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.

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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.

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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.

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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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