Sunday, April 25, 2010

The Aliens: A Gem of a Play by One Gem of a Playwright

If you saw and enjoyed Circle Mirror Transformation earlier this year, you know that the theater world has been granted the gift of an exceptional writer in Annie Baker, and that Baker herself is, likewise, well served by director Sam Gold.

The pair have teamed up to give us Baker's latest play, The Aliens, now at the Rattlestick Playwrights Theater. And once again, we are privileged with a gem of a play by a gem of a playwright.

Granted, the plot could fit into a thimble, and the play, as was true of Circle Mirror Transformation, reveals itself in short scenes and blackouts. But these do serve the purpose of providing a frame for a trio of misfits--two slackers and a dork, to use some stereotypic shorthand--who come totally and believably to life through their interactions with one another as they hang out in back of a coffee house (great set design, by the way, done by Andrew Lieberman).

Baker has an ear for authentic dialog that is amazing. One can imagine her perpetually eavesdropping on conversations and writing down every word and nuance, before turning them into dialog for her plays. She also cares enough about her characters to trust them to find the words to express themselves. Indeed, one word--in this case, the word "ladder"--can be full of meaning, as it reveals much about one of the characters. Even their hesitations are significant--not Pinteresque pauses, but human moments of awkwardness that arise as they do in life.

The cast of three--Michael Chernus, Dane DeHaan, and Erin Gann--create engagingly authentic characters, under Gold's gentle and supportive direction. As an added bonus, the play is punctuated with several charmingly goofy songs--reminiscent of something by the group They Might Be Giants--that were penned by Chernus, Gann, and actor Patch Darragh, now starring as "Tom" in The Glass Menagerie.

If you want theater that is full of bombast, smoke, and mirrors, then you might prefer something like the current production of Enron. If, however, you long for theater that expresses a real love of language, and that offers up well-drawn characters that were created with compassion and affection, then by all means make it a point to see The Aliens.

And while you are at it, do keep an eye on Ms. Baker as she continues to grow as a playwright. I can't wait to see what she comes up with next!

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Monday, April 19, 2010

I Never Sang For My Father: A Gift from a Master of Language

“Death ends a life, but not a relationship.”

I jotted down this quote on my program while viewing the Keen Company’s poignant revival of Robert Anderson’s I Never Sang For My Father, starring and with strong performances by Matt Servitto as the middle-aged “dutiful son,” and Keir Dullea and Marsha Mason as his elderly parents.

The quote captures the theme so well that when I later went back and read The New York Times reviews of the current production and the original one from 1968, both critics included the line in their remarks.

I had never seen the play before, but I was enthralled by the beautiful writing. Anderson creates dialog that allows the characters to reveal themselves and their relationships with one another through their verbal interactions. He also displays a real mastery of the sounds of the English language; he had me early on by having one of the characters utter the phrase “frowzy dowagers.” All right, maybe this isn’t the best example of “genuine dialog,” but don’t you just love the assonance?

The storyline itself is a familiar one—a son trying to connect with his self-centered, cold, and possibly abusive, father. Perhaps it was that familiarity that led Clive Barnes, in his review of the original production, to brush off the play as sentimental claptrap. Or perhaps it was because it was the 1960s, a time of experimental avant-gardism, and Anderson’s work was seen as too old fashioned.

Regardless, I’m glad it’s back.

Like "The Glass Menagerie," I Never Sang For My Father is a “memory play.” Matt Servitto plays the central character of Gene, the narrator and the son who is trying to be supportive of his aging and ailing parents while working to rebuild his own life after the death of his wife. Both Marsha Mason and Keir Dullea give rich depth to their portrayals of those parents, the doting mother, Margaret, and the distant and angry father, Tom. When Margaret dies, Gene struggles with how best to help his father without losing himself in the process, all the while hoping against hope for some sort of loving acceptance and validation.

It may sound corny, but I can tell you that there were those in the audience around me who were muttering to themselves and offering advice to Gene as they identified with the situation.

The Keen Company’s self-identified mission is to produce “sincere plays.” In this cynical age, sincerity is not the usual fare for the theatergoing crowd. I tip my hat to both the company and to Jonathan Silverman, its resident director, who has shepherded the production with appropriate restraint so that Anderson’s revealing language and sincerely moving play are allowed their day in the spotlight.

Note: The image at the top is of Keir Dullea in his iconic role of Dave Bowman in Stanley Kurbrick's "2001: A Space Odyssey," which came out in 1968, the same year as the original production of "I Never Sang For My Father."

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Sunday, April 18, 2010

Enron: Full of Sound and Fury, But Signifying Precious Little

Was the irony intentional?

Enron, the much-anticipated British theatrical import about the rise and fall of the Enron Corporation, resembles in no small way the smoke-and-mirrors humbuggery of the business it depicts.

Full of flash and noise, with a cast of 17 headed up by an impressively energized and buffed-up Norbert Leo Butz and presented to us by an even larger number of producers (33), Enron tells the familiar and ugly tale of greed run amok, and the “smartest guys in the room” who helped bring about the current financial mess from which we are still groping to extricate ourselves.

is the second play by Lucy Prebble, possibly more well known for her work as the creator of the Showtime network’s “Secret Diary of a Call Girl,” and the play itself has the glib manner of a splashy but thinly-written television series.

As Prebble tells it, the Enron scandal was precipitated by a grandiose pyramid scheme that was doomed to fail, and the corporation collapsed under mounting debts and desperate efforts to hide its losses; you can rob Peter to pay Paul just so long before things fall apart. Frankly, this all could be told with a few PowerPoint slides in the style of Al Gore’s global warming road show.

But Enron eschews the slides and instead tries to distract the audience with big production values, music, bombastic theatrics, extravagant projections, and a cast that sells itself like a group of high-earning sales representatives for Amway or Mary Kay.

About the cast there is little to complain. Mr. Butz gives a bravura performance as Enron CEO Jeffrey Skilling, the central figure in the scandal; it is exhausting just to watch him go through his paces (he runs on a pretend treadmill and does real sit-ups during a one-on-one business meeting). I also was taken with Stephen Kunken's performance as Skilling’s partner-in-crime, Enron CFO Andy Fastow, and with that of Gregory Itzin as Enron board chairman Kenneth Lay. The usually glorious Marin Mazzie unfortunately isn’t given enough of significance to do in the role of a made-up character, that of Skilling's sexual partner and chief rival.

In the end, we may feel a certain schadenfreude when the villains get their comeuppance, but we have been given no characters that we care two figs about. Tales about the fall of kings are very Shakespearean, of course, but a wiser choice might have been to juxtapose a parallel story about the plight of the “worker bee” employees of Enron who lost their life savings when they were seduced into buying shares of the corporation’s stock—largely for the purpose of helping to maintain the pyramid just a little longer.

Director Rupert Goold certainly keeps things moving at a breakneck pace, but for all its display of fireworks, Enron ultimately fizzles.

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Tuesday, April 6, 2010

The Glass Menagerie: Deconstructing Memory

Never trust a memoirist.

Haven’t we learned that lesson yet? Remember James (A Million Little Pieces) Frey being upbraided by Oprah for using her to promote his fake memoir depicting his alleged drug addiction and recovery? Or the more recent never-actually-happened Holocaust memoir of the long-married couple who supposedly met while he was a Concentration Camp inmate and she the young village girl who passed him food through the barbed wire fence?

Even when deliberate chicanery is not the goal, memories are most unreliable things. Even as they are being formed, they are filtered through the emotional and cognitive interpretations of those who are experiencing them, so that objective reality immediately becomes an idiosyncratic version of reality.

With the passage of time, memories continue to reshape themselves, especially in the revisiting and retelling of them. An unpleasant occurrence becomes an amusing anecdote. “I wish I had told that SOB what I really thought of him” becomes “And I stood up right up to him and said...” Perhaps in this way we strive to find resolution to regrets and lost opportunities.

So, what do we make of The Glass Menagerie, or, more specifically, of the current production of Tennessee Williams' iconic “memory play”? Long regarded as an autobiographical play about Williams' family, the production of The Glass Menagerie now on view at the Laura Pels takes a more modernist stance by challenging that assumption and suggesting that what we are seeing is one of those suspect memoirs. Director Gordon Edelstein has altered our viewing of the play by having it unfold directly in Tom’s mind ('Tom' being Tennessee Williams' birth name) as he is in the process of writing it. The production is set in a hotel room, where Tom has ensconced himself with his typewriter and a bottle of Bourbon, and the action of the play takes place within that room—like parallel universes coexisting in the same space. In playing his duel roles of playwright and scion of the “Wingfield” family, Tom crosses those two universes in order to interact with the other characters—his mother Amanda, sister Laura, and “The Gentleman Caller,” the knight in shining armor who has been brought in to rescue Laura from a life of agoraphobic seclusion.

This production has been criticized in some circles for removing us from directly experiencing the action, with the “nudge nudge wink wink” of the framing device that reminds us this is a play, not reality. Frankly, I appreciated this approach. Tom, after all, is not really Tennessee Williams, and The Glass Menagerie was not written in a secret diary. It is a play, originally conceived as a screenplay. Williams wrote it with the expectation, or at least, the ambition, that it would be produced, that it would launch him full tilt into the glamorous world of Hollywood.

Thus, Edelstein has given us memory in its many forms: Tom actually remembering his family; his idiosyncratic view of his family; his idiosyncratic view of own place within the family structure; his self-serving recollection of events; and the public image he wishes to portray. All of these coexist in Edelstein’s version, and, from my perspective, it all works well.

One of the reasons it works well is because it is well-acted. Judith Ivey captures Amanda Wingfield in all of her complexity: abandoned wife, overbearing mother, flirtatious Southern belle, and practical and sacrificing breadwinner trying to hold things together. The fragile Laura, as portrayed by Keira Keeley, seems to exaggerate her crippled gait as it suits her purposes; in her own way, she is as self-serving and self-protective as the rest of her clan. Patch Darragh imbues Tom with layers of restlessness, anger, self-deprecation, social awkwardness, a strong sense of the absurd, and a sharp tongue with which he lashes out at Amanda.

In the second act, when Tom’s coworker, the long-awaited Gentleman Caller, shows up for dinner (and, at least as planned by Amanda, to woo Laura), Edelstein and actor Michael Mosley give us what we must have in order for the play to work. First, they allow us to see the Wingfields through the eyes of a “normal” outsider; the rituals and dysfunctional behaviors that have sustained them as a family suddenly appear quite outlandish. Second, and most importantly, The Gentleman Caller remains a gentleman throughout, and his kind, supportive, quiet conversation with Laura—away from the bickering Amanda and Tom—provides an emotional high point of both the play and of this production: Williams’ “the kindness of strangers” in action.

The delicate moment cannot last, of course, and The Glass Menagerie ends as it must. Tom leaves Amanda and Laura to fend for themselves and goes off to embrace his own destiny, which includes sharing this version of the story with the rest of us.

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