Monday, January 16, 2017

THEATER WEEK IN REVIEW - Jan 9-15 : DannyKrisDonnaVeronica; The Present; Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812; Consider the Lilies

January 9:  DannyKrisDonnaVeronica

In Lawrence Dial's play, DANNYKRISDONNAVERONICA, two 30-something couples struggle to balance the demands of career, marriage, and child rearing. 

Mr. Dial is a talented playwright who has received well-deserved praise for several of his works, including In The Room, which I saw in October. That one was an absorbing and insightful drama about the participants in a writing workshop. A producer of that play, Jeff Wise, serves as the director on DANNYKRISDONNAVERONICA

In the play, Danny (Ben Mehl) and Kris (Suzy Jane Hunt) are the designated stay-at-home parents, each of them responsible for an infant and a three-year-old. They start talking when they run into each other every day in a Brooklyn park with their children in tow. 

They have fallen into their caregiver roles due more to circumstances than to any predisposition to do so; neither is employed at the moment, while their spouses are. Makes sense from a practical standpoint, but that doesn't mean it is working out very well. Both of them are totally overwhelmed.      

The play focuses in part on the bond Danny and Kris develop over their common challenges. By identifying Kris as gay, however, the playwright makes it clear that whatever happens between them, they will not connect sexually. Instead, their mutual misery allows the play to highlight the disconnect each of them has with their respective spouses, Danny's wife Donna (Rachel Mewbron), and Kris's wife Veronica (Liz Wisan).  

For their part, Donna and Veronica are caught up in the demands of their work situations and don't really understand that taking care of kids full time can be quite a burden. A lack of honest communication between spouses threatens both couples far more than the growing friendship between Danny and Kris. By play's end, some progress has been made, but it is clear there is a great deal of work to be done if these marriages are to survive.  

Bottom line:  Great performances all around, and another solid piece of writing for Mr. Dial.  

January 10:  The Present

What is it about the plays of Anton Chekhov that brings out the apparently uncontrollable urge to remove it from its original context of pre-Revolution Russia and modernize or otherwise reshape it?  

Last year, for example, I saw three versions of The Seagull. The only one that managed to maintain the spirit of the original while reimagining it for a contemporary audience was Aaron Posner's Stupid Fucking Bird, a brilliant reconceptualization of Chekhov. The others, less successful, were a musical set in a Nashville honky-tonk, called Songbird, with a book by Michael Kimmel and music and lyrics by Lauren Pritchard; and The Seagull and Other Birds, an absurdist version by the experimental Irish theater company Pan Pan. Both of these latter two were interesting in their own right, but their connection with Chekhov was tenuous at best.

The same can be said of this season's Broadway productions of Chekhov. First we had the Roundabout Theatre Company's  The Cherry Orchard, in an adaptation by Steve Karan (he's the playwright responsible for the multiple Tony-winning The Humans). While his version of The Cherry Orchard gave us the pleasure of seeing Diane Lane's return to Broadway - bolstered with fine work by John Glover and the audience-pleasing Joel Grey among its strong cast - it had precious little to do with Chekhov's play and showed as much Russian sensibility as as a bottle of Russian dressing.  

Now we've got The Present, starring Cate Blanchett and other members of her Sydney Theater Company in a version of an early Chekhov work; the original was never officially titled but generally goes by the name Platonov. This adaptation was written by Ms. Blanchett's husband Andrew Upton, and it is being performed and directed    John Crowley does the honors  –  with a wild abandon that is certainly entertaining, at least through the (literally) explosive ending to the first act. 

But, like so many of the others, The Present misses the Chekhov boat, in this case by resetting the time frame and thereby giving up the central Chekhovian theme that pits the fall of the aristocracy against the rise of the proletariat. (Usually it's the fading and generally helpless aristocrats who are at the core, and we are left to either sympathize with or rejoice over their changing circumstances). 

Here the time shift takes us to 1990s Communist Russia, though we could be almost anywhere in the world for all the Russian feel there is to the production. Little of the goings-on make sense in this new time period, and what remains are bits and pieces we associate with Chekhov (self-pity, ennui, diminishing financial standing, and unrequited sexual longing). We've even got "Chekov's gun," a plot device we sometimes term "foreshadowing" (If a gun shows up in the first act, it must be used before the play ends). Sure enough, a gun is waved around in the opening scene, though its use may remind you more of Ibsen's Hedda Gabler (the General's daughter) than it is of Ms. Blanchett's character (a General's widow).  

Bottom Line:  No one is working harder at selling a show right now than is Cate Blanchett, who performs the heck out of her role. Playing Chekhov or not, she is truly captivating. Whether it's worth three hours of your time is up to you. Or stay for Act I and go for drinks afterwards; you'll not be missing much during the second half.

Jan 11:  Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812

And we've got a winner, folks!  

Glory be, has director Rachel Chavkin ever pulled it off! She's taken this gloriously rich but decidedly intimate and audience-engaging pop opera away from its off Broadway roots and plunked it down in a big Broadway house, brought back most of the cast that has seen it through its various productions over the past several years, and – for good measure – has placed a superstar singer into the role of someone who is essentially an observer and bystander and allowed him to shine without taking away one iota from the rest of the company.  

The Great Comet, written by Dave Malloy, is based on a tiny subplot culled from Tolstoy's monumental novel War and Peace, about the very same Russian aristocratic types that would, in a few years time, populate Chekhov's plays.  It's playful, romantic, melodramatic, and gloriously performed.  Josh Groban is quite wonderful as Pierre, and Denée Benton is splendid as Natasha. She is engaged to marry Prince Andrey (Nicolas Belton), but when Andrey leaves to fight in the Napolionic wars, she is swept off her feet by the ne'er-do-well cad Anatole (Lucas Steele, also terrific). The show is inundated with Russian names and complicated relationships, and yet you will easily get to know each of the characters without even having to resort to the family tree that is included in your program.  

Bottom Line:  Идеальный! (Perfect!)  Absolutely the new musical to beat come award time.  

January 13:  Consider the Lilies

Stuart Fail wrote and directs this play about the relationship between an artist and his agent. Stars Austin Pendleton and Eric Joshua Davis do well with their roles, but the play itself needs a lot of revision and shaping to make it work effectively.

Bottom Line:  To carry on with the Russian theme – Nyet! 

Feel free to share this blog with your friends, and to offer up your own theater stories by posting a comment. I also invite you to check out the website Show-Score.Com, where you will find capsule reviews of current plays from Yours Truly and many other New York critics.  

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

THEATER WEEK IN REVIEW - JAN 2-8: Sweet Charity, Lucky Penny, Holden

January 4:  Sweet Charity

First show of 2017 for me was The New Group's production of the 1966 musical Sweet Charity. It is perhaps best known for its bouncy score (music by Cy Coleman and lyrics by Dorothy Fields), as captured on the original Broadway cast album with its iconic performance by the incomparable Gwen Verdon. It was later adapted for the screen, with Shirley MacLaine taking on the lead role. Debbie Allen was Charity on Broadway in 1986, and in 2015 Christina Applegate displayed plucky determination when she opened what was most recent Broadway revival after she broke her leg and was forced to drop out for most of the show's pre-New York tour.

For the current Off Broadway production at the Pershing Square Signature Center, director Leigh Silverman has opted for a stripped-down and intimate version of the musical, with little by way of design elements and with a far more somber undercurrent, as if the show were taking place during the Great Depression instead of the heyday of the "love, peace, and happiness" era of the 1960s.

In this production, our heroine, who goes by the name Charity Hope Valentine, absolutely wears her heart on her sleeve, despite being let down by every man she comes into contact with.  In the beginning, Ms. Foster literally throws herself at every fellow she sees. It's kind of pathetic, but the actress uses her great strength as a dancer and physical comic to give Charity's desperation the outsized exaggeration of a skit from the old Carol Burnett show. It is so over the top that we laugh in spite of our squeamishness.  

But don't be fooled.  In previous productions of the show, Charity at least ended up with her middle name intact and took her final bow with her eternal hope securely in place.

Here, however, when the last guy (brilliantly performed by Shuler Hensley as a walking bundle of neuroses) gives her the bum's rush at precisely the moment when she (and we) think she has a real chance at happiness, Ms. Foster dissolves into a pool of sadness that suggests that "hope" has abandoned our sweet Charity altogether.  It's a powerful image, but hard to take when the show has become of Mobius strip of unending crushing blows against optimism.

The rest of the cast is quite good, and the songs mostly work, though they do lack the oomph of earlier productions.  This is undoubtedly deliberate, especially as the big brassy orchestra has been replaced with a competent but decidedly small five-member band.  We miss the bigness on two of the numbers:  "Hey, Big Spender" and "The Rhythm of Life," both of which are downsized and basically tossed off as casually as Charity's erstwhile boyfriends dump her. 

And even though Sutton Foster gives it her all as a dancer, the otherwise very talented choreographer Joshua Bergasse cannot begin to compete with the memory of Bob Fosse's work on the original production.   

Bottom line:  Three cheers for Sutton Foster and for Shuler Hensley, but a quiet sigh for the overall downbeat production. 

January 6:  Lucky Penny

Fred Johnson
Photo by Zachary Zirlin Photography
David Deblinger
Photo by Zachary Zirlin Photography

Show #2:  A masterful performance artist and a gifted singer join forces in Lucky Penny, a wild ride through the life of David Deblinger, who shares tales of his dysfunctional life in this funny, intense, and unpredictable show at the Stella Adler Studio of Acting.   

There's never a dull moment as various members of Deblinger's family and circle of acquaintances turn up in stories that may remind you of the Thanksgiving gathering of your nightmares. 

Yet even as he describes family fights and the really stupid things he did in his youth (some of them involving butcher knives and pellet guns), Deblinger manages to maintain a core of humanity and off-beat humor. The evening comes to its fullest fruition when he touchingly describes the time he spent with his father after the older man suffered a stroke and was later confined to one of those "facilities" we dread.    

Deblinger is joined in the production by musician/singer Fred Johnson, who provides splendidly rich renditions of songs that range from Bob Dylan's "Chimes of Freedom" to "Pennies From Heaven" and "God Bless The Child." These songs are performed during intervals that serve as breaks between scenes, each of them chosen to fit in thematically with the story that Deblinger has been telling.

Bottom line:  Under Ben Snyder's direction, it all comes lovingly together to make for a most rewarding and heart-felt evening.

January 7:  Holden

HOLDEN.  Photo by

The final show I saw this week was George & Co.'s production of Holden, a play that takes place in the writing compound of the angst-filled, famously reclusive J. D. Salinger, noted author of The Catcher In The Rye.  

The play, at the New Ohio Theatre, takes its title from that book's alienated teenage protagonist, Holden Caulfield.

Written and directed by Anisa George (she's the George of George & Co.), Holden takes us inside Salinger's head as he wrestles with his demons. They manifest in the form of two notorious individuals - John Hinckley Jr., the would-be assassin of President Ronald Reagan, and Mark David Chapman, who killed John Lennon. (The real-life Hinckley and Chapman were said to be big fans of The Catcher In The Rye).

They are there to both inspire Salinger to complete his nearly-finished latest novel, and to torment him with horrific memories of his time as a soldier during World War II.  The intense drama, which varies between darkly comic and just plain dark, focuses a great deal on the nature of violence, and makes pointed references to the kinds of random mass shootings we have seen far too much of in recent years.

To this end, another character is introduced. He's called Zev, and he's an outsider with no interest in Salinger or the others. Unlike Hinckley and Chapman, he's much more intrigued with the new era of violence. Indeed, his goal is to break the world's record for killing the most people in a single shooting spree.

Not exactly a laugh riot, but the play, the acting, and the directing are top-notch. The excellent cast includes Ms. George's father, Bill George, as the taciturn Salinger. Scott R. Sheppard is Hinckley, Jaime Maseda is Chapman, and Matteo Scammell is Zev. Joining them in the small and sweet role of Salinger's daughter Peggy, who craves his attention and is the only one who can draw him out of himself, is a young newcomer, George Truman.

Bottom line:  An intriguing work that examines both the struggles of one of the great contributors to American fiction in the 20th Century, and the nature of violence in a shaky world where the future is uncertain.

Feel free to share this blog with your friends, and to offer up your own theater stories by posting a comment. I also invite you to check out the website Show-Score.Com, where you will find capsule reviews of current plays from Yours Truly and many other New York critics.