Friday, August 17, 2012

FringeNYC, Week 1: "I Heart Revolution" and "Hadrian's Wall"

FringeNYC Begins:  187 Shows in 16 Days

Are you suffering from Olympics withdrawal? 

Here’s a cure for you:  Tackle the theater marathon that is FringeNYC, the International Fringe Festival.  187 shows, 19 venues, 16 days. Winner take all!

There is no way this couch potato is going to even try to see more than a few of the offerings (for one thing, my fulltime day job tends to get annoyingly in the way), but I did get to see a couple of the shows during the opening week.

Let’s begin with an offbeat comedy called I Heart Revolution, on view at the Living Theatre, with several more performances scheduled up to the festival’s final day, August 26.

I Heart Revolution is a gentle satire that takes aim at the “Occupy” movement; young revolutionaries, it would seem, have short attention spans and are easily distracted. 

In this case, the young revolutionaries are three BFFs—20-something children of privilege named Alexandra (the ditzy one), Tara (the belligerent one), and Alice (the sometime-peacemaker, sometime-pouty member of the triumvirate).  Back in the 1960s, we used to call them “Bonwit Teller hippies,” engaging in anti-war demonstrations and railing against the government during the week, while living off their trust funds and spending weekends with their families in the Hamptons. 

In I Heart Revolution, we are the proverbial “captive audience,” being held hostage by the trio. They surround us with police tape and hold us at bay with staple guns while they fill our heads with the not-quite-coherent beliefs they latched onto as students of a feminist professor at Brown University, a woman they refer to reverently as “Mother.”  

In what appears to be a semi-improvised event (though I Heart Revolution dates to 2008 and the aforementioned Brown University), the trio launches into a combination of diatribe, Power-Point presentations, threats, and New Age rituals aimed at getting us to succumb to Stockholm Syndrome.  That’s the phenomenon that occurs when hostages begin to empathize with their captors (√† la Patty Hearst, the heiress and socialite who turned bank-robber after being taken hostage—a very real and non-satirical event). 

The (possibly unintended) irony is, you probably can empathize with the anger and frustration, of which there is a lot going around these days.  But, like a character in a Samuel Beckett play, the rage dissipates when our captors—given a forum to air their grievances—are unable to articulate exactly what it is they are enraged about or what they want to see happen. 

This is the point, it would seem, of I Heart Revolution, and, in the end, it is not surprising that things fall apart over an argument in which one of the characters is deeply offended at an off-hand remark about the singer Beyoncé.

Throughout the performance, the trio is aided and abetted in their efforts by a game Chris Lowell (“dumb as a bag of bricks but cute in shorts,” as one of the women describes him).  Lowell plays Michael, their put-upon gofer who is just happy to have even a tiny moment before an audience, even a captive one.  (In a funny bit that occurs when the three women have momentarily left the room, Michael auditions for us as Biff in a scene from Death Of A Salesman).

The tacky staging and cheap props are most appropriate for a fringe production, and the three playwright/performers—Alexandra Panzer, Tara Schuster, and Alice Winslow—are on to something here.  With a bit more satirical bite, more in-your-face scariness aimed at the audience (hey, they are performing at The Living Theatre after all), and perhaps the excising of 15 minutes or so, I Heart Revolution could very well have an afterlife. 

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The second fringe show I saw last week is called Hadrian’s Wall (playing at the Connelly Theatre, with a last performance scheduled for this Sunday).  Unlike I Heart Revolution, this is a more fully realized play, written by Dani Vetere and directed by Stephen Cedars. 

Hadrian’s Wall is a three-character study about a brilliant yet reclusive archeologist named Ramona (Laura Siner).  Ramona has spent the last fifteen years holed up in her apartment after being accused of stealing an important artifact—a block of stone containing a tantalizing yet nearly indecipherable inscription she believes will lead to a significant breakthrough regarding the very real Roman Ninth Legion, about which a mystery remains to this day. 

Ramona is somewhat of a mystery herself, and the playwright slowly and carefully unearths fragments of her story and reveals them to us as an archeologist might, by dusting off the past and allowing us to learn about her life through her interactions with David (Eric Rolland), her attorney, friend, and former lover, and with a student at the university, Amy (Rebecca White), who is gradually supplanting David in Ramona's life.  

This is an intriguing play that leaves many questions unanswered, challenging us to interpret events for ourselves.  Taken at face value, Hadrian’s Wall is a straight-forward psychological mystery.  But its real strength is in what is left unrevealed.  There is more than a bit of Harold Pinter in the script; we are not meant to know everything, but we are invited to interpret. 

Perhaps the title is meant to suggest the self-protective wall that Ramona has built around herself since leaving the university.  Perhaps David and Amy exist only in Ramona’s memory, or perhaps she has invented one or both of them to keep her company in her self-imposed solitude.  One thing for sure, there is something about her that sticks in the mind and leaves you wanting to know more. 

I suspect that Hadrian’s Wall will have a further life, and that Dani Vetere will have an interesting future as a playwright.  But if you want to catch it now, you’ve only got until this Sunday. FringeNYC waits for no one!

If you crave more of ProfMiller, check out ProfMiller@The Theater at  Most recent review posted there:  "Richard III."

Sunday, August 5, 2012

'Gore Vidal's The Best Man' Is a Fitting Tribute to Its Playwright

The candidates face off in 'Gore Vidal's The Best Man'

I am writing this review shortly after the lights of Broadway were dimmed in a salute to the late Gore Vidal—author, playwright, and raconteur—who passed away earlier this week at the age of 86. 

As it happens, I had a ticket to see the Broadway revival of Gore Vidal’s The Best Man the day after he died. The performance, under the able hand of director Michael Wilson, was dedicated to the playwright, and I am pleased to report that this production is a most fitting tribute to the Mr. Vidal’s memory and to his talent.  

Any play that is tied to a specific era will carry with it a bit of stale air, but the current cast, which includes several replacements since the show’s opening four months ago, burnishes every corner of this 1960 political melodrama so that it fairly gleams. 

The Best Man takes place during a presidential nominating convention, at a time when the selection of the party’s candidate was not the foregone conclusion it has become through the well-oiled primary election system. 

Enter the Schoenfeld Theatre, and it is as if you were a delegate to that convention.  As ushers wearing red, white, and blue beribboned straw hats lead you to your seat, you can see that the walls are festooned with bunting, placards, and posters, and there are television monitors suspended from the ceiling showing black-and-white images of the goings-on.

The audience can hear the sounds of speeches and of clapping and cheering that draw us in even before the play begins.  The convention takes place over three days, and at the start of each of the three acts, the sounds grow louder and more excited, helping us to feel the suspense of the battle among the three leading candidates.

The actual 1960 Democratic Convention—in which John Fitzgerald Kennedy emerged as the winner—is the first one that I can recall.  I was a young teenager at the time, and I remember being glued to the television, utterly fascinated with the entire process.  Vidal (who anointed himself a member of the Kennedy clan through a stepfather he had in common with Jacqueline Kennedy) clearly drew some of his plot elements from that convention, and it is the mix of history and an unfortunately prophetic vision of what the system has become in the years since then that continues to keep the play interesting. 

On the one hand, you have characters who bring to mind the charismatic Kennedy and the intellectual Adlai Stevenson, along with specific references to President Eisenhower, to his wife Mamie Eisenhower and even to Grace Coolidge, wife of President Calvin Coolidge.   These references, among others, remind us of the place and time the play inhabits.  But there is also a great deal of political gamesmanship, deal brokering, backstabbing, mudslinging, and dirty tricks, all of which will be very familiar even to those who are too young to recall the “good old days.”

The assumption we are handed is that the nomination will go to one of two candidates, the young, dashing, and ambitious Senator Joseph Cantwell (John Stamos) for whom the ends always justify the means, or the former Secretary of State William Russell (John Larroquette), a serious statesman who is a reluctant player in the game of politics. 

Each of the two bears a piece of information about the other that may be enough to break the stalemate.  Cantwell has learned of his opponent’s one-time bout with mental illness, and Russell has information that the Senator may have had a homosexual relationship while serving in the military.  The difference here is that Cantwell relishes his weapon and has already prepared copies of the medical report to distribute to the delegates, while Russell really wants nothing to do with raising potential destructive personal information. 

As the two circle one another, a third major player is on hand—former President Art Hockstader (magnificently portrayed by James Earl Jones), whose endorsement both candidates are seeking. Hockstader, presumably modeled on Harry Truman, is gravely ill, but he will not give up one moment of the spotlight he is enjoying as long as he withholds his endorsement, and his glee is palpable during his meetings with the two frontrunners, even after he can no longer manage to stand up. 

These three gentlemen are fascinating to watch.  John Stamos and John Larroquette embrace their roles nearly as gloriously as Mr. Jones.  But this is not a three-character play;  there are 22 characters, each of whom contributes mightily to keeping things jumping, forestalling any mustiness that might otherwise have crept in. 

Mr. Stamos only recently stepped into the part of Senator Cantwell (replacing Eric McCormack), and he has made it his own by supplying equal parts of boyish charm and Machiavellian underhandedness.  He is joined by three other newcomers:  Kristin Davis, replacing Kerry Butler and making an auspicious Broadway debut, as Cantwell’s ebullient wife; Cybill Shepherd, replacing Candice Bergen as Russell’s estranged wife and reluctant political partner; and Elizabeth Ashley as Sue-Ellen Gamadge, leader of the Women’s Division. 

Ms. Shepherd has quickly found her way into an underwritten part as a politico wife who gradually comes to embrace her public duties, and Ms. Davis and Ms. Ashley (who has the daunting privilege of following Angela Lansbury), absolutely shine in their respective roles.  Ms. Ashley, in particular, seems to have been born to play the role of the honey-toned yet razor-sharp piece of work that is Sue-Ellen Gamadge, who greets Cybill Shepherd’s character (who, after all, may wind up being First Lady) with these charming words:     

You…couldn’t…look…better!  I mean it!  
 I like the whole thing…especially the 
 naturally gray hair.

Even in the smaller roles, you get to see such talented actors as Mark Blum as Russell’s frustrated campaign manager, Dakin Matthews as a backslapping Southern senator, and the always-wonderful Jefferson Mays as the craven supplier of the gossip about Senator Cantwell’s alleged sexual misconduct. 

I’m not going to argue that The Best Man is the find of the century, but there is nothing also-ran about its Tony nomination for Best Revival of a Play (it lost to Death of a Salesman).  Smart directing by Michael Wilson and a top-notch company of actors makes it a sure-fire audience pleaser that I am happy to recommend without reservation.  

If you crave more of ProfMiller, check out the column, ProfMiller@The Theater, at  Recent reviews include "How Deep Is The Ocean?," "Triassic Parq The Musical," and "Closer Than Ever."