Friday, April 29, 2016

SCHOOL FOR SCANDAL: Joyous Production from Red Bull Theater of 18th Century Comic Romp

To start with, kudos to Charles G. LaPointe for yesterday’s well-deserved Drama Desk nomination, garnered for his wig design that is one of the many delightful details that mark Red Bull Theater’s rollicking production of Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s late Restoration comedy, The School For Scandal, at the Lucille Lortel Theatre. 

As much as we have enjoyed Red Bull’s forays into the dark and blood-soaked world of Jacobean drama (The Duchess of Malfi, The Revengers Tragedy, The Changeling), it is a pleasure to be able to attend one of the company’s productions designed (and succeeding) solely at making us laugh – and with a play dating to 1777 to boot. The Colonists across the Atlantic may have been in revolt, but that didn’t prevent the patrons of the Drury Lane Theatre, or us, from delighting in the follies and foibles of characters who traded in the literal backstabbing of the Jacobean era for more stylish and gleeful gossip and social intrigue.   

And what a marvelous bunch of prattling busybodies, pretentious rumormongers, and flingers of persiflage they are:  Lady Sneerwell, Snake, Mrs. Candour and the rest, all eager to dish and luxuriate in schadenfreude as one or the other of their circle gets enmeshed in some delicious scandal and subsequent public humiliation. 

Lady Sneerwell (Frances Barber) is the queen bee of the coterie of meddlers and blatherskites.  As the play opens, she and her colleague Snake (Jacob Dresch, he of the green wig and slithering manner) are conniving to arrange a tryst between Maria (Nadine Malouf), the ward of an acquaintance, and the seemingly honorable Joseph Surface (Christian Conn). It’s not that she gives a fig for either of these young folks; she simply wants to keep Maria away from Joseph’s disreputable brother Charles (Christian DeMarais), whom she is eager to capture for herself.

Frances Barber and a green-wigged Jacob Dresch

Meanwhile, Maria’s guardian, Sir Peter Teazle (Mark Linn-Baker, who performs with his usual perfect comic flair) has his own problems trying to keep up with his much younger wife (Helen Cespedes). Lady Teazle is relishing her immersion into the world of upper class shenanigans and is on the verge of leaping into a tryst of her own, preferably with Joseph. For his part, Joseph is eager to get his hands on any money he can garner out of a relationship with Lady Teazle. 

There are more twists to the convoluted plot than a pretzel on LSD, but suffice it to say, all works out happily in the end.

Periodically popping in and out of the story, Dana Ivey (bearing herself rather like Maggie Smith as the Dowager Countess of Grantham on Downtown Abbey) beguiles as Lady Candour, a woman who loves gossiping about the shamefulness of gossipers – and she is more than happy to name names to anyone who will listen. Also on board, and playing it to the hilt, is Henry Stram as Sir Oliver Surface, the uncle of Joseph and Charles who shows up in multiple guises to determine which of his nephews is trustworthy.

But really, the entire cast, under Marc Vietor’s masterly direction, is top-rate, and every little detail is nigh unto perfection. Mr. LaPointe’s wigs, for example, along with some shuffling of accents, allow Ben Mehl to shine as he plays four separate servants, roles that would otherwise fade into the woodwork if they hadn't been so fine-tuned.  Andrea Lauer’s detailed period costumes and Greg Plasma’s original jaunty music add greatly to this joyous production.

I would be remiss if I were not to point out that the production retains a few lines and situations that reflect anti-Semitic and racist attitudes. Be prepared for some such moments, but be prepared, as well, to accept them as reflections of the times in which School For Scandal was written, and enjoy the play for what it is – a jolly romp. 

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.  

Thursday, April 21, 2016

WHEN I WAS A GIRL I USED TO SCREAM AND SHOUT: Mom and Daughter Struggle to Connect

“I’ve loved you all your life,” a mother repeatedly tells her 32-year-old daughter in Scottish playwright Sharman Mcdonald’s 1984 play,  When I Was A Girl, I Used to Scream and Shout, now being revived by the Fallen Angel Theatre Company at the Clurman Theatre. A lovely sentiment, that expression of motherly devotion. Too bad Mom is never able to bite her tongue and resist the compulsion to add, “no matter what you’ve done.” 

It’s not for lack of trying, but unconditional love is in short supply here, and resentment and regret hover over every conversation.  

The play and its airing of grievances take place during a week-long vacation at the seaside on the east coast of Scotland. Morag (Aedin Moloney) has invited Fiona (Barrie Kreinik) to join her for this mother-daughter getaway in order to reconnect. If they are not exactly estranged, they have never been terribly close; perhaps the change of atmosphere will help.  

The first act is played largely for dark comedy, of the “nagging parent” variety. When Morag gives Fiona a gift of an old coral necklace, for instance, it comes with the pointed remark, “I was keeping it for my first grandchild,” followed in rapid succession by “every woman needs to have a child,” and “a woman’s body is a clock that runs down very rapidly.”  Hint. Hint.  

Ms. Moloney, a fine actress recently seen in the Mint Theater Company’s excellent production of Women Without Men, offers these comments with just the right tone to maintain everything at the borderline between impulsive habit and  underlying bitterness. We wince at these little stinging jabs, but Fiona has long been used to her mother nipping at her, and mostly she is able to ignore it. And, if truth be told, she carries resentments of her own that affect the way she speaks to Morag in turn.

Perhaps to provide for a buffer between herself and Fiona, Morag has invited a third party to be part of their weekend. That would be Vari (ZoĆ« Watkins), Fiona’s close childhood friend, through Fiona has been out of touch with her for many years. Vari has three children of her own, and she spends much of the time complaining about the hardships she has faced owing to the demands of motherhood. 

What her presence does, however, is to trigger a stream of memories in Fiona. The play takes us back and forth in time between the present and her childhood, focusing especially on the girls’ early teenage years and their mostly self-taught lessons in the facts of life. And, oh, there was this boy (Colby Howell), who plays a small but significant role in all of this.  

After building up a head of steam through the slowly evolving first act, the play moves into a higher gear in Act II.  Amidst Fiona’s memories and revelations, we finally understand the source of the troubles between her and her mother, and why it is that Morag is resentful, believing she has had to sacrifice her own happiness for the sake of her daughter. 

In the end, we can say that When I Was A Girl, I Used to Scream and Shout is the story of two women whose lives and choices were shaped by the repressive and judgmental strictures foisted upon them during their formative years (the 1930s for Morag; the 1950s for Fiona). Both rebelled, each in her own way, but ultimately both capitulated to the social order, leaving them to lay blame for their unhappiness on each other. All we can do is to hope they will finally figure this out for themselves and find a way to reconcile. 

Despite solid acting under John Keating’s careful direction, the play is a bit of a plod, especially through Act I. One longs for some of the pent-up rage to erupt and allow the characters to move forward. Instead, they seem to be caught within a cycle of disappointment and censure as relentless as the waves washing over the shore.

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.  

Monday, April 18, 2016

BRIGHT STAR: Old Fashioned Musical With A Big Heart and a Shining New Star At Its Center

Dear Broadway theatergoer, please set aside your cynicism and let me tell you about the sweet and tender new musical at the Cort Theatre called Bright Star that is as embraceable as the lovely spring weather.

You probably already know that Bright Star is the result of a collaboration between two celebrities with no prior experience writing a musical: singer-songwriter Edie Brickell and comic, actor, and occasional story and play writer Steve Martin.

If you need reminding, Mr. Martin’s most famous brush with songwriting fame came in 1978 with the novelty number “King Tut,” while Ms. Brickell’s biggest hit, “What I Am,” dates to a decade later when she sang with a group called The New Bohemians.  So some initial cynicism about their capacity to write a Broadway musical is understandable. 

But bear with me.   

For in the ensuing years, Mr. Martin began to delve most seriously into his lifelong love of banjo music. He began touring with a bluegrass group, the Steep Canyon Rangers, picking up the top award of the International Bluegrass Music Association in 2011. Eventually, he joined up with Ms. Brickell, and together they produced a couple of bluegrass albums. 

So it comes as no surprise that Bright Star boasts a lively and lovely bluegrass score, performed here by a gifted orchestra under the baton of Rob Berman, an accomplished theatrical musical director possibly best known to New Yorkers for his stellar work with City Center’s Encores! productions. If you like the toe tapping sounds of banjos, fiddles, and guitars, there’s plenty of that on hand, and it’s all good. 

Of course, there is more to a musical than the music. The story Brickell and Martin tell falls in tone somewhere between realism and folk tale, a mix that doesn’t always blend smoothly (possibly director Walter Bobbie could have done a better job joining the seams) but one that gets the job done and opens the way for the excellent cast to win our hearts as they take us back and forth in time between the 1920s and the year 1945-46, immediately following the end of World War II and the homecoming of the troops.  

With Bright Star, the “home” in homecoming is in rural North Carolina, with side trips to the city of Asheville. We follow the lives of two separate but ultimately intersecting couples, whose connection becomes clearer as the show progresses.  (You’ll probably have your own “aha” moment well before the big reveal, but that won’t stop you from appreciating its impact on the characters when they work it out for themselves).     

At the center of Bright Star is the show’s own bright star, Carmen Cusack, making a most impressive Broadway debut as Alice Murphy, the strong-willed editor of a major literary magazine, whose story of loss and redemption this is. Hers is one of those magical debuts that can launch a performer to stardom, and you will know it from the moment she opens her mouth to deliver the opening song, “If You Knew My Story,” through to the show-stopping 11 o’clock number, “At Long Last.” That song, one of two with both music and lyrics by Ms. Brickell, is a real highlight and nearly redeems her overreliance on generally (and probably intentionally) folksy and repetitive lyrics that can get under your skin. 

As good as she is, Ms. Cusack does not carry the show alone. A. J. Shively exudes down-home charm as Billy, the young man back from the war and eager to make a name for himself as a writer. Paul Alexander Nolan is excellent, as well, as Alice’s great love Jimmy Ray. Hannah Elless does nicely as Billy’s love interest, though she does have do a lot of waiting around while he figures things out. Every good show needs its villain, of course, and Michael Mulheron amply fills the bill as Jimmy Ray’s controlling and heartless father. 

By some confluence of coincidences, New York theatergoers have been treated to three different bluegrass musicals of late. There was Southern Comfort, which just closed at the Public Theater, and The Robber Bridegroom, still going strong at the Laura Pels Theater.  But Bright Star, despite a few structural flaws, decidedly outshines the rest.  

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.