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.