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The Great Imposter: ‘Six Degrees of Separation’

April 26th, 2017 Comments off

By Samuel L. Leiter

Allison Janney and Corey Hawkins in 'Six Degrees of Separation.' (Photo: Joan Marcus via The Broadway Blog.)

Allison Janney and Corey Hawkins in ‘Six Degrees of Separation.’ (Photo: Joan Marcus via The Broadway Blog.)

“There are two sides to every story,” says a character in John Guare’s prize-winning dramedy, Six Degrees of Separation, now getting its first Broadway revival since its 1990 Lincoln Center premiere (first at the Newhouse, then at the Beaumont). There are also two sides—one standing for chaos, one for control—to the Kandinsky painting slowly rotating as it hangs over the red-swathed, sparingly furnished apartment (designed by Mark Wendland and exquisitely lit by Ben Stanton), in which most of the play transpires. And there are certainly two sides, if not more, to this play, based on an actual rip-off that happened to friends of the playwright in 1983, and to a number of other suckers, some notables among them.

Have you ever been conned by someone with a reasonably respectable appearance asking you for assistance because, let’s say, they’ve run out of gas and desperately need a few dollars to get home? If so, think about the moxie it would take to stab yourself enough to bloody your shirt before barging into the Fifth Avenue aerie of a wealthy couple, claiming to have been mugged in Central Park, to be the Harvard friend of their children, and, best of all, to be the son of Sidney Poitier, who’s in town to direct, of all things, a movie version of Cats.

That, indeed, is what “Paul Poitier” (Corey Hawkins), as he calls himself, does when he breathlessly enters the digs of art dealer Flan Kittredge (John Benjamin Hickey), and his chic wife, Ouisa (Allison Janney), while they’re discussing the sale of a Cézanne with a rich South African businessman named Geoffrey (Tony Carlin).

'Six Degrees of Separation' (Photo: Joan Marcus via The Broadway Blog.)

‘Six Degrees of Separation’ (Photo: Joan Marcus via The Broadway Blog.)

The name-dropping Paul, who’s been studying up on the Kittredge family (and others) with a gay lover (Chris Perfetti), and whose talents include gourmet cooking, not only gains everyone’s sympathy (Geoffrey gets inspired to create an African-American film festival at home), he’s even given the Kittredge’s son’s bedroom to sleep in. But when Paul is discovered having sex there with a hustler (James Cusati-Moyer), his fast-talking skills kick into high gear.

Paul’s trickery isn’t finished, though, and he soon pulls off another outlandish ploy with Rick (Peter Mark Kendall) and Elizabeth (Sarah Mezzanotte), an innocent young couple from Utah he meets in Central Park. This one ends up tragically. Despite being fully informed of Paul’s transgressions, Ouisa reaches out to make that true connection with him that’s been missing from her life. It’s too late, however, and all she has left is what she least wanted, an anecdote to endlessly recall.

Corey Hawkins in 'Six Degrees of Separation.' (Photo: Joan Marcus via The Broadway Blog.)

Corey Hawkins in ‘Six Degrees of Separation.’ (Photo: Joan Marcus via The Broadway Blog.)

Trip Cullman’s direction charges the play with the high-energy antics and rapid pace of drawing room farce, much of it too broad for this viewer’s tastes; carefully timed physical business is abundant, like a madcap chase involving the hustler, whose total nudity is a bad choice in search of a cheap laugh. But, as per the script, the tone changes awkwardly with the Rick and Elizabeth sequence, making us unsure about when and when not to laugh.

Guare has a great time satirizing the fatuousness and guilt of the upper-class, liberal-leaning, white couple (and their friends) who fall for this well-dressed, seemingly highly educated, young black man’s carefully rehearsed palaver. Part of the fun comes from their excitement about the possibility of being in Cats, a show biz reference Guare squeezes for the kind of kneejerk reaction too many playwrights get from mentioning Queens or New Jersey.

Six Degrees of Separation takes its name from a theory recalled by Ouisa as she ponders how Paul found her and Flan; thanks to the play (and its film version), this notion, which has infiltrated everyone’s consciousness (as Kevin Bacon can attest), insists we’re all separated from even the most remote individuals, like a “Tiera del Fuegan,” by a chain of only six people; of course, Ouisa notes, “you need to find the right people to make the connection.”

Leading the large, highly capable ensemble is the always excellent Allison Janney. Wearing a stylishly coiffed blond wig, with her tall, slender figure dressed to elegant perfection by Clint Ramos, she brings her star radiance to Ouisa, making her both wonderfully funny and human enough for us to accept the woman’s desperate need to believe in Paul. Hickey is generally amusing as the eager art dealer, his dubious dealings not that far removed, morally, from Paul’s. And Hawkins is quite plausible as the charming but mentally troubled Paul, whose imposture could likely scam an unsuspecting audience into buying his b.s.

David Hampton, on whom Paul is based, died at 39 of AIDS in 2003. Six Degrees captures his essence but it’s not a biodrama. However, a play about his life, including his litigious response to Guare’s play, might provide another side of the story.

Six Degrees of Separation
Ethel Barrymore Theatre
243 W. 47th St., NYC
Through July 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).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sweets for the Sweet: ‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’

April 25th, 2017 Comments off

By Samuel L. Leiter

'Charlie and the Chocolate Factory' (Photo: Joan Marcus via The Broadway Blog.)

‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’ (Photo: Joan Marcus via The Broadway Blog.)

As we squeezed our way through all the Oompa Loompas, I mean small children, clogging the arteries, I mean aisles, of the Lunt-Fontanne after eating, I mean seeing, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, the first thing my granddaughter wanted was to tell about all the differences there were between this new Broadway musical and its two movie versions. The next thing she wanted was a chocolate bar (six bucks a pop at the concession stands.)

My granddaughter, by the way, is 23. While she admits she’s never read Roald Dahl’s popular 1964 children’s novel, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, she’s seen the 1971 movie (Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory) starring Gene Wilder and the 2005 remake, using the book’s title and starring Johnny Depp, enough times to be a Wonka wonk. Considering the sugar rush palpitations of the young ones packing the theatre, she has plenty of company.

Ryan Sell in 'Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.' (Photo: Joan Marcus via The Broadway Blog.)

Ryan Sell in ‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.’ (Photo: Joan Marcus via The Broadway Blog.)

This is a revised production of the long-running show—book by David Greig, lyrics by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman (Hairspray), and music by Shaiman, plus four newly added Leslie Bricusse/Anthony Newley songs from the 1971 movie—that recently closed in London.

Two-time Tony winner Christian Borle is the oddball, top-hatted, cane-carrying, cavity-inducing factory owner. Three kids alternate as the eponymous hero, 10-year-old Charlie Bucket (Ryan Sell, whom I saw; Ryan Foust, and Jack Ryan Flynn). Three-time Tony winner Jack O’Brien has taken over the direction from Sam Mendes, Jacques Bergasse choreographs in place of Peter Darling, but Mark Thompson, who did the original sets and costumes, is responsible for the new designs.

Greig’s updated book, which sticks to the familiar plot, is sprinkled with contemporary gag references (guns, North Korea, politics, celebrity, social media) aimed for adults and surely soaring over toddlers’ heads. Nonetheless, the youngsters at the preview I attended were rapt throughout. Although not a fan of Dahl’s high-calorie story even I found some of it satisfying and delicious.

While no show could compete with Hollywood’s special effects, there’s plenty of cleverness displayed in the gimmicky scenery (reportedly less elaborate than London’s) and ingenious staging. The child-unfriendly ways that punish the plot’s entitled brats are a hoot, and even queasy stomachs will likely ingest such comic images as people bursting into purple goop or dismembered by squirrels. On the up side, maybe some snot-nosed kids will learn the lessons of overreaching.

Shaiman and Wittman’s modestly effective score is sprightly and entertaining, although it sure helps to have it supplemented by familiar tunes from the movie, like the not-for-diabetics “The Candy Man” and the balladic “Pure Imagination.” Both are well sung by Borle, who has a ball pulling out all the stops as the madcap chocolatier despite pushing too hard when the show begins to lag.

For the biggest laughs, you have to wait for the singing and dancing Oompa Loompas to appear. Unlike the dwarfs in the first movie and the single actor, Deep Roy, multiplied up to 165 times, in the second, Broadway offers a chorus of short, white puppets (wonderfully imagined by Basil Twist) attached to black-garbed singer-dancers whose own bright faces shine under flame-red wigs. Large heads on little bodies is an old trick (remember the “Triplets” number in The Bandwagon?) but it’s still very funny when well deployed.

Christian Borle in 'Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.' (Photo: Joan Marcus via The Broadway Blog.)

Christian Borle in ‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.’ (Photo: Joan Marcus via The Broadway Blog.)

Fans should expect significant character revisions. Perhaps most notable are the obnoxious kids (played by adults) who win the Gold Ticket that allows them a guided tour of Willie’s reopened factory. The one good kid, Charlie Bucket, remains the poverty-stricken, selfless boy living in a dilapidated shanty with his laundress mom (Emily Padgett), depicted as a widow, and four decrepit grandparents (Kristy Cates, Madeline Doherty, Paul Slade Smith, and John Rubinstein), tucked into a single bed. Rubinstein’s lovably gruff Grandpa Joe makes a charming chaperone for Charlie.

Glutton Augustus Gloop (F. Michael Hayne), still a fat German boy, is now a yodeling Bavarian, with sausages coming out of his everywhere, while Veruka Salt (Emma Pfaeffle) is altered from a snooty British girl to a Russian ballerina in a pink tutu, with her father (Ben Crawford) a fur-collared oligarch. The bubble gum-chewing Violet (Trista Dollison) has been changed to a chubby, African-American, hip-hopper and YouTube sensation, the “Queen of Pop,” managed by a cool, shades-wearing, Hollywood dad (Alan H. Green). And Mike Teavee (Michael Wartella) has given up his cowboy hat and cap pistol to become a bling-wearing, computer hacking, social media whiz, while his mother (Jackie Hoffman) tipples homemade booze. These mean kids and the Oompa Loompas literally steal the show.

For all its occasional adult-oriented wisecracks, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, like the recent Matilda, another Dahl-based musical, is grand-scale children’s theatre. Mature audiences will enjoy it only so long as the kids do, which, artistic stumbles or not, is all that counts. Judging by the response when I attended, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory makes the world taste good.

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory
Lunt-Fontanne Theatre
204 West 46th Street, NYC
Open run

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).

 

 

 

 

A Kiss is Still a Kiss: ‘Indecent’

April 22nd, 2017 Comments off

By Samuel L. Leiter

The cast and musicians of 'Indecent.' (Photo: Carol Rosegg via The Broadway Blog.)

The cast and musicians of ‘Indecent.’ (Photo: Carol Rosegg via The Broadway Blog.)

As I looked around during the standing ovation greeting Paula Vogel’s Indecent, now on Broadway after its successful run Off-Broadway last season, a few people were struggling both to applaud and wipe their eyes. While I can understand the latter reaction, my own, both now and when I saw it last year, was confined to enthusiastic clapping.

A lot—much of it entertaining as well as informative—has been packed into Indecent’s intermissionless hour and 45 minutes. Many important themes are covered, including censorship, immigration, anti-Semitism, intrareligious disagreement, the Holocaust, homophobia, and others. Sometimes it’s hard to shake the feeling of being taught a lesson, not the best method for stirring an audience’s emotions.

Indecent was inspired by Polish writer Sholem Asch’s (1880-1957) Yiddish melodrama, God of Vengeance (Gut fun Nekome), published in 1907. It was incendiary for its time, a play about a Jewish brothel-keeper who seeks his salvation through the purity of his daughter, Rifkele; he is, however, punished by the god of vengeance (or life itself) by having Rifkele become the lesbian lover of one of his prostitutes, Manke, and then a prostitute herself. Cue the Torah throwing!

(l-r) Max Gordon Moore and Richard Topol in 'Indecent.' (Photo: Carol Rosegg via The Broadway Blog.)

(l-r) Max Gordon Moore and Richard Topol in ‘Indecent.’ (Photo: Carol Rosegg via The Broadway Blog.)

The women’s controversial love scene in the rain, replete with a groundbreaking, onstage kiss, had a profound effect on Vogel, whose program note says that she’s never read a more beautiful scene between two women, “one that accorded their love the pure desire of Romeo and Juliet on the balcony.” In Indecent the scene, around which the play keeps circling, is eventually performed with a splashy deluge.

Although denounced by Jewish leaders, God of Vengeance eventually received successful European stagings starring the renowned Austrian actor Rudolph Schildkraut, for whom Asch tailored the role. After Schildkraut immigrated to New York he acted it there without incident in German and Yiddish, the latter at the Irving Place Theatre in 1921 (details omitted from the program’s otherwise informative timeline).

An English production at the Provincetown Playhouse in 1922 led to a move to Broadway’s Apollo Theatre in 1923, where, even though it removed the lesbianism, it was eaten by the lion of censorship, with the entire cast forced to spend the night in jail. The same plague would soon threaten many other sexually provocative plays, including those of Eugene O’Neill. Interestingly, O’Neill himself (Max Gordon Moore) is a character in Indecent.

Vogel is credited with having written Indecent but also as having ”created” it in collaboration with director Rebecca Taichman, the circumstances being described in the playwright’s program note. Their play eventually premiered at the La Jolla Playhouse before moving to the Yale Rep and then Off-Broadway’s Vineyard Theatre, whose cast is intact at the Cort.

The cast of 'Indecent.' (Photo: Carol Rosegg via The Broadway Blog.)

The cast of ‘Indecent.’ (Photo: Carol Rosegg via The Broadway Blog.)

Using a fictional stage manager named Lemml (poignantly acted by Richard Topol) to string many of its incidents together, Indecent is an episodic combination of biodrama and docudrama focusing on God of Vengeance’s history and Asch’s life into the early 1950s. Some of its material seems extraneous, like the Holocaust sequence revolving around a wartime production by starving actors in a Lodz ghetto attic, material that expands the play’s concerns with anti-Semitism. Still, like an earlier cabaret scene, it’s so well done its performance more than justifies its inclusion.

Taichman’s highly imaginative staging, using dance, music, and Brechtian storytelling techniques, is superb, and the play’s panoramic narrative is absorbing. There are numerous innovative moments but having the dust pour from the actors’ sleeves at select moments (evoking the notion of “ashes to ashes”) is as memorable as theatrical images get.

Three musicians (Lisa Gutkin, Aaron Halva, and Matt Darriau), dressed in designer Emily Rebholz’s period costumes, wander through the action playing Gutkin and Halva’s wonderful klezmer music, much of it danced to the Hassidic-inflected choreography of David Dorfman. Tom Nelis (playing Schildkraut and others in a white, rabbinical beard) and the beautiful Katrina Lenk (noteworthy as Manke) show particularly nimble dance abilities in addition to their acting chops.

Indecent plays out on Riccardo Hernandez’s stripped-down set, sensitively lit by Christophe Akerlind, showing an upstage false proscenium, old-fashioned footlights, and other reminders of the play’s theatricalism; Tal Yarden’s surtitles provide vital information, like times, places, and translations.

Although there are occasional infusions of Yiddish, the actors use accents when speaking English, and none when speaking Yiddish; the projections also tell us which they’re speaking. To contract time, jump cuts are created by a ping and the words “a blink in time.”

The across-the-years, pageant-like structure, with seven actors playing over forty roles, seems more pronounced in a large Broadway theatre. With the actors relying on shortcuts, few characters appear more than two-dimensional. This often leads to declaiming the lines rather than living them, thereby underlining Indecent’s didactic qualities.

God of Vengeance has received a couple of recent Off-Broadway stagings that did nothing to enhance its once-vaunted reputation. Its stage life may have expired but you can get an excellent glimpse of its best features by a visit to Vogel and Taichman’s beautifully realized, if occasionally flawed, response to it.

Indecent
Cort Theatre
138 W. 48th St., NYC
Through September 10

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).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Serving Up Theatrics: ‘Cuisine & Confessions’

April 14th, 2017 Comments off

by April Stamm

'Cuisine and Confessions' (Photo: Alexandre Galliez via The Broadway Blog.)

‘Cuisine and Confessions’ (Photo: Alexandre Galliez via The Broadway Blog.)

If only your dinner parties were this cool: your adorable kitchen packed with well-placed hipster kitsch and peopled with fascinatingly gorgeous, mustachioed, skinny-jeans-wearing friends from all corners of the world who all passionately chat about and love and life… oh, and did I mention all the while these fabulous friends perform death-defying feats of acrobatics, juggling and aerial work? The 7 Fingers production of Cuisine & Confessions is that dreamy dinner party. What could be even more impressive than the awe-inspiring physical talent of the performers in this production is that they’ve managed to bring personality, compassion and actual humor to this one-of-a-kind piece of theater.

Behind this production is The 7 Fingers (Les 7 Doigts), a circus/acrobatic troupe out of Montreal, Canada. Created in 2002 by seven circus artists, they have had their hands in everything from original productions, project collaborations, Broadway shows (the recent revival of Pippin) to the Olympics opening ceremonies in Sochi.

Cuisine & Confessions begins with an overture of small, musical/verbal snippets foreshadowing larger vignettes. This intro segment is cleverly titled “These are the Ingredients.” The rest of the performance plays out in a series of 15 pieces and a finale each focusing on one or two of the troupe with the rest of the accomplished performers serving as the ensemble and oft times as human set pieces to be leapt off or rolled under. Each story is told within a framework of food and memories. Many of the vignettes are based on the performers’ actual lives, dreams, fears and thoughts.

 

'Cuisine and Confessions' (Photo: Alexandre Galliez via The Broadway Blog.)

‘Cuisine and Confessions’ (Photo: Alexandre Galliez via The Broadway Blog.)

One particular stand out is Anna Kichtchenko’s section “The Departed,” which abstractly tells the story of lost loves and the beauties of borscht through a phenomenal aerial silks routine that is as heartwarming and emotional as it is visually stunning. Tandem hoop-diving drives the stories of Sidney Bateman and Melvin Diggs in “Leaving St. Louis.” Using spoken word recorded by the artists, they tell their individual tales of growing up in the fear and sometimes loneliness of urban St. Louis and the food and love they clung to as they leap through wooden frames.

Putting it all together, the director/choreographer/writer team of Shana Carroll and Sebastien Soldevila has accomplished more than simply staging some great circus routines. They have found a way to make the death-defying feats connectible. Some of the stories are heart-wrenching; Matias Plaul’s “Song for My Father,” a Chinese Pole routine, tells the story of his father’s capture, internment in a concentration camp and execution by the Argentine government. Some segments are quirky, funny and bawdy like Gabriela Parigi’s “One Woman’s Life Recipe,” a passionately frenetic five- minute telling of her entire life through acro-dance. Each story works together literally and structurally to give us a look into the human condition.

 

Without the original music and original arrangements of Nans Bortuzzo, Raphael Cruz, Colin Gagne, Spike Wilner, and DJ Pocket, this production would not be as successful as it is. Doing just as much towards creating a world of warmth, humor and awe as the performers do, the music in this performance is creative, poignant and full of energy. The cover of “You’re the One That I Want” (yes, the tough Sandy song from “Grease”) alone will give you chills.

Circus in is the air lately. Acrobatics, juggling and amazing feats are showing up everywhere from Broadway to your local gym. Setting aside all the hype, what makes Cuisine & Confessions truly stand out is that it emotionally connects with its audience and understands the importance of really telling a story.

Cuisine & Confessions
The 7 Fingers
NYU Skirball Center for the Performing Arts
566 LaGuardia Place, NYC
Through April 16

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

Here’s Looking at You, Kid: ‘CasablancaBox’

April 12th, 2017 Comments off

by Ryan Leeds

Gabriella Rhodeen in 'Casablanca Box.' (Photo: Benjamin Heller via The Broadway Blog.)

Gabriella Rhodeen in ‘Casablanca Box.’ (Photo: Benjamin Heller via The Broadway Blog.)

CasablancaBox, the experimental play currently playing at HERE Arts Center had the potential to become a complete disaster. To begin with, it uses sacred material (The 1942 classic film starring Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman) as both its inspiration and focus. Using such well-known material is tricky given the fact that comparisons to original source material and actors are often made. The play is also comprised of 16 actors, each playing a variety of roles, another ambitious endeavor that is all too often butchered. Finally, it theorizes what events happened behind the scenes of the movie’s filming, leaving audiences to question what is depicted and actual fact. In spite of this, the show surprisingly works like a well-oiled machine.

The married team of Sara Farrington (Playwright) and Reid Farrington (Director) are the creative minds behind this work. Previously, they have declared their affinity for classic film through combining actual film clips with live action actors.

They’ve revisited Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol and Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope. With distinctive flair, they project scenes from the actual film onto square silk screens, held by actors on both sides. In the middle of the ‘frame’ live actors are recreating the movie scene in real time. It is an effective and clever tool and is delicate trick to pull off, but thanks largely to Laura Mroczkowski’s lighting design and Reid Farrington’s set and video design, the result is theatrical magic.

Catherine Gowl and Roger Casey in 'Casablanca Box.' (Photo: Benjamin Heller via The Broadway Blog.)

Catherine Gowl and Roger Casey in ‘Casablanca Box.’ (Photo: Benjamin Heller via The Broadway Blog.)

Laura K. Nicoll’s choreography is another fascinating aspect here. Aside from farce, most plays have straightforward blocking. Nicoll has her cast moving in formations as complex as those in a Busby Berkeley film.

There are many fans of the original film, but it was vague in my own memory, so I watched it again before heading to HERE. For those who haven’t seen the original, here is thumbnail synopsis: In World War II Morocco, Casablanca city serves as a resting spot for emigrants fleeing Europe for the United States to escape Nazi Rule. However, Casablanca is a blend of Nazis and French rule and Rick (Humphrey Bogart), who owns a popular nightclub and casino finds himself into a delicate situation with Czech Nationalist Victor Laslo (Paul Henried) and his current wife, Ilsa Lund (Ingrid Bergman). Rick and Ilsa had a torrid love affair in Paris and reconnect once again when Ilsa and Victor appear at the nightclub.

Sara Farrington imagines what might have taken while the camera wasn’t rolling. Two refugees voice their disgust at one another for being ‘nobodies’ in the movie. In their native countries, they were big deals but now their promises of prosperity in America have been broken. Contract wages are also a point of contention as African American actors question when they aren’t making as much as their film colleagues. Alcoholic lovers and scorned spouses saunter onto the set, and the writers of the film can’t seem to agree on how to end the film. There is no shortage of drama, whether the cameras are rolling or not.

Matt McGloin, Rob Hille and Gabriella Rhodeen in 'Casablanca Box.' (Photo: Benjamin Heller via The Broadway Blog.)

Matt McGloin, Rob Hille and Gabriella Rhodeen in ‘Casablanca Box.’ (Photo: Benjamin Heller via The Broadway Blog.)

It seems like a perfect time to discuss and celebrate this canonized film. This year marks the 75th anniversary of its theatrical release. The discussion of immigrants was resonant then and remains even stronger today.

It’s not essential to watch the original film before seeing CasablancaBox. After all, you’ll be watching clips from it anyway. Yet a refresher viewing will make this all the more enjoyable, particularly when this talented cast impersonates the film’s counterparts.

The sprawling cast is carefully orchestrated and each of them serves the material extremely well. They are truly an ensemble team, reliant on one another to make this strategic chess game work. The 90-minute intermissionless show moves at a breakneck speed.

Between the current FX series, Feud, and CasablancaBox, we’re able to sink our teeth into some juicy characters from the Golden Age of Hollywood. These complex figures reveal their sordid lives, their triumphs, and their vulnerabilities. Both works will provide classic film buffs with more than enough material to satisfy.

CasablancaBox
HERE Arts Center
145 6th Avenue, NYC
Through April 24

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.

 

Two Houses, Both Not Alike in Dignity: ‘The Profane’

April 10th, 2017 Comments off

By Samuel L. Leiter

'The Profane' (Photo: Joan Marcus via The Broadway Blog.)

‘The Profane’ (Photo: Joan Marcus via The Broadway Blog.)

Given today’s preoccupations with Islam, Zayd Dohrn couldn’t have hit upon a more succulent subject for a domestic dramedy than the one he uses in The Profane, his potentially button-pushing but ultimately unsatisfactory new play at Playwrights Horizons.

Taking his cue from works in which social, ethnic, or religious differences create conflict between the parents of conventionally mismatched lovers—think Romeo and JulietAbie’s Irish Rose, and Meet the Fockers—Dohrn focuses on a narrow demographic, Muslim immigrants. His goal is to show what might happen if a girl from a totally assimilated, liberal Muslim family were to become engaged to a boy from a conservative one.

It would be easy to imagine this situation happening within any religion whose adherents range from ultraliberal to fundamentalist. However, with today’s audiences interested in learning more about their Islamic neighbors, what could be riper for an examination of sectarian religious differences than a play about lovers from opposite sides of the Muslim spectrum?

'The Profane' (Photo: Joan Marcus via The Broadway Blog.)

‘The Profane’ (Photo: Joan Marcus via The Broadway Blog.)

Sorry to say, Dohrn’s play, which has some excellent scenes, sprightly humor, and lively dialogue, is superficial, formulaic, and burdened by a plot contrivance that will spin heads faster than Linda Blair’s.

In Act One we meet the Almedins at their book-lined, New York City home. Raif (Ali Reza Farahnakian) is an internationally known writer, whose novels, about the immigrant experience, are widely read in many colleges. Naja (Heather Raffo), an attractive blond in tight jeans, is a former dancer who once performed at Lincoln Center.

Raif, proud of belonging to the liberal, intellectual elite, is bitter, possibly because he’s suffering from writer’s block. Not only has he abandoned his faith, he despises those who follow its dictates as people who stone their daughters to death or behead people for their beliefs.

'The Profane' (Photo: Joan Marcus via The Broadway Blog.)

‘The Profane’ (Photo: Joan Marcus via The Broadway Blog.)

The Almedin daughters, in their early 20s, are Aisa (Francis Benhamou, offbeat and funny), a lesbian and former dancer who tends bar, and Emina (Tala Ashe, pretty and sensitive), a college student. Emina has fallen in love with another student, Sam (Babak Tafti, good-looking and sincere), short for Basam, son of the Osman family; their intended nuptials precipitate the central crisis, apparent the minute Emina brings Sam home and introduces him to Raif, who ignores his proffered handshake.

Everything about the Almedins, including their clothing, drinking, snarky humor, colloquial expressions, and profanity, is pure sit-com American; despite Raif and Naja having immigrated when they were young adults and Raif boasting that he taught himself English, their accents are questionably red, white, and blue.

In Act Two, we meet the Osmans: Peter (Ramsey Faragallah) and Carmen (Lanna Joffey). The meeting between the families is at the Osmans new, White Plains home, a modestly attractive one that Raif, in a cheap joke at odds with what we see, snidely designates as the work of Vito Corleone’s decorator.

Peter Osman, who sells restaurant equipment, is a bearded, bearish man, gregarious to a fault in his attempt to please the Almedins; following Sam’s advice, he strives to avoid even the most innocuous religious references. Carmen, his reserved and cautious wife, dresses like a well-off suburban housewife but wears a hajib. The Osmans speak with (stagey) accents.

The contrast between the jovial, nonjudgmental Peter and the persistently edgy Raif couldn’t be sharper, reversing our expected reactions to who would be the more recalcitrant figure in the delicate dance between devotee and apostate. But Dohrn has so loaded the dice on Peter’s behalf that our discomfort with Raif’s behavior is practically forced upon us.

Peter is so reasonable it’s hard to believe he’s as pious as Raif suspects, while the liberal Raif rudely behaves like the actual fanatic. Despite his opportunities, Dohrn only rarely—as in some talk about arranged versus love marriages—suggests the kind of debate we’d really like to hear.

Worse, he concocts a melodramatically outlandish secret that’s exposed by having Naja notice a strange, hajib-wearing woman (Benhamou, in a distracting bit of doubling) in the house. This leads Raif to commit such an unforgivable act that the play loses whatever credibility it may have accumulated, while any lingering sympathy for the guy vanishes.

There are things to appreciate in The Profane, including Takeshi Kata’s substantial, well-appointed sets; Jessica Pabst’s character-defining costumes; and Matt Frey’s lighting, especially his bookcase effects. Kip Fagan’s direction is briskly paced but, with some performances merely skimming the sitcom surface and others (Faragallah, in particular) being so broad, he doesn’t resolve the uneasy tension between domestic comedy and idea-related drama.

“Disappointing” is an overused word in reviewing but when a play with such a potentially interesting subject comes up short it’s the handiest one to reach for.

The Profane
Playwrights Horizons
416 W. 42nd St., NY
Through April 30

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).

 

 

 

 

 

High Class Humor: ‘Present Laughter’ on Broadway

April 6th, 2017 Comments off
(l to r) Kristine Nielsen, Kate Burton, and Kevin Kline in 'Present Laughter.' (Photo: Joan Marcus via The Broadway Blog.)

(l to r) Kristine Nielsen, Kate Burton, and Kevin Kline in ‘Present Laughter.’ (Photo: Joan Marcus via The Broadway Blog.)

Let’s cut to the chase. Director Moritz von Stuelpnagel’s revival of Noël Coward’s Present Laughter is a brilliantly fine-tuned comedy of style and substance, and if you want to see an ensemble of actors that truly embodies the very best of Broadway, I suggest you grab a seat at the St. James Theatre while you can during the production’s limited 16-week run.

Led by Kevin Kline (Tony Award winner for The Pirates of Penzance and On the Twentieth Century) as Gerry Essendine, a self-absorbed comedic stage actor preparing for a theatrical tour of Africa, the plot follows a handful of characters intertwined in Gerry’s life, including his estranged wife Liz (Kate Burton); producer Henry (Peter Francis James) and manager Morris (Reg Rogers); smart-mouthed secretary Monica (Kristine Nielsen); obsessed fan Roland (Bhavesh Patel); and several one-night trysts, including the wide-eyed 20-something Daphne (Tedra Millan) and Henry’s wife Joanna (Cobie Smulders).

Kevin Kline in 'Present Laughter.' (Photo: Joan Marcus via The Broadway Blog.)

Kevin Kline in ‘Present Laughter.’ (Photo: Joan Marcus via The Broadway Blog.)

As the action unfolds, Gerry is thrust into a cavalcade of hysteria as everyone wants a piece of the persona he has created. This juxtaposition of who Gerry really is and what he represents to his adoring fans is confusing even to him. Kline creates a character that is broadly comedic, yet with an underlying authenticity that makes you adore him in spite of his bloated ego.

Take one look at today’s headlines and you can see versions of Gerry simmering among the higher ranks of our politicians—except for one major difference: Gerry has heart and a wisp of vulnerability that makes him relatable.

Kline, who has vacillated a successful career between theater and film for nearly 40 years, has plenty of A-list talent to folly with and they rise to the occasion in nearly every instance. As his wife and manager Liz, Kate Burton if often tasked with playing the straight face to the antics surrounding her—not an easy feat—but she does it with such grace and style you wonder how Gerry could ever let her slip away. But it is Nielsen’s sharp-tongued Monica that really keeps Gerry in check along with the rest of the comings and goings. As the bumbling pair of business partners, James and Rogers jet in and out of the action with precision, and Rogers, especially, is a charm to watch with his purposefully mush-mouthed dialect and ever-present cocktail.

Cobie Smulders and Kevin Kline in 'Present Laughter.' (Photo: Joan Marcus via The Broadway Blog.)

Cobie Smulders and Kevin Kline in ‘Present Laughter.’ (Photo: Joan Marcus via The Broadway Blog.)

Act II begins much like Act I, with Gerry dealing with the repercussions of a one-night-stand. But while the first tryst was with the more manageable Daphne, the second one with Joanna reverberates more deeply among his tight-knit clan. Smulders is—no pun intended—smouldering and I hope that Broadway can keep her around as her television and film career take off.

The production value is equally first-rate, with a gorgeously detailed set (David Zinn) in saturated shades of Wedgwood blue, jewel-toned costumes in exquisite cuts (Susan Hilferty), and hair design (Josh Marquette) that captures the allure of the late 30s.

Stuelpnagel (who was nominated for a Tony award last year for directing Hand to God) keeps things moving at a brisk pace and though the action-packed staging is meticulously choreographed, Present Laughter remarkably feels as though it’s unfolding for the very first time. 

Present Laughter
St. James Theatre
246 West 44th Street
Through July 2

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

Bring on the Monsters: ‘The Lightning Thief: The Percy Jackson Musical’

April 4th, 2017 Comments off

By Samuel L. Leiter

Chris McCarrell in 'The Lightning Thief.' (Photo: Jeremy Daniels via The Broadway Blog.)

Chris McCarrell in ‘The Lightning Thief.’ (Photo: Jeremy Daniels via The Broadway Blog.)

Perhaps, like me, you didn’t notice that, beneath the Harry Potter hoopla of the past two decades, a series of young adult novels about another boy with supernatural powers was gaining huge popularity. That boy, Percy Jackson, came to life in the imagination of a middle school history/English teacher named Rick Riordan, who entertained his second-grade son, afflicted—like Percy—with ADHD and dyslexia, by making up stories based on Greek mythology.

Those stories inspired a best-selling series that led not only to several sequel series but (thus far) to a pair of box-office blockbuster movies. Now, with a book by Joe Tracz and music and lyrics by Rob Rokicki, the first Percy Jackson book, The Lightning Thief, has been transformed into an energetic, generally entertaining rock musical for the seven-years-old-and-up crowd. They gave it a standing ovation when I attended.

Produced by Theatreworks, renowned for its high-quality, young-audience shows, The Lightning Thief is a fast-paced, decibel-blasting, theatrically frisky take on the original story. Unlike the visually bloated film, the show uses only seven actors, all of them adults, most playing multiple roles.

'The Lightning Thief.' (Photo: Jeremy Daniels via The Broadway Blog.)

‘The Lightning Thief.’ (Photo: Jeremy Daniels via The Broadway Blog.)

Tracz’s by-and-large faithful book—which expresses several themes, such as that normalcy is a myth and everyone is special, and that parents can be idols with feet of clay—begins with teenager Percy (Chris McCarrell)—he’s twelve in the book—having a weird experience during a field trip to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Later, after his mother, Sally (Carrie Compere), vanishes following his victorious battle with a Minotaur (James Hayden Rodriguez), Percy and his best friend, Grover, by now revealed as a satyr, enter the strange Camp Half-Blood.

Here Percy discovers he’s actually Perseus, a demigod, half-human and half-god, the son of Poseidon. If Perseus is here, can Medusa (Jonathan Raviv, in drag) be far behind? He also encounters other demigod kids, including Annabeth (Kristen Stokes), daughter of Athena; Luke (James Hayden Rodriguez), son of Hermes; and Clarisse (Sarah Beth Pfeifer), daughter of Ares.

Percy’s in hot water because his father, brother of Zeus and Hades, violated an oath never to have any more children; moreover, Percy alone can prevent war among the gods by locating Zeus’s stolen thunderbolt. This sends Percy, Annabeth, and Grover on a nation-crossing, monster-quelling quest to retrieve the bolt from the likeliest suspect, Hades (Raviv), in whose realm Sally is a prisoner and Charon (Compere) is an overstuffed, Beyoncé-like, pop singer in a sequined minidress. And where, by the way, we glimpse Kurt Cobain (Raviv), Janis Joplin (Pfeifer), and Mozart (Rodriguez).

Percy, with his magic sword and special powers (a comic surprise unlike what the book describes), must fend off an unexpected foe before all comes to its foregone happy conclusion. (The fun fight direction is by Rob Kinter.)

Kristin Stokes, Chris McCarrell and George Salazar in 'The Lightning Thief.' (Photo: Jeremy Daniels via The Broadway Blog.)

Kristin Stokes, Chris McCarrell and George Salazar in ‘The Lightning Thief.’ (Photo: Jeremy Daniels via The Broadway Blog.)

To pack all this in, the show, directed with verve by Stephen Brackett and spiritedly choreographed by Patrick McCollum, adopts an air of deliberate, even self-deprecatory playfulness; this keeps the budget down and highlights its air of tongue-in-cheekiness. It’s the kind of thing where someone, hearing about hell’s musical stars, asks if Josh Groban is there; more such jokes would be welcome, even if they soar over most kids’ heads.

Rokicki’s conventional rock score—played on keyboards, drums/percussion, guitar, and bass—is a listenable, efficient engine for keeping the show moving but most of its songs are of the undistinguished, volume-up variety; only two even hint at standard balladry.

This is a solid ensemble, with good work from all, including the slender, tousle-haired McCarrell; the dynamic, big-voiced Compere; and the comic Salazar, who scores as both the sidekick satyr and the always-shouting Dionysus (he’s the god of drama, after all).

Sydney Maresca has crafted numerous, clever, cost-cutting designs, like, for example, that for Chiron (Raviv), the centaur. In the film, Pierce Brosnan’s lower body is digitally morphed into that of a horse. Here, the character needs only a white shirt, sports jacket, leather slacks, high shoes, a bushy tail, and some equine movements to make you see a human horse.

The same don’t-take-this-seriously approach affects the various monsters whose deliberately cheesy scariness is heightened by smoke and David Lander’s fancy lighting, much of the latter in eye-catching, rock concert mode. It works well with set designer Lee Savage’s use of metal scaffolding fronting a background of graffiti-scrawled Greek pillars; the walls and their backstage equipment are exposed, and a pair of rolling scaffold-platforms is deployed for miscellaneous purposes. Ryan Rumery’s ingenious sound effects complete the package.

Finding a show most kids would enjoy can be like catching lightning in a bottle. Bringing a kid to The Lightning Thief might be like bringing your own bottle.

The Lightning Thief
Lucille Lortel Theatre
121 Christopher St., NYC
Through May 6

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).

 

 

 

Murphy’s Law: ‘The Play That Goes Wrong’

April 3rd, 2017 Comments off

By Samuel L. Leiter

'The Play That Goes Wrong.' (Photo: Alastair Muir via The Broadway Blog.)

‘The Play That Goes Wrong.’ (Photo: Alastair Muir via The Broadway Blog.)

A bit of advice: if you’re going to see The Play That Goes Wrong make sure you visit the facilities first. Otherwise you’re going to have a hard time not peeing in your pants at the show’s avalanche of ridiculous mishaps descending on a troupe of amateur British actors. The nearly continuous laughter filling the Lyceum Theatre when I went indicates that what began in a tiny fringe venue before moving to the West End (where it’s now in its third year) is two hours of lowbrow manna from comic heaven. This is a show you can laugh, chuckle, giggle, chortle, snicker, guffaw, hoot, titter, and roar at as a farcical illustration of Murphy’s Law, i.e., if it can go wrong it will go wrong.

Thanks to the zany brilliance (or brilliant zaniness) of Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer, and Henry Shields, who not only wrote the play for London’s Mischief Theatre (which began as an improv group emerging from LAMDA) but are also in it, the nonstop nuttiness stems from a production of the fictional Cornley University Drama Society’s production of The Murder at Haversham Manor, a 1920s-style murder mystery in the Agatha Christie mode.

The play-within-the-play is amusingly introduced by its director, Chris Bean (Henry Shields), who also plays the John Cleese-like Inspector Carter, called in to solve the murder of the wealthy Charles Haversham (Greg Tannahill), found dead in his dressing gown on the drawing room divan.

'The Play That Goes Wrong.' (Photo: Alastair Muir via The Broadway Blog.)

‘The Play That Goes Wrong.’ (Photo: Alastair Muir via The Broadway Blog.)

The broad-where-a-farce-should-be-broad action swarms with stereotypes, like Charles’s stiff-upper-lipped friend, Thomas Colleymore (Henry Lewis), dressed in tweedy knickers; the butler, Perkins (Jonathan Sayer), his silver hair painted on, his lines printed on his hands; Florence Colleymore (Charlie Russell), Thomas’s femme-fatale sister and Charles’s fiancée; Cecil Haversham (Dave Hearn), Charles’s white flannelled, anyone-for-tennis? brother and Florence’s lover; and Arthur (also Hearn), the doofus gardener, carrying a chain attached to an absent dog named Winston (the real one’s gone missing).

Each actor, by the way, is credited with the name of the one they play (thus Jonathan Sayer plays Dennis Tyde who plays Perkins) and gets a faux program bio to boot.

But even before director Bean arrives, nothing’s been going right, as worried cast members have been wandering the aisles searching for a lost Duran Duran CD and that missing dog. The scenery’s so iffy that an audience member is recruited to help fix it. Then, as The Murder at Haversham Manor unfolds, disasters follow in legions: wall props fall off, lines are forgotten, props catch fire, actors get knocked out, scenery falls apart, words are mispronounced, sound cues get bolloxed up, spotlights are misdirected, and on and on.

(l to r) Henry Sheilds, Jonathan Sayer and Henry Lewis in 'The Play That Goes Wrong." (Photo: Jeremy Daniel via The Broadway Blog.)

(l to r) Henry Sheilds, Jonathan Sayer and Henry Lewis in ‘The Play That Goes Wrong.” (Photo: Jeremy Daniel via The Broadway Blog.)

Under Mark Bell’s inspired, precisely timed, slapstick staging, everything works to make it seem like nothing’s working, including a truly remarkable set by Nigel Hook—perfectly lit by Ric Mountjoy—that deserves a special award for ingenuity and acting prowess. I actually whooped at its often spectacular antics. Of course, a good reason all the physical havoc works is the sangfroid with which the show’s gifted mummers play their idiotic characters, reveling in straight-faced aplomb as they doggedly advance in perpetual combat with walls, windows, floor boards, pillars, doors, heads, and props.

The deliciously overacting, plummy-voiced ensemble—vivaciously well-costumed by Roberto Surace—is so faultlessly cast it’s difficult to single anyone out. I got a kick out of Dave Hearn’s mindless goofball who uses every moment to bask in the audience’s reactions. Also bathing in self-glorification is the Florence of Charlie Russell, whose “fits” exemplify good bad acting. Henry Lewis has a show-stopping bit of acrobatic acting on a scenic precipice, and there’s also Nancy Zamit’s doofus Annie, the stage manager who takes over for Florence when she’s flattened by a door, and eventually overcomes her jitters to battle Florence when she wants to resume her role.

Of course, The Play That Goes Wrong follows a path already blazed by plays about theatrical mayhem like The Torch Bearers and Noises Off, but it does so with such panache that it should be subtitled Or the Play That Goes Right.

The Play That Goes Wrong
Lyceum Theatre
149 W. 45th St., NYC
Open run

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 Fight for the American Dream: ‘Sweat’

April 1st, 2017 Comments off

 

'Sweat' (Photo: Joan Marcus via The Broadway Blog.)

‘Sweat’ (Photo: Joan Marcus via The Broadway Blog.)

Sweat, a new play Lynn Nottage, may make you do just that. It’s an occasionally squirmish drama that delves into the lives of a handful of residents in Reading, Pennsylvania, an industrial town weighted down by the outsourcing of factory jobs oversees.

Set back and forth between 2000 and 2008, the story follows two generations of families—one white and one black—as the impact of corporate fiscal responsibility and the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) slowly chip away at the livelihood of those who have grown up in the factory.

Stan (James Colby) runs the local dive bar, which this night is occupied by a trio of women in various degrees of inebriation. The sharp-tongued Tracey (Johanna Day), the go-getter Cynthia (Michelle Wilson), and the passed-out Jessie (Allison Wright). But this is no comedic 9 to 5. These hard-working women know that the lives they are destined to lead revolve around the town’s central steel plant. An opportunity for a promotion comes up and the possibility that a move from the factory floor to a management position becomes a power play among Cynthia, who is ripe and ready for the job, and Tracey, who also throws her name into the running but with a much more skeptical perception.

Khris Davis and Lance Coadie Williams in 'Sweat.' (Photo: Joan Marcus via The Broadway Blog.)

Khris Davis and Lance Coadie Williams in ‘Sweat.’ (Photo: Joan Marcus via The Broadway Blog.)

We’re also introduced to Tracey’s son, Jason (Will Pullen), and Cynthia’s son, Chris (Khris Davis) as well as her drug-addicted husband, Brucie (John Earl Jelks). Jason and Chris represent the new generation of Reading, Pennsylvania, and while Jason seems to be content with a future at the factory, Chris has his eye on college and getting out.

Tensions begin to rise as it becomes clear that something is amiss at the factory and equipment is removed. Cynthia has earned the promotion, driving a divide in her longtime friendship with Tracey, and when the union decides to go on strike, the tension becomes palpable. Stan’s barback, Oscar (Carlo Albán), a U.S.-born Colombian-American, decides to cross the picket line in order to earn a higher wage, and in a bubbling fit of rage, a brawl breaks out with him and the two young guys that ends in an unanticipated tragedy.

'Sweat' (Photo: Joan Marcus via The Broadway Blog.)

‘Sweat’ (Photo: Joan Marcus via The Broadway Blog.)

Nottage, who won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama for Ruined, paints a complex picture of race, politics and economy in a story that could easily be pulled from today’s headlines. But in order to hit such hot-button topics, the play often feels heavy on exposition with characters talking about a situation instead of living it. As the two millennials, Pullen and Davis deliver the most complex and captivating performances, showing us how the ravages of a spiraling economy can do irrevocable damage. Albán, too, delivers an endearing performance as someone discovering the cost of pursuing the American dream. The women are painted in broader strokes, but generally speaking, the cast embraces Nottage’s big themes.

Director Kate Whoriskey keeps things moving at a brisk pace, while John Lee Beatty’s inventive sets create a moody background for the action to unfold. Sweat, at times, feels stilted in its narrative, but there’s certainly enough thematic complexity to warrant its transfer from the sold-out run at the Public Theater.

Here’s what the other critics are saying:

Though it is steeped in social combustibility, “Sweat” often feels too conscientiously assembled, a point-counterpoint presentation in which every disaffected voice is allowed its how-I-got-this-way monologue. And this thoughtful, careful play only seldom acquires the distance-erasing passion of Ms. Nottage’s “Ruined,” the 2009 Pulitzer Prize winner about female casualties of the Congolese civil war. The New York Times

Gripping and timely though Sweat undoubtedly is, it’s not as polished or galvanizing as Nottage’s previous work. The second half grows repetitive, rolling toward a predictable violent climax. At times, the dialogue grows preachy or on-the-nose, ticking off points about NAFTA or intersectional racism. Time Out NY

Sweat
Studio 54
254 West 54th Street
Through September 17

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