Wednesday, March 30, 2016

1776: Encores! Production Takes Us to the Room Where It Happened When The Nation Was Born

If you haven’t been able to figure out how to crowdfund a ticket to Hamilton, you might want to get yourself over to City Center for the highly enjoyable Encores! production of 1776.  

In this case, the room where it happened is the Assembly Room in Independence Hall in Philadelphia, where the delegates from the 13 colonies met as the Second Continental Congress during that hot, hot summer of 1776 to debate whether or not to approve the document that would become known as the Declaration of Independence.  

The 1969 show, which walked off with a slew of Tony Awards (six plus a couple of additional nominations) and ran for over 1,200 performances, had the good fortune of having as its book writer Peter Stone, a gifted wordsmith who was responsible for such gems as the screenplay for Charade and the books for the Tony winning musicals The Will Rogers Follies and Titanic. In the case of 1776, there is no question but that this is one musical where the book outshines the songs. There is even one long stretch (30 minutes or so) in which not one note of music is delivered.  

This is not to disparage Sherman Edwards’ score, which is tuneful enough and does the show no harm; indeed, the songs provide much-needed breaks from the tension of the arguing, debating, and negotiating that are taking place in that stifling room (the heat and the flies are the only topics on which there is agreement). But it really is Mr. Stone’s detailed and tension-filled scenes among the delegates that make the show – even though, yes, we do know how things will turn out.  

Santino Fontana is terrific as John Adams, a man who, for his sheer orneriness and stubborn determination, may well remind you of the way that Alexander Hamilton is being portrayed over at the Richard Rodgers Theatre. He says of himself that he is “obnoxious and disliked” – a description that no one disputes – and his opening words about his fellow delegates ring as true today as they did way back when.  

One useless man, he says, is a disgrace; two are a law firm; and three or more are a Congress. (To underscore the point, and to make the contemporary connection, the gentlemen of the cast are all dressed in modern business suits.)

As we listen in on the arguments in the Assembly Room, they are generally as trivial and pointless as anything going on in Washington nowadays.  But Adams and his allies (among them Ben Franklin, played with a mix of avuncular wisdom and devilish charm by John Larroquette) have one goal in mind: to foment a revolution and establish an independent and sovereign nation out of the loose affiliation of colonies.  In order to do this, he must find a pathway to unanimity, a near impossible task given the various competing interests among the delegates.   

One of the great things about shows like this (and like Hamilton) is that they bring history to life. No one will claim that 1776 fails to play fast and loose with the details. It's a musical, after all, not a history lesson. But the big picture is brilliantly captured as we are introduced to those who were present at the beginning of our nation. 

Bryce Pinkham (A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder) portrays John Dickinson of Pennsylvania, a man who is bound and determined to maintain the status quo with England, as he explains in his big number with the other conservative delegates, “Cool, Cool Considerate Men.” 

New York audience will appreciate the jabs at their state's politicians, and the New York delegate's persistent if "courteous" abstentions on every vote.  

And you cannot have a Declaration of Independence without its author, Thomas Jefferson, played by John Behlmann with a sense of quiet conviction, coupled with a genteel Virginia pragmatism that lead him to agree to changes in the Declaration in order to garner needed votes, especially from the Southern delegates who are particularly sensitive to anti-slavery language.  

Both Mr. Stone and Mr. Edwards use the show to make a strong statement about slavery, that “peculiar institution” that represents an unshakable truth about our first century as a nation. One of the more powerful songs is performed by the character of Edward Rutledge of South Carolina (Alexander Gemignani). Titled “Molasses to Rum,” it is an indictment of the hypocrisy of the Northerners who say they are opposed to slavery but who are quite content to share in the profits that slave trading brings.  

Of course, we are well aware that many of the founding fathers were slave owners (Jefferson and Washington, among them), and the production makes a sly statement about this by having an African American actress, Nikki Renée Daniels (The Book of Mormon, The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess) play Jefferson's wife.  (We can't help but think of Sally Hemings).  

The Assembly Room is decidedly a man's world, however. The only other woman in the show is Christiane Noll as Abigail Adams, with rather too little to do beyond singing about how much she misses her husband. Also underutilized is André De Shields (The Wiz, Ain’t Misbehavin’) as a rum swilling Rhode Island delegate.   

Still and all, this is a fine production of a show that has seen only one Broadway revival (in 1997) since its initial run.  If you want to catch it, you’ll have to move quickly.  Encores! shows run for just a handful of performances. This one ends on Sunday.

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. 


Tuesday, March 29, 2016

STUPID FUCKING BIRD: Masterfully Comic and Humane Adaptation of Chekhov's SEAGULL

Third time’s the charm in what you might call variations on a theme by Chekhov, with the splendidly acted and thoroughly engaging production of Aaron Posner’s Stupid Fucking Bird that opened last night at the Pearl Theatre Company.    

In the past six months, New York audiences have been treated to three decidedly different plays that have riffed on the great Russian playwright’s The Seagull.  The first of these, Songbird, showed up in October. It was a musical that transported its 19th century characters to a modern day Nashville honky-tonk. Lauren Pritchard’s country, blues, and rock score was nicely performed by a top-notch cast, headed up by the resplendent Kate Baldwin, but the connection with the Chekhov play was strained beyond credibility.* 

Then last week, the experimental Irish theater company Pan Pan offered up its version, titled The Seagull and Other Birds. “Experimental” is the operant word here, and this version – replete with cast members dressed in leotards and tutus uttering lines as enigmatic as anything written by James Joyce – is alternately Mad Tea Party fun and bewilderingly convoluted.*     

Which brings us to Posner’s version, truly a Seagull for our time. The playwright translates Chekhov’s themes for modern audiences in this self-styled “sort of” adaptation better than anyone else writing for the theater today – and assuredly better by far than either of the two previous efforts from the past year. I’d also venture to say that Posner knows his Shakespeare as well, maybe even his Goethe, for Shakespeare’s timeless comedies about unrequited love among the young and Goethe’s ode to youthful, tragic romanticism, The Sorrows of Young Werther, suffuse this production.  

So Dev (Medvedenko in Chekhov) pines for Mash (Masha) who longs for Conrad (Konstantin) who aches for Nina who is hot for Trigorin. It is all as sighingly and romantically tormented as Werther’s love for Charlotte  and as humanly comic as the Demetrius/Hermia/Lysander/Helena mashup in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.  

As in The Seagull, we are met with a young iconoclastic writer Conrad (Christopher Sears), who has lived in the shadow of his famous if distant and narcissistic actress mother “Emma” Arkadina (Bianca Amato), and her lover, the successful and popular writer “Doyle” Trigorin (Erik Lochtefeld).  All have gathered at the home of the actress’s brother Sorn (Dan Daily) to witness the debut performance of one of Conrad’s densely inscrutable plays.  

Things unfold along the same lines as they do in The Seagull, and throughout Stupid Fucking Bird, there is strong adherence to Chekhov’s original plot – but with many modern twists and even bits of improvising through fourth wall-breaching interactions with the audience. At one point, Conrad pleads with audience members for advice on winning back Nina – his muse and the woman he perceives to be his soulmate – after she has thrown herself at Trigorin. At the performance I attended, Mr. Sears was able to elicit responses from the audience, culminating in one suggestion he loved:  “Kill a seagull.”  

While Act I leans precariously towards spoof, Act II picks up on Chekhov’s themes in a more naturalistic vein, dealing both with the absurd side of human foibles and with serious  issues of aspirations and regrets. We find ourselves growing fonder of all of the characters as they become more real to us.  It’s easy enough, for instance, to mock Mash(a)’s morose demeanor (in Pan Pan’s version of the play, she is performed by an unsmiling, black tutu-wearing Una McKevitt; here Joey Parsons appears as a black-draped goth teenager). But darned if we don’t warm to Ms. Parson’s characterization, especially as time passes and she matures into a lovely adult. The same is true for Conrad’s closest friend Dev (a goofily charming Joe Paulik), a man with more depths than one imagines him to possess at first glance.  

By imbuing all of the characters with greater dimensions, Mr. Posner brings Chekhov's vision fully to life for today’s audiences. The follies that make them targets for satire become absorbed into their more richly realized characterizations, so that Stupid Fucking Bird does what all great adaptations should do; it honors the original while bringing something new to the table.

Kudos to all involved in this masterful production, from the fine cast, to director Davis McCallum, to the designers Sandra Goldmark (clever set), Amy Clark (costumes), Mike Inwood (lighting) and Mikhail Fiksel (sound). Chekhov, I believe, would be proud.  

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. 

*For reviews of Songbird, click here.  For reviews of The Seagull and Other Birds, click here.     

Thursday, March 24, 2016

SOUTHERN COMFORT: Musical Explores the Lives, Friendships, and Loves of a Self-Declared Transgender 'Family'

Aneesh Sheth and Jeff McCarthy in Southern Comfort
Photo by Carol Rosegg

Remember Urinetown, the satirical musical that depicted a dystopian society in which strict laws controlled the use of restroom facilities?  

I thought of Urinetown when I read the story in today’s New York Times about a law passed earlier this week by North Carolina legislators barring transgender individuals from bathrooms and locker rooms that do not match the gender identified on their birth certificates.  

Picture the gender police standing outside of every public restroom examining the birth certificates for everyone wishing to enter – a kind of TSA for toilets.  From an SNL skit perspective, it’s funny stuff.  From the perspective of transgender persons, not so much.  

Transgender, the long-neglected “T” in the struggle for LGBT rights, is starting to gain public attention, not only with the passage of such insane legislation (expect a plethora of civil rights lawsuits), but with the very public coming out of Caitlyn (né Bruce) Jenner. For once, reality TV may be contributing to an important social change.  

Now we have a “transgender musical,” Southern Comfort, playing at the Public Theater, based on Kate Davis’s 2001 documentary film of the same title about the final year in the life of a transgender man who most ironically was dying of ovarian cancer. Southern Comfort (with book and lyrics by Dan Collins and bluegrass-inspired music by Julianne Wick Davis), depicts the lives of its central character, Robert Eads (Annette O’Toole), and other members of a tight-knit transgender community in the “Bubbaland” of rural Georgia. 

Clearly a labor of love (Robert Dusold and the show’s director Thomas Caruso are credited with conceptualizing the musical), Southern Comfort earns kudos for its important contribution to the public’s growing understanding of what it means to be transgender.  

Unlike notions of “gay” and “straight” (or even “bi”), being transgender is not about whom you are attracted to sexually. It is about who you are – as determined by you, and not by anyone else, and certainly not by your genitalia. To be clear here, a transgender man is someone who was born with the biological makeup for which we typically assign the term “female” yet who self-identifies as male. Likewise, a transgender woman is someone who was born with the biological makeup for which we typically assign the term “male,” yet who self-identifies as female. It is how you address this dichotomy that takes all of this out of the realm of an interior “secret” to a public presentment. 
The strength of Southern Comfort (the title refers to the annual conference for transgender persons and supporters; the 2016 conference will be held September 27-October 1 at the Ft. Lauderdale Convention Center) is in the diversity of the characters and in the issues it addresses. As it says on the actual Southern Comfort conference website:  “Whether you’re a transsexual, cross-dresser or in between; a spouse, partner or family member; straight, gay, bi or omni-sexual; post-op, pre-op or non-op; young, old; married, single; FtM or MtF – if transgender is an issue in your life, WELCOME!”

Let's back up to that part about “post-op, pre-op, or non-op.” That’s the piece that is central to the musical, and, really, to the lives of all transgender individuals. Hormones, double mastectomies, phalloplasty, vaginoplasty, breast implants.   These are difficult decisions that have personal, medical, social, and political implications no matter what decision one makes. Robert Eads (in real life and in the musical) opted not to have his ovaries removed and paid the ultimate price for that decision. On the other hand, the transgender man he thinks of as his adopted son Jackson (Jeffrey Kuhn) intends to have a phalloplasty, a decision that causes an irreparable rift between the two of them.  

There is also a character who is not ready to commit to surgery or hormones.  Robert’s girlfriend (touchingly portrayed by Jeff McCarthy), she calls herself by what sounds to be a drag name, Lola Cola, and sometimes lives her public life as John, the name she was born with. But she considers herself to be a transgender woman, a tiny bird trapped in the body of a tall and hefty man. (“Bird” is the name of one of the show’s more memorable songs, sung by Lola Cola and accompanied by the onstage bluegrass quartet, doubling as storytellers).  

Rounding out the cast are Aneesh Sheth as Carly, a very confident and self-assured transgender woman and Jackson’s girlfriend; Donnie Cianciotto as Sam, a transgender man; and Robin Skye as Sam’s wife Melanie, the only non-transgender member of the inner circle and someone who talks about the path that took her from a homophobic upbringing to finding her true love.

The significance of the story of these characters ought not to be undervalued, and the Public should be commended for seeking out transgender actors to take on some of the roles. 

Unfortunately, something has been lost on the way from thinking about the social justice message to the shaping of the material into a musical for the stage. Sadly, the book is overwhelmingly pedantic and the songs, while pleasant enough, fail to reveal much about the characters (with the exception of the previously mentioned “Bird”) or to move the plot forward.  

Theatergoers have been hit with a number of sincere message shows that fail to rise to the level of their themes, like last season’s Mothers and Sons, or this season’s Amazing Grace or Allegiance.  The same can be said of Southern Comfort. Great theater can certainly teach us great lessons, but it is not a schoolroom. It’s hard not to care about Robert and Jackson and Carly and Lola and Sam and Melanie, and to appreciate the heart-felt performances of the actors in those roles.  But if you want a model to emulate when telling such an important story, try Fun Home

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, March 18, 2016

BOY: Well-Meaning Parents Raise Son As A Girl, With Serious Consequences, Indeed

Rebecca Rittenhouse, Bobby Steggert,
and Heidi Armbruster in BOY
Photo by Carol Rosegg

Can someone be forced to live a transgender life and not even know it? 

That is the remarkable question at the heart of the Keen Company’s production of Anna Ziegler’s Boy, now at the Clurman Theatre. Even more remarkable is the fact that the play draws on a true story (that of David Peter Reimer), in which the best of intentions of a loving family and a gifted, if misguided, doctor lead to a life of emotional trauma for the character at its center – born a boy (named Sam) but raised as a girl (called Samantha) after his penis was severed in a medical accident.

The story itself might well have been fodder for tabloid headlines or emotionally-charged confessional TV shows, so great credit must go to the playwright and to its outstanding cast for avoiding all of that. Boy strips itself of any weepy mawkishness and bores with honest intensity into the damaged soul of the character (a strikingly rich performance by Bobby Steggert) who, when we meet him, is in his 20s, is knowledgeable about his history and now calls himself Adam. 

Blame is not the central driver, although certainly culpability is important. The designated villain is the doctor (Paul Niebanck), called Wendell Barnes in the play.  A psychologist specializing in gender identity, Dr. Barnes not only advises Sam’s parents (Heidi Armbruster and Ted Köch) that it is in their son’s best interest to raise him as a girl, but he remains a trusted confidant for many years, especially as “Samantha” balks at the role into which she has been forced into (without any conscious knowledge that it is a role). The early years depicted in the play are in the 1960s, when the nature vs nurture debate was going strong and doctors were viewed as authoritative figures; Dr. Barnes is merely emblematic of that world view, as is his sway over Sam/Samantha’s family.   

When we first meet the grown Sam, now Adam, he is in the early stages of a relationship with Jenny (Rebecca Rittenhouse).  A casual flirtation at a Halloween party quickly blossoms into something more serious, but, while the attraction heats up emotionally, Adam pulls away from anything physical. Though Jenny is perplexed and frustrated, Adam is not prepared to have this conversation with Jenny or anyone else outside of his parents and Dr. Barnes.

The rest of the play, which alternates scenes between Samantha’s childhood and Adam’s young adult life, focuses on the character’s difficult struggle for self-identity, both when his history is being withheld from him and later, after he learns the truth. A confrontation with Dr. Barnes helps to set him free, but it is his desire to make things work with Jenny that leads to the beginnings of healing – at least, in the play.  (Sadly, the real David Peter Reimer ended his own life after battling depression for many years). 

The entire cast gives first-rate performances under Linsay Firman’s carefully focused direction. But it is Bobby Steggert who absolutely shines. Always a consummately honest actor, he tends to do his best work when he is presented with characters that allow him to find the perfect blend between intelligence and heart. Here he skillfully brings both Samantha and Adam into gut-wrenching reality for the audience, absolutely shining in what may be his meatiest role since he starred as the central character of a gay World War II soldier in Yank! 

Boy is not the first play to take on the question of gender identity and its place within the larger and more complex picture of transgender issues.  Dewey Moss’s Death of the Persian Prince (reviewed here), first presented last summer, tackles the very disturbing matter of gay men within the country of Iran being coerced into having gender reassignment surgery.  “Gay” and “transgender” are, of course, not synonymous, and there is much need for bringing an understanding into the light, even as the public’s awareness of what it means to be gay and lesbian has increased tremendously in the past couple of decades. Next up, we’ll be taking a look at the musical, Southern Comfort, that relates the story of small transgender community in rural Georgia. 

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. 

Saturday, March 5, 2016

PRODIGAL SON: In Autobiographical Play, Troubled Teen Seeks His Place in the World

Robert Sean Leonard and Timothée Chalet
Photo by Joan Marcus

In the 1989 film Dead Poets Society, a young actor by the name of Robert Sean Leonard played a troubled student at a prep boarding school in the hills of Vermont. In that movie, he was one of the boys under the wing of their nurturing English teacher (Robin Williams in an Oscar-nominated role). 

Now, 27 years later, Mr. Leonard has come full circle, taking on the role of Alan Hoffman, a nurturing English teacher at a prep boarding school (this one located in the hills of New Hampshire), who takes a troubled student (Timothée Chalamet) under his wing in John Patrick Shanley’s autobiographical play Prodigal Son, now at the Manhattan Theatre Club at New York City Center Stage I. 

The student (here called Jim Quinn, though he surely is a stand-in for the playwright) has been admitted to Thomas More Preparatory School after being kicked out of the Catholic high school he formerly attended in the Bronx. Jim comes with a lot of baggage, including a history of poor grades, fights with his peers, and a belligerent attitude toward authority figures. Carl Schmitt (Chris McGarry), headmaster at Thomas More, refers to him as “the most interesting mess we have this year,” and says he accepted him largely because his mother cried during the interview.  

Over the course of the play, we watch as Jim tries to find his place in the world, a struggle that manifests in the same sort of behaviors that marked his past. He is scrappy, loose with the truth, sticky-fingered, and arrogantly self-centered. Yet there is no doubt he is smart, a voracious reader and talented writer, and has the potential to accomplish amazing things. 

Fortunately for him, he possesses the kind of boyish charm that wins over his English teacher (Mr. Leonard) and the headmaster's kind-hearted wife (Annika Boras), both of whom protect and champion him against the increasing likelihood of his being expelled.

The problem for us, however, is that we learn very little about Jim beyond what we see. We have no idea what led him to being so exasperating yet so attractive. Similarly, we learn just enough about the Schmitts and about Alan Hoffman to be distracted from Jim’s story. The playwright also reaches into the same bag that produced his most well-known work, Doubt, to further distract us. The writing is simply not strong enough to juggle all of these side stories, any of which might be worthy of their own play. It probably doesn’t help that Mr. Shanley himself serves as the director; another eye might have helped shape things better.

There is no faulting the acting, however, and Timothée Chalamet (best known for his work in Showtime’s Homeland) is a real find, a bundle of nervous energy with just the right mix of allure and obnoxiousness to paint the portrait of a teen on the verge of either exploding gloriously into the world or imploding into self-destruction.  

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.