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.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

You Can't Take It With You

Sara Krulwich
You Can't Take It With You, currently running in star-studded revival at the Longacre, has been reviewed twice already on this blog. Wendy really enjoyed it (you can read her review here); Cameron really didn't (you can read his review here). I'd place my take on the production somewhere in-between theirs, though maybe a little closer to the Wendy side of things (sorry, Cameron): I enjoyed myself, in large part because I found the current Broadway production to be lively and well-performed and quite funny. But also, I dug the nostalgia trip: I played Penelope Sycamore in the Central Catholic High School of Pittsburgh's 1983 fall production, and seeing the show (with a friend who played Alice in a Denver high school production a few years later) brought back fond, if surprisingly fleeting, memories. Was the revival the best thing I've ever seen on Broadway, or even at the Longacre? No. Was it the worst? No. Did it seem like the all-star cast was having as much fun as I remember having when I was in the play? You betcha.

You'll likely have lots of fun, too, if you go to see it. Then again, the world probably won't end if you don't, and You Can't Take It With You is all about doing what you feel like doing, so you can decide and I won't judge you either way. That's about all I have to say about this particular production. I'd rather talk here, instead, about You Can't Take It With You from a more socio-historical perspective. Again, honest, I won't judge you if you stop reading right now.

Thursday, October 09, 2014

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time

Photo: Brinkhoff/Moegenburg

The only aspect of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time about which I am curious is what the appeal of this show is to so many people. Adapted by Simon Stephens from Mark Haddon’s prize-winning novel and transported from London, where it won seven Olivier Awards and continues to do brisk business, the current Broadway production opened over the weekend to rapturous reviews. (Example: Marilyn Stasio of Variety implores us to “believe the buzz” and describes it as “spectacular, like Cirque du Soleil for the brain.” Okay.) The box office numbers are through the roof, and major award nominations are a foregone conclusion. Then why did virtually every aspect of this endeavor leave me so cold?

Monday, October 06, 2014

Disgraced

photo: Joan Marcus
 
Disgraced, Ayad Ahktar’s Pulitzer-winning powder keg of a play, is finally making its Main Stem debut. Produced once again by Lincoln Center, it has arrived at Broadway’s Lyceum Theatre without losing a smidge of its volcanic force. Smoothly directed by Kimberly Senior (who helmed the previous Off-Broadway production two seasons ago) and performed by a peerless cast, this is easily the most thought-provoking, entertaining, and frankly, chilling piece of theatre currently in New York.

Sunday, October 05, 2014

Rock Bottom

Bridget Everett, creator and performer of Rock Bottom, has been described as challenging, gutsy, provocative, hard-rocking, raunchy, and raucous, and those adjectives don't even begin to describe her in-your-face persona. With songs like "Tell Me (Does This Dick Make My Ass Look Big)" and "Eat It," she holds no punches in her depiction of aggressive sexuality and human foibles. Much of her material sounds like it is out of a drag queen's show; the rest takes feminism to places it hasn't been before. Her language is, uh, straightforward. The only word she uses more than cunt is pussy, and the only word she uses more than pussy is dick. If her sort of work is your cup of tea, you'll have a great time. She's very good at what she does.
Photo: Kevin Yatarola

If, however, you're like me, you'll find the show long, boring, obnoxious, and unpleasant.

Since Rock Bottom is so much a matter of taste, there's not a lot for me to add in terms of a review. However, I do want to discuss the concept of "consenting adults" in theatre.

In the course of Rock Bottom, Everett has much to say against rape and molestation, and how they are the perpetrators' responsibility and not the victims'. Her song, "Put Your Dick Away," makes its points in vivid language. I admire her for taking on this important topic in a cabaret act. But...

The Last Ship

On one hand, The Last Ship, music and lyrics by Sting, book by John Logan and Brian Yorkey, has already had a run in Chicago and should be in pretty good shape. On the other hand, it doesn't open for a few more weeks, and the show might still change. So take these comments with a larger grain of salt than usual.
The story is basic. A young Englishman doesn't want to do the difficult and dangerous manual labor--in this case, building ships--done by his father and the other men in his town. So he leaves. He promises his girlfriend he will return or send for her. Many years pass. The ship-building industry moves from Northeast England to Asia. The now-idle men feel angry and ashamed. They decide to become strippers. Oh, wait, wrong show. They decide to build one more ship. Their foul-mouthed priest helps them. 

Saturday, October 04, 2014

Lady Parts by Andrea Martin

It should come as no surprise that Lady Parts, the recently released memoir from Broadway favorite Andrea Martin, is often hysterically funny. Along with Martin Short, Catherine O’Hara, and John Candy, among others, Martin is one of the original SCTV cast members, memorable for creating Edith Prickley and impersonating everyone from Indira Gandhi to Liza Minnelli. She has two Tonys on her mantel, winning her most recent one for last year’s gravity-defying turn as Berthe in Pippin (a role she’s currently recreating, for a short time, on the national tour). On screen, she’s known for scene-stealing turns in films like My Big Fat Greek Wedding and Hedwig and the Angry Inch. Yes, Martin’s comedy credits are legit.

Bootycandy

By intermission, I found Bootycandy to be an entertaining, occasionally insightful, and random collection of skits. By the end of the play, I realized that Bootycandy is a smart, brave, wily, and important exploration of race, sexuality, and humanity, and an entertaining, very insightful, not-so-random collection of skits.

Phillip James Brannon, Jessica Frances Dukes,
Benja Kay Thomas, Lance Coadie Williams
Photo: Joan Marcus

Written and directed by the impressive Robert O'Hara, Bootycandy mainly presents scenes from the life of Sutter, a gay African-American. There are also scenes without Sutter. One of them, a rather extraordinary sermon, is clearly part of Sutter's story. Another, an almost mugging, seems out of left field, but turns out to be a set-up for a later scene. Together, they add up to an amazingly complex whole that depicts and often satirizes black culture, white culture, theatre culture, black homophobia, white homophobia, human stupidity, and the ways that difficult childhoods can warp people's souls.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Next to Normal

Next to Normal is a superb musical. Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey's depiction of a woman derailed by mental illness and loss, and of the people around her, mixes compassion, humor, insight, and a wonderful score to explore the deepest parts of human lives. It's a staggering achievement in many ways. (The plot is discussed in mega-spoiler detail below.)

Benjamin Sheff, Carman Napier
Photo: Bella Muccari
The Gallery Players' production of Next to Normal (running through October 5) is an honorable, straightforward, and frequently successful attempt to grapple with this challenging show. Next to Normal needs, first and foremost, a top-notch actress and singer to play Diana, the lead character, as she struggles with bipolar disorder, disappointment, and grief. Carman Napier is up to the challenge. Her performance is smart and subtle; her singing is excellent and her enunciation is clear; and she looks and feels right in the part. She's too young, but she's so good that it doesn't matter.

Next to Normal also needs to be technically successful; the sound, in particular, is quite important. In this aspect, unfortunately, the production fails. At best, the balance between music and performer is barely okay; at worst, it is terrible. The night I saw the show, Lindsay Bayer, as Natalie, was frequently inaudible, through no fault of her own. It wasn't clear if her mike was broken or the sound cues were off, but her performance was lost. As was much else.