Thursday, June 10, 2010

Wrapping Up A Year of Theatergoing. Part II: Spring Semester

Welcome to Part II of a discussion of my season of theatergoing in 2009-2010. Part I covered the “Fall Semester,” i. e. the time span between September of 2009 and December of 2010. I pick up now with January of 2010 and go through to the end of May, the “Spring Semester.” The notion of “semesters” of theater is a nod to my vocation as a college professor. And since this is grading time, I have given each production a letter grade based entirely on my own criteria.

Here, more-or-less in the order of my seeing them, are the plays in my 2009-2010 season of theater-going. Part II: Spring Semester.

Don’t know if there is any significance to the coincidence, but we begin, as we will end, with a play by Donald Margulies. The first play I saw in January was Time Stands Still, which boasted solid performances by a cast that included Eric Bogasian, Brian D’Arcy James, Laura Linney, and Alicia Silverstone. The two women outshined the men, though the play itself was only moderately interesting, and I continue to long for Margulies to plumb the depths of the interesting issues he raises. Overall grade: B+

Jerk was a memorably disturbing venture into the mind of a serial killer, as much a piece of performance art as a play. Some brilliant moments, but utterly too creepy (and not in a "cool" way) for me to recommend it to anyone I know. Overall grade: C-

Present Laughter was a revival of a Noel Coward play that has never worked for me. Can American actors perform the lighter-than-air stuff of British drawing room comedy? Not in this case, anyway. Overall grade: C-

Venus in Fur by David Ives was a quirky take on the battle of the sexes, anchored by a wonderful performance by Nina Arianda as an aspiring actress who jumps around like a quantum electron from being ditzy, to intellectual, to sexy and dangerous. Overall grade: A-

Mr. and Mrs. Fitch was an unfunny comedy by a talented writer, Douglas Carter Beane, unfunnily performed by talented actors John Lithgow and Jennifer Ehle. Overall grade. C-

Clybourne Park was a provocative play about race relations by playwright Brice Norris, well directed by Pam MacKinnon and strongly acted by a sharp ensemble of actors. Overall grade: A

The Pride, by Alexi Kaye Campbell, juxtaposed gay relationships in the middle and late twentieth century. While the play itself did not offer much that was new, and suffered from some confusing directing decisions, it was blessed with riveting performances by Hugh Dancy and Ben Whishaw. Overall grade: A-

True West, A Lie of the Mind, Ages of the Moon, all by playwright Sam Shepherd, were performed at three different venues during this season. This was a great opportunity to get a taste of Shepherd’s offbeat work--the first two from 1980 and 1985 respectively, and the third, a new play about the reconnecting of two old friends. Of the three, it was the new work—more restrained and far more focused than the out-of-control sprawl of the older pieces—that I enjoyed the most. Overall grade for the trio: A

A View from the Bridge by Arthur Miller was given a flawless revival, smartly directed by Gregory Mosher and brilliantly performed by a cast that included Liev Schreiber, Scarlett Johansson, and Jessica Hecht. Schreiber, in particular, blew me out of the water by layering every moment with great psychological depth and unpredictable ambiguity. Overall grade: A+

The Duchess of Malfi
, the 17th century drama by John Webster, was given a strong production by the Red Bull Company, which specializes in performances of Jacobean plays by Shakespeare’s contemporaries. It’s been fun watching this company mature, as director Michael Sexton has let go some of his way-over-the-top style to trust these already over-the-top plays to take front and center. Overall grade: A

The Temperamentals by Jon Marans, a thoroughly engaging play about the early gay rights movement in the United States, was given a terrific production in its transfer to New World Stages. Kudos to all involved! Overall grade: A+

The Cradle Will Rock, Marc Blitzstein’s iconic pro-worker, anti-capitalist musical from the 1930s was given a topnotch production at Theater Ten Ten, one of those gems of small theater companies operating out of church basements scattered around New York City. The show, well performed by a cast of excellent singers, was done in the style of the legendary original production, which took place in an impromptu space with no sets, props, or costumes and but a single piano. Overall grade: A

Next Fall by Jeffrey Nauffts deals with the intersection of religion and homosexuality. I found the play and the performances to be tedious, but, hey, what do I know, since it a nominee for a 2010 Tony Award for best play! Overall grade: C

Measure for Measure, one of Shakespeare’s notoriously difficult plays—call it a dark comedy—was presented with clarity by the Theater for a New Audience, though not with the overall power as last year’s production of Othello by the same company and director, Arin Arbus. Overall grade: B

The Glass Menagerie, one of Tennessee Williams’s best-known and successful plays, was given a strong production with some original, and to my mind, quite compelling direction by Gordon Edelstein, who challenges the generally accepted notion that the play is truly Williams' great “memory play” rather than a piece of writing that manipulates memory. Special credit to Judith Ivey, who has beautifully captured the character of Amanda Wingfield in all of her complexity. Overall grade: A+

A Behanding in Spokane by Martin McDonough is a quirky and ultimately quite funny dark comedy, with top-notch performances by Christopher Walken and Sam Rockwell. Overall grade: A-

Red, by John Logan, is another Tony nominated play that I didn’t care much for, despite strong performances by Alfred Mlina and Eddie Redmayne and some intriguing staging under Michael Grandage’s direction. I found it to be pretentious, more of an essay or lecture than a play. Overall grade: B-

Yank, by Joe and David Zellnik, a musical about relationships among gay soldiers during World War II, was given a delightful, warm, and loving production by the York Theater Company, yet another theater group housed in a church basement. The show is set to move to Broadway, hopefully retaining its star Bobby Steggert. Overall grade: A

A Cool Dip in the Barren Saharan Crick by Kia Corthron was not so much a play as it was a means of conveying issues that were obviously filling the head of the playwright. The theme of water (draught, flood, thirst, drowning, poisoned water supply, and the bottled water industry) sort of held things together, but the play also dealt with race relations, religion, the battle of the sexes, genocide, visions, migraine headaches, and probably several more important ideas. It was quite a juggling act, though not always compelling theater. Overall grade: B

Anyone Can Whistle, the short-lived mess-of-a-show by Arthur Laurents and Stephen Sondheim that saw 12 performances in 1964, was given a revelatory production as part of the Encores theater season at City Center. Wow and Triple Wow to all involved! Overall grade: A+

Family Week, Beth Henley’s play about a dysfunctional family and an experimental psychotherapy approach, was generally ripped to shreds by the critics when it was recently revised. I found it interesting enough but rather sad, with a message of “you can’t win, no matter what you do.” Overall grade: B

Promenade, another quirky musical from the 1960s, by Maria Irene Forn├ęs and Al Carmines, was given a one-performance “reading” at the New World Stages. What is most noteworthy is that it was the kickoff for what is intended to be an Encores-like series for Off-Broadway musicals, something that I would love to see happen. While the performances were uneven, it was nice to see Andrea McArdle and Neva Small again. (Thank you, David, for sending me a copy of the original Off-Broadway cast recording!) The overall grade of A is for the concept.

Gabriel
, by playwright Moira Buffini, is a melodramatic World War II story about evil Nazis, a hidden Jew, desperate women, and a mysterious stranger. Still, it has been given a rich and well-acted production by the Atlantic Theater Company. Overall grade: B

Enron by Lucy Prebble was a frenetic, noisy, visually extravagant empty vessel of a play about the rise and fall of the mega-greedy. Overall grade: C

I Never Sang for My Father
by Robert Anderson, about the troubled relationship between a middle aged son and his elderly father, saw a strong revival, well directed by Jonathan Silverstein and with moving performances by Matt Servitto, Keir Dullea, and Marsha Mason. Overall grade: A

Everyday Rapture, co-written by Dick Scanlan and the show’s star Sherie Rene Scott, is in the vein of a Bette Midler revue, with songs strung together via a storyline very roughly based on its star’s somewhat bizarre life story. Entertaining up to a point, but not enough to warrant all of the fuss and the Tony nominations it has received. Overall grade: B

The Kid, a musical about a gay couple seeking to adopt a baby, written by Michael Zam, Andy Monroe, and Jack Lechner, was a pleasure through-and-through, funny, warm, and touching. Hope it has a long, healthy, and happy life. Overall grade: A

The Aliens, about a trio of social misfits, is the second show of the season by Annie Baker, a marvelous young playwright. Overall grade: A

Dr. Knock, or the Triumph of Medicine, a 1923 satire about the medical profession, written by Jules Romains, was given a first-rate revival by the Mint Theater Company, which specializes in producing rarely-seen old gems. Overall grade: A

The Burnt Part Boys, a musical by Mariana Elder, Nathan Tysen, and Chris Miller, about a group of teenagers on a quest to destroy a mine where their fathers had died ten years previously, falls flat on many counts, not the least of which is the lack of attention to capturing the place and time where it is set. Overall grade: C

White’s Lies
by Ben Andron is a cross between a sit-com and a farce, about a middle-aged man-who-has-yet-to-grow-up who gets into all sorts of trouble after promising his mother a grandchild before what seems to be her imminent death. Nice to see Betty Buckley back on stage. Overall grade: B

Graceland
by Ellen Fairey was the story of a brother and sister who get together for the funeral of their father, along with a parallel and intersecting story about a divorced father and his teenage son. Well acted and well written by another playwright worth keeping an eye on. Overall grade: A-

Sondheim on Sondheim, the umpteenth tribute show for the octogenarian Broadway composer, offers lackluster performances of many Sondheim songs, some of them discards or alternate versions to ones that made it to the original cast albums. Of greater interest to Sondheim’s fans are the multimedia presentations of the master himself providing a running narrative and some revealing personal stories. Overall grade: B

The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity, by Kristoffer Diaz, is a vibrant and original entry to the theater season. It combines a hip-hop sensibility with a wild and crazy story about the world of professional wrestling and its xenophobic environment. Overall grade: A

That Face
by Polly Stenham is an over-the-top dark comedy about a highly dysfunctional family, featuring a drug-dependent, booze-hound of a mother and her co-dependent teenage son. Stenham was still a teenager herself when she penned this cutting work and is someone who bears watching over time. Overall grade: B

White Woman Street
by Sebastian Barry, a playwright, poet, and novelist whose work was unfamiliar to me before now, tells the tale of a group of outlaws in 1916 fixing to rob a train in the town of White Woman Street. Another triumph for the Irish Rep. Overall grade: A

We end, as promised with another of Donald Margulies’ plays. With the current production of Collected Stories, Margulies should thank his lucky stars to have Linda Lavin in the central role of Ruth Steiner. This is one of the richest roles that Margulies has created, and with Lavin, he has found the perfect person to portray the writer and teacher who gradually is overcome by a sense of being both surpassed and betrayed by her student. I have some quibbles with the play itself, which gets a bit essay-like towards the end, but none with Lavin, who is giving one of the very best performances of the season. Overall grade: A

That’s it for the spring semester. My next blog entry will ignore the various awards that have been given out recently, as well as the forthcoming Tonys, and offer up my own Kudos for the best of the best.


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