Monday, January 24, 2011

Attend the Tale of Sweeney

Brian Friel’s 1993 play Molly Sweeney, now in revival in a very well acted but purposefully distancing production at the Irish Rep, is a cautionary tale about the importance of being careful what you wish for—or, in this case, being pressured into believing that you want what others wish for you.

Think of Molly Sweeney as the flip side of A Small Fire, by Adam Bock (currently on view at Playwright’s Horizons), in which the life of a middle-aged woman is turned upside-down when she suffers the consequences of the loss of her senses. 

In Molly Sweeney, the life of a middle-aged woman is turned upside-down when she suffers the consequences of the regaining of her sense of sight after being unable to see since the age of 10 months.  

Friel, the highly regarded creator of such plays as Philadelphia Here I Come and Dancing at Lughnasa, is a terrific storyteller, something that is both a strength and a dramatic problem with Molly Sweeney

The play is presented not as a drama, but as a narrative in the form of alternating monologues by three characters:  Molly, her husband Frank, and Mr. Rice, the physician who partially restores Molly’s sight.  Through these monologues, Friel paints a rich portrait of each of the characters, but because there is no interaction among them, the play—despite the very touching story it relates—has a clinical feel to it, like reading one of those medical case study puzzlers in The New York Times Magazine

We learn that Molly has never had much interest in having her sight restored.  She has never felt herself to be deprived or particularly disabled.  She long ago learned to compensate through a heightened reliance on her other senses.  She is very independent, has lots of friends, holds down a successful job as a message therapist, and seems to be well adjusted and reasonably happy. 

It is Frank, her unemployed “tree hugger” of a husband, who convinces Molly to seek a medical solution to her blindness.  He has immersed himself in the medical literature and is convinced that, because Molly was not born blind, there is a good chance that her sight can be restored through surgery.  And if it doesn’t work, he asks rhetorically, what has she got to lose?

Into the scene steps the third character, Mr. Rice, the down-at-the-heels ophthalmologist who longs to return to the days when he was part of a small group of wunderkinds  in his field. He decides there’s no harm in giving it a shot.  After all, he asks rhetorically, what has she got to lose?

Inevitably, it turns out that Molly has much to lose, and it is that loss that gives the play its emotional resonance.  It is here that the monologues work best by saving us from any sentimentality or mawkishness that might otherwise intrude.  

The play, as performed on the bare bones postage-stamp of a stage at the Irish Rep, is blessed with strong performances by all three actors:  Geraldine Hughes as Molly, Jonathan Hogan as Mr. Rice, and the Rep’s multitalented managing director and actor Ciarán O'Reilly as Frank.  All of the actors, under the guidance of director Charlotte Moore, give us distinct and interesting characters to consider, but go understanding that as an audience member, you will have  only your sense of hearing  to inform you.  You will truly have to attend this tale of Sweeney in order to fully appreciate Brian’s Friel’s craftsmanship.

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Monday, January 17, 2011

Either Stop the Milk Train Forever, or Find Its Poetic Soul

Someday, someone may be able to bring out whatever poetry lies hidden in Tennessee Williams’s The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore.   But that’s unfortunately not true of those who have mounted the current production at the Roundabout’s Laura Pels Theatre.

Milk Train, which notably died in back-to-back short-lived productions on Broadway in the early 1960s, has stubbornly defied the best efforts of such skilled actresses as Hermione Baddeley, Tallulah Bankhead, and Elizabeth Ashley.

Now it has claimed its latest victim, Olympia Dukakis, who cannot tame the lead role of Flora “Sissy” Goforth despite a totally out-there performance that embodies the likes of Mae West, Norma Desmond, King Lear, and Kabuki drag queen. 

It’s hard to know where to begin, but let’s start with the play itself.   The general outline is this:  Mrs. Goforth, the wealthy, aging self-proclaimed “old swamp bitch from Georgia,” has holed up on a cliff-top villa along Italy’s Amalfi Coast in order to dictate her memoirs.  She has hired the recently widowed and much younger Frances Black, whom she dubs “Blackie,” to be at her beck and call 24/7—whenever she feels inspired to give a bit of rambling discourse about her life and loves.    

Into their lives comes Chris, a no-longer-young beach bum/artist/gigolo, who has picked up the nickname of “Angel of Death” for his reputation of latching onto dying rich widows. Although, if his intent is larcenous, he doesn’t seem to have prospered much through his efforts, and he enters the scene bedraggled, starving, and exhausted.

There is much that could be done with this combination of characters, a triangle involving some combination of love, lust, greed, and self-delusion--especially the latter.

Think of Norma Desmond, that most memorable of characters in Billy Wilder’s classic darkly comic film, Sunset Boulevard.  What makes the role of Norma so effective is the character’s absolute belief in herself.  That’s precisely what we should see in Mrs. Goforth and in Chris—two lost souls caught up on some gothic dreamscape of their own making.

But it just doesn’t work.  Williams’s gift as a writer was always in his poetic use of language and imagery.  Sadly, there is precious little of that gift to be found in this most prosaic of plays.  Every line is leaden and lands with a thud, and what should be ethereal is clunky and inane.

As to the production, only Maggie Lacey as Blackie comes off as appropriately cast and has a real handle on her role. 

If we are going to believe that Chris, even as a fading pretty boy, still holds some allure for young widows and women of a certain age—and, in this particular production, for flamboyant, bitchy gay men—then he should at least look like a fading pretty boy, and a very underfed one that that.  For example, Tab Hunter was well-cast to play against Tallulah Bankhead’s Mrs. Goforth in the play’s very brief run early in 1964.  Here Darren Pettie neither looks the part nor brings out any of the personality of a successful gigolo or beach boy or artist. 

As for Olympia Dukakis, while she certainly is a formidable actress, she loses the battle for any sort of believability every time she opens her mouth to speak.  Swamp bitch from Georgia? I don’t think so.  South Boston, maybe, but not Tennessee Williams’s South.  Wearing a Harpo Marx wig and channeling Mae West as Cho-Cho-San in drag doesn’t exactly help sell the image.   

Credit sound designer John Gromada, who has managed to give us a real sense of the sea tide and waves roughly smashing into the rocks at the base of the cliff.  Not sure of the intended imagery, but it gives the play the thrum of inevitability and the relentlessness of nature that is otherwise missing.  Despite the failures of the play itself, surely director Michael Wilson, who was not averse to changing the gender of one of the characters, could have done a little more bending in order to find a better balance between reality and delusion.

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Saturday, January 1, 2011

Scratching My Head

One real advantage of living in New York is that I am able to indulge my affinity for the theater five to ten times a month. But even at that, I have no desire to see everything. I pick and choose shows that I believe I will find compelling and that will allow me to willingly suspend my disbelief for a period of time. With every performance I attend, I go in the hope of being caught up in some combination of the playwright’s way with words, the individual and collective performances of the actors, the vision of the director, the way the set design contributes to the overall production, and, of course, if it’s a musical, the music, lyrics, singing, choreography, and the interplay between the musicians and the singers and dancers.

Rarely does everything fall into place, but I am not a demanding perfectionist as a theatergoer. What I do expect is professionalism from a professional theater company; not to be condescended to as a member of the audience; and not to be treated to smoke and mirrors in lieu of a good script.

Since New Year’s Day is meant for reflection, I have decided to take this opportunity to look back over the first half of the 2010-2011 theater season and the two dozen shows I have seen on and off Broadway. I have to say that more than a few of these have left me scratching my head for one reason or another, so rather than a play-by-play overview, I thought I might share a few of my moments of puzzlement before we plunge into the second half of the season.

Let me start with the one show that left me puzzled not over its conception or execution, but over its failure to connect with a larger audience. That would be John Kander and Fred Ebb’s musical, The Scottsboro Boys. I am as confused by the early demise of this Tony-worthy show as I was about last year’s puzzling failure, the excellent revival of Neil Simon’s Brighton Beach Memoirs, which, for reasons I cannot fathom, attracted no audience whatsoever.

The Scottsboro Boys provided originality, strong performances by a very talented and energetic cast, a top-notch score, and fine directing and choreography by Susan Stroman. The show aroused some controversy because of its use of the minstrel show format to tell the real-life story of a group of black teenagers falsely accused of raping two white women in deeply segregated Alabama in the early 1930s. I can understand the discomfort associated with the nature of the plot device, although anyone seeing the show would, I should hope, recognize its use as a means of satirizing and skewering racism and bigotry.

Previously, The Scottsboro Boys had done well at Off Broadway’s Vineyard Theatre and spent additional time polishing itself up in a production at Minneapolis’s Guthrie Theater before heading uptown, where it landed in fine form—or so I thought when I saw it. And yet it is gone, with just a small possibility of renewal through a drive to bring the show back to Broadway for at least another short run prior to the Tony Awards. For information and to participate in that effort, I direct you to the website

Now, however, let’s turn our attention to some different kinds of head-scratchers I encountered in the last several months. And I promise, not one word about Spider-Man.

A trio of esteemed veteran playwrights with long and successful careers and a not insubstantial pile of awards all came up short with new or newish plays that left me thinking of unhappy metaphors like that of wells running dry. I speak of Edward Albee, John Guare, and Peter Nichols, who gave us, respectively, Me, Myself, & I; A Free Man of Color; and Lingua Franca.

None of these plays was a total failure by any means, but none approached the level of expectations for work from such original and skilled playwrights. The first of these was an absurdist comedy at heart but came off as pretty inane; the second was a confusing mind-trip of a history pageant; the third harked back—perhaps intentionally, but not very interestingly—to the “angry young man” post World War II era of playwriting by the likes of John Osborne. I do have to wonder if any of these plays would have been produced had they not carried the by-lines of their well-respected authors.

Another puzzler was Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, which, despite some A-List casting and its well-regarded director, never seemed to jell. What Woman on the Verge needed most, in my view, was some serious editing, including the elimination of several roles and recasting of some of the others. The standouts were the set design and projections (by Michael Yeargan and Sven Ortel, respectively), and the ditzy comic performance of Laura Benanti. Therefore, despite the show’s weaknesses, I do expect to see a couple of Tony nominations.

Also on my list is Elling, an adaptation of a quirky movie of the same title and a trilogy of novels by the Norwegian writer Ingvar Ambjørnsen. The play, about two unlikely roommates trying to survive in the world upon being released from a mental institution, starred Denis O’Hare and Brandan Fraser, both of whom tried their utmost to create real characters out of these two oddball personalities. But Elling was a head-scratcher from the outset, and other than a couple of bright moments by the leads and a few seconds of inspired wackiness by a game Jennifer Coolidge, I can’t begin to guess why anyone thought this might work on Broadway.

There are other shows I could talk about, including the clunky and amateurish production of Dracula, now in previews at the Little Shubert Theatre, but I wanted to focus here on major Broadway and Off-Broadway productions, where the effort was made to present something original and different, and that represented work by well-established theater professionals. While I have found the shows I have discussed to be puzzling, none was a total artistic failure, and one, The Scottsboro Boys, met pretty much all of my criteria for a top-notch show.

It just goes to show, theater is like Forrest Gump’s proverbial box of chocolates. You never know what you’re gonna get!

Feel free to tell your friends about this blog, and to share your own theater stories by posting a comment.