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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