Sunday, January 22, 2012

Seeking the Soul of 'Wit'

Cynthia Nixon stars in 'Wit'

See that woman dressed in a thin hospital gown, head shaved and covered with a baseball cap?  She is Vivian Bearing, whose surname ironically describes the dual nature of her current status. 

On the one hand, she has the regal bearing of a highly regarded scholar at the height of her career, admired by those in her academic circle and held in fear and trembling by the students in her metaphysical poetry class. This is an image she has cultivated for herself, one that she has lived with most satisfyingly for many years. 

Now, however, another meaning of her name has come into play, referencing the fact that Professor Bearing is bearing up under a terrible regimen of experimental chemotherapy, in the minuscule chance that it might beat back stage four ovarian cancer.  She has no choice; as she reminds the audience, “there is no stage five.”

This is the conceit of Wit, the Pulitzer Prize-winning play by Margaret Edson, now in revival at the Manhattan Theatre Club at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre.  Whatever plans we may have for ourselves, life has a way of following its own course; however many layers of self-protective armor we wrap ourselves in, life has a way of stripping things down to the basics. 

At the play’s start, Vivian (Cynthia Nixon) puts on a brave front, using sarcasm and badinage to deal—or to avoid dealing—with her situation. She realizes, she says, that this is a matter of life and death, but “I know all about life and death” as a specialist in the metaphysical poetry of John [Death Be Not Proud] Donne. 

Enduring eight months of debilitating chemotherapy turns out to be rather more physical than metaphysical, however, and Vivian is forced to relinquish all vestiges of her own pride for the sake of survival.  And the woman who has always considered herself to be fiercely independent is now dependent on others—the condescending doctors (Michael Countryman and Greg Keller) who see her as little more than a means for collecting research data, and the nurse (Carra Patterson), who singularly shows her a degree of compassion. 

Through flashbacks, we get to see bits of Vivian’s life-before-cancer:  as a young child encouraged by her father to use and cherish her intellect; as a less-than-stellar student gaining her first knowledge of Donne from her mentor (Suzanne Bertish, perfect in a role that gives her the play’s most touching moment); and as a demanding professor giving her own students a hard time.

Ms. Edson, the playwright, who has determinedly remained in her career as an elementary school teacher, drew upon previous experience working in the cancer and AIDS unit of a research hospital and her own education as a literature major to create this powerful opus.  

Wit is not without its flaws—there is a confrontational scene regarding a “do not resuscitate” order that seems unnecessarily shoehorned in for dramatic effect, and the flashbacks don’t always add to our understanding of Vivian—yet the story itself is one that can and does resonate with audiences.  Death, after all, makes no exceptions.  We just hope for a more benign final journey than the one Vivian has to face.    
For Ms. Nixon and director Lynne Meadow, both of whom are breast cancer survivors, this first-time Broadway mounting of Wit seems to be a labor of love for a play they believe most strongly in. But everything does depend upon the actress playing the central role.

The New York Times Magazine this week published a profile of Ms. Nixon that describes her as “eager to please.”  I felt that eagerness in her performance and found it a bit off-putting.  It seems to me that  Vivian should arrive wrapped in more self-assuredness, even arrogance, especially in the first half before the illness has rubbed away the façade. 

Whether you find Ms. Nixon to be compelling or underpowered will need to be your personal response. For myself, I prefer Emma Thompson’s portrayal in the Mike Nichols filmed version and highly recommend it as an alternative.

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Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Angry, Angrier, Angriest

Matthew Rhys looks back in anger

Well, if nothing else, they got the “angry” part right.

That, unfortunately, is the best that can be said for the rage-infused revival of John Osborne’s groundbreaking play, Look Back In Anger, now on view at the Roundabout’s Laura Pels Theater. 

Look Back In Anger, a sharp-eyed, sharp-tongued portrait of the lost generation of post-World War II 20-something Brits, has always had a mixed reputation.  Ever since its London premiere in 1956, it has been both reviled and revered, but, having seen two very different productions in the past couple of years, I believe there are depths to be found within this seemingly endless rant of a play that are waiting to be corralled by the right director and the right actors.

In this case, the director is Sam Gold, who in recent years has shown himself to be a wunderkind (Circle Mirror Transformation, The Aliens, Seminar) and who is now—for better or for worse, it remains to be seen which—a Roundabout Associate Artist.  Look Back in Anger, however, seems to have eluded his grasp.

Here, Gold has opted to rev up the audience with a pre-show recorded jazz concert (Dizzy Gillespie?), which, depending on your predilection for such things, is either highly entertaining (I enjoyed it) or migraine-inducing (as a theater-going colleague called it). 

The connection to the play is peripheral.  Osborne’s “angry young man” Jimmy Porter (Matthew Rhys, who is Welsh and at least sounds authentically British) had, at one time, performed with a jazz band.  During the course of the play, he pulls out his trumpet from time to time and bleats some dissonant riffs, seemingly for the sole purpose of annoying those around him.  If he could play like the recorded jazz musicians, he would have a brilliant future indeed (but then he might lose his hallmark frustrated edginess.)

The play itself opens with a long period of silence, as Jimmy and his friend Cliff  (the ubiquitous Adam Driver, for whom Roundabout and various efforts at British accents have defined his work through several recent productions) are reading the Sunday papers, while Jimmy’s wife Alison (the unfortunately shrill Sarah Goldberg)—dressed in a bra, slip, and open house robe—is doing the ironing. 

This opening, set in a squalid room that defines the narrow boundaries of Jimmy and Alison’s flat and of their lives, is rather Pinteresque in its snapshot of skewed domesticity and its discomfiting air of foreboding.  Alas, however, the silence is soon broken, and Jimmy spends much of the rest of the play spewing forth a steady stream of invective aimed at Alison and her upper class family, Cliff, the landlady, the government, the church, the world in general, and, upon occasion, himself.

Unfortunately, that’s pretty much the play as it is being presented on the stage of the Laura Pels. 

But it needn’t be that way.   The play raises some intriguing issues that beg to be explored.  If Pinter shows up in the opening scene, there are also pieces of August Strindberg, Tennessee Williams, and Edward Albee to be found.

Borrowing from Strindberg, imagine if Miss Julie had married her footman.  What would their lives be like?  That’s Alison and Jimmy, locked forever in some fatal love-hate attraction that is beyond easy understanding. 

Alison is Jimmy’s equal in many ways, but her tactics are her own, and she definitely is not afraid of his bluster.  For the most part, she gets in her digs by choosing not to react to his baiting, by being openly sexual with Cliff, and by cultivating friendships with people she knows that Jimmy despises. There is also in the play a scene that has been deleted for this production, a reunion between Alison and her father that is very telling about the world she has left behind.  This is an important moment, because it unexpectedly shows her father to be a kind and sympathetic character and adds another layer of complexity to the unfolding events.  Yet it has been sacrificed, either to spare the expense of hiring another actor or in service of the vexing and constant battle.  

Then there is Tennessee Williams.  A passing remark is made about Marlon Brando, and, indeed, Jimmy does have a lot in common with Stanley Kowalksi, the brutish character Brando so indelibly brought to life in A Streetcar Named Desire.  Like Stanley famously yelling for his Stella, there is a core of pain underlying Jimmy’s anger, a pain that—if brought out though directorial and acting choices—would humanize Jimmy and give the audience someone they could actually care about. 

There is also Jimmy’s puzzling relationship with Cliff, another important key to understanding Jimmy that could be explored more deeply.  The production I saw back in 2010 by The Seeing Place at A.T.A. Sargent Theater played up this aspect and made the triangle a most interesting one.  In this production, however, Cliff seems to lack personality and serves solely as the mediator between Jimmy and Alison.

Later, the delicate balance they have all maintained is threatened with the arrival on the scene of Alison’s friend Helena (a solid performance by Charlotte Parry).   Major upheaval ensues, yet in this production Jimmy seems pretty much unaffected, unable or unwilling to move out of the role he has assigned to himself.  In the end, a temporary truce comes into play (à la Albee's George and Martha at the end of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?), but we cannot leave the theater imagining it will last for long. 

In the final analysis, I found this production of Look Back In Anger to be disappointing.   Jimmy, our jazz trumpeter, is purely a Johnny One-Note, and Osborne’s significant portrait of a sadly lost soul is itself lost on us. 
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Wednesday, January 4, 2012

'Lysistrata Jones': She Likes Basketball. How About That!

Patti Murin as Lysistrata Jones

Sometimes, while settling into your seat prior to the start of a performance, it’s fun to eavesdrop (and pretty much impossible to avoid, in any case) on the conversations around you.

Take today for instance.  While awaiting the matinee curtain of the bouncy, cute musical Lysistrata Jones (at the Walter Kerr Theatre), I heard this great conversation behind me:

Theatergoer A:  I don’t really know what this is about.  Do you?

Theatergoer B:  Something about basketball…and sex.

Theatergoer A:  Well, I can handle one or the other, but I’m not sure about both.

I think Theatergoer A handled it just fine, at least based on the intermission conversation.

And what’s not to like?  Lysistrata Jones is a charming romp of a show, with book by  Douglas Carter Beane and performed by a talented cast of 12 and an equally talented band, visible on a catwalk above the stage and actively involved in the proceedings.

You might call Lysistrata Jones a labor of love by Mr. Bean’s circle of friends and his life partner, composer and lyricist Lewis Flinn. The pair collaborated on Mr. Beane’s very funny The Little Dog Laughed; the show is directed by Dan Knechtges, who choreographed the musical Xanadu, with book by DCB; and the band performs under the baton of Brad Simmons, who worked on Mr. and Mrs. Fitch, written by Guess Who.    

It should come as no surprise that Lysistrata Jones (the title role is played in lively 'Legally Blonde' style by Patti Murin) is inspired by the Greek comedy, Lysistrata, by Aristophanes.

As in the original, our heroine persuades her girlfriends to withhold sex from their boyfriends in order to get them to do something they want.  In this case, it is not anything quite so dramatic as putting an end to war; instead, what the girls want is for the boys to actually try to win a basketball game—something the team at their very laid-back college has never done.  (“No more givin’ it up ‘til you give up givin’ it up” go the lyrics to one of the catchier numbers). 

The shenanigans are overseen by a formidable Liz Mikel as the goddess-like Hetaira (the hetairai were courtesans in Ancient Greece, and this Hetaira is a madam at a brothel), who makes sure everything stays on track until lessons are learned and all is well in the world.  

You could argue, and I would not disagree, that perhaps a Broadway theater is not the best home (size-wise or ticket-price-wise) for this bit of cotton candy, which made the trip uptown from its former home at the probably more appropriate Judson Memorial Church Gymnasium at Washington Square South.

Indeed, despite some very positive reviews, notably by Ben Brantley in The New York Times, Lysistrata Jones is set to close on Sunday.  However, it is almost certain to become a fixture at college and community theaters around the country, and could very well show up for a longer stay at an Off-Broadway house like the New World Stages, where it would be right at home alongside other former Broadway shows like Avenue Q, Million Dollar Quartet, and Rent

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