Friday, January 16, 2015

DYING FOR IT: Hope For The Best; Expect The Worst

It’s probably safe to assume that Joseph Stalin did not have much of a sense of humor. Too bad. Because if he did, he might have gotten a kick out of Dying For It, Moira Buffini’s free-flowing comic adaption of Nikolai Erdman’s banned 1928 Soviet-era satire The Suicide, now on view at the Atlantic Theater Company's Linda Gross Theater.

At the opening, and at various points during the play, a duo of excellent musicians (Nathan Dame and Andrew Mayer) sets the mood with Josh Schmidt’s original Russian-style music on violin and accordion. But cast aside images of Fiddler on the Roof and think instead of Mel Brooks’ The Twelve Chairs and the song he composed for it (“Hope for the Best. Expect the Worst”) and you will have a pretty good idea of what’s in store for you—a very funny slapstick comedy about a down-in-the-mouth nebbish (perfectly embodied by Joey Slotnick) determined to end his empty life. 

Slotnick’s character, Semyon Semyonovich Podeskalnikov (everyone has one of these wonderful tongue twister Russian-esque names), is the perfect kvetch. In the opening scene, he starts whining in the middle of the night for a piece of blood sausage that he had refused to eat at dinner because eating in front of his loving, if exasperated, wife Masha (Jeanine Serralles) makes him feel like a parasite. It seems he cannot find work and is dependent on Masha’s salary to survive. Of course, this doesn’t stop him from waking her when he is feeling hungry.  (“You are crucifying me with blood sausage!” he complains.) 

Driven to histrionic despair after a failed attempt at channeling his hopes into a potential career as a tuba player, Semyon acquires a gun and announces his intention to off himself. Word quickly spreads, and suddenly the self-proclaimed “flea in the flea pit” finds himself elevated to the status of soon-to-be martyr for any number of causes, as various characters try to help him shape his suicide letter to suit their purposes. ("You must shoot yourself as a responsible member of society," he is told.)

Thus, Aristarkh Dominikovich Grand-Skubik (Robert Stanton) wants Semyon’s last words to be a plea on behalf of the intelligentsia; Kleopatra “Kiki” Maximovna (Clea Lewis) wants him to die in the name of romantic love; others want him to kill himself for lack of meat, or on behalf of the “beggars and the mad.” All of the sudden, Semyon is the most important man in town, the one person who need not fear speaking out. 

This all plays out in a flurry of low comedic gallows humor and all around great fun by the first-rate cast under Neil Pepe’s spot-on direction. Mr. Slotnick, with his hangdog expression and deadpan delivery, shines as Semyon, but, really, this is a wonderful ensemble effort. 

In addition to the cast members I’ve already identified, there are splendid performances by Mary Beth Peil as Semyon’s mother-in-law; Peter Maloney as Father Yelpidy, a priest who envisions himself preaching a great sermon on the occasion; and Patch Darragh as Viktor Viktorovich, the “people’s poet,” who is readying an epic work in the name of the new celebrity. The other denizens of the wonderfully drab and dreary Soviet apartment building concocted by set designer Walt Spangler are Mia Barron, CJ Wilson, and Ben Beckley. Mr. Beckley plays the one true Soviet functionary, a postman whose claim to fame is his award for “speed and diligence” and whose ultimate fate adds a twist of a denouement to the proceedings.

With Dying For It, the thin line between despair and comedy is in deft hands.The jokes may occasionally veer toward the hoary, but everyone involved in this production understands that all is dependent on precise and straight-faced delivery and timing. They absolutely deliver the goods. 

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Tuesday, January 13, 2015


Julia Campanelli, Corey Tazmania, and Alice Bahlke
Photo by Hunter Canning

The subtitle of Victor L. Cahn’s clever and entertaining new play Villainous Company, now on view at the Clurman Theatre at Theatre Row, says it all:  “A caper for three women.” A caper it truly is, bringing to mind two similarly clever and entertaining plays from the 1970s—Anthony Shaffer’s Sleuth (1970), and Ira Levin’s Deathtrap (1978)as well as the classic caper movie Charade from 1963. Not shabby company to be in, by any means.   

Villainous Company opens on the fashionably furnished living room in the home of Claire (Corey Tazmania), a middle-aged woman of style and taste. Claire has just come in from the rain, carefully stored her designer umbrella in its stand, and removed her shoes before moving into the living area. She has returned from a shopping trip and is going through her packages when she discovers that one is missing. Puzzled, she places a call to the shop, but while waiting for a response, someone comes knocking at the door. It is Tracy (Alice Bahlke), one of the store’s employees, who has the wayward package with her. 

While Claire would be all too happy to thank Tracy, give her a tip, and send her on her merry way, her caller rather insists on coming in to warm up and have a little chat. We can see that Claire is uncomfortable with having the effusive clerk, wet from the rain and dressed in denim, enter her polished sanctuary, but noblesse oblige and all that, and so she reluctantly invites her in and offers refreshment. 

At first, it is not at all clear what Tracy really wants, or why Claire doesn’t just insist on showing her the door. Speculate as much as you wish, the playwright will toy with you until he is good and ready to reveal all, just as he does by withholding the opening of the newly arrived package. Be patient. Villainous Company is like an extended game of Clue, in which the players sift through various pieces of information until someone concludes—as one of the characters in this play jokingly says—that the guilty party is “Colonel Mustard in the library.”  

As it turns out, Tracy is not a clerk but a security officer, and she has had an eye on Claire, and Claire’s friend Joanna (Julia Campanelli), for some time. She has been compiling a set of clues that she believes suggests the pair is up to some serious larceny. 

As Tracy starts to make her case to Claire, you don’t know what to think. It all sounds rather Kafkaesque and based on the wildest of speculation. Yet in Act II, when the far more worldly and manipulative Joanna shows up and appraises the situation, you know something not entirely kosher is going on. The three women wind up vying for control of the situation as the pieces fall into place, until you can no longer tell the cats from the mice.  

No more revelations from me, but the twists and turns in the plot, along with splendid acting by the three women under Eric Parness’s polished direction, make for a delectable evening that places the notion of “honor among thieves” in a classy suburban environment and keeps us guessing until the very end. Praise, too, goes to Brooke Cohen for her perfect costumes that fit the characters to a T and to Jennifer Varbalow for her evocative set design. The cats and the mice are having a fine old time up on stage, and, from a safe distance, so is the audience.

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Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Rundown On New Shows Scheduled to Open on Broadway: Part II - April 12-April 20, 2015

This is Part II of a two-part series on the 19 plays and musicals that are scheduled to open on Broadway between now and April, in time to be considered for the 2015 Tony Awards. In Part I (Link Here) I took a look at the first ten on the list. With Part II, I discuss the rest, offered in the order of their opening dates – along with a bonus speculation about a musical that has been waiting in the wings for a theater to open up.  (Hint: It’s not REBECCA or KING KONG.)

AN AMERICAN IN PARIS. Based on the 1952 film musical and adapted for the stage by Craig Lucas (the book writer for The Light In The Piazza), AN AMERICAN IN PARIS boasts a cornucopia of winning George and Ira Gershwin tunes. It just ended a pre-Broadway run in Paris, where it has garnered very positive reviews. Expect great choreography by Christopher Wheeldon, who is bravely taking on the director’s role as well. Will people be able to set aside their recollections of Gene Kelly, as they seem to have been able to do for the wonderful revival of On The Town?  Opens April 12 at the Palace Theatre. 

IT SHOULDA BEEN YOU. Tony winners Tyne Daly and Harriet Harris star as battling mothers of a bride and groom, and David Hyde Pierce directs this musical about a wedding from hell, coming to Broadway after an earlier production at the George Street Playhouse in New Brunswick, NJ that drew mixed reviews.  This one sounds like a risky bet.  Opens April 14 at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre.

FINDING NEVERLAND. Speaking of David Hyde Pierce, his  Frasier partner Kelsey Grammar and Glee-ster Matthew Morrison headline this musical (Book by James Graham, Music and Lyrics by Gary Barlow and Eliot Kennedy), based on the movie of the same title. Diane Paulus, who did a slam bang super job directing recent productions of Hair and the just-closed Pippin, helms this one. Expect a huge promotional campaign from producer Harvey Weinstein, aiming to make his mark on Broadway. The movie version was his production as well, and if determination counts for anything, Mr. Weinstein will see to it that this is a hit.  Opens April 15 at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre. 

THE KING AND I.  Will this be the Tony clincher for frequent nominee Kelli O’Hara? She is being reunited with director Bartlett Sher, and if they can pull off as wonderful a production as they did for South Pacific, the odds are this will be a winner and a must-see for fans of a big old-fashioned Rodgers and Hammerstein musical. Haven’t heard if they plan to have a full orchestra, but I sure hope that will be the case. Opens April 16 at Lincoln Center’s Vivian Beaumont Theatre.
FUN HOME.  The Jeanine Tesori (Violet, Caroline or Change) musical, with book and lyrics by Lisa Kron of The Five Lesbian Brothers acting company, comes to Broadway after a highly acclaimed run last year at the Public. I missed the sold-out show when it played there, but the original cast recording is terrific. The always reliable Michael Cerveris returns to his role as the troubled paterfamilias of a dysfunctional family in the show, based on Alison Bechdel’s graphic novel of the same title and directed by Sam Gold.  Opens April 19 at Circle in the Square Theatre.

DOCTOR ZHIVAGO. Lucy Simon, who gave us the wonderfully moving The Secret Garden two decades ago, has put her creative hand to the sweeping romantic Russian novel. May it be as audience-pleasing and successful as Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812, which took on another sweeping Russian saga, War and Peace. Opens April 21 at the Broadway Theatre.

SOMETHING ROTTEN! Casey Nicholaw directs this romp of a musical about brothers struggling to make a living in the theater in Elizabethan England. Crushed under the long shadow of William Shakespeare, what can they pull off that is entirely original?  How about the world’s first musical comedy!  Keep an eye on this one; it may turn out to be the next Book of Mormon. Opens April 22 at the St. James Theatre.

AIRLINE HIGHWAY. This Steppenwolf production of a play by Lisa D’Amour tells the tale of a group of New Orleans street hustlers who get together to plan a pre-death funeral for their friend, burlesque queen Miss Ruby. Sounds intriguingly quirky, and Steppenwolf usually delivers the goods, though its Chicago production got encouraging but decidedly tepid reviews. Opens April 23 at the Manhattan Theater Club’s Samuel J. Friedman Theatre.

LIVING ON LOVE. The draw here is the star turn by renowned opera soprano Renée Fleming, playing a fading diva in this adaptation (by Joe DiPietro) of Garson Kanin’s 1985 light and airy comedy Peccadillo. It’s silly stuff, but Ms. Fleming, a strong supporting cast, and director Kathleen Marshall might just be able to pull this off.  Opens April 20 at the Longacre Theatre.   

This concludes Part II of the preview of coming attractions for the months ahead on Broadway—at least so far as plans have been made, theaters arranged, and so forth.  All subject to change, of course.  

Meanwhile, here’s the bonus I promised. Expect to see – at long last – a Broadway production of Kander and Ebb’s THE VISIT, starring – at long last – Chita Rivera in what she has said will be her final Broadway bow. This show has been bouncing around forever, with Ms. Rivera as its greatest champion.  Now it seems the time has come for its Broadway debut, although no official plans have been announced as yet. THE VISIT made a brief appearance (a one-performance fund raiser) back in 2011.  Here’s a link to my review of that event: (Link Here).

Feel free to share this blog with your friends, and to share your own theater stories by posting a comment. Upstage-Downstage is proud to announce it has just passed the 50,000-visitor mark.   

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Rundown On New Shows Scheduled to Open on Broadway: Part I - January 13-April 9, 2015

For those of us who will be hanging around New York during the dead of winter, there are consolations, like the 19 new shows scheduled to open on Broadway between now and April. Here’s a rundown of the first ten, listed in the order of their opening dates.  The second group of 9 will be discussed in Part II. 

CONSTELLATIONS. Jake Gyllenhaal and British actress Ruth Wilson star in a new work by Nick Payne, who previously gave us the interesting play with the difficult-to-remember title If There Is I Haven’t Found It Yet at Roundabout’s Laura Pels Theater a couple of years back.  Mr. Gyllenhaal appeared in that one as well and turned in a fine, if somewhat twitchy performance as a ne’er-do-well stoner character.  CONSTELLATIONS received rave reviews during its run in London, and certainly the participation of a Hollywood heartthrob ought to bring in the paying customers, despite a running time of just over an hour and a subject matter that mixes quantum physics with romance. Opens on January 13 at the Friedman Theatre. 

HONEYMOON IN VEGAS.  This old fashioned frothy musical, with music and lyrics by Jason Robert Brown (Parade, The Last Five Years, The Bridges of Madison County), stars the highly talented Rob McClure and the always-charming Tony Danza. Regular Broadway musical theatergoers have had the pleasure of seeing the dazzling Mr. McClure in his Tony-nominated performance as the title character in Chaplin, and certainly Mr. Danza ought to draw in an audience wanting to see a popular TV star in person.  Based on the fairly well known movie of the same name, HONEYMOON IN VEGAS would seem a safe bet for a pleasant outing. Yet, at least during the preview period, audiences are avoiding it like the plague.  Opens on January 15 at the Nederlander Theatre. 

FISH IN THE DARK.  Larry David’s fan base runs wide and deep, and they will expect the creator of Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm to come up with more of his quirky comic take on life (the play is said to be inspired by the death of a friend’s father).  The cast lineup is strong, with Mr. David himself making his Broadway debut. Joining him will be Jane Houdyshell, Rosie Perez, and Lewis J. Stadlen, among other stalwarts.  Opens March 5 at the Cort Theatre. 

THE AUDIENCE. Helen Mirren stars as Queen Elizabeth II in this new play by Peter Morgan. Hmm… didn’t she win an Oscar for doing just that?  Some movie called The Queen, written by—who was it, now?—oh yes, a fellow by the name of Peter Morgan.  Well you can’t have too much of a good thing!  Opens March 8 at the Schoenfeld Theatre.   

ON THE TWENTIETH CENTURY. This is a revival of the Cy Coleman, Betty Comden & Adolph Green musical from 1978 (a respectable run of 449 performances) based on the 1932 Ben Hecht/Charles MacArthur play and the 1934 film.  Starring Peter Gallagher and Broadway favorite Kristin Chenoweth, this could turn out to be a screwball romp provided director Scott Ellis can whip it to a fine and giddy froth. Opens March 12 at the American Airlines Theatre. 

THE HEIDI CHRONICLES. A revival of Wendy Wasserstein’s Pulitzer Prize winner from 1988 (622 performances on Broadway) stars Elizabeth Moss (Mad Men) and Bruce Pinkham, who wowed everyone as the star of A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder. The play is much loved. It remains to be seen how it will hold up.  Opens March 19 at the Music Box Theatre.

THE HEART OF ROBIN HOOD.  A deconstruction of the swashbuckling adventures of the title character—written by David Farr—was described by Toronto Star theater critic Richard Ouzounian during its run in that city as “Cirque du Soleil goes to Sherwood Forest.” Coupled with original music performed live by the bluegrass-inspired band Parsonfield, THE HEART OF ROBIN HOOD boasts no bankable names.  Director Gísli Örn Garðarsson (a name also not well-known among Broadway theatergoers) will need to find a way to turn this into an Indie hit. Opens March 29 at the Marquis Theatre.

SKYLIGHT.  Bill Nighy and Carey Mulligan star in this straight-from-London hit revival of David Hare’s 1995 emotional story of love and politics. Based on the reviews from across the sea, expect to see some powerful and tear-inducing acting.  Opens April 2 at the Golden Theatre. 

HAND TO GOD.  Robert Askin’s offbeat dark comedy about a seductive and devilish sock puppet was well received in two previous Off Broadway productions.  Will it make it on Broadway?  Opens April 7 at the Booth Theatre. 

WOLF HALL. The Royal Shakespeare Company brings its production of Hilary Mantel’s two-play drama, set in the court of King Henry VIII, to the Winter Garden Theatre, the longtime home of Mama Mia before its move to the Broadhurst.  The schedule will rotate so that Parts I and II can be seen in a single day or on separate days. Opens April 9.

Part II of this report on the new season will cover the nine plays and musicals scheduled to open during the rest of the month of April, just in time to be considered for the Tony Awards.  

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