Sunday, September 22, 2013

'Blasted': A Disturbing Work From A Tormented Mind Is Revived at the Duo Theater

British playwright Sarah Kane is probably best known for her final work, 4.48 Psychosis, written shortly before she committed suicide in 1999 at the age of 28.  Early lines in that play do read like a suicide note:

I am sad
I feel that the future is hopeless and that things cannot improve
I am bored and dissatisfied with everything
I am a complete failure as a person
I am guilty, I am being punished
I would like to kill myself

 But turn back the clock four years to 1995, when Kane burst upon the scene with her first play, Blasted, a revival of which is now on view at the Duo Theater on East Fourth Street. 

In its day, Blasted was seen as a mighty gut punch of a play, with graphic depictions of emotional and physical abuse, rape, torture, and even cannibalism—almost unrelenting in its portrayal of humans who have been driven to the depths by both personal demons and conditions of war. 
It is a sorry state of affairs when such in-your-face depravity—accompanied by periodic expulsions of human effluvia—no longer shocks.  Wide press and televised coverage of the ugly places in the world has seen to that.  

So if you are not weak of stomach (even without shock value, the gross-out factor remains high) and you can view the play clinically rather than viscerally, what is left is hard to define:  An allegory of war?  An anarchist rant? An outward representation of the playwright’s inner torment? 

I would say it contains elements of all three, with a trajectory that takes it from relatively realistic to surrealistic to hallucinatory over the course of the evening.  It is this constant teetering of tone, along with an ending that veers into Samuel Beckett territory, that makes Blasted sufficiently intriguing so as not to be easily dismissed as a misguided Theatre of Cruelty venture. 

Blasted opens in a hotel room in Leeds, a bustling urban area in West Yorkshire, England. Ian, a gun-toting journalist (and maybe an ex-intelligence agent) who spews racist, misogynistic, and homophobic comments, is on a sort of holiday with his former girlfriend, Cate. Cate, who has agreed only reluctantly to come along, is mentally slow and is subject to blackout spells and fits.  She does seem most vulnerable, but nonetheless she has a few tricks up her sleeve that allow her to gain the upper hand when she wants to.  (Watch out when she gets hold of the gun!)
The first half of the play focuses on the pair. Ian, who is slowly dying of lung cancer, is alternately abusive and attentive, even vulnerable himself on occasion.  Cate is alternately victim and tormentor. These are not the kind of folks you’d care to spend much time alone with.  

Eventually, however, they are no longer alone. Into the room bursts a heavily-armed soldier of vaguely South Asian or Middle Eastern origin. The hotel, which is now in the middle of a war zone, is bombed, and violent chaos erupts and flows pretty much unabated throughout the rest of the play.  I’ll spare the details.

As to the production, there is no faulting the director Will Detlefsen, the creator of the scary sound design Aidan Zev Meyer, or the actors—Jason De Beer as Ian and Marie Botha as Cate (the pair also share producing credits), and Logan George as the soldier. They have taken on this project with no holds barred and have fully immersed themselves into all of its ugliness. Mr. De Beer is particularly strong as Ian, the most fully realized character, an Everyman or a Job whose life is shattered up to the breaking point. In the end he remains one of the dying but is unable to attain the relief of death.   

It was this image that stuck with me as I left the theater, and I thought of the last lines of Samuel Beckett’s novel, "The Unnamable":

You must go on.
I can’t go on.
I’ll go on.

Blasted is not a play that will be produced very often. If you do want to see a most unusual work from the troubled mind of a playwright who herself longed for the relief of death, now is the time to catch it.  The run is scheduled to end on September 28.

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Monday, September 16, 2013

'Be A Good Little Widow': Lovely Revival at the Wild Project

Cast Members of 'Be A Good Little Widow'
Photo by Eric Michael Pearson

There is more than a little “magical thinking” in the sweet and touching revival of Bekah Brunstetter’s Be A Good Little Widow, now on view at The Wild Project in the East Village.

“Magical thinking” is the term that Joan Didion famously employed in a book she wrote chronicling her life in the aftermath of the sudden death of her husband and fellow author, John Gregory Dunne.  She used it to describe a period of denial and self-delusion in which she says she fully expected her husband to “return and need his shoes.” 

Of course, Ms. Didion and her husband had been together close to 40 years when he died of a sudden heart attack.  Their ties were strong, whereas Melody (Aamira Welthy), the title character in Be A Good Little Widow, is only 26 years old when she loses her husband Craig (Matt Bittner) after a brief marriage. 

When the play opens, and before the tragedy occurs, Melody’s life is already at sixes and sevens.  She and Craig have set up housekeeping in his affluent home community of Greenwich, Connecticut, far from her down-to-earth family in Colorado.  Craig’s mother Hope (the excellent Chris Holliday) looks down her nose at Melody for being inadequately poised and polished, not even knowing how one properly serves a wedge of brie. 

Craig, a corporate lawyer, is an adorably dorkish sort of guy.  When he leaves phone messages for his wife, he always ends them by announcing his name, as if she might not know who it is calling her.  He’s the calm and steady sort; she’s a bit of a lost soul who has yet to find her place in the world. “Just tell me what to be, and I’ll be that,” she tells him out of desperation.

When the tragic incident occurs that leaves Melody alone, she truly does not know what to do about anything.  It is up to her brisk and efficient mother-in-law, herself a widow well-versed in such matters, to teach Melody how to handle things with outward composure.  (“Mourning is a private affair,” she instructs.)

The stiff and icy relationship between the two women gets to be too much for Melody, who craves love and support, and even permission to fall apart wildly and dramatically.  Thrown by it all, she drinks heavily and gets involved in a dangerously flirty relationship with Brad (Robbie Tann), Craig’s assistant at work.  While all this is going on, however, she also engages in a series of “magical thinking” conversations with Craig,  in the days leading up to the funeral.

The wonderful thing about Ms. Brunstetter’s writing is that the unfolding of the plot is as unpredictable as real life—at times funny, at times sad, at times sweetly romantic, and at times scary.  The playwright had done a remarkable job in shifting the tone throughout, especially as it involves the interplay between the two women, which contains many surprises as it evolves. 

The cast of four, smartly directed by Elena Araoz, is uniformly strong, with Ms. Holliday a standout as Hope, coming off as both chillingly unpleasant and warmly sympathetic during the course of the evening. 

The only downside is that this lovely production is scheduled to close at the end of this week.  Catch it while you can.

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Friday, September 6, 2013

‘Big Fish’: Check Your Cynicism At The Door

Emotions soar in Big Fish, a powerhouse of a musical (book by John August, music and lyrics by Andrew Lippa) about love and reconciliation, heroes and myths, and the measure of a man’s life that got off to a splendid start at its first preview last night.

It began with an onstage appearance by director/choreographer Susan Stroman, who greeted the enthusiastic and packed house by announcing that the show had just come off a tech rehearsal, and that  this would actually be the first time the cast would be performing the entire show all the way through at the Neil Simon Theatre.

Ms. Stroman’s remarks were met with wild applause, but they did give me pause.  Was this a warning that Big Fish was not quite ready for prime time (even though the show did have a pre-Broadway run in Chicago in the spring)?

I needn’t have worried.  From the opening notes performed by a most able orchestra (under the direction of Mary-Mitchell Campbell) to the very end, we were in good hands indeed.  Noticeable glitches were minor, and—while I would recommend a couple of snips here and there—I’d say that Big Fish is poised to be a big hit.

This is not to suggest that it will suit the tastes of every consumer of musical theater.  Dealing as it does with mortality, the deep abiding love between husband and wife, and a difficult relationship between father and son, Big Fish makes for a most verklempt evening.  This is a show for romantics; cynics need not apply.

In addition, there is no straight-through plot, but rather an accumulation of experiences that only come to a fully realized whole at the end.  And best beware, if you have never been able to succumb to the many charms of Norbert Leo Butz, you should stay away—because he is onstage and performing for a large portion of the time.

As it happens, I am quite content to lose myself in an emotional story, especially one that has the courage of its convictions to present itself without a trace of nudge nudge wink wink.  And I do count myself as a Norbert Leo Butz fan.  I have seldom seen anyone so at home, so comfortable and confident, and so willing to give of himself onstage.     

Big Fish, as you probably know, is based on the novel and the movie of the same title. John August, who wrote the book for the musical, was also responsible for the screenplay for the film, in which the central role of Edward Bloom was split between Albert Finney and Ewan McGregor, representing the older and younger versions of the character. Here Mr. Butz carries it all, which does allow us to follow him back and forth in time without any confusion.

If you are unfamiliar with the plot, Butz plays a traveling salesman from a small rural Southern town.  His young son Will (Zachary Unger, with Anthony Pierini taking over on Wednesday and Saturday matinees), who becomes his grown-up son (the talented Bobby Steggert), understandably resents his father’s frequent absences while growing up. To add to their difficult relationship, Dad is a man of effusive imagination, who constantly weaves tales of witches and giants and mermaids in order to explain life’s mysteries, while Will is a down-to-earth pragmatist.  They simply clash on everything.

The movie version of Big Fish, directed by Tim Burton, was filled with visual magic, and Susan Stroman does a very good job staging these elements, aided in no small way by scenic designer Julian Crouch (responsible for another great theatrical fantasy, Shockheaded Peter), costume designer William Ivey Long (Tony winner for Cinderella), multiple Tony winning lighting designer Donald Holder (South Pacific, The Lion King), with outstanding projections by Benjamin Pearcy.

Even though it is the struggle for understanding between father and son that lies at the core of this story, Big Fish is blessed with the lustrous presence of Kate Baldwin as Sandra Bloom, Edward’s wife, who loves both her husband and her son and longs for their reconciliation.  She, too, gets considerable onstage time, and sings one of the show’s heart-melting numbers, “I Don’t Need A Roof.” 

Anyone whose heart is not made of stone will be deeply moved by this and the other soaring melodies that Andrew Lippa has composed for Big Fish.  The Act I closing number, “Daffodils,” is a romantic masterwork, and it follows on the heels of another, called “Time Stops” (beautifully staged), in which Edward first encounters Sandra. Bobby Steggert, who has a lovely tenor voice, gets his time in the spotlight as well, with a song about his father, “Stranger” being but one more example.  Also very compelling are the songs Edward sings to his son, “Be the Hero” and “Fight the Dragons.”

Mr. Lippa, who did not exactly make the world sit up and take notice with his score for The Addams Family, has come through with one beautiful melody after the other.  It could be there are too many of them, but there is not one of these that I would cut.  The orchestrations by Larry Hochman (loved the use of guitars, banjo, and flute) are also first-rate. 

If I were to cut anything, it would be the fantasy number that opens Act II, along with some other short fantasy snippets that tend to merely distract.  Big Fish shows enough of Edward’s imagination through the circus episodes (a terrific Brad Oscar is the ringmaster), appearances by Karl the giant (Ryan Andes, excellent as well), and the hallucinatory fantasy number “Showdown” that literally pops out of the television set.   Indeed, the only song I felt did not work well was “I Know What You Want,” sung by the character of the witch in Act I.  Even though the scene is well staged by Ms. Stroman, the song itself does not, in my view, adequately capture the significance of the moment. 

All told, however, Big Fish is a wonderful original work for the Broadway stage, with a compelling and complex story that Susan Stroman and company have shaped so very well.  It will be hard to top during this theater year.  By all means, if you are susceptible to romantic, fanciful, and heartfelt tales, you won’t want to miss it!

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Thursday, September 5, 2013

‘The Recommendation’: Ferris Bueller with Consequences

If Ferris Bueller had been a real person, he’d have been a lot like Aaron Feldman, the central character in Jonathan Caren’s funny, smart, and provocative new play The Recommendation, now on view at The Flea.

Bueller is, of course, the charming slacker in the modern classic film comedy Ferris Buller’s Day Off, a high school senior who seems to be able to get away with pretty much any shenanigan he sets his hand to. 

Life does seem Bueller-like for Aaron, whose tale is narrated not by himself but by his college roommate and friend, Iskinder (aka “Izzy”).  This is how Izzy, the son of a working class Ethiopian father and a white mother, describes Aaron:

It’s not that he’s any better than the rest of us.  He just knows how to seize an opportunity.  And being smart, privileged and white as the sky is when you die—the opportunities were there for the taking.

We all know people like this, loaded with charisma by the bucketful and able to use it as a means of sliding through life.  Things are generally good for the Aaron Feldmans of the world, until they run into a situation that they cannot easily control either on their own or through their network of well-positioned family and friends. 

What happens to Aaron is that he runs into an even more manipulative person then himself, a street-smart hustler named Dwight—equal parts charmer and thuggish con man who has spent considerable time bouncing in and out of prison.  Aaron feels his world starting to cave in on him when he finds himself doing some jail time alongside Dwight when his parents balk at bailing him out. 

Terrified out of his skull, Aaron—who believes that a past and hitherto unpunished incident has finally caught up with him—makes the devil’s bargain with Dwight:  protection for Aaron in exchange for obtaining legal help for Dwight.  But when Aaron’s case is dismissed, he happily goes off, leaving Dwight to stew in prison for another five years.

When Dwight does get out—with the help of Iskinder (now an attorney)—he decides to pay a call on Aaron in search of justice, or at least a door-opening letter of recommendation.  The final scene deteriorates into a bitter fight, through not the one you might have expected.

Jonathan Caren’s strength as a writer lies in his ability to mix themes of loyalty, friendship, racial and class divides, and liberal guilt with snappy dialog, often quite funny, sometimes scary, and sometimes both at the same time (Dwight’s behavior is most unpredictable). The scene in jail, with Dwight getting Aaron to join him in a verse of Das Racist’s “Combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell” while alternately razzing on a spaced out junky has a wonderful Eddie Murphy style and precision.

Style and precision also mark the direction of Kel Haney and the terrific performances by the three actors:  Austin Trow as Aaron, James Fouhey as Iskinder, and Barron B. Bass as Dwight. The three are members of The Bats, The Flea’s resident company whose actors are chosen annually through a highly competitive audition process.  The payoff is first-rate productions of the sort that The Recommendation most definitely represents. 

Now if I can only get “Combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell” out of my head!

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Wednesday, September 4, 2013

'Romeo and Juliet': Star-Crossed Lovers Run Into Star-Crossed Acting Styles

If music be the food of love, play on.

Oops.  Wrong play.  But the opening line from Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night would well serve the production of Romeo and Juliet now in previews at the Richard Rodgers Theater.

Under David Leveaux’s somewhat muddy direction, with an odd mix of contemporary and classical elements, this Romeo and Juliet is suffused with music—a veritable soundtrack, much of it percussive or electronic (two musicians are credited in the program—cellist Tahirah Whittington and percussionist David Van Tieghem).  At times, the music does complement the onstage proceedings, especially in the scene at the Capulets’ party where the title characters meet and fall in love; at other times it is merely intrusive. 

Actually, the music should emanate from the performance of Shakespeare’s words, which is where the actors come in. 

Romeo is played by Orlando Bloom, who is perhaps best known for portraying the elf prince Legolas in the Lord of the Rings films.  Although he hasn’t done a lot of stage work, it is clear he has been well trained in classical performance in his native England.  Even from the balcony, where I sat, I had no trouble at all hearing or understanding him. 

The only other actor whose diction is a match for the language of the play is Chuck Cooper as Lord Capulet.  Cooper, a terrific actor so brilliant in last year’s revival of August Wilson’s The Piano Lesson, has my early nod for a Tony nomination. The play boasts fine performances, as well, by Brent Carver as Friar Laurence and Jayne Houdyshell as Nurse. 

Playing Juliet is Condola Rashad, a wonderfully naturalistic actress.  I have found her to be pitch perfect in everything I’ve seen her in:  from Lynn Nottage’s Ruined, to Lydia R. Diamond’s Stick Fly, to Horton Foote’s The Trip to Bountiful. Here, she has the character of Juliet down pat, but, unfortunately, she hasn’t quite mastered the particular vocal demands of Shakespearean English.

Some early buzz about the production has suggested a lack of romantic or sexual spark between the star-crossed actors.  I would argue, however, that it is their acting styles that are distancing them. Bloom’s performance—even with its expressive physicality (he comes riding in on a motorcycle--really?!!)—is in the classical mode, while Rashad’s is driven by her emotional understanding of the character.  I hasten to add that both may grow in their roles over time. 

Getting back to the production itself, Mr. Leveaux, the director, has opted for a quasi-West Side Story approach, with gang-like behavior across racial lines (the Montagues are white; the Capulets are black.)  Yet this modern take comes and goes, and we seem to shuffle back and forth in time, depending on the scene and the performances.

All in all, I would say that despite its flaws, this Romeo and Juliet is worth the visit for some very strong performances by the supporting cast, and for the opportunity to see a full-scale Broadway production (the last time was over 25 years ago) of one of Shakespeare’s most beloved plays. Take the teenagers!  
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