Wednesday, December 29, 2010

A Small Fire: A Lesson in Loss and Gain

Michele Pawk and Reed Birney
It’s unsettling to be a woman on Broadway these days.

No, I’m not referring to the announcement that Natalie Mendoza, a lead actress in Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark, is leaving the show after suffering a concussion during the troubled musical’s first preview performance.

Rather, I am thinking of the spate of current shows, both on and off Broadway, depicting women suffering from any number of mental and physical illnesses. To name a few that come to mind, there’s treatment-resistant bipolar disorder in Next to Normal; post-coma trauma in A Kind of Alaska; Valium addiction and loss of self in Angels in America, and a lengthy stint in a mental institution in Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown.

Now we have a new play to add to the list—A Small Fire, written by Adam Bock, and directed by Trip Cullman, currently in previews at Playwrights Horizons.

Michele Pawk, a versatile musical and dramatic actress, gives a sharp-elbowed yet ultimately moving performance as Emily Bridges, a fiercely independent tough-as-nails building contractor who is stricken by a cascading series of physical losses that force her into what she considers to be a most humiliating position of having to depend on others.

The first sign of trouble occurs when Emily is unable to smell the smoke from a burning napkin that has caught fire after she has accidentally left the stove on. Emily’s long-suffering husband John (well-acted by the estimable Reed Birney) teases her about her absent-mindedness, until they both find out that Emily has a very real disease, of unknown origin or treatment, that quickly spreads from the loss of smell to a loss of taste, and later, of sight and of hearing.

The core of the plot focuses on Emily’s reaction to these losses, and the extent to which she is able or unable to accept them as her world closes in on her.

All of this would be merely an intellectual exercise if the playwright hadn’t been able to find the emotional core as well, and, compellingly and winningly, A Small Fire is as much about personal relationships as it is a medical mystery.

More specifically, it is about a marriage that has held together through many years, however mismatched the couple may seem to the outside world. Emily and John clearly have a history that binds them together, even if their daughter Jenny (played with just the right amount of twenty-something ego-centrism by Celia Keenan-Bolger) finds her mother to be difficult, rude, and distant, and frequently wonders aloud why her gentle father stays with Emily.

The cast is rounded out by Victor Williams as Billy, Emily’s right-hand man in her construction business. Emily and Billy share an ease of familiarity as well as their own history—strictly platonic, in case you were wondering—that she does not have with her own family. Their friendship, while perhaps a little shoehorned into the play as a whole, allows us to see another side of Emily.

All told, Adam Bock has shaped a solid play about a woman and a family in crisis. We do worry about Emily as she faces an inner struggle about her own future—a struggle that, to Mr. Bock’s credit and in keeping with Emily’s reticence, is never spoken of directly but which we nevertheless understand she is going through until the very end.

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

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Spider-Man: Nobody Knows What You Are

Despite the fact that Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark does not officially open until February 7—the exact date being a moveable feast that should be written lightly in pencil on the calendar—the schadenfreude crowd has been circling Broadway’s Foxwoods Theater like a flock of ravenous vultures. The New York Post’s Michael Riedel has been especially vitriolic, predicting the show will be an “epic flop.”

Is it any good? Can it be saved? What about all of those delays, canceled performances, technical glitches, and injuries to cast members? And what on earth has Julie Taymor, the show’s co-writer and its director, done with the $65 million said to be the cost of mounting Spider-Man?

To judge by her interviews, Ms. Taymor appears to be quite unperturbed by the gathering of those eager to feast on the carcass of her show. She could be faking it and actually may be quite concerned about the possibility of Spider-Man’s sinking into oblivion under the weight of its own hubris. Or she may simply believe that she and her creative team will be able to make sufficient adjustments to the show so that when it finally has its formal opening, it will be quite ready for prime time.

But I would like to propose another explanation for Ms. Taymor’s sanguinity. Perhaps, as far as Spider-Man is concerned, success on Broadway is largely irrelevant.

I recently attended a performance. Here is my take on things.

Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark was never conceived as a Broadway show in the first place—at least not in the traditional sense of offering a compelling story, plot-related songs, and theatrical acting. It was always planned as an “arena show,” to be performed in the U. S. and abroad before audiences numbering in the thousands, a majority of whom would be sitting a great distance from the stage.

The script does a minimal job of retelling the familiar Spider-Man story and does so only in Act I. The dialog is perfunctory. The performances are “large” and loudly amplified so as to strip the sketchy characters of any humanity or intimacy. In short, Spider-Man has been designed from the outset with the purpose of showcasing the visual effects and the accompanying score by rock superstars Bono and The Edge of the band U2.

Much of the criticism to date has been aimed at Taymor's chutzpah for failing to work on Spider-Man out of town, so that it might arrive on Broadway in fairly good shape. But here’s a thought: what if Broadway itself is the tryout town, where Spider-Man is being readied as an event to take on the road? Indeed, I wouldn’t be surprised if were announced that U2 will be performing the music live against the backdrop of Spider-Man as it travels the globe.

If you think of Spider-Man in these terms, the cursory stab at story-telling that eats up the overly long Act I is almost irrelevant, and the nightmarish imagery of Act II—which has been attacked by many as a confusing and disconnected mess—offers up a visual and auditory extravaganza that works just fine. Think of Spider-Man as being divided not into two acts, but two variations on a theme. Act I takes its inspiration from the well-known story of Peter Parker, the teenager who is transformed by the bite of a genetically altered spider; Act II is like a jazz riff on the theme of Spider-Man. If you need to find a theatrical logic to Act II, think of it is a fever dream brought on by the bite from a toxic arachnid.

The sets, by George Tsypin, are quite good, by the way. Act I has the appearance of a comic book; Act II, with its hallucinogenic quality, has the look of a graphic novel. There are also very compelling digital projections by Kyle Cooper, colorful costumes by Eiko Ishioka, and lots of aerial maneuvers, designed by Scott Rogers. All of these will serve nicely as Spider-Man hits the road.

As for being an “epic flop,” I don’t think it matters much what happens to the initial $65 million outlay. Spider-Man has a real shot at finding its financial success around the country and around the world—and the heck with Broadway.

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

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Hope Springs Eternal!

All right. So the fall theater season was rather on the tepid side.  Still, ever searching for a grand and glorious evening of theater-going, I am looking forward to seeing a number of promising new productions in the coming months.

Let’s begin, shall we, with the coming week and three new productions on my schedule.

First off, there’s Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark, now in previews at the Foxwoods Theater.  What can I say? I cannot resist going to see what $65 million buys these days.  If there is no such thing as bad publicity, then Julie Taymor, Bono and The Edge, and the rest of the creative team should be thrilled by the buzz generated by stories of major technical difficulties, numerous injuries, questionable artistic choices, multiple delays, canceled performances, and predictions of financial doom that seem to have made Spider-Man a must-see.  If they can pull this off, it will be a major triumph of willpower and determination as much as anything.  For a cute spoof of the woes plaguing Spider-Man, you might wish to view Conan O’Brien’s skit at

The second show I will be seeing in the days ahead is one I hope will be a stylish and funny production of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of being Earnest, presented by the Roundabout Theatre Company at the American Airlines Theater.  Certainly the cast is a strong one, including, among others, veterans Dana Ivey, Paxton Whitehead, and the indomitable Brian Bedford as the equally indomitable Lady Bracknell. Let’s see how Mr. Bedford compares with my thus-far-unchallenged memory of Dame Edith Evans when he utters one my favorite lines from any play:  “Rise, sir, from this semi-recumbent posture; it is most indecorous.”

I plan to wrap up my theater-going week by attending a preview of the world premiere of a new play by Adam Bock, who snagged an Obie Award in 2007 for The Thugs.  When it was reviewed The New York Times, critic Jason Zinoman called The Thugs (which I did not see) “chillingly realistic and pointedly absurd.”  Sounds like an intriguing mix, so I look forward to seeing Bock’s new play, which is launching previews at the Playwright’s Horizons.  It is called A Small Fire, and is described thusly: “When a tough-as-nails contractor finds her senses slipping on the brink of her daughter’s wedding, the impact on her family is nothing less than seismic.”   
Playwright’s Horizons is offering discounted tickets, information for which I am happy to pass along.

Order by December 31 with code SMGR and tickets are only: 
$40* (reg. $70) for all performances December 16-30, 2010 
$55 (reg. $70) for all performances January 1-23, 2011

Order online at Use code SMGR
Or call Ticket Central at (212) 279-4200 (Noon-8pm daily) 
Or present a printout of this blog post to the Ticket Central box office at 416 W 42nd Street (Noon-8pm daily).

*A limited number of $40 discounted tickets will be available for purchase. Subject to availability. Valid only in select rows.

Further along in the season, some I the shows for which I carry the torch of hope are War Horse, coming to Lincoln Center’s Vivian Beaumont Theater from across the Pond; The People in the Picture, a new musical starring Donna Murphy; the final two installments of Signature Theater Company’s season devoted to works by Tony Kushner (The Illusion, and The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures), and revivals of John Guare’s House of Blue Leaves, Lanford Wilson’s Talley’s Folly, and Neil LaBute’s Fat Pig.   

I see lots of potential in these upcoming shows, so let me just end by wishing us all—as my friend Bill would say—Happy New Season!

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

Sunday, November 21, 2010

The Coward: Like Gilbert and Sullivan, But Without the Songs

Apart from the blood and guts (literally) that spew across the stage of the Duke Theater, playwright Nick Jones has given us a clever, often laugh-out-loud romp of a tale in The Coward, now previewing as part of Lincoln Center’s LCT3 productions of new works by up-and-coming playwrights.

Part Monty Python, part W. S. Gilbert (i. e. Gilbert and Sullivan without Mr. Sullivan's music), part Saturday Night Live, The Coward tells the tale of one Lucidus Culling, the scaredy-cat scion of an 18th century English nobleman whose sole aim in life is to see to it that the family’s honor is upheld through a never-ending round of duels—which explains why Lucidus is the family’s only-surviving son, a status he longs to preserve.

Picture Pee-wee Herman without his confident self-assuredness, or the Cowardly Lion as he quivers before the throne of the Wizard of Oz, and you will get a sense of how Lucidus (performed with great timid flair by Jeremy Strong) faces the world. 

Poor Lucidus.  All he wants is to be left alone to contemplate the beauty of butterflies or to join in tart-tasting picnics with his foppish friends Robert and Gavin (well acted by Steven Boyer and Stephen Ellis), who seem like he-men in comparison, or to pine over the distant but beautiful and wealthy Isabelle Dupree.   He also knows what he most definitely does not want, and that is to die in a duel.

That Lucidus is a disappointment to his father (a blustery Richard Poe) is an epic understatement.  So, with great reluctance, and in order to get into Daddy’s good graces, Lucidus agrees to fight a duel with the next person who manages to offend.  Not surprisingly, he targets a decrepit, blind old man—failing to understand that the rules of nobility allow for the old man to appoint his own strong and skilled son to stand in for him.

How Lucidus deals with this unexpected turn of events makes up the rest of Act I.  Suffice it to say, by Act II he has acquired a new reputation that has pleased his father to no end and has caught the amorous attention of Isabelle (played in grand Gilbert and Sullivan mode by Kristen Schaal).  

The play is aided to no small end by Gabriel Berry's dandified costumes, including some gloriously over-the-top hats.  Between Berry's work here, and the costumes created by Ann Hould-Ward for A Free Man of Color, theatrical closets are now bursting with 18th century fashion. 

If I were to make one suggestion, that would be to trim some of Act II, where the high comic style wanders into the world of too-much, including an abundance of blood, gore, and mean-spirited dialog.  The playwright seems to want to add some, in my view, unnecessary satiric bite to what had been a more subtle but still clear message underpinning the silliness. 

Still, Nick Jones is a smart and witty writer who has given us an original and clever play.  And mark The Coward as another feather in the cap of director Sam Gold, who is making quite a name for himself heading up such productions as last year’s Circle Mirror Transformation and The Aliens (both by Annie Baker), and the current sold-out production of Tigers Be Still (by Kim Rosenstock), and who has been appointed as the youngest associate artist of the Roundabout Theater Company.  Mr. Gold and the three playwrights mentioned here are in their 20s and 30s and represent a wave of wonderful young creative artists that are keeping the theater world moving gloriously into the future. 

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

Friday, November 12, 2010

A Free Man of Color Brings Back Memories of the Psychedelic '60s

So…do you remember The Firesign Theater? Does the name ring a distant bell of recognition? If so, you’ll have a pretty good idea of how you might prepare yourself for a visit to the Vivian Beaumont Theater at Lincoln Center, where A Free Man of Color, a new play by John Guare, is now in previews.

For those of you who don’t know—or can’t quite recall—Firesign Theater was a comedy troupe that performed on radio during the height of the 1960s psychedelic era and produced record albums with such titles as Don’t Crush That Dwarf, Hand Me The Pliers. The group’s modus operandi was surrealistic, stream-of-conscious wordplay, best appreciated in a state of heightened awareness induced by any number of medicinal herbs.

Or so I'm told.

In any event, A Free Man of Color, with its cast of 26 spinning under the whirlwind direction of George C. Wolfe, is an eyeful of something-or-other that is difficult to fathom in a state of cold sobriety.

Let me take a stab at explaining. Remember, though, that we are now entering the realm of speculation.

Act I takes place in the wild and woolly New Orleans of 1801. The lead performer is the title character, who goes by the name of Jacques Cornet, played with wild abandon by Jeffrey Wright. Cornet is a man of property who considers himself to be an influential member of the upper class, an intellectual, and an unparalleled womanizer. That he is the mulatto offspring of his white plantation owner father and his black slave mother is irrelevant—at least in his eyes.

Aided and abetted by his own slave, Murmur (played with great élan by Mos, the actor formerly known as Mos Def), Cornet offers up what I take to be a play he himself has written, in a style that co-opts William Wycherley’s Restoration comedy The Country Wife, along with odd bits of Moliere and Shakespeare—filtered through a manic New Orleans Mardi Gras sensibility. There is something very off-kilter, though, so that the only way I could make sense of it was to think of Cornet as pretty much unschooled as well as self-important and delusional–kin perhaps, to the bipolar young hustler who calls himself "Paul Poitier" in Guare's Six Degrees of Separation.

With Act II, reality starts to intrude, and Guare switches gears by providing us with a history lesson on the unfolding of the early phase of what would later be referred to as “Manifest Destiny,” the expansion of the United States from sea to shining sea. New Orleans has been swept up in the Louisiana Purchase of 1803, and it is no longer a place of unbridled freedom.

The scenes flash by like an out-of-control carousel, featuring—among others--Thomas Jefferson (John McMartin, how nice it is to see ya), Meriwether Lewis (an enthusiastic Paul Dano), James Monroe (Arnie Burton), Walter Reed (Brian Reddy), and Napoleon Bonaparte (performed with scene-stealing hilarity by Triney Sandoval). It’s not for nothing that there are over two dozen performers, several of whom—like veteran actress Veanne Cox—play multiple roles.

In all of this mayhem, Cornet is caught up in the riptide of history.  When he is finally washed up on shore, he finds himself in a much different world than the one he inhabited just a few years earlier.

John Guare is definitely an important playwright, having given us such indelible works as the aforementioned Six Degrees of Separation and The House of Blue Leaves (set to be revived in the spring). Thus, I am loath to dismiss A Free Man of Color as merely a spaced-out opium pipe dream of a play.

So, I’ll just say that if you should go, do not expect to fully understand what is taking place before you. I’m not even certain that Mr. Guare or Mr. Wolfe fully understands what they have unleashed.

But both the director and the actors have leaped aboard in a great act of blind faith and are giving it their all. The same is true of Ann Hould-Ward, who has created an exploding rainbow of colorful costumes, and of David Rockwell, whose sets are both eye-catching and designed in such as way so that they fly on and off as quickly as the performances.

You may leave the theater scratching your head, but you may also be surprised to find that the visceral images linger. If so, you might just want to pull out your old copy of Don’t Crush That Dwarf, Hand Me The Pliers and give it a whirl.

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

After the Revolution Comes the Revelation: Then What Do We Do?

More than 50 years after his death, Joseph McCarthy, the late and little-lamented “junior Senator from Wisconsin,” has taken to haunting the New York theater scene.

The malignant spirit of the one-time powerful Senator, who ruined lives and careers by leveling charges of espionage and subversive activities during a reign of anti-Communist fervor in the 1950s, is evoked in no fewer than four current productions: Zero Hour, the one-man show about actor Zero Mostel; the revival of Tony Kushner’s masterwork, Angels in America; a production of Personal Enemy, an early play by John Osborne and Anthony Creighton, and the New York premiere of a play by Amy Herzog, called After the Revolution.

Herzog is one of the young playwrights I have written about, like Annie Baker, Ellen Fairey, and Kristoffer Diaz, who are bringing original voices and ideas to the theater scene and whose work speaks to a broad audience beyond their own same-age peers. After the Revolution, a play about three generations of American leftists, is being given a stellar production at the Playwrights Horizons, thanks in large part to a strong ensemble of actors, including the always-marvelous Lois Smith, who celebrated her “big eight-o” earlier this month, as the matriarch of the clan, and the always-marvelous David Margulies as an old family friend. It is worth the price of admission just to be able to watch these two veterans remind us what stage acting is all about.

In After the Revolution, the central character is Emma (Katharine Powell), who, in her mid-twenties, represents the third generation in her family of proud Marxist-inspired Americans. As “keeper of the flame” and head of a foundation named for her much-revered grandfather—iconicized as one of McCarthy’s targets—Emma is forced to confront some uncomfortable truths about the past and come to terms with her loving but manipulative father (Peter Friedman).

Emma is dedicated, like the rest of her family (save for some for some sneered-upon cousins), to supporting leftist causes. Indeed, the foundation she helms is engaged in a campaign on behalf of a very real death-row inmate, Mumia Abu-Jamal, who remains at the center of an ongoing debate over the fairness of his trial and of the death penalty itself.

Unfortunately, Emma’s personal angst as she strives to find her own place in the grand scheme of things tends to overwhelm what could be a very interesting debate on politics and social justice—something that would surely resonate in today’s political climate. It’s not that the family drama isn’t interesting; it is. I just longed for more of that good old radical, progressive, leftist talk, most of which is left up to Ms. Smith’s character to espouse; for instance, I found her unchallenged take on Stalin to be one of the most telling moments in the play.

Still there is much to commend. Director Carolyn Cantor has shaped the company into a cohesive and believable family unit. In addition to the fine performances by the actors identified above, Mare Winningham, as Emma’s stepmother, does an excellent job treading the line as mediator between the stubborn father-daughter pair.

Seeing After the Revolution, which Herzog has said was inspired by events in her own family, makes me hope that she will come back to this story one day and examine more deeply the complexities of the era that allowed for Joseph McCarthy to shake up so many lives, so that we are still feeling the impact today.

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

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Free and Discounted Tickets and a Call for Submissions

Free Theater Tickets

Theaters around the country are currently participating in an event in which they are giving 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 pretty much daily.

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

Discounted Tickets

Websites like, and offer access to discounted New York theater tickets to the general public—no membership fees involved.

Sometimes theaters themselves provide these discounts directly through last-minute “rush” sales to students or to the general public, through lotteries, or during previews while a show is still working out the kinks.

Case in point: Playwrights Horizons, in its fifth decade as “home to new American theater,” currently is offering discounted tickets for the New York premiere of After The Revolution, a new play about a family confronting secrets of the past, written by Amy Herzog. You can read more about the play at the Playwrights Horizons website:

If you are intrigued, Playwrights Horizons has approached me about letting readers know about its discounted ticket policy, and, as a fan of the organization’s work, I am happy to oblige.

Order by November 9 with code ARGR and tickets are only:
$40* (reg. $55) for the first week of performances Oct. 21 – Oct. 28
$45 (reg. $55) for all performances Oct. 29 – Nov. 28

Order online at Use code APGR.
Call Ticket Central at (212) 279-4200 (Noon-8pm daily)
Present a printout of this blog post to the Ticket Central box office at 416 West 42nd Street (Noon-8pm daily).

*A limited number of $40 discounted tickets will be available for purchase. Subject to availability. Valid only in select rows.

Open Submissions for 10-minute Plays

Here is an exciting opportunity for aspiring or active playwrights.

Red Bull Theater has announced that it is seeking new 10-minute plays for its spring short play reading day.

New plays of no more than 10 pages, written in heightened language, in verse, with classic themes, adaptations of classics, or that otherwise fit the company’s mission and history are welcome.

Visit for details.

I'll post progress reports on my own efforts as we approach the deadline in December.

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

Monday, October 11, 2010

Hosannah for Angels in America!

Let me be unequivocal. The Signature Theatre Company’s production of Tony Kushner’s masterwork Angels in America is astounding.

“Astounding” is not a term I use loosely or often, so let me provide some context.

Let me begin by saying that I am unencumbered by memories of the legendary original Broadway production from 1993. I did not see it and had to settle for reading the published script and then, later, watching the HBO film version. Neither of these experiences prepared me the play’s sheer theatricality.

I do not have a clue as to how Kushner pulled off such an astonishing juggling act, brilliantly weaving together so many complex ideas: the AIDS crisis, sexual identity, gender roles, the nature of God, U. S. history in the second half of the twentieth century, legal ethics, Judaism, Mormonism, race relations, the healthcare industry, medical ethics, damage to the ozone layer, prescription drug abuse, mental instability, co-dependent behaviors, marriage, loyalty, friendship, and others I am sure I am leaving out. Somehow, all of these come together within a rich tapestry of reality and fantasy, punctured clichés, surprising turns, unexpected humor, and deep, raw, and keenly felt emotions.

This is especially true in Part I of the two-part play, Millennium Approaches. In it, Kushner manages to pull everything into breathtakingly perfect balance and offers a most extraordinary yin and yang of intellectual content and human heart, comparable, in my view, only to Tom Stoppard’s brilliant Arcadia, which debuted in London, interestingly enough, the same year as Angels in America made it to Broadway.

Given the play’s many intertwined themes, it would be difficult to parse the plot. Angels in America takes place mostly in New York City in 1986-1987. The central characters are Prior Walter, a thirty-year-old gay New Yorker who has just learned he has full-blown AIDS; Roy Cohn, the real-life right-wing attorney best known as Red-baiting Senator Joseph McCarthy’s chief counsel, who also has gotten AIDS through sexual contact with men but who adamantly eschews the “homosexual” label; and Harper Pitt, whose mental stability is collapsing along with her marriage to a closeted gay Mormon.

Now would probably be a good time to declare that Christian Borle as Prior Walter, Frank Wood as Roy Cohn, and Zachary Quinto as Prior’s conflicted boyfriend Louis give three truly indelible performances. This is a play that portrays ragged emotions at their most heightened and unvarnished, and one can only imagine the great sense of trust that had to have developed among the actors, and between the actors and director Michael Greif. There is not a false note to be found.

Zoe Kazan seems to me to have been miscast as Harper—looking too young and sounding more like a ditzy California blonde than a Salt Lake City Mormon---but she and all of the rest of the cast perform with all the love and attention and mutual respect anyone could ever hope to see on stage. The rest of this wonderful company is made up of Robin Bartlett, whom I loved as Harper’s mother-in-law Hannah and as the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg, who has come for a deathwatch over her prosecutor, Roy Cohn; Bill Heck as Harper’s lost soul of a husband, trying and failing to keep himself and Harper on what he believes to be the “straight” and narrow path; Billy Porter as Belize, gay friend to both Prior and Louis and a nurse working with AIDS patients; and Robin Weigert as The Angel.

Without the budget of a major Broadway production, the Signature Theatre Company has done some wonderful work through the use of movable sets, projections, and black-clad stagehands. It is only in Part II of Angels in America, Perestroika, that things get a little muddy, especially with the introduction of a new plot element about heaven and the struggle of the angels to keep things together after God has taken off for parts unknown. For me, this is where the juggling fails to keep all of the balls in the air, and the connections are unclear. Still, Part II has some of the play’s most transcendent scenes, focusing as it does on love, forgiveness, and acceptance. Robin Bartlett shines in several of these scenes, and I wish we could have had more of her and fewer angels in Perestroika.

Still, Tony Kushner and all involved with the Signature Theatre Company have given us a wonderful gift with this production of Angels in America.

Did I mention that it is astounding?

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

Friday, October 8, 2010

Bloody Bloody What??? When Sexypants Ain't Enuf!

Gotta say, they’ve come up with a brilliant promotional scheme for Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, the emo-rock musical that has just transferred from off-Broadway’s Public Theater to Broadway’s Bernard Jacobs Theatre: “History just got all sexypants!”

The posters and the other advertising materials carry that slogan and display the rear end of a dude in tight black jeans, with an American flag handkerchief sticking out of the left pocket and a holstered pistol on the right hip.

That the dude is a rock star version of the seventh president of the United States, the populist Andrew Jackson of the title, makes for an intriguing and imaginative image.

Unfortunately, from my perspective at least, that’s as good as it gets, despite energetic performances by the members of the cast, headed up by Benjamin Walker in the title role. The show, heavily dependent on fratboy humor and vaguely homophobic burlesque-y comedy—think Saturday Night Live on a particularly bad Saturday night—is just not terribly successful in pulling together style and substance to sell itself as the political satire that lies underneath the layers of inanity.

If watching Andrew Jackson pandering to the people and playing to their xenophobic views of the native American Indian population reminds you of the shenanigans of the Tea Party crowd, that may say more about what you bring to the show than what it brings to you.

In all fairness, I will say that many in the 20-to-30-something crowd that filled the theater during the preview performance I attended laughed heartily at every gag and pretty much every time a cast member uttered the “F” word or its well-known variation, the “MF” word. Since that pretty much included every other word, at least some in the theater had a good time.

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

Monday, September 6, 2010

Mrs. Warren's Secret Is Out of the Bag

Remember those old movies—the ones in which Olivia de Havilland or Bette Davis or Barbara Stanwyck played a mother who gives up everything for her child? Generally these characters had been born on the wrong side of the tracks yet were determined that their own child would grow up “respectable,” with a “proper education” and social standing. Typically, these women’s sacrifices would be unappreciated, and their offspring would wind up being so respectable that they would ultimately turn their backs on their uncouth moms.

These films make a good lens through which to watch George Bernard Shaw’s play, Mrs. Warren’s Profession, a revival of which is now in preview at the Roundabout Theatre Company’s American Airlines Theatre.

One of Shaw’s early plays (1893), Mrs. Warren’s Profession brings out two of the playwright’s favorite themes: the plight of women who had to rely on men for their financial support, and the evils of capitalism.

Like filmdom’s sacrificing mothers, Kitty Warren (Cherry Jones) has made sure that her daughter Vivie (Sally Hawkins in her Broadway debut) has had every advantage back home in England, while she, Kitty, has generally stayed away, ostensibly leading the glamorous life in the great cities of Europe.

The play opens as Vivie and Mum are about to have one of their rare reunions, and it doesn’t take long for Vivie to realize that her mother's profession is the world’s oldest one.

Like the children in those old movies, Vivie is put off by the revelation, but Shaw has a way of putting his own twist to things. He has written a deeply touching scene at the end of Act I, in which Vivie comes to understand the dire straits that led her mother into the profession as a young woman. This is the story behind the story that you never heard from Bette Davis’s lips, and it is a compelling one. This scene is beautifully played out by Ms. Jones and Ms. Hawkins, alone on the too-huge stage of the American Airlines Theatre. It’s a powerful moment, one that is likely to leave the audience with moist eyes.

Unfortunately, Act I is followed by Act II, which sadly unravels the good feelings between the two women. Vivie learns far more about her mother’s life than she would have wanted to know, while Shaw gets to inveigh against the greed-inducing influence of capitalism.

With Shaw, the women’s roles are generally more complex and well-developed than those of the male characters, and that is certainly true with Mrs. Warren’s Profession.

The men in the play are all just types: the cynical businessman, Sir George Crofts (Mark Harelik); the effete family friend Mr. Praed (Edward Hibbert); the young and charming ne’er-do-well, Frank Gardener (Adam Driver); and Frank's father, Reverend Samuel Gardner (Michael Siberry), the crotchety old preacher-with-his-own-little-secret. Young Frank and Sir George, who is Kitty Warren’s business partner, are vying for Vivie’s hand in marriage. The former wants to marry her for her mother’s money; the latter wants to buy her outright. The goings-on take place under the direction of Doug Hughes, who has given us a steadfast if unexciting production. The sets, quite elaborate for a Roundabout production, were designed by Scott Pask, who has won a number of Tonys and other awards for his set work. Credit Pask for making the best possible use of the cavernous stage.

The performances by the women, Cherry Jones and Sally Hawkins, are the production’s real strengths, and—as this was an early preview that I saw—they are likely to get better over time. Of the men, I’d like to give a nod to Adam Driver, who has been proving himself to be quite a strong and interesting young actor in such diverse recent Off Broadway productions as The Forest at the Classic Stage Company and Little Doc at the Rattlestick. Keep an eye out for Mr. Driver; his career is definitely on the ascendant.

As for Mrs. Warren’s Profession, I would recommend seeing it if you are interested in Shaw and haven’t seen the play before. There is enough wit and intelligence in the writing itself to make the visit worthwhile.

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Saturday, August 28, 2010

Edward Albee's latest: Both ABSURD and absurd

There are two good reasons to see Edward Albee’s latest play, Me, Myself And I, making its New York debut after its original run as a commissioned play for Princeton University’s McCarter Theater in 2008.

The first reason is the obvious one: to see what the octogenarian Mr. Albee, one of the great American playwrights of the second half of the 20th Century, is up to these days.

The other reason is to catch the wonderfully wacked out performance of Elizabeth Ashley in the lead role of Mother.

Picture Albee’s crazed and sharp-tongued Martha from Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolfe? Now take that image and turn it inside-out into a demented comic figure with the same larger-than-life personality, and you’ve got an idea of the gloriously crazy (in a good way) portrayal that Ms. Ashley gives us. You can’t take your eyes off her whenever she is onstage; she is a wonder to behold.

As for the play itself, let’s just say that Me, Myself And I teeters between Absurd (as in “theater of the…”) and absurd (as in ludicrous). Albee has fun toying around with metaphysical ideas such as existence and identity, and borrows shamelessly from a variety of theatrical devices, including the dissolution of the “fourth wall” that is said to exist between actors and audience, and even a wild and crazy twist on the ancient deus ex machina. There is much to enjoy in the performances of both Ms. Ashley and her partner, Dr.--played by Brian Murray with his always delightful flair and comic timing--including one priceless scene with Mother and Dr. picnicking in a large empty space. The dialog in this scene recalls nothing less than a conversation between Didi and Gogo in Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot.

The plot, such as it is, spins on a crisis involving Mother’s identical twin sons, “OTTO” (Zachary Booth) and “otto” (Preston Sadleir), whom Mother has never been able to tell apart beyond believing that one loves her and the other does not.

Given the twins’ names, you would be right to guess that Albee enjoys playing with words; there’s even the suggestion of a “third twin” named Otto (or OTTO or otto), “in italics,” as OTTO explains. It is OTTO who gets everyone riled up when he announces that he intends to “become Chinese” and, also, by the way, that otto no longer exists. OTTO’s declaration about his brother triggers a series of events in which, among other things, otto becomes increasingly frantic to prove that he does, indeed, exist.

Be warned that all is not played for laughs, and there is an element of crudeness that occasionally creeps in that I found off-putting. And given that Albee has previously dealt with the existence and non-existence of children (Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolfe?) and the idea of twin boys who may or may not have been separated at a young age (The American Dream), it will be interesting to see how Me, Myself & I will be parsed and analyzed down the road.

But speaking as a member of the audience, I’ve got to say this is pretty lightweight fare, a joujou to enjoy for its craziness, and, especially, for Elizabeth Ashley’s wonderfully outlandish performance.

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Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Introducing Three Small Musicals with Potential for Life Beyond the NYC Theater Scene

Small off-Broadway shows are quite capable of standing proudly beside their hot-shot cousins on the Great White Way. Last season, for example, provided theatergoers with some wonderful fare, including at least three stand-out musicals: The Toxic Avenger, The Kid, and Yank. It is no exaggeration to say that all three were head and shoulders above much of the season’s new Broadway shows, at far more affordable ticket prices.

This summer has given us the opportunity to see several more entrants into the field. I would like to talk about three of them that, while not landing in the “must see” category, I found to be original and interesting, with a good potential for future lives.

The first of these, and perhaps the most polished, is With Glee, now nearing the end of what has been an well-received run at the Kirk Theatre at Theatre Row. With book, music, and lyrics by John Gregor, With Glee was first workshopped at New York University’s Skirball Center (Gregor is an NYU alum in musical theater writing) and then given a production as part of the New York Musical Theater Festival back in 2007.

The musical, which recounts the lives of a motley crew of young teenagers attending a boarding school “for bad kids,” boasts engaging, quirky characters, winning performances, a snappy score, and smart directing by Igor Goldin, who helmed the York Theater’s Yank, a show that is about to make its Broadway transfer. With Glee does not have the chops of Yank, but it owes at least a nod to another successful musical in which adult actors played middle school students; indeed, my friend Carol, when she saw With Glee, referred to it as “Spelling Bee Lite,” an apt description of the show’s style and sensibilities.

With Glee would be a good fit for a run at the New World Stages, home of The 39 Steps, Avenue Q, and the ever popular Naked Boys Singing. It may also wind up having an extended life as a staple of community theaters and high schools. It certainly would be interesting to see the roles of teens played by teens for a change.

A second show worth mentioning, Falling for Eve, was penned by this year’s Tony winner for best original score and for best book of a musical, Joe DiPietro (for Memphis). Falling for Eve is his take on the Biblical story of Adam and Eve, with music by Bret Simmons and lyrics by David Howard. There are some original ideas explored within this admittedly lightweight entry, including a God who is both male and female, a pair of all-to-human angels who push the plot along (no snake in this Garden), and, most interesting, a strong-willed Eve, who leaves Eden to explore the world on her own, while Adam obediently stays behind.

While Falling for Eve is not a terribly memorable show, the bland production it was given at the York Theater did not serve it particularly well. In my view, it deserves another shot with better—well, pretty much, with better everything. I suspect that, in the right hands, this is a show that might find its audience away from the New York theater arena. I can even picture it being performed in rep with The Diary of Adam and Eve from The Apple Tree (music by Jerry Bock, lyrics by Sheldon Harnick).

To wrap up this consideration of new shows–with-potential, I’d like to mention a work that was offered as part of this summer’s New York International Fringe Festival, the always-unpredictable “running-of-the-bulls” event that throws together something in the neighborhood of 200 shows at 18 venues in 16 days.

I have yet to immerse myself in the insanity that is Fringe, but I did catch a musical that might just stand a chance if the folks in charge keep working on it. The show is called Menny and Mila, with book, music, and lyrics by Paul Schultz, who is a writer and editor at the New York Daily News.

The show tells the story of Menny, who is, interestingly enough, a writer and editor at the New York Daily News. Menny decides to sponsor a Russian woman, Mila, whom he has met on the Internet, to come to America as a possible love match. Menny is happiest when he can take the lead in their relationship, showing Mila the ropes of living in the Big Apple and expecting her to just melt in his arms. For her part, Mila—while she likes Menny and appreciates his support--is excited about finding her own way. Schultz has created a pair of likeable, if mismatched, characters; neither is interested in taking advantage of the other as one might cynically predict to be the case. The storyline leads us into some interesting situations (his dysfunctional family; her sexist workplace colleagues), and offers up some enjoyable tunes and an interesting set of supporting characters. Gotta say, the charm of Menny and Mila shined through the dismal production values of a show-on-the-run, and I would like to see it nurtured further along.

So there you have it, three musicals with the potential for an extended life beyond their brief runs off Broadway. The lesson in all of this is that not every show needs to be tailored for the New York City crowd in order to be successful. Each of these—With Glee, Falling for Eve, and Menny and Mila—offers ideas, musical voices, and a real spark of talent that should be nurtured and supported, lest the well truly dry up to all but jukebox musicals and Wintuk!

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Friday, August 13, 2010

Want to Know the Secret of Success? Don't We All!!!

With warmth and humor, though admittedly also with a few questionable side trips, Secrets of the Trade tells the story of Andy, a nice Jewish boy from the suburbs with dreams of a theatrical career that he expects will take off after he connects with a well established New York writer-director.

The backdrop for Secrets of the Trade is the era in which it is set--the decade of the 1980s—the time when the heyday of the book musical was giving way to Andrew Lloyd Webber’s extravaganzas, Cats (“Now and Forever!”) and Phantom of the Opera, and Times Square was embarking on its transformation from seedy to greedy.

That the role of Andy is performed by Noah Robbins, who starred in the recent revival of Neil Simon’s 1983 play, Brighton Beach Memoirs, is surely not a coincidence. Indeed, playwright Jonathan Tolins borrows liberally from the Simon playbook, and it is not much of a stretch to view Andy as a suburban version of the 15-year-old Eugene from the Simon play.

Secrets of the Trade
begins when Andy, at 16, writes a letter to his idol Martin Kerner, played by veteran actor John Glover. It takes two years for Kerner to get around to responding, but when he finally does, he invites Andy to dinner and regales him with theatrical tales that feed into Andy’s idealized vision. It does seem that the two have hit it off, and an apprenticeship that will lead to a career in the trade appears likely. Certainly there are precedents; think of Stephen Sondheim and Oscar Hammerstein II, or Michael Feinstein and Ira Gershwin.

We follow Andy and Kerner over the next ten years, and watch as their relationship waxes and wanes and reshapes itself, until it becomes clear that it means different things to each of them. It also becomes clear that it is the business side of “show business” that now dominates the trade. Even someone as successful and well-regarded as Kerner is feeling the pressure to keep up with the times.

In the course of the play, Tolins veers scarily towards a lot of potential clichés—the overbearing stage mother, the newcomer overtaking the mentor, the casting couch, to name but three—yet he generally manages to swerve away from them just in time to give us characters who are more complex, less predictable, and thus more human, than they may seem on the surface.

Director Matt Shakman keeps things humming along at a steady pace, and the play is well served by its strong cast, anchored by Robbins and Glover. Bill Brochtrup as Martin’s assistant, and Mark Nelson and Amy Aquino as Andy’s parents contribute greatly to the play by giving life and meaning to their roles as supporting players. In the end, when Andy is older and wiser, that support comes to mean a lot to him.

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Thursday, August 12, 2010

A Little Night Music: Don't You Love Farce?

Little Night Music
Buzz Buzz Buzz
Who can do Armfeldt
Like Angie does?
Let’s go with Stritchie
Cuz Cuz Cuz
She’ll help us get through summer’s slump

With CZJ’s leaving
Bye bye bye
No one was grieving
Why why why
With Bernadette Peters
Standing by
We can get through summer’s slump

I cannot recall so much chatter around a production of a Broadway musical as has occurred with the current revival of A Little Night Music, with book by Hugh Wheeler and music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim.

First there was the brouhaha about the production itself, yet another minimalist gift from London’s Menier Chocolate Factory (single drab set and minuscule orchestra). Then there was the noise about the celebrity casting of yet another movie star in a Broadway show, in this case Catherine Zeta-Jones in the lead role of Desirée Armfeldt, an actress longing to escape the “glamorous life” of her career and to settle down with the man who is the love of her life, not to mention the father of her daughter.

Anyway, the show opened in December of 2009 to mixed reviews, with the only unabashed kudos reserved for Angela Lansbury in the role of Madame Armfeldt, Desirée’s mother and a former highly successful courtesan who despairs at her daughter’s lack of skill in using men, as she herself had done, to assure her financial security.

At the 2010 Tony Awards, Ms. Zeta-Jones walked off with the prize for Best Performance by a Leading Actress in a Musical, and it appeared that the show would come to a halt at the end of the two stars’ contracts in June of this year.

But then something most unusual happened, and the buzzing revved up again. Maybe the producers could find replacements with enough star power to keep the show running.

The rumor mill and wish lists churned out dozens of names, but two started showing up with greater frequency: Bernadette Peters and Elaine Stritch, both true stars of Broadway, and both with histories of performing in Sondheim shows (Peters in Sunday in the Park With George and Into the Woods; Stritch in Company).

The choice of Bernadette Peters was a no-brainer, pretty much on everyone’s short list for the role of Desirée. But brassy, raspy, tough-as-nails Elaine Stritch, in the role of the sophisticated, worldly Madame Armfeldt? Singing that most difficult of Sondheim’s numbers, Liaisons? Would she dare? Could she pull it off? Would she crash and burn?

Daily reports on A Little Night Music began to pour in when it reopened in July with the new stars. And yes, Ms. Peters immediately won everyone’s hearts. And, yes, it did seem that Ms. Stritch was showing signs of both crashing and burning—forgetting her lines, struggling with defining her character, driving some of her long-time fans to publicly call for her to step down or to use an assistive device (like the earpiece Ms. Lansbury used so that forgotten lines could be whispered as needed by someone backstage).

I did not see A Little Night Music with Ms. Zeta-Jones and Ms. Lansbury, nor had I been particularly interested. I saw the legendary original production back in 1973, with Glynis Johns as Desirée and Hermione Gingold in the role of Madame Armfeldt, and a later first-rate production in 1994 at Chicago’s Goodman Theater.

While I like the show, I felt that twice was enough; it would take something pretty special to get me to return for a third viewing.

And then they went and did do something special.

And so I went, waiting a couple of weeks for the new stars to settle in.

Here is my report:

Bernadette Peters is perfectly cast, lives up to all the high expectations, and gives a wonderful performance.

Elaine Stritch has made the role of Madame Armfeldt her own, and she has such a command of the stage that even her eccentricities, including her talk-through of Liaisons, work. I noticed one hesitation and a few scrambling of words the day I saw it, but neither interfered with the performance or pulled me out of the moment.

The rest of the cast is fine, if not extraordinary, and I can live with the minimalist set. I am glad that, with the exception of Henrik’s cello, we don’t have to see the actors double up as the musicians.

My one quibble has to do with Trevor Nunn’s directing. A Little Night Music, like a Chekhov play, deals with the follies of the young, the middle aged, and the elderly. These follies are fully expressed when the city folks head out for a weekend in the country. There is a lot of letting loose contained within the script, but the humor is, in my view, best performed in a manner that is arch and urbane.

Nunn, however, has opted for an exaggerated air of silliness, as if he had honed in on the line from Send In The Clowns: “don’t you love farce?” For my taste, there is way too much shtick and mugging and running around that threaten to undermine the production toward the end. Send in the clowns, indeed!

Still there is much to enjoy, and Bernadette Peters and Elaine Stritch help turn this revival of A Little Night Music into a truly memorable occasion. If, like me, you hesitated to see it in its Hollywood-Comes-To-Broadway version, now is your chance to see a couple of terrific veteran Broadway stars giving it their all. I wouldn't advise missing it.

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