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8 Characters in Search of a Play: ‘The Whirlgig’

May 28th, 2017 Comments off

By Samuel L. Leiter

'The Whirligig.' (Photo: Monique Carboni via The Broadway Blog.)

‘The Whirligig.’ (Photo: Monique Carboni via The Broadway Blog.)

At the opening of The Whirligig, Hamish Linklater’s rambling but often richly listenable new play presented by The New Group at the Pershing Square Signature Center, Julie (Grace Van Patten), a 23-year-old drug addict dying from Hep C and stage 5 non-Hodgkin’s, is in a hospital in the Berkshires, where her family lives. Seeking to comfort her are her doleful, divorced parents, Michael (Norbert Leo Butz) and Kristina (Dolly Wells), who soon bring her home for hospice care.

The hospital bed and its appurtenances are set on a turntable whose movement reflects the play’s title; one scene after the other slides into place as the episodic plot, a bit confusingly at times, mingles flashbacks from as long ago as 15 years with scenes in present time. By the end of Act One we’ve met all eight of the play’s characters, each miserable for one reason or the other, most with or fighting their own addictions, and each with some connection to the dying Julie.

Michael, a wisecracking drama teacher and director, struggles with the bottle; Kristina, a writer and professor on antidepressants, berates herself for failing her daughter. The other characters are Julie’s childhood friend Trish (Zosia Mamet), who turned Julie on to drugs when they were 17, making an enemy of Kristina; Derrick (Jonny Orsini), Julie’s first drug dealer, later imprisoned for possession with intent to sell; Patrick (Noah Bean), Derrick’s brother and, later, Julie’s doctor, with a guilty secret of his own; Greg (Alex Hurt), a reformed alcoholic who not only married Trish but tends the bar where many of the others gather; and, finally, Mr. Cormeny (Jon DeVries), a local high school teacher who adds little more to the plot than booze-inspired, comic bloviating.

'The Whirligig.' (Photo: Monique Carboni via The Broadway Blog.)

‘The Whirligig.’ (Photo: Monique Carboni via The Broadway Blog.)

Much of Act One is occupied with peripheral color—the Red Sox, Russian literature, character exposition, blah, blah—it takes a long time to get an inkling of where the play is going, what the stakes are, or why we should be concerned enough to return for Act Two. Before the act ends, though, Linklater establishes his concern with the issue of pointing fingers, assigning blame, for Julie’s condition, something several guilt-burdened characters seem quite ready to accept.

Gradually, in Act Two, the numerous character interconnections slowly come together to reach a tidy conclusion reminiscent of a Shakespearean romantic comedy. Much as the play may wish the audience to be deeply moved, the artificiality and contrivance of this ending—with the cast lined up too obviously across the stage—stand in the way.

Under Scott Elliott’s direction, the action tends to plod, progressing in tiny increments. However, the dialogue often has a nimble, smartass flavor that, while sometimes registering more as clever stage talk than believable conversation, nevertheless helps sustain interest and spark laughter. There’s also some mildly whimsical if thoroughly implausible business involving Trish and Derrick climbing onto a tree branch to chat while getting stoned, a position they’re forced to remain in for long stretches when other scenes are being performed.

The Whirligig offers considerable meat for its actors to chew on. Noteworthy are Van Patten’s vulnerable yet determined Julie, and Orsini’s appealingly clueless (if inconsistently so) Derrick. Mamet’s Trish is like a slightly slowed-down, smarter version of her Shoshana on Girls. Reliable veterans Butz and DeVries could do with a tad less overdoing.

The Whirligig is given an attractive production, beginning with Derek McLane’s simplified set, with a house’s façade at the back and a hanging bower overhead. Jeff Croiter offers beautiful lighting, there are well-chosen costumes by Clint Ramos, and Duncan Sheik’s original music is nicely attuned to the play’s emotional needs.

Hamish Linklater, best known as an actor, hasn’t struck playwriting gold here but dedicated playgoers may find enough nuggets in its two and a half hours to give The Whirligig a whirl.

The Whirligig
The Pershing Square Signature Center
480 W. 42nd St., NYC
Through June 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).

 

Play it Again, Phil: ‘Groundhog Day’

May 26th, 2017 Comments off

By April Stamm

The cast of 'Groundhog Day.' (Photo: Joan Marcus via The Broadway Blog.)

The cast of ‘Groundhog Day.’ (Photo: Joan Marcus via The Broadway Blog.)

When the whole point is inane, frustrating, and annoying repetition, how could there possibly be hope for entertainment? Moviegoers asked themselves the same question in 1993, but the leap of faith was easier to take at around $5 a ticket for the film, for theatergoers today making the jump into a seat at the August Wilson Theatre to see Groundhog Day, the investment looks more like a C-note or two. With vivacious energy, a lot of cockeyed optimistic humor, and a surprisingly poignant moment or two, Groundhog Day pays out at least 70 percent on your big investment.

The premise is dangerously simple. Phil Connors (Andy Karl), a successful TV weatherman from the big city, is forced to do the yearly February 2 remote broadcast in Punxsutawney, PA, home to the famous all seeing groundhog Punxsutawney Phil. The pinnacle of small towns, Punxsutawney is Phil Connors’ worst nightmare; a town with one restaurant, one bar, one store, and full of friendly, exuberant and seemingly simple people who all know each other.

Phil is accompanied by his cameraman and a somewhat green producer, Rita Hanson (Barrett Doss), who actually like the town and its kitsch. A blizzard comes; the crew is stuck for one more night, when Phil Connors wakes up the next morning it’s Groundhog Day… again and again and again…

Andy Karl in 'Groundhog Day.' (Photo: Joan Marcus via The Broadway Blog.)

Andy Karl in ‘Groundhog Day.’ (Photo: Joan Marcus via The Broadway Blog.)

Happy diversions from the necessary monotony come by way of some clever and downright adorable set work by designers Rob Howell (scenic and costume) and Paul Kiev (illusions) and overseen by Matthew Warchus (direction). Their work with miniature set pieces alone, including a brilliantly hysterical and impressive tiny car chase through the streets of Punxsutawney, is original and perfectly fits the quirkily sweet, but slightly irreverent nature of the show.

The music in Groundhog Day is a mostly forgettable, nothing wows or sticks with you as you leave the theatre. However, lyrically and conceptually Tim Minchin’s score strikes some interesting chords. A choral ensemble of “healers” near the end of the first act is amusingly tongue and cheek and for some, squirm-worthy in is topicality.

One of the standout moments, at the opening of the second act, is Nancy’s (Rebecca Faulkenberry) solo. Heretofore, Nancy is the blond to be ogled at and flirted with, a blip in the plot, a diversion, which is exactly what this song looks at in a meta sort of way.

Rightly so, Andy Karl steals the show as Phil Connors. It takes big talent and a huge amount of charisma to carry this role, and Karl makes it happen vocally and physically, enthralling the audience even as we hate him a little, and all with a substantial looking knee brace (Karl injured himself during previews). Counter to Karl, Barrett Doss plays producer and eventual love interest Rita Hanson succinctly. Vocally, she doesn’t falter, however, she is overshadowed by almost everyone else on stage in the charisma department. This makes for little chemistry between the two leads and what is equally problematic, little chemistry between the character of Rita Hanson and the town of Punxsutawney.

So back to the question: to shell out a bill or two for Groundhog Day or not? It is not groundbreaking thematically and is musically tepid. However, the musical is warm, funny, and quirky. It will make you giggle, perhaps shed a brief tear, and has some moments of delightful theatrical spectacle. Is it worth

Groundhog Day
August Wilson Theatre
245 W 52nd Street, NYC
Open-ended run.

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

To Read or Not to Read: ‘Can You Forgive Her?’

May 23rd, 2017 Comments off

By Samuel L. Leiter

Darren Pettie, Ella Dershowitz and Amber Tamblyn in 'Can You Forgive Her?' (Photo: Carol Rosegg via The Broadway Blog.)

Darren Pettie, Ella Dershowitz and Amber Tamblyn in ‘Can You Forgive Her?’ (Photo: Carol Rosegg via The Broadway Blog.)

Gina Gionfriddo’s dark comedy, Can You Forgive Her?, now at the Vineyard Theatre after premiering last year at Boston’s Huntington Theatre Company, takes its title from a 19th-century novel by Anthony Trollope. Directed in both productions by Peter Dubois, this slow-to-get-started piece, despite socially relevant thoughts couched in passably entertaining gambits, is structurally shaky and fraught with character and plot implausibilities; its most provocative feature is its title.

Graham (Darren Pettie), a feckless, heavy-drinking, twice-divorced 40-year-old, stopped working six months ago. That’s when his sad, long-divorced mother, with whom he had a strained relationship, died. A wannabe but unpublished writer, she left him not only her shabby home, valuable because of its proximity to the Jersey shore, but boxes and boxes of manuscripts—literary and autobiographical—which dominate a portion of the set. Graham has read enough to trash it (an opinion no one ever confirms). Yet the ho-hum question persists: to read or not to read.

Can You Forgive Her Vineyard TheatreGraham’s girlfriend, Tanya (Elsa Dershowitz), a single mom inspired by a self-help book she’s always touting, is far more determined to do something, both about her future (she’s a bartender hoping to become an accountant) and his (either renovate the house and rent it or return to his old job). Tanya won’t commit to marriage until he snaps out of his funk and takes positive action.

Set on Halloween, the fairly brief first scene suggests a conventional light romantic comedy with family implications. In scene two, which occupies the rest of this hour and 35-minute play, we move into quirkier territory when we find Graham alone at 1 a.m. with 28-year-old hottie Miranda (TV/film actress Amber Tamblyn in her stage debut), dressed for the holiday as a sexy witch. Looks prove deceiving; she’s actually a self-hating neurotic, a former teacher who nearly got her Ph.D. in poetry (yeah, right); she strongly defends using her sexual allure to survive while rejecting the label of prostitute. It’s just one stretch among many.

Graham, at Tanya’s suggestion, has brought Miranda home after an altercation at Tanya’s bar between Miranda and her date, Sateesh (Eshan Bay), a young Indian immigrant she’s been dating but not sleeping with, who drove her from New York to the local festival. The well-educated but racially narrow-minded Miranda, who calls Sateesh “the Indian,” needs to hide; she’s somehow convinced Sateesh is a potential murderer. The dubious background for all this is recounted in a shaggy-dog exposition.

Meanwhile, we learn of Miranda’s relationship with David (Frank Wood), a sugar daddy she met online, who’s also nearby (which is what got Sateesh riled up). When David, a wealthy, married, plastic surgeon, eventually arrives, comedy blends with farce as the characters grapple with financial and personal issues.

The action basically stops as Gionfriddo moves into discussion mode regarding women’s choices, responsibility, and agency within the construct of the American dream. The essential contrast is between Miranda’s irresponsible decisions (like choosing a “ritzy” private college), which forced her into so much debt she needed to become a rich man’s mistress, and the more practical thinking of the micromanaging Tanya, who overcame bad choices to become debt-free.

We also have to wade through the emotional morass of Miranda and David’s unique relationship—he accepts her abuse because she’s the only one who can make him feel anything—and wonder whether the desperate Miranda will, instead, turn for love to Graham. Finally, we return to the burning question of the damned boxes: throw them out or read what’s in them? As if we still care.

Frank Wood and Amber Tamblyn in 'Can You Forgive Her?' (Photo: Carol Rosegg via The Broadway Blog.)

Frank Wood and Amber Tamblyn in ‘Can You Forgive Her?’ (Photo: Carol Rosegg via The Broadway Blog.)

Can You Forgive Her? too often bogs down in exposition, has a ludicrous premise for why Miranda opens up to Graham, makes Miranda both insightful and clueless, and, among other things, takes forever for us to care about the stakes, if we ever do.

Allen Moyer’s living room set, nicely lit (including several surreal effects) by Russell H. Champa, suggests that Graham’s mother’s decorating tastes were as poor as her writing. Jessica Pabst’s costumes help characterize the people who wear them; Miranda’s little black outfit is a knockout.

Amber Tamblyn ensures that the flamboyant Miranda catches our eye, with her constant hair tossing and glam poses, while Ella Dershowitz (Alan’s daughter, in case you’re wondering) is believably persistent in making her points. Although his presence is nicely grounded, nothing about Darren Pettie’s Graham suggests a man afraid of dealing with life, but veteran Frank Wood brings an amusing comic edge to David.

Why David comes all the way downstage to deliver some of his lines as if talking to—not through—the fourth wall, while blocking those behind him, is puzzling. When Sateesh does the same thing, we know it’s director Peter Dubois who’s to blame. And, like several other things on view, it’s not easy to forgive.

Can You Forgive Her?
Vineyard Theatre
108 E. 15th St., NYC
Through June 11 

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).

 

 

 

 

 

Oh, Brother!: Mint Theater’s ‘The Lucky One’

May 18th, 2017 Comments off

By Samuel L. Leiter

'The Lucky One' at Mint Theater Company. (Photo: Richard Termine via The Broadway Blog.)

‘The Lucky One’ at Mint Theater Company. (Photo: Richard Termine via The Broadway Blog.)

By 1922, British writer A.A. Milne (1882-1956), soon to become world-famous for his Winnie the Pooh children’s stories, was already recognized as a promising, prolific playwright for adults. Between 1920 and 1922 Broadway saw four of his comedies of British manners, including The Truth about Blayds and Mr. Pim Passes By. Both were revived in 2004 by the Mint Theater Company, dedicated to “worthwhile plays from the past that have been lost or forgotten.”

That noble purpose explains the Mint’s exhumation of Milne’s The Lucky One, which certainly has been “lost or forgotten”; whether it’s “worthwhile” is debatable. Written in 1917 but unable to land a London showing, this dramedy about sibling rivalry premiered under the banner of New York’s then rising Theatre Guild. It opened on November 20, 1922, at the now vanished Garrick Theatre. The production, which had only 40 showings, was staged by famed Russian director Theodore Komisarjevsky, making his American debut.

Paton Ashbrook and Ari Brand in 'The Lucky One.' (Photo: Richard Termine via The Broadway Blog.)

Paton Ashbrook and Ari Brand in ‘The Lucky One.’ (Photo: Richard Termine via The Broadway Blog.)

Arthur Hornblow in Theatre Magazine thought that “The piece is a job-lot of scene wrenched out of a Milne note-book and fastened together without much thought to the general picture.” The general opinion was that the play was middling and its weaknesses made worse by a miscast production.

With a few exceptions, the casting of the Mint’s production, efficiently directed by Jesse Marchese, is likewise problematic, as are the set and costumes. The three-act play, clumsy, old-fashioned, and dotted with unanswered plot questions, nevertheless contains enough lively dialogue and dramatic confrontations to make its two hours pass by entertainingly enough. It even contains a line concerning the sharing of secrets with a foreign power that will tickle your topical funnybone. Otherwise, Milne’s play can’t be described as an unfairly overlooked treasure.

Milne’s title points to Gerald, a Foreign Service officer and the younger brother of Bob (Ari Brand). Gerald’s the one everyone loves for his good looks, his sportsman’s abilities, his exceeding charm, and his superior intelligence. The unlucky sibling is “poor old Bob,” as others keep referring to him because he pales in the light of his brother’s accomplishments. Bob’s in love with the beautiful Pamela Carey (Paton Ashbrook); guess who her fiancé is.

Bob’s seething jealousy sits on him like a badly tailored suit; it becomes even more unflattering when the self-pitying fellow, a complete mismatch for his business career in the City (London’s Wall Street), goes to jail for three months after being implicated in his partner’s shady dealing. He continues to prate about his need for Pamela, who’s written in a way suggesting that maybe she really doesn’t love Gerald after all. At the end the brothers engage in a sharply honed climactic dialogue; when it’s over, you can take your pick as to which is the lucky brother.

Surrounding the fraternal squabbles are a familiar lot of drawing-room stereotypes. Best is veteran Cynthia Harris as the wise, aged great-aunt, Miss Farringdon, who has her doubts about Gerald. Paton Ashbrook is warmly affectionate as Pamela, although—it’s the script that’s to blame—she never convinced me such an intelligent woman would fall for either of the brothers.

Robert David Grant and Peggy J. Scott in 'The Lucky One.' (Photo: Richard Termine via The Broadway Blog.)

Robert David Grant and Peggy J. Scott in ‘The Lucky One.’ (Photo: Richard Termine via The Broadway Blog.)

Wynn Harmon and Deanne Lorette as the doting parents, Sir James and Lady Farringdon, are suitably obtuse, while Michael Frederic is believably advisory as the family’s barrister friend, Henry Wentworth. In the comic relief roles of young, golf-obsessed Thomas Todd and his girlfriend Letty Herbert, Andrew Fallaize and Mia Hutchinson are stymied by their unfunny lines and business, but Peggy J. Scott is fine as Mason, a faithful maidservant.

Least lucky are Robert David Grant and Ari Brand as the Farringdon brothers. It’s hard to reconcile the superior qualities we keep hearing about Gerald with their existence in the person of Grant, whose vaunted charisma seems more like smugness. Poor old Bob, on the other hand, is portrayed as a single note of resentment in search of a maternal breast on which to suckle away his grievances.

Martha Hally’s costumes are attractive enough but those for the women, with their skirts nearly to the ground, seem more like 1917, when the play was written, than 1922, when it was produced. More awkward is Vicki R. Davis’s unit set, which needs to represent a country house in the first and third acts, and a London hotel room in the second.

Davis’s physically impressive design consists of a pair of sweeping staircases, backed by sheer curtains, with open risers and banisters made of conventional steel pipes. A large photo of two kids, presumably the brothers, dominates the upper level. None of it, though, has a period feeling.

Moreover, the only effort made to differentiate the locales is the change of flowers made by a stagehand in the drearily overlong scene-shift; otherwise, it takes some time before you realize the locale has moved from the country to the city.

Regardless of the relative success of The Lucky One, New York is fortunate to have the Mint providing several opportunities each season to evaluate neglected plays like this one. In that sense, we, the audience, are indeed the lucky ones.

The Lucky One
Beckett Theatre/Mint Theater Company
410 W. 42nd St., 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).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Rose-Colored Romance: York Theatre’s ‘Marry Harry’

May 15th, 2017 Comments off
David Spadora and Morgan Cowling in 'Marry Harry.' (Photo: Carol Rosegg via The Broadway Blog.)

David Spadora and Morgan Cowling in ‘Marry Harry.’ (Photo: Carol Rosegg via The Broadway Blog.)

If the real-life political drama of the last week has become just too much for you to handle and if you can’t snag a ticket to Hello, Dolly! (money well spent) or don’t have the funds for another one of Broadway’s sweet confections (perhaps not so well spent), York Theatre Company’s Marry Harry, may satisfy your hankering.

With a book by Jennifer Robbins, music by Dan Martin, and lyrics by Michael Biello, Marry Harry follows the shotgun romance of Little Harry (David Spadora) and Sherri (Morgan Cowling), who meet in an East Village alley after each has had a riff with his or her parent. Little Harry is looking to break away from the family’s Italian restaurant, overseen by his father, Big Harry (Lenny Wolpe). Sherri has just broken off her engagement after learning of her fiancé’s affair and now has to deal with her overbearing mother, Francine (Robin Skye). Framing the story are three “Village Voices,” (Ben Chavez, Jesse Manocherian, and Claire Saunders) who act as a Greek chorus but are invisible to the onstage characters.

There’s not much memorable from Robbins’ book, which crams in more plot points than ingredients in your mother’s lasagna. The score, too, while occasionally catchy, won’t leave you with ditties to hum out of the theatre. But what is worth seeing are the two charming performances by Wolpe and Spadora as father and son. Together, as well as individually, they’re able to bring an endearing sense of humanity to the overloaded script. Even in scenes with their more presentational female counterparts (please, somebody teach an acting class in how to have an onstage phone call), the men shine through.

'Marry Harry' at York Theatre Company. (Photo: Carol Rosegg via The Broadway Blog.)

‘Marry Harry’ at York Theatre Company. (Photo: Carol Rosegg via The Broadway Blog.)

The joyful trio also offers some fun bits of staging, choreography and prop handling as directed/choreographed by Bill Castellino. Though their costumes (by Tyler M. Holland) look like they belong in Chicago rather than set against James Morgan’s Madeline-inspired backdrop, they keep the action light and frothy, like a cappuccino from Harry’s Cudicini Café.

Here’s what the other critics had to say…

This good-natured new show at the Theater at St. Peter’s also name-checks Vera Wang, the Ritz Hotel in Paris and 900 Park Avenue (a condo at 79th Street), but the practice doesn’t reflect character or action. The plot is one-note: Boy meets girl in alley. Boy and girl get drunk and sleep together. Promises are made and meet with strong reactions. A subplot about biscotti comes and goes. The New York Times

Director-choreographer Bill Castellino (Cagney) works hard to turn this TV dinner into a gourmet meal, but his swift and inventive staging can only do so much; James Morgan’s whimsically drawn cardboard set is a good deal more colorful than the characters and plot. Marry Harry? You won’t even want to swipe right. TimeOutNY

Thanks to an able cast and Bill Castellino’s (Cagney) nimble direction and choreography, Marry Harry is a lightweight, edible, 80-minute pasta fazool that makes the most of its high-calorie ingredients. Just don’t confuse it with brainfood. Theatre’s Leiter Side

Marry Harry
York Theatre Company
619 Lexington Avenue, NYC
Through May 21

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

He Said, She Said: ‘A Doll’s House, Part 2’

May 11th, 2017 Comments off
Laurie Metcalf in 'A Doll's House, Part 2.' (Photo: Brigitte Lacombe via The Broadway Blog.)

Laurie Metcalf in ‘A Doll’s House, Part 2.’ (Photo: Brigitte Lacombe via The Broadway Blog.)

It begins with a knock. And a chuckle. The knock is onstage. The chuckle, from audience members familiar with Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, one of the most significant plays of the 19th century. The play questioned marriage norms and a woman’s role in society, and at the end, its female protagonist, Nora, leaves her husband and famously walks out the door — leaving her husband, her children, and life as she knows it, behind. That knock is a sure sign that something is amiss.

A Doll’s House, Part 2 picks up 15 years later and Nora has come home. Well, not home, exactly, for she’s made quite a life for herself as a writer working under a pseudonym. If home is where the heart is, then it’s not here, for Nora seems perfectly happy—sometimes giddy, in fact — with the new life she’s created for herself.

Except there’s one major problem. Nora’s real name has been found out, and there’s someone out to ruin her, for her writings have inspired other women to leave their husbands and this particular fellow — a judge — isn’t too keen on that. It gets better. Or worse, as the case may be. Nora’s husband, Torvald, never filed divorce papers, so all of Nora’s endeavors have technically been illegal. So the gauntlet has been thrown down. Either she gets Torvald to agree to a divorce or she likely faces incarceration. And then there’s the small issue of her children she’s left behind.

The cast of 'A Doll's House, Part 2.' (Photo: Brigitte Lacombe via The Broadway Blog.)

The cast of ‘A Doll’s House, Part 2.’ (Photo: Brigitte Lacombe via The Broadway Blog.)

Nimbly written by Lucas Hnath and exquisitely directed by Sam Gold, A Doll’s House, Part 2 is a tour de force for its ensemble of actors, each of which has earned a Tony nomination for his or her performance. At its core is Laurie Metcalf as Nora, who relishes Hnath’s script for every juicy word and smartly juxtaposes period conventions and modernisms.

Metcalf’s counterpoints include the hilarious Jane Houdyshell as Anne Marie, the family nanny who sacrificed her own life to pick up the pieces after Nora’s departure and essentially raised her children. Her foul-mouthed character is terrific ammunition for what’s in store.

Eventually, Torvald (Chris Cooper) comes home, and the former couple has at it in a series of verbal boxing matches that sling blame, hurts, and truths. If you’ve ever been in a long-term relationship, you might cringe at the familiarity of arguments. Cooper is, perhaps, more subtle than his onstage counterparts. He’s made a career in film and television, and while you can see the cogs turning, it’s not quite as dynamic a performance as his female co-stars.

This includes Condola Rashad as Emmy, Nora and Torvald’s daughter. Simultaneously sweet-natured yet with a sharp tongue that she inherited from her mother despite her lack of presence, Emmy hatches yet another plan to possibly preserve everyone’s futures, but Nora is reluctant to latch on, saying one of many resonating passages throughout the play:

…20, 30 years from now
the world isn’t going to be the kind of place I say it’s going to be unless
I’m the one to make it that way –

Gold directs A Doll’s House, Part 2 with the precision of a surgeon, gifting the ensemble with a physical and emotional roadmap that is nothing short of electric. The production design, including scenic design by Miriam Buether, costume design by David Zinn, and lighting design by Jennifer Tipton, supports this vision.

Torvald eventually returns, having taken action of his own, but once again, Nora stands on her own two feet, deciding to bear the consequences, finally saying:

The world didn’t change as much as I thought it would,
but I know that someday everything will be different, and everyone will be free — freer than they are now.
… I just hope I live to see it

Don’t we all.

A Doll’s House, Part 2
Golden Theatre
252 West 45th Street, NYC
Through July 23

A special midnight performance of A Doll’s House, Part 2 is scheduled for Thursday, May 18, with proceeds benefitting The Actors Fund.

 

 

Politics of the Personal: ‘Oslo’

May 10th, 2017 Comments off

By Samuel L. Leiter

'Oslo' at Lincoln Center Theater (T Charles Erickson Photography via The Broadway Blog.)

‘Oslo’ at Lincoln Center Theater (T Charles Erickson Photography via The Broadway Blog.)

I have a friend who’s written a play about a major 20th-century diplomatic crisis but is struggling to find a way to compress its many characters and complex issues into a solid drama with a reasonable run time. I believe, though, he might get a handle on his play if he studies Oslo, J.T. Rogers’s stimulating envisioning of the secret talks that led to the Oslo Peace Accords, signed in 1993.

At the signing, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzik Rabin shook hands with PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat in the White House Rose Garden as President Clinton looked on. Regardless of the criticisms the rather shaky Accords received, no other diplomatic breakthrough has come as close to establishing Israeli-Palestinian peace.

Oslo, warmly received on its premiere last summer at Lincoln Center’s Newhouse, is now ensconced upstairs at the Broadway-level Beaumont, where the same 15 actors are giving it a vigorous, if not particularly subtle, performance under the firm baton of Bartlett Sher.

'Oslo' at Lincoln Center Theater (T Charles Erickson Photography via The Broadway Blog.)

‘Oslo’ at Lincoln Center Theater (T Charles Erickson Photography via The Broadway Blog.)

The fascinating story is enacted on Michael Yeargan’s imposing yet spare set, intended to suggest multiple neutral environments, with perfectly timed trap doors and actors smoothly moving furniture from one of the many scenes to another.

Rogers’s play is about the well-documented but previously little-known backchannel diplomacy that led to the Accords. The material was first brought to Rogers’s attention in 2011 when he met one of the two Norwegian diplomats whose idea it was. He then fashioned his extensive research into this nearly three-hour drama, lightened by occasional humor, focusing on the principal participants.

At its heart are the Norwegians, Terje Rød-Larsen, a highly placed sociologist, and his wife, Mona Juul, an official in the Foreign Ministry. Jefferson Mays and Jennifer Ehle carry these roles with marvelous dignity and aplomb.

Terje and Mona believe that the only way to bring peace to these combative Middle Eastern rivals is to begin on the most basic human level, not at conference tables visible to the entire world, but in private meetings between dedicated representatives discussing matters unofficially on behalf of their leaders. Everyone else, especially the U.S., is to be kept in the dark.

The theory is that when the adversaries get to know each other as people, not abstractions, over food (in particular, a housekeeper’s [Henny Russell] waffles) and drink (Johnny Walker deserves a Nobel Prize), they’ll learn to live and let live.

Oslo is the result of how Rogers’s research led him to imagine Terje and Mona’s maneuvering to bring the two sides together, especially when facing the skepticism of Norwegian Foreign Minister Johan Jorgen Holst (T. Ryder Smith), and the contentious behavior of the hated enemies when left alone in the same room. His method, as Rogers has written, involved conflating characters, compressing chronology, and assigning actions to others than those who did them.

In addition, Rogers says: “Though every character . . . is named for a real person, the words they say are mine.” Thus we not only get some funny jokes that were probably never told but hear countless “F-word” missiles being launched, an overused tic presumably meant to reveal the distinguished participants as flesh-and-blood human beings.

Rogers, occasionally assisted by video projections (by 59 Productions) of both information and bloody events, wisely incorporates both sides of the conflict without favoring either. All the familiar obstacles, such as the fates of Jerusalem and the Israeli settlements, are on the table and each side gets to quarrel passionately about the other’s egregious behavior.

In fact, enough angry steam is blown off to crumble the walls of Jericho; there’s so much shouting it’s a wonder anything gets done at all. (These frequent histrionic outbreaks, which tend to dehumanize and theatricalize the negotiators, are the production’s greatest weakness.)

Meanwhile, Mona and Terje steer clear of partisanship as they tiptoe through the complicated minefield to keep the sensitive talks on track.

'Oslo' at Lincoln Center Theater (T Charles Erickson Photography via The Broadway Blog.)

‘Oslo’ at Lincoln Center Theater (T Charles Erickson Photography via The Broadway Blog.)

Of the three principal leaders, Arafat, Rabin, and Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres (Daniel Oreskes), only the latter actually appears, although Arafat is comically impersonated by Uri Savir, the volatile, wise guy Deputy General of Israel’s Foreign Ministry, energetically acted by Michael Aronov.

The talks begin with four participants, the PLO Finance Minister Ahmed Qurie a.k.a. Abu Ala (Anthony Azizi) and the PLO Liaison Hassan Asfour (Dariush Kashani), an explosive Marxist, for the Palestinians, and, for the Israelis, two Haifa University professors, Yair Hirschfeld (Oreskes) and Ron Pundak (Daniel Jenkins).

Only after the discussions move one step forward, one step back, toward a resolution, do they progress to where the leaders themselves learn of them, which leads to their eventual conclusion.

Promising as were the results, of course, it wasn’t long before they were riddled with bullets and sprayed with blood. Today the situation remains much as it was before, with little optimism in view. Oslo reminds us of how difficult the path to peace remains.

Oslo
Lincoln Center Theater at the Vivian Beaumont
150 W. 65th St, NYC
Through June 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).

 

 

 

 

 

Don’t Miss: Drag Queens of Comedy 2017

May 9th, 2017 Comments off
Lady Bunny (Photo provided by Drag Queens of Comedy via The Broadway Blog.)

Lady Bunny (Photo provided by Drag Queens of Comedy via The Broadway Blog.)

History will be made in Times Square in May when the “Crossroads of America” plays host to The Drag Queens of Comedy 2017, featuring 10 of the most outrageous and uproarious drag queens to ever throw shade over the “Great White Way.” Producer, celebutante and heiress Sasha Soprano presents the largest drag queen show ever served up to The Big Apple!

“The Drag Queens of Comedy” stars Alaska Thunderfuck 5000, Willam, Bob the Drag Queen, Sasha Soprano, Miss Coco Peru, Lady Bunny, Jackie Beat, Peaches Christ, Heklina and Lady Red Couture.

The Drag Queens of Comedy 2017, touring across America, arrives for a one-night-only, two-performance show. These headline grabbers have made their name in clubs across America and on the world-renowned “RuPaul’s Drag Race” TV show, where most of America first met them, fell in love or were scandalized by them.

Guests who attend this epic, not-to-be-missed comedy extravaganza will roar with laughter as these “girls” serve up politically incorrect humor guaranteed to offend everybody. Those who are easily shocked should take their anti-anxiety medication before arriving at the PlayStation Theater.

The Drag Queens of Comedy
PlayStation Theater
1515 Broadway at 44th Street, NYC
6 p.m. – click here for tickets.
10 p.m. – click here for tickets.
Show entry is limited to people 16 years or older.

Murky Waters: ‘Pacific Overtures’

May 8th, 2017 Comments off
'Pacific Overtures' at Classic Stage Company. (Photo: Joan Marcus via The Broadway Blog.)

‘Pacific Overtures’ at Classic Stage Company. (Photo: Joan Marcus via The Broadway Blog.)

Is less more, or is less simply less? John Doyle (Broadway’s The Color Purple and Sweeney Todd)—who has made a career of stripping shows down to their essence—this time attempts to cast his magic spell on Pacific Overtures, the problematic musical by Stephen Sondheim (music and lyrics) and John Weidman (book) that tells the tale of mid 19th century Japan and the impact of western civilization.

The original production, directed by Harold Prince, opened in January 1976 and lasted a mere 193 performances. A 2004 revival fared worse, lasting only 69 performances. This is not to say that a show’s credibility should be judged by its commercial success, but in this case—including Classic Stage Company’s pared-down staging—it raises some flags about Weidman and Sondheim’s stylistically complex piece.

Set against the backdrop of Japan’s Edo Period, when the country was under Shogun rule, Pacific Overtures follows the tale of a samurai and a fisherman who are forced to confront Commodore Matthew Perry and his troops as they attempt to open up trade routes through gunboat diplomacy. The nature of this conflict, both on a global political scale as well as its intimate underpinnings, has plenty of theatrical potential. But it requires an astute ear to appreciate Sondheim’s score.

'Pacific Overtures' at Classic Stage Company. (Photo: Joan Marcus via The Broadway Blog.)

‘Pacific Overtures’ at Classic Stage Company. (Photo: Joan Marcus via The Broadway Blog.)

There are a few cherished musical moments, including “Someone in a Tree” and perhaps the show’s most notable song, “Pretty Lady,” but most of the score requires a pedagogical undertaking. Doyle does little to elevate or clarify the complex script, instead, stripping it down to an ensemble of actors playing multiple roles (but no instruments, thank goodness, in this case).

The original production was criticized for its hybrid of Kabuki and western styles. And while the extremes aren’t present in this production, it’s still a muddy convergence as the actors—dressed in what looks like a close-out sale from a Banana Republic factory store (costumes by Ann Hould-Ward)—perform on a tatami mat with Japanese draperies and props for accents.

Doyle’s staging, heavy on processionals and other stylized movements, traps the acting company in choreography that squelches any instinct for emotion, which is a shame given the immense onstage talent.

Martin Gottfried, author of Sondheim (1993, Harry N. Abrams), wrote of the original production, “The musical theater is a hot place, offering emotional transport for the price of admission. This show was as cool as a Japanese watercolor. Perhaps its downfall lay in that very intention and its creators’ ingenuity in achieving it.”

Unfortunately, not much has changed.

Classic Stage Company Pacific Overtures Book by JOHN WEIDMAN Music and Lyrics by STEPHEN SONDHEIM Additional Material by HUGH WHEELER Directed and Designed by JOHN DOYLE With KARL JOSEF CO, MARC DELACRUZ, STEVEN ENG, MEGAN MASAKO HALEY, ANN HARADA, KIMBERLY IMMANUEL, AUSTIN KU, KELVIN MOON LOH, ORVILLE MENDOZA, MARC OKA, THOM SESMA, GEORGE TAKEI Music Supervisor ROB BERMAN Music Director GREG JARRETT Costume Design ANN HOULD-WARD Lighting Design JANE COX Sound Design DAN MOSES SCHREIER Hair & Makeup Design J. JARED JANAS

George Takei in ‘Pacific Overtures.’ (Photo: Joan Marcus via The Broadway Blog.)

Here’s what other critics have to say:

This revival ought to be just as divisive as Doyle’s other stabs at Sondheim. Some will find that Doyle brings clarity and intimacy to a challenging work, and others will be angry over the textual omissions or the lack of visuals. Personally, I found the production to be a plain and unexciting affair that, for the most part, drained away rather than enhanced the musical’s impact. AM New York

The sometimes-glorious, sometimes-lackluster revival that John Doyle has staged in Classic Stage’s 200-seat Off Broadway home takes that less-is-more proposition nearly to a point of no return. Unlike Harold Prince’s original production at the 1,500-seat Winter Garden, with its jaw-dropping Boris Aronson scenery and costumes by Florence Klotz, Mr. Doyle starts from zero and adds only what he feels he must. He’s an essentialist, not a minimalist. The New York Times

Doyle stages each song and story interlude with exacting precision and a graceful sense of spatial dynamics, continually reshaping the mood with a deft assist from Jane Cox’s lighting. And while each musical set piece feels distinct from the one that preceded it, there’s a mesmerizing fluidity to the pared-down production — an uncluttered harmony that’s both enchanting and mournfully sad. The story may be confusing at times to those unfamiliar with the show, but the overall effect is transfixing. The Hollywood Reporter

Pacific Overtures
Classic Stage Company
136 East 13th Street
Through June 18

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

Baby, It’s Cold Outside: ‘Ernest Shackleton Loves Me’

May 8th, 2017 Comments off

By Samuel L. Leiter

Wade McCollum and Valerie Vigoda in 'Ernest Shackleton Loves Me.' (Photo: Jeff Carpenter via The Broadway Blog.)

Wade McCollum and Valerie Vigoda in ‘Ernest Shackleton Loves Me.’ (Photo: Jeff Carpenter via The Broadway Blog.)

Spring may be busting out all over, but I’d recommend you unpack your winter gear, get out your compass, and board the nearest icebreaker for Eighth Avenue and 43rd Street to see Ernest Shackleton Loves Me, the adventurously innovative musical now melting frozen hearts at the Second Stage.

Written by Joe DiPietro (Memphis), with absorbing music by Brendan Milburn and sprightly lyrics by Val Vigoda (husband and wife members of the Groovelily trio), this unusual 90-minute work blends music, comedy, history, and contemporary social angst in a multimedia smoothie I promise won’t give you brain freeze.

Struggling composer-musician Kat (Vigoda), a 41-year-old single woman, lives in a cluttered, ice-cold Brooklyn apartment with her crying five-month-old baby. Meanwhile, her negligent, faithless boyfriend, Bruce (Wade McCollum), who failed to pay the electric bill, tours the country as part of a Journey cover band.

Val Vigoda and Wade McCollum in 'Ernest Shackleton Loves Me.' (Photo: Jeff Carpenter via The Broadway Blog.)

Val Vigoda and Wade McCollum in ‘Ernest Shackleton Loves Me.’ (Photo: Jeff Carpenter via The Broadway Blog.)

Using a complex arrangement of electronic musical equipment, including a live-looping machine, she speaks and sings her story while playing an electric violin strapped to her neck, composing and recording it as we watch. (Her playing is supplemented from offstage by keyboard-playing musical director, Ryan O’Connell.) She also chats with Bruce and others (all delightfully played by the versatile McCollum) via Skype, the images being projected on a large upstage screen.

Despairing because of her financial problems—she’s fired from her gig composing music for a video game—Kat tries out an online dating service, Cupid’s Leftovers, “your last stop for any hope of love.” Somehow—perhaps because she hasn’t slept for 36 hours—she gets connected across the years with famed British explorer Ernest Shackleton (McCollum again), who’s in the mood for love.

The banjo-playing Shackleton, who emerges amid clouds of frost from Kat’s refrigerator, enlists her on his fabled Antarctica exploration of 1914-1917 aboard The Endurance. Theatrically (and historically) simplified as it is, the experience, enacted against black and white footage shot during the actual expedition, turns out to be remarkably stirring, for Kat as well as us, not least because of Milburn’s thrusting, compulsive score.

Val Vigoda in 'Ernest Shackleton Loves Me.' (Photo: Jeff Carpenter via The Broadway Blog.)

Val Vigoda in ‘Ernest Shackleton Loves Me.’ (Photo: Jeff Carpenter via The Broadway Blog.)

It takes a little time for Ernest Shackleton to warm you up, what with its skeletonized setting, concert-like platforms, and assorted wooden crates; its unconventional narrative style; and its wide variety of still and moving images. Once you’re on board, though, director Lisa Peterson creatively steers you through a string of wild adventures, including climbing a mountain (of metal scaffolding).

There’s also a thrilling journey in an open boat (those crates do come in handy) across 800 miles of open sea during torrential storms, as Kat and Shackleton seek aid for his 22 men, stranded when their ship, The Endurance, gets icebound.

Best of all, Ernest Shackleton is a tale not only of a famed expedition but an inspirational encounter, hallucinatory as it may be, that both enlightens and empowers the once miserable Kat so that she can take control of her life again. An uplifting coda proves that her ship has, indeed, been righted. Who knows? Perhaps Shackleton’s sappy but uplifting message to stick to your guns through the bad times, as well as the good, will do the same for others. As Ernest and Kat sing:

Never mind that you’re out
on the edge of the earth
and it seems like you’ll never succeed
when you think that you’re down,
fight for all that you’re worth,
and you’ll find that you have
all the strength that you need.

Alexander V. Nichols is the inventive mastermind behind the visual design, with spot-on costuming by Chelsea Cook (mainly black hipster garb for Vigoda and polar gear for Shackleton), while Rob Kaplowitz scores highly for his sound design. The icing (if I may) on the cake, though, is the work of Vigoda and McCollum, both of whom have played these roles in pre-New York productions.

Vigoda, a gifted singer-musician, makes Kate a determined presence, attacking the role with vigor (she was once an army lieutenant). But I was bowled over by the bearded McCollum, a tall, athletic, deep-voiced actor, who not only sings extremely well but displays chameleonic virtuosity in multiple roles and charismatic chops that allow him to be commandingly heroic at one moment and broadly or wryly comic at another. McCollum is one of the most refreshing presences on the current New York stage.

I guess you could say I loved Ernest Shackleton Loves Me.

Ernest Shackleton Loves Me
Second Stage/Tony Kiser Theatre
305 W. 43rd St., NYC
Through June 11

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).