Wednesday, August 21, 2013

'The Importance of Being Ernest Hemingway': Intriguing Mash-Up of Disparate Writers

Viewing The Importance of Being Ernest Hemingway, a production of M-34 Theatre now on tap through September 1 at the Access (380 Broadway), is a bit like attending an exhibit of abstract expressionism at the Museum of Modern Art.

There is much to contemplate, to take pleasure in, to admire, to be moved by, and, yes, to puzzle over in what is less a straightforward play than a theatrical expression of both ideas and emotions, inspired by the unlikely pairing of the works of Oscar Wilde and Ernest Hemingway.

In a recent interview, James Rutherford, M-34’s artistic director and co-adaptor (with dramaturg Elliot B. Quick), said that The Importance of Being Ernest Hemingway first saw the light of day five years ago as the culmination of a “series of drunken and impassioned meetings” regarding the juxtapositioning of the Wilde and Hemingway materials.  The company's website also refers to the play as a “trivial comedy,” a description that Wilde appended to the play that serves as framework for this one—The Importance of Being Earnest.  

While it is easy to imagine the former (the title alone suggests a possible off-the-cuff joke as a takeoff point), there is little that is trivial in the result, which examines issues of the superficial masks we use in our daily human intercourse and the depths of feeling and vulnerability these cover up. 

As an abstraction, The Importance of Being Ernest Hemingway is most like a collage. Wilde and Hemingway have provided the words, with sources that include—in addition to Wilde’s famous comedy—his play Salome, his epistle De Profundus written from prison to his lover Lord Alfred Douglas, and his poem The Ballad of Reading Gaol.  Hemingway’s contributions include excerpts from his novels The Sun Also Rises and A Farewell to Arms, and from his non-fiction work on bullfighting, Death in the Afternoon.

But like any good collage, if you look at it closely you will see (or project) many more influences.  These are the ones I jotted on my program while watching the play:  the Marx Brothers, the experimental playwright Jean-Claude van Itallie, Sam Shepard, Lewis Carroll, Tennessee Williams (his late works), the staging of the recent production of Murder Ballad, and the over-the-top directing style that Jesse Berger employed in the first couple of seasons of productions by the Red Bull Theater, with homoeroticism and interposed musical numbers as subtexts.

That should give you something to think about.

While there is no straight-through plot, let me try to impose one.  Imagine that American expats living in Paris in 1926 are putting on a production of The Importance of Being Earnest. The Americans are painted something along the lines of the character of Harry Selfridge, as played by Jeremy Piven in the PBS period drama Mr. Selfridge:  loud, crude, pushy, sexually bold, and somewhat crazed—rather different from the genteel if eccentric folks in Mr. Wilde’s play.  Wilde’s famous witticisms remain but take on decidedly new shades of meaning with the insertion of Hemingway’s language. 

This is an intensely physical production that includes (thanks to fight choreographer Alexander Salamat) credible episodes of boxing, wrestling, general horseplay, slapping, and the occasional piece of overturned furniture, as the two central characters, Algernon and Jack, work through notions of masculinity, the expectations of social norms, and the immediate impact and subsequent implications of an outburst of alcohol-fuelled honesty and raw emotion.

To add even more to the stew, there are other wildly choreographed moments, original music by Alex Clifford, and a rendition of “It Had To Be You,” in four-part harmony no less. 

For such an abstract work, the acting, which requires intense attention to detail and to shifts in tone, is outstanding.  I will single out for special praise Ross Cowan as Algernon and Tim Hassler as Jack, who carry a great deal of the heavy lifting on their shoulders, but truly everyone is up to the task. The women, who generally are required to stick more closely to the Wilde script, are also excellent, with Charlotte Graham as Cecily most attuned to her character’s romantic flakiness and charm.

The Importance of Being Ernest Hemingway is clearly a labor of love for all concerned.  M-34 and its artistic director, Mr. Rutherford, have come back to it more than once over the years.  And while, in my view, it could do with a bit of trimming and further shaping, it is an intriguing production that is most worthy of their tough and tender ministrations.

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Saturday, August 17, 2013

'En Avant!': A Companionable Evening With Tennessee Williams

Here’s a question for playwright/performer William Shuman: What’s a genteel little play like yours doing in a place like the New York International Fringe Festival?

The play in question is a one-man show called En Avant!  An Evening With Tennessee Williams. It is a loving tribute to the great playwright, with none of the quirkiness or metaphysical meanderings associated with many of the Fringe offerings.

Fans of Mr. Williams will find much to admire in this 75-minute monolog (directed by Ruis Woertendyke)—in turns informative, insightful, gossipy, and introspective—as Mr. Shuman takes on the persona of Mr. Williams, who, according to the program, is joining us from a world he inhabits somewhere “between here and heaven” three decades after his death.

The set is simple:  A wicker chair, a table with a decanter of liquor that gradually diminishes in volume during the course of the play, and another table holding a typewriter and copies of some of Mr. Williams’s work. 

When first he appears, dressed in a white suit and blue shirt, Mr. Shuman as Mr. Williams is somewhat diffident, seemingly surprised to see us and even more surprised to learn that we still remember him.  “I’m gonna fix myself a little drink, then we can spend some time together,” he says, and then proceeds to pour the first of many such little drinks that will fuel the conversation. 

He starts with the safe stuff: something about his early life, a tidbit about an ancestor named Preserved Fish Dakin, how he underwent the name change from Tom to Tennessee, his early writing efforts and successes.  This all feels like well-honed audience material, something for the talk shows and public speaking engagements. 

But as he warms to the task (and as the alcohol begins to provide that famous “click” he talks about in Cat On A Hot Tin Roof), he opens up about his difficult father (“the man in the overstuff chair”), whom he says treated him contemptibly and referred to him as “Miss Nancy.”   He also speaks of some of the other men in his life—Kip, his first love, and Frank, whom he walked away from. He admits that he was not able to commit himself to any relationship for very long (“We fucked and we fought for a year and a half, and then I couldn’t take it.”)

He talks of the actress Laurette Taylor, struggling to overcome a 15-year drinking binge (“the longest wake in history”) to take on the role of Amanda in the original production of The Glass Menagerie.  She was, he says, “constantly ad-libbing in an accent I’ve yet to identify.”  Yet, in the end, of course, she gave a performance that has become the stuff of legends. 
He regrets the lack of public and critical appreciation for his later plays, which were sometimes experimental in nature and served to move him forward as a writer.  Interestingly enough, some of these are receiving a new hearing (e.g. the current revelatory production of The Two Character Play, starring Amanda Plummer and Brad Dourif). 

But, in the end, nothing matters to him so much as the writing.  Through all of the ups and downs of his life, the struggles with failure and with success—and with the booze, the barbiturates, and the boys—it is the writing that kept him going.

“If I could not write, I’d cease to exist,” he says, leaving his posthumous appearance before us as evidence of the truth of this statement. 

En Avant! (the phrase, meaning “onward,” was Mr. Williams’s motto) makes for a most companionable and intimate theatrical evening at its Fringe venue, the Clemente Soto Velez Cultural Center in the Lower East Side.  I’m guessing that, like his subject, Mr. Shuman will continue to tinker with both the work and his performance of it over time, but hopefully he will keep the tone conversational and relaxed as it is now. 

On a sad note, I would like to express my condolences on the passing of Shirley Herz, the well-known theatrical press agent, whose firm Shirley Herz Associates serves as publicist for En Avant! An Evening With Tennessee Williams. Broadway recognized her many years of contributions earlier this week by dimming its lights.  We join in saluting her.

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Thursday, August 15, 2013

'Clown Play': One of the Offbeat Treats of the New York International Fringe Festival

We’ve barely said farewell to the New York Musical Theater Festival when who should come strolling in but the New York International Fringe Festival, with its barrage of 185 shows in 16 days in over 20 different venues and time slots.

I don’t know how many of these I’ll be getting to, but let me begin with the first one I saw.  It’s called Clown Play, whose playwright Paul David Young made something of a name for himself at the 2011 Fringe with In The Summer Pavilion, a play that imagines different possible futures for three friends.  That play went on to an Off Broadway run at 59East59 and has since been turned into a film, set to be released in the coming year. 

Whether Clown Play will follow that route remains to be seen, but what is clear is that Mr. Young is a talented wordsmith who is able to take seemingly disparate elements and coalesce them into a logical and unexpectedly sweet play (unexpected, since a semi-automatic weapon puts in a threatening appearance from time to time).

As Clown Play opens, we are face-to-face with a woman (the highly talented Carol Lee Sirugo) who waxes philosophic. “All is silence,” she begins, before going off on a Beckett-like ramble on matters of great significance, not unlike Lucky’s speech in Waiting for Godot. 

Is she insane, we wonder, or a lost soul of some sort, trapped if not in Beckett Land, then maybe in Sartre Town or Kafka Village?

We will get answers, but not right away. Instead, the scene shifts to a man and a woman, Tommy (Joel Reuben Ganz) and Nancy (Emily James), who are floundering around in the dark, much frightened and feeling at risk of personal harm from someone or something in the unknown. 

Again, the feeling of dread pervades.  What kind of place is this?  Could these characters be dead souls drifting around in Purgatory? 

And finally, we are introduced to yet another couple, Barry (Ryan Barry, a Summer Pavilion alum) and Elisa (Marissa Molnar), who have set up housekeeping in an apparently abandoned home.  Now things start to feel less like a ghost story and more like an all-too-real post-apocalyptic world, something, perhaps, like the one in Jules Feiffer’s Little Murders.   

Teasingly, the play rotates among these characters in short scenes that we must take in before everything begins to make sense. One of the better ones is a perverse version of the ubiquitous Christmas letter (in this case, a video), a litany of life horrors recited by Ms. Sirugo’s character.

Just when we are questioning whether all this is leading anywhere beyond the suggestive and atmospheric, the characters start to interact with one another—at first with a not-surprising degree of suspicion (hence the semi-automatic weapon), but gradually warming until they loosen up and begin to meld into a cohort resembling the Tribe from Hair, a self-made family against all expectations.

And to what do they owe this dramatic change?  Why, consider the title as you leave the theater having had a surprisingly good time. 

And while it is Mr. Young’s writing skill that was able to turn seemingly random scenes into a real charmer of a play, much credit must go to the cast (all of whom have impressive theater credentials, by the way), and to director Robert Lutfy. 

Clown Play is a little oddball, no doubt, but the production at the COW (Celebration of Whimsy) Theater on Clinton Street in the Lower East Side is well worth putting on your Fringe list.  If that part of the city not your usual theatrical habitat, consider that it is just off Houston Street and only a couple of blocks from Katz’s Delicatessen.  I recommend picking up a pastrami Reuben after the show, and pondering the magic of theater while you are eating it.     

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Friday, August 9, 2013

'The Great Society': New Play Examines the Ambitious Presidency of Lyndon Johnson

Playwright Alexander Harrington has much to say about President Lyndon Johnson in The Great Society, the compelling and ambitious new play now on view at the Clurman Theatre at Theatre Row. 

With a running time closing in on three hours, some pruning is in order.  Yet it is easy to sympathize with Mr. Harrington’s impulse to avoid leaving out anything that would shed light on Mr. Johnson, a complicated larger-than-life personality whose Presidential career was launched with one instantaneous explosive event and was later brought to its knees by a more prolonged one.   

I’m speaking, of course, of the assassination of Mr. Johnson’s predecessor, President Kennedy, and the impossibly-out-of-control crisis known as Vietnam.  Either of these bookend events could have inspired a play in and of itself.  Does anyone, for instance, remember the 1967 eviscerating satire MacBird by Barbara Garson, in which President and Lady Bird Johnson were depicted as Shakespeare’s ambitious assassins, the Macbeths?  (Starring Stacy Keach and Rue McClanahan as the wanton couple, it left an indelible memory in my teenage mind, falling so close in time to the events it depicted).  

But Mr. Harrington has no such ax to grind, other than to illuminate our understanding of a President whose place in history remains opaque.  He calls this play The Great Society in order to focus on Mr. Johnson’s powerful social justice agenda, one that extended to civil right for African Americans, access to medical care for all, and an all-out assault on poverty in America.  Lest we forget, Mr. Johnson used his highly polished skills as a tenacious persuader and arm-twister to push through the Senate and House of Representatives a remarkable number of landmark pieces of legislation—among them, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and Medicare—and to establish such programs as Head Start, VISTA, the Job Corps, and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.    

All of this occurred under the noses of the Conservative members of Congress, who found themselves outranked and outmaneuvered at every turn.  (I pause here to note that in the current political climate, the Conservatives are doing their very best to dismantle every vestige of the progressive programs that first saw the light of day during the Johnson Administration.)

But Mr. Harrington’s play is not just about progressive politics.  President Johnson was a complex man, with an outsize personality characteristic of someone with bipolar disorder.  He was given to periods of indefatigable mania and bouts of soul-withering depression, both of which are on display in The Great Society.  Like many others who see themselves as visionary leaders, Mr. Johnson suffered from great self-doubt, and demanded both gratitude and loyalty from those on whom he bestowed his largesse.  This led to episodes of bombastic anger and rifts between Mr. Johnson and members of his inner circle, including his Vice President Hubert Humphrey.

It also led to some interesting interactions, congenial and otherwise, between Mr. Johnson and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., even when they were on the same side of issues of civil rights.  Mr. Harrington has written several scenes (not all of them historically accurate, as the playwright explains in an essay in the playbill) that bring together the two great leaders, who often quarrel over “timing.” 

Other scenes in the play depict Mr. Johnson’s interactions with members of the Senate and Congress, with his wife Lady Bird, and with his advisors.  Key among these is his Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, instrumental in prodding Mr. Johnson into escalating the Vietnam conflict into full-scale war. 

Ultimately, it is Vietnam that pulls at and plagues the Johnson presidency to the end.

The Democrats are frantic that, in his first Presidential run after completing President Kennedy’s term, Mr. Johnson must not be seen as too “dovish” on Vietnam, especially in the wake of his opponent’s (Barry Goldwater) staunch hawkish stance.  Even so, Johnson wants to limit the war and agrees with those who advise for an early withdrawal of U.S. troops.  He gladly accepts McNamara's estimate that it will likely be over by 1965, shortly after the election.  Of course, that never comes to pass, and the war begins to dominate every conversation and every decision, and the shouts of anti-war protestors (“Hey, hey, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?”) drown out all else. 

Mr. Harrington does a fine job of capturing all this grand sweep of history in The Great Society.  I would simply urge him to go back and excise those occasional places where dramatic intercourse crosses the line into the territory of classroom lecture.  Or, if he simply can’t let go, he should perhaps turn this one play into two—one ending at Johnson’s defeat of Goldwater; the other ending as it does now, with Johnson’s capitulation to the tide of popular opinion. 

Meanwhile, we have this production, which continues at the Clurman through August 24.  While it doesn’t completely succeed at avoiding a certain static quality (how many ways are there to depict a meeting in the Oval Office?), the play is well served by its cast of 15 (plus one offstage voice), doing excellent work under the direction of Seth Duerr.

Particularly effective are Yaakov Sullivan as Senator Richard Russell, Curtis Wiley as the Rev. Martin Luther King, Charles Gray as Bayard Rustin, Reed Armstrong (most evocative of Robert McNamara), Jeff Burchfield as a simpering George Wallace, and, especially, Mitch Tebo as Lyndon Johnson, who—even in the early preview that I saw—dominated the stage just as his character dominated everyone and everything around him. 

The way of doing business in the political arena has shifted from the one-on-one back-room deal making at which President Johnson was so adept. The Great Society occupies the territory of such plays as Gore Vidal's The Best Man in depicting the office of the Presidency from another time and place. Who knows when we will see another personality come along with the strength, determination, and clout of Lyndon Johnson?  

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