Saturday, September 28, 2019

Friday, September 27, 2019

Wednesday, September 25, 2019

Tuesday, September 24, 2019

Friday, September 20, 2019

74 (2019-2020): Review: WIVES (seen September 19, 2019)

(THEATRE'S LEITER SIDE is now a book--two books, in fact. No, make that three books! The first covers the 2012-2013 season, when, at the age of 72, I began reviewing plays. It contains full reviews and shorter comments on 150 shows, as well as a brief memoir on how I got into this critical mess. The 2013-2014 season follows, with 300 substantial reviews, so many it had to be published in two volumes (May to November; December to April). Both are available at affordable prices (paperback and Kindle) at Christmas is coming so why not consider them as gifts for your theatreloving friends and family? Click here for more information.)

"To Have and to Hold"

Jaclyn Backhaus, whose Men on Boats and India Pale Ale impressed and entertained me, is back with Wives, an 80-minute play I found categorically less impressive and entertaining. Admittedly, many in the audience laughed, befuddling this stone-faced reviewer. Like Backhaus’s earlier work, it reflects the author’s interest in issues of identity, principally gender-related, with a playful mixture of the historical and contemporary, but in a far-shakier humorous, structural, emotional, and intellectually accessible context. 

Aadya Purvi, Sathya Sridharan, Purva Bedi. All photos: Joan Marcus.
According to an interview with Tim Sanford, artistic director of Playwrights Horizons, in whose Peter Jay Sharp Theater Wives is playing, Backhaus’s four-part play was originally four separate playlets that she decided only late in her process to combine into a single work. This happened, she says, “when I decided that all these parts live together because they’re all about women trying to live for themselves, but who are unable to because they only exist in our history and in their own minds in relation to the main man in their lives.” All well and good, only that doesn’t really describe the play I saw.

Each of the four parts is set in a different time period and location: 1) the Chateau de Chenonceaux, Loire Valley, France, during the time of Catherine de Medici’s (1519-1589) marriage (1547-1559) to King Henri II; 2) Ketchum, Idaho, in 1961, at the funeral of author Ernest Hemingway, attended by his two, still-living ex-wives (a third had died) and his widow; 3) the Madhavendra Place, Rajasthan, India, in the 1920s, during the declining years of the Raj; and 4) Oxbridge University, the fictional British university imagined by Virginia Woolf, in the present day. Four actors, three of South Asian ancestry (for reasons described in the interview but too complex to go into here), play different roles in each scene

The first begins with a goofy French cook (Adina Verson), speaking in a cockeyed Cockney accent (because, says Backhaus, the creative team considered it hilarious). Like a souped-up Julia Child, she demonstrates how to prepare chicken. Soon, though, she’ll be a participant in a farcically overcooked sequence concerning the rivalry for Henri’s (Sathya Sridharan) affections between his wife, Queen Cathy (Purva Bedi), and his rumbustious mistress, Diane de Poitiers (Aadya Bedi). After Henri dies from his jousting wounds, and his estate must be settled, the jousting women find their way to a rapprochement. If you can’t fight ‘em, join ‘em, so to speak.
Purva Bedi, Aadya Bedi. 
Whatever antipatriarchal theme this ridiculously inflated scene may have regarding the way women have been overshadowed by their husbands, is drowned in the wife-mistress rivalry as well as in the clownishly exaggerated behavior, ahistorical language and contemporary slang (“fuckery” being a Backhaus fave), and mugging.

A few degrees less broad, but still over-the-top, is the Hemingway scene, in which Big Ern (Sridharan) delivers his own eulogy. Then, his first wife, Hadley Richardson (Purva Bedi), third wife, Martha Gelhorn (Aadya Bedi), and widow, Mary (Verson), all dressed in black, drink booze and dish about the late writer, even taking turns mimicking his writing style. (Hemingway’s second wife, Pauline Pfeiffer, referenced in the scene, died in 1951.)
Adina Verson, Aadya Bedi, Purva Bedi.
Backhaus wants to satirize how Hemingway’s success was linked to what he’d gotten from these women, but, despite their bitchiness, and Mary’s realization that he was “shitty,” just what was deleterious in his doing so—or what it’s symbolic implications for us are—is left to our imagination. All were accomplished women, Gelhorn in particular making her mark as one of the top foreign correspondents of her day. Hemingway may not have been a model husband but the scene illuminates little but bad feelings. And even if Hemingway was a chauvinist and terrible spouse, why must that implicate other husbands?
Aadya Bedi, Adina Verson.
We move further away from the titular subject of wives in the third section, which mocks outrageously narrowminded British colonial attitudes toward Indian culture. The caricaturish villain here is a snootily accented British official, Mr. Patterson (the comically versatile Verson). The bug up his butt is the ministrations of a concubine cum witch named Roop Rai (Purva Bedi), whose healing powers benefit Maharaja Madho Singh II (Sridharan). 

Even the ruler’s wife, the Maharani (Aadya Bedi), supports Roop Rai, who uses her powers to overcome the officious foreigner, someone who believes her hold on the maharaja is a danger to colonial power. Once more, though, the emphasis on larger-than-life comedic tropes trumps significant thematic points.
Sathya Sridharan, Purva Bedi, Aadya Bedi.
Finally, we move yet further away from “wives” territory to what begins as yet another farcical sketch, in which a young witch, a college undergrad (Verson), has obtained a room at Oxbridge University, to recruit other witches for her campus club. Upstage hangs the school’s only portrait of an important woman, Virginia Woolf. 
Adina Verson, Aadya Bedi.
Woolf’s famous feminist essay, A Room of One’s Own, which noted the constraints on women writers, becomes the inspiration for a young woman, Swarn (Aadya Bedi), with low self-esteem, to be cast under a spell by the witch. It enables her to abandon the play’s previous comic foolery for a poignant, stream-of-consciousness, freeform, elusive, poetic, and vastly overstuffed journey toward full awareness of her existence as a woman. In this surrealistic sequence, she’s supported by a visitation of the Indian immigrant grandparents (Sridharan and Purva Bedi)—the grandmother being the scene’s only “wife”—who died before she was born.
Aadya Bedi.
Barely any of this muddled play tickled my chauvinistic funnybone, stirred my patriarchal emotions, or stimulated my caveman intellect. In fact, I would have been unable to sit through it without the vivacious talents of its four actors. And, while I was uncomfortable with director Margot Bordelon’s insistence on Monty Pythonesque-broadness, I appreciated her imaginative staging. Also offering worthwhile contributions are Reid Thompson’s wood-paneled set, whose walls allow for locale-changing images, the colorful costumes of Valérie Thérèse Bart, the versatile lighting of Amith Chandrashaker, and the effective sound and music of Kate Marvin.

In the above-cited interview, provided as a handout, Jaclyn Backhaus makes valuable points about what she thinks her play is saying. Unfortunately, there’s more to be gained from her stated intentions than from how effectively she communicates them in Wives.

Playwrights Horizons
416 W. 42nd St., NYC
Through October 6


Thursday, September 19, 2019

73 (2019-2020): Review: NOVENAS FOR A LOST HOSPITAL (seen September 16, 2019)

(THEATRE'S LEITER SIDE is now a book--two books, in fact. No, make that three books! The first covers the 2012-2013 season, when, at the age of 72, I began reviewing plays. It contains full reviews and shorter comments on 150 shows, as well as a brief memoir on how I got into this critical mess. The 2013-2014 season follows, with 300 substantial reviews, so many it had to be published in two volumes (May to November; December to April). Both are available at affordable prices (paperback and Kindle) at Christmas is coming so why not consider them as gifts for your theatreloving friends and family? Click here for more information.)

"Remembering St. Vincent's"

On Monday night, presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren spoke to a huge crowd in Greenwich Village’s Washington Square Park, standing in the shadow of where the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire occurred, and referring to it in her speech in connection with the corruption that led to the catastrophe. About a mile away in another part of the Village, I was a couple of blocks from where stood St. Vincent’s, the lost hospital lovingly memorialized in the title and action of Novenas for a Lost Hospital, Cusi Cram’s ambitious, sincerely felt, but too often flatlining journey through the century and a half of its history. 

Manhattan’s first Catholic hospital, St. Vincent’s was founded, during the cholera outbreak of 1849, in a rented house on West 13th Street by nuns of the Sisters of Charity, established by another woman named Elizabeth, America’s first saint, Elizabeth Seton. St. Vincent’s moved to Seventh Avenue and West 11th Street in 1856. There, it became renowned as a treatment center for the victims not only of such disasters as the Triangle fire, but the sinking of the Titanic in 1912, and, toward the end of the 20th century, the AIDS epidemic, in the fight against which it was a leader, both in caring for the afflicted and as a research center. Financial difficulties forced its closing in 2010, amid a storm of controversy, after which it was demolished and replaced by a luxury condominium building.

Novenas for a Lost Hospital expresses the hospital’s devotion to the care of its patients by treating us—its 60 attendees—as a community gathered to honor both those who served the place as doctors and nurses and the patients who suffered and, of course, died there. This is done—at least during clement weather—by first gathering us at St. John’s in the Village, a 19th-century Episcopalian church on 11th Street, around the corner from the Rattlestick Playwrights Theater on Waverly Place.
Kathleen Chalfant, Alvin Keith. All photos: Julietta Cervantes.
When the time comes, we’re led through a long, white-walled, arched tunnel—a “horsewalk”—to a lovely, rear courtyard. There a small group of performers, several of whom will be in the play proper, engage in a ritual using music and dance (choreographed by Edisa Weeks) inspired by the theme of water. After having warm water poured over our hands, we watch a man, presumably an AIDS sufferer, within a makeshift arrangement of white curtains, ever so gently giving himself a sponge bath, as music plays. (Serge Ossorguine is the composer.) Then a group of men—a couple dressed in scrubs—perform a minuet mixed with more modern dances before we’re ushered out through the tunnel to the Rattlestick itself. It's all very 60s in a kumbaya-ish way. Later, we'll even be asked to hold our neighbor's hand.
Natalie Woolams-Torres, Leland Fowler, Ken Barnett, Kelly McAndrew, Kathleen Chalfant.
There, after ascending its long staircase, the walls adorned with artwork inspired by the AIDs epidemic, we enter the performing space (designed by Caroline Mraz), where we snake around movable, curtained units—like those placed around hospital beds—examining the numerous historical illustrations and notes detailing St. Vincent’s history. Then, the units removed, we sit three-quarters-round style on actual (therefore uncomfortable) church pews.
Justin Genna, Kathleen Chalfant, Kelly McAndrew, Alvin Keith. 
The play ensues, during much of which we keep the little, battery-operated candles we’ve been handed lit. This intensifies the solemn atmosphere, especially when the lighting—delicately designed by Stacey Derosler—dims. When the play ends, we descend the steps, file down Waverly to 11th, and, as music makers play alongside us, accompany them rhythmically by shaking colored eggs filled with tiny grains. Eventually, we make our way across Greenwich Avenue to the lovely AIDS Memorial for some more ritualizing, led by the evening’s always-excellent leading lady, Kathleen Chalfant, who plays Elizabeth Seton.
Leland Fowler, Ken Barnett, Justin Genna.
What did I forget? Oh, yes. The play. Novenas for a Lost Hospital is an episodic, nine-scene work (nine being significant to the meaning of the prayers called novenas), each scene designated as a prayer and marked by the lighting of a votive candle on a table along one wall.
Ken Barnett, Justin Genna.
I’ll note the contents of just a few scenes to provide an idea of what’s involved. In “Prayer #1,” two mid-19th-century nuns Ulrica (Natalie Woolams-Torres) and Angela (Kelly McAndrew), standing near white, cardboard models of the St. Vincent’s of the future, allude to the planned memorial for the hospital we’re actually participating in, and are joined by Toussaint, dressed in mint-green, 18th-century formalwear.
Ken Barnett.
Toussaint was a rather remarkable historical figure, Haitian-born, a freed slave, successful New York hairdresser, philanthropist with deep ties to the Catholic Church, and prospective saint. He reminds the nuns of the slaves who laid the bricks for the surrounding neighborhood. Then Seton appears, we learn all about her and her mission, and a candle is lit to remember the hospital’s 161 years of service after being “created by women who cared.”

“Prayer #2” focuses on two dedicated, modern nurses (Woolams-Torres and McAndrew), a dying AIDS patient, Lazarus (Ken Barnett), and his potential “resurrection,” with Toussaint and Seton commenting from the sidelines as his “spirit guides.” His late boyfriend, a choreographer, dances into the scene and they recall their love as well as their sexual highlights.
Kathleen Chalfant, Alvin Keith, Justin Genna, Kelly McAndrew.
“Prayer #3” moves back to 1849, so that Toussaint and Elizabeth can show Lazarus a physician, Dr. Potter (Leland Fowler), standing over a corpse with an old-fashioned surgical instrument. He’s confronted by Sister Ulrica, who objects to his experimenting on cholera victims in a Catholic hospital (he’s actually preparing for his first surgery), while Dr. Potter extols the humanity of the nuns’ difficult work. This devolves into talk about anti-Irish, anti-poor bias, and Ulrica’s vocation, before we return to Elizabeth and Toussaint using what they’ve seen to give Lazarus renewed faith, although in what is far from clear.

And so it goes, for six more “prayers,” each one a new situation, with a blend of historical chitchat and contemporary issues, none of it building toward any major development or resolution, much of it vague, and most of it interesting only for the historical tidbits it now and then drops. It’s all well-acted and effectively staged by Daniella Topol but there’s little to latch onto other than the general feeling that we’ve lost a major institution and ain’t that a shame.
Goussy Celestin.
The work veers from the personal to the educational (didactic might be better), often breaks the fourth wall, includes a number of laugh lines (some at the expense of Catholicism), allows for multiple anachronisms, includes both historical and contemporary costumes (designed by Ari Fulton), introduces dance within dramatic scenes, and has most of the actors playing more than one role.
As drawn, none of the characters is particularly interesting since even the historically important ones—Venerable Pierre Toussaint (Alvin Keith) and Elizabeth Seton—serve more as icons than as real people. Both, however, especially Toussaint, could be the subject of a major film or drama.
Otherwise, and I hate to say this about a play dealing with such issues, Novenas for a Lost Hospital fails to bring its subject to dramatic life. In fact, as each scene ends with a new votive candle being lit, it’s hard not to start counting them and waiting, praying even, for the lighting of the ninth and final one.

Rattlestick Playwrights Theatre
64 Waverly Place, NYC
Through October 13


72 (2019-2020): Review: FERN HILL (seen September 17, 2019)

(THEATRE'S LEITER SIDE is now a book--two books, in fact. No, make that three books! The first covers the 2012-2013 season, when, at the age of 72, I began reviewing plays. It contains full reviews and shorter comments on 150 shows, as well as a brief memoir on how I got into this critical mess. The 2013-2014 season follows, with 300 substantial reviews, so many it had to be published in two volumes (May to November; December to April). Both are available at affordable prices (paperback and Kindle) at Christmas is coming so why not consider them as gifts for your theatreloving friends and family? Click here for more information.)

“Sex and the Sexagenarian”

The Merriam-Webster definition of “dramedy” is “a comedy . . . having dramatic moments,” which well defines Fern Hill, Michael Tucker’s superficially titillating but nonetheless enjoyable concoction about sexual perturbations among a group of still randy geriatrics. It’s now playing at 59E59 after premiering last year at the New Jersey Repertory Company with a slightly different cast. 
Mark Linn-Baker, Jill Eikenberry. All photos: Carol Rosegg.
Its easy to imagine Fern Hill’s ensemble of three aging couples—Sunny and Jer, Darla and Vincent, and Michiko and Billy—all great pals, each with their own charms, as material for a TV sitcom called “Old Friends.” Of course, they’d never achieve the humongous acceptance of that classic sextet of bosom buddies known as Rachel, Ross, Monica, Chandler, Phoebe, and Joey. However, judging from the audience when I went, a lot of seniors might enjoy seeing a reflection of their own marital, romantic, and, especially, sexual concerns mirrored by droll sexagenarians and septuagenarians.
Not that Fern Hill’s characters are all that universal, unique, or unusual. Tucker, an actor many will remember from TV’s “L.A. Law,” has imagined an artsy, but not artsy fartsy, gang of comrades who get together regularly at Fern Hill, the country house of Sunny (Jill Eikenberry, also of “L.A. Law” and Tucker’s real-life wife) and Jer (Mark Blum). She’s a painter unsure of her abilities; he’s a 70-year-old professor and writer of philosophically bleak nonfiction. 
Ellen Parker, Jill Eikenberry.
Darla (Ellen Parker) is a photographer who, it appears, also teaches at Jer’s college and is successful enough to be showing her work in Vienna and Prague. Like the other women, her age is not mentioned but she’s somewhat younger than her husband, Vincent (John Glover), a well-reputed painter, nearing 80, who has hip replacement surgery during the play.
John Glover, Ellen Parker.
Rounding out the cast are Michiko (Jodi Long), an art professor—it would seem—at the same college, and Billy, a longhaired rock musician. He’s turning 60 when the play begins, his once popular band, Olly Golly, is in decline, and the couple are having financial problems.
Jodi Long, Mark Linn-Baker, Ellen Parker, John Glover.
The couples are gathered for Billy’s birthday (and Jer’s upcoming one) in Fern Hill’s upscale kitchen/dining room (including an old-fashioned fridge side by side with a new one), designed with live-in readiness by Jessica Parks. Suitably costumed by Patricia Doherty, the aging, cultured, and verbally acute friends banter, drink, smoke weed (offstage), and, as typical in such comedies, vie to be the wittiest and most charming—not that the effort doesn’t show. Highlighting act one is a friendly dispute between Billy and Jer over who makes the best clam sauce, culminating in Billy offering a glowing, aria-like exhibition of mouthwatering, culinary grandiloquence.
Mark Blum, Jill Eikenberry.
But, apart from our observing the interplay of sociable relations and rivalries, not much happens until, as the end of act one approaches, the characters begin to discuss the feasibility of living at Fern Hill as a commune, where they can share their sunset years, caring for one another and sharing the burdens certain to come their way. All are okay with the idea except for Jer.
Jill Eikenberry, Mark Linn-Baker.
Act two might be expected to take the communal idea further but it gets sidetracked by the subject of one friend’s adultery, the adulterer placing the blame on perceived intimacy problems with their spouse. This, with the threat it raises regarding the group’s cohesiveness, inspires an intervention. Designed to bring the couple back together by having everyone openly discusses their sex lives, it has an innate interest for us eavesdroppers, even though not everyone is thrilled to be frankly talking about such matters.
Mark Linn-Baker, John Glover, Mark Blum, Jill Eikenberry, Jodi Long, Ellen Parker.
The fact that all these geezers (even the months-from-being-an-octogenarian Vincent) are intensely active bedpartners raises more questions than it answers, and the confessions, relatively open as they are, tend to be more allusively sedate than pornographically detailed. Intrinsically intriguing as they may be, they don’t add anything new to the issue of marital betrayal that other plays haven’t explored, like, for example, the current revival of Pinter’s Betrayal. The pleasures offered us lie more in the carefully limned performances than in the lessons purveyed about ego and self-awareness.  
Mark Linn-Baker, Mark Blum, Jodi Long, Jill Eikenberry, Ellen Parker, John Glover.
Nadia Tass does a lovely job with a cast of well-known, top-notch actors. The way she opens act two, described in the script merely as “Vincent is lying on the open recliner, which has been made up with sheets and a blanket,” is priceless. For it, she creates a mostly pantomimic scene, with improvised chatter, revealing how Vincent got there the night before. Intended to show the depth of the love these characters have for one another, it involves Jer helping Vincent, suffering the pain of his hip operation, settle ever so gently into the recliner, while Ben Webster’s jazzy sax rendition of “Tenderly” covers the action.
John Glover, Mark Linn-Baker, Mark Blum, Jill Eikenberry, Jodi Long.
 Tass gets honest, non-actorish work from everyone (although the otherwise appealing Eikenberry sometimes borders on the inaudible). Especially noteworthy are Mark Linn-Baker, giving one of his best performances in years as the avuncular source of the funniest lines, and Marc Blum (in a role originally played by David Rasche) as Sunny’s agonized husband.  
John Glover, Mark Linn-Baker, Ellen Parker, Jodi Long, Jill Eikenberry, Mark Blum.
Fern Hill treats the potentially thought-provoking topics of senior sex and communal living for old friends in comfortable, not particularly challenging ways, and it would benefit from more laughs than it presently provides. But its two hours go down easily, its production quality never falters, and, if you’re of a certain age, you may even give some thought to where you stand (if you still can) on the issues it addresses.

59E59 Theaters/Theater A
59 E. 59th St., NYC
Through October 20