Thursday, March 26, 2015

179 (2014-2015): Review of THE HEIDI CHRONICLES (March 25, 2015)

“Heidi High, Heidi Low”

A quarter of a century ago, in November 1988, the late Wendy Wasserstein’s topical comedy about the early decades of women’s lib, THE HEIDI CHRONICLES, opened Off Broadway, becoming so successful it moved in March 1989 to Broadway. It won the Tony (a first for a female dramatist) and the Pulitzer, among other awards, and was named one of the 1988-1989 season’s Ten Best Plays. Now, with Elisabeth Moss of TV’s “Mad Men” as Heidi, a role originally played by Joan Allen, the play is getting its first New York revival, and it appears the bloom is off the rose.
From left: Tracee Chimo, Leighton Bryant, Elise Kibler, Photo: Joan Marcus.
While Ms. Wasserstein’s concerns with feminist issues remain as pertinent as ever (think Sheryl Sandberg’s mega seller LEAN IN), the play, at least in Pam McKinnon’s staging, has a dated quality and—despite some strong laughs—isn’t as funny as it once was. Partly, this is because topical dramas often speak so much to their own times that seeing them even twenty-five years or so later makes them seem, if not exactly quaint, then interesting more for their time capsule qualities than for their immediacy. After all, aren’t these issues familiar to everyone by now? Partly it stems from Ms. McKinnon’s unsubtle direction (so sharply different from her WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF? of two seasons ago), which fails to prevent the otherwise talented actors from seeming more like stereotypical attitudes than real people.
From left: Ali Ahn, Leighton Bryant, Elise Kibler. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Chronicled here is the development of America’s women’s movement from the 1960s through the 1980s as seen through the personal and professional difficulties of Heidi Holland, an art historian and college professor specializing in forgotten women artists in a field traditionally dominated by men. More or less passively, she watches events transpire, seeking to find her way through the changing landscape as her life intersects, to her confusion, with the goals of female empowerment.

The play’s two acts and thirteen scenes shift swiftly on the cleverly flexible turntable set designed by John Lee Beatty, abetted by excellent projection design from Peter Nigrini. After the prologues that begin each act showing Heidi giving a slide lecture, we follow her life from a high school dance in 1965 to 1989, when, unwed, she lives alone with her newly adopted baby. The action progresses, with each scene set several years after the preceding one, and with golden oldies setting the tone (“It’s In His Kiss (The Shoop Shoop Song,” “Piece of My Heart,” “Respect,” “Imagine,” “You Send Me,” etc.). Jill BC Du Boff is responsible for the fine sound design (loved those pre-Power Point slide projector clicks).
From left: Tracee Chimo, Jason Biggs, Elisabeth Moss, Bryce Pinkham. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Heidi’s principal male friends—both of them inveterate talkers—are Peter Patrone (Bryce Pinkham), whom she meets at that high school dance, and Scoop Rosenbaum (Jason Biggs), who, during her college years, comes on to her at a Eugene McCarthy rally in New Hampshire. Peter, who becomes an important pediatrician, is gay and thus—despite his and Heidi’s deep mutual affection—romantically unavailable. The super-smart but smugly superior Scoop, a lawyer, progresses from political radicalism to commercial success as the publisher of a popular lifestyle magazine. Peter’s homosexuality is an important side issue, especially given the play’s appearance during the height of the 1980s AIDS epidemic. Scoop, despite his seeming compatibility with Heidi, who loves him, marries the less challenging Memphis belle, Lisa Friedlander (Leighton Bryan), since Heidi refuses to compromise her ambitions for a husband’s needs. Heidi, unable to have it all, achieves professional but not personal fulfillment.
Elisabeth Moss, Jason Biggs. Photo: Joan Marcus.
The episodic play’s scenes are generally pumped up by Ms. McKinnon for laughs, making them more like satirical sketches than believable events. These include one in which Heidi takes part in a consciousness raising group, one of whose caricature-like members, Fran (Tracee Chimo), is an outspoken lesbian (“Either you shave your legs or you don’t,” she insists), while, in another, Heidi participates in a protest outside a Chicago museum that has neglected women artists. There’s also an over-the-top TV interview showing Heidi being constantly interrupted by Scoop and Peter, as well as a restaurant scene during which we watch her best friend, Susan (Ali Ahn), earlier seen as a women’s rights activist, behaving boorishly as the shallow, celebrity-obsessed TV producer she’s become. Of course, watching the changing clothing (costumes are by Jessica Pabst) and (women’s) hair styles in these scenes can be amusing, but they, too, tend to be amplified for comic effect.
Tracee Chimo, Ali Ahn. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Perhaps the most effective scene comes at the end, when Scoop visits Heidi at her almost empty new apartment (the furniture hasn’t been delivered yet), and they work out some of their longstanding issues. Heidi expresses hope for the future, when her daughter and Scoop's son might actually meet, and her daughter will “never think she’s worthless unless he lets her have it all.” But such touching moments are too few and far between.
From left: Ali Ahn, Elisabeth Moss, Elise Kibler. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Ms. Moss has a terrific scene when, standing at a podium and addressing a school reunion, Heidi breaks down as she improvises a rambling,  but thematically significant, speech about how confused her life has made her feel; she even admits: “It’s just that I feel stranded. And I thought the whole point was that we wouldn’t feel stranded. I thought the point was that we were all in this together.” Otherwise, however, the actress, while always grounded and less exaggerated than those around her, offers little in the way of characterization you haven’t already seen her do as the vulnerable but determined Peggy on “Mad Men.” Unlike what we see of her friend Susan, Ms. Moss’s Heidi seems hardly to change through the years.

Bryce Pinkham, so brilliant in A GENTLEMAN’S GUIDE TO LOVE AND MURDER, brings too much musical comedy energy and mugging to the role of the gay pediatrician, while Jason Biggs makes an acceptable if not particularly charismatic Scoop. Apart from Ms. Ahn, the remaining cast members—Ms. Chimo, Ms. Bryant, Elise Kibler, and Andy Truschinski—play multiple roles, several of them well done, but others overacted.

Heidi high, Heidi low.

The Music Box
239 W. 45th Street, NYC
Open run

Monday, March 23, 2015

178 (2014-2015): Review of SMALL MOUTH SOUNDS (March 19, 2015)


From left: Jessica Almasy, Erik Lochtefeld, Sakina Jaffrey, Babak Tafti, Brad Heberlee, Marcia Debonis. Photo: Ben Arons. 
Beginning with a remarkably realistic sound effect that makes you feel like you’re sitting under a tin roof during a powerful storm, there are a lot of sounds—big and small—in Bess Wohl’s diverting, but slight, new play at the always innovative Ars Nova. Some are the kind hinted at by the title, but surprisingly few are in the form of words. Ms. Wohl, you see, has set herself the challenging task of creating a situation in which six people attend a weeklong retreat at a rural location where, as they seek enlightenment, the cardinal rule is silence.  

Among the few characters whose names are actually mentioned is Ned (Brad Heberlee), a slender, 30ish guy who never takes off his knit cap, for reasons he eventually needs words to explain. The others are Alicia (Jessica Almasy), a blowsy young blonde who seems at sixes and sevens about everything, and struggles to maintain text contact with a boyfriend; Jan (Erik Lochtefeld), a bearded, middle-aged man on whom the insects like to feed and whose backstory has something to do with a young boy whose picture he places near his pillow; Rodney (Babak Tafti), a toned, exotic-looking young man given to practicing various yogic exercises in his skivvies with calm expertise; Joan (Marcia Debonis), an overweight, middle-aged woman; and Judy (Sakina Jaffrey), her slender, dark-haired lover, who finds it hard to take the retreat's rules seriously. The only other character, who remains hidden until the curtain calls, is Teacher (Jojo Gonzalez), the guru whose gently accented, soft-voiced instructions, admonitions, and advice are delivered over a loudspeaker, much as if he were the Wizard of Oz.
Marcia Debonis, Sakina Jaffrey. Photo: Ben Arons.
To house the retreat, Laura Jellinek has converted Ars Nova’s oblong black box into the semblance of a hall with a minimalist aesthetic: off-white walls; strips of molding (as in a traditional Japanese home); a coffered ceiling; and, topping the walls, window-like panels on which video and still images of the world outside are projected. The audience sits on cushioned folding chairs in two rows on each of the intimate room’s two longer sides; at one end is a raised stage with a row of seats on which the guests assemble to hear Teacher’s lectures, and at the other is a curtained passageway for entrances and exits. The long, narrow floor space between the spectators becomes the guests’ sleeping area or the outdoors, as needed
Foreground: Marcia Debonis, Sakina Jaffrey; rear: Jessica Almasy, Erik Lochtefeld. Photo: Ben Arons.
Stowe Nelson’s brilliant sound design makes a major contribution to the atmosphere, as do Mike Inwood’s versatile lighting and Andrew Schneider’s multiple projections. Tilly Grimes’s inconsistent costumes, however, make it difficult to determine what the weather’s like or what season it is. Costumes range from a fur-hooded winter jacket to short pants; complete nudity also plays a role in one of the funnier scenes.
Erik Lochtefeld, Sakina Jaffrey. Photo: Ben Arons.
As the play progresses we’re forced to watch closely to pick up clues as to who these people are and what they’re seeking at this retreat. By the end of the play’s 100 minutes, we’ve been amused by some of their idiosyncrasies, have sensed some of their frustrations, and have observed how they relate to others, but the lack of dialogue has given us only the sparsest of clues as to who they really are and what—apart from Ned, perhaps—enlightenment means to them. When the retreat ends and they slowly begin speaking again, we learn a few things that may come as a bit of a surprise. But—apart from a few desperate moments, especially when Ned delivers a full-out monologue about a laundry list of personal catastrophes and worries about the earth’s future—we must depend on characters interacting through improvised sign language. 
Relief comes periodically when Teacher’s voice is heard. Gradually, we learn he’s as clueless as the others. He complains about his sinus problems, is forced to accept cellphone calls in the middle of his lectures despite his own rules, and in other ways subverts whatever banalities these people have come to imbibe. A sample: “I have no plan. You are the teacher. I am the student.” Or his mantra that, no matter what you’re going through, “You are not alone!” The play thus satirizes the difficulties of communication while parodying the ideas and commercialism of New Age retreats. It garners a few laughs along the way, especially in that nude scene (full frontal male, for those who are interested). 

What saves the enterprise from sinking in its innate whimsicality is Rachel Chavkin’s (NATASHA, PIERRE AND THE GREAT COMET OF 1812) expert direction and the way the ensemble’s mimic skills meet the play’s demands as the actors wordlessly express a range of feelings and ideas. Each character is given a sharp outline, but the playwright is too constrained by her concept to give her people much depth, so outlines are all we get. It’s fun, though, to see the misunderstandings silence can create—as when someone tries to pass a packet of tissues to someone else as those in between misinterpret the transaction. The irony, in fact, is that (apart from Ned) the character we learn most about, even if indirectly, is Teacher, seemingly wise and all-knowing, but as troubled and unenlightened as any of his students. Thus, even though we don’t see him, Mr. Gonzalez, who delivers his lines with wonderfully subtle irony, should be as well remembered as his pantomimic counterparts. 

Ars Nova
511W. 54th Street, NYC
Through April 11

Saturday, March 21, 2015

177 (2014-2015): THE FEAST (March 19, 2015)

"Plumbing the Depths"

THE FEAST, Cory Finley’s compact, offbeat, psychological thriller in the Flea’s tiny downstairs venue, receives well calibrated performances from its three actors under Courtney Ulrich's direction. The piece, which runs slightly under an hour, moves quickly, its dialogue is clipped and natural-sounding, and the characters, while two-dimensional, are sufficiently lifelike for its purposes. However, when it ends you may ask yourself Peggy Lee’s immortal question, “Is that all there is?”
Ivan Dolido, Kristin Friedlander. Photo: Bjorn Bolinder.
While this isn’t what anyone would call a dramatic feast, neither is it quite a famine; it has sufficient meat on its bones to keep audiences chewing during most of its brief duration. Set in a black-painted space designed by Andrew Diaz to serve as an apartment, a therapist’s office, and a street outside a bar, it revolves around Matt (Ivan Dolido), a young painter (the gallery, not the house kind, we’re told) who lives with Anna (Kristin Friedlander), a management consultant. Something’s wrong with their toilet, which is making very odd noises, so a plumber (Donaldo Prescod), saying Anna sent him, shows up to take a look. He tells Matt that the sound coming from the pipes is like “a man, tied up down there. Water streaming over his mouth.” Something surreal’s going on, and, despite the quiet naturalism of the acting, when the plumber suggests that Matt go down into the toilet to see for himself what’s going on, we realize we’re on the slippery border between reality and fantasy. Later, Matt will deny to Anna that the plumber even came. 
Ivan Dolido. Photo: Bjorn Bolinder.
The self-involved Matt’s been having relationship problems with Anna, who—despite his demurrals—has plenty of evidence that he’s not sufficiently invested in her. When Matt visits his therapist (also played by Mr. Prescod), they talk about the relationship, but once again, the conversation shifts from one level of reality to another. Things get weirder when the therapist brings up the toilet problem, something he’d have no way of knowing about, and Matt then talks of being able to swim down the pipes to where he feasted with an ancient, subterranean civilization of beautiful toilet creatures (although all I can think of is anthropomorphic turds). Theres probably a metaphor here, but its as murky as whatevers lurking in the head (or should that be Matt’s head?).
After this, Anna tells Matt about a coworker with whom she’s slept, to which Matt responds with a bizarre penis-envy rant; Matt produces a brilliant painting of his underground feast that his agent, Jeff (again, Mr. Prescod), raves over, until there’s yet another reality slippage concerning the painting’s subject; Matt, identifying himself only as a plumber, directly confronts Anna’s coworker/lover, Connor (Mr. Prescod once more), outside a bar; and Matt and Anna’s relationship is resolved. 
Ivan Bolinder. Photo: Bjorn Bolinder.
Toward the end, the toilet, mostly unseen earlier, takes a prominent place on the darkened stage, its bowl brightly lit from inside, and we move into semi-phantasmagorical territory, with the apartment lit mainly by flashlights as . . . well, I won’t divulge what happens other than to note that it involves a creature from the white commode.  

As I write this, I realize how silly it all sounds. Nevertheless, the actors, playing everything straight, are sufficiently nuanced to suck you into their eerie little world; when we get to the scary concluding scenes, however, its so hard to see what's going on that the chilling climax is more or less flushed away.

A note: Productions at the Flea, especially those devoted to the Bats, the theatre’s resident acting company, often begin with a cast member making a brief speech of welcome to the audience, asking them to turn off their cellphones, and so on. This little custom can be a little distracting, especially when the actor, as here, must immediately switch from being our host to playing the leading role. Why not give the task to someone with a smaller role who doesn't appear until later in the play? Just askin . . . 

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

175 (2014-2015) Review of LONESOME TRAVELER (March 11, 2015)

“Let It Shine, Let It Shine, Let It Shine”

There’s a real live, hand-clapping, foot-stamping, sing-along hootenanny going on over at 59E59 Theaters, where James O’Neil’s LONESOME TRAVELER, a sprightly cavalcade of (mostly) American folk music, has set up camp. And it does go on, covering 35 folk classics in two acts lasting two hours and 15 minutes (including an intermission); as the songs barrel along, you begin to get the impression of one of those greatest hits commercials on TV where one title after the other rolls by endlessly as snippets are heard on the sound track. In LONESOME TRAVELER, however, you get not snippets but the full versions of familiar (and, perhaps, a few less so) songs, ranging from the title number to the rousing finale, “This Little Light of Mine.”
From left: Sylvie Davidson, Jennifer Leigh Warren, Jamie Drake. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
And, of course, it all comes packaged as a history lesson, linked with narrative commentary on the social and political context of the music, most of it illustrated on projection screens with stills and video clips—often identified by year numbers—of the times during which most of the songs were created. We’re also informed, anecdotally, of the music’s performance history, as per radio and TV shows, countercultural nightclubs, and major venues, like the Newport Jazz Festival. But so much time is covered—principally from the early 20th century to the folk music explosion of the 1960s—that the history gets a bit muddled, especially as the material shifts from chronological to unchronological sequencing.
Anthony Manough, Jennifer Leigh Warren. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
At the end, after Bob Dylan’s “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” is sung, titles listing many of the major folk singers and groups that followed flash by in quick succession; these are succeeded by numerous dated photos rapidly showing the progression of the years until 2015 arrives, even though we don’t get any of the music of the period that’s just been highlighted. This approach suggests that Mr. O’Neil, who also directed, has perhaps tried to cram too much into his show, and that, had he been able, he’d have added on yet another couple of hours.
Matty Charles. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Still, this is a very well-performed, upbeat show, with a versatile, talented company of nine musician singers, three of them female, and two of them African-American. Using simple but effective costume changes (the period costumes are by Pamela Shaw), with the women also employing an assortment of wigs, each performer embodies multiple singers; two musicians—Sam Gelfer and Trevor Wheetman—join in several choruses but don’t do solos.

The program identifies the performers with emblematic names that don’t seem to have much significance during the show proper: there’s the Lonesome Traveler (Justin Flagg), who portrays six artists, including Pete Seeger and Peter Yarrow; the Poet (Matty Charles), who enacts Woody Guthrie, Ian Tyson, and others; the Preacher (Nicholas Mongiardo-Cooper), whose artists include Glenn Yarbrough and Theodore Bickel; The Man (Anthony Manough), who impersonates Brownie McGhee, William Ledbetter (Lead Belly), and so on; The Muse (Jennifer Leigh Warren), who handles various African-American women, including Odetta; the Lady (Sylvie Davidson), who ranges from Maybelle Carter to Ronnie Gilbert to Mary Travers; and the Activist (Jamie Drake), whose roles include Judy Collins and Joan Baez. Among the popular groups represented are the the Weavers, the Limeliters, the Kingston Trio, the Ramblers, and Peter, Paul, and Mary. Aside from Ms. Warren, who provides washboard, bongo, and tambourine accompaniment, everyone plays either guitar (electric or acoustic, as needed), mandolin, or banjo. 
Jennifer Leigh Warren, Justin Flagg. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Designer Thomas S. Giamarro has provided a simple platform stage backed by scrimmed walls that allow figures from the past to be seen dimly under Mr. Giamarro’s effective lighting. The action generally occurs on a stage or in a radio or TV studio.
From left: Silvie Davidson, Nicholas Mongiardo-Cooper, Justin Flagg, Matty Charles. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
With roots in the Appalachian Mountains, the Depression, the Dust Bowl, unionization, World War II, the McCarthy years, the Civil Rights movement, and the Vietnam War, the show’s songs cover a wide variety of subjects, moods, and traditions, including spirituals (“Michael Row the Boat Ashore”), calypso (“Zombie Jamboree”), and Cuban (“Guantanamera”). You’ll hear “Lonesome Traveler,” “So Long, It’s Been Good to Know Yuh,” “This Land Is Your Land,” “John Henry,” “Turn Turn Turn,” “Rock Island Line,” “Midnight Special,” “Goodnight, Irene,” “Tom Dooley,” “We Shall Overcome,” and too many others to mention, including some you’ll be happy to encounter for the first time.

Let’s close this out by joining in, as we’re asked to do in the show: “Just one more time!”


59E59 Theaters
59 E. 59 Street, NYC
Through April 19

Monday, March 16, 2015

174 (2014-2015): Review of PLACEBO (March 14, 2015)

"It's the Real Thing--Or Is It?"

It takes a while to figure out where the very wide, white, low-ceilinged, and realistic-looking room designed by David Zinn for Melissa James Gibson’s PLACEBO at Playwrights Horizons is supposed to represent. At audience left, occupying about a fourth of the space, is a kitchen area, while the expanse at our right looks like a combination waiting room-apartment, with a bookcase, a row of stackable metal chairs lining the back wall, a wooden kitchen table at center, a couch to its right, and a bank of vending machines in an upstage corner.
The first scene, set in the kitchen section, concerns Louise (Carrie Coons, very good), a white-coated research assistant in her early 30s, discussing with Mary (Florencia Lozano, excellent), a woman in her 40s, Mary’s participation as a paid volunteer in a double-blind trial for a new female arousal drug called Resurgo. During the trial Mary, a once sexually passionate woman who desperately wishes to reignite her now dimmed flame, will be swallowing either the drug itself or a placebo.
As the play proceeds, we discover that the non-kitchen space is both the apartment Louise shares with her lover, Jonathan (William Jackson Harper, excellent), an office, and the break room at the research institution as which she works. The kitchen serves for all scenes. The play shares some of the disjointed feeling that this multipurpose set creates.

Despite the potentially engrossing setup of the opening scene, with its exposition of Mary’s sexual problems and Louise’s seemingly dispassionate response to them, PLACEBO has other things on its mind. Louise is a doctoral candidate, but her focus is on female sexual fantasies, not pharmacological solutions to sexual dysfunction; this is just a job to pay the bills. The play’s main concern is her relationship with Jonathan, a self-involved, insecure, classical scholar doing his research on “fortuna” in the writings of the first-century Roman scholar, Pliny (rhymes with "tinny") the Elder. Jonathan’s struggles to complete his dissertation (its ponderous title is never explained) take up much stage time. Jonathan, an insomniac, is trying to stop smoking by using nicotine patches.

In exploring the tensions in Louise and Jonathan’s relationship, Ms. Gibson instructs us on the meaning of “placebo,” a Latin word originally meaning “I shall please,” which was used during the Middle Ages to refer to professional mourners hired to serve at funerals. The implications of the word, which in modern times came to mean a harmless substance used for its potentially positive psychosomatic influence, and as a control substance in the testing of drugs, are woven into the play’s dramatic structure, but so subtly it’s possible to miss them.

Placebos, of course, involve an element of deception. Thus Louise’s 59-year-old dying mother is made to feel better by Louise’s lying that she and Jonathan are getting married. Jonathan, fighting not to smoke, keeps a pack of cigarettes nearby to comfort him, just as Louise, unsure of herself, wears her lab coat to give her confidence even when she’s home. Mary is confused by her recent sexual feelings and demands to know which she’s been taking, the drug or the placebo. All of which comes down to Ms. Gibson’s questioning of the meaning of happiness, especially during a scene with the wryly humorous Tom (the dryly convincing Alex Hurt, son of William Hurt), another doctoral candidate who befriends Louise. Tom asks whether happiness itself isn’t a "bougie" (i.e., bourgeois) preoccupation, since most people in the world are so concerned with mere survival they have no place in their lives for happiness. The rest of us, though, are ready to do anything we can to feel happy, even if we have to fake it.

PLACEBO had a strong effect on my guest, who found many moments that had personal relevance, but I had trouble wrapping my head around it. Its dialogue is often very clever, and its word play imaginative and sometimes quirkily funny; however, it's thematically muddy and makes a weak emotional impact; neither Louise nor Jonathan seem as though they're in a real relationship and the fluctuations in their love life (especially in the bothersome final scene) seem uncomfortably artificial; his behavior in the final scene seems unjustified, particularly when he blames Louise for doubting him, when all we've seen is the contrary. Fortunately, the highly talented, well-balanced, four-member cast, smoothly directed by Daniel Aukin, helps make the 95-minute play more watchable than the above might suggest. Whether PLACEBO is the real thing, though, or a placebo is for you to judge.

Playwrights Horizons
416 W. 42nd Street, NYC
Through April 5

Sunday, March 15, 2015

173 (2014-2015): Review of POSTERITY (March 13, 2015)

"When Ibsen Got Busted"

Rubbing two sticks together is one way to start a fire, but rubbing two hot-tempered artists' egos together, as Doug Wright (Tony and Pulitzer-winning I Am My Own Wife) does in POSTERITY, his new play at the Atlantic, produces only intermittent sparks. The artists in question are Gustav Vigeland (1869-1943), Norway’s most famous sculptor (designer of the Nobel Peace Prize), and the great playwright Henrik Ibsen (1828-1906). In 1901 the 32-year-old Vigeland sculpted a bust of the ailing 73-year-old Ibsen, who had suffered several minor strokes, an experience Mr. Wright has ambitiously attempted to sculpt into a work of compelling drama, with occasional chips of wit falling hither and yon.

According to a program insert, the Vigeland-Ibsen relationship is described in a Norwegian volume by Tone Wikborg called Gustav Vigeland and Henrik Ibsen. A quick Internet search mentions only the 40-page original, so one presumes the work is not available in English. Even if it were, it would probably yield little, since the program mentions that “Little is known of their meeting, except for a few cursory accounts,” one of which is a passage translated in the insert.
POSTERITY is an old-fashioned biodrama about what might have happened when these two towering figures met—one at an early stage in his burgeoning career, the other nearing the end of his—their egos clashing as they faced off in a battle of artistic wills. The result, however, despite the occasionally engrossing arguments, frequently seems artificial, with even the lesser characters sounding like mouthpieces for momentary theatrical effects. For example, early on, Vigeland’s agent, Sophus Larpent (Henry Stram), enters the sculptor’s studio to find his stout, elderly housekeeper, Greta Bergstrom (Dale Soules), posing nude (along with Vigeland’s general factotum, Anfinn Beck [Mickey Theis]) for a work in progress; he’s so morally repulsed he fires her but, instead of meekly leaving, she retaliates with a perfectly phrased barrage you might have expected from a character in Bernard Shaw, finishing up with: “Oh, to you, Mr. Larpent, with your untrained eye, my body must look as full of heartbreak and exhaustion as the life I’ve lived in it. But I was quite a beauty once. Mr. Vigeland’s seen my every inch, and tells me I’m fit for his art, an inspiration, even, the years be damned. That’s a finer job description than the one you got to offer, sir.”  This, remember, is the woman who scrubs Larpent’s bedpans.

Both Vigeland (Hamish Linklater) and Ibsen (John Noble) are depicted as reluctant to do what history and the play require. Ibsen doesn’t want another bust ("My work is the only eulogy I will ever need"); Vigeland doesn’t want to sculpt it, asking why he should perpetuate other peoples' fame before achieving his own. But Vigeland needs the commission as a step toward gaining approval for a mammoth fountain that will become his masterwork. Ibsen, persuaded by an official to sit for the bust but uncertain that Vigeland’s capable of doing him justice, comes to the sculptor's atelier to find out for himself. Despite his alleged reluctance to pose, he really wants to ensure he'll be remembered as he himself desires.

Without their contrasting goals, of course, the play would have no conflict, so what develops is a series of fabricated arguments in which the actors chew the scenery as they argue and talk about art, their mutual accomplishments, their personal lives, the critics, and what they’ll leave to posterity. This allows Mr. Wright to shove in as much biographical background on each—especially on Ibsen—as possible, but too little of it ignites, even after Ibsen suffers another stroke. He spends much of the second act physically incapacitated as Vigeland presumably sculpts his bust while  crowds, worried about the playwright's health, keep vigil outside. I say presumably because, in a forced dramatic development, Anfinn has failed to procure the necessary clay; this allows Vigeland to pretend to be sculpting while Ibsen, whose sight is failing, can’t see what’s going on because the sculptor has removed his eyeglasses.  
Most of the action, appropriately costumed by Susan Hilferty, is set in Vigeland’s expansive studio, designed by Derek McLane and lit by David Lander, with the typical skylight overhead, and shelf upon shelf of ghostly, veiled busts lining the walls. For the scene in Ibsen’s study, a doorway, window, and paintings are used to demarcate a downstage area, with the studio setting upstage looming over all. Dominating this room is a painting of a fiercely glaring August Strindberg; it’s hard not to wonder why Ibsen, who earlier dismissed him as “insane,” would have his younger Scandinavian rival occupy so prominent a place in his workplace.

Wright's directorial chisel doesn't have the lightest touch. There’s a tendency to overplay too many scenes, to express through facial, vocal, or gestural means each emotion, possibly as a way of making what is essentially a static discussion drama come alive. Mr. Linklater, one of our finer rising actors, plays Vigeland as a stereotypical, bearded, wild-eyed bohemian who finds it impossible to reign in his emotions; his abundant hair a wild mess powdered with plaster dust, he rages, shouts, and flails about, running his fingers through his hair, crouching, sinking to his knees, and otherwise playing to the rafters. On the other hand, he occasionally whispers to the point of inaudibility. Mr. Linklater's is a performance I suspect others will be raving about; for me, it was all acting, all the time.

There’s no trouble hearing Mr. Noble’s Ibsen, however. This powerful Australian actor has one of those magnificent stage voices you rarely hear anymore, and he uses it to full effect, emphasizing the man’s pride, vanity (he wears a chest-full of medals), and arrogance, while also conveying his great insecurity. Wearing a mane of pale, golden hair and the dramatist’s famous mutton chop whiskers, he has the leonine presence and bearing we associate with Ibsen. His is the production’s strongest performance; despite the bluster of his lines, he makes them flow convincingly from the great writer's mouth.

GHOSTS, one of Ibsen’s greatest plays, will be at BAM next month. I hope that seeing it will prove a more worthwhile meeting with the master’s mind than Mr. Wright’s earnest effort to put the playwright himself on stage.

Linda Gross Theater
Atlantic Theater Company
336 W. 20th Street, NYC
Through April 5

Friday, March 13, 2015

172 (2014-2015): C.O.A.L. (Confessions of a Liar) (March 12, 2015)

“"Clovis Believed That if a Lie Was Worth Telling, It Was Worth Telling Well: Saki"

David Brian Colbert’s, C.O.AL. (Confessions of a Liar), smartly directed by Craig Baldwin in the tiny Theater C black box at 59E59 Theaters, is a cleverly written, 80-minute play about the lies we all tell and how one person in particular chose to build his life around them. It’s set in the fictional West Virginia mining town of Coley Bridge, accessible only by an impressive valley-crossing span. As in most such places, we’re told, there’s a rigid class structure separating those with long, traditional ties to the place, those with new money who’ve bought their way into social respectability, and those outsiders (especially if they’re from above the Mason-Dixon line) who arrived because the town happened to be where the work was. The latter are likely to be denigrated as "ghetto trash."
Jackson Tanner, Lisa Bostnar. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
The memory-based narrative—much of it delivered in the first person—is presented by a boy named Coal, who’s played by a four-actor ensemble, with his words divided among them. They also play the other town characters, including the boy’s mother, his teacher, a boy named Jimmy Maloney, Jimmy’s mother, Coal’s dad, and Mr. Flowers, Coal’s swim coach. The younger actors are the fresh-faced Jackson Tanner and the petite African-American Mirirai Sithole. Somewhat older, and playing the mature roles, are the statuesque Lisa Bostnar and the playwright, Mr. Colbert. Mr. Colbert, who's white, was standing in for the African-American Evander Duck at the performance I saw. The racial difference is important, since the script declares that Coal is biracial. 

Mr. Colbert wants his mixed company to represent Coal’s multiple aspects as he viewed himself at any given time; however, apart from the theatrical interest it provides, the gender, racial, and age differences such casting might suggest never come into focus. It’s enough of a challenge for the audience to decide who’s talking at any time; deconstructing the play for clues as to elements in Coal’s personality based on which actor is saying his lines is too much to ask, even if it were possible.
Jackson Tanner, Mirirai Sithole. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Set in the 1980s, C.O.A.L., which is both stylistically and thematically reminiscent of Paula Vogel’s HOW I LEARNED TO DRIVE, is Coal’s recounting of his experiences growing up in Coley Bridge, where he learned as early as age six the power of lying as a way of navigating life’s difficulties in school and at home. His alcoholic Vietnam veteran father and his Jesus-following mother moved here from Baltimore. Coal (a fake name symbolic of the character’s predilection for lying) is beaten regularly (he also gets a nasty spanking from his parochial school teacher). When he asks tricky questions of his parents, they offer evasive answers. His father, asked what an “allowance” is by his six-year-old son, responds: “Allowance is a silly thing that rich people believe they have to do to get their kids to obey. . . . They obviously aren’t good enough parents to have rules without bribery.” Coal quickly learns that lying can be a form of armor, especially if he can master its demands. The trick, he says, isn’t “NOT to lie, but how to lie BETTER.”
Jackson Tanner, Mirirai Sithole, Lisa Bostnar. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Coal finds a refuge on the swim team, where his competitive swimming skills become a vital part of his life. The experience also introduces in Coach Flowers—from one of the town’s wealthiest and most powerful families—the presence of pedophilia. This, combined with Coal’s relationship to his socially elevated rival, Jimmy Maloney, escalates into major league dishonesty, eventually resulting in his biggest lie of all, which leads to tragedy. This is why Coal, years later, is now telling us his story.
Mirirai Sithole, Jackson Tanner. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Throughout, as Coal reveals the lies he told, we also see how people in general distort the truth for their own reasons, often as an essential way of coping with everyday necessity. Some of this brings to mind the way Molière, in THE MISANTHROPE, satirizes people who fudge the truth in social interactions. Telling the truth is usually too much trouble. One of the play’s best (and funniest) scenes shows Coal and his mother driving in their car, with Coal intensely interrogating his increasingly frustrated mother about Jesus and sin, as she’s forced to concoct one untruth after the other to answer his probing questions.

The cast is uniformly good, moving briskly through the episodic structure, speaking in believable West Virginia accents, and altering their behavior just enough to let us recognize which character they’re playing. Mr. Baldwin’s set, or what there is of it, is merely a silhouette of the West Virginia mountains painted on the walls, with a large screen in one corner onto which images of the small town environment, selected by Luke Norby (who’s also responsible for the atmospheric sound design), are projected. For furniture, three red wooden chairs do yeoman service.

In its small-scale, low-budget way, C.O.A.L. (Confessions of a Liar) is a respectable contribution to the theatre season. And that’s the God’s honest truth. 

59E59 Theaters
59 E. 59 Street. NYC
Through March 22