Monday, May 24, 2010

Wrapping Up A Year of Theatergoing. Part I: Fall Semester

Forget for the moment how the New York “season” is defined. I’d like to use this occasion to review my own season of theatergoing in 2009-2010, with a few brief comments about each of the shows I’ve seen between September of 2009 and May of 2010—a span of time roughly equivalent to an academic year at a college, whence comes my blog identity of “ProfMiller” and my pressing inner need to assign a letter grade to each production.

Here, more-or-less in the order of my seeing them, are the plays in my 2009-2010 season of theater-going. Part I: Fall Semester.

We’ll begin with Superior Donuts by Tracy Letts, the Tony Award and Pulitzer Prize winning playwright of August: Osage County. With Superior Donuts, only Jon Michael Hill succeeded in taking an unconvincing and underdeveloped character and filling the role with a vibrant performance that stood out against the general ennui pervading the rest of the evening. For that, Hill has garnered a Tony Award nomination for best performance by a featured actor in a play. Overall grade: C+

Wishful Drinking
was an intermittently amusing evening spent with Carrie Fisher telling stories of her dysfunctional life. I was looking for her to share something she might have learned from her affair with alcohol and drugs, and any insights she may have gained from years of psychotherapy, but this one was played strictly for the gallows humor of it all. Overall grade: B-

Brighton Beach Memoirs was a warm, affectionate, funny, well-acted, well-directed and thoroughly enjoyable revival of Neil Simon’s semi-autobiographical comedy. I join all of those were puzzled that it failed to catch on and had to close prematurely. Overall grade: A

The Royal Family, a spoof of the Barrymore family of actors by George S. Kauffman and Edna Ferber, was given a first-class production. Great to see that Jan Maxwell, a wonderful comic actress in the Jean Harlow screwball mode, won a Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Actress in a Play and is nominated for a Tony. Overall Grade: A

After Miss Julie, playwright Patrick Marber’s take on August Strindberg’s play about power, social class, and sex, had its moments, and Sienna Miller pulled off a fairly credible performance as the psychologically complicated title character. But the production was too far over-the-top to be truly convincing or engaging. Overall grade: C

, a revival of David Mamet’s take on power, gender, and sex, also had its moments, and Julie Stiles gave a strong performance as a young woman college student who accuses a professor of sexual harassment and pretty much destroys his career. The play depends more on the unfolding of the storyline and less on the eloquence of the dialog, of which Mamet, when he is at his best, is a supreme master. Here he was not at his best. Overall grade: B-

Broke-ology, by Nathan Louis Jackson, was a well-written, well-performed drama about a working class African American family in which two grown sons are trying to figure out how best to help their aging and ailing father. Jackson is skilled at layering depth of meaning, and by paying attention, we learn a great deal about the family and of the greater world beyond the front steps of their modest home. Overall grade: A-

Two Unrelated Plays by David Mamet
consisted of one very short piece, School, that was funny, clever, and reminiscent of top-notch Mamet; and a longer one-act, Keep Your Pantheon, an amusing spin on Plautus and reminiscent of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. Overall grade: B+

Finian’s Rainbow, a revival of the 1947 Burton Lane/Yip Harburg musical, was a lively and delightful production of a show filled with glorious and memorable songs, even if the tale it tells stretches credibility to the breaking point. There were several fine performances, but it was Kate Baldwin who carried the show, winning my heart and a well-deserved Tony nomination for best performance by a leading actress in a musical. Overall grade: A-

The Emperor Jones
was the Irish Rep’s outstanding revival of Eugene O’Neill’s play about a two-bit dictator who ends up fleeing for his life. For a play generally viewed as musty and racially insensitive, this was a brilliant production, using mime, choreographed movement, masks, puppets, lighting, and music to stellar effect, and anchored by the powerful performance by John Douglas Thompson in the title role. Overall grade: A+.

Penny Pennyworth, by Chris Weikel, was an enjoyable romp, a spoof of any number of Charles Dickens tomes performed by an energetic and delightful cast of four, all of whom played multiple roles. Overall Grade: A-

Danny and Sylvia: The Danny Kaye Musical
, by Robert McElwaine and Bob Bain, is of interest only to diehard fans of Danny Kaye. Brian Childers offers up an impressive impression of the neurotic comic, but this is strictly bio-pic stuff. Overall grade: C

Zero Hour
, written and performed by Jim Brochu, is a one-man show about the life of actor Zero Mostel. Brochu has deservedly won a Drama Desk Award for his performance, the best solo I’ve seen since Jefferson Mays' brilliant star turn in I Am My Own Wife. Overall grade: A+

was the third production of a play by David Mamet during the fall season. Unfortunately, it offered only a tepid discussion (in this case, of the sticky nature of relations between whites and African Americans in the U.S.) without the longed-for stomach punch that Mamet has given us with such plays as Glengarry Glen Ross, Speed-the-Plow, and, to a lesser extent, Oleanna. Overall grade: C

, with book by Jim Lewis and Bill T. Jones, was based on the life, work, and music of Nigerian Afrobeat club owner and performer Fela Kuti. All kudos to Bill T. Jones for his directing and choreography, and to Sahr Ngaujah and Lillias White for their roles as Fela and his mother. Wonderful and original show, well deserving of its 11 Tony nominations. Overall grade: A+

Toxic Avenger, book and lyrics by Joe DiPietro and music by David Bryan, was a total hoot. Saw it twice and would gladly see it again! Overall grade: A+

Circle Mirror Transformation was one of two new plays by Annie Baker to be presented Off Broadway this season. 2010 Obie Award winner Baker tops my list of rising young playwrights! Overalll grade: A+

, by Melissa James Gibson, paired with Circle Mirror Transformation, gave Playwrights Horizons a very strong fall season. Gibson gave us grown up characters edging into early middle age and trying to cope with life’s little blessings (a new baby) and curses (the death of a spouse). Overall grade: A-

The Playboy of the Western World, by J. M. Synge, and Misalliance, by G. B. Shaw, were given rousing productions by the Pearl Theater Company at its new home at City Center. Pearl is rightly noted for its classy presentations of classic plays. Overall grade for both shows: A

Ernest In Love
, a musical version of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Ernest (Ann Croswell, book and lyrics; Lee Pockriss, music) was a small, charming musical presented by the Irish Rep. Overall grade: B

(book by Terrance McNally, lyrics by Lynn Ahrens, music by Stephen Flaherty) was a very good revival, with strong performances throughout. But other than the iconic opening number, there was precious little to celebrate with the frustratingly thin retelling of E.L. Doctorow’s powerful book. Why bother? Overall grade: B

That’s it for the fall semester. My next blog entry will cover my play-going activities from January through May of 2010.

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

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Kudos to Annie Baker, 2010 Obie Award Winner


How lovely to see that playwright Annie Baker has won an Obie Award for her play Circle Mirror Transformation.

And that's not all.

Circle Mirror Transformation and Baker's other new play, The Aliens, were named jointly as "Best New American Play" by the Obies.

And that's not all.

Sam Gold, who directed both plays, won a director's Obie for his work on the two plays.

And that's not all.

Dane DeHaan, one of the three stars of The Aliens, won an Obie for his acting in that play.

And that's not all.

The cast of Circle Mirror Transformation (Reed Birney, Tracee Chimo, Peter Friedman, Deirdre O'Connell, and Heidi Schreck) won an Obie for their ensemble performance.

Way to go, Annie and company for these well deserved honors! And Kudos to the Obie judges for their exquisite good sense to recognize the work of a terrific young playwright!

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Monday, May 17, 2010

Where Are the New Playwrights? They're Here! They're Here!

A question that is frequently asked in the wonderful world of theater is “where are the new playwrights?” There always seems to be a fear that the “golden age” of theater is gone forever, and we will never again see the likes of [fill in the blank with your favorite dead or aging playwright].

Well, let’s take a look at the current Broadway and Off Broadway season and see what we can come up with.

Annie Baker is the new playwright I’d bank on the most. Not yet 30, she already has Outer Critics Circle and Drama Desk Award nominations under her belt. This season alone, she has given us two strong entries with Circle Mirror Transformation and The Aliens. Baker has an uncanny ear for authentic dialog and the ability to capture the essence of each of the characters she creates. She is definitely a writer to be reckoned with.

But there are plenty of other up-and-comers who are doing interesting work. They offer us original ideas, or voices, or ways of looking at things that make us sit up and take notice.

From first-time playwright Alexi Kay Campbell, we had The Pride, a play that contrasts gay relationships in the 1950s with those of today. The Pride was given a strong production under the direction of Joe Montello, with topnotch performances by Hugh Dancy and Ben Whishaw. I look to see what Campbell will come up with next.

Chicago playwright Ellen Fairey, whose Graceland is on tap at the Duke, is someone else to watch. Graceland is only her second full length play, yet in it she shows she is able to create interesting situations and complicated characters. The play, which presents us with two intersecting stories about fathers and their children, holds an audience because her characters are not so easily pigeonholed and behave both as predictably and as unpredictably as the people who make us crazy in our own lives.

On the lighter side, there is Ben Andron, whose first play, White’s Lies, is currently on view at New World Stages. And while White’s Lies received a mixed reception, I see it as a strong first effort, with a comic flair and enough writing polish so that I view Andron as someone to keep an eye on. Tackling farce is a risky business, yet with White’s Lies, he comes pretty darn close to getting it right, despite slipping a little too deeply into sit-com territory.

As if the room weren’t getting crowded enough, we need to ask everyone to move over to make space for two additional playwrights, both of whom have plays in preview at Off Broadway houses even as I put down these words

We’ll start with Minneapolis-based Kristoffer Diaz, who has presented us with a truly original theatrical voice in his play, The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity. The play, which casts a satiric eye on the professional wrestling industry and the general buzz of xenophobia that surrounds it, brings an energetic hip hop sensibility to the theater. The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity is both funny and thoroughly engaging, thanks to Diaz’s wonderful command of language and sense of the absurd.

Let me offer up a few words about the production itself, since I have not written about it previously. The success of The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity is definitely abetted by the solid direction of Edward Torres, and fun staging by Brian Sidney Bembridge (set design), Jesse Klug (lighting design), and Mikhail Fiksel (sound design), all of whose efforts add markedly to the audience’s pleasure. The fine cast includes Desmin Borges as the Puerto Rican narrator Macedonio Guerra, known in the wrestling world as “Che Chavez Castro,” and Usman Ally as Vigneshwar Paduar, an Indian street performer who is transformed into the vaguely Arab terrorist, “The Fundamentalist.” The play, much of which takes place on and around a wrestling ring, deals with Macedonio Guerra’s transition, from accepting his work as just a job in the entertainment field, to his growing understanding that he is a willing collaborator in the promotion of racial stereotypes in order to sell Pay-Per-View tickets and wrestling merchandise. The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity is not Diaz’s freshman effort, but it is sure to be the one to launch his career into hyperspace. It certainly doesn’t hurt that the play was a finalist for the 2010 Pulitzer Prize!

And last in our roundup, we will tip our hat to Polly Stenham, a young British playwright who, at the age of 19, wrote That Face, now on view at Manhattan Theater Club’s City Center Stage 1. That Face, a visceral dark comedy/drama, took the London theater world by storm when it opened in 2007, garnering accolades and multiple awards for its writer. The play, very well acted by its American cast, deals with an exceptionally dysfunctional family, presided over by alcoholic, pill-popping, bipolar Mummy (powerfully portrayed by Laila Robins), whose desperate and selfish neediness has all but destroyed her teenage children. Her son, Henry (Christopher Abbott), in particular, has been pushed from being a hapless enabler into co-dependency. By the end of the play, you are trying to figure out how many years of therapy it will take to get anyone on his or her respective feet.

All in all, I think it is safe to say the theater world is in good hands, with many new and emerging playwrights hard at work creating original and provocative plays. Broadway itself may be caught up in the greater show biz culture, dependent on jukebox musicals and movie stars to draw in the crowds, but certainly Off Broadway is alive and well and handily taking up the slack with first-rate productions of a wide array of new plays by up-and-coming playwrights whose talented voices should keep us audiences in good stead for many years to come.

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Thursday, May 13, 2010

Two new shows: One warm and inviting, the other smarmy and farcical

Aficionados of edgy plays about the angst-filled lives of sophisticated, cynical, and smarmy characters should skip down to my review of White’s Lies below. First, I want to talk about a new show that has likeable characters, a situation that is thoroughly engaging, and a script that is both laugh-out-loud funny and moist-eyed touching.

The show is The Kid, a musical about a gay couple hoping to adopt a baby, now playing at the Acorn Theater at Theater Row on 42nd Street.

That the couple in question is gay is, of course, germane, but one of the many strengths of The Kid is that it tells a universal story about two people who have made the commitment to bring a child into their lives, and the challenges they face trying to make it happen.

If it were not so well done, it would be easy to dismiss The Kid as a live version of a made-for-television movie you might see on the Lifetime Channel, or perhaps more likely on Logo, the TV network that shows Lifetime-like gay themed movies. A couple wants a child, works through an adoption agency, goes through some anxious moments, seeks the support of friends and family, and so forth (“and so forth” being my way of saying I am not going to tell you how it ends).

The Kid is based on the book by the same title, written by popular sex advice columnist Dan Savage. Savage has been transformed into the lead character in the musical by writer Michael Zam, supported with songs by Andy Monroe (music) and Jack Lechner (lyrics) that build our understanding of and connection with the characters over the course of the show.

Gotta hand it to director Scott Elliott, someone whose work I have to confess I never particularly admired before now, and to a wonderful cast, starting with Christopher Sieber, he of the beer belly, teddy bear personality, and facial expression of borderline panic as he deals with the everyday crises of life, both the real and the feared. Sieber plays the lead role of Dan, whose protective mantra is: “babies are born dead; birth mothers can change their minds.” The line is, of course, not funny, but it says much about the character of Dan and of the anxiety that undercuts his dream of parenthood.

It would take a real curmudgeon not to grow quite fond of Dan and his partner Terry (Lucas Steele), Dan’s practical and supportive mom (Jill Eikenberry), and Melissa, the homeless teenage birth mother (Jeannine Frumess, in a strong and layered performance). The rest of the cast, many of whom play multiple roles, are also quite good, and the whole of the show has a real ensemble feel to it.

Bottom line: I arrived at the theater tired and cranky after a frustrating day at work. Before long, I found myself caught up in the show as events unfolded onstage, and I left feeling uplifted and warm. Works for me!

OK. Now on to the edgy comedy about the angst-filled lives of sophisticated, cynical, and smarmy characters.

It’s called White’s Lies, and it is the first play by motion picture marketer Ben Andron, who has given us a mixture of sit-com and farce that more-or-less works if you think of it in those terms. Thus, the play offers us TV comedy situations, and characters who speak in snappy one-liners and who perform with the rapid pacing of a light-weight farce, under the direction of Bob Cline.

The storyline: Womanizer Joe White (Tuc Watkins) has made a career of picking up women in bars and telling them all manner of lies as they head out for a night of debauchery. Joe’s mom (Betty Buckley), from whom Joe has been estranged, tells him she has terminal cancer and wants nothing more than for him to present her with a grandchild before she dies. The plot unfolds as Joe tries to spin a web of lies that will restore him to his mother’s good graces. Along the way, he learns a few lessons about life and grows up just a little bit.

The play is abetted by some good comic performances by supporting players Rena Strober, Jimmy Ray Bennett, and, especially, Peter Scolari, who earned his sit-com chops of such television fare as "Bosom Buddies" and "Newhart."

White’s Lies
has not been well received by the critics, but in my view Ben Andron shows some skill and reminds me somewhat of Douglas Carter Beane, who has given us a couple of funny offbeat comedies, As Bees in Honey Drown and The Little Dog Laughed. Andron is not yet writing at that level, but I would say that White’s Lies works better than Beane’s most recent outing, Mr. and Mrs. Fitch, and I would like to see what else he is capable of.

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Saturday, May 1, 2010

The Burnt Part Boys: Earnestness is Not Nearly Enough

The best thing about The Burnt Part Boys, now in previews at the Playwrights Horizons, is its evocative title. Unfortunately, the musical itself, which has been in development for at least four years, has little to offer by way of script, lyrics, or music—kind of a difficult set of obstacles to overcome.

It’s not that wonderful theater can’t happen with a modicum of plot. Waiting for Godot comes to mind, as does the current production of The Aliens at the Rattlestick Playwrights Theater. But both Samuel Beckett’s classic play and Annie Baker’s contemporary one engage an audience because the characters are intensely engaging, as are the words that come out of their mouths courtesy of the playwrights.

In The Burnt Part Boys, however, playwright Mariana Elder and Lyricist Nathan Tysen have not succeeded. The storyline, while earnest as can be, just doesn’t make for interesting theater. Neither Elder nor Tysen shows a mastery of language to convincingly express the thoughts of the characters, a group of teenagers, one of whom leads the others in a quest to dynamite a coalmine where two of their fathers were killed a decade earlier. [The title refers to the name the locals started calling the mine after the disaster, which occurred in 1952 in West Virginia coal country.]

All of Act I and much of Act II concerns the long journey to the mine site, which is about to be reopened despite a pledge by the owner to keep it permanently shut in memorial to those who died there. So you do have the makings of a quest story or a bildungsroman, in which you might expect great truths to be revealed and friendships to be either cemented or destroyed. Yet little that unfolds in The Burnt Part Boys leaves the realm of the mundane.

I don’t want to beat the show to death, yet there is little to praise. What I can offer goes to the minimalist set by designer Brian Prather, using ropes and ladders to portray the rugged terrain, and the score by Chris Miller that shows some potential in the modernist style of Adam Guettel or Michael John LaChiusa.

As for the performances, let’s just say that even talented thirty-something actors who look and act like thirty-something characters should not be playing 18-year-olds, and characters living in West Virginia coal mining country in 1962 should talk like that’s where and when they are living. In the case of The Burnt Part Boys, I absolve all of the actors and hope they go on to find roles that allow them to display their talent to better advantage.

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