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?

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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.