicks, Samantha Soule. Photo: Matthew Murphy. 

If the title’s difficult to remember, so, I’m afraid, will be the play. Ms. Wallace, a much lauded, award-winning dramatist best known for ONE FLEA SPARE, about the black plague, has written a lethargic and—despite dramatic occurrences—undramatic two-hander that neither its director, Caitlin McLeod, nor its talented cast has been able to bring to theatrical life. Its 12 scenes go back and forth from 1950, when Jamie (Trae Harris as Young Jamie, Rachel Nicks as the older Jamie) and Dee (Emily Skeggs as Young Jamie, Samantha Soule as her older counterpart), are 17-year-old convicts, to after they’re released nine years later, when they’re living together in poverty. Scene 1 begins in the present, in their apartment; scene 2 reverts to the past, in Jamie’s cell; and the following scenes alternate between the apartment and the jail cell, until scenes 11 and 12, when the past and present collide in the same space.
From left: Trae Harris, Emily Skeggs. Photo: Matthew Murphy. 

Rachel Hauck’s barebones, sandwich-style set, which places the audience on either side of the raised platform stage, makes little differentiation between the apartment and the prison cell, apart from the placement of the bed. This satisfies the play’s metaphoric emphasis on the characters’ dilemma, which is that once they’ve been released from prison they find that life on the outside is equally imprisoning, and that freedom is more an illusion than a reality. 

Dee and Jamie’s problems are exacerbated by the particularities of their interracial relationship, which begins when the still not quite 17 Dee, a cheerfully optimistic—and illiterate—white girl, sees something in Jamie, a cynical black girl, that inspires her to befriend the initially reluctant Jamie. Dee was imprisoned for stabbing her father, a brute who threw her mother down the stairs. Jamie was accessory to a robbery committed by her brother. This being the 1950s, the racial implications of the girls’ friendship make prison life tough, but post-prison life is even tougher. Dee and Jamie’s accents (kudos to dialect coach Charlotte Fleck) strongly intimate we’re somewhere in the south (the playwright is from Kentucky).    

During the prison scenes the girls dream of life outside, planning how they’ll make a living as servants, and constantly rehearsing their servant duties. Jamie assumes the role of teacher, insisting on how they must do their cleaning chores with good cheer, style, and grace. They also rehearse scenarios about how to deal with ill treatment by their employers. Role playing of this nature also informs their life as ex-cons, during which they obsessively practice their routines and how they’ll handle their employers’ whims. In neither the prison nor apartment scenes is there much dramatic thrust, however. Apart from the role-playing sequences (reminiscent of Genet’s THE MAIDS), we get anecdotal exposition that tells us of what the characters have been experiencing in their lives, such as all the times Dee gets sent to “the hole” for her infractions, or the nasty trick she plays on a guard in retaliation for his drinking her juice every day.  

On the outside, the women undergo various hardships in trying to get employment; when they do get work, they become the victims of their employers’ crude behavior. Their struggle to retain their dignity leads them to lose or quit their jobs and eventually end up with no money, unable either to pay their rent or buy food. (No mention is made of social services that might assist them.) Ms. Wallace tends to tell us things rather than show them, however, and the play becomes boringly repetitive as it shifts back and forth in time with only a minimum of dramatic thrust moving us forward. Finally, the irony of a situation in which freedom has become even more of an imprisonment than official incarceration is embodied when the space becomes both the prison cell, on the day that Dee is released, and the apartment, as Dee and Jamie find another kind of release from their torment. Unfortunately, the contrast between the joy of one situation and the tragedy of the other fails to carry the intended emotional punch. 

This may be because, despite the play's superficial air of “reality,” there’s a somewhat distanced poetic tone to the dialogue and behavior that make it difficult to share the feelings of the characters, or care much about them; they seem more like the idea of characters than the characters themselves. Also, apart from one or two vivid moments, such as when Dee recounts being forced to fellate her employer in a scene that morphs into the play’s only overtly lesbian sexual sequence, the production is visually dull, with little for the characters to do on a set whose only prominent feature is a narrow bed.
Ms. Hauck has added a two-tiered steel staircase at one side of the acting platform to suggest prison steps, and there is some use of the theatre’s overhead corridors to further emphasize the prison ambience. When either set of characters is offstage, they huddle or sit nearby, visually present, but in their own private world, and the scenes are staged so that, increasingly, one pair of actors comes into the set as the others prepare to leave. Bradley King’s lighting and Elisheba Ittoop's sound design and original music do a fine job of enhancing the atmospherics.

AND I AND SILENCE, which runs 90 intermissionless minutes, is an unexceptional cross between prison drama and Dickensian socio-drama. Its performances are satisfactory but unmemorable. The Signature plans to do two more works by Ms. Wallace this season. There’s nowhere to go but up.


Wednesday, August 27, 2014

55. Review of POOR BEHAVIOR (August 26, 2014)



The number of new mainstream shows—those that aren’t part of the several summer festivals—opening in July and August is traditionally small when compared to the rest of the year, but the 2014 crop has been decidedly spare. Theresa Rebeck’s POOR BEHAVIOR, at the Duke Theatre in a Primary Stages production, which I saw last night, was only my sixth show this August; by the same time last year it would have been the 13th. Given Ms. Rebeck’s substantial career as a Broadway and Off-Broadway playwright with 15 significant productions, and her contribution to network TV (the ill-fated “Smash”), there was reason to hope that my return to the aisle after a two-week hiatus would be a rewarding one. Of the over 50 shows I’ve reviewed since the new season began, I can count on one hand the number I strongly recommended. Sad to say, POOR BEHAVIOR will keep my other hand unoccupied. I watched it with increasing tension and discomfort as its four capable actors, working under the direction of Evan Cabnet, struggled with its strained dialogue and awkwardly dramatized situations.
Katie Kreisler, Brian Avers. Photo: James Leynse.
There’s nothing earthshakingly original in the play’s essential premise. It’s set in the upstate New York country house (nicely realized in Lauren Helpern’s detailed design) of Ella (Katie Kreisler) and Peter (Jeff Biehl), an Upper West Side couple who’ve invited their friends, Maureen (Heidi Armbruster) and Ian (Brian Avers), up for the weekend. The problem is that Ms. Rebeck’s characters, with the possible exception of one, are so revved up and annoying, and the playwright’s maneuvering of the events so artificial, that you watch with clenched teeth as if you’re biting a bullet to get you through the ordeal.
Heidi Armbruster, Brian Avers. Photo: James Leynse.

For starters, much of the action revolves around a bunch of gourmet muffins made from a combination of off-putting ingredients (tomato confit, peach mango, peppercorn, and the like) that Maureen and Ian bring along. Much stage time is devoted to searching for the muffins and mocking their inedibility. The comic business surrounding the eating (and spitting out) of the muffins is tiresomely unfunny, but on the simple level of plausibility it’s impossible to believe that Ella and Peter would have guests over for the weekend with barely any food on hand for the occasion. (After 30 years of vacation home ownership, I know whereof I speak.) Talk about food and tea takes up a lot of stage time (Lipton’s gets a blast from the upscale Ella as “pretend tea”), but, apart from a few muffin chunks nothing goes down anyone’s throat except a whole lot of wine. Peter keeps offering to make scrambled eggs but the only time a frying pan is used it’s for anything but its original intention.
Heidi Armbruster. Photo: James Leynse.

The play begins in the middle of a late night argument between Ella and the loquaciously provocative Ian, a cynical Irish expat with now standard unshaved macho appeal, about the validity of such terms as “goodness” and “beauty,” words to which the cynical Ian ascribes little meaning; the characters have been guzzling wine all night, but the hifalutin discussion has the empty pretentiousness one usually associates with smoking weed. Ian is especially given to pontificating and philosophizing (Ella later accuses him of lecturing), but most of what he says carries the aroma of blarney; he’s little more than a deft manipulator with an increasingly grating brogue. He sounds like he might be a teacher, but Ms. Rebeck carefully avoids identifying any of the characters by what they do for a living.
Jeff Biehl. Photo: James Leynse.
There’ll be many other arguments, with voices raised, among this quartet of so-called friends, much of it forcing us to wade hip deep through tons of Ian’s ponderous blather about morality, American values, marriage, and God knows how many other scattershot topics. Characters constantly apologize for their poor behavior—including lies and factual exaggerations meant to keep everyone (including the audience) off balance—apologies that are and are not accepted depending on how sincere they’re understood to be. The weekend quickly devolves into a weekend from hell, with Ian and Maureen strongly requested to go home. When your hosts are so sick of you they tell you to leave, most folks would head for the Taconic as fast as they can; not so here, I’m afraid. 

At its dramaturgic heart, this is really a dramedy about infidelity and marital discord. The inciting incident, as the playwriting manuals used to call it, occurs when Ian and Ella are spotted by the sharply jealous Maureen in an essentially innocent but seemingly compromising embrace. Ian has just finished telling Ella about his father’s recent death—which, given their long relationship, would seem to be the kind of thing she’d have known about well before this weekend. Nevertheless, feeling guilty about having gone neither to visit his dying father nor to his funeral, his emotions seem to get the better of him and the hug that follows is prompted more by Ella’s wish to comfort him than by sexual desire. Or is it? We learn soon enough that Ian and Ella had a brief encounter in a closet a year ago, an encounter that apparently didn’t go beyond kissing but that Ian has been obsessing about ever since and which he even inflates to the level of an affair. Ella sharply denies that it meant anything serious and insists that she’s a faithful wife, but, as time will tell, she’s on the verge of further poor behavior. Peter, told about the alleged affair, stands by his wife as long as he can, but Ms. Rebeck makes sure to let us know he’s got a temper he’s learned to keep under control.

POOR BEHAVIOR is the kind of play where the playwright must find believable ways to get people offstage so that others can have the stage to themselves, and to have confidential conversations others shouldn’t overhear. Ms. Rebeck only occasionally succeeds in carrying out these tasks acceptably; she’s certainly not helped by Mr. Cabnet’s allowing the actors to have private conversations that sound as if they could be heard by people in the house next door, not to mention someone in an adjoining room. And, as in so many plays of this small-cast type, as scenes play themselves out, your playgoing radar will warn you when someone’s about to enter, especially when they’ve been off for too long on some artificially concocted mission, like searching for missing muffins.  

Katie Kreisler makes Ella a believable presence; she has intelligence and New York authenticity that goes a long way toward making her character sympathetic, which is why I was unable to accept the poor behavior Ella displays toward the end. Ms. Kreisler’s Ella simply seems too smart for that kind of thing. Of course, Ms. Rebeck may be concerned to show that whoever we are, we’re all able to behave poorly. Mr. Avers’s Ian has an effective enough Irish accent, but the guy is such a smug, self-confident bastard (he thinks Peter is the smug one), he gains very little sympathy, and makes it difficult to see what draws Ella—despite her protestations—to him. Heidi Armbruster brings a variety of colors to Maureen, considered by the others as psychologically unbalanced with suicidal tendencies (Ian says she’s “bonkers”), but Maureen—who insists Ian married her either for her money or a green card and now wants a divorce—never comes into focus sharply enough and her hysteria seems forced. The sanest, most stable character is Peter, played by Mr. Biehl with controlled emotion until circumstances push him over the cliff and he explodes with foreshadowed, if contrived, ferocity.   

Like those peppercorn, tomato confit, and peach mango muffins that take up so much of the bickering, POOR BEHAVIOR will have you poking at it, looking for the edible parts and spitting out the rest. Unfortunately, the proportions of one to the other may not leave you very satisfied when your meal is over. I recommend a strong cup of Lipton’s to wash it down.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014


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The subject of Iceland’s horrific financial crash in 2008 would seem very far from what one might expect to see dramatized in a New York show, but that’s exactly the inspiration behind a wonderful piece of recent theatre art. Unfortunately, the show I’m referring to, SAGA, was performed locally in March 2013, and, despite being a puppet play, was vastly superior to the innocuous new rock musical based on the same crisis now playing at the Minetta Lane Theatre. This is REVOLUTION IN THE ELBOW OF RAGNAR AGNARSSON FURNITURE PAINTER, a work that never fulfills the imaginative promise of its quirkily overstuffed title, and despite some flamboyant artistic touches strewn here and there, wastes a generally talented cast featuring stalwart Cady Huffman. 
From left: Graydon Long, Marrick Smith, Brad Nacht. Photo: Carol Rosegg.

Both SAGA and REVOLUTION, which I’ll call it for short, are highly theatricalized conceptual works that seek to explore the ramifications of the monetary meltdown via nonrealistic, even surrealistic means. As the show’s author (book, music, and lyrics), Ivar Pall Jonsson, told the New York Times, he wanted to tell the story without referencing “specific details and persons.” Executive producer Gunnlaugur Jonsson, the author’s brother (who also contributed to the story), said it was important to avoid being boring “because you have to explain complicated things. Doing it abstractly in a world that doesn’t exist, you can just get rid of all of that and get to the heart of the story.” All well and good, but when you make such a choice you have to be able to realize your conception in an artistically entertaining way. And sometimes simplicity leads to simplism.

The approach taken by SAGA is suggested in this paragraph from my review of it.

SAGA, at the Baruch Performing Arts Center, is a collaboration between Wakka Wakka Productions and the Nordland Visual Theatre company. The result is an exceptionally powerful puppet play, filled with tragedy, comedy, violence, and sex. Under the direction of Gwendolyn Warnock and Kirjan Waage, half a dozen puppeteers, all dressed in black with huge horse’s heads masking their faces, manipulate hand puppets and bunraku-like puppets that resemble Jim Henson’s creations to tell a story set in Iceland in 2008, when that nation’s three major commercial banks collapsed, creating vast economic turmoil. We see the effects of the crash on one family, the father, Gunnar (Kirjan Waage); the mother, Helga (Andrea Osp Karlsdóttir); and their boy, Oli (Andrew Manjuck). Led on by the predatory lending practices of the banks, the family builds a large house, buys an expensive jeep, and in other ways takes on crushing debt, only to have it all ripped away in the tidal wave of financial ruin that crashes over them. Helga and Oli leave for Norway, where she gets work, and the marriage falls apart. Gunnar, aided by what seems a vengeful spirit of Iceland’s past, goes on a maniacal rampage against the bankers and anyone else he feels created the problem, and bloody mayhem ensues; even the spirit goading him on gets his. The story, although taking place in distant Iceland, could as easily represent our own nation’s recent plight.

In REVOLUTION, when the audience enters it sees a huge video projection on the upstage brick wall, and the metal scaffolding in front of it, showing the middle-aged Ragnar loafing like the giant “couch potato” he’s called in a voiceover. As the voiceover continues, a very elaborate and well-executed series of projections informs us that there are “many advanced societies” inside his body, and we see maps that takes us from “the huge plains of Texass” to places like Eyesockette, Knee York, Hipsburg, and the like, all the way to “the somewhat naïve backwater” of Elbowville, “where the friendly inhabitants make their simple living fishing for gigantic lobsters in the lymphatic channels.” Lobsters are a running image throughout, shown on flags, coins, and even as a collar on an official’s cloak. “Heads or lobsters?” asks someone when flipping a coin.
Kate Shindle, Brad Nacht. Photo: Carol Rosegg.

Once we’re introduced to this allegorical world, the joke quickly wears off and the efforts to milk it for laughs become increasingly stomach-churning. There’s even a twee bit where a cold virus (a bluish beach-ball covered with spiky protrusions rolled on stage by an oddly dressed stage assistant) is treated as a cute pet dog called Gunnar. Nor must I neglect to mention that because Ragnar owns a complete VHS collection of Robert Redford movies, Bob is the god of Elbowville, and lives in a divine place called Hollywood. In addition to the various scenes where his framed image is projected on the rear wall, people are always saying “Oh, my Bob” when something surprises them, or “Thank Bob,” when something good occurs. Of course, some dare to go so far as to deny Bob’s existence.
Marrick Smith (front), with cast of REVOLUTION IN THE ELBOW OF RAGNAR AGNARSSON. Photo: Carol Rosegg.

The show begins with a powerful image of someone blowing his brains out. This suicide serves as a sort of frame for the action, and the show returns to it toward the end. Soon we learn of the history of Elbowville, and of its founder’s legacy of “prosperity.”  Enter the three young brothers, Peter (Marrick Smith), Alex (Graydon Long), and Stein (Brad Nacht). A subplot emerges when the shy Alex and Brynja (Jesse Wildman), Peter’s girlfriend, are attracted to each other, setting up a brotherly rivalry. Fraternal relations involving each brother will undergo severe stress because of Peter’s manipulations.

Peter, boastful, self-centered, ambitious, and inventive, convinces Manuela (Cady Huffman), Elbowville's sexed-up blonde mayor (accompanied by Kolbein [Patrick Boll], her yes man), who wants to secure her legacy, to sponsor his Prosperity Machine, which produces Lobster Promissory Notes. “Oh. My. Bob. Oh, my Bob!” enthuses Manuela, who foresees “the age of affluence in Elbowville.” This machine, and its ability to produce promissory notes that can be loaned at will (all you need to do is sign a contract), creates a financial bubble that eventually is exploded when a credit rating company agent blows the scheme sky high as he sings:

Easy money
Is a dangerous thing.
It leads to bingeing and investing in some hare-brained

Everyone, including Peter's brother, Stein, and his wife, Asrun (Kate Shindle), go through an experience not unlike that of Gunnar's family in SAGA. This is Mr. Jonsson’s reductionist method of dramatizing Iceland’s financial panic and, despite the price that Peter eventually pays, the effect is trivialization, a fate SAGA managed to avoid. REVOLUTION goes off in other directions as well, but they only weigh the show down.
From left: Karli Dinardo, Zach Cossman, Rick Faugno (center), Danielle Kelsey. Photo: Carol Rosegg.

Director Bergur Ingolfsson’s lively production often has actors entering by rushing down the aisles (keep your feet inside if you're sitting there), and even includes some brief moments of interplay with spectators in the front rows. A five-member band (the Revolutionary Cellular Orchestra), situated upstage left, is led by Matt Basile and includes percussion, guitars, synthesizer, and piano. Mr. Jonsson’s derivative-sounding indie-rock music makes very little impact, and too many of the numbers are of the big-voiced, shouting variety. There’s little positive to say about the lyrics either, like those quoted earlier, or these, in a song the brothers sing when making an oath of mutual loyalty.

Our bond will never ever be torn.
We are brothers, until the day we die.
Let’s make an oath.
Let’s make an oath.
Let’s make an oath.

And more of the same, including another dozen iterations of “Let’s make an oath” and ending with “Whoah. We are brothers first, until we die. This is our oath.” Song after song remains on this level of triteness. Iceland’s biggest musical hit was MARY POPPINS so maybe they’re not ready for Sondheim yet.

Lee Proud, a British choreographer, is responsible for the various dance sequences, most of which are standard issue Broadway-style routines, but there’s a standout tap dance number. It makes an odd fit in this world, but it has a certain offbeat charm and is well executed.
Kate Shindle (left), Cady Huffman. Photo: Carol Rosegg.

The dialogue is as banal as the lyrics and, sometimes, painfully unfunny. Oscar Wilde has nothing to fear from remarks like Brynja’s, when asked where her pet cold virus is: “He’s at home. He has a bad cold. There’s snot everywhere. It’s a total mess,” to which Alex responds: “Well, I guess that goes with the territory. Just be careful not to be too sterile. They can easily die if they catch cleanliness.” Biological notions constitute most of what passes for humor, including a piece of art Manuela describes as “my uterus,” which she had bronzed after having a hysterectomy. In Mr. Jonsson’s universe hysterectomies are hysterical.

Most of the performers display strong voices and several, like Mr. Smith, are also skilled dancers. None, however, is able to overcome the cartoon exaggerations of their characters and bring them to life in an interesting way. The Tony-winning Ms. Huffman (THE PRODUCERS) acts and sings with her usual electric vivacity, but her Cruella Deville-like Manuela is a cliché and there’s not much she can do with it. It would be nice one day to see her in a role that didn’t focus on her as a voluptuous sex object. And also in one that doesn’t require her to say things like, “Do you find my uterus sexy?” Kate Shindle as Asrun also sings impressively, but she, too, has to play a character with very little character.
Cady Huffman. Photo: Carol Rosegg.

REVOLUTION’s production design looks more expensive than the average Off-Broadway show’s. Still, Peter Hlousek’s scenic design is the increasingly familiar one of a bare stage backed by a brick wall with bi-level scaffolding and stairs at either side. Mr. Hlousek is also responsible for the extensive and sometimes very sophisticated use of video and still projections, which are often memorable. Kudos go as well to lighting designers Jeff Croiter and Cory Pattak for their creation of a rather complex lighting system in the rock musical mode, including multiple criss-crossing beams of smoky light. A lot of attention has been paid to the costumes, by Hrafnhildur Anardottir and Edda Gudmundsdottir; the clothes, by and large, are in combinations of black and red, with heightened futuristic touches, mainly on the female characters, where black leather is much in evidence. Ms. Huffman’s final getup is more bizarre than attractive, which could also be said of Mr. Nacht’s jacket with its inflated shoulders (his character, we learn, can’t afford real shoulder implants).

What REVOLUTION IN THE ELBOW OF RAGNAR AGNARSSON needs is divine help from Bob Redford. We should all join Alex, Peter, and Stein when they pray to him: “Oh dear Bob of Hollywood, protect us! Oh thou Great Gatsby and Horse Whisperer in the sky. . . . I will be your Candidate even if I’m just Ordinary People. Let a River Run Through It.” I suspect, however, that Bob, if he were listening, might respectfully respond, "ALL IS LOST."

Saturday, August 9, 2014

53. Review of SUMMER SHORTS, SERIES B (August 7, 2014)



The second evening of one-acts in this year’s SUMMER SHORTS program at 59E59 Theaters, identified as Series B, includes new plays by two well-known playwrights, and one not yet as notable. The latter, Daniel Reitz, provides the second best play, “NAPOLEON IN EXILE,” while the best piece, “THE MULBERRY BUSH,” is by the solidly established, and often controversial, Neil LaBute. As for the weakest, and weak is not a strong enough word, we have “DOUBTLESS,” the once very popular Albert Innaurato’s return to playwriting after an absence of a quarter of a century.  

The program begins with “NAPOLEON IN EXILE,” directed by Paul Schnee, a two-hander about Evelyn (Henny Russell), the middle-aged mother of Corey (Will Dagger), a 25-year-old compulsive player of the video game “Mindcraft.” Evelyn, diagnosed with cancer, wants to feel that the maturity-challenged Corey is growing up and taking responsibility for his life. Bright as he seems to be, his lack of social skills prevent him from holding down even menial jobs, like cleaning toilets in an old age home; his future without Evelyn seems bleak, although he’s not ready to deal with this, or with any other real life problems; thus his total immersion in the fantasy world of violent video games. He’s also “a little tyrant,” a trait that inspires his mom to dub him “a little Napoleon.”

Will Dagger, Henny Russell. Photo: Carol Rosegg.

Ms. Russell gives a subdued, touchingly interiorized performance of Evelyn, who must struggle to communicate with her difficult son while facing her own mortality; she does so with a graceful blend of steel and velvet. Mr. Dagger plays Corey with a “Rain Man”-like affect, making it hard not to see him as mildly autistic in the idiot savant mode (he shows considerable dexterity with numbers). His wide eyes, baby face expressions, and slightly slurred speech are well done, but the play never tries to explains his condition, which is a given we must accept.

Second on the bill is Mr. LaBute’s “THE MULBERRY BUSH,” which brings no other play to mind so much as Edward Albee’s THE ZOO STORY. It’s a beautiful day in the park, and we see two benches. On one, there to eat his lunch, sits Bill (Victor Slezak), a nice-looking middle-aged man, clean-cut, and appearing every inch the model citizen. Seated next to him is Kip (J.J. Kandel), a somewhat younger man, who slowly strikes up a friendly conversation with Bill, although the older man, while polite, is reticent. A healthy chunk of dialogue consists of nothing but Bill and Kip deciding the difference, if any, between sprinkles and jimmies on an ice cream cone. All of this leads to Kip’s becoming, like Albee's Jerry, increasingly menacing as he pokes away at Bill’s well-mannered demeanor to expose his past history, which Kip thinks represents a threat that must be stopped. There's a brief but vivid bit of near-violence, and at the end, we must determine how we feel about Bill and what he’s been through.
Victor Slezak, J.J. Kandel. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
“THE MULBERRY BUSH” is certainly not a masterpiece like Albee’s play, but its taut and slow-burn style, with casually dropped in hints of the tension eating Kip, make it fairly gripping. Much credit must go to director Maria Mileaf for building the suspense as effectively as she does, and to the splendid actors, Mr. Slezak and Mr. Kandel, for playing their objectives so sharply.

Seeing these two plays should be sufficient for many theatergoers; they provide a full enough evening of theatre, and a mostly satisfying one, given the relative rarity of viable new one-acts. However, if audience members have something else to rush off to, I don’t think they need to feel guilty about doing so during the intermission, before the third play begins. In the way of a public service announcement I'd like them to know they'll have to sit through Mr. Innaurato’s “DOUBTLESS.” The title is intended to ignite recollection of the movie version of John Patrick Shanley’s DOUBT, starring Meryl Streep as a mother superior.    

“DOUBTLESS,” which comes off as a very poor man’s version of a Christopher Durang farce, seasoned with a heavy dose of Theatre of the Ridiculous, is a tasteless, blasphemous, and pathetically stale satire on the Catholic Church, among other hit-or-miss subjects. After witnessing it, my theatre companion, a professional director, couldn’t help texting me: “I . . . nominate that show for the worst play EV. ER.” To be honest, I’ve seen worse, but it’s no exaggeration to declare that “DOUBTLESS” is at the bottom of the new season’s barrel.

Mr. Innaurato gives us two hugging, kissing, ass-grabbing, lesbian teaching nuns, Sister (Tasha Guevara) and Mother (Brenda Currin), both fully decked out in habits and wimples (Sister has upgraded her ensemble with gold high-top sneakers). The couple is preparing to run off together once Father (Andrew Glaszek) and Brother (David Beck) bring them the money and a Lamborghini Aventador. Meanwhile, as they huddle in a corner of a New York Catholic complex, the priests are engaging offstage in an Opus Dei orgy, where they’re having trouble finding, as they say, “salamis big enough for [Supreme Court Justice Antonin] Scalia’s asshole.” Hey, you won’t mind if I skip the plot summary and not have to relive it, will you?
Dana Watkins, Brenda Currin. Photo: Carol Rosegg.

Let’s just say much of the play deals with the presence of Jesus (Dana Watkins), a hunky, bare-chested vampire in the sexy Dracula tradition, and that there’s gobs of dirty talk; religion-bashing; quips about priestly perversions; a gay priest and brother in black tight shorts who wear clerical collars the way Chippendale dancers wear bow ties; anti-Republican diatribes; silly jibes aimed at Justin Bieber, Anne Romney, and Meryl Streep; campy references to Broadway musicals; the clichéd use of Philadelphia as a punching bag; ethnic quips at the expense of Italian-Americans; and tediously unfunny banter that thinks referring to THE BELLS OF ST. MARY’S as THE BALLS OF ST. MARY’S is droll, or that the way to lay them in the aisles is to call the medieval nun-playwright, Hrosvitha of Gandersheim, the David Mamet of the 12th century. Even if you agree that the targets of the playwright’s satire deserve to be poked, the thrusting is so sophomoric that the blows land like cotton balls.

Really putting the kibosh on “DOUBTLESS” is the ineptitude of the production, about whose lame comedic acting the less said the better, although Mr. Watkins, in an impossible part, manages to retain his thespian dignity while all about him are losing theirs. Like Mr. Innaurato, director Jack Hofsiss, once so successful with plays like THE ELEPHANT MAN (for which he won a Tony), is making a return to the New York stage. To give him the benefit of the doubt, it’s doubtful if anyone could have made this play work, but it’s doubtless that what he has done has only made the situation worse.  

Note: An earlier version of this review mistakenly noted that Jack Hofsiss directed VANITIES; the director was Garland Wright, not Mr. Hofsiss.

Friday, August 8, 2014

52. Review of PHOENIX (August 6, 2014)



In Scott Organ’s PHOENIX, at the Cherry Lane Theatre, Sue and Bruce are two attractive New York singles in their thirties who met in a bar and hooked up for the night. Not long after (a month to him, four weeks to her), she calls and arranges to meet him in a coffee shop where, trying to be coolly businesslike, she points three things out to him: 1) she likes him, 2) she doesn’t want to see him again, and 3) she’s pregnant. Thus begins this mildly amusing, six-scene, boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl rom-com, which had its world premiere at the 2010 Humana Festival in Louisville, and was done by the Barrow Group during the 2009-2010 season.  

Julia Stiles, James Wirt. Photo: Harry Fellows.

For many, the big reason to pay attention to this slight and sporadically diverting two-character, 90-minute piece is the presence of movie star Julia Stiles as Sue. She’s paired with the lesser-known up-and-comer James Wirt in a work that survives principally on its often sprightly, smartass repartee. Sue is a woman with enormous commitment issues, and Bruce is a pleasant, intelligent guy, always ready with a smart retort. He appears not to have any looming skeletons in the closet (although he does reveal a tragic experience) to prevent any girl with half a brain and a functioning libido from being attracted to him. He’s obviously cool, since he covers his trim physique (when he’s wearing clothes) in tight jeans and polo shirts, and has a fashionable five o’clock shadow. Sue is supposed to look equally en vogue but costume designer Amit Gajwani has given her a decidedly unflattering wardrobe.

Sue’s a traveling nurse, a sign of her inability to put down roots, while Bruce is . . . well, I have no idea of what he does for a living, but he seems a pretty together dude without obvious job or financial burdens. Sue’s set on having an abortion and only came to tell Bruce of her pregnancy because he'd informed her of his inability to have kids. Naturally, discovering that he’s actually fertile comes as a shock. Despite learning he’s a prospective father, he’s the kind of decent fellow who, despite his inclinations, won’t insist that Sue have the baby. Still, he gets her to let him be at the abortion clinic when she’s scheduled to have the procedure. This, it turns out, is in Phoenix, Arizona, and to get there, he chooses to drives across the country. When Sue asks him where he’s staying, his answer is the Taurus (the car, get it?).

Julia Stiles, James Wirt. Photo: Harry Fellows.

As Bruce and Sue circle warily around her imminent procedure, Bruce, who sees the potential not only of fatherhood but of his relationship with Sue, begins to suggest that maybe she could reconsider; although he makes a heartfelt plea to at least discuss the issue, Sue blows her stack and orders him to leave. Things were going too smoothly, of course, and, following the formula, the playwright needed to find a reason for boy to lose girl. Some time passes, and Mr. Organ brings the couple back together again, with consequences I don’t think will greatly surprise anyone.

Several dialogue sequences fill the space with witty jousting, one concerning condoms beyond their expiration dates (look closely at the program cover for an extension of the condom japery) and another inspired by talk of time travel, but they’re little more than filler for a mostly nutritionless confection. This is the kind of dramedy that lives or dies on the charm and chemistry of its actors. Despite their pleasing personas, neither Ms. Stiles nor Mr. Wirt bring anything unique to their performances, which seem as generic as the play they’re in. I was watching a lovely 1938 Jimmy Stewart-Ginger Rogers movie the next morning on TCM, THE VIVACIOUS LADY, and was struck by the seemingly effortless warmth, depth, and charisma of the two stars as they met and fell in love. There was a uniqueness to their presences that made me feel these were the only actors who could fit these roles. With PHOENIX, the impression is that dozens of actors could play these cookie-cutter parts.

Jennifer Delia’s direction isn’t of much help, nor is Caite Hevner Kemp’s unit set. Ms. Delia attempts to squeeze some juice out of Ms. Stiles’s performance by giving her lots of busy stuff to do. In the opening coffee shop scene, Ms. Stiles jumps up on a chair to emphasize her lines. (Typical Starbucks behavior, you say?) In another scene, where Sue and Bruce are each in their apartments talking to the other on the phone, Ms. Stiles romps through a series of yoga exercises, including standing on her head, chatting all the while. And in another, she dances around as if she's auditioning for “So You Think You Can Dance.”  All of which are surely distractions designed to compensate for the thinness of the role and the actress’s need to pump up her appeal.

Because the same furniture, a white couch with two white chairs placed behind and facing away from it, is used for each scene, Ms. Kemp places these pieces on a square platform rotated in semidarkness before each new scene begins. To cover these shifts (and the several costume changes), each scene ends with a blackout, followed by a beat before the lights (designed by Rick Carmona) come up slightly as pop music (credited to Leisure Cruise) plays and a shadowy figure (Mr. Wirt?) pushes the stage into its new alignment. These scenes slow down what should be a much more upbeat tempo; they put an emotional drag on the play’s comedic sensibility.

This is the first show I’ve seen where one person, Ms. Kemp, is credited with “set design” and another, Burton Machen, with “scenic design.” Mr. Machen’s program bio lists him as “scenic artist,” further complicating the billing, but what it boils down to is that he contributed the half dozen collage-style paintings that form the show’s backdrop, hanging in front of the brick stage wall. It can’t be said that they add much to the production.  

If you’re a Julia Stiles fan, this is a good chance to see her up close in a small Off-Broadway venue. PHOENIX will not detract from your respect for her as an intelligent and likable performer. But it won't add much either. As rom-coms go, this is one PHOENIX I don't think will soon be rising from its ashes.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

51. Review of THE OPPONENT (August 5, 2014)



THE OPPONENT, Chicago playwright Brett Neveu’s K.O. of a drama at 59E59, tops the list of over half-a-dozen plays about boxers and boxing on New York stages over the past two years. The soon-to-be retired ROCKY is the most obvious, of course, but let’s not forget the Broadway revival of GOLDEN BOY and the Off-Broadway stagings of FETCH CLAY, MAKE MAN, CHERRY SMOKE, and TYSON VS. ALI, not to mention Broadway’s KINKYBOOTS, whose transvestite hero is a trained fighter, and the Off-Broadway revival of DONNYBROOK, about a pugilist who quit after killing a man in the ring. Mr. Neveu makes good use of the metaphoric associations of boxing to tell a story that he says “seeks to understand the profession of ‘boxer’ and the toll that the profession takes on the body, mind and soul. The play also discusses themes outside the ring; themes of fathers and sons, individual responsibility and how protecting one’s pride can damage those one professes to care about.”  
Guy Van Swearingen, Kamal Angelo Bolden. Photo: Carol Rosegg.

The tiny Theatre C at 59E59, which seats around 60, and is often used for scenically spare plays and cabaret shows, has been radically transformed by designer Joey Wade into the dingy Rock and Anvil Boxing Gym in Lafayette, Louisiana, with the main acting space occupied by an actual boxing ring, and the walls—covered with a shabby American flag and faded posters of old matches—painted to resemble grimy concrete. The acting takes place both in the ring and in the cramped spaces between it and the audience, which surrounds the ring on two sides. When a character does his lightning-fast rope jumping exercises, it’s right in the midst of the audience, seated only inches away. Rows of circular metal lamps, used by lighting designer Mike Durst to create just the right grimy atmosphere, hang from above.

This two-act, 100-minute production comes to New York from Chicago’s Red Orchid theatre with the same creative team, led by the very talented director Karen Kessler, and starring the original two-actor cast, Guy Van Swearingen as the gym owner and boxing trainer Tremont “Tre” Billiford, and Kamal Angelo Bolden as the aspiring African-American boxer Donell Fuseles, fiery, bright, and cocky in the Muhammad Ali mold.
Kamal Angelo Bolden, Guy Van Swearingen. Photo: Carol Rosegg.

THE OPPONENT is more a play of character and ambience than plot. In the first act, the 20-year-old Donell is training for a fight with rising star Jas Dennis. Putting him through his paces in the ring is the 45-year-old Tre, usually with training pads on his hands that Donell hits in a series of bam-bam repetition exercises. These sequences, which take up a considerable amount of stage time, are remarkable exhibitions of athletic acting, performed with rapid-fire punching.  Given the apparent power of Mr. Bolden—whose arms are as thick as battering rams—these blows must sting like a bee, even through the pads.

The combinations are sometimes rather complex and there’s a lot of bobbing, weaving, and ducking in these precisely choreographed scenes that spell imminent danger if someone moves the wrong way. Making the sparring exercises even more impressive is the ongoing dialogue between Donell and Tre as they work out their interpersonal issues as trainer and fighter, all the while throwing, catching, and deflecting pounding blows. The popping sounds of leather upon leather punctuate the words with rhythmically precise timing. The physical contrast between the young, black cruiserweight with the bulging biceps and the balding, middle-aged white trainer (and former boxer) is belied by Tre’s considerable agility, vigor, and boxing knowhow.
In act two, set five years later, the men have slowed down a bit, which doesn’t prevent them, near the end, from getting into a full-fledged fight that ends with something of a shock. A very respectful nod must be made in the direction of boxing trainer Sam Colonna, and John Tovar, the stage fight specialist who has created a bout of fisticuffs that comes as close to realism as possible within the confines of such close quarters and the need to protect the actors from harm.    

Mr. Neveu’s lingo studded, largely staccato dialogue is principally about boxing, and, while I don’t make it a practice to hang around boxing gyms, smells to me of raw authenticity, like the sweat coming off these actors' bodies; some of the chatter is vague, but the actors speak it with complete naturalness. Aside from the training process, not much happens in a conventional sense in act one, as Tre and Donell talk about local boxers and managers, and comment on Donell’s physical and psychological readiness for that evening’s fight. There’s also much about “moving up” in the fight business, climbing the rungs of the ladder. The men's conversation is a sort of spoken correlative of their sparring, shifting directions emotionally as various topics intrude, such as Donell’s level of confidence and his desire to beat Jas Dennis so he can deprive him of all the signs of success he’s been able to acquire. There’s a tension between Donell and Tre that now and then turns bitter, some of it turning on Donell's desire for the reluctant Tre to see his fight and visit his dressing room afterward.  The reasons for the characters' respective hostilities are often fuzzy, but there’s also mutual respect, suggesting a father-son relationship, although few personal details about either of these emotionally needy characters are provided.

Tre’s big career moment was a championship fight in which he lost by a TKO; he uses the fact that he got up when knocked down as his mantra for what makes a good fighter; getting up when you’re down becomes a thematic throughlines. For Tre, boxers must avoid at all costs becoming what he calls “a low-class fighter, a goddamned road-dog.” Donell picks up on something Tre says that suggests he’s weak; to the sensitive Donell, Tre thrives on getting boxers to lose their confidence. As Donell tells Tre: “You always want fighters movin’ up how you want it moved and if you don’t see ‘em getting it the way you see it, even for just a quick second they don’t do what you think they should, if they don’t hear it or do it or try to read your mind, you write ‘em off.”   

This issue rises again in act two, when Donell, who hasn’t seen Tre since the fight he was about to have in act one, returns; Tre behaves at first as if he doesn’t know him. Donell, now obviously a “road-dog,” is 25, married and with a kid. He’s got a losing record, and a fight coming up, so he comes to Tre for help, but he’s more likely seeking either something else. Tre, for his part, hasn’t done much better, running a dilapidated gym with few fighters and lousy equipment. The men resume their verbal sparring, whose lightning jabs are matched when they put on the gloves, leading to their climactic brawl and a deeper understanding of Tre's behavior.

The rough, often crude, and sometimes elliptical dialogue is spoken with total conviction. Mr. Bolden mingles petulance with dignity in his portrayal of the feisty boxer. The enigmatic, dour Mr. Van Swearingen, speaking in a thick--sporadically incomprehensible--Louisiana accent, bears a physical and vocal resemblance to Robert Duvall. He looks nothing like a conventional boxer (although the actor was a professional firefighter) but his deft moves force you to suspend your disbelief. Few actors get the workout these two go through every night, and by the time the play ends, you’ll feel your heartbeat quickened along with theirs. I doubt theatergoers will be throwing the towel in on THE OPPONENT.  

50. Review of KING LEAR (July 31, 2014)


Seeing New York’s third major KING LEAR of the year, following productions starring Frank Langella and Michael Pennington, I couldn’t help thinking of Tom’s final line in THE GLASS MENAGERIE, “nowadays the world is lit by lightning! Blow out your candles, Laura—and so good-bye.” It didn’t rain during the performance I attended at the New York Shakespeare Festival in Central Park (it did, though, heavily, on July 27), but there were plenty of theatrical thunderbolts tossed, and the play, as in any good revival, illuminated once again the horrors of which humankind is capable.
From left: John Lithgow, Glenn Fleshler, Jessica Hecht, Clarke Peters, Slate Holmgren, Jessica Collins. Photo: Joan Marcus.

Greed, corruption, betrayal, pride, lust, cruelty, mendacity, credulity, arrogance, and the like march side by side through this epic portrayal of familial dysfunction and pervasive evil. Edmund, Gloucester’s wicked bastard son, pointedly expresses the idiocy of blaming our misfortunes on planetary influence:
The culprit is man himself, and the often foolish choices he makes as he clambers through life. Very few characters in KING LEAR don’t contribute mightily to their own problems, no matter how “good” they are on the moral spectrum. Consider Lear’s ridiculous decision to disown his beloved Cordelia, Cordelia’s stubborn idealism in refusing to pamper the old king, Kent’s incessant and impolitic brusqueness, Goneril and Regan’s overwhelming selfishness, Edmund’s filial and fraternal treachery, Edgar and Gloucester’s blind gullibility, Cornwall’s inhuman sadism, and Oswald’s slavish loyalty. Gloucester may say, “As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods. They kill us for their sport,” but there’s no escaping our own culpability in our fates. Thus goes the world, which, once again we see going to hell in a hand basket every time we turn on the TV or computer, or pick up a newspaper. And thus it is in KING LEAR. It’s no wonder the old man goes nuts.
Jay O. Sanders, Annette Bening, John Lithgow. Photo: Joan Marcus.

Dan Sullivan’s compelling two-act production at the Delacorte, running three hours (it ends at 11:10), avoids gimmickry, doing nothing drastic to alter the text or ambience of Shakespeare’s dire tragedy. This is a straightforward classical revival performed on John Lee Beatty’s uncluttered unit set, consisting of a large wooden platform, set on an angle, with short flights of steps at the front and sides, backed by a long wall punctuated by five doorways. The wall’s textured surface seems to have had thousands of oversized pick-up sticks flung against it. Jeff Crozier’s multifaceted lighting design, combined with Tal Yarden’s imaginatively abstract video projections (including fiery battles seen off in the distance), make the most of this wall, whose patterns keep changing in keeping with each scene’s mood.
Eric Sheffer Stevens, Annette Bening. Photo: Joan Marcus.

Within Mr. Sullivan’s clear-cut rendering, Mr. Lithgow is very real, very human, and very touching as the octogenarian Lear. Looking every inch the king, with his fringe of white hair and full white beard, he first appears as a benign figure, in contrast to the more authoritarian ruler Frank Langella provided, but when he’s unable to get Cordelia to fawn over him like her sisters, his anger grows and we begin to see the powerful but annoyingly petulant ruler. The business with the map is the conventional one of a large leather skin tossed on the floor, with Lear using a piece of chalk to divvy up the land.
Mr. Lithgow offers no notably original interpretive decisions, just a solid, sturdy, transparent, clearly articulated, and convincing portrayal, with countless insightful and appropriate readings that make sense of every line. The mad scene, so awesomely difficult, is consistently gripping and believable, as are all the big tragic moments, from the scene in the storm to the death of Cordelia. Despite a problematic back that had to be worked on during rehearsal by a physical therapist, he doesn't falter when he carries on Cordelia's corpse (Mr. Langella had to drag her on), nor does he seem hampered by any other of the role's many physical demands. Lithgow’s tall, slightly stooped posture becomes ever more pathetic and diminished as he dwindles into madness, tearing off his clothes and wrapping himself in a shabby cloth, becoming, like, Poor Tom, “unaccommodated man.”
Chukwudi Iwuji, Clarke Peters. Photo: Joan Marcus.

The role of the Fool is probably one of the greatest challenges to an actor. Let’s face it, Lear’s Fool is simply not funny anymore and actors typically have to resort to sprightly antics, with directorial gimmicks added, to try and squeeze laughs out of archaic lines that only Shakespeare addicts appreciate. Steven Boyer, so brilliant recently in HAND OF GOD, proves very adept in the role, not because he makes you laugh (the audience titters sound obligatory) but because his Fool is so human. In his total commitment to Lear’s well-being he’s one of the few ethically pure characters on the stage. Mr. Boyer, whose short stature in contrast to Mr. Lithgow’s height helps to emphasize the Fool’s childlike qualities, speaks with Lear’s best interests in mind, even when Lear ignores him, and a genuine affection between the two emerges. Except for a few moments of physical comedy, Mr. Boyer doesn’t exaggerate the Fool’s behavior for comical effect, and his own plight thereby becomes moving because he's more a person than a device.    
Steven Boyer, John Lithgow. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Jay O. Sanders, one of New York theatre’s finest and most consistently reliable actors, offers the best Kent I’ve ever seen. He takes full advantage of the man’s proclivity for excessive candor, but he does so with an honesty, likability, and humor that make Kent far more than the brutally frank and one-sidedly angry warrior we often see. With his burly physique and spirited presence, he makes every word of Kent’s ring true. Kent’s diatribe against Oswald is a masterpiece of putdown artistry in Mr. Sander’s performance.
Clarke Peters, John Lithgow. Photo: Joan Marcus.

Chukwudi Iwuji gives a superb reading of Edgar, especially in his Poor Tom guise, and Eric Sheffer Stevens is an acceptably villainous Edmund, although Chandler Williams in the Langella revival and Max Bennett in the Pennington brought more charisma to the role. As Gloucester, the father of Edgar and Edmund, Clarke Peters displays a sonorous voice but he fails to bring much more than dignity and solemnity to the role.
Jessica Hecht, Annette Bening. Photo: Joan Marcus.

The biggest disappointments are the two award-winning stars cast as Goneril and Regan, Annette Bening and Jessica Hecht. Ms. Bening, whose slightly raspy voice suggested that she may have been recovering from a cold, is, as usual, lovely, but her Goneril hasn’t many notes, and lacks interesting nuances. The spindly Ms. Hecht, on the other hand,  seems to have wandered in from another era and another play, bringing her well-known quirky mannerisms of voice and movement to the nasty Regan. The laughs she sometimes inspires seem oddly out of place.
Jay O. Sanders, Christopher Innvar, John Lithgow. Photo: Joan Marcus.

The remaining cast members are all satisfactory, and the ensemble is strong enough to overcome individual acting gaps.
John Lithgow, Clarke Peters. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Susan Hilferty has dressed the production in rough-hewn cloaks and tunics of some generalized medieval time, with Regan, Goneril, and Cordelia, as is common, given simple floor-length gowns, each in a single color. While not being especially novel, the visuals are faithful to the traditional image of the play, an image greatly enhanced by the powerful sound design of Acme Sound Partners and the atmospheric dissonance of  Dan Moses Schreier’s music.

Rick Sordelet provides his usual expertise in staging the violence, although, from what I'd read, I expected the blinding of Gloucester to be more bloody. A Wall Street Journal article discussed how blood would spurt all over Regan, but all I saw on her white gown (a color obviously chosen for the purpose) was a small splotch of red near the neckline. There's a lengthy, complex duel with multiple weapons between Edmund and Edgar, but I rarely find such theatrical combats more than stylishly choreographic exercises lacking in any sense of real danger, apart from what might happen if an actor zigged when he should have zagged. The most convincing stage fight I’ve ever seen was in Franco Zeffirelli’s early 1960s ROMEO AND JULIET for the Old Vic, during the Tybalt-Mercutio-Romeo brawl. Zeffirelli did his own fight scenes. I was spoiled for life.

The Central Park production of KING LEAR is, surprisingly, the first there since James Earl Jones tackled the lead in 1973, at age 42. The 68-year-old Mr. Lithgow, who has been blogging about his experience, worried that he was perhaps too young to play the aged king, but he had nothing to worry about. The production around him may not be perfect, but his performance is mightily good; in this Year of Lear, Shakespeare in the Park gives us the most satisfying version yet.