Sunday, April 29, 2012

Dying Is Easy. Comedy Is Hard. Farce Is Nigh On Impossible.

Cast of "Don't Dress for Dinner."  Photo by Monica Simoes.

Two chuckles and one half-smile.

That’s the best I could muster for the uninspired bit of nonsense called Don’t Dress for Dinner, a revival of a 20-year-old French sex farce now on view at the Roundabout’s American Airlines Theatre.

Written by Marc Camolietti, who three decades earlier penned the much more artistically and commercially successful Boeing-Boeing, this more recent play undoubtedly owes its production to its predecessor.  Boeing-Boeing had an acclaimed run on Broadway in 2008, winning high praise for director Matthew Warchus and Tonys for best revival and best leading actor, well deserved for the extraordinary performance of  Marc Rylance.   That production did everything right, from having the right cast to perfect comic timing.

Don’t Dress For Dinner, adapted into English by Robin Hawdon, suffers from a tremendous lack of imagination, and boasts only one actor, Spencer Kayden (Little Sally in Urinetown) who is able to rise above the mediocre to give the play its only spark of life.

Defining “farce” is not an exact science, but it certainly requires a Rube-Goldberg plot that becomes increasingly absurd, with lots of jokey but well-managed, high-speed acting.

The plot of Don’t Dress for Dinner does lend itself to a farcical production.  The play takes place in the country home of a married couple, each of whom has a secret lover on the side.  With the expectation that his wife Jacqueline will be away for the weekend, Bernard has invited his cherie Suzanne to be with him.  By way of covering up the tryst, he has also invited an old friend, Robert, to the house.  Since Robert happens to be Jacqueline’s paramour, she cancels her plans at the last minute in order to be with him.  Add to the mix, a professional cook named Suzette, who has been invited to cater the weekend and who gets mistaken for Suzanne, and you’ve got the makings for just the sort calculated silliness that is farce. 

The problem is, it just doesn’t work.  John Tillinger’s direction is lackluster, and the acting is all over the place.  There are at least four comic styles that constantly bump into one another, with only Ms. Kayden (as Suzette the cook) seeming to understand that she is in a farce. Adam James (as Bernard) and Ben Daniels (as Robert) are doing baggy pants slapstick routines, with a lot of flailing, arm waving, and klutzy footwork;  Jennifer Tilly (Suzanne) is doing burlesque; and Patricia Kalember (Jacqueline) seems to be in a Noel Coward drawing room comedy.  Seen in this light, they all do fine work; it’s just a shame they are not all performing in the same play at the same time.

Then there are the doors. 

Farce often makes use of multiple doors, through which the characters enter and exit at breakneck speed.  Doors are used for hiding, for barely avoiding collisions, and for making inappropriate dramatic entrances.  

Here there are two doors (three if you count the underutilized front entrance), and, while they are acknowledged, their potential for comic use is scrupulously avoided.  The other might-have-been-interesting room in the house is the unseen master bedroom at the top of the stairs. 

It is possible that Don’t Dress for Dinner may find its footing sometime in the future with a more creative team behind it.  It did play for six years in London, and someone might be able to find a way to shape it for a successful U.S. run.  But this ain’t  it.

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

Friday, April 27, 2012

A Leap Too Far

Leap of Faith, the new musical at the St. James Theatre, is far too insistent, like a spoiled child demanding attention:  “Look at me!  Adore me!  Believe in me!”

Well I looked, but I didn’t adore, and, more importantly, I didn’t believe. 

My fault if the show fails, I suppose.  For Jonas Nightingale, the preacher man up there on stage, tells me that if the miracle doesn’t happen, it’s because I just didn’t show enough faith.  

Maybe that’s why, even before the show begins, members of the cast circulate among the audience and encourage (“badger” is more like it) them into throwing their hands into the air and shouting a series of loud and collective “Hallelujahs.”  I felt like a Who in Whoville being pressed into joining the collective shout-out in Dr. Seuss’s Horton Hears A Who (though the stakes are not nearly as high, except, perhaps, for the investors.)

The (not very) Reverend Nightingale (like that’s his real name!) is one of those theatrical con artists, styled after Harold Hill (The Music Man) or Starbuck (The Rainmaker, or 110 In The Shade if you prefer).  He swoops into town, charms the gullible folks out of their last dime, and then disappears one step ahead of the sheriff. 

In the case of Leap of Faith, the rubes are the inhabitants of Sweetwater, Kansas, a place of quiet desperation that is drying up due to a lack of employment opportunity, not to mention rain.  Nightingale and his retinue of choristers, stranded for three days when their bus breaks down, decide to set up their tent, hold a three-day revival meeting, and squeeze all they can out of the piggy banks, cookie jars, and pockets of every last sucker in sight.

Jonas finds out quickly that the sheriff, Marla McGowan, a widow with a young teenage son, has her eye on him and is ready to lock him up at a moment’s notice.  Oh, and her son, Jake, is wheelchair-bound, injured in the accident that killed his father.

Not hard to guess the through-story, or the pending miracle (or miracles, if you count the rain).  A simple tale of the redemptive power of faith and love.

Only, not so fast.  The book writers Janus Cercone and Warren Leight, who adapted the musical from the motion picture of the same title, have thrown in a bunch of other stuff just to complicate matters and, I guess, to provide work for a cast of 37.  With all of those people, the revival tent, sound equipment, choir robes, and Nightingale’s “disco ball for Jesus” outfit (his description, not mine), it’s no wonder the bus broke down!

So apart from the story of the flimflam man, we get to know all about Jonas’s sister Sam, and about the Sturdevant family—Ida Mae, who heads up the Angels of Mercy choir, and her daughter Ornella and son Isaiah.  Unlike Jonas, the Sturdevants are true believers; Isaiah, a Bible school student who plans to follow his father’s footsteps onto the pulpit, has shown up in the hopes of getting his mom and sister to leave the charlatan. 

All in all, there is a lot going on—including a frame that essentially conscripts the audience into the Army of the Lord as attendees of the revival. 

Because this is a musical, I suppose I should talk about the music and lyrics.  So, OK.  Alan Menken has provided tunes that are mostly repetitious, generic gospel, and Glenn Slater’s lyrics are mostly monosyllabic basic rhymes.   

As for the performances, everyone is fine, I guess, especially with so little to work with.  Raul Esparza strives mightily to sell us on the Prodigal Son that is Jonas Nightingale, but there is—intentionally or not—precious little that is charming about this character, and as much as Esparza tries to pump up the volume, he cannot make this work.  The same holds true for the rest of the otherwise talented cast:  Kendra Kassebaum as Sam Nightingale, Jessica Phillips as Marla, Talon Ackerman as Jake (who believes with a child’s certainty in miracles), Kecia Lewis-Evans as Ida Mae, Krystal Joy Brown as Ornella, and Leslie Odom Jr. as Isaiah. 

Perhaps if director Christopher Ashley had the faith the slight story calls for and had gone for a simpler and less snarky approach, the show may have had a chance. 

As it is, there is no redemption for Leap of Faith.

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

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Tennessee Williams' Final Play: Much That Is Outrageous, Little That Is Austere

Poster by Noah Scalin

There are many pleasures to be found within the drug-addled fog of Tennessee Williams’ final and previously unproduced play, In Masks Outrageous and Austere, now having its world premiere at Culture Project.

This may not be the Williams of The Glass Menagerie or A Streetcar Named Desire, but I am happy to report that it is also not the Williams of The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore, The Seven Descents of Myrtle, or Out Cry—to cite three others of his late plays that I saw in their original productions, all of which were leaden and pretentiously thick with “meaning.” 

With Masks, which has seen a number of tinkering hands since Williams’ death in 1983 (among them, Gore Vidal’s and Peter Bogdonovich’s), the playwright joins such writers as Edward Albee, John Guare, and Tony Kushner, who—with varying degrees of success—have attempted to mix elements of realism, surrealism, and absurdism into their work. I, for one, think he was on to something. 

I give a lot of credit to director David Schweizer, who recently helmed the intriguing, moving, and, yes, surreal revival of Rinde Eckert’s And God Created Great Whales (also for Culture Project). 

Schweizer has done an admirable job of pulling together the disparate elements of what you could never call a linear or clearly plotted play.  Instead, guided by the director’s sure hand, In Masks Outrageous and Austere invites us enter a world that owes much of its logic to pharmacological enhancement.  If you can accept that, you are in for a most interesting evening, filled with mystery, intrigue, corporate greed, paranoia, and murder—along with a surprising amount of humor and glorious turns of phrase. 

As we enter the theater, we find ourselves surrounded by LED screens and two-way mirrors, along with a sound system that is pumping out electronic music and bits of seemingly random dialog, while several Men-In-Black types move robotically about, speaking into headsets.

I have to say, my initial response was that this was a lot of smoke and (literally) mirrors designed to cover up the obvious flaws in what would turn out to be yet another dreary late Williams play.  Yet in Schweizer’s able hands, these elements greatly enhance the experience. 

The voices and the music and the images with which we are initially bombarded create a representation of what it must be like to have Attention Deficit Disorder, an apt metaphor for a play in which the main character is described as having “eyes blazin’ with Ritalin.” 

If you make the effort to filter out some of the noise, you will hear the voices going through a checklist of props needed for the play.  Among the calls for martini glasses and baseball caps, you will hear this exchange:


And so it begins.

The play opens, and we are…where?  None of the main characters seems to know—not Babe, the “richest woman in the world,” nor her much younger current husband Billy, a “distinguished minor poet,” as Babe calls him, nor Billy‘s much younger lover Jerry.  They have been whisked off to some secret location, where they are being watched over by a retinue of those Men-In-Black types, collectively referred to as “Gideons.” 

Since the audience is not presented with much of a roadmap to understanding what follows, allow me the indulgence of constructing my own meaning.

I take it that Babe’s status and image as the figurehead overseer of her late husband’s super-ultra-mega-global business conglomerate is being threatened by the very existence of Billy and Jerry, and that the Gideons have been dispatched to see to it that things are returned to the status quo.  Keeping Babe in an alcohol-and-drug-induced fog is essential to carrying out the plan; as Babe herself points out,  “A firearm in the hands of the demented should not be disregarded.” 

Think of all of this corporate intrigue as taking place on the outskirts of the play, while the action within is filtered through Babe’s befuddled and manipulated mind.  Here is where things get messy.  But if you are willing to go along for the ride, there’s a lot of fun to be had, what with the goings-on of Babe’s inattentive attendant Peg Foyle, Peg’s hunky boyfriend Joey, and, especially, “Mrs. Gorse dash Bracken from the invisible house next door” (yet another bon mot from Babe, who gets to relay many of Williams’ better linguistic creations). 

It’s OK to laugh.  This is funny stuff. 

At the performance I attended, veteran actress Shirley Knight, who during previews reportedly had trouble recalling her lines, nailed them—or perhaps wove any hesitations into the personality of her character—and she does splendidly as Babe, striving as best she can to make sense out of the nonsense that has become her world.  And don’t kid yourself; sober or un, Babe is no babe in the woods, but someone to be reckoned with. 

The rest of the cast members do equally well:  Robert Beitzel as the neurasthenic Billy, Sam Underwood as Jerry (with little enough to do beyond standing around and looking cute), Pamela Shaw as Peg, and Christopher Hallday as Joey. 

But it is Alison Fraser as Mrs. Gorse-Bracken (what a great name!) who truly embodies the goofy logic of the play. In spirit a character from Alice In Wonderland, she wanders in and out towing along or chasing after her mentally challenged and libido-driven son Playboy (Connor Buckley).  Things always liven up when she is at hand, regardless of the tenuous connection between what she says and whatever else is going on. 

You can also sense Williams getting quite a chuckle out of setting the play in a beach house of the mind, where one can take a warm ocean swim and watch the aurora borealis at the same time.  And, given the playwright’s predilection for hotel living, you can imagine the hallucinatory coming-into-being of the Gideons (all of those Bibles in all of those hotel rooms!)  If that’s not enough, the director himself has added still more elements, including video appearances by Buck Henry and Austin Pendleton, as contacts from the outside world. 

By the way, the title of the play comes from a poem by Elinor Wylie, "Now Let No Charitable Hope," which ends:

In masks outrageous and austere
The years go by in single file;
But none has merited my fear,
And none has quite escaped my smile.

It is the smile that lingers.  All in all, In Masks Outrageous and Austere is a boldly conceived and quite enjoyable theatrical experience.  And I ain’t just whistling “Dixie,” a remark that is relevant but which I believe I will leave unexplained.

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

Saturday, April 7, 2012

A Solid 'Streetcar' With A Resilient Blanche DuBois at Its Core

Cast of "Streetcar": Wood Harris, Nicole Ari Parker, Blair Underwood, and Daphne Rubin-Vega

Blanche DuBois is evolving.

Or maybe the way we view her is evolving.

This is what I found myself thinking while watching the compelling new production of Tennessee Williams’ 1947 masterwork, A Streetcar Named Desire, now in previews at the Broadhurst Theatre.

Streetcar, under the deft direction of Emily Mann, features a multiracial cast of actors who are well on their way to making this American classic their own.  

This is more than “color blind” or “gimmick” casting; Williams himself envisioned a multiracial production, and one was in the works as early as 1958. It certainly makes sense for a play that takes place in that most culturally diverse of cities, New Orleans. 

Ms. Mann has chosen her players well, down to the smallest roles, including a welcome return to the stage for Carmen de Lavallade, the ageless dancer/actress who, as it so happens, is the daughter of Creole parents from New Orleans. Just watch her strut her stuff as part of the jazz funeral procession that opens the second act! 

Going against the tide of packing a play with sure-fire ticket selling big names (the current star-studded production of The Best Man comes to mind), this Streetcar brings us an ensemble of solid but generally lesser-known actors, mostly identified with television and film work. 

Blair Underwood--who perhaps comes closest to providing a name recognition factor—oozes earthy charm, sexual frisson, and violent rage in equal measure as the brutish Stanley.  “Every man’s a king—and I’m the King around here!” he snarls at his wife Stella, and he means it, even during those moments when he shows a dram of remorse for his abusive behavior.  He may seem at first to be a toothless braggadocio, but best beware; cross him at your peril.

Daphne Rubin-Vega, as the battered Stella, gives us a woman who is determined to live with the choices she has made and to fit herself into her husband’s rough-and-tumble world, a far cry from the genteel upbringing she and her sister Blanche knew when growing up on what was left of the family’s planation, Belle Reve.

If Belle Reve is the DuBois sisters’ Tara, Blanche DuBois is the one who most resembles Scarlett O’Hara.  Not the bubble-headed “fiddle-dee-dee” Scarlett, but the one who has learned how to fend for herself when those she has relied upon to take care of her have failed to do so, the Scarlett who declares, “If I have to lie, steal, cheat or kill. As God is my witness, I'll never be hungry again.”

There are, of course, many ways to play Blanche. She is one of the most richly imagined and complex characters in the history of American theater, the role of a lifetime for many an actress.  It was only a couple of years ago that Cate Blanchett headed up a production at the Brooklyn Academy of Music that theater critic Ben Brantley of The New York Times called “heart-stopping.” 

So, what a gutsy move it was to pin this iconic role on Nicole Ari Parker, an actress with little theatrical experience who is probably best known as a fashion model and for her role in the Showtime television series, “Soul Food,” dating back eight years now.

Gutsy and smart, as it turns out. Because Ms. Parker has sunk her teeth into the role, and has come up with a Blanche who has evolved considerably from the image of a wounded butterfly, passive and half-lost in illusions and dreams. 

Instead, she gives us a strong and resilient woman who has managed to survive a lifetime of blows by taking matters into her own hands. It may be true that she wants magic, as she famously declares, but look at the entire speech:  “I want magic! Yes, yes, magic. I try to give that to people. I do misrepresent things. I don't tell truths. I tell what ought to be truth.” 

This Blanche knows full well what she is doing, and that the magic she craves doesn’t happen of its own accord.  When, for example, she covers a bare lightbulb with a paper lantern, she says, ”Oh look, we have created enchantment.” 

Despite her desire for a kinder, gentler world, Ms. Parker’s Blanche never for a moment forgets or brushes off the ugliness she has had to endure. 

Here she is explaining to a demanding and suspicious Stanley how it is she has come to lose Belle Reve:  “There are thousands of papers, stretching back over hundreds of years, affecting Belle Reve as, piece by piece, our improvident grandfathers and father and uncles and brothers exchanged the land for their epic fornications…”

And here she is freely admitting to Mitch, her erstwhile beau (well played by Wood Harris with a mixture of naiveté and disdain) of her life after she lost Belle Reve:  “I stayed at a hotel called the Tarantula Arms. Yes, a big spider. That's where I brought my victims. Yes, I've had many meetings with strangers.”

She doesn’t even balk at telling the saddest tale of all, an act of cruelty she committed when she was young and dewy-eyed, which led to devastating consequences for which she will never ever forgive herself.  

I have to tell you, there were audible gasps from the audience more than once, and not just at the brutal act that occurs late in the play.  Yet it is Ms. Parker's portrait of a woman who endures that has the ability to resonate with audiences. 

Even after being horribly violated and summarily removed into psychiatric lock-up, there is every reason to imagine Blanche will return.  For it is not only her uncanny ability to rely on "the kindness of strangers" that will rescue her, but her unshakable faith that--to quote dear Scarlett--"Tomorrow is another day!"

This Streetcar may not be heart-stopping, but it is honest and powerful, and, unlike so many recent revivals of Tennessee Williams' plays,  it genuinely respects the playwright's exquisite use of language and imagery.   

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