Monday, November 24, 2014

Sticks and Bones

The 1950s and early 1960s masqueraded as an innocent time in the United States, and nowhere was the masquerade more vivid than on television, with its faux perfect white families with their faux problems and their faux reality. In his deeply disturbing play, Sticks and Bones, David Rabe uses one of those families--Ozzie, Harriet, David, and Ricky Nelson--as his canvas to show how America's war in Vietnam stripped the United States of its masks and revealed the confusion, hatred, and violence underneath. What raises this angry comedy to brilliance is Rabe's compassion for the faux perfect family as their willful blindness is destroyed when David, the older son, returns from Vietnam suffering from actual blindness.

Raviv Ullman, Bill Pullman, Holly Hunter,
Ben Schnetzer, and Morocco Omari
Photo: Monique Carboni
In a way, the main conflict in Sticks and Bones is between reality and denial: David can only survive with reality, and the others can only survive in denial. [spoiler] This is why the family is so eager to aid David by helping him to kill himself. It is not his pain that are seeking to end, it is their own, and they are all willing to have him die for their sins. [end of spoiler]

Sunday, November 23, 2014

On the Town



As Carol Oja points out in her new, excellent book Bernstein Meets Broadway: Collaborative Art in a Time of War, the 1944 musical On the Town is not nearly as well-known or celebrated as Jerome Robbin's and Leonard Bernstein's 1957 collaboration, West Side Story. It's also not as cohesive or as deep, which is not to imply, at all, that it's bad. It isn't--especially in joyful revival at the historically cursed Ford/Hilton/Foxwood/Lyric Theater. 

A landmark work that is perhaps celebrated less for its aesthetic achievements than for its introduction, to Broadway, of a young, superlatively talented, and enormously influential creative team (Bernstein! Robbins! Betty Comden! Adolph Green!), On the Town was the result of disparate elements that were blended together in a hurry. Based in part on the short ballet Fancy Free, which premiered to enormous acclaim at the Metropolitan Opera House in April 1944 (and which you can see in its entirety here), On the Town was expanded into a full-length musical that opened on Broadway in December of the same year. Still deeply rooted in dance and, like Fancy Free, primarily about three sailors on shore leave, On the Town's book and lyrics were added by Comden and Green, who drew largely from material they'd been using in their nightclub comedy troupe, the Revuers (which also featured Judy Holliday, and for which Bernstein sometimes served as pianist).

The resultant musical is as dense a mix of highbrow, middlebrow and lowbrow elements as the disparate influences imply: moody classical dance sequences are accompanied by Bernstein's symphonic scoring, while hips grind suggestively to his jazzier, bluesier numbers. Other numbers are all about wide-open, smiling faces and optimistic Broadway brass. Through the show, erudite, elitist characters mix easily with crasser, coarser ones. There are ridiculous plot-lines and moving ones (sometimes, these are one and the same). There are subtle jokes, corny jokes, recurring jokes, cheap jokes, dirty jokes.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Lost Lake

Lost Lake is a brief, largely unsatisfying two-hander that only catches fire in its final moments. As the title suggests, both Hogan (John Hawkes) and Veronica (Tracie Thoms) are lost: she's a widowed mother whose professional life quickly unravels in light of a stupid mistake, and he's the wayward caretaker of a dilapidated, largely unrentable lake house in Upstate New York. Longing for idyll and escape for herself and two children, and suffering from a shortage of cash, Veronica agrees to take Hogan's place for a week; she's his only renter for the season. The first seventy-five minutes of this ninety-minute one act unfold banally, with Hogan and Veronica alternatingly arguing over repairs he promised but failed to deliver and disclosing their personal troubles. We learn why Veronica lost her job; why Hogan is estranged from his daughter and essentially homeless; we learn the ways in which they're more alike than might seem at first. Unfortunately, Auburn's writing hardly strikes sparks, and while Thoms and especially Hawkes (under Daniel Sullivan's direction) do fine work, a majority of the play remains uninvolving.

The play's final scene, however, is another story. In fifteen minutes, Auburn is able to capture the depths to which these two people have fallen, and how painfully alone they feel. It's striking in its profound darkness; the playwright rejects the redemptive sluice so fully, and that in itself feels gratifying. I cannot say that it's enough to recommend the play overall, though. Would that Auburn had written an entire work worthy of those fifteen minutes.
[Running time: 90 minutes, no intermission. Last row, extreme side. TDF.]

Thursday, November 20, 2014

The Elephant Man

photo: Joan Marcus
Unique questions arise when presenting differently-bodied characters in theatrical productions. Should one be painstakingly literal--either out of respect, or to offer the audience a chance to fully wrestle with its collective prejudices and preconceived notions--or should the artists let the mind's eye do at least some of the work? Recently, Samuel D. Hunter's The Whale (presented by Playwrights Horizons in 2012) and Donald Margulies' The Model Apartment (first produced in 1995, and revived to acclaim last fall; both by Primary Stages) used extraordinarily convincing body suits to present morbidly obese characters, played by Shuler Hensley and Diane Davis, respectively. The effect was primal and immediate: there was no hiding from plain fact of two people succumbing to their size. Oppositely, the recent Broadway premiere production of Violet, in which the title character has a disfiguring facial scar, used no make-up at all. The physical deformity was evoked solely through the actions of the actor (Sutton Foster) playing the role, and the reactions of those around her. Cases can be made for both the strongly literal and the evocatively figurative characterizations.

Bernard Pomerance's ever-popular The Elephant Man has always stringently shied away from using anything other than vocal or physical mannerisms in portraying John (real name: Joseph) Merrick, a real-life Victorian man whose horrible deformities gained him notoriety and a certain amount of celebrity in his own time. In fact, most productions have taken pains to cast conventionally attractive men in the role. The original production starred Philip Anglim, who had worked as a model prior to becoming an actor; Mark Hamill (at the height of his Star Wars fame) and David Bowie acted as replacements. A 2002 Broadway revival featured the dashing Billy Crudup. The current revival, in previews at the Booth Theatre after a successful Williamstown Theatre Festival engagement two summers ago, outdoes them all, with box office megastar and former People Sexiest Man Alive Bradley Cooper assuming the title role. And while this handsome but lifeless production does not make a case for the play as an enduring stage classic, Cooper's anchoring central performance is imbued with both skill and passion.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Love Letters


Photo Credit: Carol Rosegg

Alan Alda and Candice Bergen replaced Carol Burnett and Brian Dennehy as the two life-long pen pals that rarely physically connect in A.R. Gurney’s Love Letters at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre on November 9. This third Broadway rotation of famous pairs follows the play’s usual bare-basics format, with no real set– just two chairs, a table, two scripts, two beverages and two actors that remain on stage reading letters placed in a binder. Alda and Bergen enter with no pomp, merely suddenly appearing on stage: She in a soft, dark sweater and pants; He in a blue button-down topped with a gray blazer.

Without changing sets or elaborate costumes, the play relies on the actor’s physical interactions and pacing to add intimacy during the letter reading of the 50-year correspondence between Connecticut elites Andrew Makepeace Ladd III (Alda) and Melissa Gardner (Bergen). Despite a slow start, where seven-year-old versions converse at length about drawing pictures for one another and other childhood sundries, Gurney’s tale, ultimately, becomes moving as the letters’ simplicity convey the humor and tragedy of life in a compact 90 minutes.

While such a scaled-down concept allows for poignant sentimentality, it offers little context. While, the play touches on serious issues like sexual abuse and fractured families, it does so without ever delving deeply into these situations—allowing time between confessions to flash forward without much commentary from the other party. Even when Melissa tells Andy she’s going to see her father with his new family in California and he prods her persistently, “Write me about California. How’s your second family?,” she only eventually replies that she doesn’t have any such thing. This happens often: a character reveals some horror without any follow-up.

It is not the clich├ęd story that grabs the audience here—where the man becomes a senator with the perfect wife, who works part-time sales in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s gift shop, and three strapping sons and the free-spirited Melissa travels the world but ends up depressed, divorced and spending $155 a day drying out in rehab—rather the reassuring idea that even unfulfilled promise can elevate the importance of human existence.

Gurney’s play initially opened at New York’s Promenade Theater in 1989 and has become a regular staple of regional theater since, probably because it is easily mounted and allows actors a platform that requires no dancing, accents or pages of memorization. In this version, Alda often relies on his script, and goes for handfuls of minutes without making eye contact with the audience. Still, he imbues Andy with the proper New England remoteness and pomposity that hints of an underlining sensitivity of a more thoughtful man. Bergin is the opposite; she animates Gurney’s words with eye rolls, grimaces and gesticulations. Sometimes, all the activity feels over-the-top but she makes Melissa likable and fun, even as the character’s life darkens.  It’s nice to see Bergen back on Broadway in a bigger role than in her last venture as another suffering wife in Gore Vidal’s The Best Man.

Alda and Bergen appear in Love Letters until December 18th. Stacy Keach and Diana Rigg star in the show from December 19th-January 9 and Anjelica Huston and Martin Sheen from January 10-February 15.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

The Real Thing

Many people consider The Real Thing to be Tom Stoppard's most accessible play, and I suppose that's true--but at what cost? Instead of Stoppard's usual verbal and mental fireworks, and frequently big heart, we get a bunch of whiny, unlikable people who couple and uncouple and talk and talk and talk. The biggest talker bears more than a passing resemblance to Stoppard himself: playwright, discerning, exact, witty, etc. However, Stoppard is no kinder to his stand-in than he is to the other characters. All of them are painfully self-involved and deeply annoying. It might be more possible to sympathize/empathize with these people if we saw more of their good sides (assuming they have them), or even if their bad sides were more interesting (see George and Martha, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf).

The current Roundable production--directed by Sam Gold and starring Ewan MacGregor, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Josh Hamilton, and Cynthia Nixon--does the show no favors. The performances range from competent to wooden, and none of the four manages to truly inhabit his/her character. (Then again, why would any of them want to?) The last production, with Jennifer Ehle and Stephen Dillane, was better, but the play still came across as thin. Eloquent, of course, but thin.

I will match my love of Stoppard's work (see reviews here and here) to anyone's, but the popularity of The Real Thing  baffles me.

(full-priced ticket; last row balcony)

Friday, November 14, 2014

Indian Ink

The show is by Tom Stoppard. It takes place in two time periods. In the more recent period, a scholar is trying, with mixed success, to understand what happened in the earlier one. The play's themes include memory, love, class, and social mores.
Rosemary Harris, Romola Garai, Bhavesh Patel
Photo: Joan Marcus

No, this is not Stoppard's magnificent Arcadia. It is instead his not-quite-as-magnificent but-still-amazing Indian Ink. 

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

A Delicate Balance

photo: Brigette Lacombe
A classic boulevard comedy is back on Broadway. The side-splitting laughter that rings through the auditorium is fairly deafening. No, I’m not talking about the acclaimed revival of Kaufman and Hart’s You Can’t Take It With You, which I reviewed a few weeks back. Nor am I discussing Terrence McNally’s It’s Only a Play, which is minting money over at the Schoenfeld Theatre thanks to its starry cast. And no one has snuck a Neil Simon favorite into the season’s line-up. The play in question is Edward Albee’s A Delicate Balance, and it’s a scream.

Apparently, A Delicate Balance is uproariously funny. A real knee-slapping laugh riot. At least, that’s the impression being given by the current, woefully misguided revival of this Pulitzer-Prize winning masterpiece, which is several weeks into previews at the John Golden Theatre. Directed by the usually reliable Pam MacKinnon and featuring an ensemble cast with boldface names to spare, this production projects a tone-deaf unsteadiness from the moment the curtain rises.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Sticks and Bones

photo: Monique Carboni
 
I wasn't around forty-three years ago, when David Rabe's Sticks and Bones premiered at Joseph Papp's Public Theater, the second work in his trio of plays about Vietnam (the other two being The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel and Streamers). It quickly moved to Broadway, where it earned the Tony for Best Play of 1972 over a boulevard comedy by the then-almighty Neil Simon. It ran six months and was adapted into a TV movie for CBS, a controversial move that resulted in over half of the country's affiliates refusing to air the film. No, I wasn't around when this play premiered, but I can imagine the impact it had, because the first New York revival (being presented by The New Group at the Signature Theatre complex on West 42nd Street) stick packs one hell of a wallop.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Bedbugs! It's a Musical

Rex Bonomell
Every stage musical is a reflection of its place, time, and culture, and this is no less true for Bedbugs! It's a Musical than it is for something comparatively celebrated or canonized--say South Pacific, Hair, or In the Heights. If I wanted to give you an extensive reading on the sociocultural subtext of Bedbugs!, for example, I could start with the obvious: the collective fear of those dreadful, elusive, blood-sucking little beasties. But then, I could easily move on to discuss the show's reflection of contemporary environmental concerns, the ramifications of celebrity and power, the search for love and sexual fulfillment in an increasingly technology-driven world, and, finally, national anxiety over the potential for terrorist attacks in post-millennial America.

But fuck all that. I'm convinced that the creators of Bedbugs!--bless them, every one--don't want you to focus on anything too deep or upsetting while you're at the show. I'm going to go even further and guess that they want you, instead, to have a great time watching an appealing group of very committed actors perform a show about how a dedicated (if slightly batty) scientist (Grace McLean), her long-suffering sidekick, Burt (Nicholas Park), and the fallen megastar Dionne Salon (Brian Charles Rooney) bond together to save present-day New York City from a scourge of human-sized mutant bedbugs, which is being led by a hunky, preening bedbug king, Cimex (Chris Hall; picture what Cheyenne Jackson and Tim Curry's love child might look like in glitter makeup and an enormous, tentacled headpiece and you've arrived.). 

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Arcadia

I'm sad to say that the Yale Rep production of Arcadia closed yesterday. It's one thing for me to suggest that you take a train up there to see it and another to suggest a time machine. But if you do happen to have a time machine...

Tom Pecinka, Rebekah Brockman
Photo: Joan Marcus

The Yale Rep production of Arcadia was lovely. Smoothly and clearly directed by James Bundy, this production of Tom Stoppard's most wonderful play honors and underlines its perfect balance of brain, heart, and genitals. The two story lines are gracefully intertwined: one, about Thomasina Coverly, a young math genius in the 18th century, and the messy lives of the people around her; the other, about 20th-century scholars trying to understand what happened during the time period depicted in the first.

[spoilers]
Thomasina is my favorite Stoppard character. Her innocence and brilliance, her straightforward way of seeing the world, her development from girl to woman are deeply real. That you know that she will not live past the time period shown in the play is devastating. One measure of the strength of this particular production is that I had tears in my eyes for most of the 2nd act. It was my 6th production of Arcadia, yet the emotions were as deep as the first time.

Friday, October 24, 2014

The Real Thing

photo: Joan Marcus
 
The Real Thing, Tom Stoppard’s popular romantic comedy (if it can be called that), is back on Broadway in a starry revival from the Roundabout Theatre Company. This is Roundabout’s second Stoppard offering this season; their Off-Broadway space is currently housing the first major New York staging of his 1995 play Indian Ink. Regular readers of this blog will remember that I favorably reviewed that production last month. Unfortunately, despite a strong central performance from Ewan McGregor, in his American stage debut, this outing is far less successful.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time

Brinkhoff/Moegenburg
Have you ever seen Change of Habit (1969), the last movie Elvis Presley had a starring role in? Presley plays a doctor who works at a clinic. . . "In the Ghetto". Mary Tyler Moore co-stars as an undercover nun (seriously) who assists him in the clinic and, soon enough, agonizes over whether she should throw Jesus over for him. It's as horribly, brilliantly, gloriously awful as it sounds, and if you haven't seen it, you should, especially if you are drunk, high or (ideally) both. A subplot involves a young, autistic patient at the clinic. "She's hiding behind a wall of anger," Elvis knowingly tells Mary when they first examine her. Elvis and Mary eventually load up on coffee--and gumption!--and let the patient rage and scream and flail and cry for, like, a full day without a break. Lo and behold, at the end of the day, she's exhausted, but magically cured of autism, and Elvis and Mary happily go back to making moony eyes at one another while attending to other slum-dwellers.

Change of Habit popped into my head at some point during The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, not because the latter is even remotely awful, but because I wondered if, someday, The Curious Incident would seem as quaintly ridiculous and outdated as Habit is when it comes to its depiction of neurodevelopmental disability. I certainly hope so, not only because medical advances are a good thing, but also because I have a son on the autism spectrum, and I admit feeling frequently frustrated by how little anyone really knows about the disorder. During positive moments, though, I like to remind myself that, at the very least, we've left Elvis in the dark ages. As far as autism goes, we no longer resort to dumb, simplistic assessments involving real or metaphorical walls of anger. As we work toward answers, simplistic black-and-white dichotomies have given way to a lot more gray. There's something comforting in the gray. It's what we have right now. That's something.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Lips Together, Teeth Apart

photo: Joan Marcus
 
Terrence McNally’s Lips Together, Teeth Apart was written at the height of the AIDS epidemic, and premiered Off-Broadway in 1991. The original production—which starred Nathan Lane, Swoosie Kurtz, Christine Baranski, and Anthony Heald—was an instant smash, running for over a year; an LA production, with Lane, Andrea Martin, and John Glover, was also very successful. The work of a gay author who would go on to write several plays about AIDS from a gay perspective, Lips Together is unique—both then and now—for portraying the experience of a disease so often linked with the gay community through a heterosexual lens. Some might even call the play a precursor to McNally’s enormously successful, similarly-themed Love! Valour! Compassion!.

Lips Together was set to make its Broadway debut in 2010, via the Roundabout Theatre Company, but that production was derailed just weeks before it was set to begin previews when its star, Megan Mullally, abruptly quit. (Rumors at the time swirled that Mullally had tried to get her co-star Patton Oswalt fired, in order to replace him with her husband, Nick Offerman). The piece is now receiving its first New York revival under the auspices of the Off-Broadway Second Stage Theatre. As with any once-current play that has aged into a period piece, there are more than a few creaky moments. And while this production is smoothly directed (by Peter DuBois) and features at least one stand-out performance, it does not make a convincing case for the play as an enduring masterpiece.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

The Oldest Boy


photo: T. Charles Erickson
Tenzin is three years old. He lives in what is described as "an American city with a large Tibetan community." His Mother (Celia Keenan-Bolger) is a white American academic, whose literary specialty is the use of religious symbolism in the works of atheist authors. His Father (James Yaegashi) is a Buddhist exile who owns a Tibetan restaurants. In all respects, Tenzin appears to be a normal toddler. That is, until the day two monks arrive at the family's house and inform his parents that they believe him to be the reincarnation of a venerated Lama.

Sarah Ruhl's The Oldest Boy, currently in previews at Lincoln Center's Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater, looks at issues of faith, family, and sacrifice through cultural and religious lenses. The characters, particularly Mother and Father (with the exception of Tenzin--the title character--no other figures are given names), are forced to question the duties they owe to their past, their future, and their culture. When the monks ask permission to take Tenzin to India to be "enthroned,"
and educated so that he may achieve his full potential within the Buddhist tradition, the American notions of childhood and family are placed in contrast with the Tibetan monastic custom. The family must decide whether to keep their son at home, in America, or sacrifice his life for the well-being of a country he will likely never see.