Wednesday, January 30, 2019

157 (2018-2019): Review: THE AMERICAN TRADITION (seen January 29, 2019)

"Quadroon's Quest"

For my review of The American Tradition please click on THEATER PIZZAZZ.

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Saturday, January 26, 2019

156 (2018-2019): Review: EDDIE AND DAVE (seen January 25, 2019)

“Wailin' with Van Halen ”

According to the seedling of a rumor now circulating on the Internet, Van Halen, the four-man, hard rock band popular mainly from the 70s into the 90s, is considering another reunion, which would be like manna from heaven for the dwindling legions of its aging fans.

As I left the Atlantic Theatre’s Stage II, where Eddie and Dave, Amy Staats’s flawed play about the band is housed, a woman in the elevator said to me, “The most hilarious part of the show was how old everyone in the audience was.” I then texted my 26-year-old granddaughter about her own familiarity with Van Halen. Her answer: “Not at all.”
Megan Hill, Vanessa Aspillaga. Photo: Ahron R. Foster.
If a reunion does come to pass, hopefully things won’t be as whack as in 1996, when the group, which had separated from lead singer David Lee Roth in 1985 (replacing him with Sammy Hagar), reunited temporarily to produce their Best of—Volume I album and present an award at that year’s MTV Video Music Awards. But Roth’s odd onstage behavior while presenting an award to Beck, and post-show friction with the band’s great guitarist, Eddie Van Halen, put the kibosh on those plans.
Adina Verson, Megan Hill, Amy Staats. Photo: Ahron R. Foster.
Eddie and Dave is a laughter-deprived, semi-musical biodrama. Staats notes that “The only thing real about this play is the author’s love for a certain band,” but it actually sticks pretty close to the facts surrounding Van Halen’s origins, rise to fame, bumpy career, disagreements, and reconciliations. Its strings fray, though, when it’s performed under Margot Bordelon’s direction in the aggressively pumped-up manner of a cartoon-like spoof, now and then palely reminiscent of the classic movie satire about longhaired bands, This Is Spinal Tap.
Amy Staats, Megan Hill. Photo: Ahron R. Foste
The show gets off to a promising start, taking us back to the 1996 debacle before recreating the band’s story, in multiple short scenes, beginning when the Dutch-born Van Halen boys arrive in America, aged seven and nine. Narrating their tale is a brassy, female MTJ-VJ (video jockey), played by Vanessa Aspillaga, who also serves as minor characters, like Quincy Jones and Michael Jackson, the former having inveigled Eddie to participate on the gloved one’s “Beat It.” This is the VJ’s “memory play,” which she introduces in The Glass Menagerie-style by saying, “Yeah, I got tricks up my pocket, I have zippers up my sleeves.”
Vanessa Aspillaga. Photo: Ahron R. Foster.
Of the play’s principal liberties, we can begin with its use of only three members of the quartet, Dave (Megan Hill) and the classically trained brothers, Eddie (playwright Staats), guitarist and keyboardist, and Al (Adina Verson), drummer. For some obscure reason, bassist Michael Anthony is present only as a sometimes referred-to and spotlit photo hanging to one side, like Tom’s absent father in Menagerie.
Meghan Hill, Adina Verson, Amy Staats. Photo: Ahron R. Foster.
Even more questionable, regardless of its gender satire potential, is Staats’s choice of having all but one character played by women, which soon becomes depressingly stale. The sardonic fun of having actresses play swaggering, mulleted, macho rock stars, is funny for about five minutes, especially when the narcissistic, acrobatic Diamond Dave swings his teased, blond mane around. 
Omer Abbas Salem, Amy Staats, Megan Hill. Photo: Ahron R. Foster.
And how long do you think it takes for the joke of having Eddie’s wife, long-running sitcom star (“One Day at a Time”) Valerie Bertinelli, played by tall, skinny, five o’clock-shadowed Omer Abbas Salem, to fall as flat as the actor’s chest? The broad performances are engaging only up to a point, and it's one that comes very soon.
Omer Abbas Salem, Amy Staats. Photo: Ahron R. Foster.
If your main interest in seeing a play about Van Halen is their music, you’ll be even grumpier, as the disappointingly few songs, heard in snatches of a few bars here and there, are mimed in synch with the group’s recordings, very few of which—like “Jump”—are named. If you’re not a fan, you may not even be able to separate the occasional sounds of Michael Thurber’s original music from Van Halen’s. Copyright issues may be at play, of course, but, if so, why do a show about famous musicians without being able to cover their hits? 
Megan Hill. Photo: Ahron R. Foster.
Van Halen’s story will have its chief interest for fans, who already know it. For those who don’t, it varies little from the stories of other famous bands (see Bohemian Rhapsody for a good example), with their quarrelling, fistfights, jealousies, artistic disputes, business issues, substance abuse and rehab, health problems, breakups, and so on. 
Adina Verson. Photo: Ahron R. Foster.
Whatever the real Dave, Eddie, and Al are like, Staats gives us only caricatures, from Dave’s peacock strutting to Eddie’s shyness and inarticulateness to Al’s diffidence. Without something more three-dimensional (or laugh-worthy), nonfans, like me, will find they couldn’t care less. You need more than playing gender games to stir up interest.
Reid Thompson creates a flexible setting, using walls covered with rock music memorabilia, and a back wall on which Shawn Boyle can create numerous nifty video projections. Jiyoun Chang gives the show the ambience it needs, while Montana Levi Blanco has fun recreating the band’s look, supplemented by the spot-on hair and wig stylings of Cookie Jordan.

Lively and colorful as much of Eddie and Dave is, it never fully justifies its existence, nor why its gender bending is so necessary. At 95 dully unfunny, intermissionless minutes, it’s a drag, in more ways than one.


Atlantic Theater Stage 2
W. 16th St., NYC
Through February 10

Friday, January 25, 2019

Thursday, January 24, 2019

154 (2018-2019): Review: THE CONVENT (seen January 22, 2019)

"They Got Themselves to a Nunnery"

For my review of The Convent please click on THEATER PIZZAZZ.

153 (2018-2019): Review: BEHIND THE SHEET (seen January 23, 2019)

“Fistula Dolours”

Hard on the heels of the closing of Jeremy O. Harris’s controversial, theatrically heightened Slave Play, at the New York Theatre Workshop, comes another drama about ante-bellum slavery, Charly Evon Simpson’s Behind the Sheet, at the Ensemble Studio Theatre. Persuasive in subject matter, writing, and performance, it’s a mostly naturalistic, fictionalized account of an actual Southern doctor, J. Marion Sims, “the father of modern gynecology,” who founded America’s first women’s hospital in New York. His experimental surgeries on female slaves led to a successful technique for the repair of vesicovaginal fistula, a condition associated with obstructed childbirth. 

Naomi Lorrain. Photo: Jeremy Daniel,.
Before Behind the Sheet, the only play I was aware of that dramatizes the presence of a fistula was Shakespeare’s All’s Well That Ends Well, in which the French king suffers from the anal version of the problem. Female fistulas are the primary focus of Dr. George Barry (Joel Ripka), the ambitious Alabama physician (“I am capable of changing the direction of medicine”) loosely inspired by Dr. Sims, who’s obsessed with discovering a procedure for repairing the post-natal hole that, according to its location, causes urinary or fecal leakage.

As a slave owner, he’s able to carry out his experimental surgeries on his pregnant slaves, whom he also trains to assist in his anesthesia-free operations, which require that the patient be held down during the painful procedure. Opium was provided only after the operation. Black women, you see, were considered to be more tolerant of pain than whites (an erroneous belief that some, apparently, still hold.) George’s tunnel-vision focus on his goals precludes his being overly concerned with his patients’ comfort.
Nia Calloway, Joel Ripka, Naomi Lorrain, Stephen James Anthony, Cristina Pitter. Photo: Jeremy Daniel.
Despite being lauded for his scientific breakthroughs, which also included the invention of the Sims speculum, the actual Dr. Sims ultimately was criticized for the shaky ethics of his 1840s practices in experimenting on the bodies of African-American women; their level of consent continues to be argued in the field of medical ethics. Simpson’s play puts its thumb on the negative side of the argument. Whether Sims’s subjects were willing or not, Behind the Sheets honors them as unsung women whose anguish contributed to women’s health.
Joel Ripka, Stephen James Anthony. Photo: Jeremy Daniel.
The play focuses chiefly on George and the beautiful slave Philomena (Naomi Lorrain), for whose pregnancy George is responsible. As happened to her historical counterpart (the father of whose child isn't known), she undergoes dozens of surgeries before George has his eureka moment. Philomena also serves as the personal servant of George’s neglected wife, Josephine (Megan Tusing), whom she dresses in a scene reminiscent of one in Gone with the Wind, absent the corset-tying.
Megan Tusing, Naomi Lorrain. Photo: Jeremy Daniel.
Naturally, Simpson takes various liberties in altering history for dramatic effect. For example, the three women he named in his writings (Anarcha, Betsey, and Lucy) have become five in the play, Philomena, Betty (Nia Calloway), Sally (Cristina Pitter), Mary (Amber Reauchean Williams), and Dinah (Jehan O. Young).  

Side issues involve George’s relationship with Josephine (Megan Tusing), Philomena’s with a gentle, amorous slave named Lewis (Shawn Randall), and, of course those tying the various female slaves together, one of them based on making perfume from flowers to hide the smell of their effusions. Finally successful, George has his moment in the limelight when he addresses a meeting of plantation owners to tout his discovery, not least of which are its economic benefits: “Your slaves will once again be profitable.”
Shawn Randall, Naomi Lorrain. Photo: Jeremy Daniel.
Lawrence E. Moten III’s neutral set consists of a planked platform whose slats allow lights—thanks to lighting designer Adam HonorĂ©—to shine from beneath at crucial moments. A soiled, scuffed, off-white upstage wall, gaslight sconces (shouldn’t they be candles?) hanging here and there, is fitted with translucent doors that sometimes serve as screens for silhouetted images of physically distressed women. A minimum of furniture—chiefly a large table used for the surgeries—and a cabinet for medical equipment, serve for all scenes.
Josh Ripka, Naomi Lorrain. Photo: Jeremy Daniel.
Costumer Sarah Woodham does a fine job recreating authentic-looking, earth-toned, ante-bellum clothing (including Josephine’s underwear), and Fan Zhang creates a brilliant soundscape of heavily amplified percussion and thrumming effects.
Stephen James Anthony, Cristina Pitter, Naomi Lorrain, Nia Calloway, Joel Ripka. Photo: Jeremy Daniel.
These sounds mark key transitions used by the sensitive director, Colette Robert, to interrupt the generally naturalistic proceedings with rhythmic, stylized movements. She also introduces occasional tableaus, or keeps actors frozen as others in the following scene act around them. All of the acting is surprisingly restrained, almost more conversational than theatrical, which works--up to a point. For all its realistic ambience, the 90-minute, intermissionless production’s overall tone remains so low key that—especially once its main points have scored—it eventually begins to drag.
Amber Reauchean Williams, Jehan O. Young. Photo: Jeremy Daniel.
During the curtain call, the actors playing the female slaves step forth and, in turn, recite the historical aftermath of the events depicted, like the onscreen notes one often sees following a fact-inspired movie. After noting that no monument to the women on whom Sims operated exists, everyone leaves but Naomi Lorrain, the admirable actress who plays Philomena. As the lights fade, her searching eyes penetrate you almost as piercingly as what her character has gone through.


Ensemble Studio Theatre
545 W. 52nd St., NYC
Through February 3

Sunday, January 20, 2019

151 (2018-2019): Review: ABOUT ALICE (seen January 18, 2019)

“Just Dumb Luck”

Calvin Trillin, the well-known humorist whose writing has been long associated with The New Yorker, was married to a wonderful woman named Alice Stewart Trillin (1938-2001), about whom he often wrote, including a memoir called About Alice. That memoir is the basis for a sweet and touching, if not particularly memorable, two-person play of the same name now at the Polonsky Shakespeare Center, where Leonard Foglia has directed it for Theatre for a New Audience. 
Jeffrey Bean, Carrie Paff. Photo: Gerri Goodstein.
The two characters are Trillin himself, played by Jeffrey Bean (The Thanksgiving Play), and, of course, Alice (Carrie Paff, Ideation). About Alice consists of Trillin recounting his 35 years of marriage to this beautiful—outside and in—woman, described in the program notes as “a remarkable educator, author, film producer, activist and longtime muse of her husband, Calvin Trillin, whom she married in 1965.”
Jeffrey Bean. Photo: Gerri Goodstein.
About Alice memorializes Alice’s too-brief life, which might have been briefer had she (a nonsmoker) succumbed earlier to the lung cancer with which she was stricken in 1976. Trillin projects her as a near perfect person, whose professional talents were accompanied by a wit that made her, in Trillin’s twist on the expected reference, George Burns to his Gracie Allen. He insists that for someone like him to marry someone like her was “just dumb luck.”
Jeffrey Bean, Carrie Paff. Photo: Gerri Goodstein,
His account recalls their meeting at a party, their mutually Jewish origins (her mother, both his parents), their lives together as man and wife, their accomplished, socially aware daughters, Alice’s career achievements, and, most significantly, her 25-year-battle with the on- again, off-again scourge of cancer, about which experiences she wrote extensively. Ironically, when she died, it was not from cancer itself but from the cumulative effects of the radiation she’d received over the years.
Jeffrey Bean, Carrie Paff. Photo: Gerri Goodstein.
It’s a familiar version of the kind of story we’ve practically become inured to after years of movies and TV scripts describing noble, exceptional people fighting fatal illness but never losing hope, being brave even when staring death straight in the eye. And while it’s hard not to keep your own eyes from tearing up at such courageous fortitude, especially if you’ve witnessed a loved one’s suffering (as who hasn’t?), that alone shouldn’t be why we praise the latest dramatization of such a struggle. After all, it’s also likely that your cheeks get wet when you watch a commercial for the Shriners Hospital, with its adorable handicapped children, or an ASPCA ad showing one pitiable canine after the other. 
Carrie Paff, Jeffrey Bean. Photo: Henry Grossman.
About Alice has the form of a one-man play into which Alice—wearing a series of flattering outfits designed by David C. Woolard—continues to intrude, occasionally in dialogue but more often in direct address. Riccardo Hernandez’s thrust set is a simple arrangement of polished wooden platforming, lit effectively by Russell H. Champs, with an upstage screen for Elaine J. McCarthy’s surprisingly limited projections.
Jeffrey Bean, Carrie Paff. Photo: Henry Grossman.
The general tone, though, is more that of a memorized recitation than words spoken spontaneously. For all Bean’s appealing charm, his words have a literary, not a natural cadence. Paff is more successful at sounding in the moment but she too can’t always shake the sense that she’s performing a text meant for reading, not speaking.
Carrie Paff, Jeffrey Bean. Photo: Henry Grossman.
And with that text written by Calvin Trillin, we expect not just conventional hagiography, but a comically illuminating take on the familiar dilemma of caring for a loved one living beneath an ever-threatening sword of Damocles. There are certainly laughs here but they’re neither frequent nor loud enough to ward off the inevitable sorrow that’s bound to govern. 
Carrie Paff, Jeffrey Bean. Photo: Henry Grossman.
At one point, Trillin, explaining that Alice would often critique his work, offers the following tongue-in-cheek exchange:

ALICE Is this meant to be funny?
CALVIN Well, maybe mildly amusing.
ALICE (As if turning over that idea in her head) Mildly amusing . . .
CALVIN (Looking a bit concerned) How about wry? I’m often described as wry. I’ve decided that wry means almost funny. But that’s fine, if you think it might be wry. Wry is fine. I’d settle for wry.
ALICE (Again considering) Wry . . .
CALVIN Well, what did you think?
ALICE (With a straight face) I think this is very funny.
CALVIN You do? ALICE Yes, I do. One of the funniest things you’ve ever written. (Suddenly smiling) Gotcha!

About Alice, though, isn’t one of the funniest things Trillin has ever written. Nor, given its subject matter, should it be. But where its humor is concerned, Alice’s original assessments are pretty close to the mark. 
Carrie Paff, Jeffrey Bean. Photo: Henry Grossman.

Polonsky Shakespeare Center/Theatre for a New Audience
262 Ashland Place, Brooklyn, NY
Through February 3