Friday, June 22, 2012

'3C': The Characters May Seem Familiar, But...


Cast of '3C.'  Photo by Walter McBride

By any chance, are you a fan of Bizarro World, DC Comics’ twisted version of the Superman universe?

If so, you may be able to relate to the very bizarre world inhabited by the characters in 3C, a scary new comedy by David Adjmi, currently on view at the Rattlestick Playwrights Theater. 

To begin with, there is something definitely familiar about the characters, and even the set strikes a bell.  Let’s see…hmm…

Oh, right.  Connie (Anna Chlumsky), the one wearing the baby doll nightie, looks kind of like Chrissy.  And Linda (Hannah Cabell) sort of reminds me of Janet.  And Brad (Jake Silbermann) resembles Jack.  Terry (Eddie Cahill) is Larry; Mr. Wicker (Bill Buell) is Mr. Roper; and Mrs. Wicker (Kate Buddeke) is Mrs. Roper.

I get it.  3C is short for "Three’s Company," the lightweight but long-lived comedy that ran on ABC TV back in the late 1970s and early ‘80s.

So what has Mr. Adjmi done with his source material to make it his own—apart from changing the characters’ names? 

Mostly, he has turned it into a creepy comedy about a group of deeply disturbed inhabitants of a Santa Monica apartment complex, who say things like “I love when I match the furniture; it gives me a sense of belonging” and “I’ve never been to Vietnam.  Was it nice?”

In the right context, these could be funny lines, but here all of the jokes are either deliberately designed to fall flat or take on darker shades of meaning.  Instead of the kind of silliness that drew audiences to "Three’s Company," 3C gives us psychological basket cases edging toward annihilation as they teeter through life. 

Connie sleeps around in a never-ending search for affectionate acceptance.  Linda flies into paranoid rages.  Terry is a disco womanizer.  Mr. Wicker is a sleazeball homophobe and sexual predator.  Mrs. Wicker is a spaced-out bundle of assorted anxieties. 

All have their moments in the spotlight, but the central character is Brad, a recent Vietnam War vet and a cooking school student.  Like Jack Tripper in "Three’s Company," Brad pretends to be gay in order to be acceptable to the landlords as a potential roommate for Connie and Linda. 

The thing is, Brad really is gay and is trying to survive in a 1970s world that is decidedly unfriendly. His parents have suggested that he kill himself; Mr. Wicker regales him with jokes regarding the questionable hygiene of unprotected anal sex; and Brad’s one sincere effort to come out is met with incredulous laughter from everyone.  Even Linda, who, when she’s not ranting, comes off as relatively sympathetic, is more prepared to believe that people are having nasal intercourse than that anyone she knows could actually be gay.

As Sartre wrote in No Exit:  “Hell is other people.” 

Veteran stage actors Bill Buell and Kate Buddeke as Mr. and Mrs. Wicker bring an experienced professional quality to their performances, and the rest of the cast does fine with roles that are essentially caricatures from an alternative cartoon world.

Director Jackson Gay keeps things moving at a steady clip along an unsteady path, and John McDermott’s stage design eerily captures the set of "Three’s Company." The disco-era music is giddily choreographed by Deney Terrio, whose claim to fame is having taught John Travolta how to move in the film Saturday Night Fever

There is no doubt that David Adjmi, the playwright, is a smart and clever writer.  He is the recipient of a number of awards, including a Guggenheim Fellowship, and his previous plays, Elective Affinities and Stunning, drew a lot of excited buzz.  It will be interesting to see where his mind will take him next, though I would love to see him create characters who are more human and less reflections of his cleverness.


Feel free to tell your friends about this blog, and to share your own theater stories by posting a comment.  And if you can't get enough of ProfMiller, check out his column, ProfMiller@The Theater, at BroadwayShowBiz.com.



Thursday, June 21, 2012

A Rousing Courtroom Drama at 59E59


Guy Burnet and Chad Kimball as attorney and client.
Photo by Carol Rosegg


Rule #1 when attending a historically-based play written by Dan Gordon:  Never expect historical accuracy.

Gordon received some flack a few years back when it was revealed that his play Irena’s Vow, a melodramatic docudrama more-or-less based on the true story of a Polish woman who protected and saved the lives of a dozen Jews during the Holocaust, contained some fabrications.

This was three years ago.  Now Gordon has returned with Murder In The First, a melodramatic docudrama more-or-less based on the true story of an inmate at Alcatraz on trial for murdering another prisoner.  And, yes, it contains fabrications. 

Murder in the First, a production of The Directors Company on view through July 1 at the 59E59 theater complex, is the second version of the story to be penned by Mr. Gordon.  The first was a screenplay for a 1995 movie by the same title that starred Kevin Bacon, Christian Slater, and Gary Oldman.  You can see the screenwriter’s mind at work as the scenes alternate among the side-by-side sets:  a prison cell, a courtroom, and a law office. 

What Mr. Gordon has given us is an old-fashioned thumping courtroom drama, in which a young attorney is defending his client, Willie Moore (an excellent performance by Chad Kimball), against a first-degree murder charge for slitting the throat of a fellow inmate with a sharpened spoon, in front of 300 eyewitnesses no less.   

The attorney, Henry (well-played by British actor Guy Burnet, making his U. S. theater debut), decides the only way he can win his case it to turn the tables and essentially put Alcatraz itself on trial.  The prison and its warden are as much to blame, he says, for placing the previously non-violent Moore into a “psychological coma” through a three-year regimen of solitary confinement, starvation, and torture that ended just prior to the murder.

The plot unfolds in predictable ways as Henry takes on “the system,” defying all efforts by his boss, his girlfriend, his brother, the FBI, and some hired thugs to silence him.  Like I said…melodrama. 

Still, Gordon knows how to write scenes that can get your adrenaline pumping and stir up your sense of righteous indignation.  Chad Kimball breathes authenticity into the character of Willie, a victim of endless cruelty who wants little more from life than to have a friend he can talk to, and it is not hard to sympathize with him.  As Henry, Guy Burnett brings the quality of a young James Stewart voicing the common man’s call for justice.

Other standouts in the cast of 15 are Robert Hogan as the warden, Thomas Ryan as the fair-minded judge, and Joseph Adams as a syndicated radio reporter/personality who latches onto the story in order to build up his listening audience.  

I’ve also got to tip my hat to the set design by Mark Nayden, who makes wonderful use of the very small performance space; there is a sense of solidity to each of the contiguous sets that in other hands would have been merely suggested.   Director Michael Parva also smartly uses the balcony and some of the seats in the audience in order to add extra dimensionality and a sense of here-and-now immediacy to the proceedings. 

I do need to advise that the story that unfolds before us is, indeed, far removed from what took place during the actual 1941 case.  The truth is rather more complicated, if less satisfying from a dramatic perspective.   If you care to look it up, the character played by Mr. Kimball was actually named Henry (or Henri) Young. All I'll say here is, you don't always get to pick your ideal "poster child" for the cause you are promulgating.  

Still, if you are a fan of courtroom dramas, and understand that “truth” is a relative term in the theater, head on over to 59E59 and Murder In The First, where you are in for a rousing good time.


Feel free to tell your friends about this blog, and to share your own theater stories by posting a comment.  And if you can't get enough of ProfMiller, check out his column, ProfMiller@The Theater, at BroadwayShowBiz.com.


Wednesday, June 20, 2012

The 2012 Tonys and the Business Side of Broadway





It’s all Irving Berlins’ fault.

Berlin penned the quintessential tribute to the theater world when he wrote “There’s no business like SHOW business” for Annie Get Your Gun—emphasizing, as he did, the creative and artistic side of the industry. 

It’s a rousing tune, an ode to all of those wonderful theater folks who wouldn’t trade even a moment of their onstage lives for a sack of gold. 

Yet perhaps what Berlin should have written is, “There’s no BUSINESS like show BUSINESS,” with an emphasis that would be more appropriate to the economics of Broadway. 

This was, after all, the year of the official opening of Spider-Man:  Turn Off The Dark, with its $75 million tab; the year of premium ticket prices closing in on $500 (The Book of Mormon); and the two-character, 90-minute Venus in Fur happily selling regular tickets at $176.50 a pop in order to cash in on Nina Arianda’s Tony Award. 

I don’t mean to harp on these examples, and, frankly, I’m not sure I begrudge any of this.  There are, after all, bills to be paid, and the money has to come from somewhere.  To quote Stephen Sondheim from Merrily We Roll Along:

                        Did I say money?
     No, I like money a lot
     I mean it’s better than not

What I want to talk about is the 2012 Tony Awards Show, which, in my view, crossed the line separating entertainment (or even entertainment with an eye toward attracting audiences to Broadway theater) from unadulterated commercialism.

As entertainment, it began promisingly enough, with host Neil Patrick Harris singing the charming opening number (written by David Javerbaum and David Schlesinger):

                        If life were more like theater,
                        Life wouldn’t suck so much

What ardent theatergoer could fail to embrace that sentiment?

After that, though, the commercialism became more and more obvious, and ate up an awful lot of air time that could have been used to highlight the nominees. 

Most egregious was the nearly four-minute infomercial for Royal Caribbean, featuring Harvey Fierstein in the embarrassing role of pitchman. That bit of mammonism was more off-putting than Audra McDonald’s rape joke or the oddity of featuring a number from Evita, and giving its star and title character half a line to sing (all the better to feature Ricky Martin). 

There were other questionable moments that could be viewed as being tied more to money than to art.  For instance, was it really necessary to feature a song from The Book of Mormon, last year’s big winner and a show that is still fighting back the crowds happy to plunk down $954 for a pair of premium tickets?   

And was the show officially titled The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess truly the best revival of a musical, or did the potential for touring and future licensing fees influence the decision to select it over the now-closed and too-expensive-to-tour production of Follies

But, really, these are quibbles next to allowing Royal Caribbean, a major sponsor of the show, to promote their at-sea production of Hairspray as part of the evening’s entertainment. Couldn’t they have been given a commercial slot instead? 

I’m still rolling my eyes…but what do I know?

In any event, theater is not just about Broadway.  There are dozens of wonderful not-for-profit Off-Broadway and Off Off-Broadway companies that do an amazing job of presenting top-notch, professional plays and musicals on a shoestring budget and offering them at very affordable prices to audiences for revivals and original works by some of the best and brightest playwrights around. 

One of these companies is Playwrights Horizons, where its latest production, Gina Gionfriddo’s Rapture, Blister, Burn is drawing very positive reviews and word-of-mouth.  (I reviewed it on May 27 in this blog, if you are interested.)

Playwrights Horizons is in the midst of a fund-raising venture, which you can support without laying out a dime by “LIKING” them on Facebook by June 30.  Ten thousand “likes” will earn them a donation of $10,000—chump change within the moneyed world of Broadway, but a healthy infusion of cash in the not-for-profit world.  

To sweeten the deal, while you are taking the time to “LIKE” them,  you can enter to win a $250 gift certificate from The Apple Store. Why not do it now?  Here’s the link:  http://www.facebook.com/PlaywrightsHorizons.


Feel free to tell your friends about this blog, and to share your own theater stories by posting a comment.  And if you can't get enough of ProfMiller, check out his column, ProfMiller@The Theater, at BroadwayShowBiz.com.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

And the Envelope, Please. Announcing the 2012 ProfMiller Kudos Awards




As the theater community’s annual awards season edges towards next week’s Tonys, it is time to announce our own ProfMiller Kudos Awards for Outstanding Theatrical Achievement, 2011-2012.

In accordance with the selection criteria, the results are solely a reflection of my personal biases and judgments, underpinned by a half century of experience as a member of the audience. 

These awards encompass Broadway, Off Broadway, and Off-Off Broadway productions and do not take into consideration length of run, size or location of theater, or any life-after-New York touring potential.  Eliminated from consideration were any of the four Tony-nominated plays, since all of them (Clybourne Park, Other Desert Cities, Peter and the Starcatcher, and Venus in Fur) arrived on Broadway this season following successful runs Off Broadway last year; Other Desert Cities received the Kudos Award for Best Play in 2011. 

And so, without further ado, the envelope, please.

Special Awards

A Special Kudos Directing Award goes to the fabulous and indefatigable Estelle Parsons, currently delighting audiences in the musical Nice Work If You Can Get It.  This award is not in recognition of her acting, however, but for her inspired directing of Kurt Weill’s Johnny Johnson in a staged reading for the ReGroup Theatre Company.  Held last December at the 47th Street Theatre, the production-on-a-shoestring was a winner from start to finish.  I attended out of curiosity, simply because I had never seen this rarely-performed anti-war musical. I expected mildew. Instead, it turned out to be highly engaging, entertaining, and one of the more pleasant surprises of the season.  Kudos to all involved!


The next special award is for the season’s Most Underappreciated Play, where the standout winner is In Masks Outrageous and Austere, Tennessee Williams’ final fully-realized play.  I admired it for its trippy comic sensibility, especially after the ponderousness of a number of the playwright’s other late works, and I found David Schweizer’s direction to be spot-on and perfectly attuned with the play. In Masks Outrageous and Austere reminded me of the surrealistic ventures undertaken by Edward Albee, John Guare, and Tony Kushner.  It must have been disappointing for those who were looking for the Williams of A Streetcar Named Desire or The Glass Menagerie, but it was one of my favorites of the season. 

Non-Musical Plays

In the category of Best Revival of a Play, I found nothing on Broadway to be nearly as compelling as The Merchant of Venice or The Normal Heart, which tied for last year’s Kudos Award.  But there were several strong contenders Off-Broadway, whence comes the winner, Edward Albee’s The Lady From Dubuque.  Director David Esbjornson and a powerhouse cast breathed new life into a play that has been dismissed for a very long time as a lesser work.  This emotionally-charged production showed there is nothing lesser about it. 

For Best New Play, the Kudos Award goes to J. T. Rogers’ Blood and Gifts, a remarkable and engrossing work about politics, counter-intelligence, and how we came to be mired in the war in Afghanistan. 

And for his masterful work in guiding the multiple intersecting elements of Blood and Gifts, Bartlett Sher wins the Kudos Award for Best Director of a Play

Non-Musical Acting

For Best Actress in a Play, a truly strong category this year, we have our first tie. Kudos Awards go to Tyne Daly for her incredibly rich portrayal of opera diva Maria Callas in the splendid revival of Terrence McNally’s Master Class; and to Tracie Bennett, for her breathtaking no-holds-barred performance of a drug-addled walking id known as Judy Garland in Peter Quilter’s bio-play, End of the Rainbow

For Best Featured Actress in a Play, another category with strong competition, we have another tie.  A Kudos Award goes to Condola Rashad, whose comic timing and powerful presence was the centerpiece of Lydia R. Diamond’s family drama, Stick Fly.  She shares the honors with Linda Edmond, whose portrayal of Linda Loman in the revival of Arthur Miller’s Death Of A Salesman offered not a hand-wringing observer of her husband’s downfall, but a determined and strong-willed partner doing battle to keep her family together and functioning against all odds.   

Likewise, we have a tie for Best Actor in a Play. The first winner is Jefferson Mays, an actor of great depth and complexity, who takes home a Kudos Award for his performance as a burned-out British diplomat in Blood and Gifts.  The second recipient is Frank Langella, who gave a mesmerizing performance as the ice-hearted, manipulative businessman in the revival of Terence Rattigan’s Man and Boy

For Best Featured Actor in a Play, the winner of the Kudos Award is John Glover as Willy’s brother Ben in Death of a Salesman.  Glover, as he appears in his brother’s addled imagination, is the perfect stand-in for Willy’s wishes, hopes, and dreams, the man who walked into the jungle at the age of 17 and came out a millionaire at 21. 


Musicals

Hands down, the Best Revival of a Musical was James Goldman and Stephen Sondheim’s Follies. With its glorious cast and full-sized orchestra, we are not likely to see as rich a production of this magnum opus for a very long time indeed.

Follies also provides us with Best Acting Awards for Jan Maxwell as the embittered Phyllis, and for Ron Raines, as the superficial and self-centered Ben.

The Kudos Award for Best Featured Actor in a Musical goes to Tom Hewitt, as the conflicted Pontius Pilate in the revival of Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s rock musical Jesus Christ Superstar.

And, finally, for Best New Musical, the Kudos Award goes to Once, the gentle, soulful romance (Enda Walsh, playwright, with music and lyrics by Glen Hansard and Mark√©ta Irglov√°) that has been given a first-rate production, abetted in no small part by the on-stage musicians who are the glue that holds it all together.    

For their work on Once, Kudos Awards also go to John Tiffany for Best Director of a Musical, and to Steven Hoggett for Best Choreography

And that, folks, is a wrap. Cue the music and call it a night!


Feel free to tell your friends about this blog, and to share your own theater stories by posting a comment.  And if you can't get enough of ProfMiller, check out his column, ProfMiller@The Theater, at BroadwayShowBiz.com.