Monday, January 16, 2017

THEATER WEEK IN REVIEW - Jan 9-15 : DannyKrisDonnaVeronica; The Present; Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812; Consider the Lilies

January 9:  DannyKrisDonnaVeronica

In Lawrence Dial's play, DANNYKRISDONNAVERONICA, two 30-something couples struggle to balance the demands of career, marriage, and child rearing. 

Mr. Dial is a talented playwright who has received well-deserved praise for several of his works, including In The Room, which I saw in October. That one was an absorbing and insightful drama about the participants in a writing workshop. A producer of that play, Jeff Wise, serves as the director on DANNYKRISDONNAVERONICA

In the play, Danny (Ben Mehl) and Kris (Suzy Jane Hunt) are the designated stay-at-home parents, each of them responsible for an infant and a three-year-old. They start talking when they run into each other every day in a Brooklyn park with their children in tow. 

They have fallen into their caregiver roles due more to circumstances than to any predisposition to do so; neither is employed at the moment, while their spouses are. Makes sense from a practical standpoint, but that doesn't mean it is working out very well. Both of them are totally overwhelmed.      

The play focuses in part on the bond Danny and Kris develop over their common challenges. By identifying Kris as gay, however, the playwright makes it clear that whatever happens between them, they will not connect sexually. Instead, their mutual misery allows the play to highlight the disconnect each of them has with their respective spouses, Danny's wife Donna (Rachel Mewbron), and Kris's wife Veronica (Liz Wisan).  

For their part, Donna and Veronica are caught up in the demands of their work situations and don't really understand that taking care of kids full time can be quite a burden. A lack of honest communication between spouses threatens both couples far more than the growing friendship between Danny and Kris. By play's end, some progress has been made, but it is clear there is a great deal of work to be done if these marriages are to survive.  

Bottom line:  Great performances all around, and another solid piece of writing for Mr. Dial.  

January 10:  The Present

What is it about the plays of Anton Chekhov that brings out the apparently uncontrollable urge to remove it from its original context of pre-Revolution Russia and modernize or otherwise reshape it?  

Last year, for example, I saw three versions of The Seagull. The only one that managed to maintain the spirit of the original while reimagining it for a contemporary audience was Aaron Posner's Stupid Fucking Bird, a brilliant reconceptualization of Chekhov. The others, less successful, were a musical set in a Nashville honky-tonk, called Songbird, with a book by Michael Kimmel and music and lyrics by Lauren Pritchard; and The Seagull and Other Birds, an absurdist version by the experimental Irish theater company Pan Pan. Both of these latter two were interesting in their own right, but their connection with Chekhov was tenuous at best.

The same can be said of this season's Broadway productions of Chekhov. First we had the Roundabout Theatre Company's  The Cherry Orchard, in an adaptation by Steve Karan (he's the playwright responsible for the multiple Tony-winning The Humans). While his version of The Cherry Orchard gave us the pleasure of seeing Diane Lane's return to Broadway - bolstered with fine work by John Glover and the audience-pleasing Joel Grey among its strong cast - it had precious little to do with Chekhov's play and showed as much Russian sensibility as as a bottle of Russian dressing.  

Now we've got The Present, starring Cate Blanchett and other members of her Sydney Theater Company in a version of an early Chekhov work; the original was never officially titled but generally goes by the name Platonov. This adaptation was written by Ms. Blanchett's husband Andrew Upton, and it is being performed and directed    John Crowley does the honors  –  with a wild abandon that is certainly entertaining, at least through the (literally) explosive ending to the first act. 

But, like so many of the others, The Present misses the Chekhov boat, in this case by resetting the time frame and thereby giving up the central Chekhovian theme that pits the fall of the aristocracy against the rise of the proletariat. (Usually it's the fading and generally helpless aristocrats who are at the core, and we are left to either sympathize with or rejoice over their changing circumstances). 

Here the time shift takes us to 1990s Communist Russia, though we could be almost anywhere in the world for all the Russian feel there is to the production. Little of the goings-on make sense in this new time period, and what remains are bits and pieces we associate with Chekhov (self-pity, ennui, diminishing financial standing, and unrequited sexual longing). We've even got "Chekov's gun," a plot device we sometimes term "foreshadowing" (If a gun shows up in the first act, it must be used before the play ends). Sure enough, a gun is waved around in the opening scene, though its use may remind you more of Ibsen's Hedda Gabler (the General's daughter) than it is of Ms. Blanchett's character (a General's widow).  

Bottom Line:  No one is working harder at selling a show right now than is Cate Blanchett, who performs the heck out of her role. Playing Chekhov or not, she is truly captivating. Whether it's worth three hours of your time is up to you. Or stay for Act I and go for drinks afterwards; you'll not be missing much during the second half.

Jan 11:  Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812

And we've got a winner, folks!  

Glory be, has director Rachel Chavkin ever pulled it off! She's taken this gloriously rich but decidedly intimate and audience-engaging pop opera away from its off Broadway roots and plunked it down in a big Broadway house, brought back most of the cast that has seen it through its various productions over the past several years, and – for good measure – has placed a superstar singer into the role of someone who is essentially an observer and bystander and allowed him to shine without taking away one iota from the rest of the company.  

The Great Comet, written by Dave Malloy, is based on a tiny subplot culled from Tolstoy's monumental novel War and Peace, about the very same Russian aristocratic types that would, in a few years time, populate Chekhov's plays.  It's playful, romantic, melodramatic, and gloriously performed.  Josh Groban is quite wonderful as Pierre, and Denée Benton is splendid as Natasha. She is engaged to marry Prince Andrey (Nicolas Belton), but when Andrey leaves to fight in the Napolionic wars, she is swept off her feet by the ne'er-do-well cad Anatole (Lucas Steele, also terrific). The show is inundated with Russian names and complicated relationships, and yet you will easily get to know each of the characters without even having to resort to the family tree that is included in your program.  

Bottom Line:  Идеальный! (Perfect!)  Absolutely the new musical to beat come award time.  

January 13:  Consider the Lilies

Stuart Fail wrote and directs this play about the relationship between an artist and his agent. Stars Austin Pendleton and Eric Joshua Davis do well with their roles, but the play itself needs a lot of revision and shaping to make it work effectively.

Bottom Line:  To carry on with the Russian theme – Nyet! 

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.  

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