Sunday, November 22, 2015

DADA WOOF PAPA HOT: Married Gay Couples Try To Figure Out That Crazy Condition Known As Parenthood

Back in 2005, playwright Peter Parnell and psychiatrist Justin Richardson co-authored a children’s book, And Tango Makes Three, the true story of a pair of male chinstrap penguins at New York’s Central Park Zoo who bonded with one another and attempted to nest and hatch a rock together. Kindly zookeepers replaced the rock with a real egg, and before long, out popped Tango. 

We’ve come a long way from oh-so-controversial gay penguins in the ensuing decade, and Parnell, who in the interim married Mr. Richardson, is back with Dada Woof Papa Hot, a new play at Lincoln Center’s Mitzi Newhouse Theater in which he explores a similar situation, but this time with gay male humans as his protagonists. 

Was it only last year that playwright Terrence McNally’s Mothers and Sons opened on Broadway and gave us an evening of confrontational arguing over the right of gay men to live with dignity, to be able to marry, and to raise families? That seems such old news now, as abstract “rights” have segued into reality, and more and more gay couples are discovering they are pioneers in the world of child rearing, where there are few role models that match their situation.

That’s the far more complicated story that Dada Woof Papa Hot tells. And even if the title suggests a gay comic romp, the play is decidedly a serious – though often funny and only occasionally pedantic – eye-opener for those who casually assume that gay married couples are in the same situation as heterosexual couples.

I’m not talking about “acceptance,” here; that is not the issue this play examines as it asks us to consider the lives of Rob (Patrick Breen) and Alan (John Benjamin Hickey), the middle-aged couple at its center. They and their friends and acquaintances are all trying to figure out their changing identities and relationships that co-exist side by side with the joys and vicissitudes of parenthood.  

Couples like Rob and Alan, who had been together for many years before being granted the right to marry, are entering into a brave new world.  Stonewall, the AIDS crisis, and other milestones in the fight for equality – along with whatever shaped their individual self-awareness and coming out experiences – all hover over their decision to become parents. Most of the parents they know, and certainly the ones in the generation they grew up with, had certain societal models about how to do all of this. Child rearing for gay couples – at least in the here and now – has its own unique flavor, and includes by necessity all of the legal and financial issues involved in adoption, surrogates, egg donors, frozen embryos, sperm banks, and other complications. 

The playwright has taken away the financial burden by making sure the couple is comfortably well off, but Rob and Alan are struggling, nevertheless. Mr. Hickey gives a lovely layered portrayal of Alan as a man who is feeling lost and uncertain of his place in the new family arrangement, where Rob and their young daughter Nicola have the sort of strong bond that eludes him and that leaves him feeling the odd man out.    

That Rob is Nicola’s biological father adds to Alan’s consternation as to his place in the picture, and he seeks solace in the younger Jason (Alex Hurt), half of another couple of their acquaintance. A third couple, Michael (John Pankow) and Serena (Kelley Overbey), is also going through some rocky times; Michael , who is Alan’s closest friend, is carrying on an affair with an actress, Julia (a freewheeling and brassy Tammy Blanchard).  

It’s a lot for one play to juggle, but Mr. Parnell has done a very good job of defining each of the characters and the flailing relationships, and Scott Ellis directs it all with a steady hand. 

At some point down the road, gay parenthood may very well turn out to be as commonplace and as complicated as the more familiar male/female models, but for now, Dada Woof Papa Hot gives audiences a glimpse into the unfolding mystery of love, fidelity, and parenthood as seen through the experiences of gay men who want and don’t want to be ordinary.   

Feel free to share this blog with your friends, and to offer up your own theater stories by posting a comment. I also invite you to check out the new website Show-Score.Com, where you will find capsule reviews of current plays from Yours Truly and many other New York critics.  

Sunday, November 15, 2015

MISERY: Highly Entertaining Journey into Stephen King Territory

Guilty pleasures abound in William Goldman’s highly entertaining, often wryly comic adaptation of Stephen King’s psychological thriller Misery, opening tonight at the Broadhurst Theater and starring Bruce Willis and Laurie Metcalf in the tale of a popular romance novelist who is rescued, then imprisoned, by his deranged “#1 fan” after a near fatal auto accident.

Let’s begin by acknowledging that this is a terrific yarn that Mr. King concocted, one that borders on the modern mythic, not unlike Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. So even if you are familiar with the 1987 novel or the later film version starring Kathy Bates and James Caan – and therefore already know how things will wind up in the end – you are sure to be caught up in the way things unfold. Knowing what is going to happen merely adds to the enjoyment. Misery finds its equivalent to Hitchcock’s famous shower scene in one involving a sledgehammer, whose appearance will set your heart a-thumpin’, as will various other weapons (including a kitchen knife that brings to mind the one wielded by Anthony Perkins in Psycho) that pop up suddenly and threateningly through the evening. 

This incarnation of Misery – the third stage adaptation of the novel, including a musical version produced in Holland – features a quietly sly and snarky Mr. Willis as the novelist Paul Sheldon, and the incomparable Laurie Metcalf as the seemingly steady Annie Wilkes whose mental stability completely unravels during the course of the 90-minute intermissionless production that has been lovingly shaped by director Will Frears.     

At play’s opening, Paul lies in a bed in Annie’s house in rural Colorado. He has been immobilized by multiple fractures of his legs and right arm in the accident during a monster snowstorm.  Annie found and rescued him, and now she is ministering to him, a man she idolizes as the creator of a series of romantic novels about a 19th century character called Misery Chastain. 

These books have been a godsend to Annie, who has lived alone for many years following a failed marriage and has found solace in the series. But Paul has grown weary of his heroine. His latest book about her will be his last; Misery dies at the end. When Annie finds out…  Well, hell hath no fury like a crazy lady denied her romance novels. Before you know it, she has purchased a used typewriter and some paper, and she compels Paul, now her dependent prisoner, to bring Misery back to life. 

What makes this such a strong production is the interaction between the two stars. You cannot take your eyes off Ms. Metcalf. Her Annie is scary and unpredictable in everything she does, teetering precariously between the timid tongue-tied hero worshipper and the crazed and dangerous lunatic. You never know which side of her personality will appear when the door to the bedroom opens.

Yet Bruce Willis’s Paul is not without recourse as he strives to manipulate or incapacitate Annie and make his escape, nor is he as physically helpless as he would seem. They are quite a match, these two. As Annie puts it as she injects Paul with a strong sedative during one of their many struggles:  "When are we going to develop a sense of trust?" Never, we hope.

The pair makes for a splendid team of opposites, and they do seem to be having a ball playing off one another. At one point during the performance I attended, Ms. Metcalf’s hand slipped while using an important prop, missing its target. The two of them broke character and started laughing – their delight only adding to the audience’s delight. A third character, the local sheriff played by Leon Addison Brown, makes an appearance from time to time, and it is also fun to watch the inner workings of Annie’s mind as she fends off his questions about the missing writer. 

The production is well supported by David Korins’s terrific revolving set, which reveals other parts of Annie’s house, and by the original musical underscoring by Michael Friedman along with recorded piano performances by Annie’s favorite entertainer, Liberace. 

There may be no eternal revelations to be examined here, and some viewers may not like the way the comic absurdity is played up, but you most assuredly are in for a treat by spending the evening with these two crackerjack actors.  

Feel free to share this blog with your friends, and to offer up your own theater stories by posting a comment. I also invite you to check out the new website Show-Score.Com, where you will find capsule reviews of current plays from Yours Truly and many other New York critics.  

Friday, November 13, 2015

Thérèse Raquin: As Gothic As Gothic Can Be

Thérèse Raquin is about as unrelentingly gothic as anything you are likely to see on stage. It the sort of melodramatic tale that occasionally crops up on PBS’s Masterpiece Theater or in some dark and dank bodice ripper of a movie – the kind of thing that Saturday Night Live might have turned into a skit introduced by Dan Aykroyd as Leonard Pinth-Garnell, host of “Bad Conceptual Theater.” 

Our heroine (Keira Knightley, making her Broadway stage debut) has been reared to be quietly tractable by a mildly annoying aunt (Judith Light, a treasure, even in this thankless role). The aunt, Madame Raquin, has decided how perfectly lovely it would be for Thérèse to marry her son, Thérèse’s doltish cousin Camille (Gabriel Ebert), so that the three of them can continue to live together.  Forever!  Thérèse, who has spent her entire life without the least expectation of experiencing any sort of pleasure, acquiesces out of sheer intertia. 

Through most of Act I, Ms. Knightley's character is the embodiment of clinical depression, her demeanor rotating among various facial expressions that include gawking, gaping, goggling, gazing, ogling, staring, peering, and glaring. She has almost nothing to say as day after dreary day passes by, even after Camille decides to drag everyone off to Paris to live. (Who knew that the City of Lights could be so very gloomy).  

Yet despite Beowulf Boritt’s elaborately bleak set design, Paris still manages to work its magic on Thérèse, whose heart and loins suddenly spring to life when she meets Laurent (Matt Ryan), an old friend of Camille. Before you can say “Anna Karenina,” the pair is engaged in a hot and heavy affair, leading inevitably to a plan to murder Camille – and from there to the sort of consequences you would expect to occur in such a tale as this. 

Director Evan Cabnet and the cast – which also includes David Patrick Kelly, Jeff Still, and Mary Wiseman as friends of the family who show up for weekly games of dominoes and who appear to be oblivious to the goings-on – milk the play for every drop of gothic atmosphere they can muster, and it certainly is unlike almost anything else I can recall seeing through my many years of theatergoing.  

British playwright Helen Edmundson's adaptation of Thérèse Raquin (at the Roundabout Theater Company’s Studio 54) is a brave plunge into theatrical performing for the sprightly Ms. Knightley (Pride & Prejudice; The Pirates of the Caribbean), but oh what a head scratcher it has all turned out to be.   

Feel free to share this blog with your friends, and to offer up your own theater stories by posting a comment. I also invite you to check out the new website Show-Score.Com, where you will find capsule reviews of current plays from Yours Truly and many other New York critics.