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Illuminating a Blank Page: ‘Sunday in the Park with George’

February 24th, 2017 Comments off
The cast of 'Sunday in the Park with George.' (Photo: Matthew Murphy via The Broadway Blog.)

The cast of ‘Sunday in the Park with George.’ (Photo: Matthew Murphy via The Broadway Blog.)

“White. A blank page or canvas. The challenge: bring order to the whole.”

These words embody the gauntlet thrown down before generations of artists. The opening line of Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s musical, Sunday in the Park with George, resonates deeply in the Broadway revival that christens the historic re-opening of the Hudson Theatre.

Starring Jake Gyllenhaal as George (both in Act One’s late 19th century setting and as George’s namesake great-grandson in Act Two, set in an American art museum in 1984) and Annaleigh Ashford as his muse Dot, and later, as George’s maternal grandmother, Marie, Sunday in the Park with George remains one of writing team’s most iconic works. More than 30 years since it debuted at Playwrights Horizons and countless productions worldwide, the musical strikes a resonating chord—both in terms of its exploration of the creative (and often obsessive) process of making art, as well as the personal relationships that can crumble in its wake.

Jake Gyllenhaal and Annaleigh Ashford in 'Sunday in the Park with George.' (Photo: Matthew Murphy via The Broadway Blog.)

Jake Gyllenhaal and Annaleigh Ashford in ‘Sunday in the Park with George.’ (Photo: Matthew Murphy via The Broadway Blog.)

Inspired by George Seurat’s painting, “A Sunday on La Grande Jatte,” Sondheim used the artist’s technique, later named Pointillism, as a musical springboard to create the score. It is filled with staccato punctuations (further accentuated by Gyllenhaal’s delivery) and contrasting lush melodies, which encapsulates the sum on the parts. Michael Starobin’s orchestrations and music direction by Chris Fenwick beautifully capture Sondheim’s work as delivered by a stellar cast of Broadway veterans.

Seurat died at the age of 31 and, at least according to the script, never sold a painting in his lifetime. The tragedy of his artistic tenacity and a world not quite ready to accept his creative gifts is the stuff that great musicals are forged from and it’s no surprise that Sunday in the Park with George won the 1985 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Director Sarna Lapine mines the material for its wealth of treasures, shedding new light and nuance.

There is a purposefully broken current of electricity between George and Dot, interrupted by his nearly manic artistic pursuits. Gyllenhaal leans heavily into this neurosis, but unlike so many film actors that have stumbled onstage before him, he embodies George’s physical precision all the way through the tip of his imaginary paintbrush. Ashford approaches Dot with flirty mischief. Beautiful as she is, she is able to convince us that she’s less than society’s norms, uneducated and increasingly curvy as she carries George’s bastard child. A Tony Award winner for You Can’t Take it With You and nominee for Kinky Boots, Ashford is adept at interpreting lyrics and Sondheim gives her a full sandbox to play in. Gyllenhaal, too, is not afraid to approach the score with riveting intensity.

Jake Gyllenhaal in 'Sunday in the Park with George.' (Photo: Matthew Murphy via The Broadway Blog.)

Jake Gyllenhaal in ‘Sunday in the Park with George.’ (Photo: Matthew Murphy via The Broadway Blog.)

Casting directors Carrie Gardner and Stephen Kopel have assembled a top-notch ensemble to support Gyllenhaal and Ashford, including Penny Fuller as George’s mother (Old Lady) in Act One and Blair, an art critic, in Act 2; and Robert Sean Leonard as Jules, a successful artist in Act One, and Bob Greenberg, a museum director in Act 2. Other recognizable faces include Ruthie Ann Miles (The King and I, Here Lies Love), Brooks Ashmanskas (Bullets Over Broadway) and Jenni Barber (Wicked, Annie).

Act 2, which has often been problematic in past productions, jumps to 1984, where George (Dot’s great-grandson) is struggling with creative blocks after years of success with a series of Chromolume art installations (one of which is brilliantly conceived by lighting designer Ken Billington for a show-stopping moment). Ashford, now in a wheelchair as the aging Marie, captivates with a Charleston drawl that imbues her reflective “Children and Art” with a bluesy, languid warmth that will bring tears to your eyes.

This production of Sunday in the Park with George found footing last year as part of New York City Center’s Encores! series. Its physical presence still feels lean, with a simple set by Beowulf Boritt and projections designed by Tal Yarden. Costume designer Clint Ramos opts for a plain Pantone palette and one wishes Seurat himself could have gotten his hands on the designs to offer as much depth as the production warrants.

For anyone that has questioned the value of his or her creative expression, Sunday in the Park with George will hit a raw nerve. Like Seurat’s masterful paintings, the musical’s beauty is in its ever-changing perspective. “Order. Design. Tension. Balance. Harmony,” says George before the show’s resounding end. On the page, these words appear so simple. But it takes masters like Sondheim and Lapine to bring them to life.

Sunday in the Park with George
Hudson Theatre
139-141 West 44th Street, NYC
Through April 23

Matthew Wexler is The Broadway Blog’s editor. Follow him on social media at @roodeloo.

Hooked: ‘Fish Men’ at INTAR Theatre

February 22nd, 2017 Comments off

By Ryan Leeds

Jose Joaquin Perez in 'Fish Men.' (Photo: Carol Rosegg via The Broadway Blog.)

Jose Joaquin Perez in ‘Fish Men.’ (Photo: Carol Rosegg via The Broadway Blog.)

Near the end of playwright Cándido Tirado’s well-crafted play Fish Men, one of his characters looks offstage, reflecting on the events that have just occurred. “People are stories,” says Ninety-Two. (Ed Setrakian) “You see them walking down the street, but you’d never know what events have affected their lives.” Indeed, every person in this rich character study is woven together by a painful tapestry of his or her individual pasts, but the results make for a thoughtful and compelling night of theater.

Fish Men, produced by the INTAR Theatre, takes place in New York’s Washington Square park where Cash (Shawn Randall), an over-confident chess hustler is working the cemented outdoor chess boards with John (Gardiner Comfort), his religious, but not terribly bright Russian sidekick. The pair hold court while Jerome (David Anzuelo), an outspoken Native American and passive chess player, and “Ninety-Two” (whose real name we later learn is Adam Kirchbaum) observe the pair and offer disapproving remarks on the way they take advantage of less experienced players.

Gardiner Comfort, Jose Joaquin Perez, Ed Setrakian, and Shawn Randall in 'Fish Men.' (Photo: Carol Rosegg via The Broadway Blog.)

Gardiner Comfort, Jose Joaquin Perez, Ed Setrakian, and Shawn Randall in ‘Fish Men.’ (Photo: Carol Rosegg via The Broadway Blog.)

Cash isn’t particularly fond of being labeled a hustler, preferring instead to don the moniker “Chess professor.” Cash claims “it’s easier to get a doctorate than it is to become a chess grandmaster” and only “plays for money to make things interesting.” He is certainly not wrong on that account. The events become interesting and at times, grave, when a seemingly nerdy player, Rey (Jose Joaquin Perez) walks into their path and plays the game. Once a hustler himself, Rey is there to exact revenge on the pair. A day earlier, Cash and John took his Uncle Bernie for a ride and Rey is hell-bent on getting even.

The burden of revenge is heavy and carried throughout the drama. As layers are peeled, we are made aware of vulnerabilities and resentments that lie under the surface of Tirado’s men.

Rey and Ninety-Two find common ground in being survivors of genocide. For Ninety-Two, it was the Holocaust. Rey, on the other hand, is a survivor of the “forgotten” Guatemalan civil war, which saw the murder of thousands of Mayan people at the hands of government officials. The survivor’s club, as Ninety-Two points out is “Not the best club to be a member of. No application process. Someone else must make you a member against your will.” Still, the elder gentleman has discovered coping mechanisms. The younger Rey is still blood red with anger. Jerome is also a survivor. As a Native American, he laments our country’s history of 18 million exterminations of his ancestors and the differences that divide us.

Shawn Randall and Ed Setrakian in 'Fish Men.' (Photo: Carol Rosegg via The Broadway Blog.)

Shawn Randall and Ed Setrakian in ‘Fish Men.’ (Photo: Carol Rosegg via The Broadway Blog.)

Tirado could easily have turned this into another drama that assuages the guilt of liberal America by teaching and preaching to the choir, but he wisely masks it with natural and often funny dialogue. There is also intensity, particularly in Act II, which moves the story forward like a slick cat and mouse game.

Director Lou Moreno has given his actors plenty of leeway to explore their characters, but still keeps the stakes high and the action laser focused. Raul Abrego’s set, an intimate park re-creation, works perfectly in the cozy theater, as does lighting designer Christopher Cancel-Pomales effective saturations.

At times, the delivery of dialogue could be tighter and occasionally, some lines are difficult to hear. It’s safe to assume however that this accomplished cast will settle into the play as the run progresses. And the title? I must confess that I recoiled when I first read it. Given the prevalent references throughout, however, it makes perfect sense. Tirado’s work, which premiered at Chicago’s Goodman Theater (in collaboration with Teatro Vista), makes a most welcome and moving splash Off-Broadway.

Fish Men
INTAR Theatre
500 W. 52nd Street, 4th floor
Through March 18

Ryan Leeds is a freelance theater journalist who lives in Manhattan. He is the Chief Theater Critic for Manhattan Digest and a frequent contributor to Dramatics Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @Ry_Runner or on Facebook.

 

 

 

 

But What Are They Saying? ‘Evening at the Talk House’

February 19th, 2017 Comments off

by Ryan Leeds

The cast of 'Evening at The Talk House.' (Photo: Monique Carboni via The Broadway Blog.)

The cast of ‘Evening at The Talk House.’ (Photo: Monique Carboni via The Broadway Blog.)

Have you ever been caught at a cocktail party with someone who prattles on about people and events and in the middle you think to yourself, “Where are they going with this and what are they even talking about?” The chatty speaker continues the garrulous conversation and assumes that you know exactly who he/she is referencing, but in all honesty, you haven’t a clue. Eventually, you lock into a detached, hypnotic glaze of apathy. Then, your mind drifts to the hors d’oeuvres and as you glance down at your empty glass, you silently pray for the proper moment when you can politely excuse yourself for snacks and a refill.

This is primarily the same response I had at various points throughout playwright and actor Wallace Shawn’s play Evening at the Talk House, the starry Off Broadway offering from The New Group and director Scott Elliott.

Shawn’s blurry examination on the state of theater and morality takes place in what Robert (Matthew Broderick) describes as “the almost-legendary, wonderfully quiet and genteel club, known far and wide at one time for its delicious and generously-sized snacks, some of them pleasantly sautéed, some delightfully freezing cold, all rather charming and unexpected.” The inordinate description could economically be summarized as “an old hangout with good food.” This is just one example of Shawn’s excessive musings, spoken near the top of the show during Robert’s 9-page opening monologue.

Robert and his former colleagues have gathered at The Talk House for a reunion. Ten years prior, Robert wrote “the not-terribly-successful theatrical masterpiece Midnight in a Clearing with Moon and Stars.” Now, they have all come back to their cherished haunt to discuss the show, their pasts, and their socio-political differences. Nellie (Jill Eikenberry) is the warm and caring manager at the now out of fashion club, while Jane (Annapurna Sriram), a once promising actress who starred in Robert’s play, waits tables there. Annette (Claudia Shear) served as the show’s wardrobe supervisor and is currently a freelance tailor. Bill (Michael Tucker) produced the play and has gone on to become a talent agent. Tom (Larry Pine) is Robert’s golden boy who starred in his play and is now a huge television star. The venue location was chosen by Ted (John Epperson), a man whose life led him to compose advertising music. Ted provided the music for Midnight and throughout Evening at the Talk House and lends his beautiful piano skills in a few reflective moments of song. Epperson, who was once the rehearsal pianist for the American Ballet Theater and created the popular female impersonation persona Lypsinka, creates an appropriately reflective and sweet, understated performance.

Matthew Broderick and Annapurna Sriram in 'Evening at The Talk House.' (Photo: Monique Carboni via The Broadway Blog.)

Matthew Broderick and Annapurna Sriram in ‘Evening at The Talk House.’ (Photo: Monique Carboni via The Broadway Blog.)

As patrons enter the theater for Evening at the Talk House, the talented cast is already onstage, mingling with one another and the audience. As we took our seats, my friend leaned over and asked, “Is Wallace Shawn wearing pajamas?” Indeed he was. Shortly thereafter, we learned why from Robert. Shawn’s character, Dick, was once a well-known actor, appearing in Midnight and the hit television series Carlos and Jenny but has become a washed-up, overweight, alcoholic whom people have discounted and/or disposed. Dick has taken up temporary residency in a room above the Talk House and stumbles into the soiree wearing a battered sport coat and loungewear. It becomes clear that the working relationship between Robert and Dick was always strained and neither is particularly thrilled to be in each other’s company.

As the night unfolds, comments are made regarding the lack of plays that are now being produced, the support that is waning for them and a general longing for the way things used to be. In Shawn’s typical writing style, he later drifts into absurdist territory as his characters pose philosophical questions on who should live and who should die. Annette reveals that she earns extra money “targeting,” a practice where lists are reviewed and she “selects the individuals who need to be killed.” Jane is also involved in the practice.

It’s no huge revelation that Shawn would offer commentary on the topic of human extermination. Given his participation in the controversial Jewish Voice for Peace and his pro-Palestinian support, he poses a crucial question about who should decide the value of human life. To that end, I tip my hat. All too often, liberal voices who espouse compassion and love, opt to silence opposition. I applaud his bold choice to portray both sides of the issue. Still, it’s not clear what he is trying to convey: Is Evening at the Talk House about the death of theater or debating the deaths of individuals? In order to make an impact, it should be one or the other and much of the extraneous chatter should be trimmed. As it stands, this is one evening that is still trying to talk its way toward an intellectual bullseye.

Evening at the Talk House
Pershing Square Signature Center
480 West 42nd Street, NYC
Through March 12

Ryan Leeds is a freelance theatre journalist who lives in Manhattan. He is the Chief Theater Critic for Manhattan Digest and a frequent contributor to Dramatics Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @Ry_Runner or on Facebook.

 

 

 

Giving Face: Glenn Close’s Return to Broadway in ‘Sunset Boulevard’

February 17th, 2017 Comments off

by Samuel L. Leiter

Glenn Close in 'Sunset Boulevard.' (Photo: Joan Marcus via The Broadway Blog.)

Glenn Close in ‘Sunset Boulevard.’ (Photo: Joan Marcus via The Broadway Blog.)

Talk about star power! No, I’m not referring to Glenn Close, the estimable star of Sunset Boulevard, now in glittery revival at the Palace Theatre. I mean Hillary Clinton, who, the night I attended, brought the house to a roaring, cameras-out, standing ovation as she took her seat just before the show began. Close, despite a fine, if overripe, performance, had to compete with her audience’s divided attention all night.

Partly, this is because the musical adaptation of Sunset Boulevard, based on the classic 1950 Billy Wilder film, is, while generally entertaining, simply not that great. It was first produced with Patti LuPone as Norma Desmond in London in 1993, with Glenn Close (who won the Tony) starring in the 1994 Broadway version (which, despite a nearly two and a half year run, lost a fortune). The current version arrives after premiering at London’s English National Opera, its leads intact.

With book and lyrics by Don Black and Christopher Hampton (much of the ordinary dialogue is sung as even more ordinary recitative) and score by Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber, the show closely follows the movie’s plot and includes many of its familiar lines. Apart from two aria-like songs displaying Webber at his most lushly melodic and theatrically emotional—“As If We Never Said Goodbye” and “With One Look”—the well-performed score is not particularly memorable. Fortunately, a huge, 40-piece orchestra led by Kirsten Blodgette (one of Broadway’s largest ever we’re told) makes even the more mediocre numbers sound their best.

Michael Xavier and the cast of 'Sunset Boulevard.' (Photo: Joan Marcus via The Broadway Blog.)

Michael Xavier and the cast of ‘Sunset Boulevard.’ (Photo: Joan Marcus via The Broadway Blog.)

Sunset Boulevard, as any film buff knows, tells of onetime, silent screen goddess Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson on screen), 50, her fame a memory, living in the decaying splendor of a Sunset Boulevard mansion with her faithful, bullet-headed, immaculately groomed butler and first husband, Max Mayerling (Fred Johanson; Erich von Stroheim on screen), the former director who made Norma famous.

There the deluded, reclusive, garishly dressed and heavily made-up former star—her fantasies maintained by the ever-looming Max—dreams of her comeback in a spectacular film she’s written about Salomé in which she hopes to star at Paramount under the direction of Cecil B. DeMille (Paul Schoeffler; DeMille himself on screen). When a handsome, flat-broke screenwriter, Joe Gillis (Michael Xavier; William Holden on screen), shows up, desperate for work, she asks for his help on what he recognizes as her awful screenplay. Joe’s status as Norma’s kept man coupled with a budding romance with script reader Betty Schaeffer (Siobhan Dillon) leads to tragic results.

Glenn Close in 'Sunset Boulevard.' (Photo: Joan Marcus via The Broadway Blog.)

Glenn Close in ‘Sunset Boulevard.’ (Photo: Joan Marcus via The Broadway Blog.)

At the end, the now insane, wild-eyed Norma—garbed outlandishly as a 1920s movie version of Salomé—mistakes the cops and reporters for studio employees as she descends a staircase to deliver her devastating tagline, “And now, Mr. DeMille, I’m ready for my close-up.”

Director Lonny Price’s revival has eliminated much of the fabled grandiosity of the overproduced first production, opting for a more simplified approach within James Noone’s elaborate framework of metal staircases and catwalks, dominated by a remarkable chandelier suggesting a series of drooping teardrops, one above the other.

Supplemented by the brilliant lighting of Mark Henderson, the excellent period costumes of Tracy Christensen (with Anthony Powell doing Close’s strikingly over-the-top ensembles), b/w videos (uncredited) of 1940s Hollywood, and lively choreography by Stephen Mear, this Sunset Boulevard remains visually sumptuous. And let’s not forget the dead-body-in-the-pool effect that opens and closes the show.

For all its exaggerations and Swanson’s larger-than-life performance, Wilder’s film was a darkly cynical, noirish satire on the fickleness of fame and the ruthlessness behind Hollywood’s glamorous exterior. Except for rare moments, Price’s staging, in a fatal mistake, fails to capture the darkness, being surprisingly upbeat, paced at machine-gun speed, and with only scattered moments of the needed gothic anxiety demanded by the story.

Xavier’s Joe, tall and hunky (body worshipers will appreciate his swimsuit scene), comes off more like a James Stewart-like boy-next-door than a down-on-his-luck skeptic. Johansen’s Max, physically imposing with a gifted baritone voice, is too overbearing and lacks the necessary subtle menace. Dillon plays Betty, the formulaic ingénue, according to formula.

Close, nearly 70 but playing 50, inspires thoughts regarding similarities between herself and Norma. Her pitchy singing voice is not Broadway’s best, but her acting is strong enough, even within the deliberately broad, almost grotesque, theatricality she adopts (even Swanson’s own campiness doesn’t compare) to jerk tears when she launches into “With One Look.” But the emphasis on her exaggerations takes the show too far from its deeper implications.

This revival of Sunset Boulevard is smart to have pared down its visual excesses. The darkness it evokes, though, is more in its lighting than in the world it creates. Which is not so smart.

Sunset Boulevard
Palace Theatre
1564 Broadway, NYC
Through June 25

Samuel L. Leiter is Distinguished Professor Emeritus (Theater) of Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center, CUNY. He has written and/or edited 27 books on Japanese theater, New York theater, Shakespeare, and the great stage directors. For more of his reviews, visit Theatre’s Leiter Side (www.slleiter.blogspot.com).

 

 

 

 

 

 

For Whom the Bell Drolls: ‘Ring Twice for Miranda’

February 14th, 2017 Comments off

By Samuel L. Leiter

Katie Kleiger and Daniel Pearce in 'Ring Twice for Miranda.' (Photo: Russ Rowland via The Broadway Blog.)

Katie Kleiger and Daniel Pearce in ‘Ring Twice for Miranda.’ (Photo: Russ Rowland via The Broadway Blog.)

Ring Twice for Miranda’s title suggests that audiences are in for a naughty Feydeau-style bedroom farce, perhaps like the one Noël Coward adapted as Look after Lulu. And, indeed, publisher and former lawyer Alan Hruska’s labored, dystopian “tragicomedy” (as its advertising calls it) includes a cute young thing named Miranda (Katie Kleiger) wearing an abbreviated French maid’s costume. There’s also a canopied set resembling a huge bed (under which an actual bed plays a part) and a white-bearded old gent named Sir (Graeme Malcolm) in a Hugh Hefner bathrobe who rings twice for Miranda via a hanging bell pull when in need of her services.

Ring Twice for Miranda has the musty air of one of those European, allegorical, politically tinged, absurdist satires of the 1950s and 1960s—think Ionesco, Sartre, Durrenmatt, Arrabal, or Frisch—but without their wit, cogency, depth, or flair. It’s set in some unnamed urban “district” governed by the calmly tyrannical Sir from the expansive bedroom of his huge, well-stocked mansion. How much of this desiccated civilization Sir controls remains undefined; we have no idea if there are other Sirs out there as well.

George Merrick and Ian Lassiter in 'Ring Twice for Miranda.' (Photo: Russ Rowland via The Broadway Blog.)

George Merrick and Ian Lassiter in ‘Ring Twice for Miranda.’ (Photo: Russ Rowland via The Broadway Blog.)

Something indefinite has caused civilization to crumble, food and other necessities to dry up, and the starving masses to seek survival in the warm south or cold north even though no gas or food is available. Those in Sir’s employ and living in his upstairs/downstairs mansion have their needs supplied but are at the mercy of his whims, carried out by his second in command, a smarmy, power-hungry bureaucrat named Gulliver (Daniel Pearce).

Miranda’s butler friend Elliot (George Merrick), summoned with one ring, is dismissed and the altruistic Miranda—hoping to change Sir’s mind—threatens to leave with him. Although this will deprive Sir of the highly mysterious service she performs for him, he lets her go.

Outside, stranded with too much luggage near an abandoned, graffiti-covered building, Miranda and Elliot encounter the horrible circumstances they’d only heard about. A bizarre couple pulls up in a car. He’s the brash, long-haired, Cockney-accented Chester (William Connell); she’s his vain, glammed-up Egyptian girlfriend Anouk (Talia Thiesfield). They offer to give Miranda and Elliot a lift in return for directions to a gas station.

Chester and Anouk are discovered by a wrench-wielding, so-called plumber named Felix (Ian Lassiter) who works for Sir and is something of a rival to Gulliver; he recruits the couple as replacements for Elliot and Miranda. That hapless pair returns, seeking to retake their former jobs from the incompetent usurpers. And thus we finally discover what it is that Miranda does for Sir that he finds so irreplaceable. Let’s just say it defines the meaning of anticlimax.

As in his equally problematic 2015 play Laugh It Up, Stare It Down, Hruska provides an indeterminate final curtain when, as Sir rings twice, Miranda and Elliot, trapped, ponder their next move.

As the two-act play trudges along, Sir’s image as a whimsically inscrutable God controlling people as if they were puppets becomes sharper, with Gulliver as his soon-to-fall Lucifer. Perhaps Miranda and Elliot are angels hoping to retain God’s grace. There’s also the possibility that Hruska is seeking to say something (don’t ask me) about the disempowerment of the 99 percent by showing the callousness of the one percent. It’s a stretch but Sir—despite the vagueness of his motives—might be a stand-in for Donald Trump.

Apart from scattered moments, there’s precious little to keep you invested for nearly two hours. Kreigel and Lassiter bring a modicum of charm and conviction to the maid and the plumber, Malcolm is haughty yet subtly mischievous as Sir, Pearce’s slimy Gulliver is dismissive in a Sean Spicer way, Merrick fails to make anything substantial of Elliot, and Connell and Thiesfield (especially the latter) provide an object lesson in overacting.

Rick Lombardo’s direction (far better in his recent Albatross), Haddon Kime’s original music, Jason Sherwood’s sets, Ann Hould-Ward’s costumes, and Matthew Richards’s lighting, while perfectly professional, never provide the inventive magic an offbeat play like this requires. That, however, may be like seeking gas or water in Hruska’s post-apocalyptic world.

Ring Twice for Miranda
City Center Stage II
131 W. 55th St., NYC
Through April 16

Samuel L. Leiter is Distinguished Professor Emeritus (Theater) of Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center, CUNY. He has written and/or edited 27 books on Japanese theater, New York theater, Shakespeare, and the great stage directors. For more of his reviews, visit Theatre’s Leiter Side (www.slleiter.blogspot.com).

 

 

 

Fresh Kiss, Fresh Courage: ‘Yours Unfaithfully’

February 3rd, 2017 Comments off

by Samuel L. Leiter

 Max von Essen and Mikaela Izquierdo in 'Yours Unfaithfully.' (Photo: Richard Termine via The Broadway Blog.)

Max von Essen and Mikaela Izquierdo in ‘Yours Unfaithfully.’ (Photo: Richard Termine via The Broadway Blog.)

Miles Malleson (1888-1969), the British author of Yours Unfaithfully, the Mint Theater’s latest discovery of lost or forgotten plays deserving another look, was something of a Renaissance man. He made a distinctive mark as an actor, director, screenwriter, and playwright, while also being known for his then radical thinking on various social issues.

Although represented on this side of the pond as a director and actor on a small number of occasions (he staged the famous Old Vic production of The Critic starring Laurence Olivier in 1946), his plays seem never to have made it across. Yours Unfaithfully didn’t even make it to the London stage, and the Mint’s production is its well-deserved world premiere.

Max von Essen and Mikaela Izquierdo in 'Yours Unfaithfully.' (Photo: 'Richard Termine via The Broadway Blog.)

Max von Essen and Mikaela Izquierdo in ‘Yours Unfaithfully.’ (Photo: ‘Richard Termine via The Broadway Blog.)

Unfaithfully Yours, written in 1933, embodies certain autobiographical features of Malleson’s own unconventional life, marital and otherwise. It examines with intelligence and sensitivity, but few emotional fireworks, the ramifications of the once scandalous idea of open marriage, or, at least, the idea that married couples should, within reason and with mutual respect, be free to engage in extramarital canoodlings.

Two of its three acts are framed more or less in the style of a domestic high comedy, with fashionable, well-educated, highly articulate sophisticates of the cigarettes-and-cocktails class discussing serious issues much as in a discussion play by Shaw. But the laughs are few, the drinks are minimal, and the cigarettes non-existent.

Instead, the script’s appealing promise dissipates into talky artificiality, largely, I believe, because of its otherwise capable actors being out of their depth; instead of true Miles Malleson we get faux-Noël Coward. Malleson’s play should only receive another staging if it can find a cast (think anyone from Downton Abbey) that can carry off its English savoir faire and, most particularly, its accents. Here—despite one actor’s having studied at Oxford—they’re either strained, inconsistent, or invisible under director Jonathan Bank’s earnest but often uninspired direction.

Stephen (Max von Essen, too American) and Anne Meredith (Elisabeth Gray, elegant but forced) have been married for eight years; he’s a writer with controversial, advanced ideas, currently in a writing rut; the pair, who have two children (disturbingly unseen), have created a successful private school.

Stephen, with what appears to be the tacit approval of Anne, who once had her own fling and suggests the same might help spark his writing, begins an affair with Diane Streatfield (Mikaela Izquirdo, the sincerest performance); she’s a lonely widow whose husband died in a plane crash only a year earlier. A family friend, Dr. Alan Kirby (Todd Cerveris, bland), is the raisonneur to whom Stephen explains his motivations: “Fresh kiss, fresh courage.”

The plot thickens when Anne not only feels the green-eyed monster’s presence, but begins an affair of her own, with Stephen getting hoist by his own petard. This inspires director Banks’s finest contribution, when, with the expert lighting assistance of Xavier Pierce, he shows us Stephen’s sleepless night in a montage of silent moments as he waits for Anne to return to their pied à terre.

For further elucidation of the play’s moral compass, we have Stephen’s father, the Rev. Canon Gordon Meredith (Stephen Schnetzer, a late replacement), against whose socially conservative views Stephen argues for his own progressive ones.

Max von Essen and Elisabeth Gray in 'Yours Unfaithfully.' (Photo: Richard Termine via The Broadway Blog.)

Max von Essen and Elisabeth Gray in ‘Yours Unfaithfully.’ (Photo: Richard Termine via The Broadway Blog.)

The first two acts are set at the Merediths’ country home. Carolyn Mraz has designed a rather homely drawing room environment with clashing colors, ugly wallpaper, and ill-chosen paintings.

And Hunter Kaczorowski’s costumes seem an uncomfortable blend of period and not-so period; Stephen, for example, first appears in a tailored brown shirt and broad tie, with high-waisted, pale pants held up by broad suspenders, more like a zoot suiter of the 1940s than a writer-teacher of the early thirties.

But when, in Act Three, as period music chosen by sound designer Jane Shaw plays, we see the sleek Anne, in a black, floor-length sheath, against the bare walls of the pied à terre, the design elements click and, for the first time, a true 1930s impression is conveyed.

Yours Unfaithfully runs two-hours and five minutes, with two intermissions, but the first two acts could easily be joined with only a momentary break. Doing so would go a long way toward easing the tedium that gradually sets in, at least in this production whose casting is unfaithful to the play’s dramatic needs.

Yours Unfaithfully
Mint Theater at the Beckett Theater
410 W. 42nd St., NYC
Through February 18

Samuel L. Leiter is Distinguished Professor Emeritus (Theater) of Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center, CUNY. He has written and/or edited 27 books on Japanese theater, New York theater, Shakespeare, and the great stage directors. For more of his reviews, visit Theatre’s Leiter Side (www.slleiter.blogspot.com). 

Yawn: MCC Theater’s ‘Yen’

February 1st, 2017 Comments off

By Ryan Leeds

Lucas Hedges, Ari Graynor, and Justice Smith in 'Yen' at MCC Theater. (Photo by Joan Marcus via The Broadway Blog.)

Lucas Hedges, Ari Graynor, and Justice Smith in ‘Yen’ at MCC Theater. (Photo by Joan Marcus via The Broadway Blog.)

“Love is Dangerous” headlines the poster for MCC’s production of playwright Anna Jordan’s Yen. There may be truth in that statement, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that love will be interesting. Such is the case in this aimless coming of age tale, which opened last night at Off Broadway’s Lucille Lortel Theatre.

This British import makes its American premiere with a gifted cast, including this year’s Oscar nominated actor, Lucas Hedges from Manchester by the Sea. In Yen, Hedges portrays Hench, a 16-year-old who shares a ramshackle apartment with his slightly younger brother, Bobbie (Justice Smith), an ADHD sufferer. The pair has little to do in their suburban town of Feltham, a suburb just outside of London.

As the play opens, they are watching hardcore pornography and discussing the physical characteristics of their neighbor, 16-year-old Jennifer (Stefania LaVie Owen).  For the most part, Hench and Bobbie are forced to survive on their own, no thanks to their mother Maggie (Ari Graynor). Given her involvement with a man dubbed “Minge Face Alan,” she rarely comes around and when she does, it is usually for emotional or physical support. Between neglect, full-blown alcoholism and diabetes, it’s safe to assume that Maggie won’t be winning any “Mother of the Year” awards anytime soon.

Stefania LaVie Owen and Lucas Hedges in 'Yen' at MCC Theater. (Photo by Joan Marcus.)

Stefania LaVie Owen and Lucas Hedges in ‘Yen’ at MCC Theater. (Photo by Joan Marcus.)

As the play unfolds, the boys’ neighbor, Jennifer (who ultimately becomes their object of affection), appears at their door and threatens police involvement if they do not take better care of their malnourished dog, Taliban. Not long after their encounter, a complicated love triangle unfolds.

Off Broadway favorite Trip Cullman directs the play to the best of his ability but it is Herculean task given the unenlightened material he’s been handed. From the beginning of civilization, most teenagers have had bouts of rage, angst, defiance, and sadness. Jordan explores all these emotions in her deeply flawed characters. In addition, most of them lack the capability to truly connect to one other—primarily due to the fact that they simply never learned how. It is a heartbreaking occurrence, but one that has been depicted on stage multiple times.

HairRentSpring AwakeningRunaways, and This is Our Youth all share a similar theme: disillusioned young people. Behind each of the characters in these pieces, however, there is a continuous buzz of addled energy and excitement. In spite of how draining their antics might be, we remain involved and invested in their broken lives until the curtain falls. In Yen, we feel as lost and bored as the characters on stage.

Justice Smith, Ari Graynor, and Lucas Hedges in 'Yen' at MCC Theater. (Photo by Joan Marcus.)

Justice Smith, Ari Graynor, and Lucas Hedges in ‘Yen’ at MCC Theater. (Photo by Joan Marcus.)

Mark Wendland’s appropriately dim and drab set of a squalid apartment does little to pull us into this world. Aside from some interesting visual projections by Lucy Mackinnon and engaging music/sound design by Fitz Patton, there isn’t much that drives the action.

Jordan also fails in her attempts to be shocking. There is a line between being provocative and trying to be provocative. Pornography and talk of explicit sexual acts might push the envelope way beyond what is shared in everyday conversation but here, it becomes more annoying and doesn’t add much to the character development. Nor does the frequent yelling and random tantrums that run rampant through Act One.

Yen was met with general critical approval when it played across the pond in 2015 and it may well be greeted in a similar vein here. At one point, Jennifer tells Bobbie and Hench that her father used to call her “Yen,” which means, “longing; to long for something.” By the end of this overly long two-hour drama, New York audiences might well be longing for something more, too. Perhaps some substance?

Yen
Lucille Lortel Theatre
121 Christopher St, NYC
Through February 19

Ryan Leeds is a freelance theatre journalist who lives in Manhattan. He is the Chief Theater Critic for Manhattan Digest and a frequent contributor to Dramatics Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @Ry_Runner or on Facebook.

Military Mayhem: Pan Asian Rep’s ‘Incident at Hidden Temple’

January 30th, 2017 Comments off

By Samuel L. Leiter

Dinh James Doan & Briana Sakamoto in 'Incident at Hidden Temple.' (Photo: John Quincy  via The Broadway Blog.)

Dinh James Doan & Briana Sakamoto in ‘Incident at Hidden Temple.’ (Photo: John Quincy via The Broadway Blog.)

Damon Chua’s Incident at Hidden Temple, a world premiere at the Clurman, kicks off the 40th season of the Pan Asian Repertory Theatre, an accomplishment for which company founder and artistic producing director Tisa Chang deserves the warmest commendation. It’s too bad, however, that Pan Asian’s newest production couldn’t be a stronger one to honor her achievement. On the other hand, she has, through her politically involved father, a personal relationship to one of the play’s central figures, Generalissimo Chiang Kai-Shek.

This is Chua’s second play for Pan Asian, and, like his 2015 Film Chinois, takes us to China in the 1940s, when competing ideologies created an atmosphere of danger and distrust. Film Chinois was set in 1947 Beijing, two years after World War II, while Incident at Hidden Temple occurs in China in 1943, during the war, with American forces supporting the Chinese.

Jonathan Miles & Dinh James Doan in 'Incident at Hidden Temple.' (Photo: John Quincy via The Broadway Blog.)

Jonathan Miles & Dinh James Doan in ‘Incident at Hidden Temple.’ (Photo: John Quincy via The Broadway Blog.)

There are actually two Chinas involved, however, one led by Chiang’s Nationalists, the other by Mao Zedong’s communist forces. The situation creates major strategic tensions for the Americans, led by Gen. Joseph Stilwell, not seen, whose positions are represented by his civilian aide, McAllister (Nick Jordan). The real-life feud that existed between Stilwell and Gen. Claire Chennault, head of the Flying Tigers fighter squadrons, is altered by replacing Chennault with the fictional Gen. Cliff Van Holt (Jonathan Miles), who, like Chennault, is friendly with the generalissimo (Dinh James Doan).

Chua, however, focuses only intermittently on the complex military-historical issues, the outcome of which established the foundation of U.S.-China relations into the 1970s. Instead, he diffuses his treatment by introducing various melodramatic mysteries. The Stilwell-Van Holt friction, concerning major decisions about building a base for attacks on Japan, becomes just another piece of the mosaic on which other elements are played out as the dramatist grapples with issues of truth.

Thus we get an investigation into the murder of an American soldier (Nick Jordan) ; the disappearance of a 16-year-old Chinese girl, Lucy Chao (Briana Sakamoto), while traveling by train with her older sister, Ava (Ying Ying Li), a journalism student; a Chinese-American pilot named Walter Hu (Tim Liu) who appears to be passing himself off as yet another pilot; the hint of a romance between the married Van Holt and Ava; a wise, old, blind man (Dinh James Doan), who prattles in mystical terms about a certain “Hidden Temple”; an unintended pregnancy; and, for good measure, a subplot involving sacred artifacts, Ernest Hemingway, and two people connected to him that Chua suggests were real but can’t be found anywhere on the Internet.

Ying Ying Li and Walter Hu in 'Incident at Hidden Temple.' (Photo: John Quincy via The Broadway Blog.)

Ying Ying Li and Walter Hu in ‘Incident at Hidden Temple.’ (Photo: John Quincy via The Broadway Blog.)

Chua fails to create a sufficiently believable world in which these multiple threads can be effectively woven together. And by having everyone speak in the same, mostly unaccented American English, even when they’re speaking Chinese (one character even speaks Chinese with a folksy American drawl), it remains unclear what language is being spoken when.

There are also any number of plot questions. Why, for instance, has Ava, who could have gone to America, remained in war-torn China to continue her journalism studies, when she could have studied abroad? Or why, if these studies are so important, hasn’t she decided what to do when she graduates? And why are Lucy and Ava given Western names?

An air of superficiality hovers not only over the writing but over the entire, stilted production, performed against Sheryl Liu’s set dominated by a homely wall built in false perspective and painted a dour, grayish-green. Hanhji Jang’s costumes are barely passable, and Pamela Kupper’s lighting only a bit better, although she creates a nice effect that makes the hidden temple visible.

Director Kaipo Schwab’s pacing for the two-hour play is uneven and his staging awkward, beginning with the thoroughly unconvincing stabbing that begins the play. A fight scene staged by Michael G. Chin has two men using traditional martial arts techniques, as if they were in a refereed match instead of a potentially life and death struggle. As for the acting, let’s just say better luck next time.

“Sometimes truth is just hidden in plain sight,” says the blind man, who, as per the convention, sees more clearly than anyone else. To which those who left at intermission might reply: “The truth shall set you free.”

Incident at Hidden Temple
Clurman Theatre/Theatre Row
410 W. 42nd St., NYC
Through February 12

Samuel L. Leiter is Distinguished Professor Emeritus (Theater) of Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center, CUNY. He has written and/or edited 27 books on Japanese theater, New York theater, Shakespeare, and the great stage directors. For more of his reviews, visit Theatre’s Leiter Side (www.slleiter.blogspot.com).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Meeting* You Won’t Want to Miss: Justin Sayre

January 28th, 2017 Comments off

by Jon L. Jensen

Justin Sayre (Photo: Ricardo Nelson via The Broadway Blog.)

Justin Sayre (Photo: Ricardo Nelson via The Broadway Blog.)

Justin Sayre’s The Meeting* of the International Order of Sodomites convened again on January 22 at Joe’s Pub. The performance marked the beginning of the final season of Sayre’s hit comedy/variety show, at a time when performances like it could not feel more essential.

Sayre is big in every sense of the word. His bearish looks are matched by a giant wit and intelligence. While many gay performers and icons prize cattiness and cynicism, Sayre is big-hearted, warm and generous. He took the stage at Joe’s Pub two days after the inauguration and a day after the International Women’s March.

“We’re coming in hot,” said Sayre, adjusting his giant amethyst ring, attired in a flowing sweater ensemble, red-sequined pumps and a pink “pussy” cap.

His show featured tributes to two deceased gay icons, George Michael and Debbie Reynolds, but Sayre spent much of the evening processing contemporary events—especially the Women’s March.

Sayre called on the members of his “International Order of Sodomites” to be active participants in a resistance that reaches far beyond the concerns of the LGBTQIA community. Inspired by his participation in the Women’s March, Sayre argued that gays should unite with women, men, people of color and children against America’s new nationalist/isolationist leadership. “We have to come together because it’s too important,” he said.

The Meeting* paid tribute to George Michael who passed away on Christmas Day. Nadia Quinn, channeling a Christian camp counselor circa 1983, sang “Faith.” Julian Fleischer crooned “Kissing a Fool.” And Drew Brody called on the audience to sing back-up for “Father Figure.”

George Michael (Slavko Sereda : Shutterstock, Inc.)

George Michael (Slavko Sereda : Shutterstock, Inc.)

Of all the musical performances, none was as rousing (or envelope-pushing) as Bridget Barkan. The singer came out in an Obama mask and began an electric rendition of Michael’s “Freedom 90.” Soon she stripped of the blackface mask, to reveal a bad comb-over wig and began to sing the song as the new orange-faced POTUS. For the final verse, she stripped off her tuxedo and released her own long, auburn hair—her breasts taped with black gaffer’s tape, the word FREEDOM emblazoned across her chest.

Although the evening would have benefited from more music, Sayre remained the star of the show. He talked warmly of Debbie Reynolds, clued the audience in on this YouTube gem, and sang Reynolds’ “Tammy.”

One of the most poignant moments of the evening, however, came as he teared up recounting his interaction with a small child and her mother at the March. The moment epitomized what makes Sayre such a treasure. Here is a comedian who is not afraid of appearing earnest and vulnerable. According to him, children cannot tear their eyes off of him. “I don’t know if they’re drawn to me out of fascination,” he said, “or an intense fear that they might become me.”

The Gay Agenda - Album Cover (1)I cannot speak for the children, but I share in their fascination with Sayre. This reviewer ended up kicking myself that I showed up to the Meeting* seven years too late.

If you are like me, a little behind the times, do not miss your chance to catch The Meeting*’s final performances at Joe’s Pub. The final shows will tribute:

Michael Bennett (February 19)
The Velvet Underground (March 19)
Patti LuPone (April 23)

The final celebration will be held with two performances on Sunday, May 14 at 7 p.m. and 9:30 p.m. You can also download Sayre’s comedy album, The Gay Agenda, on iTunes here , or subscribe to his podcast “Sparkle & Circulate” here.

Jon L. Jensen is a poet and educator. His forthcoming novel-in-verse attempts to give his native Wyoming an epic makeover.

 

 

 

Gazing at Life: ‘Jitney’ Arrives on Broadway

January 27th, 2017 Comments off

By April Stamm

august wilson's jitney

If we are to be a fly on the wall in an appropriately dilapidated car service station for over two hours with nothing to do but watch the blindingly real comings and goings of cab drivers, a couple of their family members, and a small time bookie, it better be a pretty enthralling jitney station. Lucky for audiences at Manhattan Theatre Club’s Broadway production of August Wilson’s Jitney that those nine souls onstage are mesmerizingly heartbreaking, passionate, comical, and true.

The last of Wilson’s Century Cycle plays to be staged on Broadway, Jitney is set in 1977 in the Hill District of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and captures Wilson’s unique vision of the African American experience. This production begins before the house lights even dim on Becker’s (John Douglas Thompson) old, crumbling, but somehow ordered gypsy cab station. To discuss the plot of “Jitney” is a strange thing, because while it could be said that hardly anything happens, what does happen is everything.

André Holland and Carra Patterson in August Wilson's 'Jitney.' (Photo: Joan Marcus via The Broadway Blog.)

André Holland and Carra Patterson in August Wilson’s ‘Jitney.’ (Photo: Joan Marcus via The Broadway Blog.)

The cab station is in peril of being torn down by the city within a month and the drivers band together to hold their ground. Meanwhile, the youngest driver in the crew, Youngblood (André Holland), secretly buys a house for his girlfriend, Rena (Cara Patterson), the mother of their two-year-old son, all the while she thinks he’s running around on her with her sister. Becker’s son, Booster (Brandon J. Dirden), returns after twenty years in prison. Shealy (Harvy Blanks), the neighborhood bookie, takes in bets and pays on bets. While some of the happenings are life changing in nature, others are wholly common place, and it all unfolds without melodrama but rather with the steady, burdened pace of living a life full of struggle and frustration, but also spiked with deep love and commitment.

Jitney is only as good as its ensemble. They are complete and realized characters, but also represent a snapshot of 1970s Pittsburgh and the African American experience on a larger scale. To pick out one or two shining stars would do a disservice to the beautiful orchestration of the acting company in this production. Perhaps because many in the cast are August Wilson veterans, there is an authenticity and ease with which the actors flow through the work, including Tony Award winner Ruben Santiago-Hudson’s direction, which provides the cast with cohesion, nuance, and clarity.

Crafting the perfectly realistic yet ethereal backdrop for the play, scenic designer David Gallo, lighting designer Jane Cox, and sound designer Darron L. West build a Pittsburgh that is achingly beautiful in its mundanity. The cab station is packed with dilapidated details: a couch that sags just so, a touch of soot on the giant windows to the city, and peeling and fading wall paper— all staged in front of a city backdrop that seems to evoke memories. Tony-Leslie James’s costumes embrace an era so easily made outrageous. There are leisure suits and leather blazers that do not mock themselves but instead suit the real lives of the characters who don them.

Do I suggest you see a play full of heartbreak and struggle, in which the characters have regular frustrating arguments, occasionally ignore each other, and almost never resolving anything? Absolutely, because this production—both Wilson’s script and the ensemble that embodies it—show life. Not just in the 70s, not just in Pittsburg, but in all of its hardness and tenacity.

August Wilson’s Jitney
Manhattan Theatre Club
Samuel J. Friedman Theatre
261 W 47th Street, NYC
Through March 12

April Stamm is a freelance theatre, food, and lifestyle journalist. She is a regular contributor to Edge Media Network and is a Chef Instructor at the International Culinary Center.