Sunday, November 21, 2010

The Coward: Like Gilbert and Sullivan, But Without the Songs

Apart from the blood and guts (literally) that spew across the stage of the Duke Theater, playwright Nick Jones has given us a clever, often laugh-out-loud romp of a tale in The Coward, now previewing as part of Lincoln Center’s LCT3 productions of new works by up-and-coming playwrights.

Part Monty Python, part W. S. Gilbert (i. e. Gilbert and Sullivan without Mr. Sullivan's music), part Saturday Night Live, The Coward tells the tale of one Lucidus Culling, the scaredy-cat scion of an 18th century English nobleman whose sole aim in life is to see to it that the family’s honor is upheld through a never-ending round of duels—which explains why Lucidus is the family’s only-surviving son, a status he longs to preserve.

Picture Pee-wee Herman without his confident self-assuredness, or the Cowardly Lion as he quivers before the throne of the Wizard of Oz, and you will get a sense of how Lucidus (performed with great timid flair by Jeremy Strong) faces the world. 

Poor Lucidus.  All he wants is to be left alone to contemplate the beauty of butterflies or to join in tart-tasting picnics with his foppish friends Robert and Gavin (well acted by Steven Boyer and Stephen Ellis), who seem like he-men in comparison, or to pine over the distant but beautiful and wealthy Isabelle Dupree.   He also knows what he most definitely does not want, and that is to die in a duel.

That Lucidus is a disappointment to his father (a blustery Richard Poe) is an epic understatement.  So, with great reluctance, and in order to get into Daddy’s good graces, Lucidus agrees to fight a duel with the next person who manages to offend.  Not surprisingly, he targets a decrepit, blind old man—failing to understand that the rules of nobility allow for the old man to appoint his own strong and skilled son to stand in for him.

How Lucidus deals with this unexpected turn of events makes up the rest of Act I.  Suffice it to say, by Act II he has acquired a new reputation that has pleased his father to no end and has caught the amorous attention of Isabelle (played in grand Gilbert and Sullivan mode by Kristen Schaal).  

The play is aided to no small end by Gabriel Berry's dandified costumes, including some gloriously over-the-top hats.  Between Berry's work here, and the costumes created by Ann Hould-Ward for A Free Man of Color, theatrical closets are now bursting with 18th century fashion. 

If I were to make one suggestion, that would be to trim some of Act II, where the high comic style wanders into the world of too-much, including an abundance of blood, gore, and mean-spirited dialog.  The playwright seems to want to add some, in my view, unnecessary satiric bite to what had been a more subtle but still clear message underpinning the silliness. 

Still, Nick Jones is a smart and witty writer who has given us an original and clever play.  And mark The Coward as another feather in the cap of director Sam Gold, who is making quite a name for himself heading up such productions as last year’s Circle Mirror Transformation and The Aliens (both by Annie Baker), and the current sold-out production of Tigers Be Still (by Kim Rosenstock), and who has been appointed as the youngest associate artist of the Roundabout Theater Company.  Mr. Gold and the three playwrights mentioned here are in their 20s and 30s and represent a wave of wonderful young creative artists that are keeping the theater world moving gloriously into the future. 

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Friday, November 12, 2010

A Free Man of Color Brings Back Memories of the Psychedelic '60s

So…do you remember The Firesign Theater? Does the name ring a distant bell of recognition? If so, you’ll have a pretty good idea of how you might prepare yourself for a visit to the Vivian Beaumont Theater at Lincoln Center, where A Free Man of Color, a new play by John Guare, is now in previews.

For those of you who don’t know—or can’t quite recall—Firesign Theater was a comedy troupe that performed on radio during the height of the 1960s psychedelic era and produced record albums with such titles as Don’t Crush That Dwarf, Hand Me The Pliers. The group’s modus operandi was surrealistic, stream-of-conscious wordplay, best appreciated in a state of heightened awareness induced by any number of medicinal herbs.

Or so I'm told.

In any event, A Free Man of Color, with its cast of 26 spinning under the whirlwind direction of George C. Wolfe, is an eyeful of something-or-other that is difficult to fathom in a state of cold sobriety.

Let me take a stab at explaining. Remember, though, that we are now entering the realm of speculation.

Act I takes place in the wild and woolly New Orleans of 1801. The lead performer is the title character, who goes by the name of Jacques Cornet, played with wild abandon by Jeffrey Wright. Cornet is a man of property who considers himself to be an influential member of the upper class, an intellectual, and an unparalleled womanizer. That he is the mulatto offspring of his white plantation owner father and his black slave mother is irrelevant—at least in his eyes.

Aided and abetted by his own slave, Murmur (played with great √©lan by Mos, the actor formerly known as Mos Def), Cornet offers up what I take to be a play he himself has written, in a style that co-opts William Wycherley’s Restoration comedy The Country Wife, along with odd bits of Moliere and Shakespeare—filtered through a manic New Orleans Mardi Gras sensibility. There is something very off-kilter, though, so that the only way I could make sense of it was to think of Cornet as pretty much unschooled as well as self-important and delusional–kin perhaps, to the bipolar young hustler who calls himself "Paul Poitier" in Guare's Six Degrees of Separation.

With Act II, reality starts to intrude, and Guare switches gears by providing us with a history lesson on the unfolding of the early phase of what would later be referred to as “Manifest Destiny,” the expansion of the United States from sea to shining sea. New Orleans has been swept up in the Louisiana Purchase of 1803, and it is no longer a place of unbridled freedom.

The scenes flash by like an out-of-control carousel, featuring—among others--Thomas Jefferson (John McMartin, how nice it is to see ya), Meriwether Lewis (an enthusiastic Paul Dano), James Monroe (Arnie Burton), Walter Reed (Brian Reddy), and Napoleon Bonaparte (performed with scene-stealing hilarity by Triney Sandoval). It’s not for nothing that there are over two dozen performers, several of whom—like veteran actress Veanne Cox—play multiple roles.

In all of this mayhem, Cornet is caught up in the riptide of history.  When he is finally washed up on shore, he finds himself in a much different world than the one he inhabited just a few years earlier.

John Guare is definitely an important playwright, having given us such indelible works as the aforementioned Six Degrees of Separation and The House of Blue Leaves (set to be revived in the spring). Thus, I am loath to dismiss A Free Man of Color as merely a spaced-out opium pipe dream of a play.

So, I’ll just say that if you should go, do not expect to fully understand what is taking place before you. I’m not even certain that Mr. Guare or Mr. Wolfe fully understands what they have unleashed.

But both the director and the actors have leaped aboard in a great act of blind faith and are giving it their all. The same is true of Ann Hould-Ward, who has created an exploding rainbow of colorful costumes, and of David Rockwell, whose sets are both eye-catching and designed in such as way so that they fly on and off as quickly as the performances.

You may leave the theater scratching your head, but you may also be surprised to find that the visceral images linger. If so, you might just want to pull out your old copy of Don’t Crush That Dwarf, Hand Me The Pliers and give it a whirl.

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After the Revolution Comes the Revelation: Then What Do We Do?

More than 50 years after his death, Joseph McCarthy, the late and little-lamented “junior Senator from Wisconsin,” has taken to haunting the New York theater scene.

The malignant spirit of the one-time powerful Senator, who ruined lives and careers by leveling charges of espionage and subversive activities during a reign of anti-Communist fervor in the 1950s, is evoked in no fewer than four current productions: Zero Hour, the one-man show about actor Zero Mostel; the revival of Tony Kushner’s masterwork, Angels in America; a production of Personal Enemy, an early play by John Osborne and Anthony Creighton, and the New York premiere of a play by Amy Herzog, called After the Revolution.

Herzog is one of the young playwrights I have written about, like Annie Baker, Ellen Fairey, and Kristoffer Diaz, who are bringing original voices and ideas to the theater scene and whose work speaks to a broad audience beyond their own same-age peers. After the Revolution, a play about three generations of American leftists, is being given a stellar production at the Playwrights Horizons, thanks in large part to a strong ensemble of actors, including the always-marvelous Lois Smith, who celebrated her “big eight-o” earlier this month, as the matriarch of the clan, and the always-marvelous David Margulies as an old family friend. It is worth the price of admission just to be able to watch these two veterans remind us what stage acting is all about.

In After the Revolution, the central character is Emma (Katharine Powell), who, in her mid-twenties, represents the third generation in her family of proud Marxist-inspired Americans. As “keeper of the flame” and head of a foundation named for her much-revered grandfather—iconicized as one of McCarthy’s targets—Emma is forced to confront some uncomfortable truths about the past and come to terms with her loving but manipulative father (Peter Friedman).

Emma is dedicated, like the rest of her family (save for some for some sneered-upon cousins), to supporting leftist causes. Indeed, the foundation she helms is engaged in a campaign on behalf of a very real death-row inmate, Mumia Abu-Jamal, who remains at the center of an ongoing debate over the fairness of his trial and of the death penalty itself.

Unfortunately, Emma’s personal angst as she strives to find her own place in the grand scheme of things tends to overwhelm what could be a very interesting debate on politics and social justice—something that would surely resonate in today’s political climate. It’s not that the family drama isn’t interesting; it is. I just longed for more of that good old radical, progressive, leftist talk, most of which is left up to Ms. Smith’s character to espouse; for instance, I found her unchallenged take on Stalin to be one of the most telling moments in the play.

Still there is much to commend. Director Carolyn Cantor has shaped the company into a cohesive and believable family unit. In addition to the fine performances by the actors identified above, Mare Winningham, as Emma’s stepmother, does an excellent job treading the line as mediator between the stubborn father-daughter pair.

Seeing After the Revolution, which Herzog has said was inspired by events in her own family, makes me hope that she will come back to this story one day and examine more deeply the complexities of the era that allowed for Joseph McCarthy to shake up so many lives, so that we are still feeling the impact today.

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