Sunday, January 31, 2010

Quick Takes on Three New Off-Broadway Shows

I recently attended previews of three new off-Broadway shows: Mr. and Mrs. Fitch, The Pride, and Clybourne Park. Here are my impressions.

Mr. and Mrs. Fitch

Mr. and Mrs. Fitch is a light and witty comedy by Douglas Carter Beane, the playwright who gave us the delightfully offbeat As Bees In Honey Drown and the very funny (thanks in no small part to the manic Tony winning performance of Julie White) The Little Dog Laughed.

Mr. and Mrs. Fitch
, while set in the here and now, is written and presented in a style that is reminiscent of work from the 1930s. Think of the loving banter between Nick and Nora Charles, as portrayed by William Powell and Myrna Loy in The Thin Man series of films, and you’ll get what I mean.

The title characters, performed by John Lithgow and Jennifer Ehle, are a pair of gossip columnists, who, having run out of anything new to report, have invented an intriguing up-and-coming star. The plot, slim as the MacBook Air laptop on which they compose their column, hangs on the speed with which buzz travels via Twitter, Facebook, and other social networking modes of instant communication.

Don’t go expecting any brilliant insights, but you may have fun trying to guess which New York stars, former stars, and wannabes are being satirized during the Fitches' gossipy chat sessions.

One concern: At the early preview I saw, Lithgow and Ehle tended to oversell every line, SPEAKING IN ALL CAPITAL LETTERS AND EXCLAMATION MARKS!!! If director Scott Ellis can get them to be more subtle in their delivery, the level of fun is sure to go up for the audience.

The Pride

The Pride comes to us from across the Great Pond, where it was first produced at the Royal Court Theater in 2008, garnering high praise and several prestigious awards for its fledgling playwright, London actor Alexi Kaye Campbell.

The Pride
is an examination of gay life and the struggle to build enduring relationships during two different eras—the highly repressed and repressive 1950s and now.

One could quibble over the fact that The Pride offers no particularly new understandings; building and maintaining relationships is difficult in any era. But what it does give us is an engaging and moving human story centering on the lives of two sets of characters that we care about, stellar acting (especially by Ben Whishaw), enough humor to keep it from becoming mawkish, and a hopeful ending--all of which make for a thoroughly satisfying theater-going experience.

The non-linear movement between eras is, perhaps, a little confusing and might be handled better through more obvious staging (costumes, setting, music). I did hear puzzled conversations about it during the intermission. Barring adjustments by director Joe Mantello, I recommend reading the article "A Triangle Built for Two" in the Playbill prior to the start of the play.

Clybourne Park

Playwright Bruce Norris is not known for the subtlety of his writing. The New York Times critic Charles Isherwood used words like “overplotted,” “overstatement” and “savage comic flair” in his review of Norris’s The Pain and the Itch back in 2006. These same descriptions could be applied to Clybourne Park. Whether you view this as a flaw or as the playwright’s hallmark style is a point you might wish to debate after you have seen this compelling new work.

Clybourne Park is a bit messy, with two acts that sort of connect but which could use more of a bridge between them. It wouldn’t hurt for audience members to have a familiarity with A Raisin in the Sun, Lorraine Hansberry’s classic American drama in which the matriarch of an African American family wants to move everyone to a house in the all-white community of "Clybourne Park."

As in The Pride, Clybourne Park is a two-era play, set, in fact, in the same two eras of the 1950s and now. (Are we seeing the start of a trend of 50-year spreads to capture societal changes over time?) Both Act I and Act II depict events surrounding changes in a community, centered on its racial makeup. In 1959, the theme is “white flight;” in 2009, the theme is “gentrification,” as young white suburbanites rediscover the inner city neighborhoods from which their families had previously fled.

There is more than enough here to wrap a play around, but Norris brings in several other plot elements, the most significant one being a family tragedy that is the cause of the white couple’s decision to leave their home in Act I. As that story unfolds during the first half of Clybourne Park, the gradual revealing of this sad event takes us from what seems at first to be a gentle, rather bland comedy to a disturbing realistic drama, solidly performed by a strong ensemble of actors and well directed by Pam MacKinnon.

Whatever flaws there are, Norris’s “savage comic flair” provides a real wallop, and his sharp-tongued examination of racial tensions during both eras makes David Mamet’s “Race” look like a mere academic discussion.

Totally Irrelevant Trivia

In my recent review of Ernest in Love, I praised lyricist Ann Croswell for cleverly rhyming the words “bachelor” and “satchel or” in one of the numbers. Turns out, the same rhyme had been used by Johnny Mercer in his lyrics for the musical Li’l Abner some four years earlier. To be fair, for that same show Mercer also rhymed “bachelor” and “natu’ler,” a pairing that had been used by E. Y. (“Yip”) Harburg in Finian’s Rainbow a full decade before Li’l Abner.

Just wanted to set the record straight.

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Monday, January 18, 2010

Jerky Ride Through the Mind of a Mass Murderer

Some plays are intended to disturb--not just by shaking up the audience through provocative ideas, but by using the theatrical platform to create a viscerally unsettling experience. Once such play is Jerk, ending a short run at Performance Space 122 as part of the Under the Radar Festival.

Jerk essentially is an hour spent inside the head of a torturer/murderer. Based on the events of an actual serial murder spree that took place in Texas some thirty years ago, Jerk recounts some of the gory killings perpetrated by a middle aged man and his two teenage accomplices. The grisly tale is related by “David Brooks,” the surviving member of the threesome, who uses a set of puppets to relate the story.

When the audience enters the theater, “David,” intensely portrayed by French actor/performance artist Jonathan Capdevielle, is waiting patiently for us on a folding chair set up on the floor of a dingy basement suggestive of the one in which the killings took place, or perhaps a space in a facility for the criminally insane. It seems that David has been performing his little puppet shows before audiences of psychology students, not unlike ourselves, perhaps as a form of psychotherapy or to serve as a living cautionary tale along the lines of those reformed former gang members who make the rounds of the country’s middle schools

Once we are seated, an usher comes around bearing booklets titled “Two texts for a puppet play by David Brooks.” Before he begins, David says, he wants us to read the first of these “nonfiction texts” so we have the appropriate background to understand his story. These preludes crudely establish the story, which David then completes by acting out the gruesome events with his crudely-made puppets. One puppet represents Dean, the ringleader; one represents David’s cohort and sexual partner, Wayne; and another represents the victims. David tells us he himself will be the puppet representing David.

Note that I have twice used the word “crude,” because that’s the most apt description for the first half of the play, in which “David” re-enacts several of the tortures and killings, as well as the sexual activities in which he says the trio engaged during and after the deeds. It is disturbing, not for psychological reasons, but only because it is most unpleasant to watch. Certainly it was not surprising to see a number of audience members leave about 20 minutes into Jerk.

Still, those who remained did get to experience the play’s real strength during the last 20 minutes or so. After we have read the second selection from “Two texts,” we return to a David who has abandoned puppetry and the physical re-enactments of the first section. Through a powerful act of ventriloquism (the program identifies a ventriloquism coach), Capdevielle as David continues the story in the three voices he used in the first half. Here, he has succeeded in getting us inside of David’s head, without moving his lips or using the puppets; indeed, as the play comes to a close, David seems to fall into a catatonic state, drool dripping from his mouth as we hear his memories, up until the arrival of the police.

I do not want to oversell the last 20 minutes of Jerk against the first 40, which are most off-putting—taking us not to any psychological insights, but into the realm inhabited by contemporary horror/torture movies like Saw and Hostel. Yet the play, as a whole, does provide a visceral experience while raising a serious consideration of the nature of someone who would be drawn into a world such as that experienced by David, Wayne, and Dean.

Beyond that, we wonder about the reliability of David as the narrator, who does come off as relatively less corrupt than the other two--whose stories are, after all, being represented by the person who killed one or both of them. Then again, we wonder if there ever were actually three killers, or did David’s mind merely concoct the other two?

In the end, I can’t really recommend to anyone I know that they see this play. The “gross-out” factor outweighs the psychological intrigue. Yet, I imagine that Jerk will stick in a corner of my mind along with other far more successfully disturbing plays like The Lieutenant of Inishmore and Shockheaded Peter, both of which I consider to be among the best shows of the first decade of the 21st century, as I will discuss in an upcoming blog entry.

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Sunday, January 17, 2010

Off-Broadway Delights, Part III: The Irish Rep

The Irish Repertory Theatre is probably my favorite Off-Broadway venue. The creativity and skill behind its productions is all the more remarkable when you get a glimpse of its postage stamp of a stage and then see what they can do with it. You never know what you’re going to see there, as it explores its mission of presenting works by Irish and Irish American playwrights, ranging from lightweight fare like the musical comedy Ernest in Love to under-appreciated dramatic classics like The Emperor Jones—both from this season.

Irish Rep co-founder Ciarán O’Reilly, serving as director, has breathed new life into Eugene O’Neill’s The Emperor Jones, a play from 1920 that is generally viewed today as a musty, racially insensitive, and pretty much unplayable psychodrama about one Brutus Jones, an African American escaped murderer who has ensconced himself as the self-proclaimed and decidedly despotic emperor of an isolated Island.

When we meet Mr. Jones, all stagger and threat, he is near the end of his reign, on the brink of being deposed and executed by rebels. For the bulk of the one-act play, we journey with him as he flees through the jungle, chased by both the rebels and his personal and racial memories (à la Carl Jung) and demons that haunt his every waking minute.

O’Reilly, aided and abetted by a remarkable company onstage and off, has turned this into a glorious and triumphant theatrical event. John Douglas Thompson offers a powerful performance as Brutus Jones, giving us a complex and difficult character, much as he did in his portrayal of Othello in last season’s production of Shakespeare’s tragedy with the Theater For A New Audience. The ensemble of players that surround Thompson turn in solid supportive work, but the real brilliance of the production is the use of puppets, masks, original music, lighting effects, and well-choreographed movement to create a truly theatrical experience and to thoroughly engage the audience in Jones’s flight for his life.

In recent weeks, The Emperor Jones transferred to the SoHo Playhouse to make way for Ernest in Love, a revival of an Off-Broadway musical from 1960 based on Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Ernest.

This is a small show, ideally suited to the Irish’s Rep’s tiny stage. “Charming” is an adjective that admittedly does not suggest “must-see theater,” but it is a most appropriate description to apply to a musical with charming tunes, charmingly acted by a charming company of players.

Not surprisingly, the best lines come straight from Wilde. I’ll cite one I especially like, Lady Bracknell’s reaction to catching Jack on bended knee in the act of proposing to her daughter Gwendolen, said in a most imperious tone: “Rise, sir, from this semi-recumbent posture. It is most indecorous.”

The show’s creators, Ann Croswell (book and lyrics) and Lee Pockriss (music) drew inspiration from Wilde in at least one of the show’s tunes, “A Handbag Is Not A Proper Mother,” in which we are given the clever rhyming pair of “bachelor” and “satchel or” in a way that actually makes sense, and which leads us to our trivia question of the day: In what other musical from the current season will we find a clever rhyme for “bachelor?”

Regardless of whether your tastes run to chamber musicals or to psychological drama, or to anything else in between, for that matter, the Irish Rep is willing to tackle it and uncover its hidden magic. Kudos to all involved for understanding and sharing the magic of theater.

Oh, and that trivia question? Check out the song "The Begat" in Finian's Rainbow, in which lyricist Yip Harburg has rhymed "bachelor" with "natchu'ler."

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Thursday, January 7, 2010

Off-Broadway Delights, Part II

This is the second in an ongoing series of postings about Off-Broadway and Off-Off-Broadway acting companies that provide some of the best theatergoing experiences in New York. Indeed, I must say that during the current season, these smaller organizations have offered more interesting, engaging, and exciting productions than pretty much anything that has opened on Broadway.

Case in point: Playwrights Horizons, about to enter its fifth decade as “home to new American theater,” currently is offering not one but two exceptionally fine new plays.

The first of these is Circle Mirror Transformation by playwright Annie Baker. Ms Baker, not yet 30, is on a meteoric trajectory, churning out plays almost faster than I can see them. Her Body Awareness drew favorable reviews and award nominations (Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle) when it had its world premiere at the Atlantic Theater Company in 2008. Another of her plays, The Aliens, will have its world premiere this spring at Rattlestick Playwrights Theater.

In Circle Mirror Transformation, we follow the members of a weekly acting class at a local community center in Shirley, Vermont. Over time, the students participate in a variety of exercises that require them to uncover inner truths in order for them to become sensitive to themselves and to each other. The ultimate test is a repeated exercise that requires them to lie face-up on the floor, taking random turns counting aloud from 1-10; the goal is to be so aware of one another that, as a group, they reach “10” without having more than one person call out a number at any one time. Between the exercises and the individual conversations that take place among the characters, we witness how each of them changes as a result of their experiences in the class.

A playwright with a keen ear for authentic dialog, Baker provides us with a group of compelling characters whose stories we want to hear. She has been aided by a cast of consistently strong performers who convincingly embody those characters, making Circle Mirror Transformation a memorable evening of theater.

Special kudos to Tracee Chimo as “Lauren,” a 16-year-old member of the group of otherwise middle-aged men and women. Ms. Chimo captures the spirit of a teenage girl who is shy and awkward, yet who shows us she is on the verge of becoming a strong, confident woman. Appropriately, the final moments of the play belong to her.

Finally, we mustn’t neglect to acknowledge the fine direction by Sam Gold. This is a delicate play, in the sense that there are no huge dramatic outbursts or meltdowns or moments of glory for anyone. Circle Mirror Transformation is not August: Osage County, which requires over-the-top performances. Nor is it A Chorus Line, in which each of the characters is given a moment in the spotlight. Instead, it is essential that the actors perform as a truly collaborative ensemble; the “1-10” counting exercise is a perfect metaphor for what is called for. Gold is to be commended for directing with style, grace, and an appropriately soft touch that allows much of the dialog to feel spontaneous.

The second offering at Playwrights Horizons is a new play by Melissa James Gibson, called This, another world premiere for the organization. Ms. Gibson, the more experienced of the two playwrights, has had productions of her plays done by Steppenwolf in Chicago, by the Woolly Mammouth Theatre Company in Washington, D. C. and the La Jolla Playhouse in La Jolla, California. She also won an Obie Award for [sic], produced at the SoHo Rep in 2001.

In This, Gibson gives us another ensemble of characters, a circle of long-time friends who are struggling with some of the disappointments and challenges that life brings in middle-age when the futures we imagined for ourselves at 20 come face-to-face with reality.

Jane (Julianne Nicholson), recently widowed, is in the throes of mourning for her husband, trying to raise her daughter on her own, and struggling to make sense of her own life. Her friends Marrell (Eisa Davis) and Tom (Darren Pettie) have found their own lives turned upside-down and their relationship strained by the arrival of their newborn son, who never seems to sleep for more than 15 minutes at a time. Everyone’s nerves are on edge, and the inevitable combustion occurs when Jane and Tom enter into a brief sexual relationship. But like Annie Baker, Ms. Gibson and director Daniel Aukin use restraint and a deep sense of who the characters are in order to develop the play as a realistic human drama; we never enter the realm of soap opera as the story unfolds.

What Circle Mirror Transformation and This have in common is a maturity in their writing about the complicated nature of human relationships. Baker and Gibson both eschew the shortcuts of sound bites and sitcom writing that plague far too many plays these days. They are writing about grownups trying to make it through life as best they can.

Their work reminds me of two exceptional plays I saw many years ago: Moonchildren, by Michael Weller, and Gemini, by Albert Innaurato. Both of these were written in the 1970s and had central characters who were in their early 20s. The two playwrights captured perfectly the tone and mood of the characters they portrayed in a way that is rarely seen in the theater, where the young tend to be wise beyond their years, and the adults tend to behave as if they were far younger than their chronological age.

In a similar vein, Circle Mirror Transformation and This, offer us characters who are middle-aged, and who behave accordingly; they are the “Moonchildren” all grown up. I look forward to future opportunities to see work by Baker and Gibson, and I hope that they stay grounded in the drama of human life.

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