Sunday, December 16, 2012

'Picnic': Sparks But No Fireworks in Tame Revival

Where is James Dean when you need him?

That’s what I was thinking as I watched the workmanlike if uninspired production of William Inge’s 1953 Pulitzer Prize-winning play, Picnic, now in previews at the American Airlines Theater. 

Inge’s domestic drama centers on a circle of family and neighbors in a small town in Kansas, where predictable lives are shaken up by the intrusion of an outsider, Hal. Hal is a combo pack of earthy masculinity, wild unpredictability, and  vulnerability that raises the temperature for the repressed women, already sweltering in the late summer’s heat. 

Before Hal (Sebastian Stan) shows up looking for work as a handyman, plans are underway for the annual Labor Day picnic, a final fling before the start of the new school year. 

We meet Flo Owens (Mare Winningham) and her daughters, the younger Millie (Madeleine Martin),“the smart one,” and her older sister Madge (Maggie Grace), 18, “the pretty one” whom Flo hopes to marry off to Alan (Ben Rappaport), a pleasant enough well-to-do college student with a bright future ahead of him. Madge and Alan do seem to be a well suited, albeit “safe” match, until Hal comes along.

As a dramatic character, Hal is the kind of young man who would have been portrayed in the movies by James Dean or Marlon Brando (though, as it happens, it was William Holden—arguably too old for the part—who famously took on the role in the 1955 film version of the play).

Hal has been hired to do chores for the Owens’ neighbor Mrs. Potts (Ellen Burstyn). He reminds her of her own rebellious days, and his frequently-on-view shirtless hubba-hubba torso clinches the deal.

As evening descends, it isn’t long before pretty girl Madge and pretty boy Hal get together, and sparks begin to fly.  Let’s just say, in appropriately 1950s euphemistic terms, they never do make it to the picnic.   

The story of Hal and Madge has its counterpart with that of an older couple, Rosemary (Elizabeth Marvel), a spinster school teacher who boards with the Owens family, and her beau Howard (Reed Birney), whom she is determined to marry before she has to face one more day in the classroom. 

The production, efficiently directed by Sam Gold, boasts solid performances by most of the cast.  Ms. Marvel and Ms. Burstyn are particularly compelling, despite the fact that their characters are built on clich├ęs.

Unfortunately, in the central role of Hal, Sebastian Stan—best known for television and movie work (e. g. Captain America)simply does not have the acting chops to pull this off. While his abs are certainly ogle-worthy, Stan provides precious little of Hal’s wild streak, and the heat between him and Ms. Grace wouldn't boil a pot of tea.  

Theatergoers have an interesting opportunity to compare Inge’s work with that of Clifford Odets, whose Golden Boy is currently receiving a solid production a few blocks away at the Belasco. Where Odets contextualizes his play in broader social themes, Inge narrows his focus to life’s everyday dramas. 

In the right hands, domestic dramas can be quite potent. Think of Inge’s contemporary, Arthur Miller, or imagine what Tennessee Williams might have done with a character like Hal.  But in Picnic—at least as evidenced in this production—there is precious little at stake and not nearly enough combustion to trigger a drama-worthy flameout.  In the end, when Madge decides to chase after the departed Hal, the strongest sentiment she can muster is “he needs me,” and the best we can say to Madge is, “good luck."

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Wednesday, December 5, 2012

'Golden Boy': No Knockout, Perhaps, But A Real Contender

Who knows what motivates any of us to want the things we want, to do the things we do?  And, in the end, does it really matter—or is it only the trajectory of our lives that is important?

These are real questions to ponder while watching the well-acted but not quite three-dimensional revival of Clifford Odets’s Golden Boy (first produced in 1937), now on view at the Belasco Theater. 

Odets is not a subtle playwright. He has big things to say about working class families, the transformative influences that shape first generation Americans, the pull of ambition, and the struggle to find one’s place in life. He paints with a broad brush, the theatrical equivalent of his art world contemporaries like Thomas Hart Benton or Diego Rivera.  As a playwright, Odets, a strong proponent of method acting, leaves it up to the director and the actors to breathe life into the characters—something that had not quite come to pass during the preview performance I attended.    

In Golden Boy, we are presented with two lost souls:  Joe Bonaparte (Seth Numrich) and Lorna Moon (Yvonne Strahovski), whose lives become entangled when Joe, a gifted young violinist, abandons his path—one that has been shaped by his immigrant father (Tony Shalhoub, giving the most grounded performance of the large and talented cast)—in order to pursue fame and fortune. 

One gets the sense that Joe might have gone in any number of directions to feed his itch of ambition and his desire to prove himself in a world where being a sensitive young violinist brands you as something of an outcast and less than a man.

As it happens, the particular escape hatch he has gone through leads him into the world of professional boxing, and we watch him transfer himself from his father’s loving hands into the less loving ones of the hard-scrabble boxing promoter Tom Moody (Danny Mastrogiorgio), the kind-hearted trainer Tokio (Danny Burstein), and the mobster Eddie Fuseli (Anthony Crivello), who buys a piece of the action and wants to own Joe outright.   

Joe’s counterpart, Lorna, works for and is the lover of Tom Moody. Lorna’s motivation is presented more clearly than Joe’s.  She has grown up in a terribly dysfunctional family—an abusive father and a mother who committed suicide. She has hooked up with Tom, who seemingly loves and needs her in a way that she finds hard to resist, so that she hardly considers her own feelings at all.

Joe is one of theater’s “angry young men,” triggered by something deep that neither he nor the playwright is able to name.  As his fatherloving, supportive, yet helpless to prevent the oncoming train wreck—says of Joe, “he gotta wild wolf inside…eat him up!”  Lorna has a bit of that wolf inside of her as well, and it is inevitable that she and Joe are drawn toward one another, just as their lives inevitably spiral out of control. 

Odets liked to write big ensemble works, where he could set his central characters amidst family, friends, and acquaintances, whose comings and goings add richness to the larger themes.  In addition to Joe, Lorna, Tom, Tokio, Mr. Bonaparte, and Fuseli, there are Mr. Carp (Jonathan Hadary), Mr. Bonaparte’s Schaupenhauer-quoting neighbor; Anna (Dagmara Dominczyk) and Siggie (Michael Aronov), Joe’s sister and brother-in-law; Frank (Lucas Caleb Rooney), Joe’s union organizer brother (gotta have at least one of those in an Odets play!), plus more than a dozen others to round out the cast. 

All turn in solid performances, and director Bartlett Sher has done a masterful job of keeping things nicely paced, so that the nearly three hours of running time seldom make you want to look at your watch.  However, I do find the direction to be a bit fussy and occasionally excessive.  Sher makes frequent use of period music (to remind us over and over that this is taking place in the 1930s?), and stages several boxing gym scenes that fill the stage but are really a bit much.  Interestingly enough, however, he chooses to underplay elements of homoeroticism and homophobia that thread through the play.    

I don’t want to downplay the strengths of the production.  In his lifetime, Golden Boy was Odets’s most popular work, and it is not hard to understand why.  The characters, while perhaps not fully developed, are nonetheless engaging, and the current cast is very good throughout. I would imagine that over the next few weeks, more of the actors will deepen their performances, as Tony Shalhoub has already done.  As they say in the boxing world, Golden Boy is a real contender, well worth plunking down the price of a ringside seat.

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Wednesday, November 28, 2012

'What Rhymes With America': Quirky Characters Stymied by an Underdeveloped Plot

Playwright Melissa James Gibson and Director Daniel Aukin
Photo by Sara Krulwich/The New York Times

There was an interesting article in The New York Times yesterday about efforts to clarify definitions of various personality disorders.  One example given was that of narcissism, characterized by such traits as manipulativeness and callousness.  What comes to mind is someone like Bernie Madoff, the convicted stockbroker who callously and with malicious intent manipulated his clients into trusting him with their money in what turned out to be a grand Ponzi scheme. 

I thought of Madoff while watching Melissa James Gibson’s new play, What Rhymes With America, at the Atlantic Theater Company. In it, we are introduced to Hank (Chris Bauer), a man who shows us that it is quite possible to be manipulative and callous without necessarily having malicious intent. 

Even though this is a comedy, and often quite a funny one, there is a disturbing undertone as we watch Hank—intentionally or otherwise—hurt and possibly more deeply  wound the women in his life. 

There is his wife, unseen, who has tossed Hank out after he has bilked her of her retirement savings, the last straw in a long history of denial, excuses, and irresponsible behavior. 

There is his melancholy teenaged daughter Marlene (Aimee Carrero), taken to writing sighing songs with rhymes like “oyster” and “cloister” and forced to talk to her father through the locked door of her mother’s apartment.  (Has a restraining order been issued?) 

For Marlene, Hank plays the role of the misjudged spouse and the concerned and caring dad, who coincidentally happens to be a little short of cash when asked about the 20 weeks of allowance he owes his daughter. 

There is Sheryl (Da’Vine Joy Randolph, Tony nominee for her portrayal of Oda Mae in the recent Broadway production of Ghost).  She and Hank have temporary jobs performing tiny roles in a production of Wagner’s “Ring Cycle.” They often take cigarette breaks together, during which Sheryl, who longs to play Lady Macbeth, bemoans her fate:  “I wanted to be an actress; instead I’m a Viking.” 

For Sheryl, who has developed a crush on Hank, he plays the role of the sympathetic listener, which she unfortunately interprets as reciprocal attraction. 

Finally, there is Lydia (Seana Kofoed in a standout performance), a timid, awkward, and vulnerable soul who allows herself to be romanced by Hank. He, in turn, treats her in a most callous fashion that spirals his casual narcissism to stratospheric heights. 

There is no doubt that Ms. Gibson, who has garnered praise and awards for such plays as [sic] and This, is a talented playwright and a very clever wordsmith.  Who else do you know who can use words like “supernumerary” and “hippocampus” as punchlines?  

She also does a fine job crafting individual scenes, and director Daniel Aukin, who has worked with the playwright before, handles these well. 

But the problem with What Rhymes With America is that there is not enough meat on the bones.  Each scene sort of hangs there by itself, and it becomes incumbent on the audience to make the connections to a bigger theme, just I have tried to do in this review. 

The play, running 85 minutes with no intermission, received a tepid reception from the audience at the performance I attended.  The man behind me grumbled his displeasure throughout, and towards the end increased the volume of his negative comments, calling the play the “biggest piece of shit" he’d ever seen.  All I can say is, sir, you don’t get out much, do you?   

So, no, it does not come even close to the gentleman's colorful description.  Let's call it a minor or unfinished work by a significant and always interesting playwright. Long may her hippocampus function!

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Tuesday, November 13, 2012

'The Mystery of Edwin Drood': Poised To Be First Hit of the Season

What a time it’s been lately, thanks in no small measure to Hurricane Sandy barreling  through the region. 

We watched from our third story window as the corrosive salt waters of the East River rose to a height of five feet outside our building, drowning every car in sight and wreaking havoc with everything else that lay in its path. In its wake, we were without electricity for ten days and still live with the mess. 

Yet we know full well how fortunate we have been when compared with those whose lives were turned upside-down, whose homes were badly damaged or even destroyed, and who still wait for relief.  Our warmest thoughts and wishes go out to all who have yet to begin to recover. 

Theatergoing was moved to a backburner, but getting back to this blog is part of my own effort to regroup.

After a slow start, and a temporary halt, I am happy to be able to report that Broadway may very well have its first bona fide hit of the season with the highly entertaining, exceptionally well-performed revival of The Mystery of Edwin Drood, a quirky musical that takes audience participation to new and delectable heights.

Drood, winner of multiple Tony Awards in1986 for its creator Rupert Holmes (best book, best music, best lyrics, best musical), is based on the unfinished novel of the same title by Charles Dickens, who died before completing it. It is the unfinished nature of the work that Holmes latched onto, and the thing that makes the show such a crowd-pleaser.

Because Dickens offers up a plot that is so convoluted and melodramatic as to defy any suspension of disbelief, there really are only two ways to play out the story:  straightforward or with tongue firmly planted in cheek.

If you saw the version that was shown on PBS’s Masterpiece Theater some months ago, you got an attempt at telling the story in a straightforward way.  The best that can be said about it is that you could more-or-less follow the tale through to the ending that the writer Gwyneth Hughes created for it. 

Fortunately for audiences in the Roundabout Theatre’s Studio 54, Mr. Holmes’s version is played as a pure romp, framed as a musical production by a company known as the Music Hall Royale.  

Under director Scott Ellis’s deft hand, the actors move in and out of their roles, sometimes portraying the characters in the melodrama The Mystery of Edwin Drood, sometimes stepping out of their roles to play directly to and with the audience.

I don’t quite know how to begin to explain the plot, but let me give it a shot. 

Young Edwin Drood and the sweet Rosa Bud have been engaged to be married almost since birth.  Edwin’s uncle John Jasper, who is also Rosa’s music tutor, is madly in love with his pupil and is consumed with jealousy.  To make matters worse, his mind is addled to the breaking point by the laudanum-infused wine to which he is addicted.

He is, assuredly, capable of doing great harm.  And, indeed, he becomes a prime suspect when Edwin goes missing and is presumed dead.  Yet is Jasper the villain he seems to be?

The story grows quite complicated as it turns into a whodunit, with tangential twists and turns galore, not to mention characters who show up and disappear for no apparent good reason.  

And while Jasper is the obvious suspect, there are others, especially Neville Landless, a Ceylonese native with a hot temper who has shown a serious dislike for Edwin and who was with him when he was last seen alive. 

Beyond that, at least plot-wise, I think I will step back and let you discover it for yourself.

Since the author left his story unfinished, there comes a point (announced in mid-song), where Dickens’s voice disappears and anything can happen.  Freed of the constraints of pre-determined plot points, the last 45 minutes is just jolly good fun.

Mr. Holmes has opted to let the audience vote on several key issues, including the identity of the murderer.  

This isn’t a shout-out vote, but an actual count of hands by members of the company, who spread out into the various sections of the audience so that every vote matters. 

In addition to choosing the killer, the audience determines the secret identity of one of the characters, and selects a pair of lovers to give the show its romantic/happy/comic ending. 

The game actors are first-rate through-and-through, with special nods to Will Chase as John Jasper, Stephanie Block as Edwin Drood (the role is written for a woman to play), Betsy Wolfe as Rosa Bud, Andy Karl as Neville Landless, Jessie Mueller as his sister Helena, and the incomparable Chita Rivera as Princess Puffer, proprietress of the opium den that John Jasper calls his home away from home. Kudos, too, to Robert Creighton, for his great comic turn as Durdles; the audience loves him.  
But if the show belongs to anyone, it is Jim Norton as the character known as Chairman.  Norton understands better than anyone on stage how to ringmaster a music hall production, how to win over an audience, and how to tell the corniest of jokes with the polished skill of a lifelong seller of blarney. 

Musically, The Mystery of Edwin Drood is definitely a mixed bag.  Many of the numbers are serviceable, if not memorable.  But there are enough winners to satisfy, including a wonderful patter song, “Both Sides of the Coin,” modeled on Gilbert and Sullivan, which Mr. Norton and Mr. Chase play off one another in a tongue-destroying way.  Other first-rate tunes include the haunting and creepy “Moonfall,” which Jasper has supposedly written for Rosa to sing; “The Wages of Sin,” performed by Ms. Rivera and which includes audience participation; and the triumphant “The Writing On The Wall,” sung by (sorry, it wouldn’t be cricket to tell you).

With multiple possibilities in Act II, the cast seems to be having a blast, and their pleasure is definitely contagious.  A shout-out needs to go, too, to the stylish contributions of choreographer Warren Carlyle, set designer Anna Louizos, and costume designer William Ivey Long.

At the start of this review, I noted that The Mystery of Edwin Drood may be the first hit of the season.  That does depend a lot on audiences showing up and participating. Studio 54 is a little off the tourist path, and, despite the success of its original run, not a lot of folks would have heard of the show.

So I’m suggesting another form of audience participation, which is this:  If you see it and like it, spread the word.  It will take word-of-mouth to keep the show going, especially now when things are at sixes and sevens post-Sandy.

So, go.  Enjoy.  And it’s OK to reveal all (except, perhaps, the final number), because every performance will have a different set of solutions.

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