Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Modern Love Among the Scientific Set

Aubrey Dollar and Karl Miller "meet cute" in grad school

Relationships are complicated.

This is true whether the relationships are between two yeast molecules or two human beings. 

That’s sort of the message of Completeness, Itamar Moses’s new play that is alternately romantic, comic, intellectually intriguing, and, occasionally, too clever for its own good. 

Completeness, now on view at Playwrights Horizons, begins as two attractive and bright graduate students—she a molecular biologist, he a computer scientist—meet cute in a computer lab on campus and begin a hot romance that mirrors the work they are doing both individually and collectively.

Karl Miller, a fine young actor full of goofy charm, is Elliot, the computer scientist whose short-term goal is to crack the “Traveling Salesman Problem,” the elusive holy grail of his field.  (It’s real; look it up and you’ll learn, among other things, that it is “an NP-hard problem in combinatorial optimization.”) 

As soon as he eyes Molly, winningly played by Aubrey Dollar, you can almost hear Elliot’s heart (among other parts of his anatomy) go “boing,” In order to hook up with her, Elliot gladly sets aside his maybe-not-so-urgent-after-all work and offers to help her devise a shortcut to study potentially significant interactions among yeast molecules.  For her, he will develop an algorithm or computer model that will save her the trouble of examining each and every interaction, by identifying those that are likely to produce the kinds of results worthy of her efforts.

As you can see, neither Elliot nor Molly considers the old painstaking methods of their fields to be worth their time.  “Life is short” is their credo, which they apply equally to scientific studies and to personal matters.

Because Elliot and Molly make such a lovely couple, in the way that we have come to expect from exposure to too many on-screen romantic comedies, we do expect them to somehow evolve into some modern day version of Marie and Pierre Curie.  But life rarely imitates the movies, and we learn quickly enough to set aside such fantasies for the reality of modern romance, consisting of speed dating and short-term relationships. 

Thus it is with Elliot and Molly.   They are like the fruit flies that geneticists like to study because they play out their lives in about a month.   On human terms it looks like this:  meet someone, take up with them, edge toward the possibility of something more permanent, and then end it—and begin again. 

In between, we learn an awful lot about both computer science and molecular biology.  The playwright has done a masterful job of explaining the science (data mining and derivation errors, anyone?), and the actors have done a terrific job of learning to spout the complicated lingo so that it sounds second nature to them. 

If the juxtapositioning of conceptual science and human foibles reminds you of something Tom Stoppard might have cooked up, it’s not a coincidence.  Itamar Moses and Mr. Stoppard have a bit of a mutual admiration society going, and the latter even wrote the preface for the published edition of Moses’s earlier Bach at Leipzig.  The scientific conversations in Completeness are very reminiscent of the discussions about mathematics in Stoppard’s Arcadia and about quantum physics in Hapgood.   There are worse role models for Mr. Moses to have, though one hopes he will eventually find his own unique voice. 

Lest I leave you with the impression that Completeness is a two-character play, I hasten to add that there are actually several others, various former or waiting-in-the-wings partners of Molly and Elliot, all portrayed by Brian Avers and Meredith Forlenza.  Whether it is the fault of the playwright or of the director, Pam MacKinnon (she has directed a production of Bach at Leipzig, so Moses is not new to her), it is very difficult to differentiate among the other characters who flit in and out—though perhaps they are intentionally non-distinguishable. 

There is also a bit of breaking of the fourth wall that doesn’t seem to serve much purpose, except, possibly, to remind us that science allows us to control things just so much, but that life is ultimately unpredictable in its variability.

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

Sunday, August 7, 2011

For Theatergoers, New York Is A Summer Festival

Broadway or Off-Broadway:  The Theater Capital of the World!

Summertime is supposed to be a down time for New York theater-going, but this summer has been offering up a lot of unexpected treats.  Certainly, there has been plenty to keep me busy so that it doesn’t feel like the doldrums at all.   

Two of this summer’s big openers on Broadway are the excellent revival of Master Class, starring Tyne Daley in what is likely to be a Tony-nominated performance as opera diva Maria Callas, and the upcoming revival of Follies, with a cast that includes Bernadette Peters, Elaine Paige, and Jan Maxwell.  Not so shabby!  I’ve already seen (and written about) Master Class, and I’ve got my Follies ticket for a couple of weeks from now. 

There’s also the opportunity to partake of the “summer of love” that is Hair, making a short return to Broadway following a 20-city tour.  If you failed to catch Diane Paulus’ Tony-winning revival, now would be the time to do so.  I speak as one who saw the original Broadway company in1968, and found the current production to be as energetic, exciting, and fun, with a great ensemble cast.   I’m seeing it again next week, as it happens.  Who knows?  Maybe this time I’ll join the end-of-show onstage dance party! 

If you want to see a Broadway show but don’t want to pay full Broadway prices for your tickets, I have noticed that the August heat and humidity have been accompanied by shorter lines at the Times Square TKTS discount tickets booth. 

Yesterday (for a Saturday matinee), I walked right up to the window and snagged a half-price ticket to Anything Goes, splendidly directed and choreographed by Kathleen Marshall.  The Tony-winning production boasts a top-notch cast and a truckload of marvelous Cole Porter tunes.  Even if you feel you are overly familiar with the show and the score, there are surprises and delights to be found in the de-lovely dance numbers and in the comic timing displayed by John McMartin, Adam Godley, and Jessica Stone in supporting roles. 

The names over the title, Sutton Foster and Joel Grey, are no slouches either.  She is a dynamo, and he is teddy bear adorable, and the newly refurbished and renamed Stephen Sondheim Theatre (formerly Henry Miller’s Theatre) is an inviting and comfortable venue, with good sight lines throughout.  

Moving to Off-Broadway, I’m looking forward to seeing Elysian Fields, set for a short run at the Kraine Theater in the East Village (August 22-26) as part of the New York International Fringe Festival. The playwright, Chris Phillips, has come up with an intriguing concept, to create a play around characters who are discussed but not seen in three Tennessee Williams plays:  Allen from A Streetcar Named Desire, Sebastian from Suddenly Last Summer, and Skipper from Cat On A Hot Tin Roof.   

This being the centenary year of Tennessee Williams' birth, there have been quite a few opportunities to see revivals of both his well-known and lesser-known plays. Elysian Fields sounds like an interesting addition and tribute to the mix, which has included the recent One Arm (an unproduced screenplay written by Willams and adapted for the stage by Mois├ęs Kaufman) and the current production of The Pretty Trap, an early one-act version of The Glass Menagerie at Theatre Row’s Acorn Theatre, starring Katharine Houghton in the pivotal role of Amanda Wingfield. 

And as long as we are taking a stroll along West 42nd Street, I look forward to paying a visit to Playwrights Horizons and its latest production, Completeness, a new comedy about romance and sexual politics written by Itamar Moses and directed by Pam MacKinnon.   Playwrights Horizons continues its policy of offering discounted tickets through this blog.  Regular priced tickets are $70, but discounts are available for $40 for performances from August 19-September 4, and then for $50 through September 25.  For more information, go to www.playwrightshorizons.org or call 212-279-4200.  When ordering, use the discount code COMPBLOG. 

I've got my summer tickets lined up.  What are you waiting for? 

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

Friday, August 5, 2011

Gay History Becomes Visible At Last, And the Theater Leads the Way

Unnatural Acts -- Photo by Joan Marcus

Nothing has been more ignored in the teaching of history than the history of gay and lesbian individuals. As far as US public schools are concerned, a policy of “don’t ask; don’t tell” remains pretty much intact.

This may start to change, however, with the enactment last month of a California state law requiring public schools to teach gay and lesbian history. California is a big state, and its public schools spend a lot of money on textbooks and other educational materials. It will be interesting to watch as the curriculum unfolds.

In support of this effort, educators might do well to turn to the recent spate of plays steeped in various aspects of gay history—among them, The Temperamentals, The Pride, and the revivals of The Normal Heart and Angels in America, not to mention older plays such as The Laramie Project (first produced in 2000) and Bent (1979).

All of these plays have something of significance to say, and collectively they have the power to shed light on what has been covered by an invisibility cloak for far too long.

Two additions to the growing list are Unnatural Acts, based on the true story of a group of gay students who were driven out of Harvard University back in 1920, and A Strange and Separate People, about the crossed paths of homosexuality and Orthodox Judaism.

Both of these have just ended short runs, Unnatural Acts at the Classic Stage Company and A Strange and Separate People at Theatre Row’s Studio Theatre. Chances are, however, that both will see additional productions around the country, given their compelling topics.

Unnatural Acts is actually the second version of the story of Harvard’s “secret court,” convened following the suicide of one of the gay students. The first to hit the boards was Veritas, written by Stan Richardson, with a first production in 2007. I’m not sure of the details, but it seems that Mr. Richardson and Tony Speciale, the director of Unnatural Acts, were working together on the project but at some point decided to go their separate ways. In any event, the authorship of Unnatural Acts is credited to “members of the Plastic Theatre,” a loose-knit collaborative of artists headed up by Mr. Speciale. In the theater program, however, two individuals, Heather Denyer and Nick Norman (she is a dramturg, he an established playwright) are singled out as co-authors. (As it happens, I sat next to Mr. Norman’s father at the performance I attended, and he filled me in on some of the convoluted background.)

Surprisingly, for a play with a collective authorship, Unnatural Acts is quite cohesive and well-structured. If it is a tad melodramatic and “collegiate,” as The New York Times critic Ben Brantley put it in his review, it is appropriately so, for the play is both a theatrical retelling of a long-quashed historic event and the kind of cautionary tale that is likely to be performed in college towns across the country and perhaps read and studied in classes. There is no doubt where the play’s sympathies lie, but the fact is, the socio-political context would make for some serious analytic discussions in a political science class, a law class, a drama class, or a queer studies class.

The group of students who gathered in the rooms of one of their more flamboyant brethren were not terribly discrete in their behavior and, being mostly children of privilege, they took it for granted that Harvard would turn a blind eye at their lack of attention to their studies, their frequent and loud parties, and their illegal drinking (this was during Prohibition, after all). We learn, in passing, that at least some of the students were attending Harvard after leaving other colleges, under circumstances that we are left to surmise.

In point of fact, Harvard officials may very well have stayed out of it had it not been for the pressure put upon them by the brother of the young man who committed suicide. That the students were interrogated in secret is hardly a surprise; what would the wealthy alumni donors think if this “dirty laundry” were to be aired in public?

If there are truly shocking moments in the play, these occur through the depictions of the interrogations, in which the students were brought individually before a group of deans and pressed to answer the most intrusive of questions about their sexual practices. It is here where all of the other issues—academics, partying, drinking—become non-issues, and the focus is on the one thing that sets these students apart. The resulting denials, confessions, and betrayals, and the subsequent expulsion of most of the students involved, caused permanent damage, as we learn in an affecting epilogue based on research into the lives of those involved.

Any “docudrama” of this sort has the difficult task of balancing historic truth with dramatic truth. For the most part, Unnatural Acts succeeds quite well and leaves us much to ponder in both arenas. 

*          *          *          *          *          *

'A Strange and Separate People' -- Photo by Michael Portantiere

Turning next to a more contemporary work, we have the less successful but potentially powerful drama, A Strange and Separate People, written by Jon Marans, who gave us the multi-award-winning The Temperamentals and who was a Pulitzer Prize finalist for Old Wicked Songs. It is because Marans is such a gifted playwright that I am hopeful he will come back to A Strange and Separate People and flesh it out.

As it stands, this is a two-character drama with three characters and a muddied script that takes on too many issues. Focus, Jon, focus!

Still, at its heart, it tells a most interesting story by crossing two lives—those of Jay, a closeted gay man who is an Orthodox Jew, and Stuart, an “out” gay man who is transitioning from being a casual Jew to Orthodoxy. In telling their story, Marans raises many intriguing questions about the intersection of faith and sexuality, a subject that previously saw the theatrical light of day last year with Next Fall by Geoffrey Nauffts, who juxtaposed homosexuality with conservative Christianity.

Marans sets A Strange and Separate People around religious rituals, Sabbath prayers at the home of Jay and his wife Phyllis, and services in the Orthodox Upper West Side synagogue that all three attend.

As the play currently stands, Phyllis has little to do beyond reacting to learning about her husband’s sexuality—so in order to build up her role, Marans has given the couple a child with autism, whose presence is heard and felt, if not seen. It’s too much for the play to work with; it either needs to be cut to a one-act or expanded into a deeper two-act.

I support the latter. I want to know more about Phyllis, the couple’s son, his caregiver, the unseen but noisy neighbor, the president of the congregation, and others whose presence could only serve to enrich the plot. I think of the wonderful ensemble piece that was The Temperamentals and can envision this play transforming into something of that ilk. Until that happens, however, I can only recommend A Strange and Separate People as an interesting work-in-progress.

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