Saturday, December 31, 2011

Stick Fly: The Little Play That Could

A Confrontational Moment in 'Stick Fly'

It’s New Year’s Eve, and I would like to end 2011 by championing a play that shouldn’t need championing, save for the fact that some of the professional critics have decided it is not Broadway-worthy.  A little snobbery, perhaps? 

It’s called Stick Fly, and for the past five years, it has had successful runs at theaters in Chicago, Los Angeles, Washington, D. C., Boston.   Along the way, it has garnered a number of awards for seasoned playwright Lydia R. Diamond, including a L. A. Critics Circle Award last year.

It is now on view at the Cort Theater, and a better crowd-pleaser I have not seen in a long time.  It is a family drama that, like real-life family dramas, is both serious to those experiencing it and very funny to those on the outside looking in (i. e. the audience). 

Stick Fly tells the story of an upper middle class African American family, the LeVays, who get together for a summer getaway weekend at their home in Martha’s Vineyard

The characters include two sons, Kent (nicknamed “Spoon”), and Harold (aka “Flip”), each of whom has brought a girlfriend home to meet the parents.  Spoon’s girlfriend, to whom he has recently become engaged, is Taylor; Flip’s is Kimber.  Rounding out the cast of characters are Joe, the patriarch of the LeVay clan, and Cheryl, daughter of the family’s housekeeper, who is holding down the fort for her ill mother for the weekend.

Amidst games of Trivial Pursuit and Parcheesi, intellectual debates, and the social fuel of mojitos and pot, the playwright sets things up like a snake of dominoes, then lets them fall where they will. 

And fall they do.  Yet this is no August:  Osage County.  The quarrels and disappointments are far less melodramatic and soap opera-ish than that totally over-the-top encounter group of a play.   It’s more in line with one of A. R. Gurney’s tales about the foibles of America’s WASPs, both sharp and comic.

With Stick Fly, the triggers are issues of race, social class, and gender.  Kimber is herself a WASP (though Flip absurdly tries to pass her off as “Italian”), and her presence stirs up some passion in Taylor, who has spent her life trying to get her mostly white peers to understand that race still matters.  Taylor and Cheryl, though both well educated, were raised in middle middle class homes, and they feel an awkwardness of not quite fitting into the LeVays’ social milieu.  To add to the mix of problems, both Cheryl and Spoon have issues with Joe LeVay.

All of the “little murders” unfold over the course of the evening, though rarely does anything feel too coincidental for words or outside of the realm of the dramas that every family goes through.  There are a couple of meltdowns, but these are fairly well contained, and the clan survives the weekend without any major collapses.  They will all live to fight another day, and will undoubtedly do so when they get together for major holidays and events—just like the rest of us. 

This is a real strength of Stick Fly.  It never loses touch with reality, and it is clear that the playwright is fond of each of her flawed characters.  As much as I admired August:  Osage County, for example, the real feeling at the end of that play was one of relief.  With Stick Fly, we leave the theater feeling like we had had a really enjoyable time among the LeVays, and that even snarky Joe had his moments. 

There is a lot of honesty contained within the arguments that go on under the roof, and the issues that are raised ring true.   While some of the discussions about race and class and gender may seem collegiate, they are exactly the kinds of conversations that take place among engaged, intelligent college students and seem all the more real for coming out of the mouths of the young people in the play. 

The playwright has also planted some intriguing ideas about exploitation.  Much, for example, is made of the fact that this was the first black family to have a home in Martha’s Vineyard, thanks to a gift of land that was made to an ancestor, a sea captain whose exact line of work is never discussed.  It’s not difficult to imagine that this free black sea captain had been in the business of transporting slaves. 

It is also interesting to observe Cheryl’s interactions with the family.  Even though she has been a part of the family on some level her entire life (she is at least a decade younger than Spoon and Flip), she is still a black servant in a black household, and, as we learn, she and her mother have been exploited in other ways as well. 

Finally, although Spoon and Flip are the scions of the family, it is the women—Taylor, Kimber, and, especially Cheryl—who are most interesting to watch.  Despite their differences, the form an unexpected bond of real sisterhood which is certain to grow through the years.

The play is well directed by Kenny Leon, with a smart cutaway set by David Gallo and great summer duds by Reggie Ray.  One of its producers is singer-songwriter Alicia Keys, who has provided incidental music for the show.

The ensemble of players give solid performances and work well together:  Dule Hill as the sensitive Spoon; Mekhi Phifer as the more worldly older brother Flip; Rosie Benton as the rebellious Kimber; Tracie Thoms as the insecure Taylor; and Ruben Santiago-Hudson as the crass but occasionally charming Joe. 

But the play’s real kudos go to Condola Rashad, who shines as Cheryl.  Ms. Rashad (yes, she is Phylicia Rashad’s daughter) has excellent comic timing and serious acting chops (she was splendid in Lynn Nottage’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play, Ruined, a couple of years back).  And speaking of Lynn Nottage, that is a playwright I also thought of while watching Stick Fly, especially the humor that she wove through By The Way, Meet Vera Stark

All told, Stick Fly is a highly engaging and entertaining work, one that I hope will draw an audience through word-of-mouth.  I attended on a very stormy evening earlier this week, one that would have certainly kept me at home if I didn’t already have a ticket.  The rest of the rain-soaked audience, I imagine, felt the same way.  Yet I have seldom sat with theatergoers who were obviously having such an enjoyable time.  Lots of laughter, positive chatter during the intermission, and cheers at the end. 

Catch it while you can, and Happy New Year to all!

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Friday, December 30, 2011

Look, I’m Eating My Hat: Revisiting 'Follies'

Follies' Magnificent Cast.  Photo by Joan Marcus

I don’t often return to see an existing production for a second time.  After all, life is short, and there’s a lot of theatergoing to do. 

Nevertheless, ever since I saw an early preview of Follies, I have had a hankering to see it again, wondering what changes might have taken place between then and now.  It is such a significant musical, and the opportunity to see a full-scale production with a full-scale orchestra in the pit is not likely to come around again for a long, long time. I simply could not get it out of my mind. 

In my blog review of the show back in early September, I noted that while I admired much about the production, I was less than thrilled with the performances of the two leading women.  Jan Maxwell as Phyllis seemed tentative and in over her head as a singer and dancer; Bernadette Peters as Sally seemed unsure of how best to approach her role and was—much to my surprise—over her head herself as a singer.  I also thought that the former Follies girls in attendance at the reunion--save for Susan Watson--were pretty much devoid of individuality or presence.

And yet, I could not stay away.

And now I say, WOW, WOW, and yet again WOW!!!

Any doubts I had were washed away in one sublime evening of near perfection. It’s as though everyone involved has come to realize that this is the experience of a lifetime, and they are finding inspiration from each other to continue to perfect their performances.

The women playing the former Follies girls have found personalities in every tiny bit they have been given to work with from the script, and each is a delight.  Solange (Mary Beth Peil), Stella (Terri White) and Carlotta (Elaine Paige) are more than just moment-in-the-spotlight performers; they have developed into real characters. Ms. Watson and Jayne Houdyshell continue to shine, as do the actors playing the young Ben (Nick Verina), young Buddy (Christian Delcroix), young Phyllis (Kirsten Scott), and especially Lora Lee Gayer as young Sally (so very Bernadette in appearance and manner). 

The leading men, Ron Raines as Ben and Danny Burstein as Buddy, remain terrific in their roles, but it is the two ladies at the center of things, Ms. Maxwell and Ms. Peters, who have spent the weeks since previews figuring out who they are and why they are there, and they are now giving absolutely stellar performances.  Their numbers during the Loveland portion of the show are nothing short of phenomenal.  I now cannot imagine anyone ever doing a better job of performing “The Story of Lucy and Jessie” (Ms. Maxwell) or “Losing My Mind” (Ms. Peters).   Indeed, the entire Loveland sequence is utter perfection.  Would that I could bottle it and take it out on a gloomy day!

With Follies set to close on January 22, do yourself a favor for the new year and go see it for yourself (or see it again).  You’ll not have another opportunity like this anytime soon.

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Saturday, December 10, 2011

A Brilliant 'Blood And Gifts': Spy Vs. Spy in the Cold War Era

Whenever you go a play that is based on actual history, you run the risk of feeling as though you were attending a lecture as much as a theatrical event.  For instance, while I enjoyed last season's The Scottsboro Boys—and even the more melodramatic Irena’s Vow from the year before--it has occurred to me that the ideal audience for these shows would be a high school history class studying the Jim Crow era or the Holocaust. 

Occasionally, however, the history lesson is contextualized within a truly compelling narrative aimed at the grownups in the audience.  One example that comes to mind takes me back to 2003 and the  terrific I Am My Own Wife, whose star, Jefferson Mays, is back and giving yet another outstanding performance in the play that is the subject of this review. 

That would be Blood and Gifts, J. T. Rogers’ intelligent and highly engaging work now on view at the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater at Lincoln Center, about how we so foolishly got ourselves entangled in the quagmire that is Afghanistan. 

Rogers gives us the history lesson we need in order to understand what is going on, but he does so in a way that is neither simplistic nor overwhelmingly dense as, say, Tom Stoppard’s Coast of Utopia and Rock ‘n’ Roll.  And he wraps it around a cynical, sharp, and frequently darkly funny story of espionage during the 1980s Cold War era, one that will leave you shaking your head at the stupidity of nations, and perhaps wondering if we truly learned nothing from Vietnam.

If you are concerned that you have not followed the timeline leading up to our current entanglement in Afghanistan, you can pick up what you need to know by reading the six-paragraph insert (by dramaturg Anne Cattaneo) that comes with the program.  Alternatively, you can prepare by watching the 2007 movie Charlie Wilson’s War, starring Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts, that touches on some of the same events as Blood and Gifts.

The play opens in 1981 and  joins CIA agent James Warnock (Jeremy Davidson, John Wayne-like in his self-assurance) as he begins an assignment in Pakistan aimed at driving the Soviet Union out of neighboring (and officially off-limits) Afghanistan. 

Before long, Warnock is working both with and against his espionage counterparts from the Soviet Union and Great Britain.  His task is a tricky one.  He needs to arm Afghan tribal freedom fighters against the Soviet army while maintaining “deniability” on behalf of the U. S. government, dancing around the KGB’s Dmitri Gromov (a funny, sardonic Michael Aronov) and keeping in tow his British MI6 ally, the burned-out Simon Craig (a brilliant performance by Mr. Mays).  

Meanwhile, their ostensible Pakistani host Colonel Afridi (Gabriel Ruiz), representing his own country’s intelligence agency, has other reasons for wanting to push the Soviets out of Afghanistan. 

The interplay is reminiscent of Antonio Prohias's Spy vs. Spy cartoons from Mad Magazine, or something from Graham Greene or John le Carré, yet the events are all too real, as we discover—contrary to the cliché that the enemy of my enemy is not necessarily my friend. 

Meanwhile, on a trip back to the States, Agent Warnock is torn between struggling to save his marriage and fighting to convince Congress to provide additional military aid for the Afghan fighters.  It is in this part of the play, that deals with the political maneuvering, conniving, deal-making, and in-fighting back home, that you will recognize the connection with the movie Charlie Wilson’s War.

It’s all very theater-of-the-absurd, except that the stakes are high indeed, both for the people of Afghanistan (some two million died during the anti-Soviet conflict and the period of civil war that followed) and for the people of the United States, who find themselves scratching their heads over why are at war in Afghanistan.

No bones about it, Blood and Gifts is a top-notch play, flawlessly directed by Bartlett Sher, who has brought out the best from a uniformly strong cast.  May it find great success along the lines of last year’s wonderfully grownup play, Other Desert Cities, that also began at the Mitzi E. Newhouse and is now happily ensconced on Broadway. 

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

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Chita Rivera Rules the Stage in Kander and Ebb's "The Visit"

Chita Rivera Dances the 'One-Legged Tango'

The mighty musical-writing team of John Kander and Fred Ebb made history once again this week when the long-running (15 years and counting) revival of Chicago at the Ambassador Theater stepped aside briefly for a special and spectacular performance of the pair’s The Visit, a show that has been long overdue for its turn in the bright lights of Broadway.    

Not only were there two Kander and Ebb musicals sharing the same stage, but the star of the evening was none other than the actress who had created the role of Velma Kelly (opposite Gwen Verdon’s Roxy Hart) in the original production of Chicago over 35 years ago. 

That star was—need I say?—the incomparable Chita Rivera, who, at 78, can still dominate a stage like none other and who repeatedly brought the house down at the singular event,  a fundraiser for The Actors Fund and the Vineyard Theatre. 

The Visit, based on the acid-dripping 1956 play of the same name by Friedrich Dürrenmatt, tells the story of  “the richest woman in the world,” Claire Zachanassian, who has returned to her now-impoverished hometown in post-war Germany seeking revenge on her one-time lover, Anton Schell, who years before drove her away and into a life of prostitution.  In an added twist, her plan involves bringing the townspeople to their knees as well, for they were complicit in her shabby treatment as the much-maligned daughter of a Jewish man and a Gypsy woman.

Ms. Rivera has played the role twice before, beginning with its first short-lived production at Chicago’s Goodman Theater, where it faced the unfortunate timing of opening just after the attacks of September 11, 2001—which rather put a damper on an audience’s desire for such a dark and stinging satire.  A later mounting, a short run at Arlington, Virginia’s Signature Theater in 2008, was very well received, however, and I am hoping very much that this week’s one-night event will serve as a precursor to a Broadway or Off-Broadway production.

Kander and Ebb offer up a musical mix of irony, satire, and interludes of romance in their two dozen numbers, supported by Terrence McNally’s adaptation of Dürrenmatt’s play and Ann Reinking’s choreography.  However, since the character of Claire has an artificial leg and walks with a cane (which Ms. Rivera tossed aside for her curtain call to demonstrate that she herself does not need it, thank you), there was not a lot of opportunity for her to dance and show off her ageless gams, save for a number appropriately titled "The One-Legged Tango," which she tackled with great élan.   

It would be remiss of me not to note that Ms. Rivera’s singing voice is rather on the raggy side these days, but she has so much showmanship in her that it hardly matters.  She took charge of that stage from the moment of her first appearance, and never let up for an instant.  Even though it has been more than three years since she last performed the role, she was completely off book for the benefit production (all right, almost completely; there was one tiny lapse in which she sidled over to take a peek at the script in one of the other performer’s hands, but she didn’t miss a beat in doing so).

This is not, of course, a one-woman show.  The rest of the cast was solid, starting with John Cullum, another Kander and Ebb alum, having starred in last year’s The Scottsboro Boys.  Cullum, three years Ms. Rivera’s senior, did need to keep his copy of the script open throughout, but he made a fine Anton Schell, a man who progresses from a desire to flee his fate to accepting it--or at least appreciating its ironic elements.

While the show’s focus is on the pair of long-ago lovers, within whom there still lives a spark of genuine mutual affection, the cast included 21 other uniformly strong performers, along with a small orchestra under the fine direction of Jon Kalbfleisch.  If you have seen the production of Chicago, the musicians used the same tiered space across the width of the stage. 

Musically, Messrs. Kander and Ebb have incorporated a wide range of styles, including singing parts for countertenors (relevant to the plot), and connections to Brecht and Weill and to their own enduring hit musical Cabaret.   

One of the great shames is that no recording of The Visit has been made to date, a mistake that I hope will be rectified.  There are many songs that stand out, even on first hearing, among which are a lovely little waltz, “You, You, You,” and the Act I curtain number, “Yellow Shoes.”   

While I took great pleasure in what was essentially a staged reading, I would love to see The Visit given a full-scale New York production, and soon enough so that Chita Rivera can remain its star! 

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

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Back to the Good Old Days with "Maple and Vine"

Photo by Sara Krulwich/The New York Times

Do you love your life? 

Do you love your job?

If your answer to either or both of these questions is “not really,” then maybe you are up for joining a community whose members have all elected to eschew the hustle and bustle of life in the fast lane and relocate to a world that is permanently anchored to the year 1955.

That is the premise of Jordan Harrison’s satiric new play, Maple and Vine, now in previews at Playwrights Horizons. 

The unnamed community, located somewhere in the Midwest (or possibly, in The Twilight Zone) could be called "Pleasantville," "Stepford," or even "The Village," as Maple and Vine brings to mind all of these previously-depicted fictional locales, where folks are unencumbered by cell phones, Facebook, Twitter, and reality TV. 

In Act I, we meet a high-powered New York couple, Katha and Ryu, (she a publishing executive, he a plastic surgeon), who are seeking to escape the hamster cage that has become their lives.  Katha (well played by Marin Ireland) can no longer cope, having been pushed to the edge following the miscarriage of their long-desired child. Ryu (Peter Kim) wants nothing more than to be a supportive husband but is close to his own breaking point, torn as he is between the demands of his liposuction-seeking clientele and the desperate needs of his wife.

A promise of relief comes in the form of Dean (Trent Dawson), a pitchman for the "Society for Dynamic Obsolescence," the 1950s reenactment organization he represents.  This is no cult, he promises, but a way to escape the dehumanizing pressures of 21st century life.  Try it for six months, he suggests.  See what you think.

So Katha (renamed “Kathy” by the community’s "Authenticity Committee") and Ryu take the plunge.  Soon she is spending her days under the tutelage of Dean’s wife Ellen (Jeanine Serralles), learning the difference between chopping vegetables and dicing them, and he is employed at a box factory, where the source of greatest pride is being able to assemble a box in 30 seconds, under the watchful eye of his friendly yet somewhat threatening supervisor, Roger (Pedro Pascal). 

As the rest of the play unfolds, we get glimpses into the parts of life in 1950s America that many of us would consider to be less desirable, with respect to social norms about race relations, sexual orientation, the role of women, and a rigid adherence to a strict set of rules for both overt and covert behavior. (For a reference guide, consult Peyton Place).

Certainly the buttoned-down '50s is a an apt target for satire, but Jordan Harrison, the playwright, gives us mostly episodic sit-com humor and not nearly enough of the kind of edgy bite that Maple and Vine needs in order to breathe new life into what already has been well-mined territory.  I can imagine, for example, what someone like Christopher Durang might have been able to do with the material. 

A great deal of editing, including slashing most of the first act set-up (as if you could provide enough exposition to establish what follows as anything other than a fantasy), and a greater attention to sharpening the details of Katha’s and Ryu’s new lives, might still result in a strong one-act with some real zing.  The same could be said of Anne Kauffman’s overly fussy direction.   "Less is more" is an adage that would fit in well with the play’s conceit of downsizing lives.  

Harrison does raise some interesting ideas that might benefit from deeper examination.  For instance, what would it really mean to be given the opportunity to reinvent yourself?  Can we truly leave our past behind, or will it always resurface to bite us in the rear?  These are potentially intriguing aspects of identity that are dealt with in a shallow way  in Maple and Vine, yet which could have given the play the focus that is currently lacking.
                                *           *          *          *          *          *         

Playwright’s Horizons is continuing its policy of offering discounted tickets for the regular run through December 23.

Order by November 30 and use the code VINEGR
$40 (reg. $70) for all performances Nov. 19-27
$50 (reg. $70) for all other performances Nov. 29-Dec. 23

Or call Ticket Central at (212) 279-4200 between noon and 8 p.m. daily, or purchase from the Ticket Central Box Office, 416 W. 42nd Street between 9th & 10th Avenues

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

Thursday, November 10, 2011

The Blue Flower: Offbeat But Compelling

Meghan McGeary as Hannah in The Blue Flower

If you are the kind of musical theater fan who craves a linear storyline, songs that propel the action, and richly developed characters you can relate to, well…let’s just say in all probability you will not warm easily to The Blue Flower, now on view at the Second Stage Theatre.

Nevertheless, this is a show that deserves to be seen, and it is unlikely it will ever receive a better production than the top-notch one it is now getting.  So if you are at all curious, you should go.  

In turns inventive, compelling, confusing, and absurd, The Blue Flower draws on imagery and ideas that channel La Belle Époque, the anti-art Dada movement, the sexual libertinism of the Weimer Republic, and the theatrical music style associated with Brecht and Weill.  

The Blue Flower is the creation of composer Jim Bauer and artist Ruth Bauer, a husband and wife team whose work is to musical theater as Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s creations were to environmental art.  (Remember "The Gates" in Central Park?)  They have taken a song cycle (his) and built a theatrical experience around it, with a dreamy sort of plot that follows the lives of four characters who are vaguely suggestive of artists Max Beckmann and Franz Marc, the Dadaist Hannah Höch, and scientist Marie Curie.  A tale of love, loss, and regret unfolds before, during, and after World War I. 

Instead of allowing the characters to reveal themselves through dialog, the Bauers have chosen to incorporate a great deal of narrative and film, and it is quite possible to grow impatient with this technique that distances the audience from the characters.  Yet this approach is frequently fascinating; the projected clips often have the appearance of old newsreels, and the show incorporates at least one authentic Dada film, Hans Richter’s "Ghosts Before Breakfast."  (I recognized it from a Dada exhibit I attended at the Museum of Modern Art.)

As for the songs, they are many pleasures to be found, with truly lovely ballads, upbeat numbers, and music that ranges from Weill-like to country-western in sound.  More importantly, they are performed by a terrific cast that includes Marc Kudisch, Sebastian Arcelus, Meghan McGeary, and Teal Wicks in the lead roles.

This is not an easy show to perform; Marc Kudisch as Max, for example, has to deliver a rather large chunk of dialog in a made-up language his character calls “Maxperanto,” and the work’s non-linear style has got to keep the performers on their toes.  Yet they are all first-rate throughout, with nary a misstep among them. 

The singing is accompanied by an onstage band of splendid musicians, under the direction of Dominick Amendum, who perform on piano, cello, drums, guitars, bass, bassoon, and accordion. All of the proceedings are smartly directed by Will Pomerantz, with choreography by Chase Brock.

Admittedly, The Blue Flower will not appeal to everyone.  It is an art piece, and an eccentric one at that.  Yet once I got past my initial confusion over the unexpected approach, I found it to be compelling and rewarding.  You just might too.

If you would like to see Hans Richter’s Dada film, "Ghosts Before Breakfast," check it out at

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Burning: Naked Folks Acting

Hunter Foster:  Musical Comedy Star Appears in Psycho-Sexual Play

It’s difficult to know what to make of Burning, a darkly comic psycho-sexual drama on view at Theatre Row's Acorn Theatre that is jam-packed with enough ideas about sexuality, identity, obsession, art, and politics to serve a half dozen projects, and enough nudity and flesh-on-flesh encounters to serve as a live version of a Google search on the word "porn."  

Regarding the latter, you pays your money and you takes your choice, sort of like being in the Times Square area in its former disreputable and sleazy days.  Ya got yer man/man sex, man/boy sex, hetero sex, brother/sister sex, oral sex, anal sex, sex with hermaphrodites, and prostitution (both the hustling kind and the legal kind), not to mention plenty of dorsal and full-frontal nudity. 

Amidst all of this is an actual play, made up of intersecting storylines about the lives of at least a dozen different characters, written by Thomas Bradshaw and directed by Scott Elliott, who has a penchant for bringing an edgy, in-your-face style to his work.  You may recall his star-studded, deliberately annoying version of The Threepenny Opera  that landed with a thud at Roundabout’s Studio 54 five years back. 

The New Group, for which Mr. Elliott serves as artistic director, has as its mission a “commitment to developing and producing powerful, contemporary theater.”  I’m not sure that Burning fills the bill; the “ick factor” does not necessary equate to “powerful,” and the play (stripped of its insistent nudity and sexual encounters) offers only the kinds of surprises that come from occasionally clever writing and unexpected turns.

Thematically, Bradshaw seems to have taken his cue from Tony Kushner, though with rather less artistic success.  Consider the questions he tries to juggle:  What does it mean to be a black artist?  To what extent is our world view shaped by our parents’ beliefs and values?  Where lies the line between self-control and self-indulgence?  What is the nature of exploitation? And where do forgiveness and redemption come into the picture?

Add to the mix references to the AIDS crisis, Germany after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, racism, personal identify, and the business side of art and theater—all punctuated with periodic bits of show tunes and pop songs and sprinklings of quotes from that all-time great philosopher, the Marquis de Sade.   (For an alternate view by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, you’ll need to go see Venus in Fur five blocks north at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre.)

The cast, which includes Sutton Foster’s big brother Hunter (known mostly as a performer in musical comedies) is certainly game; I can only imagine the amount of trust they had to have developed with each other during rehearsals.  But all in all, this is a real head-scratcher.  

By the way, in preparing this blog entry, I thought of an appropriate song to accompany it.  Go to

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Friday, October 21, 2011

Ladybug, Ladybug, Fly Away!

Angela Lewis, Nikiya Mathis, and Cherise Boothe in 'Milk Like Sugar'

Depending on your point of view, Milk Like Sugar, the gritty and engrossing new play by Kirsten Greenidge now in previews at Playwrights Horizons, is either an inspirational tale of potential and hope, or a cautionary tale warning us what the expression "impossible odds" really means.

Poised on a pinpoint midway between the two possibilities is Annie (Angela Lewis), an African-American teenager living in the inner city and surrounded at home, in school, and through her circle of friends by an unspoken conspiracy aimed at keeping her mired in place.

As the play opens, we encounter Annie and her friends Margie and Talisha (call her “T,” she insists) hanging out at what at first sight appears to be a hair salon, but is, in actuality, a tattoo parlor.  Annie, whose sixteenth birthday is being celebrated during a night out with the girls, has decided (or has been peer pressured) into getting her first ink.

Margie (Nikiya Mathis) and T (Cherise Boothe) sport rather large images of roses, but Annie, still clinging to her innocence, wants only a tiny ladybug, a reminder of the nickname her mother used to call her.     

While they are waiting for the tattoo artist (LeRoy McClain) to show up, the girls start talking, sipping “water” (a bottle of one of those sweet pastel-colored “alcopops” for whom teenage girls are the target consumers), and texting on their cell phones.  

For a while, it all seems lightweight and relatively harmless (depending on how you feel about the combination of teenage girls, alcoholic beverages, and tattoos).  Even as Margie and T are texting their boyfriends, the clean-cut, pony-tailed Annie is mostly waiting for her neglectful mother (Tonya Pinkins) to call from work to wish her a happy birthday.

But don’t be taken in by the lighthearted tone, for there is some serious stuff going on.  The texting, we come to realize, is more along the lines of “sexting” with various boyfriends and male acquaintances, and the girl talk turns to a pledge that all three will become pregnant at the same time—it hardly matters by whom.  For Margie, who is already “pg,” as she puts it, and for T, who is working on it, this is no joke.  They both are convinced that having a baby will give them someone cute, sweet, and cuddly to love, and raising their children together will solidify their bond.

They have already picked out a match for Annie in Malik (J. Mallory-McCree), a senior at the high school they all attend. Malik is clear-eyed enough to have a vision of himself finishing high school and getting into college, and he has no intention of getting caught in a trap that would lock him into the kind of life he has grown up in. 

He befriends Annie, though, and tries to get her to consider her own potential—something she has never really thought about before.  Annie also gets advice from a misfit classmate, Keera (Adrienne C. Moore), who is branded a loser—especially by the increasingly hardened T—but who offers Annie a vision of domesticity and inner peace through the church, another avenue Annie has never explored.

So Annie stands at a major threshold, pondering her future for perhaps the first time in her life.  How can I think of having a baby, she says, “if all I know is what I see and can touch?” 

This is an exquisitely delicate moment, one that can either open doors or slam them shut.   The tipping point is finally reached  through Annie's mother, who herself was a teenage parent with her own unfulfilled dreams, and who is now finding that the walls are closing in on her.

Milk Like Sugar  (the title refers to sweet powered milk, ubiquitous in the inner city) is a provocative play that raises many issues, and not only about the difficulties of “bootstrapping” one’s way out of a world where children like Annie are confined from birth. When the only available advice, mentoring, and support come from peers who are in the same boat, what chance does any of them have? 

The play is not without its flaws.The actresses playing the teenager girls look considerably older than their roles call for, and Kirsten Greenidge, the playwright, has tacked on an ending that attempts to maintain the tension between hope and capitulation but that truly does not fit well with all she has so carefully laid out. 

The plot also incorporates a number of clichés about urban life, but Annie’s story is so significant, and the playwright’s ability to capture the language, tone, and attitude of her characters is so spot-on, that Milk Like Sugar deserves to be seen by a wide audience. 


Discount tickets Milk Like Sugar are available for readers of this blog.

Order by October 25 and use the code MILKGR
$35 (reg. $55) for Fri, Sat, and Sun evenings, Oct 21-23
$40 (reg. $55) for all other performances through Nov 20

Call: (212) 279-4200, noon to 8 pm daily

In Person: Ticket Central Box Office, 416 W. 42nd Street

Milk Like Sugar is a co-production of Playwrights Horizons, Women's Project, and La Jolla Playhouse, and is directed by Rebecca Taichman.


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Monday, October 3, 2011

'Lemon Sky,' Early Lanford Wilson Play, Gets A Mixed Production

 A Sour Reunion:  Keith Nobbs and Kevin Kilner

Playwright Lanford Wilson, who recently passed away after a most distinguished career, was considered by many to be the theatrical heir of Tennessee Williams. 

I can’t say that I fully buy into that premise. 

Wilson did have a Williams-like way of creating vulnerable characters who are filled with emotional longing. But when it comes to capturing the poetic beauty of the English language—as Williams was able to do in his masterworks from the 1940s, The Glass Menagerie and A Streetcar Named Desire—other names come to mind ahead of Mr. Wilson's.
One is Robert Anderson, whose play about father-son warfare, I Never Sang For My Father, was given a splendid production last year by the Keen Company, under the direction of Jonathan Silverman, who wisely allowed Anderson's marvelously-crafted words to take center stage.  It didn't hurt that the production featured multi-layered performances by veteran actors Keir Dullea and Marsha Mason. 

The Keen Company identifies its mission as one of producing “sincere plays” that are “generous in spirit and provoke identification.”  With I Never Sang For My Father, that mission was fully and most satisfactorily realized. 

Now the company and director Silverman are back with another “sincere play,” an early work by Lanford Wilson called Lemon Sky.   Unfortunately, the results are not quite so sublime, despite some standout performances, most notably from Keith Nobbs who carries the lion’s share of the play on his shoulders as Wilson’s stand-in, Alan, and Kellie Overbey as Ronnie, Alan’s stepmother.

The play presents us with Alan’s recollections of a summer-long reunion with the father who abandoned him and his mother when Alan was only five years old.  Dad had fled from the family home in Nebraska to Southern California, where he now lives with Ronnie, their two sons, and two teenage foster girls.  Still, no hard feelings, until what begins as a relatively pleasant attempt to reconnect gradually grows disturbing and ugly as secrets and lies reveal themselves.

Lemon Sky is a difficult play to bring to fruition on the stage.  For one thing, it constantly breaks the fourth wall as characters stop what they are doing in order to address the audience.  It also jumps back and forth across time between the late 1950s, when most of the action takes place, and 1970, where Alan serves as narrator of his memories of that earlier period in his life.

To hark back to the Tennessee Williams model, Lemon Sky is a “memory play.”   

When I previously wrote about last year's Roundabout Theatre production of The Glass Menagerie, I argued that what we were presented with represented Williams' memories only as these were carefully filtered through many drafts and rewrites.  We were allowed to see only what Williams wanted us to see, and not what he truly remembered.  

In a sense, Lemon Sky is more realistically memory-like; it depicts both the playwright’s recollections of a particular time in his life and the messy act of trying to recall and sort through past events.  Wilson gives us memory as it actually occurs, in a non-linear fashion with many asides and tangents.  

That’s all well and good, but it might have helped if some effort had been made to separate the time periods.   It took me a long while to figure out we were  leapfrogging across time, since nothing about the staging or lighting hinted at what was going on, and 17-year-old Alan and 30-year-old Alan looked and acted exactly the same.  

The difficulties with the storytelling are not helped by the set that is clumsily spread out across the stage of the Clurman Theatre  and a mixed bag of acting, with an unfortunate weak link in Kevin Kilner as Alan’s father, Doug, who should give us the creeps but who seems, at most, annoying. 

The most interesting character is the cheery, chirpy Ronnie (well played by Ms. Overbey), who seems to be a stereotypical Southern California ditz until we begin to see the consequences of the poor yet entrapping bargain she made for herself when she ran off with Doug. 

This production of Lemon Sky is worth the visit only if you are a Lanford Wilson fan and want to catch one of his early efforts.  I can’t fault the sincerity, but I wonder if perhaps the Keen Company and its director might do better with something more straightforward.   Another Robert Anderson play, perhaps?

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Saturday, September 10, 2011

Frank Langella Gives A Mesmerizing Performance in 'Man And Boy'

It’s not hard to see what drew the folks at Roundabout to mount a production of Terrence Rattigan’s 1963 drama Man and Boy, now in previews at the American Airlines Theatre. 

For one thing, they had a story that could have popped out of today’s headlines.  Think of Bernie Madoff or the gang of thieves at Enron, and you’ll have a pretty good picture of the central character, Gregor Antonescu, a flim-flam artist extraordinaire who has lied, cheated, and stolen millions of dollars by out-Ponzi-ing Ponzi throughout Europe and the United States at the height of the Great Depression.

The second thing going for Man and Boy, which takes place in a Greenwich Village apartment on a single evening in 1934, is that Gregor Antonescu is played by Frank Langella, at the height of his powers as a stage actor and for whom this is another Tony-worthy performance.

Despite the fact that his character has no redeeming qualities whatsoever, you cannot take your eyes off Langella.  Almost against your will, you even root for him as he uses his undeniable gifts of charm, gab, and rock-steady nerve to manipulate people in order to keep his empire from crumbling under its own weight.   Antonescu is the Devil incarnate, and Langella instills every moment with his own devilish gusto. 

Before you run to pick up a ticket, let me advise you that outside of the central character, the play is a bit of a mess, and it is also not hard to see why it lasted for all of 54 performances on Broadway in its initial run and has not been revised until now. 

One of the biggest problems with the production lies with the second key character, Antonescu’s estranged son Basil, in whose apartment the play takes place. Rattigan has given us, at least on paper, a complicated relationship between a totally selfish and self-absorbed father and his damaged, needy son, who left home five years earlier with the intention of never seeing his father again. 

There are lots of ways to play this relationship, but what we are given, at least as performed by Adam Driver, is a son who is almost devoid of personality—as if the father had drained all  the life out of him years ago.  Driver, who has shown himself to be a terrific young actor on the New York theater scene over the past several years, either does not know what to do with the role, or he has been miserably directed by Maria Aitken to mope around and accept the abuse his father still heaps upon him. 

There are other characters, not all of whom serve much of a purpose, including Basil’s girlfriend and Gregor’s wife, played respectively by Virginia Kull and Francesca Faridany.  The women do a good job with their roles, such as they are, but both characters could be excised from the script without harming it one iota. 

The others--Gregor’s right-hand man (Michael Siberry), an American businessman whom Gregor nastily manipulates (Zach Grenier), and an accountant who has uncovered a $6 million fraud (Brian Hutchison)--are needed to move the plot forward, and the actors do well by their roles.

The set design by Derek McLane makes good use of the cavernous space of the stage, though the separateness between the living area and the bedroom is not clearly delineated.  Perhaps some changes in the lighting design (Kevin Adams) could help.  It might also help alleviate the confusion that occurs when Mr. Siberry first appears on the scene to a smattering of entrance applause by those who believe it is Mr. Langella.

To be fair, this is early in the preview period.  Maybe it will improve.  But for now, if you can ignore what needs to be ignored,  and you can appreciate a top-notch, often mesmerizing performance by Mr. Langella, by all means head on out to the American Airlines Theatre and this production of Man and Boy

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