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.

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

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.