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.
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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

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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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