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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