Thursday, March 22, 2012

Why You Should Avoid 'End of the Rainbow,' And Why You Should Ignore What I Just Said

Tracie Bennett as Judy Garland

It’s only fair to warn you, before I explain why you really should see it, that there are plenty of problems with End of the Rainbow, the British import that takes place during several weeks of a singing gig by Judy Garland, just months before her death in 1969.

Let me tick them off:

Peter Quilter’s play belabors the obvious, what you might expect from a run-of-the-mill bio about the downward spiral of a life shattered by addictions to booze, pills, cigarettes, men, and the unquenchable need to be loved by an adoring public.

In case you just happened to wander into the theater and cannot quite recall who Judy Garland was, Mr. Quilter is there to lend a hand.  He provides enough jokes about “munchkins” and “yellow brick roads” and remarks about “Sid” (Luft, husband #3 and father of singer Lorna Luft) and “Vincent,” (Minnelli, #2 and father of Liza) to jolt your memory.   

There are also predictable references to the fact that among Ms. Garland’s fan base are a fair number of gay men, represented in the play by her pianist Anthony (Michael Cumpsty).  Anthony idolizes the Judy Garland image, if not necessarily the person herself; when he looks at her, all he can see is Dorothy Gale from The Wizard of Oz, Esther Smith from Meet Me in St. Louis, and Vicki Lester from A Star Is Born.  Be still my beating heart!

Later, when it comes time to report on Ms. Garland’s death—something that shouldn’t come as too much of a shocker (Hint:  What is the play’s title?)—it falls upon Anthony to solemnly make the announcement directly to the audience.  This is, believe me, not the kind of play where breaking the “fourth wall” is de rigueur.

The other main character is Judy’s new business manager and husband-#5-to-be, Mickey Deans (Tom Pelphrey), portrayed in the play as short-tempered and controlling, a Svengali who withholds drugs and alcohol from Judy and then later feeds them to her, as it serves his purpose—which is to hold her together long enough to fulfill her performing obligation, a five-week run at London’s The Talk of the Town.

OK.  If you are still with me, you are probably wondering why I am about to say that none of this matters very much, and that you would be doing yourself a big favor by seeing End of the Rainbow. 

The answer lies in the astonishing performance of Tracie Bennett as Judy Garland.

I can think of few instances where actors have thrown themselves into a role with such intensity, with such ferocity, as Ms. Bennett displays from the moment she enters the scene until her post-curtain call song. 

True, she doesn’t really look like Ms. Garland, and she doesn’t really sound like her—there are more than enough Garland impersonators out there who can give you these things—yet she manages to embody Ms. Garland in a way that is jaw-dropping. 

When the play opens, in a suite of the London Ritz Hotel (beautiful set, by the way, by William Dudley, who is also responsible for the costumes), Ms. Bennett enters the room like an over-the-top diva, surrounded by her many pieces of luggage and complaining about how tiny the suite is, fit only for midgets (or munchkins!).     

During this opening scene, I was unimpressed.  Ms. Bennett’s acting reminded me more of an Al Hirshfeld caricature than a character.  But it didn’t take me too long to realize that this was a deliberate pose—Judy Garland playing the role of the “legendary Judy Garland,” despite the fact that she was broke and all-but-broken in so many ways in both her career and her personal life.   

As the play progressed, I became more and more enthralled with the tour-de-force acting.  Ms. Bennett takes the clich├ęs that the playwright has written for her and turns them into an extraordinarily complicated person, segueing in the blink of an eye from anxiety-ridden bundle of raw nerves, to ingratiating cadger of drugs, to consummate crowd pleaser, to shameless manipulator. 

You should see her when she gets her hands on some medication that is meant to be used on a dog, or when she uses her self-deprecating humor both to cover up her own pain and to charm others.  She is a walking id, with no superego to hold her in check, someone who lives life as if there were nothing left to lose. 

This is what Ms. Bennett gives us, along with a singing style that evokes Judy Garland after she had reached that place where the way in which she sold a song to an audience far outweighed the minor detail that her singing voice was a ragged remnant of what it once was.  

There is a sense of desperation in every move she makes, but Ms. Bennett gives us a Judy Garland who is hell-bent both on immolating herself and on rising from the ashes—until that is no longer possible.

This is a truly memorable, a truly magnificent performance.  Brava, brava, and yet again brava!

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Sunday, March 18, 2012

Lost (and Found) in Yonkers

The boys greet Grandma Kurnitz.  Photo by Stephen Kunken

Nobody likes Grandma Kurnitz, and it’s not hard to figure why.  She is a curmudgeon’s curmudgeon, tough and mean-spirited as they come, the steely controlling center of Neil Simon’s Lost in Yonkers, now in view in a first-rate revival by The Actors Company Theatre company (TACT) at Theatre Row’s Beckett Theatre

Lost in Yonkers first appeared on Broadway in 1991, five years after the final play in what is sometimes referred to as the “Eugene Triology” (Brighton Beach Memoirs, Biloxi Blues, and Broadway Bound). 

Anyone with knowledge of those earlier works will find some elements of Lost in Yonkers that seem familiar.  Like its predecessors, this is a coming-of-age story, featuring, in this instance, not one but two precocious teenage boys.  And, as you might expect, it also includes lots of clever Simonesque wisecracks. 

What makes Lost in Yonkers a richer work is the sense that you are being given an inside look at a very real and troubled family, with enough unpredictable turns to keep it from becoming yet another Simon saga of a World War II-era family, an affectionate but not quite believable sugared memoir that covers up the scary parts. 

Lost in Yonkers begins with a visit to Grandma Kurnitz (Cynthia Harris, co-artistic director of TACT) by her anxious widowed son Eddie (Dominic Comperatore), with his boys, Jay (Matthew Gummley) and Arty (Russell Posner), in tow.  Eddie has had little to do with his mother for many years, and she has seen her grandsons—now 15 and 13—only a handful of times. Nevertheless, Eddie has come crawling back to the family home in order to beg his mother to let the boys stay with her for the better part of a year.  He needs to go away to earn the money to pay back the loan shark who had covered his wife’s final medical expenses, and he has nowhere else to turn.

With this setup, It does seem that we can expect the inevitable march toward a happy family ending, in which the boys and their grandmother learn to appreciate one another.  But Simon either abandoned that path or intended another one all along.  For while Jay and Arty are still significant players, they become observers and commentators, while the meat of the play examines Grandma Kurnitz and the still-festering wounds she has caused to her now-grown children. In addition to Eddie, we spend time with his sisters Bella (Finnerty Steeves) and Gert (Stephanie Cozart), and their brother Louie (Alec Beard)—all of whom have spent their lives living in fear of their mother’s icy hold over them and all of whom have been damaged in different ways.

When one character says of Grandma Kurnitz, who owns and runs a candy story beneath her immaculately ordered apartment, that “she’d know if salt was missing from a pretzel,” you are invited to laugh, as long as it is out of her hearing, because you understand that it is absolutely true. 

At the early preview I saw, the entire cast was already uniformly strong and functioning as a tight-knit ensemble. Special kudos should go to Ms. Steeves as the emotionally stifled and developmentally-delayed Bella, reminiscent of Laura Wingfield in that other well-known memory play, Tennessee Williams' The Glass Menagerie

Under the excellent direction of Jenn Thompson, and aided in no small part by the perfect scenic design by John McDermott, Lost in Yonkers even allows for a little sympathy towards Grandma Kurnitz, as we gain some insights into the cause of her own bitter toughness.  There is a moment towards the end in which she shows the audience (though not her family) a momentary glimpse of happiness that is both startling and revelatory.

Lost in Yonkers is a bit messy as the center of attention moves from character to character like a hot potato being tossed around, yet the place where it ultimately lands is most satisfying and appropriate. In the end, it doesn’t much matter whether this is a reflection of Simon’s actual recollections or purely a work of imagination.  There is a ring of truth that undoubtedly contributed to the original production’s walking away with a Pulitzer Prize and multiple Tony Awards and that makes this revival a rich and valuable theatrical experience.

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