Monday, December 21, 2009

Ragtime disappoints

I’m back after a longer-than-anticipated intermission, owing to other commitments that have kept me away from these pages, although, I hasten to add, not from the theater. So there is much catching up to do over the holiday break, with eight shows to report on.

I want to use today’s entry as an opportunity to explain a little bit of what it is that I look for as an avid theatergoer while I share my impressions of Ragtime: The Musical.

Let me begin by saying there is much to appreciate and admire in the revival of Ragtime, the many-layered musical based on the 1975 historical novel of the same title by author E. L. Doctorow.

If my choice of words (“appreciate and admire”) makes it sound as though I am trying to find a polite way of indicating I didn’t care much for Ragtime, then you’ve picked up on my message. One thing you should know about me is that I don’t go to a show hoping to appreciate and admire it; that noncommittal phrase is something I save for some of the paintings and sculptures at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, but not for the living arts.

What I want from the theater is to be viscerally engaged, to be drawn in by characters who have interesting stories to tell AND about whom I can empathize or, at least, sympathize. That is simply not possible with Ragtime, which is about the grand sweep of events rather than about the characters, who stay tantalizingly out of reach.

I am not comparing the current revival of Ragtime with the original production of a decade ago, which I did not see but which left me with the lingering impression I had missed a breakthrough piece of theater. Certainly, with such performers as Audra McDonald, Brian Stokes Mitchell, and Marin Mazzie leading the way, the singing, at least, must have been terrific, although the production itself had a reputation of being overblown and extravagantly expensive, boasting not only a large cast but an all-out bombast of production values that included fireworks and a working Model-T Ford.

For this revival, they nixed the fireworks and replaced the Model-T with a skeletal chassis. But still, with a cast of 30 or so (I lost count), and an orchestra only slightly smaller, this remains quite a hefty production.

I do want to make it clear that the problem I have with Ragtime is not about a lack of talent or the loving care with which this revival has been produced. The problem is that the show itself just does not work satisfactorily, or, to be more fair, to my satisfaction. Indeed, if it weren’t for the iconic opening title number, which beautifully captures the mood and theme of the show, and the recurrent ragtime music throughout the production, there would be little left for me to admire or appreciate.

Playwright Terrence McNally, who wrestled Doctorow’s novel into submission, has done a stellar job of separating out the three major story strands and of giving the many characters who take turns sharing center stage enough individualism so that the audience can, without referring to a scorecard, keep track of who’s who. Likewise, the 30+ numbers by Stephen Flaherty (music) and Lynn Ahrens (lyrics) move the storyline forward in ways that allow the performers to shine individually and collectively in the spotlight. But to what ends?

Therein lies my frustration as a theatergoer. In telling such a grandiose story—the story of America (or at least the story of the greater New York region) at the turn of the 20th Century—the creators forgot about the people whose lives are the story of America. America can’t be the central character, yet apparently it is.

Of the two acts, Act I is the stronger. It moves logically from the general to the specific—starting with the glorious opening number that introduces us simultaneously to three worlds: the African American community, the newly-arrived collective of Jewish immigrants, and the upscale and sheltered Wasp-y world of New York City’s northern suburbs. By the time Act I has ended, the story has narrowed, and ragtime pianist Coalhouse Walker Jr. has taken command of our attention. We do care. We are outraged at all he has been forced to face. We want justice. We want to know what will happen to him and to his son. We can’t wait until the intermission has ended to find out.

And then the orchestra brings us back. And the story of Coalhouse Walker Jr. has to wait and wait and wait while the story of Mother and Tateh unfolds. It’s not that we don’t like Mother and Tateh, or that we aren’t taken by their sweet budding romance. But, geez, what happened to the show? By the time we finally get back to Coalhouse’s story, we don’t care all that much anymore. Ragtime distances itself from us so that Coalhouse’s unhappy fate is nothing more than the inevitable unrolling of history. Indeed, it turns out that all of the characters, despite every effort by a strong cast of performers to humanize them, are merely symbolic representations of people.

Ragtime, the book, followed a similar path, but Doctorow managed to create memorable characters by taking enough time and care with their individual development so that we could feel their aliveness. No one expects a musical to be able to paint as rich a portrait as a fully developed novel, but Ragtime, the musical, sinks under the weight of its own pretentiousness so that, in the end, viewing it is akin to reading a boring chapter in a boring history textbook. You can’t “revive” something that never had life in it to begin with.

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

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Race: Mamet misses the mark

I seldom leave a show so awed by the writing that I have wanted to pick up a copy of the script in order to relish the playwright’s command of language. I can only think of two such occasions in the past 20 years. The first was after I had seen the original London production of Arcadia, in which—to my mind, at least—playwright Tom Stoppard reached the pinnacle of his skills. Arcadia was a masterwork in which a brilliant mind and a loving heart came together in the creation of the central character of Thomasina. With Arcadia, Stoppard found a human story to serve the complex interweaving of mathematical theory, the history of landscaping, and the playwright’s predilection for puzzles, conundrums, and paradoxes. I wanted to read the a copy of the play in order to pick up on the nuances of language that made for such a satisfying theatrical experience and to catch anything I might have missed.

More recently, I was moved to purchase a copy of the script of David Mamet’s Speed-the-Plow after seeing last year’s sharp-as-nails revival. Despite the shallowness of the play’s three characters, the play was mesmerizing because of the playwright’s understanding of the sounds and the rhythms of language. The interplay among the characters was carried to glorious and scary heights by Mamet’s word choices and phrasing. I wanted to read the script out of admiration for the writing.

When he is at his best, no one can touch Mamet for inventiveness and style. Which, sadly, brings us to his latest play, Race.

Who would have thought that such a potentially incendiary topic—the nature of race relations in the United States—would have prompted such insipid writing from a master of dramatic tension? There is more drama in Mamet’s recent ten-minute play, School (part of the double bill at the Atlantic Theater Company, Two Unrelated Plays By David Mamet, reviewed in these pages on October 26, 2009) than there is in all of Race.

Race is a watered-down imitation of a Mamet play with the requisite liberal use of “the ‘F’ word,” three characters (there are four, actually, but one of them could be eliminated with zero consequences), and a story told in just over an hour—which turns out to be a long time to talk when you have precious little to say.

Before we get to the play itself, let’s acknowledge that part of the problem lies with both the setting and the set—a law office sprawled across a massive expanse of space, as safe an environment for what amounts to an intellectual (though not particularly revelatory) discussion about race as you can imagine and one where the characters seldom come close enough together to convey any feeling of potential physical or emotional threat.

Another problematic element is the direction. Mamet directed Race himself—not a good idea if you want someone with an objective eye to look at your work through the lens of its performance potential. None of the characters has much to do. One, a wealthy white client accused of raping a black woman, has virtually nothing to do but show up occasionally and then wander offstage.

Mamet has inhabited his law office setting with two partners, one black and one white; a young black woman, their law clerk; and the aforementioned client. Then he has them throw out some ideas, most of them hackneyed, about the nature of race relations culled from the situation and based upon a few questions: Why has the white partner hired the black assistant after finding out she lied on her application? Is it true that she tricked the firm into accepting what is likely to be an unwinnable case in order to prove a point? Do white men need to be more careful in how they interact with black women than do black men? These are not unimportant issues, of course, but the bland discussion of them does not make for much by way of a night of theater.

With so little drama, there is not much one can say about the acting. James Spader and David Alan Grier are credible as the law partners, Kerry Washington as the law clerk lacks the underlying spark of seething anger that might make her performance more interesting, and Richard Thomas as the client has so little to do, let’s just say he comports himself well.

How ironic is it when two revivals of musicals, Ragtime, and even Finian’s Rainbow, offer more compelling statements about race than a play that is dedicated to that single issue?

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

Monday, November 16, 2009

Kaye and Mostel: Together Again for the First Time

So…what are two nice Jewish boychiks from Brooklyn doing hanging out in a couple of churches in midtown Manhattan? Think you wouldn’t get caught?

You know who you are, fellows. David Daniel Kaminsky, you have been spotted carrying on at St. Luke’s. Samuel Joel Mostel, you have been seen cavorting with the congregation at St. Clement’s. Oy vey!

David Daniel Kaminsky is, of course, better known as Danny Kaye, the subject of Danny and Sylvia: The Danny Kaye Musical, playing to crowds of Kaye aficionados at St. Luke’s Theatre. Written by Kaye’s longtime publicist and friend Robert McElwaine (book and lyrics), and composer Bob Bain (music), the show portrays the relationship between Danny Kaye and his wife, Sylvia Fine, who is largely credited with shaping and guiding Kaye’s career and rise to stardom.

As such, Danny and Sylvia: The Danny Kaye Musical is a pleasant, if lightweight, way to spend an evening. I’m not sure if there is a term for a theatrical production that is essentially a biographical sketch, but in motion pictures it would be called a biopic.

What makes this show worth the visit, at least to Danny Kaye fans (of which I am one) is the spot-on performance by Brian Childers as the iconic comic, especially when he is allowed to shine during several full-blown production numbers not written by McElwaine and Bain but that are associated with Kaye himself: “Tschaikowsky” from the Kurt Weill/Ira Gershwin musical Lady in the Dark, and songs like “Ballin’ the Jack” and “Minnie the Moocher.” Here Childers shows us all he’s got; right before our eyes, he becomes Danny Kaye in all his full glory. Gotta say, these performances lift the show to exceptional heights, at least until it slips back into biopic mode.

Kimberly Faye Greenberg gives a solid performance as Sylvia Fine, the sharp and smart foil to Danny’s creative but wild and undisciplined talent. But, really, don’t see Danny and Sylvia: The Danny Kaye Musical unless you understand the meaning of these words: “The pellet with the poison's in the flagon with the dragon; the vessel with the pestle has the brew that is true.” If you do, then go with my blessing.

Meanwhile, up the street at the Theatre at St. Clement’s, Jim Brochu channels the spirit of Samuel Joel Mostel, better known as Zero Mostel, in Zero Hour, written by Brochu and well-directed by actress Piper Laurie, who is credited with shepherding the play since its inception in 2005.

Let me be unambiguous: Zero Hour is the best one-person play since I Am My Own Wife. It is as rich and compelling a story as you will see on or off Broadway right now.

The conceit is this: An unseen reporter from The New York Times has come to interview Zero Mostel in the actor’s West 28th Street art studio in 1977, shortly before Mostel’s death later that same year. It is the story and the masterful telling of it, along with the excellent direction by Piper Laurie, that kept me and the audience around me totally engaged--sometimes in stitches from laughing, sometimes with moist eyes, sometimes both at the same time. A compelling and emotional retelling of the terrible impact of the blacklisting during the McCarthy era serves as a centerpiece, but the entire story and its performance from beginning to end make for a first-rate theater-going experience.

Seeing Danny and Sylvia: The Danny Kaye Story and Zero Hour during the same week was an intriguing experience. Kaye, born in 1913, and Mostel, born two years later, could not have gone in more different directions as first generation American Jews, both of them sons of Eastern European immigrant parents. Danny Kaye represents those who chose to become totally assimilated and Americanized, while Zero Mostel never dropped his Yiddish roots, even after marrying a Catholic woman and being shunned by his parents for the rest of their lives—an image that haunted him when, as Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof, he had to shun one of his daughters after she married outside the faith. That the spirits of both Kaye and Mostel should be in the spotlight at two churches just down the street from one another at the same time makes for a compelling juxtaposition to ponder.

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

Monday, November 9, 2009

Off-Broadway Delights, Part I

New York theater-going audiences are blessed with many Off-Broadway and Off-Off-Broadway acting companies offering exciting, intriguing, and sometimes off-the-wall new plays, as well as productions of classic or seldom-seen older plays. What is truly amazing about many of these companies is how they can produce what are often top-notch productions on shoestring budgets in quirky spaces, ranging from fifth floor walkups in office buildings to church basements, storefronts, outdoor parks, and even bathrooms (e. g. “Ladies and Gents” and “Downsize”).

Today, I would like to talk about two of these dynamic companies, along with the plays currently in production at their respective venues.

Emerging Artists Theatre [EAT]
identifies itself as a “dynamic home for emerging writers and artists, “ with a mission to “provide the unique opportunity for playwrights to collaborate with directors, actors, and designers…from idea through fully realized production.” Aspiring playwrights take note: EAT solicits original work on its website:

The current production, having its Off-Broadway debut, is Penny Penniworth, a perfect example of what I mean by a top-notch production on a shoestring budget. Taking a casting cue from the Broadway hit, The 39 Steps, a dozen assorted characters in Penny Penniworth are portrayed by four talented and versatile (not to mention physically fit) actors who romp at full tilt through a 75-minute wacky, jokey, punny, and altogether clever hoot of a Charles Dickens parody on a set that consists entirely of a couple of chairs, a modest backdrop, and a rear curtain.

The deliberately-convoluted Dickensian plot takes the title character from a comfortable country life to scratching for a living as paid companion to one “Miss Havasnort” in London, and then on to financial independence through a surprise identify revelation and unexpected inheritance that Dickens would happily recognize as one of his own plot devices.

I would be remiss if I singled out any of the four performers over the others. All do splendidly as they switch characters, costumes, body language, accents, and genders at the drop of a hat. So kudos to all four—Christopher Borg, Jamie Heinlein, Jason O’Connell, and Ellen Reilly. Hooray, too, for director Mark Finley, who keeps all the craziness moving at a race car pace, and playwright Chris Weikel who, one imagines, had an awful lot of fun burrowing into Dickens and the many theatrical, movie, and PBS Masterpiece Theater versions of Dickens’s work.

The second featured company is one that prides itself on operating as a “resident company” devoted to production of the classics. The Pearl Theatre Company recently relocated from downtown to midtown and its current space at City Center Stage II, where one might surmise it would hope to attract a more traditional Broadway/Off-Broadway audience, including out-of-towners reluctant to venture south of Times Square or north of Lincoln Center.

One real advantage of having a resident company is that you have a set of performers who develop together, so that whatever play they are presenting has a consistent ensemble feel to it. I cannot tell you how many plays I’ve seen where all of the actors appear to be in different productions; i. e. where individually they may have learned their parts, but collectively the result is a mishmash of clashing styles and parallel worlds. Thus, one of the delights of the current production of The Playboy of the Western World, is that all of the performers seem to belong in the same place and time as one another and as intended by the playwright, J. M. Synge. The only real adjustment for the audience is to attune its ears to brogues so thick that it would take an axe—or perhaps a sharpened loy (more about that in a moment)—to cut through them.

The Playboy of the Western World is a classic of Irish theater dating from 1907, but I confess to having never seen nor read it before. I must say that I thoroughly enjoyed the production, which turns on a lovely piece of blarney about a young man, Christy Mahon, who shows up at a pub in a small coastal village, proclaiming that he is a runaway from the law. He has, he declares, killed his “da” by bonking him on the head with the aforementioned “loy,” a long-handled farm spade. Fathers rarely being portrayed in a good light in Irish literature, this deed is seen by all and sundry as a great act of heroism, and all of the eligible young ladies of the village are instantly smitten and proclaim Christy Mahon to be the great “Playboy of the Western World.”

This is a classic comedy, indeed, filled with rich—at times Shakespearean—romantic imagery and poetry, and the company does a splendid job all around. Standouts are Sean McNail, as the title character; Lee Stark, as the pub keeper’s daughter, Pegeen Mike, to whom Christy gives his heart; and Rachel Botchan, as the saucy Widow Quin who wants Christy for herself but who will happily settle for the right-of-way to farm a piece of property she has been eyeing for some time. So bring your Irish-English dictionary and plan to spend a delightful afternoon or evening!

Emerging Artists Theatre and The Pearl Theatre Company are but two of the dozens of wonderful Off-Broadway and Off Off-Broadway independent and/or not-for-profit companies offering high-quality professional productions of works that deserve to be seen and supported by theater-goers. I will be discussing more of these in upcoming blog entries.

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

Thursday, November 5, 2009

First in a series: What's on Your iPod?

This is the first of an ongoing and intermittent series of musings on the theater-related music, Podcasts, and video files I have downloaded onto my iPod, and why they were significant enough to me to want to have them as companions during my long daily commute.

“South Pacific”
was the soundtrack of my young adolescence. It was the very first album I purchased after receiving my first stereo record player as a Bar Mitzvah gift, and the lush, romantic musical score was etched into by brain through infinitely repeated playings.

I never saw the legendary original production, starring the incomparable Mary Martin and opera bass-baritone Ezio Pinza; I was two years old when it debuted on Broadway. I probably saw a summer stock production at some point, and the so-so film version from the late 1950s, with the charming (but not incomparable) Mitzi Gaynor and matinee idol Rossano Brazzi, whose singing was dubbed by another opera star, Giorgio Tozzi.

Over time, that much beloved original cast recording gradually became like wallpaper—there, but nearly invisible in its familiarity. Then, at some point, it was no longer even there, abandoned and discarded during a move.

“South Pacific” lingered as a distant memory for many years, popping briefly into consciousness with the Reba McEntire-Brian Stokes Mitchell pairing for a concert version at Carnegie Hall in 2005. Granted, I did not see it in person and thus missed out on the magic that only a live performance can bring, but I found that watching it on PBS left me cold. Reba McEntire, whom I would have thought of as a good match for the role of Nellie Forbush, seemed all wrong for the part; when she sang the self-deprecating words “I’m a little hick” in “Twin Soliloquies,” you believed her, though Nellie is no hick. And, while Brian Stokes Mitchell possesses a glorious baritone, his talent is that of a powerful concert performer, and not, sadly, a powerful actor. The chemistry between Nellie and Emile was nil.

So, when I heard there was to be the first full-scale production of “South Pacific” since the original one ended its run in 1954, I was less than impressed and had no particular interest in seeing the show—especially not at full price. Maybe I would pick up a ticket if it were available at the TKTs discount booth.

Ha! What did I know!

“South Pacific” opened to rave reviews for director Bartlett Sher, for the performance of the score by a full theater orchestra, and for its stars, Kelli O’Hara and Paulo Szot, yet another pairing between a musical theater performer and opera singer. OK. So, now my interest was piqued.

After waiting months for excellent seats (listen, if I’m shelling out the big bucks, then I want a great seat!), I got to see for myself. And, yes, Ben Brantley of The New York Times, it was indeed “rapturous.” In all my life, I have never seen a more perfect production of a musical. It was as if “South Pacific” was some pristine undiscovered Rodgers and Hammerstein musical treasure that had been hidden in a secret hermetically-sealed vault for decades until Bartlett Sher unearthed it. Never has there been such a marriage between music and lyrics, such an emotional connection between the score and the characters and situations it embodies, and such “hummable tunes.” And never have I wanted to find a way to bottle the entire production, keep it on my person, and take it out from time to time in order to be able to recall the experience.

And that, my friends, is why you will find “South Pacific” on my iPod.

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

Monday, October 26, 2009

Two Unrelated Plays By David Mamet


Now there’s a word you don’t get to use too often. But it aptly describes the dialog in “School,” the shorter of the two engaging and generally fun pieces being presented by the Atlantic Theater Company under the umbrella title “Two Unrelated Plays By David Mamet.”

For those not quite up on their Ancient Greek drama, stichomythia is a play-writing device associated with the likes of Sophocles. It is comprised of short lines of dialog spoken in quick bursts of back-and-forth conversation between two characters. “School,” which consists of nothing but stichomythia and lasts all of ten minutes, might be thought of as a fragment of a potentially longer play.

The plot of “School,” such as it is, is made up of a conversation between two male colleagues in what I take to be a private school. The gentlemen in question, identified as “A” and “B,” are sitting across a desk pondering the curious decision to have all of the children in the school create individual posters, using up vast amounts of paper, proclaiming their pledge to conserve paper. In the briefest of time, the conversation spins like a swirling top, leaping within its own kind of dizzying logic to take on such topics as the union representing the custodial staff, the need to keep an eye on the crossing guard/registered sex offender, and the disturbing attractiveness of some of the children. On paper, at least, one could see this leading to a dark place, à la “Doubt,” but it’s all gone in a flash, and it is the cleverness of the lines and the spot-on delivery by actors John Pankow and Rod McLachlan that remain in the memory.

Curtain down; curtain up. Part II of this pair is called “Keep Your Pantheon,” a silly romp that takes us from Ancient Greece to Ancient Rome and the comedy stylings of Plautus, whose work inspired “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.” Indeed, “Keep Your Pantheon” might just as well be titled “The Further Adventures of Pseudolus;” all that is missing is a chorus of “Comedy Tonight” to get things rolling.

Which isn’t to say that “Keep Your Pantheon” isn’t fun in its own right. It tells the tale of a motley crew of actors, living on a shoestring [sandal-string?] and trying to make ends meet. Through a serious of unfortunate misunderstandings, the actors run afoul of the law and are sentenced to die a most hideous death. I don’t think it’s giving too much away to say they make it out alive, and we have our happy ending, of course!

Fine comic performances, led by Brian Murray under the deft direction of Neil Pepe, who helmed last season’s topnotch revival of Mamet’s “Speed-the-Plow, make this a most pleasant way to while away an hour.

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

Friday, October 16, 2009


Broke-ology, in its New York debut following a successful run at the Williamstown (Massachusetts) Theatre Festival last summer, is an engaging domestic drama without the Sturm und Drang of an “August: Osage County” or a “Reasons to be Pretty,” to cite two recent examples. What comes to mind instead are old movies, plays, and television shows: “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn,” “I Remember Mama,” or “The Goldbergs.” Like these antecedents, “Broke-ology” isn’t about much of anything. It is the everyday efforts of the characters to survive and make sense of life that provide the fodder for the storyteller, and it is the interplay among the characters that resonates with the audience.

Playwright Nathan Louis Jackson gives us just enough information so that we can picture in our minds the kind of working poor African American neighborhood and the circumstances that have shaped the lives of the King family—a middle aged father, his two grown sons, and the young men’s deceased mother who lives on in the family home as a memory/ghost. Sprinkled here and there within the dialog are tidbits of the outside world—that the neighborhood lies within the territory of the Crips street gang, that homes have been torn down and replaced with litter-strewn empty lots, even that it was cancer that took the life of the mother. None of this comes to us in boldface italics; he learn what we learn only if we pay attention.

The problems the Kings are struggling with are those of real life. The father, played with depth and honesty by Wendell Pierce, is gradually being ravaged by multiple sclerosis as well as his own increasing frustration at his lessening ability to care for himself. The two brothers—one of whom is striving to make ends meet and live up to the many obligations he is facing as he and his girlfriend are about to become parents—the other of whom is wrestling over whether he should stay to help his family or return to the home he has made for himself in Connecticut. The young men, played respectively by Francois Battiste (in a manner reminiscent of comedian Chris Rock) and Alano Miller, come off exactly as they should, brothers who share a history of familial memories yet who are somewhat alienated by the different paths their lives have taken.

Although the family’s name is “King,” and one of the sons is named “Malcolm King,” the historic references in the play generally are to the music that gave much pleasure to the father and mother, William and Sonia King (played with sassy style by Crystal A. Dickinson) when they were younger. Thoughts and dreams of his wife are what comfort William as he falls further into illness, and that he can conjure her up is a blessing for this man who may end his days in a poor quality nursing home.

Nathan Louis Jackson, a graduate of Juilliard, has been called an “emerging” young playwright; I believe he has already emerged and that he is already a talent to be reckoned with. Much love has been lavished on this production, and kudos go to the quartet of fine actors, director Thomas Kail, and set designer Donyale Werle. For an explanation of the title, you will need to check out “Broke-ology” at the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater at Lincoln Center.

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

Monday, October 12, 2009


I am a huge fan of David Mamet when he is at his best. The 2005 production of “Glengarry Glen Ross” and last season’s “Speed-the-Plow” are high on my top 20 list of Best-Plays-I’ve-Seen-In-The-Last-50-Years. Mamet is at times an absolute master of language—the sounds, the rhythms, the mot juste for every occasion. He can pack more into 75 minutes of playing time and a small cast of characters than most playwrights can manage with two-plus hours and a stageful of actors.

This is not to say he doesn’t have his down moments. I walked out at intermission during last season’s tepid revival of “American Buffalo;” ever hopeful, I rarely walk out, so this should tell you something. I was also less than enthralled with “November.” Audiences generally agreed, and both of these plays had short runs.

Having never before seen a production of “Oleanna,” I came to the play with fresh eyes. Indeed, “Oleanna” probably does not lend itself well to repeat visits; its impact is dependent on a round of punches that shock (and they do shock!) on first viewing only. This is Mamet neither at his best nor at his worst; the unfolding of the plot is perhaps more at the forefront, and the language—while still powerful—lacks the smooth-as-aged-bourbon quality of his best work.

On the face of it, the play is another “Battle of the Sexes,” occupying some of the same territory as does “After Miss Julie” a couple of blocks away, with real or perceived (you be the judge) sexual harassment substituting for actual sex. To be more specific, “Oleanna” is about the power wielded by those who claim to be powerless: a charge of sexual harassment lodged by a female college student against her male professor that results in his losing his tenure bid, his job, his home, and possibly his freedom altogether.

The original production of the play is reported to have been more balanced in its depiction of the two characters involved, so that it really was open to interpretation as to whose side you were on. In this production, however, it is clear that the student, Carol, played with depth and scariness by Julia Stiles, has the upper hand—at least through the second and third scenes of this 75-minute nerve-wracking nightmare of a play. (Have I mentioned that I am a male college professor?)

Against Ms. Stiles, actor Bill Pullman doesn’t stand a chance. His “John,” the hoping-to-be-tenured professor, falls handily into every trap that is laid before him—the final one being a real gasp-inducer for much of the audience.

Even though the action is compacted into three relatively short scenes, it does have the arc of a three-act play, and it explodes and continues to spume lava once we get past the first scene. If there is a problem, it lies with that first scene, which feels as if it belongs to another play altogether. For the first 20 minutes or so, the play seems to be about the inability of humans to communicate; the dialog consists of starts and stops and swallowed words and interruptions that convey a sense of real frustration—but mostly it is the audience that feels frustrated. In particular, Carol, the student, is depicted much differently in this first scene than she is in the later ones, and it is hard to reconcile the opening scene with the rest of the play.

Director Doug Hughes (a busy man, he is also responsible for “The Royal Family” two blocks away) has added a most annoying touch; between each scene, a set of window blinds opens and closes by means of some noisy and irritatingly slow electronic device. No idea what that’s about, but the play would not suffer with either its loss or by dropping the first scene altogether.

Despite these distractions, I do recommend “Oleanna” to any Mamet fan who has never seen it. Meanwhile, we can look forward to Mamet’s new play, “Race,” which begins previews in mid-November.

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

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Finian's Rainbow

The minute I got home from seeing “Finian’s Rainbow,” I logged on at my computer, went to the iTunes store, and downloaded the recording by the original 1947 cast.

This is meant as no disparagement to the current cast. I am, indeed, very appreciative of having the opportunity to see a full-blown production of “Finian’s Rainbow,” with its magnificant, eclectic score by Burton Lane and lyrics by Yip Harburg. I may even go see it again later in its run.

But that original cast album is an icon of my youth. I played it over and over again in my teenage years and relished every note and word. It remained my favorite cast album until 1968 and “Hair,” but that’s another story for another time.

I saw this production of “Finian’s Rainbow” on the day of its first preview. Just before the overture began, director/choreographer Warren Carlyle came out and announced that one of the leads, Alina Faye, who performs the role of “Susan the Silent,” had been stricken with pneumonia, and that her understudy would be going on with just three hours of rehearsal time. I also noted that the house was far from sold out. Had I missed some gossip about problems with the production?

As it turns out, my concerns were unfounded. Faye’s replacement, Leslie Donna Flesner, was excellent in the part, displayed confidence in her performance, and danced beautifully in a role that requires extensive dancing; the character of Susan is mute and communicates through dance. Indeed, the choreography is one of the real strengths of this production, which had its gestation last season as part of the Encores! series of semi-staged musicals at City Center under the gifted baton of Rob Berman, who remains alongside Carlyle at the helm as conductor, musical supervisor, and vocal arranger.

Even for a first preview, the cast worked well together. Perhaps Cheyenne Jackson is a tad too modern in his mannerisms, but his charisma and good looks serve him well in the role of Woody, Susan’s brother and the de facto leader of the sharecropping tobacco farmers of Rainbow Valley in the great state of Missitucky. Woody is supposed to be charismatic and good looking. It also doesn’t hurt that Jackson can perform those wonderful Burton/Harburg songs, particularly “Old Devil Moon,” just beautifully.

Whatever you do in casting “Finian’s Rainbow,” you’ve got to get the right person to play Sharon, Woody’s love interest and, really, the lead character in the show. I am happy to report that Kate Baldwin is just right for the part. She has a lovely singing voice and has her character’s feisty nature and sense of humor down pat. She also gets to sing almost every number, including the best of the show’s tunes: “How Are Things in Glocca Morra,” “Look to the Rainbow,” “If This Isn’t Love,” and the aforementioned “Old Devil Moon.” Expect a Tony nod in her direction.

Of the rest of the cast, Jim Norton, who won a 2008 Tony Award for his superb performance in “The Seafarer,” is a charmer as Finian McLonergan, Sharon’s father who has come to America with a dream in his heart and the determination to make sure that dream comes true, however farfetched it may seem to others and no matter how much blind faith and magic it takes to make it happen. 

Actually, there is a magical creature in sight, and that is the leprechaun Og, played with just the right amount of twinkle-eyed mischief and an adolescent’s burgeoning romanticism and sexual awakening by Christopher Fitzgerald. Even if he can’t quite erase my own vision of Og as I imagined him to be performed by his original portrayer, David Wayne, Fitzgerald still casts his own delightful spell as he falls in love first with Sharon, then with Susan (“When I’m Not Near The Girl I Love, I Love The Girl I’m Near.”). 

The ensemble of players is uniformly strong, but it is worth a special mention to note that Terri White brings out the swinging verve in the song “Necessity,” and that Guy Davis as Sonny plays a mean blues harmonica and gets to shine in the “Dance of the Golden Crock,” accompanying a solo dance piece for Susan that makes little sense as a plot element but which is so good that we need not to concern ourselves with such trivial matters as plot.

Speaking of which, the plot of “Finian’s Rainbow” is more than a little peculiar, involving as it does a mixture of Irish blarney, a real-life leprechaun, the plight of sharecroppers in the rural South, a plea for racial harmony, an extolling of both tobacco and the wonders of buying on credit, and songs that often advance the plot not one iota.

But oh those songs, those glorious songs! So never mind trying to follow the plot. Just immerse yourself in the music, knowing full well that all will work out at the end of the rainbow!

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Thursday, October 8, 2009

Brighton Beach Memoirs

Think of Brighton Beach Memoirs as the anti-“August: Osage County,” and you will have a pretty good idea of what you are in for when you choose to spend the evening with the Jerome family. These days, that’s not a bad thing.

Just as Tracy Letts’s “August: Osage County” rubbed our collective noses in the Jacobean-like lives of America’s ultimate dysfunctional family, this revival of “Brighton Beach Memoirs” is playwright Neil Simon’s paean to and re-imagining of his childhood (would it be disillusioning to note that Simon himself grew up in the Bronx and Queens, and that his parents were divorced?). No vitriol-spewing drug-addled stories here; this is the tale of a solid, caring family whose quibbles are minor and underpinned with a great deal of love—not the gushy huggy sort of love, but the kind that surrounds and protects a family struggling to keep its head above water during the years of the Great Depression when the play takes place.

I have to say that I did not expect to be won over by this play, which I had seen previously only in its movie incarnation, and of which I only have a fuzzy recollection. Simon was always accused of never letting character development get in the way of snappy one-liners, and that admittedly holds true with “Brighton Beach Memoirs,” which picked up three Tony Awards in 1983—two for featured acting, and one for long-time Simon collaborator, director Gene Saks, but not even a nomination for the play itself.

The surprise for me was that the snappy one-liners still work, and that it is difficult not to be drawn in and feel affection for the Jerome family. This is not a witty play where you appreciate the cleverness of the writing and acting (e. g. “God of Carnage,” which, by the way, I thoroughly enjoyed); its humor stems from the characters themselves, sketchily-drawn though they may be.

The Jeromes are not without their troubles: financial woes, a heart attack, and the Holocaust are among the plot elements, and there is a sense that the same story might have been told in a significantly different way by someone like Arthur Miller. The difference is that Simon chooses to laugh in the face of doom and to embrace the day-to-day events in the lives of people that he does seem to cherish.

A tip of the hat to director David Cromer, whose credits include some terrific work with recent downtown productions I have found to be thoroughly engaging, including “Adding Machine” and “Orson’s Shadow.” The cast members of “Brighton Beach Memoirs” are uniformly solid and work well as an ensemble, even in the early preview performance I saw. Laurie Metcalf, who earned her acting chops as an original member of Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theater (even if you only know her as Roseanne’s sister in the TV sitcom “Roseanne”), is especially good in the role of Kate Jerome, the mother of the family who sees it as her duty to keep everyone fed, clothed, and safe from the travails of a then-as-now scary world. Equally strong is Noah Robbins, as Eugene, the fifteen-year-old narrator, budding writer, and hormonally-charged adolescent whom we are presumably supposed to take as a strand-in for the young Neil Simon himself.

“Brighton Beach Memoirs” will be joined later this fall with a production of Simon’s “Broadway Bound.” Together these represent two-thirds of a trilogy of “memory plays,” (“Biloxi Blues,” which came in between these two, is being skipped.) Much of the cast of “Brighton Beach Memoirs” will pick up their roles in “Broadway Bound,” which takes place a decade later, and I find myself looking forward to spending more time with the Jeromes.

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Tuesday, October 6, 2009

After Miss Julie

Whenever I think of playwright August Strindberg, I envision two characters with their hands clasped firmly around each other’s throats, together through all of eternity in an endless “dance of death.”

Thus it is with “After Miss Julie,” Patrick Marber’s re-imagining of August Strindberg’s play “Miss Julie.” The “After” appended to the title refers to the fact that this is Marber’s take on the Strindberg play, but it also draws attention to the resetting of the time of the story to 1945, some 70 years AFTER (get it?!!!) the original version took place. The locale has been moved as well, from a manor in Sweden to an estate outside of London. The time shift, in particular, is supposed to be viewed as significant, since the play has been fast-forwarded to the date of a key election in England that is considered to mark the start of the dismantling of the rigid pre-war class system.

It is uncertain whether American audiences would grasp the significance of the date, but anyone familiar with the Masterpiece Theater mega-hit “Upstairs-Downstairs” will recognize the inherent disparity in the lives of the key players: the spoiled daughter of wealth and the duty-bound servant. Indeed, the shift in time works; the war between the classes is not “owned” by any particular era.

The play (in either version) unfolds as a disturbing and increasingly vicious struggle for power between its two central characters. Miss Julie of the title is a young, bored aristocrat with a rebellious streak and a supercharged libido. John (“Jean” in the original) is a valet, working for Miss Julie’s father. During a raucous Midsummer Night party underwritten by Daddy for the servants, Miss Julie hones in on John like a black widow spider in heat. But what starts out to be reminiscent of any number of movies in which someone like Bette Davis chases after the stable hand, turns into a much more compelling tale of gender, class, and power, played out on a highly unstable teeter-totter.

At first, Miss Julie seems to have the upper hand, with the sway she holds as mistress of the house. Then the tide turns, and John wields power over Miss Julie, a dominant man lording it over a subservient woman. Then back again, as Miss Julie threatens to cry “rape” and get John not only fired, but imprisoned. And so it goes, back and forth, with elements of lust, rage, and sadomasochism making for quite an evening of family entertainment.

Miss Julie is played with guts, verve, and lots of steamy heat by screen actress Sienna Miller. The role of John is played by Jonny Lee Miller, the more experienced stage actor but who is possibly better known for his television and film acting (“Trainspotting” comes to mind.). Both do fine work, as does Marin Ireland as Christine, another of the below-stairs help who is more-or-less betrothed to John and who does not take too kindly to the goings-on between Miss Julie and John. Another figure whose presence bears great weight, even though he is never seen, is Miss Julie’s father, the Lord of the Manor, whose temporary absence has allowed Miss Julie to sneak off for her adventures with the hoi polloi, and whose later return crushes both characters’ dreams of escape.

The play runs along at a steady clip, clocking in at 90 minutes with no intermission. There are times when the tug-of-war starts to border on the wacko, as in Tennessee Williams at his most extreme, but it certainly makes for an interesting experience of both theater and theatrics.

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Sunday, October 4, 2009

Wishful Drinking

Carrie Fisher

Ah, nothing like the funny (as in both “ha-ha” and “peculiar”) stories of dysfunctional families! Especially when they are someone else’s stories and someone else’s dysfunctional family. Even more so, when the stories are laced with insider tales from the ultimate La La Land of Hollywood.

Thus we have Wishful Drinking, the one-woman show created and performed by Carrie Fisher, sometime actress, writer of novels, screenplays, and memoirs (including one with the same title as the show), ex-wife of legendary singer-songwriter Paul Simon, and daughter of the even more legendary actress Debbie Reynolds and singer Eddie (“Oh My Papa“) Fisher. Lots of stories here, shared with great élan by someone who has made a career of telling them.

“Wishful Drinking” is basically critic-proof. It is the kind of show that will appeal to those who would intentionally seek it out. If you don’t know who Debbie Reynolds, Eddie Fisher, Elizabeth Taylor, and Connie Stevens are—and if Queen Padmé means more to you than Princess Leia—then you probably should stay away; if you want to see something from your parents’ generation, stick with Hair.

Also don't go expecting to see acid-laced humor flung at Hollywood’s elites. Wishful Drinking is not Mommy Dearest, and Debbie Reynolds, while she may be a tad overbearing, is not Joan Crawford. Based on what Ms. Fisher shares with us, she and her mother have a good relationship; indeed, they live next door to one another. Most of the digs at Mom have to do with Ms. Reynolds’s poor choices in spouses and financial advisors (sometimes they were one and the same), and the somewhat off-the-wall bits of mother-to-daughter advice that Ms. Reynolds dispenses freely.

Whatever real resentment there is that may underpin Wishful Drinking comes out when Ms. Fisher speaks of her father, whom she paints as a notorious womanizer who left her mother for his friend Mike Todd’s grieving widow, Elizabeth Taylor, ending Debbie and Eddie’s brief reign as “America’s Sweethearts.”

While there is some rambling to the storytelling, there are at least two longer amusing set pieces that are audience pleasers (and Ms. Fisher, flinging confetti, and giving out hugs, kisses and gifts at various intervals, does seem to want to please her audience). 

One piece is a riff on what it is like to be identified forever as Princess Leia, her iconic role in the original “Star Wars” movie trilogy: “[Director] George Lucas owns my image; every time I look in the mirror, I owe him money.” 

The second piece was born from an attempt by Ms. Fisher to explain to her daughter Billie why it wouldn’t be incest if she dated the grandson of Elizabeth Taylor—a convoluted tale that takes a photo-covered blackboard, a pointer, and many minutes to unfold. 

If there is anything missing among the amusing anecdotes, it is an element of what is suggested by the title. There is precious little about Ms. Fisher’s bouts of drinking, drug use, and her bipolar disorder. For Broadway’s insights into that, you’ll have to see “Next To Normal.” Ms. Fisher would rather thank “all 12 of my shrinks,” sing “Happy Days Are Here Again,” and let it go at that.

All in all, “Wishful Drinking” offers an enjoyable way to spend a couple of hours—provided you understand that what you are in for is a celebrity chat and not an evening of Strindberg. I only mention this because I am about to head out to see the production of “After Miss Julie,” a new take on the Strindberg play. I’ll tell you all about it in the next day or two.

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Thursday, October 1, 2009


Starting today, many theaters around the country participate in an event in which they give away free tickets--no catch.

If you are interested, check out If you don't see anything you want--or if what you want is already sold out--check again later, tomorrow, or over the next couple of weeks. New performances are added from time to time.

Or take a chance on a less familiar play or venue. It's got to be worth at least the price of admission!

And stay tuned over the weekend for a review of Carrie Fisher's "Wishful Drinking," now playing at Studio 54.

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Tuesday, September 29, 2009

The Royal Family

I have seen productions of a lot of “classic comedies” over the years, and often they have seemed stale and too stuffy by far, bloated into sleep-inducing stupor by someone’s sense of their “ENDURING IMPORTANCE.” Indeed, based on a lot of bad experiences with such zombie-like revivals in the past, I intended to avoid this production, but early buzz made it sound worthy of a visit.

I am happy to say that “The Royal Family” has been given a classy production, with well-paced direction and generally solid ensemble acting—not to mention the eye-catching set by scenic designer John Lee Beatty that captures just the right style for a well-to-do family living the high life in New York just before the Great Depression pulled the rug out. (How timely!)

I don’t know how much time anyone not totally immersed in the theatrical hierarchy depicted here would want to spend with the Cavendish family, whose self-absorbed members would probably not welcome us in except as part of a worshipful audience. But being part of an audience privileged to get a glimpse of the inner world of the multi-generational Cavendishes, who are barely able to function outside of a theater, is a real treat.

Director Doug Hughes has paced this production at a fast but appropriate clip, so that the evening rarely feels overly long or unnecessarily stretched out. Hughes understands the arc of the classic three-act comedy and has wisely let it play itself out properly, maintaining its two intermissions instead of slicing it somewhere in the middle to accommodate a single intermission expected by today’s audiences.

Outstanding performances are offered up by the always-glorious Rosemary Harris as the matriarch of the family, and by Jan Maxwell, who looks always like she would most be at home in the world of screwball comedy and who here plays Harris’s daughter Julie, the family’s reliable breadwinner and chief worrier. Reg Rogers brings a wonderful sense of manic insanity to his role as Julie’s totally irresponsible brother Tony; I can well imagine him in the Groucho Marx role in playwright George S. Kaufman’s “The Cocoanuts.” In the smaller role of the longtime family retainer, David Greenspan brings a goofy sense of servant-as-privileged-character and keeper-of-family-secrets.

I don’t want to oversell this production. It is what it is, after all, an American comedy from the 1920s, of a type that fits in with others of that ilk. Not all of it works, and not all of the acting is up to the level of those I have singled out for praise. But there is much to be admired in the often-sparkling dialog, the intelligent production, and top-notch performances by actors who seem to be able to place themselves in the period and style of the play, so that they bring a real sense of freshness to what could be a tired warhorse.

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Monday, September 28, 2009

Superior Donuts

Tracy Letts is a talented ought-to-be Sitcom/Lifetime Television movie writer whose work appears in the theater instead of television. Stock characters, slim plot line marred by a series of distracting interruptions for a continuing monolog, and a plethora of one-liners, some of which draw laughs because of they way in which they are delivered, but are not particularly memorable. Paraphrased example: "You should cut off your pony tail. Pony tails only look good on girls...and ponies."

The production boasts two or three strong performances--notably by Jane Alderman, Kate Buddeke, and a vibrant Jon Michael Hall. The rest of the cast offer professional if not particularly exciting acting. A few audience members left at intermission of the preview performance I attended, but the second act is somewhat stronger than the first, and you do grow fond of some of the characters to the extent that they are developed--which, unfortunately, is not very much.

I will say that I enjoyed last year's 'August: Osage County,' but I did find the story line to be highly derivative: "Mama's Family" on steroids. Mr. Letts has been fortunate in hooking up with the Steppenwolf Theater Company and its extraordinarily talented actors and directors who allow his work to show itself in the best possible light.

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