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.

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

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!

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

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.

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

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.

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