Friday, October 21, 2016

MEN OF TORTUGA: What's a Little Corporate Murder If It Keeps the Stockholders Happy?

Men of Tortuga

Assassination as a business strategy is, one hopes, not too common a practice. But for the high-level muckety-mucks gathered in the conference room that serves as the setting for Living Room Theatre’s funny-scary production of Jason Well’s toothy satire Men of Tortuga, it seems to be the last best opportunity for defending themselves against an apparently ruthless rival. 

The play, on view at TADA! Theater, opens with three upper-tier management types in a secret meeting with a man called Taggart (Ken Forman). Think of him as their assassination consultant. He’s there to help them work out a plan to annihilate their unnamed enemy before some unspecified deal takes place (a really hostile takeover, perhaps?). The head honcho, Kit (Curzon Dobell), absolutely loathes their target, and the other two, Tom (Allen McCullough) and Jeff (Benim Foster), can see no other option but to take him out. 

In exploring their options, Taggart makes the strongest possible case for raising the firepower well beyond what the others believe is called for. “You can’t just put your man in the crosshairs and let fly,” he explains, not if you want to be absolutely certain of success.  As the evening progresses, the plan to eliminate this one man evolves into a complicated scheme that includes a missile, poison gas, a suicide killer, and a briefcase rigged like something out of a James Bond movie.   

If this all sounds disturbing, it is. But it is also very funny in an absurdist sort of way as the plot gets more and more convoluted and the schemers dig deeply into their psyches in order to justify what is turning into a plan for a mass killing spree. As Taggart rhetorically puts it, “Would they have nuked Berlin to get Hitler?” 

While all this is going on, a second front opens up as a lower-level wonk, Allan (Michael Broadhurst), tries to sell Kit on a compromise plan that will perhaps save the corporation but which will also grant concessions to their archenemy. It becomes Kit’s burden to decide how they should proceed. But the deeper they all march into the mire, the harder it is for him to commit one way or the other. 

In the end, Kit chooses an irreversible path and leaves the others to face the consequences of the conspiracy. Not that they are too worried, even if they are caught red-handed. After all, as Jeff notes, “it’s not like we screwed our stockholders.”

That’s a line that should reverberate in today’s climate, where unscrupulous business practices are being met with greater public awareness and cynicism. Under Randolyn Zinn’s fine-tuned direction, the five cast members do a beautiful job of balancing the twin foci of the alarming nature of the murderous plot and their increasingly farcical behavior. 

Men of Tortuga, the meaning of whose title is elusive but calls to mind the kind of cryptic titles favored by David Mamet (Glengarry Glen Ross; Speed-the-Plow), was first produced in 2005 at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre. It was well received at the time as a dark dig on cutthroat business practices. However, in the ensuing years, our growing understanding of the tactics of actual terrorism adds another layer to the goings-on, with conversations about hand-held missile launchers, chemical weapons, beheadings, and martyrs giving us a dual lens for viewing the action in this most intriguing play about business intrigue.  

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 website Show-Score.Com, where you will find capsule reviews of current plays from Yours Truly and many other New York critics.  

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

HOLIDAY INN: Only Corbin Bleu Stands Out in Otherwise Bland Celebration of Irving Berlin

Holiday Inn, the “new Irving Berlin musical” now playing at the Roundabout Theatre Company’s Studio 54, is not exactly new. How could it be, when its composer died in 1989 and not a single song in the show was culled from previously unpublished works? Instead, it is a rewrite of the 1942 movie musical of the same name, following the same general plot line with some tinkering by Gordon Greenberg (who also directs) and Chad Hodge, along with additional Berlin tunes that originated elsewhere.  

To be clear, I have no problem with shows that are built around compilations of pre-existing, even familiar songs.  However, I do expect a certain degree of imaginative directing, snazzy orchestrations, stellar performances, or, really, anything to lift it above the pleasant but bland evening that is being offered here in a production better suited to community theater than to Broadway. 

Bryce Pinkham (deservedly a Tony nominee for A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder) plays Jim Hardy, a man who has traded in a career as a nightclub performer for what he supposes will be a bucolic life on a farm he has purchased in Connecticut. 

Jim comes off as a stick-in-the-mud dreamer, ready to give up and give in at every turn. A fatalist, he basically shrugs it off when his fiancĂ©e and showbiz partner Lila Dixon (Megan Sikora) decides she’s not ready to retire after all and elects to remain in the business with Jim’s more ambitious buddy Ted Hanover (Corbin Bleu). 

So it’s off to the farm for Jim, who mopes around, overwhelmed by a place in sore need of refurbishing and drowning in a pile of overdue bills and the threat of foreclosure.  

Sigh.  What’s a fellow to do?

Lucky for Jim, he has a barn filled with theater props, a knack for writing Irving Berlin-type songs, and friends back in New York who would be delighted to pop up to Connecticut on occasion to put on a show – say, during various holidays throughout the year. They can sell tickets, and even fill up the farmhouse’s 15 bedrooms with paying guests.  Yay! 

That’s essentially the story of Holiday Inn. The songs, some two dozen of them, are performed by a talented cast, who are unfortunately constrained by listless orchestrations and vocal arrangements of some of Berlin’s gems (among them Blue Skies, Heat Wave, Shaking the Blues Away, Easter Parade, White Christmas) as well as others that fall into the lower-tier category.  Again, it’s as if everything were planned for easy transfer to smaller local productions around the country, with many of the numbers staged and performed as the might appear on an old television variety show. (Lawrence Welk came to mind while watching a sweetly-rendered version of Let’s Take an Old-Fashioned Walk.) 

Jim does not remain unattached for long. His new love interest is Linda Mason (Lora Lee Gayer), the former owner of the property, a local school teacher, and – quelle surprise – a singer!  He is also aided and abetted by his jill-of-all-trades and everybody’s pal, cheerleader, and matchmaker Louise (Megan Lawrence, though played by understudy Jennifer Foote at the performance I attended.) Louise brings Linda and Jim together, although, to provide a teensy amount of suspense, Ted Hanover shows up, having been dumped by Lila for a Texas millionaire. Guess who’s looking for a new dance partner, and guess who he has his eye on!!!

Of the lead performers, only Corbin Bleu, a talented dancer, manages to make something of his role. He is featured in two of the stronger numbers of the evening, You’re Easy to Dance With, performed with a string of women as he searches for the perfect replacement partner, and Let’s Say It With Firecrackers, more-or-less a re-creation of one of the movie’s better-known numbers danced by Fred Astaire. Mr. Bleu, of High School Musical fame, has a certain impish charm that suits him well, and he has his own surety of dance style that lets him pull off the Astaire role without worrying about the master’s shadow. 

The rest are fine, but not necessarily right for their roles. Bryce Pinkham has a lovely tenor, but, really, can a tenor pull off White Christmas without being crushed by the memory of Bing Crosby’s iconic baritone?  Megan Sikora does the ditzy blonde thing quite well, but she is given precious little to do that would allow her to take that kind of performance to the rafters where it belongs. Likewise, Lora Lee Gayer’s operatic soprano is not suited to the role of the girl-next-door she is playing.  

In smaller parts, Lee Wilkof does nicely as an agent striving to get Ted a Hollywood contract, and young Morgan Gao gives a gutsy performance in an outlandish role as a kid who represents the bank every time foreclosure is mentioned. The role of Louise is at least fun, and certainly Ms. Foote, the understudy, carried it off well.  

What you have in the end is the Irving Berlin songs. The problem is, only a couple of them are staged with any panache.  If you’re out to highlight these well-worn standards, then do it up big. Clever. With original staging and exciting choreography. But generally, none of these elements is part of this production. The biggest number comes near the end of a tedious Act I, an exuberant version of Shaking the Blues Away that finally wakes things up. Act II is decidedly better than Act I, but, other than Mr. Bleu’s two numbers, it rarely rises above the banal.  

One thing I did like is the clear effort to put together a diverse company, with a racially and ethnically mixed ensemble and varied body types (tall, short, curvy, thin, short-legged, long-bodied, etc.), so the cast as a whole looked like a gathering of real people and not like a collection of interchangeable magazine covers. I was also curious what they would do (or not do) with a number from the movie that attempted to celebrate Abraham Lincoln and his role in the fight to end slavery, but which unfortunately (in a plot twist) put white performers in black face. Here, a few bars of the song were interpolated into the score as a nod to Berlin, and then disappeared. 

Nice touch, that. But the show as a whole is lacking in so many of its elements that it fails to satisfy, even on the light-and-fluffy entertainment scale. 

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 website Show-Score.Com, where you will find capsule reviews of current plays from Yours Truly and many other New York critics.  

Saturday, October 8, 2016

MAESTRO: Portrait of the Iconic and Complicated Composer/Conductor Leonard Bernstein

Hershey Felder as Leonard Bernstein in Maestro
Photo courtesy of Hershey Felder Presents

It must be accepted as a given that any bio-play represents a mixture of truth, partial truth, and speculation (or even fiction), as the writer tries to penetrate the mind and spirit of the subject in order to bring that person to life for an audience in the space of an hour or two. But even within these constraints, it is a most intriguing and credible portrait that playwright, actor, and pianist Hershey Felder paints of American musical superstar Leonard Bernstein in Maestro, now enjoying a well-deserved extended run through October 23 at 59E59 Theaters. 

Composer of a number of enduring Broadway musicals and the long-time conductor of the New York Philharmonic, Bernstein was a man of many talents who soaked up public acclaim like a sponge during a lengthy and successful career.

But In Maestro, at least, he seems as well to be a man who truly was never satisfied. He wanted it all, and he was frustrated and offended when that “all” remained “only just out of reach,” to quote an apt bit of lyric from West Side Story that Stephen Sondheim penned to Mr. Bernstein’s music.  

Bernstein is justifiably remembered not only for West Side Story, but for other great shows like On The Town and Wonderful Town (both with lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green). Still, he wanted to secure his place in history not as a writer of show tunes (though what glorious tunes they were!), but as one of America’s top-tier composers, to be sanctified alongside or, preferably, above the likes of Gershwin and Copland. 

He certainly did produce many serious works, but, to his eternal dismay, they never lifted his reputation to the heights of acclaim that his imagination insisted upon. In the play, he snarkily and with bitterness calls on us to join him in singing something “from my Mass: 'Simple Song!' All right everyone together!” The silence from the audience is, of course, pointed.  

The first half of the 105-minute intermissionless play  is dominated by the public persona Bernstein carefully cultivated on television and in other formats as the "world’s music teacher" and flamboyant and charismatic conductor. But that image begins to warp as the story of his private life and struggles breaks through: his striving for acceptance by his father, his casual dismissal of the contributions of his collaborators, his disparagement of his “enemies,” and his cavalier treatment of his wife and children as he blithely threw himself into sexual trysts with other men.     

Felder, himself a gifted pianist who has also created theatrical portraits of Gershwin, Beethoven, and other music giants, does a fine job channeling Bernstein (Joel Zwick directs). For some, the fact that he does not resemble Bernstein in appearance or carriage may be a barrier to completely enjoying this evocative portrayal. But for many, myself included, he provides a fascinating glimpse into this revered and complicated Twentieth Century icon and gives us pause as we consider the price one pays in exchange for genius.   

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 website Show-Score.Com, where you will find capsule reviews of current plays from Yours Truly and many other New York critics.  


Sunday, October 2, 2016

THE BIRDS: Despair Pervades Conor McPherson's Take on du Maurier's Classic Tale

The Birds
Photo by Carol Rosegg

It’s the end of the world as we know it, in playwright Conor McPherson’s dread-infused deconstruction of Daphne du Maurier classic nightmare of a tale, The Birds, now on view at 59E59 Theaters as part of the Origin’s 1st Irish Festival.   

The fiendish fowls are still on hand (we can hear them as they enter and leave the scene with the tides, thanks to Ien Denio’s evocative sound design). But abandon any expectations you may have of a staged version of the iconic Alfred Hitchcock film of the same title. You’ll not find Tippi Hedren swatting away at an army of malignant feathered critters, nor Rod Taylor leaping to her rescue.   

McPherson’s better known works (Shining City, The Weir, The Seafarer) conjure up images of actual ghosts, ghoulies, and demons, and there is a certain lyrical Irish-flaired spooky-stories-around-the-campfire quality to them. But with The Birds, originally produced in 2009, he takes a different tack. Here, the flying army merely serves as the backdrop to the psychological disintegration of a few remaining humans trying to survive the onslaught. The overall effect is less that of du Maurier’s plunge into Cold War paranoia than it is a descent into the hellish landscape depicted in Cormac McCarthy’s dystopian novel The Road.

This is a claustrophobic production, for both the actors and the audience. We are invited to enter the already-small theater a few at a time, and we are seated in a tight circle around the tiny performing space where the play will unfold just inches from us. It is difficult to see for the darkness and the fog and the random projections of equally random images just outside of our range of vision (unless we choose to contort our bodies to take them in).

We can hear nearly indecipherable, staticky voices coming from a radio. If we listen carefully, we can tell they are talking about the attack, which seems to be very wide-spread indeed, so that we appear to be on the brink of the collapse of civilization.

After a while, a middle-aged woman enters, explaining that she and a man have taken refuge in a farmhouse. He is ill, feverish, and she is nursing him. Her name, we learn, is Diane (Antoinette LaVecchia), and his is Nat (Tony Naumovski). There will be no rescue. They are on their own, trapped with their fear between the birds and the roaming packs of looters who will kill for a packet or rice or a tin of onions.  

The imagery McPherson employs suggests that Diane and Nat are the inhabitants of an Anti-Eden. If this is the case, then the snake appears in the guise of a younger woman, Julia (Mia Hutchinson-Shaw), who shows up one day to sow doubts and threatens to bring down what little balance Diane and Nat (after he regains his strength) have managed to cobble together as they wait out the relentless ebb and flow of the birds. 

The three are like the characters trapped in Sartre’s No Exit, where “hell is other people.” They are forced to get along for survival, which depends on risky excursions in search of food during the breaks in the attacks, as dictated by the tides, but, really, it is a question of which of them will lose it first.    

In the end, this production of The Birds is all about atmosphere and tension and the lack of any real hope for the human race. Director Stefan Dzepardoski focuses almost exclusively on these elements, so that when conflicts arise among the three characters (plus one other, a threatening but ultimately equally helpless neighbor, also played by Mr. Naumovski), it is difficult to worry or care much about them. 

'Tis a bleak universe indeed that is depicted here, and though the will to live endures, it is only a matter of time until the human race will cease to exist. A thoughtful exercise in the extremes of human duress, The Birds may be. But stripped of hope or of characters with whom we can empathize (as Hitchcock understood), all that remains is a portrait of lives in despair. 

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 website Show-Score.Com, where you will find capsule reviews of current plays from Yours Truly and many other New York critics.