First Nighter: James Earl Jones, Cicely Tyson Play “The Gin Game”; Oren Safdie’s Unseemly “Unseamly”

If you think you’re about to hear anything critical of the two old pros James Earl Jones and Cicely Tyson in director Leonard Foglia’s revival of D. L. Coburn’s 1977 comedy, The Gin Game, at the Golden Theatre, you better think again. As two lonely residents at a home for the aged who find comfort playing cards with each other in a rundown backyard, they’re well nigh perfect–which is what you already knew they would be.

It may be overstating it to say the characters they play both find comfort in the gin game. Tyson’s Fonsia Dorsey is very happy with the cards she dealt, because she’s the one declaring “Gin” just about every time, whereas Jones’s Weller Martin, the supposed expert at the game, never appears to have a fighting chance against her.

His card-playing prowess, only worsening as the two acts march on, is, of course what Fonsia and Weller discuss repeatedly, but they get around to other subjects as well. One topic is their families, who are either literal or figurative distances from them. The goings-on at the home is another ready topic, and when one of the dances underway inside moves them, they even dance. Needless to say, that’s a big audience-delighting development.

Weller, who can be loud and prone to anger when losing, has a habit of swearing. It’s a character trait Fonsia dislikes. So Coburn goes for laughs by eventually having her lose control of her tongue. Putting four-letter obscenities into the mouths of octogenarians–okay, nonagenarian in Tyson’s case–is a cheap trick but it works.

This is the third time the crowd-pleaser has adorned Broadway–Jessica Tandy and Hume Cronin, Julie Harris and Charles Durning preceded the current stars–and the play is no worse for wear. Whether it was ever a flawless piece of writing is less certain. It does have a second-act problem, which is that Coburn knows what to do with Fonsia and Weller up to a point and then doesn’t reckon how to take them further. By the time the second act ends, it’s become too much a repetition of the first.

In addition to Jones and Tyson, who do have the advantage of sitting for much of their on-stage time, there’s another truly standout production feature. It’s Riccardo Hernandez’s set. Along with a handy card table and a couple of chairs for the card players to occupy, he’s piled any number of discarded wheelchairs and walkers against the upstage wall.

Those are a constant reminder that though they were once used, their owners are no longer around. Somehow keeping death as a constant adds vitality to the energetic Jones and Tyson. Fonsia and Weller may not have that much longer to enjoy their gin game, but as played by Jones and Tyson, the pair is far from adding any discarded device to Hernandez’s stack.
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Sexual harassment has been a topic of conversation for some time, but whether Oren Safdie’s Unseamly, at Urban Stages, adds anything to the welter of current examinations is questionable.

In a play that slowly disintegrates into hysteria, Malina (Gizel Jimenez) has come to lawyer Adam (Tommy Schrider) in hopes he will convince his firm to take on her harassment case against Standard apparel company CEO Ira (Jonathan Silver), whose sometimes thoughtful and sometimes careless treatment of employees is well known. (Does Safdie have former American Apparel head honcho Dov Charney in mind as a model for Ira? Most likely.)

Initially, Adam listens to the lithe and sensual Malina objectively, attempting while he takes notes to have her describe incidents that would hold up in court as undeniable instances of harassment. As she tells her tales of being involved with Ira over an eight-month period, Adam hears nothing he finds solid evidence and initially dismisses her. But as Malina recounts her first interview with Ira, the shameless womanizer materializes, and while Adam continues taking notes on the sides of Brian Dudkiewicz’s clean-walled set, Ira and Malina reenact their past.

As they do, Unseamly slowly changes from a play about sexual harassment into a soft porn charade with sexual harassment as its handy peg. The more Malina, in time changing into a black lace outfit, shakes her booty even as Ira shakes his–there’s even a Malina-Ira dance break that Jimenez choreographed–the more lawyer Adam loses his objectivity and begins to get drawn into behavior less reflective of a professional keeping his law firm uppermost in his mind. Eventually, he shows signs of being as sexually compulsive as Ira, even down to talking at Ira’s breakneck speed.

As the audience discovers nothing in Malina’s saga that shows her as being anything but complicit in her interactions with Ira, Unseamly takes on the appearance of an overwrought screed about all men being helplessly licentious where women, no matter how agreeable they may or may not be, are concerned. The unpleasant irony is that Unseamly ends up exploiting exactly what it pretends to be exposing.

One thing definitely true of Unseamly is that the non-stop hyperactivity demands three actors speaking and moving indefatigably. As directed by Sarah C Carlsen, Jimenez, Schrider and Silver are up for every bit of that.

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First Nighter: Robert O’Hara’s “Barbecue” Sizzles a Bit, Sam Shepard’s “Fool for Love” is Catnip for Actors

The first act of Robert (Bootycandy) O’Hara’s Barbecue consists of four scenes, two each in alternation, depicting a lower-class white family and a lower-class black family on what looks like a picnic in a shady Middle America forest preserve.

Curiously, the five members of both families, on vivid display at the Public, share the same names–James T. (Mark Damon Johnson, Paul Niebanck), Lillie Anne (Becky Ann Baker, Kim Wayans), Marie (Arden Myrin, Heather Alicia Simms), Adlean (Constance Shulman, Benja Kay Thomas) and Barbara (Tamberla Perry, Samantha Soule).

As the act progresses and no actual barbecuing happens, it’s revealed that in each family unit James T., Lillie Anne, Marie and Adlean aren’t present simply to scream and shout at each other over long-brewing resentments. They’ve planned this outing as an intervention. Prone to drinking and drugging as they are–Lillie Anne more or less excepted–they’re worried about sibling Barbara, whose substance abuse apparently outdoes theirs by a country mile.

Since the actions of both groups virtually mirror each others’ and the term “bad behavior” only begins to describe how they engage intramurally (though more verbally than physically), the point playwright O’Hara’s looks to be establishing is that white trash and black trash are equally trashy.

And while some of the tactics they use to bait each other are occasionally amusing, there’s a whiff of superiority about his intentions. There’s the sense that O’Hara is sending a middle-class audience the snootily comforting “aren’t the less privileged just awful?” message. Not too accepting of him, is it? The poor(er) may always be with us, but that’s no excuse to denigrate them as relentlessly as O’Hara does almost to the act’s end when the two Barbaras, the supposed interventions, finally arrive.

But then the cunning dramatist pulls a fast one. Having led the patrons through four scenes that have more than started to try patience, he shifts gears in as radical a manner as any sleight-of-hand playwright has in recent, and even not so recent, memory.

As a result and because of the Barbecue structure, just about any further description of the action–and that means the entire second act–would turn into a monumental spoiler. Perhaps it’s acceptable to indulge a quasi-spoiler and report that for much of the comedy’s remainder the two Barbaras, who heretofore have said just about zilch, take focus. One of them begins to resemble an actual celebrity along the lines of Whitney Houston and one of them, a memoirist, feels partially derived from James Frey’s notorious account of his life as an addict.

In other words, O’Hara’s seeming satire of a stratum of American society morphs into a satire of a completely different stripe. He’s sending up commercial cynicism as manifested in contemporary America life. Okay, maybe it’s also fair to say he makes an implied larger point by focusing narrowly on publishing and Hollywood. In his wily way, he even gets around to an Oscar race.

While he’s at it, he’s created 10 juicy parts for his cast to play under Kent Gash’s colorful direction and in Paul Tazewell’s often hilarious costumes that take into account the attraction women often have to leopard spots. Perry’s Barbara is at first super-confident, as the script has it, but begins to crumble, where Soule’s Barbara, who’s initially slightly intimidated by those second-act circumstances, gains her footing with aplomb. The others grab hold of their exuberant roles as if they were caged lions thrown thick steaks.

Whether the elongated nature of the first act is compensated for by the second act–which surely depends on falling for the second-act development–is up in the air. But O’Hara can be thanked for taking the risk as well as for much of the furious humor he unleashes.
******************
Since Sam Shepard’s 1983 Fool for Love didn’t appeal to me then and not in subsequent productions I’ve seen, I wondered whether this latest one, at Manhattan Theatre Club’s Samuel J. Friedman, would finally change my mind. Though when the lights went up on it, I was impressed by Dane Leffrey’s claustrophobic representation of a motel room on the edge of the Mohave Desert, nothing that ensued changed my ho-hum attitude towards the script.

Anyone who knows Shepard’s plays knows he’s impelled to assess the barren quality of American culture through depictions of the spiritually depleted American West. Fool for Love is no exception. (Mohave Desert = emotionally arid–get it?)

Eddie (Sam Rockwell) and May (Nina Arianda) are battling out their unspecified relationship alone, although sitting immobile in a chair just aside from the sterile motel accommodation is The Old Man (Gordon David Weiss.) The assumption is that the two are lovers, perhaps attempting to overcome an estrangement–or perhaps not.

For the longest time in the 75-minute one-act, The Old Man says nothing. Eventually, he addresses either Eddie or May, while whoever else is in the room hears nothing of what’s exchanged. Eventually roped into the fray is sincere gentleman caller Martin (Tom Pelphrey), who doesn’t quite know how to play the quivering vibes.

As those 75 minutes tick by, the connections between Eddie, May and The Old Man become clear. That’s to say they become clearer, although many patrons may well be left figuratively trudging through the Mohave sand, trying to catch up with what’s transpiring–and that includes an explosive before-fade-out occurrence that lighting designer Justin Townsend executes well. Sound designer Ryan Rumery also has a few ear-catching turns.

For patrons the effort put into making sense of events may not be worth it. What does go a fair stretch towards rendering the expended efforts rewarding are the performances. At first glimpsed sitting at the edge of the bed bent over with her hair hiding her face, tuft-like, Arianda plays the labile May as if she’s a tornado gathering force. Rockwell sees the cowboy-hatted Eddie as a not-yet-ignited stick of dynamite. He’s all contained menace. Weiss grabs attention for much of the time by doing nothing to grab attention and so is that much more attention-grabbing when he goes for it. Pelfrey does befuddled nice guy exactly right.

It may be that the lure for actors of such pungent roles explains the frequent Fool for Love sightings. Indeed, it may be that Shepard’s demanding work-out is more entertaining for the performers who get to take on Eddie and May than it is for anyone who gets to watch them.

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First Nighter: Matthew-Lee Erlbach’s “Sex of the Baby,” Phil Blechman’s “The Black Book”

Although Matthew-Lee Erlbach appears to have written myriad plays and tele-whatevers, I’ve only seen his one-man Handbook for an American Revolutionary. That was enough for me to be eager to see the next available work from him, which turns out to be Sex of the Baby, at Access, a Dragon-Man with a Suitcase production.

The first scene–in which sculptor Daniel (Devin Norik), one half of a mixed-race gay couple, interviews surrogate-mother candidate Bekah (Clea Alsip)–was so amusing as well as intriguing in terms of the issues potentially at play that I felt assured Erlbach had the goods.

Further assurance came with the second of the play’s 90-minute intermissionless scenes, all of which take place in the Access loft space, the playing area of which Joseph S. Blaha has turned into an enticing lower Manhattan loft apartment.

In this one Daniel and movie-mogul partner Michael (Korey Jackson), who’s skedded to be the sperm donor–“Who’s milk is going to be in the shake?” Bekah has already asked–are hosting best pals and another mixed-race couple, Erick (Erlbach) and T’Kia (Marinda Anderson), who are already expecting. Erlbach has impressively caught the tenor of young Manhattanites gabbing about their lives, and Erlbach as actor and the other three play the sequence with such natural polish that I was even more certain I was in sure hands.

Then came scenes three, four and five (the scenes are titled “Fertilization,” “Implantation,” “Gestation,” “Hormonal Changes” and “Birth Defects”), and along with them came Erlbach’s big letdown. Erlbach decides it’s high time to be dramatic–or, more to the point, melodramatic–and starts filling his work with twists that strain credulity mightily.

Suddenly, Daniel, who from the get-go seemed gay as a pink hat, falls for Bekah, and though he announced to her earlier that his low motility precluded him from pouring milk into the Bekah shake, he impregnates her. In subsequent revelations erupting during the three final scenes, Erlbach has it that Daniel must do some fancy manipulation to keep Michael from learning what’s transpired between him and Bekah and that the seemingly happy Erick and T’Kia are barely hanging on to their union and that Erick’s real crush is–.

But why go on about something with such a vague purpose–unless it’s meant to be a screed on contemporary selfishness among millennial privileged millennials? Adroit as the actors are, Erlbach certainly among them–and Michelle Bossy’s direction is adroit, for the most part–playwright Erlbach’s introducing bits of sitcom and then high histrionics and then a wild-eyed neighbor (Ali Sohaili) in what becomes an annoying mishmash is irreversibly off-putting. It’s the kind of off-putting that has a reviewer thinking twice when the next Erlbach work comes along.
******************
The Black Book, at ATA after a 2012 Araca Group run, takes place on a large chessboard realized by Ann Beyersdorfer. Seen from the moment audience members enter the small auditorium, it immediately suggests that dramatist Phil Blechman, who also directs, is about to make a point of life’s being a game of chess.

Yes, the old, dreary saw. And if that’s not enough to sink a theater lover’s heart even before the action kicks in, out comes a character listed in the program as C. C. (billed in one place as Anto Pereira, as Antonieta Pereira in another). She’s garbed in a straitjacket, the long sleeves of which hang loose. It instantly becomes clear she has the use of her arms in order to carry about, and often lovingly embrace, the available outsized pawns. She does so intermittently throughout the play.

In a program note, we’re informed that Blechman began The Black Book when a Syracuse undergraduate in response to a classmate’s suicide, which goes a long way to explaining why his play takes place on a fictional campus and exclusively involves students and teachers, with the exception of the institutionalized C. C.

It doesn’t explain why what occurs is so utterly pretentious, with C. C. shuffling around po-faced and a suicidal poet and C. C.’s brother Colin Archer (David Siciliano) not only menacing teachers and other students–including blonde Nicole (Haley Dean) for whom he has eyes–but also haranguing the audience, the members perhaps intended to be sitting in for other campus denizens.

At one point, stentorian Archer, who’s been bounding up and down the raked auditorium steps and causing a whole lotta shakin’, steps to the edge of the stage and declares, “I could say anything right now, and you’d listen to it.” Yes, we would but not without thinking, “I’m only listening because I can’t see any graceful way to leave.” He does this in addition to reading aloud a (not good) poem he’s written that’s been inserted in the programs for ticket buyers to have as their own.

As sound designer Christopher Marc repeats ominous stings throughout, it’s difficult for onlookers to determine what’s going on with English teacher Arthur Chase (Gabe Templin), his pal (and possible criminal) Axel Cooper (Sean Borderes), psychology teacher Riley Andrews (Catie Humphreys), Nicole’s boyfriend (Joe Reece) and school psychologist Julie Edwards (Margy Love).

As The Book Black–haranguer Colin keeps a black book before he gives it, I think, to Nicole–heads towards an end and an actual chess game is played, a puzzled patron begins getting the idea that a metaphorical chess game has been carried out by the figures, a game in which one of them is caught at having done something dire in the past that affected sweet little Nicole. But who can say for sure? I can’t. Nor have I any interest in trying.

From time to time sound supplier Marc also pipes in a male voice sing-songing the phrase “I am slowly going crazy.” Watching The Black Book, I, too, was going crazy–and not so slowly.

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First Nighter: Sherie René Scott’s “Whorl Inside a Loop,” Ken Regan’s “Sense of an Ending,” Anna Ziegler’s “A Delicate Ship”

Not too long ago and for reasons not entirely altruistic, Broadway and off-Broadway veteran Sherie René Scott (Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, Everyday Rapture) taught a 12-week prison course named–not by her–“Theatricalizing the Personal Narrative.”

For someone who likes putting her life on stage (for instance, the above-mentioned Everyday Rapture, co-written with Dick Scanlan), the assignment gives the impression of being ideal for yet again theatricalizing her own personal narrative. While she doesn’t appear to have had that in mind when she began working with this inmate group, she nevertheless has done so touchingly and enlighteningly with Whorl Inside a Loop, again co-authoring with Scanlan, in a Second Stage production.

Directed by Michael Mayer and Scanlan in a manner alternating between gritty and grinning, Scott and Scanlan have adapted her story and included her interplay with prisoners — all of these found guilty of murder, one of them innocent of the crime. The playwrights also devote time to Scott’s dealings with members of the prison staff and exchanges with family, friends (notably a doubting husband called Noah) and a potential producer.

While there are times when it feels as if Scott and Scanlan may have tweaked what really happened — not necessarily to protect, say, the guilty — most of the 100 intermissionless minutes have the clarion ring of verisimilitude. In particular, a spectator might expect that among the convicted killers with whom Scott comes into contact over the 12 visits, at least one would pose some degree of menace. When that never happens, it initially seems as if Scott has to be glossing over the truth of her experience.

Okay, when one of the men — all of them African-American — reenacts his murder, there is a tense moment, but it’s quickly defused. Still, in the long run the lack of anything disturbing comes across as hewing closer to the truth than inserting volatility simply because it’s expected might be. Incidentally, as benign as the men are within the walls — which for this purpose have been stripped by designers Christine Jones and Brett Banakis to Second Stage architect Rem Koolhaas’s bared look — there is one, remaining identified, who, the men agree, must never be allowed out.

That over time Scott becomes friendlier and more at ease with the six men in the class as they deliver the narratives they’ve prepared appears to be quite natural. She’s both surprised and gratified that the men are so forthcoming and articulate when describing either incidents that put them where they are or when detailing other chapters in their lives.

There is one narrative that at its finish earned applause during the press preview I attended. Jeffrey (Chris Meyers), who didn’t commit the crime for which he took the fall, talks about himself with such pathos that only the hardest heart would stay unmoved. His — confession is the wrong word — his explanation is so irrefutably convincing that Scott asks the obvious question: If everyone knows he shouldn’t be behind bars, why is he? She gets her answer, and it’s not a consoling one.

The other prisoners, who boast names like Sunnyside, Flex, Bey, Source and Rick are played with great vigor by, respectively, Derrick Baskin, Daniel J. Watts, Donald Webber Jr., Ryan Quinn and Nicholas Christopher. They all double as prison staffers — one is the man assigned to check Scott for any metal she might be carrying. She is: the wire in her bra, and it causes him consternation.

In addition to Noah, among those impersonated are Scott’s producer Tammy and her gay hairdresser. One of his clients is Hillary Rodham Clinton, who one day has an appointment immediately following Scott’s — an appointment leading to developments potentially meaningful for the inmates. (There’s no speculation here whether the current Presidential candidate’s chances will rise or fall on her agreeing to attend a performance the inmates give in the prison gym, but she does want to drop by with the intent of considering prison reform.)

In case anyone deciding whether to see Whirl Inside a Loop (the title refers to fingerprints, of course) is wondering about Scott’s exploiting the prisoners’ histories, the issue is raised and has apparently been resolved satisfactorily. The program credits “additional material” to, alphabetically, Andre Kelley, Marvin Lewis, Felix Machado, Richard Norat and Jeffrey Rivera. Farther back in the program, the title of each man’s narrative is listed.

During Scott’s three-month course, one of the men has applied a fourth time for parole. As the Whorl Inside a Loop ending approaches, he receives his letter. What it discloses won’t be, er, disclosed here, but it’s a beauty of a blackout.

******************

It’s March 31, 1999 in Ken Urban’s Sense of an Ending, and Charles (Joshua David Robinson), a New York Times reporter in trouble for plagiarism, is hoping to clear his name by getting to the bottom of a breaking Rwandan story. Sister Justina (Heather Alicia Simms) and Sister Alice (Dana Marie Ingraham) have been charged with contributing to a Tutsi massacre in a local cathedral and are about to be transported to Berlin for trial.

Charles is being looked after by soldier Paul (Hubert Pont-Du Jour), whose motives regarding the nuns’ innocence or guilt is unclear. Nevertheless, Charles persists at getting Sister Justina and Sister Alice to tell their histories and by the interviews, even when the nuns are cagey around each other, reiterate their innocence. That’s the report Charles knows his NYT editor, Kendra, wants and expects. He’s also hoping to interview Dusabi (Danyon Davis), a Tutsi who, with his now deceased wife Elizabeth, survived the slaying and is the only witness to the murder and burning of the several hundred men, women and children who’d sought shelter in the church.

Sense of an Ending, compactly directed by Adam Fitzgerald and compellingly acted, at 59E59, is a look back at fading headlines concerning the Hutus revenge on the Tutsis once the long repressed Hutus were in the position to dominate their former suppressers. It’s a potent view of man’s and woman’s inhumanity to man and woman.

In the small space where Sense of an Ending is unfolding the dominant piece set designer David L. Arsenault provides is the cathedral’s large double door, each door featuring a relatively small cut-out of a cross. Behind the doors is supposedly what remains of the carnage. The door opens only at the denouement. What’s revealed is stunning, but, needless to say, will not be described here.
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Sarah (Miriam Silverman) and Sam (Matt Dellapina) — newly in love and smooching when not mooting the benefits of suffering as a prescription for self-understanding — are interrupted by an insistent knock on the door to the comfortable Manhattan living room Reid Thompson has designed for her to call home.

Not expecting more company, Sarah reluctantly goes to see who’s there. In bursts Nate (Nick Westrate), Sarah’s best friend from when they grew up in the same building. His arrival is a Big Uh-oh, and occurs only after the three characters have had a few fourth-wall-breaking words with the audience. Their addressing the patrons continues throughout A Delicate Ship, Anna Ziegler’s long-at-80-minutes play, directed by Margot Bordelon for The Playwrights Realm, at Playwright’s Horizons.

The difficulty with the piece is that — as played and directed but maybe not as written — Nate’s high-energy, even menacing, presence signals just about everything that will dismayingly affect the incipient Sarah-Sam romance. No surprise mitigates the predictable plotting as Nate begins assailing Sam and increasingly declares himself the man who’s loved Sarah from second grade, just as, he maintains, she loves him.

Anyone aware of Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? or maybe even 1965’s on-screen Darling knows that introducing a party game is trouble, and that’s just what Nate does here. It also doesn’t help that Ziegler has indulged herself in much questionable poetic writing. “Our lives are love songs to our parents,” Sarah proclaims at one point, and if the line strikes you as delectable, then maybe A Delicate Ship is for you.

Actors Silverman and Dellapina, who plays guitar and sings nicely along the way, perform well together, and Westrate has some effective stretches. If on arrival he were to play Nate as less immediately psychotic, Ziegler’s script might have a more insinuating dramatic arc.

So there you have it: another play where an intruder hangs around longer than anyone would be allowed to linger in real life.

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First Nighter: A. R. Gurney’s “Love & Money” Doesn’t Buy Happiness

When Love & Money begins with Cornelia Cunningham (Maureen Anderman) confronting lawyer Harvey Abel (Joe Paulik) over the disposition of her will, it looks as if the new A. R. Gurney play is going to be substantive. Cornelia, you see, is planning to leave her impressively large gobs of money to charities, and this has Harvey worrying that her heirs–two grandchildren never seen–will contest the stipulations.

The assumption about Gurney’s intent, however, is misplaced. A dramatist who often pulls back from the more shadowy implications of his plots, Gurney withdraws from those here so forcibly that patrons may experience a mild form of whiplash. In the end, the comedy (?)–a co-production of the SignatureTheatre and the Westport Country Playhouse, where Mark Lamos, who directed, is artistic director–is a minor trifle.

Your enjoyment of it will hinge on how fond of trifles you are. Love & Money is so mildly amusing as it passes that I’m writing this review as fast as I can so that even more of it won’t fade from my memory before I finish.

Cornelia is rich, all right. The study–that Michael Yeargan has designed–where the action takes place and featuring its view of a staircase hung with tasteful landscape painting, confirms her wealth. Due to how wrong her late husband and two late children went as a result of being well heeled, Cornelia is convinced that money only corrupts. So she’s giving it away to Save the Children, et cetera.

Harvey’s concern is that Cornelia’s grandchildren will object, and when she assures him they have already been mollified, he surprises her by producing a registered latter from a man claiming to be the son of her late daughter Louisa, whom Cornelia claims never married or had children. Hardly has the missive come out of its envelope when the doorbell rings and in quick time the letter’s sender arrives–an African-American named Walker Williams (Gabriel Brown), who’s been nicknamed “Scott” because of his declared passion for F. Scott Fitzgerald.

Any committed theatergoer familiar with John Guare’s Six Degrees of Separation (there can’t be many who aren’t) will immediately wonder about Scott’s authenticity, but it sure looks as if Cornelia hasn’t spent much of her moolah on theater tickets.

To Harvey’s consternation, Scott ingratiates himself with Cornelia by way of the love for Fitzgerald that she shares. He also shows her a typewritten letter he says he received from Louisa after she’d left him with his father’s family and moved to France. There’s also the overall charm he smilingly dispenses. It does seem strange, though, that with all his passion for Fitzgerald, he doesn’t know the word “badinage.”

Oh, well, he does get around Cornelia, but when Harvey has to leave for lunch with his girlfriend, Scott doesn’t fare so well with Cornelia’s crusty cook Agnes Munger (Pamela Dunlap) and with Juilliard student Jessica Worth (Kahyun Kim). She’s stopped by to test a spinet Cornelia is offering to donate to the school

It turns out Cornelia had the instrument converted to a player piano some time earlier so she could program it with many of the Cole Porter songs she adores. (Did Scott Fitzgerald and Zelda love Cole Porter? Undoubtedly they all knew each other in Paris, but I digress.) The talented piano offers Jessica an opportunity to sing one of the 1913 Yale grad’s less well-known ditties, “Make It Another Old-Fashioned Please,” which Kim does nicely. When Harvey returns from lunch with news relevant to Cornelia and Scott, he seizes–with an important aim in mind–the opportunity to reprise “Get Out of Town,” another of Porter’s wry ballads. Like Kim, Paulik makes his unexpected rendition an attention-getter.

About this time, Gurney decides to wind up his tale to fit today’s trendy intermission less 90-minute format. In the name of a spoiler-free Love & Money account, no details will be listed as to how he does it. Certainly, nothing will be revealed about whether Scott is who he claims to be or whether Cornelia really cares one way or the other or whether Harvey prevails in his distrust of Scott.

But it’s fair to say that a work with the elements of a more probing examination of the haves and the have-nots definitely dwindles into something that couldn’t be more light-hearted and gay in the now nearly forgotten sense of the word. This, when money is blatantly prominent among the great contemporary American themes.

With Lamos deftly capturing Gurney’s curious mood, the cast members can’t be faulted. Anderman, who only leaves the stage for a short time when Cornelia goes to enjoy a cold-soup lunch with Scott, is lovely. Paulik does the hard-nosed lawyer well and then gets hilariously unstarched when he goes into his song. Brown is clever at keeping everyone guessing about what Scott is up to. Dunlap’s no-nonsense maid is right on the, uh, money, and Kim takes full advantage of her scene.

(Just wondering: Has Gurney given Scott the name Walker Williams because “Walker” is the designation accorded men who escort wealthy ladies when the husbands aren’t available? There is definitely the implication that Scott could turn into one of those odd characters.)

It may be that many ticket buyers will be as wowed by this addition to Gurney’s long play list as Cornelia is wowed by Scott. Others are very likely to leave their seats thinking a baffled, “Huh?”

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First Nighter: A. R. Gurney’s ‘Love & Money’ Doesn’t Buy Happiness

When Love & Money begins with Cornelia Cunningham (Maureen Anderman) confronting lawyer Harvey Abel (Joe Paulik) over the disposition of her will, it looks as if the new A. R. Gurney play is going to be substantive. Cornelia, you see, is planning to leave her impressively large gobs of money to charities, and this has Harvey worrying that her heirs–two grandchildren never seen–will contest the stipulations.

The assumption about Gurney’s intent, however, is misplaced. A dramatist who often pulls back from the more shadowy implications of his plots, Gurney withdraws from those here so forcibly that patrons may experience a mild form of whiplash. In the end, the comedy (?)–a co-production of the SignatureTheatre and the Westport Country Playhouse, where Mark Lamos, who directed, is artistic director–is a minor trifle.

Your enjoyment of it will hinge on how fond of trifles you are. Love & Money is so mildly amusing as it passes that I’m writing this review as fast as I can so that even more of it won’t fade from my memory before I finish.

Cornelia is rich, all right. The study–that Michael Yeargan has designed–where the action takes place and featuring its view of a staircase hung with tasteful landscape painting, confirms her wealth. Due to how wrong her late husband and two late children went as a result of being well heeled, Cornelia is convinced that money only corrupts. So she’s giving it away to Save the Children, et cetera.

Harvey’s concern is that Cornelia’s grandchildren will object, and when she assures him they have already been mollified, he surprises her by producing a registered latter from a man claiming to be the son of her late daughter Louisa, whom Cornelia claims never married or had children. Hardly has the missive come out of its envelope when the doorbell rings and in quick time the letter’s sender arrives–an African-American named Walker Williams (Gabriel Brown), who’s been nicknamed “Scott” because of his declared passion for F. Scott Fitzgerald.

Any committed theatergoer familiar with John Guare’s Six Degrees of Separation (there can’t be many who aren’t) will immediately wonder about Scott’s authenticity, but it sure looks as if Cornelia hasn’t spent much of her moolah on theater tickets.

To Harvey’s consternation, Scott ingratiates himself with Cornelia by way of the love for Fitzgerald that she shares. He also shows her a typewritten letter he says he received from Louisa after she’d left him with his father’s family and moved to France. There’s also the overall charm he smilingly dispenses. It does seem strange, though, that with all his passion for Fitzgerald, he doesn’t know the word “badinage.”

Oh, well, he does get around Cornelia, but when Harvey has to leave for lunch with his girlfriend, Scott doesn’t fare so well with Cornelia’s crusty cook Agnes Munger (Pamela Dunlap) and with Juilliard student Jessica Worth (Kahyun Kim). She’s stopped by to test a spinet Cornelia is offering to donate to the school

It turns out Cornelia had the instrument converted to a player piano some time earlier so she could program it with many of the Cole Porter songs she adores. (Did Scott Fitzgerald and Zelda love Cole Porter? Undoubtedly they all knew each other in Paris, but I digress.) The talented piano offers Jessica an opportunity to sing one of the 1913 Yale grad’s less well-known ditties, “Make It Another Old-Fashioned Please,” which Kim does nicely. When Harvey returns from lunch with news relevant to Cornelia and Scott, he seizes–with an important aim in mind–the opportunity to reprise “Get Out of Town,” another of Porter’s wry ballads. Like Kim, Paulik makes his unexpected rendition an attention-getter.

About this time, Gurney decides to wind up his tale to fit today’s trendy intermission less 90-minute format. In the name of a spoiler-free Love & Money account, no details will be listed as to how he does it. Certainly, nothing will be revealed about whether Scott is who he claims to be or whether Cornelia really cares one way or the other or whether Harvey prevails in his distrust of Scott.

But it’s fair to say that a work with the elements of a more probing examination of the haves and the have-nots definitely dwindles into something that couldn’t be more light-hearted and gay in the now nearly forgotten sense of the word. This, when money is blatantly prominent among the great contemporary American themes.

With Lamos deftly capturing Gurney’s curious mood, the cast members can’t be faulted. Anderman, who only leaves the stage for a short time when Cornelia goes to enjoy a cold-soup lunch with Scott, is lovely. Paulik does the hard-nosed lawyer well and then gets hilariously unstarched when he goes into his song. Brown is clever at keeping everyone guessing about what Scott is up to. Dunlap’s no-nonsense maid is right on the, uh, money, and Kim takes full advantage of her scene.

(Just wondering: Has Gurney given Scott the name Walker Williams because “Walker” is the designation accorded men who escort wealthy ladies when the husbands aren’t available? There is definitely the implication that Scott could turn into one of those odd characters.)

It may be that many ticket buyers will be as wowed by this addition to Gurney’s long play list as Cornelia is wowed by Scott. Others are very likely to leave their seats thinking a baffled, “Huh?”

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First Nighter: The Royal Shakespeare Company’s Outstanding ‘Merchant of Venice’ Is Screened

No one who knows The Merchant of Venice is unaware of the famous and often considered odious character Shylock’s being a Jew both sinned against and sinning. Rarely, however, have I seen a production of William Shakespeare’s play where the anti-Semitism is more acute than in Deborah Findlay’s superlative Royal Shakespeare Company account. It’s screening today (August 23) and at other times elsewhere (check local listings), and is highly recommended.

Findlay’s handling of the tricky work achieves something not often attained. Shylock’s inflexible insistence on the bond he made with Antonio for a pound of flesh were the 3,000 ducats not repaid — that’s to say, Shylock’s unrelenting stance as a broader revenge on the Christians who’ve tormented him throughout life as a usurer — is decidedly matched by his tormenters’ virulent prejudice.

These include not only Antonio (Jamie Ballard), whose misfortunes put him in Shylock’s debt, and Antonio’s swaggering cronies. They also include the usually more gracious Portia (Patsy Ferran) and even the judge presiding over Shylock’s case when it’s brought to court. At times, all of them are portrayed as nothing more nor less than leering, sneering bigots.

The extent to which Shylock (the Palestinian actor Makram J. Khoury) is so severely humiliated that it’s difficult to decide, as Findlay has staged it, whether he’s any worse in refusing to show mercy (which Portia explains is “not strained”) towards Antonio than any of the others in their steely intolerance of him. Shylock talks about being spit on by Antonio, but in Findlay’s startling literal presentation, Antonio actually grabs Shylock, pulls him inches-close and violently spits in the man’s face twice. Moreover, he’s not the only one so inured to the society’s anti-Semitic sentiments that they can’t speak the word “Jew” without wrapping it in hatred and spitting in demonstration of their disdain.

While the Shylock plot is the most discussed when The Merchant of Venice is a topic, there’s another thick tread to the play: the love stories, each written and presented here in a tone far removed from the coruscating Shylock exploration. Indeed, these seem more in line with Shakespeare’s comedies or with the late romance Cymbeline, which repeats an episode concerning rings given and surrendered against the giver’s request. (Shakespeare often stole from himself, of course.)

The most prominent Merchant of Venice love story is the one involving Portia and Bassanio (Jacob Fortune-Lloyd), who wins her hand when he chooses the correct box of the three (gold, silver, lead) offered to Portia’s suitors for perusal. There’s also the Nerissa (Nadia Albina)-Gratiano (Ken Nwosu) alliance. Then there’s the love affair featuring Lorenzo (James Corrigan) and Shylock’s stolen daughter Jessica (Scarlett Brookes), who converts to Christianity–not, as Findlay and Brookes have it, without some remorse.

Findlay sometime unflinchingly, sometimes light-heartedly unfolds the intertwined tales on Johannes Schutz’s simple yet sumptuous set. The floor thrusting into the audience is glossy brass as is the reflecting upstage wall. (The brass, looking like gold underlines that theme of corrupting money that Shakespeare worked.) Just in front of the wall is a shiny ball on a long cord. It’s pushed with some force by Ferran when she enters as Portia. Subsequently, it swings pendulum-like throughout the play, as if unremittingly reminding the audience of time’s inexorable passage.

Only occasionally are pieces of furniture brought out, as the cast members, dressed by Anette Guther in very casual contemporary clothes, go about their poetic business. Tim Samuels as Launcelot Gobbo, encountered first in the audience and engaging a patron on his right, wears a painted-on mask, but otherwise no one is further gussied up. That’s unless a red party outfit Portia puts on counts as glamorous.

You could say also say that Antonio’s face is decorated with tears. As the action begins, he’s seen in the grip of acute sadness. Explaining his woe, he immediately establishes the high quality of the acting over which Findlay presides. Khoury’s Shylock and Ferran’s Portia deserve kudos and paragraphs for the range and subtlety — and when required — blunt anger they display. Their command of the characters’ complexities is complete.

No one in the cast is less than first-rate, and that goes especially for Albina as a lovely Nerissa, Fortune-Lloyd as an unabashed Bassanio and Nwosu as an irrepressible Gratiano. Brookes and Corrigan enact their beautifully-written “on such a night as this” scene with exquisite changes of mood.

The Merchant of Venice is often considered a problem play. Findlay and associates solve whatever problem there is by memorably attacking the dilemmas head-on. Cue heavy applause.

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First Nighter: Philip Ridley’s Mercury Fur Has a Dyspeptic Future

Fiction set in the future never seems to have nailed it right when the actual future rolls around. Maybe Jules Verne hit on a few things that came to pass, but how accurate is, say, something like the 1927 Metropolis or the Flash Gordon series or the Star Wars predictions or too many other movies (Blade Runner?), plays and books? Or are we still adopting a wait-and-see attitude?

One set of predictions we can rely on not eventuating — if only because they’re so ludicrous — pops up in Mercury Fur, the 2005 Philip Ridley scarer that played a couple London venues then and now, a decade later, shows up in a New Group production, directed muscularly by Scott Elliott, at the Pershing Square Signature Center, but not so muscularly that it overcomes its irritatingly preposterous suppositions.

Sometime in increasingly dumbed-down days to come — but in not so many days that smartphones have been superseded — brothers Elliot (Zane Pais as the clever, well-read one) and Darren (Jack DiFalco as the dimwitted one) break into an abandoned Manhattan apartment (phenomenally dingy set by Derek McLane) and go about sort of cleaning it up for a party that’s apparently been organized by a tough fellow called Spinx (Sea McHale), who has yet to appear.

Also attending the party either eagerly or under duress are Naz (Tony Revolori), who’s squatting down the hall and wants in on whatever action he thinks will occur, Elliot’s kinda cross-dressing boyfriend Lola (Paul iacono, in halter outfit by costumer Susan Hilferty), Duchess (Emily Cass McDonnell, in Hilferty’s tatty ball gown with white fur stole), who may have a curious relationship to the brothers by virtue of a few matching head wounds, Party Guest (Peter Mark Kendall), a Wall Streeter with a certain deviant hankering and Party Piece (Bradley Fong), a drugged kid.

If the monikers Party Guest and Party Piece are baffling, Ridley wants it that way. He’s after slowly revealing that the parties Spinx arranges and Elliot and Darren facilitate are snuff events — the one at hand unfolding under a short deadline that annoys the battling bros. At this one, Party Guest gets to assassinate Party Piece, who’ll be attired as a child Elvis Presley. Don’t ask. That’s already spoiler enough.

Anyway, throwing bashes for financiers with enough money to expend on this type of unnatural high is what the world has (will?) become in Ridley’s busy mind. And it’s what he and New Group artistic director Elliott are asking an audience — many of whom are seated on upholstered Goodwill-like chairs also decorating the adaptable Romulus Linney playing area — to watch. Presumably, we’ll find in it a horrifying warning of what’s will inevitably develop if we don’t straighten up and fly right.

The Mercury Fur promotional material terms Ridley’s view a “dystopian nightmare.” What’s actually dystopian about the work is how it’s written. It’s what’s being flaunted in the name of engaging, enraging theater. Before the final black-out on the guns partially hidden at the belt line of dirty jeans or in a drawer or on free-flowing blood or on the threat of various-sized conflagrations — not to mention constantly repeated epithets intended to sound like the way people talk now and still will then — the audience progresses from laughing at an occasional genuine joke to laughing at the entire ridiculous enterprise.

Speaking of genuine jokes, there is one witty sequence. Darren, far from the brightest bulb in the broken chandelier, takes it on himself to explain a bit of 20th century history to the even dimmer but attentive Naz. It concerns a President Kennedy and a consort named Marilyn Monroe as well as an orgy-like Dallas, Texas event. Throughout the monologue, Ridley may be getting at something close to the truth of how history is regarded in schoolrooms nowadays and how much worse it might get.

Another odd historical reference crops up. It’s to 1965 Oscar-winning movie The Sound of Music(!). Early on in an attempt to defuse Elliot’s abuse, Darren recalls a family viewing of the flick. Later, Duchess, who at least twice gets yuks by declaring “I feel a song coming on,” plunges haltingly into “Climb Ev’ry Mountain” before collapsing — but not this time soiling herself, which Spinx reports she often does.

By the way, why Ridley calls the play Mercury Fur beats me. I can only guess — unless I missed an explanation while tuning out on the rampantly perverse silliness — that the title refers to a type of butterfly. Over and over, butterflies come in for mentions. According to the history sketched in here, butterflies were wiped out for a time before resurfacing. When they did, they produced various emotions and sensations in anyone eating them. Darren ingests one and becomes giddy. Later, Elliot talks about a black one that causes suicides. I’m not sure, though, whether the butterflies are meant to be real or a dealer-dispensed confection. Does it matter? Probably not.

As actors almost always do when committed to questionable material, those here go at it as if they’re playing Hamlet or Volpone or Long Day’s Journey Into Night or Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? They flinch at none of the ignominies they’re required to undergo. Sitting or lying on furniture that’s been subjected to who knows what or doused in stage blood or, in the case of Fong, pushed and pulled around, they’re gallant in response. As Spinx, McHale is asked to swipe DiFalco upside the head again and again. McHale pulls no swipe, and DiFalco takes it like a trouper.

With Elliott cracking the whip — surely, not literally — they’re a rum ensemble. The enterprise, however, into which they, lighting designer Jeff Croiter, sound designer M.L. Dogg, special effects designer Jeremy Chernick, fight designer UnkleDave’s Fight-House and props supervisor Matthew Frew have poured their efforts is hardly worth it.

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First Nighter: Emily Schwend’s ‘The Other Thing,’ Melissa Ross’ ‘Nice Girl’ on Nice Women or Otherwise

Sometimes at the theater, the women wrest it from the men — not quite that often, but sometimes. This is one of those weeks. I’m talking about The Other Thing, written by Emily Schwend and directed by Lucie Tiberghien, at Second Stage’s McGinn/Cazale Theatre Uptown, and Nice Girl, written by Melissa Ross and directed by Mimi O’Donnell, at Labyrinth’s current Bank Street Theatre home. It’s a rare combination of women helming works by women, but it’s just happened.

The Other Thing has another rare attribute in that it’s a ghost story for the stage. Or is it? Kim (Samantha Soule) is interviewing Carl (John Doman) on a subject about which she’s become obsessed: ghost-hunting. She listens to him describe his adventures for some time, also encountering his son Brady (James Kautz). She’s benignly taking notes and recording right up until something unexpected and intensely theatrical occurs that puts a jarring end to the first act.

At that point Kim — it could be Samantha Soule as herself — enters from the side, waving hello to someone or someones in the audience and says she’s going to tell a genuine ghost story. She starts talking about a little girl who unfortunately is witness to her mother’s murder. What she has to say begins to sound as if it might be connected to the first-act development.

When she’s completed the story, the next act begins with Kim in her bedroom where estranged boyfriend, Thomas (Bhavesh Patel), turns up to affect a reconciliation. (He still had keys.) Although Kim eventually acquiesces, she seems to be taken over by some unexplained force for a brief time. Then and suddenly, something like the incident that ended the first act takes place.

That’s when what has slowly been suggested about Kim — her own experiences with ghosts and how they’ve affected her — speeds up. As young Brady arrives to challenge Kim’s account of her visit to his dad and its abrupt conclusion, playwright Schwend reveals her preoccupation with ghosts more clearly. The hints — okay, they’re stronger than hints — are that the bodies piling up have more to do with Kim than she owns.

Ultimately, Schwend does let on what’s happening. Indeed, before she finishes her ghost story, she may have over-explained herself. What she has to confide about Kim and the relationship to her deceased(?) mother may be more than a savvy audience needs to learn, since they’ve already correctly figured it out.

What Schwend wants to establish about ghost proliferation — that more often than not their apparent appearance can be traced to emotional conflicts — is persuasive, and she has fun presenting her case on Kris Stone’s adaptable set. With the cast doing their utmost, under Tiberghien’s guidance to raise the play’s scare barometer, she keeps the play’s engine purring.

At the same time, and underlying her storyline, is the suggestion that unresolvable animosity between the sexes is rampant. As audience members exit the theater, they may be wondering whether that eternal man-woman anger isn’t something the playwright is working out for herself or on behalf of women friends. Whether or not, Schwend has conjured a rootin’-tootin’ escapade.

There’s no doubting that Ross’s Nice Girl has the appropriate title. Josephine (Diane Davis) is definitely a nice girl — not that she can always resist the temptation to swap sarcasms with habitually disapproving mother Francine (Kathryn Kates) in the modest David Meyer-designed home they share.

Josephine is getting closer to 40 than she’d like without being married, while feigning-illness Francine is wavering, at best, on the prospect of Josephine’s tying the knot with an eligible man. That man — former classmate, Donny (Nick Cordero) — turns up not too long after Josephine has run into him at his butcher shop and later that night encounters him again at a local nightclub where office pal, the fast-moving co-worker Sherry (Liv Rooth), has dragged her.

Apparently no longer married to his high school sweetheart, Donny turns out to be as nice a guy as Josephine is a nice girl — although there is a complication involving Sherry. As Josephine and Donny renew their friendship, they begin to show signs of having a future together, not that Francine doesn’t lodge objections and not that those objections don’t carry more weight with Josephine, despite the breakthroughs she and Donny make with each other. The respective honesty about their own failings is one of the strongest of dramatist Ross’s attractions.

Ross is writing about people who live their lives in quiet desperation around the kitchen table, on the front-porch swing, at their workaday jobs and during their unrewarding pastimes. She does a commendable job of capturing the plights of people who don’t expect happiness but are willing to settle for the best they think they can get. In this, she not only includes Josephine and Francine but Donny and Sherry as well. Making her melancholy point(s), she’s aided by her cast and director O’Donnell, who couldn’t be more sympathetic to the potentially deleterious effects of niceness.

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First Nighter: Edith Piaf Remembered in Pascal Rioult’s Revue With Christine Andreas

If it’s offbeat revues you’re after, make a beeline to the short-run Street Singer: Celebrating the Life of Edith Piaf at 42West Nightclub, and make it fast. Tonight’s performance (May 16) is the last, pending a possible return engagement.

For the unexpected enterprise, choreographer Pascal Rioult has the ever-intrepid Christine Andreas reprising the iconic Parisienne’s signature tunes (okay, most of them but not “The Poor People of Paris”), while 10 of his dancers act out the emotions with which the heart-felt ditties burst.

Your first question might be: Does Andreas even sound like Piaf? The answer is an astounding yes. Not much taller than Piaf and similarly piquant, she’s got the famous vibrato down pat. Moreover, she packs the deep feelings so well into them in the actual Piaf’s absence that it comes as a shock to learn she doesn’t speak French. That she doesn’t may explain why occasionally her pronunciations aren’t as impeccably crisp as her predecessor’s habitually were.

Rioult’s choreography–he’s always especially responsive to French music–ranges wide along the rather narrow runway on which he works. Some of it is amusing, some of it romantic, some of it a bit tawdry. He really goes to town on his version of an apache done to, of all things, “La Vie en Rose.”

The man himself indulges a certain amount of moving. Portly now, he’s most effective when impersonating the boxer Marcel Celan, who–as all Piaf’s idolizers know–was the love of her life and the great loss when he died in a plane crash.

Yes, part of the celebration of the street singer is a narration that Andreas, using a French accent, speaks. It’s not extremely comprehensive but more along serviceable lines. Piaf’s low birth and paternal abuse are covered, as is her fast rise when plucked from the rues and boulevards by impresario Louis Leplee, who isn’t mentioned by name.

Curiously, while Piaf’s appearing in Pigalle is recalled at least twice, no mention of her 11th arrondisement upbringing is included. That’s her beloved Belleville, and she considered herself a Bellevilloise. After all, Piaf isn’t buried in Pigalle’s Montmartre cimetiere. She’s interred in Pere Lachaise, not more than a short stone’s throw from the gutters where she first warbled in her guttural tones for spare coins.

In case you’re wondering, the songs–arranged by Don Rebic, who’s at the piano–are, with few exceptions, sung in French. When Andreas delivers them in English, anyone who understands the French lyrics may not care for the translations. That’s certainly still true of Mack David’s “La Vie en Rose” version.

In the Charles Dumont-Michel Vaucaire “Non Je ne Regrette Rien,” where Piaf insists she regrets nothing, she might have changed her mind and regretted some of the translations she was required to perform.

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First Nighter: Gyllenhaal, Wilson Illuminate Nick Payne’s ‘Constellations’

Nick Payne’s Constellations arrives at the Manhattan Theatre Club’s Samuel J. Friedman after winning the 2012 Evening Standard Theatre Award for Best Play and receiving a clutch of rave reviews that encouraged the move from its initial production at London’s Royal Court to the West End.

Depending on whether or not you’ve seen the theatrical device Payne uses throughout the 80-minute intermissionless work, you’re likely to respond to it anywhere between greatly awed and slightly less impressed. No matter where you land on that narrow spectrum, you’ll be wowed by Michael Longhurst’s director of Jake Gyllenhaal and Ruth Wilson and Tom Scutt’s set, which consists only of a raised platform above which hang many balloon-shaped spheres with curlicue ribbons that change colors as Lee Curran’s lights hit them.

The device on which your reaction depends is Payne’s introducing scenes–he refers to them as “universes”–that play through and then, when the lights and David McSeveney’s sound signal, begin again but in variation.

Before the hour and 20 minutes have elapsed, the characters Roland (Gyllenhaal) and Marianne (Wilson) have played 60 or so sequences that suggest infinite variations on a Roland-Marianne relationship that extends from their first meeting at a rainy barbecue through their falling in love, becoming estranged, reuniting until she does or doesn’t (spoiler alert! Proceed with caution) succumb to a fatal brain tumor.

If the Q&A session that followed the preview I attended is any indication, most ticket buyers won’t previously have seen anything like the Payne ploy. For them, the proceedings are likely to be totally startling. Forgive me, however, for saying that I’ve seen the conceit. One example is “Sure Thing,” one of the six one-acts in David Ives’s All in the Timing. Therefore, I remained less whelmed.

Nevertheless, I was whelmed sufficiently by the use to which Payne puts his device. He hints strongly at it with his title, of course. The scenes’ variations can be taken in as constellations, can they not, as possibly infinite combinations?

More than that, he nudges audiences along by way of the Roland-Marianne careers. He’s a beekeeper, who more than once talks about how the three types of bee–queen, drone and worker–live brief, predestined lives. She’s a physicist, who expounds on relativity and quantum mechanics. At one point, she declares, “[One] way of explaining this is to draw the conclusion that, at any given moment, several outcomes can exist simultaneously. (Yoo-hoo, Ives’s All in the Timing.)

The fun Payne has illustrating this spin on things like Stephen Hawkings’s theory of everything can be–and is–transmitted to the audience, but it’s up to Gyllenhaal and Wilson to play it. (In London the cast was Rafe Spall and Sally Hawkins.)

Taking into account what seems a great challenge to keep all the scenes pristine–many, if not most, of them only slightly changed from the preceding scene or scenes–they emerge triumphant. Perhaps one of the helpful clues to them are the positions Longhurst has them take for each segment. Call it muscle memory. (Lucy Cullingford is credited as movement director.)

Wilson, whom I saw as Stella in the relatively recent Donmar Warehouse Streetcar Named Desire as well as I watched wide-eyed her devastating stalker on television’s Luther (but haven’t seen her on The Affair), is a consummate actress called on here to express any number of emotions as the possible stories shift. She has Marianne’s intelligence down as it’s combined with the woman’s anger and eventual fear for her health.

From start to finish Wilson couldn’t have been more natural in Scutt’s abstract environment, and Gyllenhaal matches her scene for scene. His Roland is clearly likable, if not an IQ match for Marianne. His passion for her is equal to hers eventually for him. He’s all good-guy affability, straightforward intentions. (His performance becomes all the more impressive when contrasted with his currently Oscar-touted turn on screen in Nightcrawler.)

Another Gyllenhaal achievement is his mastery of a very specific English accent. I’ve heard many Americans saddled with British intonations (most recently in the revival of The Real Thing), and I’m obliged to say Gyllenhaal’s is the best I’ve heard from a stateside actor–ever.

Curiously, no dialect coach is mentioned in the program, but I wonder if Gyllenhaal sought the assistance of the same person who worked with sister Maggie on her also excellent (and different) accent for the series The Honorable Woman. Or do both Gyllenhaal’s simply have amazing ears for accents?

It’s always a pleasure to see a drama that starts you thinking about scientific issues all the while remaining deeply human. Constellations is just that kind of delight.
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First Nighter: ‘Tamburlaine Parts I and II,’ ‘Tristan & Yseult’ Blood Spillage

Late in the Kneehigh production of Tristan & Yseult, at St. Ann’s Warehouse, a character says, “It’s hard to keep things white.” She’s referring to how easily white apparel can be soiled, often by blood.

I’d been thinking the same thing, since my attending the evening performance of Tristan & Yseult, followed my presence at a matinee performance of Christopher Marlowe’s Tamburlaine, Parts I and II in the Theatre for a New Audience version, at the Polonsky Shakespeare Center. During the current run there, buckets of blood are being spilled daily.

And I mean the “buckets” reference literally. In this undertaking, a young boy carrying a bucket often arrives to pour (stage) blood over yet another of the marauding Tamburlaine’s victims. The soakings happen so often to any of the characters who unwisely choose to wear white that I’d made a note about it.

“Anything white,” I’d written, and that’s even before a figure in modern dress — a suit, tie and white shirt — showed up late in proceedings, where otherwise Tom Piper’s costumes were armor-era specific. Was the contemporary get-up intended as a reminder that such things go on today? Never mind. It’s just that before long the pristine white shirt was, you guessed it, covered with blood.

Director Michael Boyd has conflated Marlowe’s plays into one three-hour treatment interrupted by a single half-hour intermission. A patron can’t help thinking the interval is that long in order to afford stagehands time to wipe up the blood spilled in the first half. After all, in the second act so much more will drench the floor and the long transparent plastic curtain hung at the back of the thrust stage that another intense cleaning will be necessary.

Let’s just say director-editor Boyd has the courage of his theatrical convictions. Wars are marked and marred by bloodshed, and he’s out to get that across as graphically as he can. Keep in mind that Boyd headed the Royal Shakespeare Company from 2002 to 2012 and during his reign offered Shakespeare’s history plays at Stratford-upon-Avon and North London’s Roundhouse in some of the most stunning productions I’ve ever seen.

So, not so much despite the bloodbath on view here as because of it, he’s perpetuated another stunner in this Tamburlaine. It’s a must-see for anyone interested in what a top-flight director can do with a two-part classic that few directors even want to take on. Certainly, the works don’t often show up on these shores.

One reason for the infrequent appearance is that while the plays are bold and shocking, they’re not multi-dimensional. The brilliant Marlowe (1564-1593) was only 23 when they were first presented in 1587. They’re a young man’s flights of fancy. You might say they’re full of sound and fury but signifying if not nothing, then not a great deal of emotional depth.

In the course of the two parts, Tamburlaine (John Douglas Thompson) begins by abducting Zenocrate (Merritt Janson), who’s meant to be another’s bride, before he sets out to depose every monarch ruling in a wide swath around the eastern end of the Mediterranean. On he goes trampling over everything and everyone in his path through the Ottoman Empire, Persia and Central Asia. Before he’s finished in this outing, he’s perched atop a carriage that contains a lower cage heaped with gold crowns.

To say Marlowe is repetitious only suggests the problem. On the other hand, the iambic pentameter in which Tamburlaine expresses himself is mesmerizing. The crude warrior definitely has the gift of gorgeous gab. As he approaches each realm he plans to conquer, he addresses the rulers he’s about to bloody with irresistible rhetoric. He’s even high-toned when insisting that Calyphas (James Udom), the eldest of his three sons, is cowardly and deserves to be done in.

Marlowe’s Tamburlaine is so infallibly victorious — with percussionist Arthur Solari, in a niche above the stage, accompanying his destructive path with unceasing cacophony — that he meets no foe worthy of him. He’s only vanquished at last by illness. When onlookers are longing to see him get a comeuppance, this demise feels like a cheat. But apparently Elizabethan audiences were thrilled with it just as it is.

The imposing Thompson, who’s become one of today’s most accomplished classical actors, is astonishing for both stamina and declaratory prowess. How does any actor remember the order in which Tamburlaine’s speeches go, let alone memorize them? Thompson has no problem with his myriad lines.

Many of the other cast members, all doing Boyd proud, take on several roles. This means that Saxon Palmer, for one, gets to be bloodied again and again. After a while, the bloodstained actors become a metaphor for Marlowe repeating himself. More than that, the violence in Tamburlaine takes on the air of Marlowe’s foreseeing his own death. When he was 29, he was slain in a barroom brawl.

Listening to this bard’s poetry throughout the Tamburlaine parts and aware that Shakespeare and Marlowe were great pals and influences on each other, anyone might entertain the thought that had Marlowe lived longer, his output as he and friend Will continued to challenge each other, would likely have been more memorable than his still exciting Tamburlaine dramas.
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The blood in Kneehigh’s Tristan & Yseult is less than what’s in Tamburlaine Parts I and II and is stylized. Emma Rice, the company founder and adapter here of the Cornish myth — with writers Carl Grose and Anna Maria Murphy — has something other than seeing red about which she wants to discourse.

Like Boyd, she’s greatly theatrical with the matter. On a Bill Mitchell set that conjures a one-ring circus, she begins by having Yseult (Hannah Vassallo) and her French-speaking Tristan (Dominic Marsh) enjoy their infatuation, despite Yseult’s obligation to older, less buff King Mark (Mike Shepherd). In one sequence, the young lovers swing from separate ropes in giddy infatuation.

Their fun is augmented by a good deal of cast buffoonery, so much so that before the first-act ends, the goofiness has become attenuated. The cuteness, which is narrated by a character identified as Whitehands (Kirsty Woodward, in an Igor Cassini-like suit, pillbox hat and gloves), goes on too long.

This isn’t to say the clowning by Niall Ashdown as Yseult’s nurse Brangian, Damon Daunno as King Mark’s right-hand man Frocin, along with Robert Lukay and Tom Jackson Greaves doesn’t continue to amuse, often as they scamper about in knitted hoods reminiscent of chain-mail head coverings.

The second Tristan & Yseult act is when Rice comes to her deliberate point. Whitehands has been talking about her place among the unloved. A neon sign above the set reads “The Club of the Unloved.” (The band on an upper level plays, among other songs of love-gone-wrong, “Perfidia” and “Love Hurts.”)

The message Rice forcibly wants to stress is that the passion shared by Tristan and Yseult isn’t available to everyone, is perhaps available only to the few. Others, like Whitehands, may witness it but never get to share in it. They’re condemned to one-sided romances. The white-gloved woman asks, “What becomes of so much wasted love?” While she’s imploring, Richard Wagner’s “Liebestod” roils, an homage to the Tristan-Yseult devotion, even if their love has been consummated but not fully requited.

Love both requited and un- is apparently an abiding theme for Rice, whose inventive Brief Encounter pastiche is what first earned her and Kneehigh stateside praise. (How personal a condition is unsatisfying love for Rice, a spectator could wonder?) Again in her Brief Encounter and against musical underscoring — Rachmaninoff, as Noel Coward used in his film — a pair of lovers have a short-lived but all-encompassing affair.

So at this point Rice, like Marlowe, has two companion parts. It’ll be interesting to see if she comes up with another to complete a love trilogy. Maybe Rice fans can second-guess her by combing through accounts of lovers who live out their mutual feelings while classical music throbs away in the background.
Arts – The Huffington Post
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First Nighter: Sharyn Rothstein’s “By the Water” Makes Strong Waves

Not that this’ll ease those still suffering the devastating Hurricane Sandy effects, but it turns out the monstrously ill 2012 wind has blown a bit of good. By the Water, Sharyn Rothstein’s drama at Manhattan Theatre Club’s Studio at Stage II, is about a Staten Island family having immense difficulty overcoming the damage to their waterfront home. It’s a first-rate play receiving a first-rate production.

Mary Murphy (Deirdre O’Connell) and Marty Murphy (Vyto Ruginis) are devoted to each other and are also devoted to a house that has little more than the frames left standing. They intend to remain and rebuild when many neighbors are strongly tempted to take the government buy-outs offered.

Older son Sal (Quincy Dunn-Baker), who long since married business woman Jenny (never seen) and left Staten Island behind to his dad’s unabated resentment, is concerned about the decision and arrives to talk them out of it–not a likely prospect, given Marty’s inflexibility. Sal has also prevailed for support on younger brother Brian (Tom Pelphrey), only recently out of a 29-nine-month prison term for burglary.

Also visiting the forbidding confines from time to time are the Murphys’ best friends, Andrea Carter (Charlotte Maier) and Phil Carter (Ethan Phillips). They’re among those looking to move away–in their case, to Montclair, New Jersey–and would like to convince their pals that’s the thing to do. The Murphys and the Carters remained close despite the bad time Brian gave the Carters’ divorced daughter Emily Mancini (Cassie Becks) during an earlier relationship. It’s a complication that intensifies when Brian and Cassie cross paths again in the compromised dunes.

Playwright Rothstein establishes Marty as the seemingly insurmountable obstacle. He’s a man maintaining the importance of community preservation and is particularly adamant about his intentions as a result of refusing to recognize Sal’s point of view. Part of the grudge he holds is due to Sal’s participation in Brian’s arrest.

Favoring Brian, Marty fights Sal with venom and even turns on the Carters when they persist in arguing for a Montclair-like move at the same time as they oppose his anti-government petition and poster campaign.

Dysfunctional-family plays rarely end without secrets coming to light. By the Water is no exception. (Mild spoiler alert here.) It turns out that Marty has his, which, as they surface, compromise his bombastic stance and render him far less persuasive to those around him. Sal has his secrets, too, but they’re a good deal more positive and concern his and Jenny’s decisions about how to help the older Murphys. As Brian and Emily revive a romance, their big secret is open but not necessarily thrilling to Andrea.

On Wilson Chin’s scattered, cluttered set, Rothstein’s fiery confrontations never stop igniting. Characters are allied with each other at moments and are in conflict within immediately following moments. Every twist, every about face is disturbingly realistic.

Rothstein gets the combative father-son feel right, down to the Oedipal undercurrents. She also does well with depicting the complexities of long-term friendships. She lays bare what has bonded the Murphys and the Carters over 30-plus years. She’s adroit at exposing what they’ve chosen to admire or dismiss in each other–the inclinations they’ve opted to focus on while overlooking others.

Before she reaches her bittersweet ending, she’s examined a strong marriage that’s greatly tested as well as she’s probed deeply into fractious parent-child relationships. What she’s wise about demonstrating is the multi-faceted nature of honest familial and friendly love. Not an easy achievement but one she attains.

This season is shaping up as strong on ensemble playing. The By the Water cast, as directed muscularly by Hal Brooks, fits right in. The beefy Ruginis, whose mere presence is intimidating, runs emotion’s gamut as if he’s doing a 26-mile marathon and ending it panting but unbowed.

Dunn-Baker, also physically imposing, brings out a good man’s frustration at only wanting to help when it’s the last thing wanted of him. He hints nicely at Sal’s hidden worries about a marriage foundering as a result of his being pulled between parents and wife. Pelphrey’s Brian is a contrite fellow uneasily finding his footing.

Maier and Phillips as the devoted but challenged Carters also convey their confused feelings. Frustration gets a workout on all sides, and Maier and Phillips depict it especially well. As Emily is pulled into a love affair she considered long over and dispensed with, Beck handily plays the hardened thirtysomething woman tempted to soften.

As for O’Connell, here are a few special words. She could be, and should be, tagged a First Lady of Off-Broadway–along with others like Kathleen Chalfant and Marin Ireland. More often than not, she’s called on to portray a lower-class woman in distress but battling it with every fiber in her small frame.

If O’Connell has ever played someone whose hair is immaculately combed, I’ve missed it. I haven’t, however, missed her ability to be thoroughly natural in any situation a script presents her. My guess is I’m not alone in relaxing when, on opening a program, I see her name in the cast list.

Incidentally, at the back of the program, thanks go out to Derek Tobacco at non-profit Guyon Rescue for leading a tour the cast took of ravaged Fox Beach. It’s difficult to think that the images the actors retained aren’t informing the effective playing.

If anyone reading this review is thinking of the play’s similarity to Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, there’s no reason to hang his or her head. The focus on an overbearing father with two sons and a wife defending him despite his failings is undeniably in the Miller mood and mode.

As Linda Loman said then, “Attention must be paid,” and as Mary Murphy could say now, “Attention must be paid.” They’re both right.
Arts – The Huffington Post
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First Nighter: David Auburn’s Lost Lake Not Fully Found

Logan (John Hawkes) and Veronica (Tracie Thoms) don’t exactly meet cute. They meet awkward. They meet uncertain. They meet at cross-purposes. And they stay that way and don’t stay that way in David Auburn’s not entirely absorbing Lost Lake at Manhattan Theatre Club’s City Center Stage 1.

Where they meet is in the lakeside cabin (J. Michael Griggs designed it well) that Veronica, a nurse with a career setback, is evaluating as the ideal place for a short getaway she can plan for her and her children. Logan owns the cabin — occasionally occupying it himself and making necessary repairs — and it’s his to rent when and if he so desires.

In the two-hander’s intermissionless 90 minutes, Logan and Veronica get to know each other. And Auburn’s best achievement here is that he keeps the audience guessing whether they’re going to become romantically involved. If they do won’t be vouchsafed here, although it’s fair to say that one of the play’s funniest lines — “You’re kidding, right?” — may or may not be a clue to that outcome.

Mostly, Lost Lake is about the many getting-to-know-you exchanges that take place between them. As the chatter ambles along, the information includes more about how Veronica got into her trouble and what Logan has done to put him in hot water with, among others, a brother.

The time covered extends from Veronica’s first sighting of the cabin through her occupancy (the children never seen, of course) to a visit she makes the following winter because she’s received a large sum of money in the mail from Logan and not only wishes to return it but is also concerned about his well-being.

Incidentally, that drop-in is preceded by a coup de theatre that could be the comedy-drama’s most exciting occurrence. It won’t be described, other than to say anyone who’s dozed off during the many Veronica-Logan conversations will be jolted from their reverie when the whatever-is-not-being -described takes place.

Auburn — whose Proof, which debuted at MTC, won the Tony, the Pulitzer and the New York Drama Critics Circle awards — tips this work’s intent in his title. The protagonists are two lost souls looking for ways out of their situations and needing assistance to make recoveries.

So this is one of those plays in which the metaphorically blind lead the other metaphorically blind to some higher, safer ground. Perhaps they don’t lead each other to the highest, safest ground, but at least progress is achieved. As such, it’s not the best example of the genre, nor is it the worst.

Also, as such, it’s probably not going to put Auburn in the running again for any of the citations mentioned above. Considered with Proof and his last Broadway outing, The Columnist (being Joseph Alsop), it’s a noticeable change of pace. Somehow, those works promise more from him than this mild offering delivers.

Daniel Sullivan, who’s formed a meaningful and rewarding partnership with Auburn much like those he’s forged with other contemporary playwrights, does well with the material he’s been handed. He gets the right performances from Hawkes and Thoms. They’re both expert at showing the way in which being tentative is often a primary personality trait. They make Logan and Veronica appealing to spectators even as the characters may not think as much of themselves or each other.
Arts – The Huffington Post
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First Nighter: Amusing “Billy & Ray,” Affecting “brownsville song (b-side for tray)”

The Billy & Ray of the vague title Mike Bencivenga gives his play at the Vineyard are Billy Wilder and Raymond Chandler. By practically sheer accident the two men–and only after director Wilder had a rift with longtime partner Charles Brackett–collaborated in 1943-44 on the screen adaptation of James M. Cain’s steamy novel of the same title.

While censor Joseph Breen was breathing down their necks, they focused on making the film version even steamier. It was an aim that film noir fans will cheer them for achieving with innumerable subtleties but not without much friction along the way.

The daily battle didn’t go without notice at the time, although apparently no one recorded it in its entirely–or filmed it. But Wilder spoke about it and, in particular, to James Linville for a 1996 Paris Review interview. He also allowed Charlotte Chandler, no relation to Raymond, to write the 2002 biography Nobody’s Perfect.

It’s likely those are at least two of the sources for what is a highly amusing, highly polished comedy about the several months the temporary partners hashed out the seven-Oscars-nominated classic.

Less than comic, however, is the worry Jewish immigrant Wilder (Vincent Kartheiser) had about the family who’d stayed behind in Europe and are reported missing or the secret drinking Chandler (Larry Pine), supposedly on-the-wagon to elderly wife Cissy, slowly allowed to get out of hand during the pair’s sessions.

As Wilder baits Chandler, who’d never been on a movie studio premises before (let alone attempted a screenplay of his works or the works of others), Chandler refuses to get over his disdain of the $ 750-weekly assignment and continually objects to Wilder’s quirks. The director-writer’s handy-dandy secretary Helen Hernandez (Sophie von Haselberg) tends amiably to the two men’s demands and neophyte producer Joe Sistrom (Drew Gehling) hovers about wringing his hands over seeing no pages.

Billy & Ray–which has little in common with David Mamet’s Speed-the-Plow about two Tinseltown execs working on a script and aided by a secretary and more in common with Neil Simon’s Sunshine Boys–wouldn’t be half the fun it is without the players, swinging into it under Garry Marshall’s first piece of Manhattan stage direction. (The opus was initially produced at Burbank’s Falcon Theatre by Marshall, Kathleen Marshal LaGambina and Sherry Greczmiel.)

No regular Manhattan theater regular will be surprised by Pine’s impersonation of the Ivy League-ish Chandler, who looks and behaves nothing like his Philip Marlowe. After all, Pine–who recently played the brittle title character in An Unauthorized Biography of Walt Disney and then cross-dressed for Casa Valentina–makes everything he takes on seem as if he’s simply doing it off-the-frayed–cuff. Pine is especially funny on author Cain’s deficiencies, one dishy quote verified in the Paris Review chat.

The welcome surprise is Kartheiser, best (and perhaps only) known as the ambitious Pete Campbell on the soon-to-wrap Mad Men. What he offers here is a complete transformation. Speaking loudly in a Viennese accent (no dialect coach mentioned in the program) and carrying a big stick, he says ungrammatical things like “What did he did?” He also says about the groundbreaking he wants to do with Double Indemnity that “It’s time the pictures grew up.” Nosirree, Mad Men freaks, Kartheiser looks nothing like Pete Campbell, and bravo for that.

Gehling does completely right by the anxious Sistrom, a New York transplant afraid he’s about to be sent right back where he started from. Von Haselberg is so good at what she’s asked that she should soon cease to have it mentioned that her mom is Bette Midler. She does have a bit of the wonderful Divine Miss M strut.

Her blocky ’40s shoes are a big help, as found by costumer Michael Krass. As a matter of fact, all the duds look authentically ’40s–especially Helen’s ensembles and the casual wear Wilder affects. Chandler’s outfits resemble any professor’s who might have been crossing a campus in the last several decades, and in his blue suit Sistrom gets to be the suit.

Billy and Ray–that’s how Wilder insists they address each other to Chandler’s chagrin–carry out the ultimately extremely successful bellicosities in a sleek Paramount office designed by Charlie Corcoran, who may not have read the Linville interview and its mention of the man’s digs. Apparently, Wilder had hung a prominent sign featuring the question, “What Would Lubitsch Do?”–Ernst Lubitsch being a strong Wilder influence. Also, there are photograph of Wilder with fellow director-writers like Akira Kurosawa, John Huston and Federico Fellini. Corcoran has a Picasso and a Lautrec on the walls he puts up, along with portraits of various Paramount pretties.

At one moment, Wilder steps out on the walkway leading downstairs and spots Bing Crosby in white collar for the filming of Going My Way. Things were certainly going Crosby’s way, since all the 1944 Oscars for which Double Indemnity was nominated, went to Der Bingle’s release. Nice that Wilder and Chandler get a bit of a payback with Bencivenga’s entirely satisfying entry.
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Kimber Lee’s brownsville song (b-side for tray)–the all-lower-case letters are Lee’s stipulation–starts out at a tough level with gray-haired Lena (Lizan Mitchell) angrily declaring that the story about to unfold should not begin with her. While insisting, she does get across that the subject matter is a grandson, Tray (Sheldon Best), who was shot four times and killed as an innocent bystander in a local shoot-out.

Thereupon the dead boy’s story gets underway, and it’s an upsetting one, as Lee intends it to be. Clearly, she has in mind putting forth one ghetto youngster to stand for all of the promising young men and women done in by stray bullets and who then turn up in the kind of news coverage that never seems to stop.

Tray is a skilled boxer, who’s also a candidate for a college education and a caring brother to younger sister Devine (Taliyah Whitaker). He’s being tutored on his required college essay by Merrell (Sun Mee Chomet), who’s his and Devine’s estranged mother, a woman who lost her bearings after her husband died. By horrific coincidence, the dead husband and father was, like Tray, also killed by four bullets.

The admirably and unfailingly good Tray holds down a Starbucks barista job, where Merrell, needing work, lands a position. Tray helps her learn the ropes, and he tolerates his pal Junior (Chris Myers), who’s constitutionally sullen and doesn’t get Tray.

Kicking off the drama as robustly as Lee does, she can’t resist allowing sentimentality to slip in before the final fadeout. It’s her commitment to showing the great loss to society suffered when young people disappear in a violent society doing little to improve itself. Who can blame her, when, for instance, she reveals the essay Tray writes that qualifies him for no less than a hefty grant he’ll never claim?

As directed with understanding by Patricia McGregor, the actors are impeccable. Andromache Chalfant’s set gets the point across. It’s dominated by a corrugated garage door with Tray’s face painted on it over the insistent word “Memory.” The same goes for Asa Wember’s evocative sound design.

The enterprise has the feel of a rap song made stage-ready. Perhaps that’s the explanation for the “b-side” in the title, although if records with what used to be widely known as b-sides (as opposed to the more commercially-intended a-side) still exist, I’m caught off guard.

Oh, I see, Lee may be implying that boys like Tray are unfairly regarded as no more than b-sides. If so, how damning is that?
Arts – The Huffington Post
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First Nighter: Peter Brooks’ “Valley of Astonishment,” “The Sucker Emcee,” “The Bullpen”

(Peter Brooks’ production The Valley of Astonishment has opened at Theatre for a New Audience’s Polonsky Shakespeare Center. Here is the review I filed after seeing it at London’s Young Vic in June.)

The interest Oliver Sacks takes in the human brain fascinates Peter Brook. The Valley of Astonishment is another consequence of that fascination, and, as presented at the Young Vic, currently Brook’s London outlet of choice, it, too, is fascinating.

Just after it begins, small and child-like-voiced Kathryn Hunter, these days Brook’s frequent leading lady of choice, introduces herself as Sammy Costas and announces she’s a “real phenomenon.” A reporter, she illustrates why she’s a phenomenon on a visit she makes to a clinic at the suggestion of her editor after he becomes aware of her unusually impressive memory.

The doctors testing her (Marcelo Magni, Jared McNeill) diagnose her case as synesthesia. She’s able to remember long series of words and numbers because she instantly associates what she’s told with colors, sounds and objects.

Although she’s fired from her newspaper job for being overqualified, she gets stage work based on her astonishing memory. It’s a life that goes well for quite a while, until she realizes that everything she’s been asked to remember has cluttered her brain. She needs to forget, but can she construct a way? That’s her dilemma for the remainder of Brook’s enthralling 75 minutes.

The formidable director, now 83 and working as he often does with Marie-Hélene Estienne, intersperses two other conditions with Costas’s. The first involves a patient (McNeill), who associates sounds and letters of the alphabet with color. Confiding that he was an unhappy child among other children — he made the mistake of telling friends that “A” is pink — he found himself when he realized that if he paints the colors he sees when listening to jazz, he’d have a career.

The other patient (Magni) consulting the doctors (McNeill, Hunter this time) suffers from proprioception, which is the loss of a sense of how body parts coordinate. He’s of particular enlightenment for the physicians, because he’s formulated a system by which he has partially recovered: focusing his eyes on whatever body part he wants to move and having it respond. On entering the doctors’ office, he’s especially proud that he arrived on his own, awkwardly but successfully.

As an addition to his preceding Sacks-related pieces The Man Who and Je Suis un Phenomene, The Valley of Astonishment — which the painter declares is the place reached where an affliction becomes an asset — has great charm. (It’s enhanced by Raphael Chambouvet at the piano and Toshi Tsuchitori on wind instruments).

Much of the charm — in a piece that ultimately doesn’t come to any conclusions about the brain’s infinite capacity — is due to the playing and includes an interlude when actor/sleight-of-hand artist Magni uses audience members to execute several card tricks. Exactly what the music-hall turn has to do with synesthesia and proprioception is obscure, but it definitely adds to the overall, uh, astonishment.
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Two current solo entries of more than passing interest about men needing to discuss their successes and transgressions:

A Sucker Emcee – Bank Street Theatre: Craig “muMs” Grant relives his life leading up to and away from the years he starred in HBO’s Oz. Lucky to have a supportive father and mother, he still endured setbacks from childhood on and spent much time wandering off the straight and narrow. His determination to keep on trucking saw him through–and is continuing, as this 90-minute solo show attests, to see him through. Intent on doing the thing he loves, he passes along his observations and advice mostly in hip-hop rhyme. (Hip-hop rhyme, of course, means off-rhyming as often as, or more often than, perfect rhyming.) There is no gainsaying the enhancement dj Rich Medina lends as he jives upstage of Grant’s with the necessary equipment. Jenny Koons directed the Labyrinth Theater Company production economically.

The Bullpen – Playroom Theater: Joe Assadourian pulls off a tour de force that’s built around his experiences in a holding cell and in court in relation to being arrested for threatening a policeman in a street fracas. Claiming he’s innocent of all impending charges until he lets up on his protests, he not only plays himself in the unpleasant incarcerated circumstances but also impersonates 16 characters whom he encountered during his couple of visits to that cell and one high-pitched judge in court. Having developed the piece while in prison–oh, yes, Assadourian served time–he’s become adept as a mimic. As a function of his ability to switch characterization in nanoseconds, he manages to be funny and earnest in quick turns. Richard Hoehler directs the Eric Krebs presentation in association with The Fortune Society.
Arts – The Huffington Post
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First Nighter: A. R. Gurney’s “Love Letters,” Walter Anderson’s “Almost Home”

Is Love Letters A. R Gurney’s most lucrative play? No one seems to be quite sure, but it has to be up there among the prolific playwright’s biggest money earners. Look, it has a built-in gimmick that encourages actors to want to participate. Since it bowed in 1989, many have.

After all, they don’t need to memorize a thing. For the two-hander, they merely come out on stage, sit down on two chairs at a shared table and begin reading from binders in front of them. They handily flip pages as they go about chronicling the barely requited epistolary romance between Andrew Makepeace Ladd III and Melissa Gardner.

So here Love Letters comes again, at the Brooks Atkinson, with a new (or slightly rearranged) cast more or less appearing every month for as long as business thrives–the first duo being Brian Dennehy and Mia Farrow.

As we know, epistolary novels were a big thing in the 18th century, but epistolary plays not so much then or now. (Some 50 years ago, Brian Aherne and Katharine Cornell toured in Dear Liar, reading letters exchanged between George Bernard Shaw and Mrs. Patrick Campbell.) So expectations for Gurney’s Love Letters–other than as a showcase for marquee-name thespians wanting a relatively easy theater credit–wouldn’t have initially seemed to run high.

Yet, viewed from this later date in Gurney’s career, it looks as if Love Letters–if not definitely his biggest revenue turner–is decidedly one of his best works. Whereas in too many of his clever, slickly written pieces about WASP culture, he often retreats from digging deeply into his character’s emotions (cf. his Wayside Motor Inn, currently revived at the Signature Theatre), he goes way beneath the surface where Andy and Melissa are concerned.

Well-off Northeastern children at the start–Melissa is proud to say she’s richer than he–who meet in second grade and take instantly to each other, they correspond for the next 40 years. Though, it’s clear their families would like a formal union (and the audience starts off longing for it, too), they never tie the knot with each other.

Instead, they marry others, while Yale-Harvard law school graduate Andrew rises to the United States Senate and Melissa, who becomes an artist of intermediate accomplishments, becomes an alcoholic like her mother and increasingly loses her bearings. With the years and the letters and wives and husbands and children accumulating and Andy and Melissa falling in and out of contact with each other and continually misinterpreting each other’s written signals, Gurney shapes a heart-breaking and utterly credible history for them.

As the first players, Dennehy and Farrow–wearing what look like their own street clothes, though Jane Greenwood is the credited costumer–are highly effective, if in different ways. (Carol Burnett follows joining Dennehy, then Alan Alda and Candace Bergen, Stacy Keach and Diana Rigg, Anjelica Huston and Martin Sheen through early 2015.)

Dennehy, who hardly looks up from his script, gives a straightforward account of straight arrow and Arrow Collar Andy. He reads the letters strictly as if Andy is writing them. Often given to bombastic interpretations, Dennehy avoids those entirely to become the elite, enlightened man only too late realizing his hewing to the proper path may have kept him from living out his true passions.

Farrow does look up from her script, and often. She reads the letter as if she’s feeling them. Sometimes stammering over words like “a-a-a-and” and “I-I-I,” which isn’t as they’d appear on the page, she emotes–and increasingly as Melissa’s psychological troubles mount. Her facial expressions alter constantly. Actually, Melissa is the more exacting role, and Farrow is so good in it, an observer wonders whether any of her successors will make as much of it.

Set from 1937-1977 or thereabouts and rich in details (who still uses the period phrase “hacking around”?), Love Letters operates under a somewhat ironic title. Yes, these are love letters but for a love affair that only occurs tangentially, a love affair that could never have truly worked out. Gurney’s presenting it as honestly as he does is a large plume in his writer’s cap.
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When Johnny Barnett (Jonny Orsini) comes marching home in Walter Anderson’s effective Almost Home, at the Acorn, he gets the 1965 hurrahs from mom Grace (Karen Ziemba) and pop Harry (Joe Lisi), but they’re muted and don’t last long.

Almost before Grace has scrambled a few eggs for the marine, a wounded Vietnam veteran, to scarf up hungrily in no time flat, he’s caught in a tug-of-war between her wanting him to go to college, as he’s inclined to do, and Harry’s being convinced Johnny should take the drill instructor position for which he’s in line if he reenlists.

There’s a third party with plans for Johnny. Police captain Nick Pappas (James McCaffrey) of the 47th Precinct in the Bronx is set on the lad’s becoming a cop assigned to Internal Affairs Bureau duties. The catch is that Pappas is a corrupt officer, who’s already got Harry under his thumb (a brief opening scene set in 1958 shows how and why) and now expects to have Johnny informing him about internal affairs activities.

Anderson reveals the tense fight for Johnny’s future in an 80-minute kitchen-sink drama. (Yes, designer Harry Feiner includes a sink, along with fridge, table, chairs and a pint-sized Christmas tree, on a set that may have some observers recalling Jackie Gleason’s Honeymooners look.)

Also pulled into the hot discussion is Luisa Jones (Brenda Pressley), a schoolteacher neighbor who taught Johnny and agrees with Grace and him about the benefits of a college education.

As the four of them tussle over what Johnny will eventually do, the recent and more distant past comes to light. Minimizing his psychic wounds–Johnny was with childhood best friend at his death on the battlefield–the demobbed soldier only slowly comes to acknowledge his pain. Just as hesitantly, Harry agrees to unburden himself of the World War II memories he’s long refused to confide in his wife and son. Where he’ll stand in regards to Pappas’s manipulations is another element in Anderson’s gritty piece.

Perhaps the playwright–also a Vietnam vet and former Marine sergeant (Johnny wears sergeant’s stripes on his uniform as well as his ribbons for valor)–holds his work to 80 minutes because he realizes the Vietnam drama is familiar territory and, as a consequence, he needn’t linger over it.

Actually, the very compact presentation is one of its strengths. Anderson doesn’t prolong the father’s ands son’s revelations. In particular, he makes it movingly clear that their familial affection hasn’t become so irreversibly obscured that it’s unable to resurface.

(Show mavens keeping a tally on plays in which a son is placed uncomfortably between two parents who simultaneously love each other but argue continually may immediately be put in mind of Frank D. Gilroy’s The Subject Was Roses.)

With Michael Parva directing them along Anderson’s crisp and pungent lines, the actors maximize the play’s potential. Orsini, who was so endearing in The Nance, displays a different range of repressed emotions. Lisi and McCaffrey, although paced a trifle haltingly in a couple of precinct scenes, get their rough edges right. Pressley does teacher-dignity properly.

And a special word about Ziemba, who only weeks ago was tapping her heart out in Bullets Over Broadway. An award-winning song-and-dance performer for many years (the Tony for Contact), she’s been making a transition to straight plays.

Last year, she was a boisterous bar owner in a revival of Anita Loos’s 1946 Helen Hayes vehicle, Happy Birthday. Now she’s the Bronx-accented Grace and succeeding completely. She does sing a snatch of Paige Morton’s popular Chock Full O’ Nuts jingle, but she doesn’t follow it with a tap break.

More power to her and to Almost Home.
Arts – The Huffington Post
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First Nighter: Musicals “Atomic,” “The Mapmaker’s Opera,” “ValueVille”

Atomic, at the Acorn, is the show that asks the musical question: Once the A-bomb was realized, was it wise to use it? Coming up with an answer requires a great deal of serious thought, which is what librettist-lyricists Danny Ginges and Gregory Bonsignore and composer-lyricist Philip Foxman give it. Whether they’ve given it enough thought–in a tuner that may push the limit on how far musicals dealing with difficult issues can go–remains in question.

Ginges, Bonsignore and Foxman tell their story within an intriguing framework. Appearing before the House Un-American Activities Committee, the brilliant though arrogant J. Robert Oppenheimer (Euan Morton) decides to defend his loyalty to the country by telling the history of the development of the devastating weapon that irrevocably changed mankind’s history.

Oppenheimer introduces the tale of Leo Szilard (Jeremy Kushnier), then and now an almost forgotten figure in the building of the atomic bomb. It was Szilard who got the genius notion about a chain reaction leading to splitting the atom, a possibility discounted prior to the mid-1930s.

Fearful, particularly when Germany invaded Poland in 1939, that German scientists would build a bomb before anyone else, Szilard devoted his life to the project (eventually the Manhattan Project), at times jeopardizing his marriage to pediatrician Trudy Weiss Szilard (Sara Gettelfinger).

When the war with Germany ends, Szilard considers the long-term implications of the bomb and concludes that using it against Japan is too much for his conscience to bear. He tries to stop it but is foiled in an attempt to reach Harry Truman–partly because Oppenheimer argued successfully that deploying the bomb would result in the occasion’s being an effective future deterrent, which, of course, it has been. So far.

It’s a meaty subject, all right, with Ginges, Bonsignore and Foxman bringing in supporting players like Enrico Fermi (Jonathan Hammond), Edward Teller (Randy Harrison) and project liaison Arthur Compton (David Abeles), who objected to Szilard’s resistant attitude towards the kind of secrecy under which he was expected to operate.

In a production where Neil Patel’s sleek grid-like set (that annoyingly obscures lights behind it specifying locales) and David Finn’s lighting are crucially effective, the human and humane nature of those associated with the super-human efforts–the amount of drinking the participants did, for instance, and then their abiding post-bombing guilt–is both surveyed and stinted.

Szilard’s details are unfolded in great detail, but Oppenheimer’s, on the other hand, aren’t. (Fermi is presented almost strictly as a caricature Italian.) It’s not unusual for musicals to jump over biographical segments, and that occurs in excess with Oppenheimer. How he became Manhattan Project head is completely ignored, practically reducing him to the heavy in the piece, a bombastic bombing advocate with his signature cigarette in hand.

And since this is a musical, there’s the music. It’s something of a rock score during which every once in a while Kushnier, who has a solid belt, steps center stage–sometimes on a table–and, not unlike Idina Menzel in If/Then, delivers a power ballad with all his might. That just about every song he’s given sounds like the one that preceded it isn’t helpful, nor are the lyrics, which are rife with clumsy off rhymes. Neither Oscar Hammerstein nor Stephen Sondheim nor any other Golden Age lyricist you might mention would ever rhyme “office” with “nauseous”–especially since the correct adjective is ‘nauseated.”

Kushnier isn’t the only forceful singer in the group, directed with cogency by Damien Grey and choreographed when it’s called for by Greg Graham. The other eight ensemble members match him when their turns come. Is it going too far to say they’re all a blast?
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Most people know about Swan Lake, but perhaps only those who see The Mapmaker’s Opera at PTC Performance Place as part of the New York Music Festival, will know about Paloma Lake. That could be the English title of “Leyenda de la Paloma,” the dance that begins the musical’s second act and, as choreographed by Stas Kmiec and danced by Natalia Lepore Hagan and Andrés Acosta, is the most interesting part of an otherwise uninvolving work.

Adapting Béa Gonzalez’s novel of the same name set on the eve of the Mexican Revolution, librettist-lyricist Victor Kazan and composer Kevin Purcell unfold the story of naturalist’s assistant Diego Clemente (Joel Perez), who paints birds, and rich man’s daughter Sofia Duarte (Madeleine Featherby), who fall in love across class lines and eventually bear the consequences.

While occasionally throwing in flimsy references to the increasingly inflammatory ruling class/workers condition, the flamenco-influenced musical musters little urgency. While guitarists Nilko Andreas Guarin, Frederick Bryant Hollister, Richard Miller and David Boddington add flavor, the songs eventually give the impression of being a series of rhymed clichés.

The cast, directed half-heartedly by Donald Brenner, is divided into two halves, the half that does its best with the material (Alma Cuervo, Lorraine Serabian, Tony Chiroldes) and the half that doesn’t. But there is money on the stage in a series of animated drawings that indicate various Yucatån locales. Since there’s no credit for a projections designer, set designer Andrew Lu must deserve the credit.
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Pretentious and muddled aren’t the most encouraging words to describe a production of any kind, but they unfortunately apply to ValueVille, also at the PCT Performance Space and part of this year’s NYMF.

It’s a spin on Jean-:Paul Sartre’s No Exit, and in it a handful of people are trapped with each other in an Ikea-like Purgatory akin to a roach hotel where you can check-in but you can’t check out.

Eddie (David Spadora), a recent college grad, arrives and immediately encounters nervous ex-girlfriend Meg (Emily Koch), a tyrannical boss Don (Christopher Sutton) and a few others, including a forever-pregnant shopper (Stephanie Fittro).

The idea seems to be that once any of them realizes what landed them in this pre-Hell and right the personality flaw, he or she is free to go. Yet, several of them do make the connection but still remain condemned to their dire spot. So what does librettist-lyricist-composer Rowan Casey think he’s doing?

Not crafting memorable songs, that’s for sure. At one point there’s a “cheesy feel-good ballad,” which isn’t my assessment but that of naysayer Don. Towards the end, Sharonda (NaTasha Yvette Williams) blares an 11 o’clock gospel song that lands in the time-honored way of 11 o’clock gospel rants. It’s followed by Eddie, Meg and company singing a rather sweet song called “Heart & Soul.” It’s not the Frank Loesser-Hoagy Carmichael “Heart and Soul,” but arranger Ryan Cartwell has the wit to end the ditty with a piano reference to the golden oldie.

ValueVille is directed by the terrific performer Donna Lynne Champlin making her debut in this capacity, and choreographed by the terrific performer Jeffry Denman. They both can be forgiven the lapse.
Arts – The Huffington Post
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First Nighter: “Skylight,” “The Pajama Game” Revived, “Adler & Gibb” New in London

LONDON–When Tom Sergeant (Bill Nighy) drops in on Kyra Hollis (Carey Mulligan) totally unannounced in the revival of David Hare’s 1995 play Skylight, at Wyndham’s, he’s clearly there to fan the embers of a six-year affair that ended two years earlier. That’s when Tom’s dying wife Alice learned about what was going on, and Kyra left the household, having long told Tom she would depart immediately if Alice ever found out.

At Alice’s council-flat-like home (Bob Crowley’s cleverly claustrophobic design), Tom and Kyra go through two acts of quarreling about their various motives, alternating between reconciliation and permanent rupture, but not incidentally before Tom’s son Edward (Peter Beard) has preceded his father to Kyra’s, saying his father is in psychological trouble and needs her help.

Once Tom–snazzily dressed in slim blue overcoat, jacket, trousers and slim tie–and Kyra, garbed in practical black (Crowley’s costumes), get gabbing, what they say to each other is sometimes soothing but, with a short break for an unseen encounter in bed, mostly wounding. Tom accuses her of being grandly abusive by leaving as she had. She upbraids him for his callous attitude towards her current employment: teaching deprived children.

Since this is Hare, the dialogue is cutting cut-crystal. Tom and Kyra are smart people–Edward is also bright and nice but troubled–and so they have smart things to say about themselves and each other. Before the chatty work is over, Hare has weighted it in Kyra’s favor, in spite of giving Tom the funnier, even cute, comments. Tom also gets laughs every time he refers to a part of London audiences think amusing at their mere mention.

Because there’s so much palaver and little action–a few items, like a kitchen drawer, do get thrown–director Stephen Daldry keeps Kyra, Tom and, when he’s present, Peter on the constant trot. Tom can sit still but doesn’t like to. Kyra spends a good deal of her time preparing a meal that doesn’t get eaten. If she isn’t slicing and dicing, she often stands about listening severely with arms folded across her chest.

When Skylight premiered with Michael Gambon and Lia Williams in the roles, they seemed like stick figures expressing opposite political views. That isn’t the case here. Not that Gambon and Williams weren’t effective, but somehow Mulligan and Nighy bring convincing vitality to this stage. Nighy plays a man so intent on getting to his point that he often fails to end words in order to get on to the next point. All he lets out are, say, “Los Angel–” or “confu–.”

Because the second act of Skylight is too much a repeat of the first in terms of the focal pair’s back-and-forthing, it isn’t among the best of Hare’s 29 full-length words, but thanks to the playing and the directing here, it’s full of dramatic oomph.
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A curious thing happened when I saw the revival of The Pajama Game, at the Shaftesbury, on the only day, a matinée, I was able to get to it. I learned at picking up my press seats that both leading ladies–Joanna Riding and Alexis Owen-Hobbs–would be replaced by their understudies, Lauren Varnham as Babe Williams and Helen Ternent as Gladys.

It wouldn’t be that unusual a recurrence, were it not for specific theater lore associated with the original 1954 Pajama Game production and what happened one day when the original Gladys (Carol Haney) couldn’t go on, and her understudy did: Shirley MacLaine. Movie producer Hal B. Wallis was in the second audience for which she performed, and the rest is theater/movie history.

Wallis is gone, but if Harvey Weinstein had shown up in the orchestra the day I was there (I didn’t see him, but you never know), history could now be repeating itself for Varnham or Ternent or both. They each delivered vivacious performances in the musical for which Richard Bissell and George Abbott supplied the libretto (based on Bissell’s novel 7 1/2 Cents), for which the young songwriting of Jerry Ross and Richard Adler supplied the memorably jubilant score and for which the first reviews were deserved raves.

If The Pajama Game is new to you, it takes place at the Sleep Tite pajama factory (imagined as a dark and hulking environment by Tim Hatley), where the workers, led by grievance committee head Williams comes up against shop manager Sid Sorokin (Michael Xavier) over demands for a raise that company head Mr. Hasler (Colin Stinton) refuses to grant.

Today, the minuscule hike the employees want dates the tuner, and the loose treatment women on site receive from the men would probably be toned way down, but the start-to-finish ebullience and those songs–three of which (“Hey There,” “Hernando’s Hideaway,” “Steam Heat”) became Top 40 clicks–guarantee a good time.

Director Richard Eyre makes certain that nothing misfires, and choreographer Stephen Mear keeps the joint jumping. (Bob Fosse was the original dance master, and he remains hard to equal.) The cast is bright-eyed and sharp, especially tall, good-looking Xavier of the ringing voice; Stinton at his harrumphing, Gary Wilmot as jealous-of-Gladys time/study man Vernon Hines and Claire Machin as secretary Mabel.
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In the first act of Tim Crouch’s Adler & Gibb, just opened at the Royal Court, an American student (Rachel Redford) stomps into a pit carved from the orchestra, approaches a lectern and starts reading a paper on the fictional collaborative artists Janet Adler and Margaret Gibb (Amelda Brown). This is after the play starts, and audience members taking their seats have watched a couple of children on the stage, lying prone and drawing.

As the student haltingly reads her text, she calls for accompanying slides, at which point actors Brown and others take the stage and begin to talk. Apparently, these living slides are Margaret resisting a movie crew come to make a documentary on the artistic pair.

What Crouch is getting at, in part certainly, is a send-up of the respect shown conceptual artists, in this instance two who when asked to contribute to the Whitney Museum’s permanent collection, send a three-month old mongrel puppy.

As the actors declaim, often loudly and directly at the audience, the children hand them props and perform other duties. At one point in the puzzling first-act proceedings, Louise (Denise Gough)–who’s meant to portray Adler in the film–takes an air-filled plastic bat and savagely beats to supposed death one of the children.

Enough proceeding that pointless gesture had been off-putting, but it was then that I, who never leave a play I’m reviewing, decided to break my rule and skip the second act of a work playwright Crouch directed with Karl James and Andy Smith. It took three of them to oversee this specious material?
Arts – The Huffington Post
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First Nighter: A Gotta-See Alan Ayckbourn Festival

The big fact about 75-year-old Alan Ayckbourn is that he’s written 78–count ’em, 78–plays during his long career, including two, actually three, receiving world premieres these weeks at 59E59 Theaters. It’s what you might call an Alan Ayckbourn mini-festival to celebrate the 50th anniversary of his first production.

Looked at another way, you could say he has so many works available either for premieres or revivals that at almost any time an Ayckbourn fan or Ayckbourn newbie might be able to encounter a new or old Ayckbourn work. Right now in London, for instance, his A Small Family Business is on view. The latter will be broadcast in internationally HD on June 12 (check NTLive.com for more details).

The first of the 59E59 three, all directed by Ayckbourn, is the world premiere of Arrivals & Departures. I can’t say that of the nearly four score Ayckbourn plays, it’s the darkest, but that’s only because I haven’t seen them all.

I can say that by the final fade-out this new one is extremely dark, even though it starts out light as a July day. Captain Quentin Sexton (Bill Champion), an Army officer running a sting set up to ensnare a suspected terrorist, is drilling a group of actors meant to be ordinary people milling at a train station. They’re all comically hopeless at their assigned tasks.

Into their midst come Barry Hawkins (Kim Wall), a traffic warden present because he can identity the suspect, and Esmé “Ez” Swain (Elizabeth Boag), a 23-year-old soldier sent to protect Hawkins. It’s their two stories Ayckbourn wants to tell as they more or less interact with each other. So he includes intermittent flashbacks to their earlier lives while they wait for the entrapment charade to swing into motion.

Barry, a gabby and seemingly cheerful chap, tries to chat up Ez, who’s proud of her career but preoccupied by a troubled private life. As Sexton and troupe swirl around them, so do their disturbing memories, and the more their memories accumulate–hers throughout the first act, his throughout the second–the unhappier they’re revealed to be. Moreover, there’s the threat of worse to come when the suspect known as Cerastes (Ben Porter) finally arrives.

Through the years, Ayckbourn, often called on these shores the British Neil Simon, has been of two minds about people’s natures. Here, however, he’s ready to declare himself an out-and-out pessimist. It’s a sometimes funny but ultimately bleak view, maximized by Ayckbourn’s direction as well as by the superb performance from Wall, Boag and the rest of the Ayckbourn-savvy troupe.
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In a note about Time of My Life, a 1992 play having its New York premiere, Ayckbourn mentions, as he has before, his debt to J. B. Priestley, who loved to fool around with time in his works and perhaps most effectively in the only occasionally revived these days, Time and the Conways.

As his title hints, Ayckbourn has his way with time throughout this exercise, and again refuses to report that time is being easy on humankind whether past, present or future, certainly not where Gerry Stratton (Russell Dixon), a successful builder whose company is verging on financial difficulties, and his wife Laura (Sarah Parks) are concerned.

In the present, it’s Laura’s birthday, and she, Gerry, their sons Glyn (Richard Stacey) and Adam (James Powell), Glyn’s wife Stephanie (Emily Pithon) and Adam’s new girlfriend Maureen (Rachel Caffrey), a hairdresser, have gathered at the family’s favorite restaurant.

Their table for six–where waiters (all played by Ben Porter) manfully serve–is placed upstage on Jan Bee Brown’s simple set. Downstage at the audience’s right is a table for two where Adam and Maureen sit in that same restaurant at intervals and encounter that same array of waiters. There, they relive in reverse their meeting and eventual engagement. Downstage at the audience’s left is a table for two where Glyn and Stephanie repair at other intervals. There, they etch their rocky relationship as it unfolds in the couple of years following Laura’s upstage birthday dinner.

Ayckbourn’s interest, as it usually is, runs to the particulars of a family’s dysfunction. Gerry and Laura have lost sight of their mutual love. Gerry favors Glyn, who holds down a job in the Stratton business, but he doesn’t begin to understand Adam, who can’t find a career but is currently publishing an arts newsletter.

Laura sees possibilities in Adam but has never liked Glyn or Stephanie. Nonetheless she’s worked to reunite them after a fling Glyn had. Neither does Laura take a shine to Maureen, whom she immediately and incorrectly labels an alcoholic.

The boys have their own misgivings, Glyn about remaining monogamous and Adam about what he wants to make of himself. Stephanie is the one always trying to keep things running smoothly, while Maureen is aware she doesn’t know how to present herself. She also doesn’t see the way to overcome her taste for garish apparel.

Ayckbourn’s great gift, on display throughout Time of My Life, is his keen ear and eye for how people behave under stress. Furthermore, he implies that stress is the only condition under which people ever get to behave. When he’s at work, as he is yet again here with his expert actors, he makes his argument absolutely convincing.
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When Ayckbourn noticed he was bringing 11 actors on this fun jaunt, he also realized that while all of them appear in Arrivals & Departures, only seven are needed for Time of My Life. To deal fairly with the unused four, he decided to write something for them. He tossed off Farcicals, which is made up of two one-acts–Chloe With Love and The Kidderminster Affair–involving the same four characters.

Note that when Ayckbourn tosses something like these off in (rumor has it) a week, it can be the theatrical equivalent of blowing a couple of many-colored feathers in the air and watching them float until they safely hit ground.

In both Chloe With Love and The Kidderminster Affair, good-looking lawn-mower expert (don’t ask, just enjoy) Teddy (Bill Champion) and plain and worried wife Lottie (Sarah Stanley) are best friends with down-to-earth car salesman Reggie (Kim Wall) and attractive wife Penny (Elizabeth Boag). They decorate, often hilariously, the plays in the Reggie-Penny backyard first and then in the Teddy-Lottie backyard.

To get them flustered over their marriages and possible infidelities and to rustle up his own brand of non-stop hilarity, Ayckbourn borrows from odds and ends of Cosi Fan Tutte, The Guardsman, Harold Pinter’s The Lovers and No Sex Please, We’re British. Yet again, his deft, not to say, farcical direction of his actors is top-drawer.

Incidentally, I’ve reviewed the three evenings (or matinees) in the order I attended them. They don’t have to be seen in that order. If Farcicals–wherein Ayckbourn implies that hope lies in humor–comes last, it can be regarded as a lively coda. If it’s seen first, it’s a tasty appetizer. If it’s seen in the middle, it’s a palate refreshing sorbet. The real point is to see a master at work in all three.
Arts – The Huffington Post
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First Nighter: “Red-Eye to Havre de Grace” Works and Doesn’t

Before Red-Eye to Havre de Grace supposedly begins, a pleasant fellow in a Philadelphia Park Ranger’s uniform steps onto the stage from a side aisle in the New York Theatre Workshop auditorium and introduces himself as the guide at his town’s Edgar Allan Poe Museum. He says he has a few things he’d like to clear up about the famous writer, whose life, as we all know, was a shambles–died penniless, et cetera.

It turns out, however–not that nobody hasn’t already guessed–he’s part of the actual piece. He’s Jeremy Wilhelm, one of the writers, along with David Wilhelm, Geoff Sobelle, Sophie Bortolussi, Poe player Ean Sheehy and director Thaddeus Phillips.

We know for sure that this Wilhelm is an actor the second the red curtain is pulled back, and he suddenly bursts into song (strong voice, he’s got, too), accompanied on upright piano by David. The entire sequence right up to that point packs a great deal of charm–a word not anyone would instantly attribute to Poe, by the way. So an observer is right to think that something charming and original is about to unfold over the promised 90 minutes.

An observer would be right, although the creators, working on this item for quite some time under Lucidity Suitcase Intercontinental auspices and only now getting it to its New York premiere, may be forgiven if they still aren’t successful at fully realizing the off-center enterprise they clearly want to offer.

Their intention alone earns them copious merit points. They’re out to depict a quirky version of what befell Poe during the last few days before his October 7, 1849 death in Baltimore. Little is known about what Poe was going through, but the impression the makers give is of having fun with common perceptions about Poe as a tragic figure.

Yes, to some extent, he was not fortune’s child. His writings, of course, demonstrate that he didn’t have much truck with the idea that fortune ever smiled uninterruptedly on God’s children. But sending up those time-hardened views by showing Poe taking mishap-ridden train trips from Maryland to Philly to New York–one of the legs in the wrong direction–has the effect of giving the benighted author a nice break from posterity’s assumptions.

The problem is that after a while the incidents in which Poe finds himself are not sufficiently engaging. It’s funny, very funny when he attempts to pay for a night’s lodging with a poem, but it’s less funny when he continues being stalked by a ghostly woman in a white slip or nightie (Alessandra L. Larson), who might be his deceased wife but who also struck me, rightly or wrongly, as a possible symbol of the spectral women in Poe’s short stories.

Maybe she’s the fictional Annabel Lee, following him around after he’s made her the 19th-century national name she didn’t ask to be. Maybe she’s both Annabel Lee and Poe’s late wife, Virginia Eliza Clemm Poe, who’s often considered the inspiration for the lady of the poem that so many of us had to commit to memory once upon a time.

What must be said for Red-Eye to Havre de Grace (Havre de Grace being the Maryland town where Poe was headed when on the wrong train) is that in Sheehy, it has an actor who looks like Poe risen from that Baltimore grave–and resurrected not in the best of health. The hair and the mustache–shaved off in an amusing sequence that evokes the perils of Sweeney Todd–help enormously. So does the evidently verbatim (or close to it) testimony of a certain Dr. Sartain, who tended to Poe somewhere in those final couple of days.

Much is added by Phillips’s design, which centers around three doors that serve as tables when needed; around Drew Billiau’s moody 19th-century-evoking lighting; and around the Wilhelm Bros. & Co. original music. Jeremy Wilhelm raises his voice in forceful song a good deal, and David Wilhelm keeps plunking away, often hitting chords series intended to establish those trains Poe rides.

This is probably the best place to make a minor comment on Red-Eye to Havre de Grace, which is apparently regarded as a musical. There may be a fine line between what qualifies a property as a musical and what qualifies it as a play with music, but to my way of thinking, Red-Eye to Havre de Grace comes down solidly on the play-with-music side of that fine line.

While the enterprise doesn’t entirely hang together, there are moments when it once again lifts to delight. At one of those junctures, the completely unexpected sound of Neil Diamond singing his elegiac list song “Done Too Soon” splits the air, as piped in by sound designer Robert Kaplowitz. The ditty does mention Poe and includes the lyric “They all sweated under the same sun.” Who would dismiss out of hand anything that provides this surprise?
Arts – The Huffington Post
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First Nighter: Harvey Fierstein’s Highly Accomplished “Casa Valentina”

When you hear that Casa Valentina, Harvey Fierstein’s new play, at Manhattan Theatre Club’s Samuel J. Friedman, takes place at a Catskills resort where men cross-dress in a completely compatible environment, you may be thinking, “Ah-hah, our beloved Harvey and men going about as women–this is bound to be a knock-your-socks-or-stockings-off spin on La Cage Aux Folles.

Turns out you’d be almost 180-degrees wrong. Yes, Fierstein fans, there are plenty of belly laughs as the two-acts unfold on Scott Pask’s lean version of a mountain getaway that’s seen better days. But the playwright has much more on his mind and up his chiffon sleeve. What he’s conjuring is a work along the lines of his reputation-making Torch Song Trilogy but far more probing, far more trenchant, far more unsettling than that earlier three-part opus.

The weekend on which he’s concentrating is the one in 1962 where Casa Valentina–actually doing business under the name Chevalier d’Eon as the action begins–is in danger of shuttering for financial reasons. So owner George (Patrick Page), known as Valentina when in drag, has invited a national activist calling himself Charlotte (Reed Birney) in his female guise to join the most loyal guests with a proposition meant to save the establishment.

Complicating George/Valentina’s worries is his recent implication in a mail fracas the local authorities have uncovered. All this is transpiring as he and heretofore understanding wife Rita (Mare Winningham) are welcoming heavy-set Albert/Bessie (Tom McGowan), older transvestite Terry (John Collum), glamorous Gloria (Nick Westrate), the sporting Judge/Amy (Larry Pine) and relatively young newcomer Jonathon/Miranda (Gabriel Ebert).

Things are progressing well and amusingly–particularly when the giddy bunch decide to give awkward Miranda a make-over–but take a turn for the deeply serious when at a formal “sorority” meeting Charlotte introduces a charter she’s put together whereby the men gathered would sign their names as proudly open transvestites. Charlotte’s conviction is that forthright citizens declaring themselves in this way will help legitimize cross-dressing as just another unthreatening expression of human sexuality.

Charlotte’s plot doesn’t go down smoothly with the others, especially when he/she insists that they all ratify a clause dissociating themselves from homosexuality. She maintains that more often than not, cross-dressers like them–straight men with an impulse–are often assumed to be gay. That damaging canard must be aired and changed, Charlotte insists.

Once the scene where the suggestion is mooted has been played–in something a bit too close to a veiled debate than some ticket buyers might find dramatically comfortable–Fierstein keeps the characters wading in troubled metaphorical waters.

Even though he starts his second act with Bessie, Gloria and Terry lip-synching to the McGuire Sisters’ “Sugartime” (and even copying some of the famed siblings’ choreography), he’s ingeniously stirred up problems for most of the participants. Certainly, revelations about the true nature of The Judge/Amy create a sticky situation for the conflicted man. And certainly, a bribery scheme Charlotte hatches gets seriously ugly.

Perhaps as disturbing as any of the twists Fierstein deviously and deliciously works into the script is the change in George and Rita’s seemingly happy marriage. That surfaces after the late and provocative arrival of Eleanor (Lisa Emery), who announces herself as the Judge’s daughter. Whether George and Rita can go on as before, whatever the future of their co-owned business, looks to be an unresolved question.

Curiously, Casa Valentina is the second production to bow in two days dealing with the slippery issue of gender-bending. (The first is Hedwig and the Angry Inch.) Fierstein deals with the much less discussed, generally sub rosa topic of primarily cross-dressing heterosexual men. Decades and probably centuries old (and fully accepted in some societies), the practice wasn’t new when the retreat called Casa Susana made the news–and caught Fierstein’s attention–as the subject of a 2005 picture book edited by Michel Hurst and Robert Swope.

Heterosexual cross-dressinng still a somewhat arcane issue, however, it’s not surprising that Fierstein who’s been championing related causes for close to 40 years takes up this one. Maybe he’s long intended to delve further into a condition with which he had so much touching gaiety in the above-mentioned La Cage Aux Folles. With this one, he gets around with unflinching concern to intolerance, blackmail and the cruelty of the divided psyche. While at it, he demonstrates his awareness of the destructive potential of compulsive behavior.

His concern is not to be sneezed it, and also prompting no sneezing is Joe Mantello’s tight and sympathetic direction of top-notch Broadway actors submerging themselves in perhaps their most challenging roles with no hint of camping to distance themselves from the men they’re portraying.

There is no first among equals here–Birney, Cullum, Ebert, McGowan, Page, Pine and Westrate all get into their wigs, frocks and make-up with consummate skill. Mare Winningham, who seems to have made New York theater her base nowadays, is simultaneously strong and vulnerable. Emery attacks her one scene with her usual forthright flair.

And about those female accouterments the actors gussy themselves up in before their vanity tables: Rita Ryack has collected all manner of outfits that men in the 1960s, who are stuck in 1950s fashions, would affect in order to pass for bridge-playing housewives. Jason P. Hayes concocted the hair-all-a-curl wigs that get plenty of exposure during the two acts.

One avenue Fierstein doesn’t go down is explaining why these men–standing in for a possibly not inconsiderate population–do what they do. Yes, he suggests that for some of them it’s a compulsion but without searching for the source of the compulsion. A couple of them appear to be pursuing their alter egos merely for the fun of it, but why is it simply fun for them? Westrate’s Gloria in her crinolines and flaming red coiffeur comes across as the only one of the group who has no inner demons flailing to be freed. Again, why?

It’s possible to leave Casa Valentina believing that drag for straight men–as is drag for homosexual men and women in Hedwig and the Angry Inch–is an ultimately imprisoning mental state. Yet, I have a psychotherapist acquaintance who maintains that some men who dress as women do so because they’re so smitten with women, so enamored of their wives in many instances, that they want to find out what it feels like to be women. They’re turned on by it–as Albert/Bessie declares he is here.

Fierstein might have made a point of getting around to that and to other psychological insights. That he hasn’t hardly detracts from an amazing accomplishment and one that, as the Tony season ends, will be a strong contender for the coveted prize.
Arts – The Huffington Post
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First Nighter: Athol Fugard’s “Shadow…,” Richard Maxwell’s “Isolde”

Although Athol Fugard turns 82 in June and his protagonist in The Shadow of the Hummingbird–having its world premiere at New Haven’s Long Wharf Theatre–is already 84, the two-year difference in ages doesn’t keep the deeply charming and charmingly deep 60-minute exercise from instantly registering as autobiographical.

That it begins with the grandfatherly Oupa (Fugard) reading passages that the program identifies as Paula Fourie’s extracts from the author’s own notebooks does nothing to suggest otherwise.

Entering an upstage door in Eugene Lee’s highly credible notion of an octogenarian’s cluttered study, Oupa’s first words as he goes about locating those books are “Where are my eyes?” He’s merely looking for his glasses, but with that query Fugard deftly lets us know the play will be about seeing.

And it is, because not too long after Oupa finds the spectacles and reads several passages in them, young grandson Boba (either Aidan McMillan or Dermot McMillan) arrives for what is apparently a standard visit during which an impromptu and loving tutorial takes place.

This lesson initially seems as if it will center on birds. Not too surprising, since a poster of bird species is tacked on the door through which Oupa came. The specific bird is the one mentioned in the title. More specifically, it’s a hummingbird that comes by Oupa’s house often, casting its shadow on that upstage wall and, as Oupa sees it, challenges him to capture that shadow. (The clever lighting designer is Michael Chybowski.)

Fugard being Fugard, the impossible act invoked turns into something bigger. It becomes Oupa’s way of introducing Boba to the intricacies of Plato’s teachings and, in particular, the famous myth of the cave. For those who’ve forgotten their Philosophy 101, that’s the tale in which people trapped in a cave looking at a wall on which shadows are thrown come to believe in the shadows’ reality, only to be baffled at first when released into the world outside the cave and confronted with the actual entities casting the shadows.

Fugard gets his biggest laugh when, finishing the story, Boba looks unimpressed and says, “Mr. Plato’s story isn’t very good.” At that, Oupa sets about explaining why it is and what it means by asking Boba questions and getting the enlightening answers from Boba that he’s looking for. What he’s doing is quickly recognized by anyone who’s ever taken a philosophy course as the Socratic method of teaching. Oupa is playing Socrates–as Socrates brought Plato’s insights to his students.

And Fugard does it with such warmth and familial regard that the notion of didactics only crosses an observer’s mind for its absence. The 82-year-old playwright isn’t finished there, however. He takes the idea of reality, illusion and the ability to see the difference even farther by making Oupa’s passion to catch the shadow into something beyond reality and illusion. He builds it into an appreciation of that uniquely human attribute, the imagination.

How he does it isn’t going to be revealed here since it involves how he ends his play. It’s sufficient to say that while The Shadow of the Hummingbird is brief enough to be considered an anecdote, its evocations–definitely as directed by Gordon Edelstein and played by the bearded Fugard and adept young friend–are a delightful example of big gifts coming in small packages.
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Playwright-director Richard Maxwell has built a reputation on approaching theater in non-tradition ways that more often than not look decidedly non-theatrical. When you’ve done things differently for 15 years, as he now has, a totally untried way to be different with a new project is to revert to the traditional.

That’s what he seems to be doing with Isolde, his latest New York City Players production at Abrons Art Center. He appears to be presenting nothing other than a play in a recognizable mode. Isolde (Tory Vazquez) is an actress first seen having trouble running lines with contractor husband Patrick (Jim Fletcher). Worried she’s lost the thesping knack, she retreats into concentrating on building a house across the lake from her current abode and engages architect Massimo (Gary Wilmes) for the assignment.

Impressed with his design (it hangs invisibly on the invisible fourth wall of Sascha van Riel’s very basic set), she falls for Massimo’s high-flown architect’s rhetoric–although Patrick remains pragmatically underwhelmed. Massimo affects her so thoroughly that she falls for him (and he for her). In no time, she’s ready to enjoy sado-masochistic sex with him.

As the months go by and no new-home ground-breaking occurs due to Massimo’s insisting he needs to know more about the couple, Patrick tries calling Massimo’s increasingly obvious bluff and enlists family friend Uncle Jerry (Brian Mendes) in his campaign.

Things come to a head when suddenly Maxwell has the four players show up in ancient garb to play out a short, tragic scene drawn from the Tristan-Isolde saga. Just as suddenly, they revert to present day and the present Isolde’s continuing trouble learning lines.

Because Maxwell has deliberately begged for comparison of the old and new Isolde plights and because this is Maxwell to begin with, a viewer may suspect there’s more to the enterprise than meets the eye. Maybe the house-building action is really the play the actress is having difficulty getting down. Maybe the boat mentioned in the play’s lines relates in some way to the lake across which Isolde and Patrick are planning their dream house. Maybe an actress playing an actress is Maxwell fooling around with the problem of deciding what’s real in life and what isn’t.

More likely, none of the above is in Maxwell’s thoughts. What certainly and baldly is is a play about an unhappy woman who falls for a man who’s hardly a Tristan figure and who turns out to be no more than the windbag her loving husband declares he is. So if with Isolde, what you see is what you get, then what you get is a mildly intriguing drama not especially enhanced either by the clichés embedded in it or the deliberately flat playing adorning it.
Arts – The Huffington Post
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First Nighter: Will Eno’s The Realistic Joneses Can’t Be Kept Up With

On the subway home from The Realistic Joneses, Will Eno’s second play this season and now at the Lyceum after a 2012 Yale Repertory Theatre stay, I noticed that the woman seated across from me was also holding a Realistic Joneses playbill. I asked her opinion of what she’d just seen. She replied, “I liked the acting, but I had no idea what the play was about.”

Let me tell you that if anyone wanted a spot-on one-sentence review of Eno’s newest work, you couldn’t do any better than what she said. But we professional assessors are expected to say more. So I will, although I’d love to let it go at the friendly woman’s comment.

At the start of the work, Jennifer Jones (Toni Collette, not impersonating the famous Oscar-winning movie star of that name) and Bob Jones (Tracy Letts, not impersonating golfer Bobby Jones) are bickering in the backyard of their home in, as the program notes, “a smallish town not far from some mountains.”

After some time and some tense exchanges, new-to-the-area Pony Jones (Marisa Tomei) and John Jones (Michael C. Hall) arrive with a bottle of wine wrapped in shiny silver paper and impose themselves on the first pair of Joneses, an imposition Bob clearly likes less than Jennifer.

What follows in this scene and several subsequent scenes–taking place on a David Zinn set meant to represent both Jones residences and a supermarket, et cetera–are various combinations of the Joneses talking in unrelenting non sequiturs about themselves and their relationships to one another.

When Pony (her father came up with the nickname, she reports) and John are about to leave towards the end of the first meeting, she spots a dead squirrel, which Bob disposes of in a handy trashcan. At some point during the work’s intermission-less 90 minutes the information is revealed that both Bob and John are suffering from a rare malady, the medical term for which goes by so quickly I missed it.

Those events represent what could be called the action in a play that is actually brimming with non-action. At times, it appears that Bob may have some interest in Pony. At other times, it seems John has eyes, or at least hands, for Jennifer and that she may be contemplating reciprocation. But these are just vague hints cropping up during the proliferation of conversations that go nowhere, because as Jennifer, Bob, Pony and John keep jabbering, they’re mostly jabbering at cross-purposes.

Occasionally, the offbeat give-and-take can be amusing. There’s a moment when Bob is nagging at Jennifer, where she says, “Do not even start.” Then, following a brief silence, she adds, “I’m waiting.” John, who’s full of left-field remarks, gets to say, “Ice cream is a dish best served cold.”

Nevertheless, after, for instance, too many of John’s opinions uttered, then recanted, then revised, then recanted again, it’s difficult for a spectator–here I mean me–not to start wracking his brain for what in the name of illuminating entertainment playwright Eno aiming at.

There’s the title, which does conjure the old phrase “keeping up with the Joneses.” And here are two sets of Joneses. Is one pair trying to keep up with the other while vice versa is going on? Better yet, is Eno having his joke on the very idea of keeping up with people who by their very chatter can’t be kept up with and, more pointedly, aren’t worth keeping up with.

Or wait, here’s another possibility. The play starts with a middle-aged couple harping at each other late-ish one night. Suddenly, a younger couple pushes through their bushes to interrupt them. She’s flighty and he’s makes a point of being loosely charming. Does this sound familiar, all you theater lovers? Is Eno serving himself very personal laughs by deconstructing Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? And don’t forget Letts was in that drama’s last revival.

Maybe, just maybe Eno is intrigued by the failure of words. Maybe that’s his target. There’s definitely mention of the problem when communications between and among these verbose, if ultimately inarticulate, Joneses lob their words at each other and miss the mark. If so, the apercu isn’t new. Its much earlier manifestation came to be called “Theater of the Absurd.” Possibly Eno is indulging himself in something like Theater of the Post-Absurd and expecting the rest of us to appreciate it.

Perhaps it’s a bit of all the above. Nonetheless, there’s got to be more to it, or otherwise, he has only enough inspiration–if it can be called that–for a short sketch. Maybe that’s not a worry to him. Only a month and a few days back, his intermission-less 80-minuter The Open House bowed at Playwrights Horizons.

In that one a dysfunctional family to beat all dysfunctional families dysfunctions for much of the allotted time. At that one I was thinking, initially, “Okay, he’s sending up the all-too-common dysfunctional family play. Nice idea.” But I was also thinking it’s a nice idea that’s only worth a 10-minute skit. Wouldn’t you know, however, that Eno found a twist causing me to reconsider my conclusion? I eventually decided The Open House was worth a 20-minute skit.

Still, if I can’t bring enlightenment to a discussion of The Realistic Joneses, Eno can. Here he is talking about his intentions with Playbill’s Mervyn Rothstein, “I had questions about the absolute fact of death looming there that we are very happy to ignore–how does that quietly and constantly make its pressure felt in our dealings with each other, in relationships and love and things like that?”

So that’s what he means to convey through his incomprehensible, although sometimes tickling, colloquies. If so, it’s not working for my subway-car acquaintance, and it’s not working for me, either. His premise is far too obscure.

Under Sam Gold’s direction, the alphabetically billed Collette, Hall, Letts and Tomei are collectively giving it their best shot. Unfortunately their best is not good enough. The Realistic Joneses from the highly regarded (though not necessarily by me) Will Eno is an example of that wise old saying, “There’s less here than meets the eye.”
Arts – The Huffington Post
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First Nighter: David Grimm’s “Tales From Red Vienna”

Nowhere in the program for Tales From Red Vienna, at Manhattan Theater Club’s City Center Stage I, is there any indication that it’s timed in anticipation of the 100th anniversary of the June 28, 1914 outbreak of World War I–or that playwright David Grimm wrote it with that in mind. According to a MTC spokesperson, neither is the case.

Yet, the rather histrionic work, which takes place in the Vienna of 1920, has everything to do with the direct effect of the so-called Great War–“the war to end all wars”–on three of its six pivotal characters. It has only a slightly less direct effect on its other three figures. (Perhaps only coincidentally, Peter Gill’s Versailles, currently at London’s Donmar Warehouse, which takes place in 1919, is deliberately programmed in remembrance of the First World War these 100 years on.)

When first viewed through the veil-like curtain designer John Lee Beatty places before his set, the also veiled Heléna Altman (Nina Arianda), is entering a home that appears to be hers. She’s followed by a bearded man, who looks about her age and who, the audience later learns, is socialist journalist Béla Hoyos (Michael Esper). Béla puts what looks like cash down on one tabletop and takes Heléna on another.

Then both veils are removed, and the play proper begins. Heléna, served by outspoken retainer Edda Schmidt (Kathleen Chalfant) and adored by Jewish delivery boy Rudy Zuckermaier (Michael Goldsmith), is a war widow trying to make ends meet as a goodtime girl. It’s a living held against her by Béla, who’s so determined to redeem her that he forces what he considers his best attentions on her in a subsequent scene where she’s visiting her husband’s tombstone.

Béla’s persistence is so effective that he wins her over, whereupon they both alienate the sympathies of “Mutzi” von Fessendorf (Tina Benko), the gossipy friend who introduced the lovers. While Edda hovers with the aim of keeping Heléna on as straight and narrow a path as possible and with Rudy dancing attendance as he endures a mugging that foreshadows worsening Viennese anti-Semitism, things slowly begin to look as if they’ll come up aces for Heléna and Béla.

But then they threaten not to.

(Spoiler alert: it’s impossible to discuss the play and its purpose without disclosing even discreetly the following plot info. Anyone adamant about not learning of script twists or surprises had better read no farther.)

Since the body of Heléna’s husband was supposedly destroyed at the front, the above-mentioned tombstone stands near no buried corpse. So when a man called Karl Hupka (Lucas Hall) arrives only a brief instant or two after Heléna and Béla commit to one another, their happiness is thrown into a WWI cocked hat.

Obviously. Grimm is looking at the damage the war did and not only to the soldiers fighting it but also to those keeping home fires burning, particularly the women–with Heléna standing in for all of them. What was called shellshock then, battle fatigue in World War II and is now considered post-traumatic stress disorder isn’t limited to veterans, Grimm posits. This is, of course, an observation that applies today as well as back in that day.

To make his point, though, Grimm has drawn on familiar conceits. For instance, there’s the old fantasy of the insistent Lothario redeeming the fallen woman, perhaps most famously employed in the 1990 hit film Pretty Woman. And how about the one where a long-missing spouse returns at the crucial moment? That one was widely popularized, for one example, in My Favorite Wife, the 1940 flick starring Cary Grant and Irene Dunne?

Even excusing these sorts of appropriations, Grimm’s tale (forgive me, I was going to say Grimm’s fairy tale), is inconsistent in the telling. It’s also unfair. Making the case for the fate women endured during the Great War–and, by implication, in every war–he scants the physiological and psychological wounds men suffered.

He asks understanding for the childless Heléna’s solutions to poverty. She receives the dramatist’s forgiveness, while Karl doesn’t. His failings–as opposed to Heléna’s admitted mistakes–aren’t excused. While he limps as a show of his affliction, he’s introduced as a deserter and depicted as violent. The balance is tipped against him through behavior that is nowhere as fully traced to his harrowing experiences as Heléna’s is to hers.

Also, Béla’s stalking Heléna dwindles to a good socialist’s only slightly misguided intentions, although his socialism remains a superficial character trait. The prologue, in which he has his crude way with her, surfaces later as no more than a swain’s too fervent attention. Béla’s refusal to accept repeated resistance from her devolves into a seduction of the ultimately willing, all of it adjacent to her presumed dead husband’s tombstone. If patrons flash on Richard III interrupting Lady Anne when she’s following her murdered husband’s corpse, they can be forgiven.

As directed by Kate Whoriskey, the cast does an admirable job. Arianda–after her glittering Venus in Fur breakout performance and the Born Yesterday follow-up–has another demanding assignment, but a more subdued one. Initially stunning in black as seen through Beatty’s curtain veil (Anita Yavich’s costumes), she plays the battered-heart prostitute with as much subtlety as the role allows.

Esper is more than acceptable as Béla. He certainly can’t help it if the man he’s playing too often shows signs of becoming a character in a farce. The always-reliable Chalfant helps matters whenever Edda arrives with tea on a tray or something of that nature. (Isn’t it just a few weeks ago that she was playing the NAACP’s Mary Ovington in the New Federal Theatre’s Dr. Du Bois and Miss Ovington?) Benko, Goldsmith and Hall serve their roles well.

Incidentally, though with his title Grimm suggests a political bent to his play as well as through several mentions of approaching Communism, he doesn’t substantiate the reference to any extent. Instead, he presents a domestic drama in which death and rebirth are themes–with flowers and a closed window serving as increasingly prominent symbols. But it’s not an especially persuasive domestic drama, at that.
Arts – The Huffington Post
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First Nighter: LBJ Bio “All the Way” With Bryan Cranston Goes All the Way

Missing for deliberate reasons or reasons of chronology from All the Way, Robert Schenkkan’s sure-fire hit at the Neil Simon, are Robert Kennedy, Sam Rayburn, Lynda Baines Johnson, Luci Bird Johnson, Jacquelyn Bouvier Kennedy, chroniclers Robert Caro and Doris Kearns Goodwin.

Otherwise, nothing that happened involving Lyndon Baines Johnson, here several times calling himself “the accidental President,” seems to have been overlooked in the past-paced coverage of events from the post-Dallas assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy on November 22, 1963 through election night, November 3, 1964.

The mission Schenkkan has set himself in this action-packed, verbiage-loaded two-acter (The Great Society, a sequel is due on the West Coast this coming July) is to demonstrate with no shilly-shallying exactly how sly-dickens Johnson (Bryan Cranston, having completed Breaking Bad‘s 60 hours) eased his way around Democrats and Republicans alike whenever he set his mind to it–which was always.

The first All the Way half is a head-knocking-after-head-knocking account of Johnson’s fighting for the 1964 Civil Rights Bill Act by cozying up to anyone in his way. There were plenty of the living and thinking obstacles, including bill-naysayer Southern Democrat Sam Russell (John McMartin) and pro-bill-but-conflicting-needs Martin Luther King (Brandon J. Dirden), Roy Wilkins (Peter Jay Fernandez) and Stokeley Carmichael (William Jackson Harper).

What the first act really is is a series of confrontations Johnson has–interrupted only a few times by the King group arguing among themselves–during which he knows what buttons to push on his demurring colleagues and pushing them as if it’s with the index finger he regularly uses to poke men in the chest.

In the second act, it’s the election he’s after. Having to deal with complications that are affecting his popularity and Barry Goldwater’s concomitant gains in the polls, he has to work his politico magic in the same manhandling way. Compounding his worries are run-ins with J. Edgar Hoover (Michael McKean), who has various threats up his sleeve, many as a result of surreptitious taping of the gal-on-the-side type he also has on Reverend King.

The most mesmerizing of these manipulation scenes are his dangling the vice president slot before the very liberal Hubert Humphrey (Robert Petkoff), his heavy-tread waltzes with Senators Everett Dirksen (Richard Poe) and James Eastland (James Eckhouse) and his cunning Hoover one-on-ones.

At these charged exchanges, Cranston triumphs. Not really resembling LBJ–although something may have been done to enlarge his ears, or maybe it’s an illusion–he raises himself to the accidental, and then deliberate, Texan’s height. He also takes on the standing and walking and sitting postures, the guffaw when joking with friends, enemies and frenemies alike and the obscenity-spouting glee, the joy in progress-achieving pragmatism.

It’s a towering performance in a couple senses of the word and directly in line with how Johnson has been depicted by journalists, historians and biographers. (Maybe Caro and Goodwin aren’t as absent from the stage as they seem.)

Effective as Schenkkan’s opus is, there’s something about it that makes it effective in a questionable way. There’s no doubt that director Bill Rauch–artistic director of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, where All the Way was first performed–collected an extremely capable cast of 20. Many, if not most of them, are doubling and tripling. (The putting on and taking off of Paul Huntley’s wigs must be some backstage sight to see.)

They deserve acknowledgment individually, especially the venerable McMartin, Dirden, McKean, Poe, Eckhouse, Fernandez, Christopher Liam Moore as the Prez’s mainstay aide Walter Jenkins, Roslyn Ruff as Coretta Scott King and Fannie Lou Hamer, Betsy Aidem as ultra-understanding Lady Bird Johnson and Rob Campbell as George Wallace. It has to be said that many of the actors, dressed in Deborah M. Dryden’s ’60s fashions, don’t convincingly look a great deal like the boldface names they impersonate. But Campbell is the startling exception. He plays five parts, but he’s a dead ringer for beetle-browed Governor Wallace.

While the actors can be thanked, Rauch’s demands on them may occasionally be questioned. Probably to get the fascinating rhythm and decibel level of Johnson’s encounters going and just as possibly sensing the need to move a heavy-on-the-word-count script quickly, the scenes are revved up. Frequently (too frequently?), such speed and volume gives an over-the-top feel to the production. It’s as if the audience is invited to scan a string of Herblock editorial cartoons. An additional development is that Johnson’s any-means-to-an-end approach appears throughout to be ruling him more than his sincere beliefs in the radical changes he’s pursuing.

Rauch receives commendable help for his lickety-split tempo from Christopher Acebo, who’s designed a courtroom-like utilitarian set that with the addition and subtraction of various furnishings can be the Senate floor or the Johnson’s bedroom, can be DC, Atlanta or Mississippi, can be a Congressman’s lounge or George Wallace’s soapbox arena. Equally impressive are the projections of every sort of environment, climate and television news hour provided constantly by Shawn Sagady and consultant Wendell K. Harrington, who was in on the ground floor of the present projections-everywhere movement.

Just a few parting words about Schenkkan’s title. It’s taken, of course, from the then ubiquitous “All the way with LBJ” slogan. So why not use the slogan in its entirely for the play? (Is there some legal knot?) Conversely, why choose a title already employed for another biographical item, the 1957 movie about comedian Joe E. Lewis from which the Oscar-winning title song emanates? The Sammy Cahn-James Van Heusen ballad isn’t rendered here, but “Happy Days are Here Again” and the memorable alteration of Jerry Herman’s “Hello, Dolly” to “Hello, Lyndon” are.

Well, well, well, hello, Lyndon again.
Arts – The Huffington Post
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First Nighter: Margulies’s ‘Dinner With Friends’ Served Piping Hot; ‘Vera,’ An Oscar Wilde Oddity

Because many of us haven’t trusted the Pulitzer Prize since 1962 when Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? was nixed by the powers there, whatever lands the award from year to year can receive an I’ll-be-the-judge-of-that critical response.

I suppose that’s my way of saying I wasn’t bowled over by Donald Margulies’s Dinner With Friends win in 2000. Come to think of it, the decision could have been the Pulitzer deciders’ way of accepting their judges’ choice that go-round as compensation for the institute’s not honoring The Model Apartment, the playwright’s superb 1998 play, stunningly revived last year by Primary Stages.

(There’s a prominent precedent: Albee’s 1967 win for A Delicate Balance was viewed, at least in part, as a make-up nod for the 1962 gaffe.)

But don’t get me wrong. While I’m not convinced Dinner With Friends is a duh!-but-of-course prizewinner, I’m glad to say it’s a piece of very fine writing. The evidence is the Roundabout’s flawless revival at the Laura Pels, directed by Pam McKinnon (who has the recent Who’s Afraid….? revival to her credit), and acted by Jeremy Shamos, Marin Hinkle, Darren Pettie and Heather Burns.

Getting back to the Pulitzer voters, maybe they favored Margulies for his depiction of two contemporary middle-class marriages. Perhaps they reasoned the drama had been, and would be, seen by many middle-class marrieds who’d find themselves so well observed in it.

Certainly, Margulies–on record as cribbing from his own marriage to a general practitioner–takes his characters’ temperature with compelling accuracy. In the first of his two acts, the ostensibly blissful Gabe (Shamos) and Karen (Hinkle) are hosting good pal Beth (Burns) who confides in their well-appointed Connecticut kitchen (Allen Moyer’s design) that husband Tom (Pettie) is leaving her for another woman. After returning home to confront the admittedly philandering Tom, Beth so agitates him when she admits having told Karen and Gabe that he races over to give them his side of the break-up.

Margulies begins his second act flashing back to the summer some 12 years earlier when, at their Martha’s Vineyard summer retreat (Moyer keeping up the good work), Gabe and Karen rather awkwardly reintroduce Beth and Tom, who’d disliked each other since their hosts’ wedding. That four-way exchange–infused with comic touches that always come easily to Margulies–is followed by a scene in which Karen and Beth discuss the unfolding events, then a scene in which Gabe and Tom do the same and, finally, a one-on-one bedroom wrangle between Gabe and Karen.

Am I going back on my earlier Pulitzer-resistant stance by saying it would be hard to question the wisdom with which Margulies writes about the somehow sturdy Gabe-Karen marriage and the foundering Tom-Beth alliance, which, when ended, allows them to enter into sound second marriages? Not only do I appreciate his views there, but I also admire (maybe even more so) Margulies’s nuanced understanding the dynamics of friendships. He’s put “Dinner” is his title, and he plays with it by devoting two scenes to Karen and Gabe preparing food with great enthusiasm, as well as having the pair offer Tom something to munch on when he barges in.

But Margulies has also inserted “Friends” in his title, and in both the lengthy Karen-Beth and Gabe-Tom confrontations, he explores the subtle things between friends that, if not confronted, can become big things. His perceptions about the unconscious slights friends can commit, often on an consistent basis, are beautifully jarring. What Beth observes about Karen and then Tom observes about Gabe and that then propels Karen and Tom into their own marital considerations is so profound that, yes, I don’t begrudge that Pulitzer.

There’ll be no speculating here on how actors and directors approach a Pulitzer play. It’s highly unlikely that director MacKinnon thought differently about how she’d treat Dinner With Friends, which did win, and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, which didn’t. The very thought is laughable. And notice that both works dwell on two unions in shaky shape.

Actors undoubtedly think about how best to play the role they’ve won. Shamos, Hinkle, Pettie and Burns–as guided by MacKinnon–know exactly what to do. Each of them has acquired the kind of resumé that marks them as reliable. Theirs is a reliability that stems from fitting the parts they play as if the parts were written about and for them.

So, renewed congratulations to Margulies on his Pulitzer. More than that, congratulations, prize or no prize, on presenting so believably the infinite complexities of marriages and friendships. These are the foundations on which are built so many of our daily lives.

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N. B.: The list of Oscar Wilde’s plays usually includes only five–Lady Windermere’s Fan, Salomé, An Ideal Husband, A Woman of No Importance and The Importance of Being Earnest. Theatergoers familiar with them may be surprised to learn that’s not the complete list. In 1883, his early play-Vera, or The Nihilists, about the eponymous woman’s throwing her lot in with revolutionaries (one of whom is a royal)–had its first production in New York City.

It’s not a very good play. Actually, it’s quite bad, which explains its being little discussed in polite society. It can be seen now, though. True Wilde completists can look at it–and may want to–in the Femme Fatale Theater production at HERE, the first on these shores in 131 years. By their own admission, director-designers Stephen Gribbin and Robert Ribar have tinkered with it but haven’t apparently improved the hard-boiled melodramatics. Nor does the all-male cast help.

Among the very few hoped-for epigrammatic remarks for which Wilde is still revered are “Nothing is impossible in prison but reform,” “Indifference is the revenge life takes on mediocrities” and “Experience is merely the name men give their mistakes.”

Call this Vera an experience.
Arts – The Huffington Post
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First Nighter: Conor McPherson’s ‘The Night Alive’ Is Mostly Alive

Kitchen sink dramas have been with us for several decades, which means they’re not as startling as they were when they began rendering obsolescent the prevailing works that examined the lives of the well heeled. This may explain why I could admire the expert acting of the charged events depicted in Conor McPherson’s new entry, The Night Alive, at the Atlantic Theater Company’s Linda Gross Theater, and yet decide on leaving that I hadn’t seen much of anything impressively new.

Perhaps I should say that from where I was sitting, I’m not absolutely certain I saw an actual sink on Soutra Gilmour’s version of a shabby ground-floor room in a deteriorating Edwardian home near Dublin’s Phoenix Park. All the same, I certainly saw McPherson’s bottom-feeding characters bring in plenty of foodstuffs that they more or less prepared over the several days and then months during which the action unfolds.

Tommy (Ciaran Hinds) is the official occupant of the large space — with its narrow bed and other dilapidated furnishings, its upstage stained-glass door to a garden and adjacent door to a bathroom. He’s the kind of man-with-van who makes whatever living he can by doing small jobs. He has no prospects and, more to the point, doesn’t appear to care about acquiring any.

When first seen, Tommy is returning to his digs with Aimee (Caoilfhionn Dunne), who’s holding a towel to her face. She’s been assaulted in a pub brawl. A hooker without a heart of gold but with redeeming features nonetheless, she’s grateful for Tommy’s ministrations but doesn’t want to rely on them more than necessary. She’s a hooker with a heart of self-sufficiency.

She does stick around, however, because she and Tommy slowly establish a romantic interest in each other, which is somewhat endangered by Maurice (Jim Norton, a McPherson vet). He’s the relative from whom Tommy rents his space and who regularly threatens Tommy with eviction. The Tommy-Aimee bond is far more imperiled with the arrival of Kenneth (Brian Gleeson) — as if from Harold Pinter and, specifically, from Pinter’s The Homecoming or No Man’s Land. He’s the abusive boyfriend who dealt Aimee her earlier blows.

Actually, until Kenneth strides chillingly into Maurice’s house, it looks as if The Night Alive isn’t going to amount to much more than a slice-of-life representation of Dublin’s and Ireland’s current societal and economic erosion.

But there Kenneth is, almost instantly picking up a hammer with which he stalks Tommy’s sometime partner Doc (Michael McElhatton), a regular visitor to the household and a freeloader on it. It’s as if Kenneth’s wielding the tool is introduced as an extension — to include blunt instruments — of Chekhov’s theory that a gun once brought on stage must go off, usually causing harm.

The Night Alive suspense then builds on whether Aimee will be able to extricate herself from Kenneth’s sinister demands, which include stealing money Tommy has hidden beneath floorboards. Will she be able to remain with Tommy, or will she continue in Kenneth’s thrall?

The outcome McPherson provides for them is properly ambiguous and doesn’t occur without one highly dramatic event that won’t be revealed here. The event, however, does develop into something that, as indicated, is quite dire, but from which the playwright unconvincingly retreats.

As mentioned, McPherson has imagined three-dimensional figures in Tommy, Aimee, Maurice and Doc. They’re far from upstanding citizens, but they’re appealing in their ways. They’re trying to make something of their lives, and even if the attempts aren’t the wisest they might choose, the benighted folks are worth rooting for. Given their compromised potential, they’re trying to do the best they can.

Kenneth is more two-dimensional. He intensifies McPherson’s drama, but it’s hard not to feel he’s brought in only because McPherson realized he needed something to raise the stakes. Yes, Kenneth’s appearance has been somewhat foreshadowed from the moment the battered Aimee enters without admitting to Tommy the perpetrator of her injuries, but he still feels like more of a device than the others.

At the same time, though, as the proceedings have the old deja view aspect to them — remember that McPherson’s early click, The Weir, had a four-men-one-woman cast — there’s no quarreling with his direction of the ensemble.

Hinds’s imbues Tommy with shady shadings and humane longings, too. (The actor is more authentic here than he was in last season’s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof revival.) Dunne’s Aimee, sparrow thin, is admirable for her highly pronounced independent streak. Norton’s nicely balances Maurice’s constant mood swings. McElhatton’s Doc has the right measure of sycophantic weakness and likability. Gleeson encounters no trouble bringing to the surface all the unadulterated evil called for.

So while it’s true that the magnetic effect of the writing, acting and directing quickly dissipates once the lights fade on the intermissionless 90-minutes-plus The Night Alive, the heavy-duty pull it exerts while passing can’t be denied and doesn’t need to be.
Arts – The Huffington Post
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First Nighter: Mark Rylance and Company’s Superb “Richards III” and “Twelfth Night”

Two-time Tony winner Mark Rylance (Boeing Boeing, Jerusalem) is stage-obsessed. He’s so taken with all aspects of the theater–as well as with London’s new(-ish) Globe where he was artistic director for a decade-plus years–that he has the Shakespeare’s Globe Productions company he’s leading get into costume in front of the Belasco audience. They do so–dressers and all–on a set that Jenny Tiramani bases on the original and replicated Globe lay-out, with two-tiered boxes stage right and left.
By this choice, spectators–often treated as 16th-century groundlings to be spoken to directly by the actors–get to watch, for instance, Rylance work himself into the padded doublet and tights he wears as the title character in Richard III and as the mourning Olivia in glittering floor-length black frock whom he impersonates in Twelfth Night, or What You Will.
He’s playing these two vastly different figures in William Shakespeare’s works in yet another strong bid for a Tony. Not, mind you, that for him acting is a matter of accumulating awards. It’s not. He’s clearly out to take command of the theater realm, to make every word count. I’ve seen what he does with scripts when he’s toiling over them. He jots so many notes to himself that when he’s through inventing whomever he’s appearing as, there’s almost no white space left on the page.
His imagination is so unbounded that anyone who relishes superlative acting can’t take his or her eyes off him for fear of missing what unexpected subtle or broad gesture or inflection will occur next. Watching the surprisingly short and off-the-stage unassuming Rylance is a matter of studying someone who regards acting simultaneously as profoundly serious and unrestrainedly amusing.
Take his Richard III. It’s not news that the ill-formed nobleman can be funny as he stops at nothing while maneuvering himself to be crowned king–and, when, on the throne, still isn’t satisfied. But Rylance compounds the fun by turning into a Richard of York who unabashedly giggles at his own jokes while he strides about with a decided limp and never using his withered and gloved left hand. Plotting to eliminate all competitors, this Richard frequently emits room-shaking guffaws at what he’s getting up to. At one point, he literally crooks (pun intended) a finger at the audience to join him in his merry malevolence.
Or take Rylance’s Olivia in what the program and related advertisements announce as Twelfe Night. Here’s a woman grieving over her brother’s death, a woman of surpassing refinement who’s found nothing to comfort her until an emissary from a suitor for her hand arrives and melts her frozen heart. Even then, she retains her equanimity, gliding about the stage as if transported on wheels. Her speech has lute-like qualities. In the role, Rylance is depression embodied. He’s as different from Richard as could be envisioned.
Though Rylance is top-billed–it’s unlikely the troupe he’s brought with him would be here without him–this is no instance of a 19th-century-like actor-manager touring with a company populated by pick-up performers. This is as accomplished an ensemble as has been seen locally in a long while and thus worth giving thanks for.
With Tim Carroll directing both the tragedy and the comedy and never running out of inspired ideas for either (his best notions alone would fill a notice), the challenge for any reviewer is deciding where to begin elaborate on everything bright and brilliant at hand.
It’s certainly exceedingly difficult when there isn’t a weak among the actors–all men. (An interesting coincidence that the all-women Julius Caesar has only just concluded its St. Ann’s Warehouse run.) Citing the standout elements is a tough task when Tiramani’s costumes are seemingly authentic from undergarments out. It’s a problem designating the most signficant contributor when the lighting–only partially supplied by six chandeliers boasting a dozen or more candles occasionally dropping wax–is so subtly intricate.
It’s no easy task to declare foremost elements when the music, under Claire van Kampen’s supervision and provided by musicians using traditional instruments, underscores so much of the proceedings lambently as played on this Globe’s balcony. In the instance of the music-besotted Twelfth Night, music is played and sung as part of the action. Always remember, too, that this play contains some of Shakespeare’s most haunting lyrics.
And, oh, the acting! Perhaps begin with Stephen Fry, who, aside from Rylance, is probably the best-known name this side of the Atlantic. He’s Twelfth Night‘s maligned Malvolio. Having spent much of career in movies and as a television compere (when not writing superb novels and essays), Fry isn’t a recognized stage personality, but he goes a long way towards rectifying that with this booming appearance. When Malvolio, whose self image is all-important to him, loses it in cross-gartered yellow leggings and rigged smiles, Fry knows precisely what to do to elicit chuckles and sympathy.
Samuel Barnett, first spotted in Manhattan with The History Boys, acquits himself beautifully as Viola in Twelfth Night and as Queen Elizabeth in Richard III. Joseph Timms does the same as Anne in Richard III and Sebastian in Twelfth Night.
Angus Wright as the wronged Buckingham and the wonky Sir Andrew Aguecheek, Paul Chahidi as Maria (check out his cleavage) and both Hastings and Tyrrell, Colin Hurley as the boozing Sir Toby Belch and the dying Edward IV–they’re all brimming with ebullience, with impeccable craft. Equally praise-worthy are Liam Brennan, Matt Harrington, Kurt Egyiawan, Terry McGinity, Peter Hamilton Dyer, John Paul Connolly, Jethro Skinner, Bryan Paterson and young Matthew Schechter and Hayden Signoretti.
When running the Globe, Rylance always featured a jig at the curtain call. He continues to delight in the custom. There’s method to the theatrical madness, which is reminding the audience as it prepares to leave that no matter high or low the evening’s spirits have soared or sunk, there’s still something to be said for merriment. With this evening’s list of triumphs, it’s not only the actors who want to join in the jig. The audience is in the let’s-all-jig mood as well.
A word to the wise and diligent theater-goer: Richard III is performed Wednesdays, Saturdays and some Sundays–with very few exceptions. The Wednesdays and Saturdays are opportunities to see both plays in one day. Grab any and all opportunities.
Arts – The Huffington Post
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First Nighter: Beth Henley’s “The Jacksonian,” The Seth Rudetsky-Jack Plotnick “Disaster!”

In Beth Henley’s quasi-Southern Gothic play The Jacksonian, the establishment of the title is a Jackson, Mississippi motel with decorated-for-Christmas bar that Walt Spangler has neatly designed.
It would be nice to say that the stage-right bar is busy, but the only denizens–seen over a period of several months–are guesting dentist-on-his-uppers Bill Perch (Ed Harris), his occasionally visiting estranged-because-sometimes-battered wife Susan (Amy Madigan), his manic 16-year-old daughter Rosie (Juliet Brett), possibly suicidal bartender Fred Weber and blowzy motel worker Eva White (Glenne Headly).
The Perches spend time in the stage-left room that Bill occupies. He’s hoping Susan will take him back. She’s hoping anything but. Eva also drops in on official and unofficial motel business. Fred remains in the bar, mixing a drink from time to time but mostly attempting to extract himself from the promise of marriage he’s made to Eva.
The Jacksonian–imported to The New Group’s Acorn stage from Los Angeles’s Geffen Playhouse, where it premiered in February 2012–begins with Rosie, wrapped in a blanket, howling that a murder is going to take place. It’s immediately followed by Bill, wearing a bloodstained white shirt, entering to scoop ice from a large container.
Whereupon the action waffles back and forth from the holiday season–which isn’t very festive for these folks–to the preceding summer and fall months. During the action, they either sit in the bar or gather in Bill’s room.
Playwright Henley, darker here than in most of her previous works, intends, it would seem, to display five misfits as their sorry expectations disintegrate–and Rosie’s desperate opening outburst edges toward fulfillment. Actually, that’s what she does display, but as she progresses through the intermissionless 85-minutes she’s allotted herself, she has trouble working up sufficient interest in the inhabitants.
Maybe what’s called for here is more information on the characters. As it is, they’re a quintet of sad sacks, with Bill not only sad but–unable to practice dentistry as a result of some misdemeanor–also dangerous. This is clear, of course, from the early glimpse of him in the soiled shirt.
What involvement there is in the exercise is Robert Falls’s vigorous direction of the actors–four of whom are already known as more than reliable–and one of whom, newcomer Brett, gives unquestionable signs of making herself welcome in the manner of previous stage performers like Peggy Ann Garner, Phyllis Love and Sandy Dennis.
Well-known trivia: Harris and Madigan are married, and, from the evidence they’ve given by working together frequently, have to be a much happier couple than the Perches Bill and Susan. It’d be interesting, don’t you think?, to eavesdrop on Harris and Madigan discussing the challenges of taking on Bill’s and Susan’s sorrows.
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Be advised that Jack Plotnick and the always risible Seth Rudetsky have joined a series of 1970s chart-toppers into a send up of that decade’s disaster flick The Poseidon Adventure. They’ve called it–what else?–Disaster!.
And yes, camp followers, it’s mighty entertaining. The plot–really an excuse to get a crowd of terrific singers to reprise a tidal wave of golden oldies–involves the opening night of the Barracuda casino on a ship moored to a dock that happens to be floating over shifting tectonic plates. You guessed it: There’s a humongous quake, after which some characters survive (the young lovers, natch) and some don’t (the villainous ship’s captain, natch).
Rudetsky and Plotnick–please don’t call the cruiser-tuner a rude/plot–probably could have trimmed their fandango, rather than suggest they want to include every ’70s click ever written. Only for starters, the ditties run to “Alone Again, Naturally,” “Don’t Bring Me Down,” “He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother,” “Hooked on a Feeling,” “Hot Stuff,” “Knock on Wood” and “Knock Three Times.” Often, for maximized amusement, Rudetsky and Plotnik pun on the song titles or play on the lyrics.
Then, of course, and under Plotnick’s direction (Rudetsky plays a disaster expert, whatever that is), there are those top-drawer belters. Undoubtedly all of them voice-maven Rudetsky’s chums, they are, among others, the great Mary Testa, the great Jennifer Simard, hot newcomer Matt Farcher, Haven Burton, Charity Dawson, John Treacy Eagan, Michele Ragusa and young Jonah Vernon as identical fraternal twins. (Remember this is fiction.) It should go without saying that every one of the singing comics makes it all worthwhile.
With that large cast in the relatively small St. Luke’s auditorium, Disaster! may look as if it’s been produced for $ 1.99 (his it been?), but it plays as if it’s titanic, if not Titanic.
Arts – The Huffington Post
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