Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Top Ten of 2014: My List of the Best of Broadway, Off Broadway, and Off Off Broadway

It’s Christmas Eve 2014, close enough to year’s end, I think, for me to mark my 55th year as an inveterate theatergoer. It’s a good time to reflect on a year’s worth of visits to the many On, Off, and Off Off Broadway plays and musicals I’ve seen and to give a special tip of the hat to 10 that I found to be the most rewarding. 

According to my handy dandy pocket calendar, I’ve attended 117 performances this year, 25 more than in 2013. It’s been a good year, overall, with lots of satisfying visits to the temple of Dionysus (the patron god of theater)—starting with the Gilbert and Sullivan Players' joyous production of their namesakes’ Patience at Symphony Space back on January 4, and ending a few days ago with Ayad Akhtar’s searing new drama The Invisible Hand at the New York Theatre Workshop.

Both of these were very good, but they did not make it to the Top Ten List. What did make the cut were three Broadway productions, along with seven from the world of Off Broadway and Off Off Broadway. Two were musicals, one was a play with music, and the rest were straight plays.  Interestingly, the list includes both the longest production and the shortest production I saw all year. And so – here, in alphabetical rather than preferential order, is the long and short of it:

Dark Water by David Stallings.  This was a stunning work, dealing with the impact of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill on the marine and wetlands life in the Gulf of Mexico. It had only a brief run at the 14th Street Y, but I am hopeful it will find another venue for a longer stay.  

Father Comes Home From The Wars, Parts I, II, and III. First rater from Susan-Lori Parks about a slave drawn into fighting for the Confederacy during the Civil War.  Exceptionally fine ensemble performances under Jo Bonney’s direction, first three parts of a promised nine-play cycle.  Can’t wait to see the next installment!

Fortress of Solitude. Excellent adaptation of Jonathan Lethem’s sprawling coming-of-age novel, with a script by Itamar Moses and music and lyrics by Michael Friedman that did a splendid job of capturing the feel of life in Brooklyn in the 1970s, ‘80s, and ‘90s while staying true to the original source material. Dreamgirls, Hair, Rent, and In The Heights are its progenitors. Not bad company for it to be in.

generations. Running just 30 minutes and featuring Bongi Duma's glorious music, debbie tucker green's play (the playwright opts for lower-case), a co-production of the Soho Rep and The Play Company, was a polished jewel about three generations of a South African family whose lives are upturned by the devastating impact of AIDS. Great and powerful things can, indeed, come in small packages.  (Also true of big packages as well; see The Mysteries below). 

Lady Day At Emerson’s Bar and Grill by Lanie Robertson.  Need I say more than “Audra!”   

Sticks and Bones. The New Group’s revival of David Rabe’s Vietnam-era play, directed by Scott Elliott at the Pershing Square Signature Center, never let up on the sense of anxiety and dread that invades a household when its eldest son comes home from the war, damaged, unreachable, and threatening. The stories we hear of vets returning from Iraq and Afghanistan make this work even more vital today.  

The Fool’s Lear. Randy Neale’s take on King Lear, as seen through the eyes of the Fool. Smartly conceived, emotionally rewarding comic drama, jointly produced by the Phoenix Theatre Ensemble and the Nomad Theatrical Company at The Wild Project. This companion piece to Shakespeare’s great dramatic work featured a standout performance by the playwright’s brother Grant Neale as the Fool.

The Last Ship. Sting’s loving tribute (with a book by John Logan and Brian Yorkey) to the shipbuilders of his home town is a theatrical treasure, filled with mythic overtones, wonderful music, and terrific acting all around, under Joe Mantello’s directorial guidance. 

The Mysteries. Holy Moly.  A journey through the Old and New Testaments with contributions from 48 playwrights and a cast of 53 in a six-hour production that included dinner and dessert. An amazing experience with nary a dull moment, thanks to director Ed Sylvanus Iskandar and the Flea Theater. 

The Winter’s Tale, a production of the Workshop Theater Company.  Shakespeare’s late romance could not have been in better hands with this gimmick-free presentation that concentrated on the bard’s beautiful language to create theatrical magic. 

And there you have it, as we ring out the old and prepare for an exciting new year! 


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Monday, December 22, 2014

'The Invisible Hand': Explosive New Drama From Pulitzer-Winning Creator of 'Disgraced'

The term “blood money” never had so much literal meaning as it does in Ayad Akhtar’s searing new drama The Invisible Hand, now at the New York Theatre Workshop in a powerful production well-acted by a cast of four under Ken Rus Schmoll’s taut direction.

Where Akhtar’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Disgraced—currently having a successful run on Broadway—employs a highly contrived setup (what happens when a Muslim man, a Jewish man, a white woman, and an African American woman get together and start to butt heads?), The Invisible Hand bears the ring of truth—torn from today’s headlines—and is all the stronger for it.   

Believed in error to be the American CEO of Citibank in Pakistan, Nick (Justin Kirk), a broker who works for the corporation, has been kidnapped by a band of militants (“a bit of bad luck” is how one of his captors describes the case of mistaken identity). CEO or not, they are demanding a $10 million ransom for his release, and no amount of pleading on Nick’s part will cause them to lower the price they have placed on his life.  But not to worry, they reassure him with cold comfort and, occasionally, with a gun to his head. They will be patient; they are not into beheading their captives like some of their other colleagues.   

When we first meet him, Nick is handcuffed and in a cell with nothing but a table, a couple of chairs, and a bedstead (the cold, institutional-looking set—all concrete and corrugated metal and fluorescent lights—is by Riccardo Hernandez).  He has a tenuous relationship with his guards, the soft-spoken, puppyish Dar (Jameal Ali) and the unpredictable and threatening Bashir (Usman Ally). Above them is Imam Saleem (Dariush Kashani), who is seeking the money to better the lives of his downtrodden people, caught as they are between a continuous state of warfare and their own government’s entrenched corruption that prevents aid of any sort from making it beyond the fists of their greedy leaders. 

The only way Nick knows how to stay alive is to earn his own ransom by teaching his captors how to game the monetary market. Over time, Bashir, who grew up and was educated outside of London, learns the ropes, and he and Nick warily start to bond (Bashir refers to his lowering level of distrust as a sort of reverse Stockholm Syndrome, whereby hostages are said to develop a sense of empathy for their captors).

Alternating with scenes of tension (Nick’s life is on the line more than once, and the sounds of American drones and bursts of gunfire are heard in the background throughout the play) are discussions about high finance and how the United States has managed to dominate the world through its calculated manipulation of currency since the end of World War II.

These conversations do tend to run on a little longer than they might, but they make their points convincingly. Pay attention, and you might learn a thing or two about the ways  the wealthy and powerful have found to exploit loopholes in the market through quick short maneuvers in defiance of the so-called “invisible hand,” a set of checks and balances said by economist Adam Smith to keep things on an even keel. Certainly Nick understands all of this, and in the end, he manages to help raise $35 million for the group that has been labeled as a terrorist organization by the U. S.

Money, of course, has its own corrupting influence, which is a major point the playwright is making here. There is also the impossibility of supporting corruption, even under extreme duress, without getting blood on your own hands. We do wonder, if Nick gets out alive, will he be able to live with the consequences of the price he has had to pay?    

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Sunday, December 7, 2014

'Sticks And Bones': A Masterful and Disturbing Revival of A Major American Play

A thrum of unrelenting dread creeps in like an ineffable fog in the excellent, unsettling revival of David Rabe’s Vietnam War era play Sticks and Bones, now on view at the Pershing Square Signature Center in a production by The New Group, deftly directed by Scott Elliott and boasting powerful performances by a cast headed up by Bill Pullman as a man whose very sense of himself is pushed to the breaking point.    

Dread is a difficult mood to create and sustain in the theater. Examples abound of productions that are meant to grip an audience with a sense of anxiety and foreboding, yet which have been unable to pull it off. The current Broadway revival of Edward Albee’s A Delicate Balance is one that comes to mind, but there are others such as recent revivals of Sarah Kane’s Blasted, and of another of David Rabe’s works, Streamers. 

All should make us feel a growing apprehension as the characters experience it, but each misses the mark in its own way.  The production of Albee’s Pulitzer Prize winning play suffers from an overabundance of “tell” without nearly enough “show,” although previous versions have found a way to unleash the fear that enters unexpectedly into the home of the wealthy middle-aged couple at its center. Likewise, the Off Broadway production of Blasted, with its graphic depictions of emotional and physical abuse, rape, and torture during a time of war, offered all of the shock but fell short in the dread department. And the Off Broadway production of Streamers (the original incarnation was a heart-stopper of disquietude) just fell flat altogether.  

Sticks and Bones, however, works on every level, and sadly its 43-year-old no-holds-barred object lessons about imbedded xenophobia, the throwaway lives of soldiers, and the impact of their post traumatic stress disorder on the families of these soldiers provide a cautionary tale for the here-and-now as we carry on a protracted war against terrorism in the Middle East and elsewhere. Substitute an Arab woman for the ghostly Vietnamese character of Zung (Nadia Gan) and you’ve got a play for our age.

Welcome to the world of Ozzie (Mr. Pullman) and Harriet (Holly Hunter), and their sons David (Ben Schnetzer) and Rick (Raviv Ullman). Certainly it is no coincidence that Rabe named his characters for those of the popular warm-and-fuzzy family sitcom (The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet ran on television from 1952 to 1966, many years longer than the original run of its more famous contemporary, I Love Lucy). 

Rabe’s Ozzie and Harriet do seem at first to be spoofs of their namesakes—innocent, insulated, and caught up in the day-to-day comings and goings of their sons. It is easy enough to fall into a trap of viewing them as objects of easy ridicule. 

Of all of the characters, Rick maintains the façade throughout most of the play (making a late change-about all the more disconcerting). The parents, however, start to disintegrate from the moment that David is brought home from the war by a no-nonsense sergeant major (Morocco Omari), tasked with distributing the “one-legged and no-legged” veterans to their various households from coast to coast. 

Both of David’s legs are intact, but he is physically blind and psychologically damaged beyond his folks’ ability to absorb him back into the fold. Mom can only think to offer up a glass of warm milk to ease his troubles and to invite Father Donald (played with a mix of noblesse oblige and self-certitude by Richard Chamberlain) to perform some churchly magic, which, when it fails to make a dent, sends the priest fleeing for the hills. Dad, on the other hand, has nothing to offer but his own sense of despair; his crumbling identity as a prototypical 1950s pater familias provides nothing for him to stand on, and he feels emotionally and physically threatened by the very presence of the stranger who was his son. 

As an audience, we are more likely to identify with Ozzie and Harriet than with David, whose mind is back in Vietnam, riddled with guilt, haunted by the Vietnamese woman he left behind, scornful of his parents’ naivité and casual racism,  and truly dangerous to himself and to those around him. The tension mounts and mounts and never really lets up through the play’s brutal climax.

Altogether, this is a masterful production of a major American play. There is no question that it is discomfiting to sit though, but the power it conveys about its subject matter has an immediacy that demands to be heard.  

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Thursday, November 27, 2014

'Father Comes Home From The Wars': A Masterful New Work Gets A First-Class Production At The Public Theater

The biggest, most cutting truth in the Public Theater’s first-rate production of Suzan-Lori Parks’s terrific Father Comes Home From The Wars, Parts I, II, and III comes out of the mouth of a stereotypically nasty and oafish slave owner during the Civil War era. 

Speaking of the plight of blacks in America, whether slave or free, the character identified as The Colonel (aka “Boss Master”) proclaims, “I am grateful every day that God made me white. The lowly ones will always be lowly no matter how high they climb.” How swiftly this remark propels us out of the nineteenth century and into the present day, where public displays of imbedded racism extend all the way to the often contemptuous and condescending treatment of the current President of the United States, someone who certainly fulfills the description of a black man who has climbed high. 

Father Comes Home From The Wars, Parts I, II, and III is smart like that, full of unexpected turns and well-placed dialog that are both true to the context and that flash forward through implication to the years and decades ahead. It is most significant that the play concludes with a reference to President Lincoln’s 1862 Emancipation Proclamation, which, while a meaningful gesture, was an unenforceable placeholder until the end of the Civil War and the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution three years after the trilogy of plays ends. 

The proclamation by the Union’s President certainly provides no relief for the slaves under Boss Master’s yoke—not for Homer (Jeremie Harris), whose foot was cut off as punishment for attempting to run away, nor for Hero (Sterling K. Brown), who is under the gun to follow Boss Master, a Confederate colonel, into war in support of a cause he knows to be wrong.  Part I, titled A Measure Of A Man, deals with the painful decision-making process in the pre-dawn hours, during which Hero is advised by various of his fellow slaves (some of whom have placed wagers on the outcome) to stay, to go, or to run away. In the end, allowing himself to believe a promise of future freedom in exchange for current service, he dons the raggedy gray uniform Boss Master has given him and heads off, leaving Penny (Jenny Jules), his almost-wife—slaves were not allowed to marry—behind in Homer’s care.    

In Part II, A Battle In The Wilderness, The Colonel (Ken Marks) and Hero have wandered away from their regiment and the fighting, and are encamped in a clearing some miles from the battleground. By a stroke of luck, they have captured a Union officer (played with great humanity by Louis Cancelmi), so that they now can return in triumph rather than under suspicion of desertion. It is here, in conversation with the officer and Hero, that The Colonel offers up his views on race, including the idea that freedom isn’t all it’s cut out to be. A slave, at least, knows his worth, but what is the worth of a free black man? When he moves on ahead, expecting Hero to clean up the campsite and follow with their captive in tow, Hero finds the inner strength to set the prisoner free, though he himself refuses to flee with him; for Hero, freedom can only come as a gift from his master.   

Part III, The Union Of My Confederate Parts, brings things to a close (at least for now; Ms. Parks has plans for six more plays in the series). Boss Master is dead and Hero, now calling himself Ulysses—after General Grant, though mythic references abound throughout the plays—has returned safely home. But there is no happy ending for him. The other slaves have died or escaped, and he alone will remain behind, tethered to his master’s broken promise, with only a copy of Lincoln’s proclamation of freedom in his pocket. We know that the day of freedom will come for Ulysses, but what that will mean for him is clouded with uncertainty. 

With Father Comes Home From The Wars, Parts I, II, and III, Ms. Parks has pulled off a triumphant feat of mixing the mythic with the mundane, and serious content with wonderful touches of humor (her great creation here is Odyssey, Hero’s talking dog, portrayed with boundless energy and great fun by Jacob Ming-Trent). The characters are complex, even Boss Master, who is struggling to maintain his footing in a world that is beginning to shift under his feet. By balancing all of these elements, the playwright succeeds in a way that few who have dealt with historic themes have been able to do without coming off as pedantic or getting helplessly lost in the storytelling.  August Wilson comes to mind as someone who has been able to triumph in dramatizing history, with his ten-play Pittsburgh Cycle. Ms. Parks has promised nine plays in her cycle, and it is not hard to imagine her decision to stop at nine as her respectful tribute to Mr. Wilson. 

As if writing the play were not enough, Ms. Parks has also written a number of songs and incidental music that are performed throughout the evening. Steven Bargonetti is responsible for the arrangements and does a splendid of performing some of the numbers, in a way that brings to mind Taj Mahal’s work in the movie Sounder. 

Father Comes Home From The Wars, Parts I, II, and III is a triumph for all concerned. Director Jo Bonney keeps the action flowing seamlessly through the three works (running time, including one intermission, is two hours and 50 minutes), well supported by Neil Patel’s set design, Esosa’s costumes, Lap Chi Chu’s atmospheric lighting, and a wonderfully talented ensemble of actors. I look forward with eagerness to the next installment.

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Sunday, November 16, 2014

'The River': Hugh Jackman Returns to Broadway in a Quietly Enigmatic New Play

The sea trout are running, and all is right with the world—or maybe not so right—in The River, Jez Butterworth’s mystical tale of fishing, love, and longing, opening  today at the Circle in the Square.

In marked contrast to Butterworth’s overblown and bombastic Jerusalem from 2011, The River is quietly poetic, underpinned with the kind of unnerving other-worldliness you might find in one of playwright Conor McPherson’s haunted tales. 

And though the plot is airy and slight (the play clocks in at under 90 intermissionless minutes), the telling of it is a joy to the ear, a mixture of down-to-earth naturalism and a literary stylishness that includes embedded references to poets Ted Hughes and William Butler Yeats. Indeed, you might want to read Yeats’s The Song of Wandering Aengus before coming to see the play—or perhaps afterwards if you are seeking to shed light on the proceedings. 

The River is an intimate play, beautifully staged (Ian Rickson directs, and Ultz is responsible for the set design) and well acted by a cast that includes—as everyone surely knows—movie and Broadway superstar Hugh Jackman. Clearly Jackman’s presence adds a certain fillip and undoubtedly is responsible for the sell-out crowds and the hefty ticket prices.  But setting that aside, there is not a trace of ego in Jackman’s performance as a character referred to only as The Man. 

The setting is a fishing cabin. It is a very special night, the night of the new moon and the once-a-year confluence of time and tide during which one might be able to catch the elusive saltwater dwelling sea trout during its upstream run into rivers that have outlets to the sea. The Man, a devout fisherman, has brought a very special woman (Cush Jumbo, here called The Woman) to the cabin. He is convinced she is the one for him, and love and possibility are pervasive. If only she can fish, bliss will be his. 

The interactions in the opening scenes are romantic, messy, and often quite funny. Ms. Jumbo, a versatile actress and a rising star in her own right (she played Marc Antony in the acclaimed all female production of Julius Caesar last year at St. Ann’s Warehouse) more than holds her own against Jackman, and gives a feisty and self-reliant performance as The Woman. The Man, though outmaneuvered at every turn, is quite smitten.

After a while, however, we come to an unexpected bend in The River.The Woman disappears for a time, and when she returns, it is no longer The Woman but someone else, a character identified as The Other Woman (Laura Donnelly).  The scene is the same and, in some ways, it is as if no time has passed at all. The Man also carries on in the same charming and romantic tone, but The Other Woman has her own distinct personality; Ms. Donnelly is not merely replacing Ms. Jumbo after some backstage mishap. 

This abrupt shift can be discombobulating to an audience that believes it has been watching a romantic comedy. But if you accept the unfolding of events as naturally as the characters onstage seem to, and forego an insistence on immediate clarity, you’ll understand that you are entering into a different realm altogether.  Be patient. If you rely on logic, you will be—to stick with the fishing theme—missing the boat and following a red herring. Is this another woman, another time—future or past? Is The Man a creep with evil intent, luring women to the cabin during the darkest night of the year in order to do them harm?  Have we gone from romantic comedy to melodrama? 

Accept things as they are and pay heed to the changes in tone and style and mood as The River dances with time and takes us into a place that is dreamlike and evanescent, where it is not the women who are being lured into the net, but The Man, a fisherman doomed forever to chase after the elusive one that got away. 

If this is all too ethereal for you, then just enjoy the intimacy of the moment-by-moment performances, and, if you like to eat fish or enjoy cooking, there is a terrific extended scene in which you can gaze to your heart’s content at Mr. Jackman as he guts a trout and sets about preparing a meal. Then go home, have a glass of wine, and pick up a copy of Yeats.  

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Thursday, November 13, 2014

‘The Last Ship’: Sting’s Loving Tribute to the Shipbuilders of His Home Town Is a Theatrical Treasure

No bones about it.  The new musical The Last Ship—with music and lyrics by acclaimed singer/songwriter Sting—is a stellar achievement, a powerful and deeply moving story of human frailties and strengths, of love, honor, duty, and determination, that is both down-to-earth direct and mythic in its themes, and that offers up a richly layered score and performances that do honor to the two sides.

On one level, The Last Ship, with book by John Logan and Brian Yorkey, deals with some of the same kinds of issues as did Billy Elliot and The Full Monty—the plight of working class Brits hit with a crushing economic downturn that has stripped them of their livelihood, their dignity, and an entire way of life that had been passed along from generation to generation. 

For this part of the story, the show tells the tale of a group of shipbuilders whose world is turned upside-down when the shipyard is closed forever, and the only work open to them is in the scrap industry.  If they accept, they will be forced to tear down what they have taken pride in building up for their entire lives, with skills taught by fathers to their sons and through the time honored system of apprenticeships. 

A goodly portion of The Last Ship is devoted to the story of these men and how, with the support of the women in their lives and of the parish priest Father O’Brien (Fred Applegate), they set themselves to the task of building one last ship that they will sail out of Wallsend (a real place in northeastern England which happens to have been the childhood home of Sting).

But there is another story that is being told, a modern day version of the myth of Odysseus as he is reunited with Penelope and their son Telemachus. Here our Odysseus is named Gideon (Michael Esper). He has returned to Wallsend after running off as a young man 15 years earlier to escape his abusive father and a predetermined life as a shipbuilder. In his rush to freedom, he left behind not only the hated part of his former life but also the love of his life, Meg (Rachel Tucker), whom he vowed to return to. 

After spending many years as a merchant seaman, Gabriel has come home to tend to his father’s affairs after the old man’s death, as well as to see how things stand with Meg.  He learns that Meg has a 15-year-old son, Tom (Collin Kelly-Sordelet, who also plays Gabriel as a young man against Dawn Cantwell’s Young Meg). In the ensuing years, Meg has gotten on with her life and is now in a long-term relationship with Arthur (Aaron Lazar). Arthur loves both Meg and Tom and longs for the three of them to settle down permanently together. Then in walks Gabriel. 

Because all of these folks have led hard knock lives even in the best of times, they are not given to the kind of histrionics that would turn The Last Ship into a manipulative sob fest. Meg genuinely does not know her own heart. Arthur loves her enough to give her room to work things out. Tom accepts Gabriel as his biological parent without going all to pieces over it. The shipbuilders set aside their personal grievances to find common cause. Gabriel struggles to see if this homecoming will lead anywhere. This is what makes The Last Ship work so effectively, and why an audience is likely to be pulled in emotionally. These are likeable people.  We grow to care about them. 

Sting has done a masterful job, providing songs that fit in so beautifully with the characters and that underscore the unfolding of events.  The music encompasses Celtic sea shanties, ballads, a lovely waltz, a raucous pub tune, and even, astonishingly, a piece that sounds like a Kurt Weill cabaret number. 

Without exception, the performances are first rate. You can almost hear Sting’s voice whenever Michael Esper starts to sing, and Rachel Tucker’s Meg owns the stage whenever she’s on it.  As Father O’Brien, Fred Applegate has been able to absorb the clichés associated with the appearance of an Irish priest in a musical and makes the character completely human. Steven Hoggett’s choreography, David Zinn’s set design, the orchestra under Rob Mathes’s baton (do yourself a favor and stay for the performance of the entire exit music), all under Joe Mantello’s fine direction, make for an evening with a musical that has been crafted with love, in much the same way as the shipbuilders build their own last ship. 

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