Forget for the moment how the New York “season” is defined. I’d like to use this occasion to review my own season of theatergoing in 2009-2010, with a few brief comments about each of the shows I’ve seen between September of 2009 and May of 2010—a span of time roughly equivalent to an academic year at a college, whence comes my blog identity of “ProfMiller” and my pressing inner need to assign a letter grade to each production.
Here, more-or-less in the order of my seeing them, are the plays in my 2009-2010 season of theater-going. Part I: Fall Semester.
We’ll begin with Superior Donuts by Tracy Letts, the Tony Award and Pulitzer Prize winning playwright of August: Osage County. With Superior Donuts, only Jon Michael Hill succeeded in taking an unconvincing and underdeveloped character and filling the role with a vibrant performance that stood out against the general ennui pervading the rest of the evening. For that, Hill has garnered a Tony Award nomination for best performance by a featured actor in a play. Overall grade: C+
Wishful Drinking was an intermittently amusing evening spent with Carrie Fisher telling stories of her dysfunctional life. I was looking for her to share something she might have learned from her affair with alcohol and drugs, and any insights she may have gained from years of psychotherapy, but this one was played strictly for the gallows humor of it all. Overall grade: B-
Brighton Beach Memoirs was a warm, affectionate, funny, well-acted, well-directed and thoroughly enjoyable revival of Neil Simon’s semi-autobiographical comedy. I join all of those were puzzled that it failed to catch on and had to close prematurely. Overall grade: A
The Royal Family, a spoof of the Barrymore family of actors by George S. Kauffman and Edna Ferber, was given a first-class production. Great to see that Jan Maxwell, a wonderful comic actress in the Jean Harlow screwball mode, won a Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Actress in a Play and is nominated for a Tony. Overall Grade: A
After Miss Julie, playwright Patrick Marber’s take on August Strindberg’s play about power, social class, and sex, had its moments, and Sienna Miller pulled off a fairly credible performance as the psychologically complicated title character. But the production was too far over-the-top to be truly convincing or engaging. Overall grade: C
Oleanna, a revival of David Mamet’s take on power, gender, and sex, also had its moments, and Julie Stiles gave a strong performance as a young woman college student who accuses a professor of sexual harassment and pretty much destroys his career. The play depends more on the unfolding of the storyline and less on the eloquence of the dialog, of which Mamet, when he is at his best, is a supreme master. Here he was not at his best. Overall grade: B-
Broke-ology, by Nathan Louis Jackson, was a well-written, well-performed drama about a working class African American family in which two grown sons are trying to figure out how best to help their aging and ailing father. Jackson is skilled at layering depth of meaning, and by paying attention, we learn a great deal about the family and of the greater world beyond the front steps of their modest home. Overall grade: A-
Two Unrelated Plays by David Mamet consisted of one very short piece, School, that was funny, clever, and reminiscent of top-notch Mamet; and a longer one-act, Keep Your Pantheon, an amusing spin on Plautus and reminiscent of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. Overall grade: B+
Finian’s Rainbow, a revival of the 1947 Burton Lane/Yip Harburg musical, was a lively and delightful production of a show filled with glorious and memorable songs, even if the tale it tells stretches credibility to the breaking point. There were several fine performances, but it was Kate Baldwin who carried the show, winning my heart and a well-deserved Tony nomination for best performance by a leading actress in a musical. Overall grade: A-
The Emperor Jones was the Irish Rep’s outstanding revival of Eugene O’Neill’s play about a two-bit dictator who ends up fleeing for his life. For a play generally viewed as musty and racially insensitive, this was a brilliant production, using mime, choreographed movement, masks, puppets, lighting, and music to stellar effect, and anchored by the powerful performance by John Douglas Thompson in the title role. Overall grade: A+.
Penny Pennyworth, by Chris Weikel, was an enjoyable romp, a spoof of any number of Charles Dickens tomes performed by an energetic and delightful cast of four, all of whom played multiple roles. Overall Grade: A-
Danny and Sylvia: The Danny Kaye Musical, by Robert McElwaine and Bob Bain, is of interest only to diehard fans of Danny Kaye. Brian Childers offers up an impressive impression of the neurotic comic, but this is strictly bio-pic stuff. Overall grade: C
Zero Hour, written and performed by Jim Brochu, is a one-man show about the life of actor Zero Mostel. Brochu has deservedly won a Drama Desk Award for his performance, the best solo I’ve seen since Jefferson Mays' brilliant star turn in I Am My Own Wife. Overall grade: A+
Race was the third production of a play by David Mamet during the fall season. Unfortunately, it offered only a tepid discussion (in this case, of the sticky nature of relations between whites and African Americans in the U.S.) without the longed-for stomach punch that Mamet has given us with such plays as Glengarry Glen Ross, Speed-the-Plow, and, to a lesser extent, Oleanna. Overall grade: C
Fela, with book by Jim Lewis and Bill T. Jones, was based on the life, work, and music of Nigerian Afrobeat club owner and performer Fela Kuti. All kudos to Bill T. Jones for his directing and choreography, and to Sahr Ngaujah and Lillias White for their roles as Fela and his mother. Wonderful and original show, well deserving of its 11 Tony nominations. Overall grade: A+
Toxic Avenger, book and lyrics by Joe DiPietro and music by David Bryan, was a total hoot. Saw it twice and would gladly see it again! Overall grade: A+
Circle Mirror Transformation was one of two new plays by Annie Baker to be presented Off Broadway this season. 2010 Obie Award winner Baker tops my list of rising young playwrights! Overalll grade: A+
This, by Melissa James Gibson, paired with Circle Mirror Transformation, gave Playwrights Horizons a very strong fall season. Gibson gave us grown up characters edging into early middle age and trying to cope with life’s little blessings (a new baby) and curses (the death of a spouse). Overall grade: A-
The Playboy of the Western World, by J. M. Synge, and Misalliance, by G. B. Shaw, were given rousing productions by the Pearl Theater Company at its new home at City Center. Pearl is rightly noted for its classy presentations of classic plays. Overall grade for both shows: A
Ernest In Love, a musical version of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Ernest (Ann Croswell, book and lyrics; Lee Pockriss, music) was a small, charming musical presented by the Irish Rep. Overall grade: B
Ragtime (book by Terrance McNally, lyrics by Lynn Ahrens, music by Stephen Flaherty) was a very good revival, with strong performances throughout. But other than the iconic opening number, there was precious little to celebrate with the frustratingly thin retelling of E.L. Doctorow’s powerful book. Why bother? Overall grade: B
That’s it for the fall semester. My next blog entry will cover my play-going activities from January through May of 2010.
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