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Wilting Theatrics: ‘Consider the Lilies’

January 16th, 2017 Comments off

By Samuel L. Leiter

Consider the LiliesAustin Pendleton, who turns 77 in March, continues to be one of the most ubiquitous presences on the New York stage, appearing in or directing several Off-Broadway plays every year. Unfortunately, while he’s done excellent work in both capacities, he often chooses wilted flowers like Stuart Fail’s Consider the Lilies, now presented by House Red Theatre Company at the TBG Theatre.

Billed as “A World Premiere Play” even though it was produced in 2013 at the Minneapolis Theater Garage, this shapeless effort casts Pendleton as Paul, a gay, aging, once successful artist (for what, incredibly, seems like a single painting of lilies), living in Paris in Act One and New York in Act Two.

The irritatingly unlovable Paul is coupled with his earnest, much younger agent, David (Eric Joshua Davis), a failed actor who’s left his girlfriend, Angela (Liarra Michelle), in New York while he struggles to drum up Parisian gallery interest in Paul’s work. Paul, though, is a misogynistic drunk (“the vagina is the enemy”) suffering from painter’s block, thinking he’s washed up, and also from his feelings for David. The latter, who insists on his straightness while Paul insists he’s in the closet, has a conflicted relationship with Angela, whose relationship with someone else while David’s abroad culminates in clichéd consequences.

For two and a half seemingly endless hours we watch the self-pitying Paul and the self-pitying David go round and round wallowing in the same who-cares issues while surrounded by a sea of soap opera bubbles. Father-son themes float about, but there’s very little exploration of the paternal relationship palpitating between the elderly Paul and the decades younger David; as performed, this relationship is as unconvincing as the poorly executed props serving as examples of Paul’s paintings.

The playwright also presents several seriously improbable situations, like having David and Angela, both nearly broke, meet up again on a Circle Line cruise around Manhattan. And audiences may be surprised to see an important piece of news delivered by telegram (still possible, although not via Western Union). Here, though, it’s introduced so that Paul can have the courier (Alec Merced) enter his apartment and read it aloud in a play where phones don’t seem to exist.

Austin Pendleton and Eric Joshua Davis in 'Consider the Lilies.' (Photo: Talya Chalef via The Broadway Blog.)

(L to R) Austin Pendleton and Eric Joshua Davis in ‘Consider the Lilies.’ (Photo: Talya Chalef via The Broadway Blog.)

If ever a play needed sharp direction this is it; instead, its structural weakness is exaggerated by Fail’s egregiously sloppy staging on a bland, shabby-looking set of beige apartment walls, amateurishly designed and even more amateurishly lit by S. Watson; apart from changes in the minimal furnishings, the room is precisely the same for both Paris and New York, with the same blank view out of an upstage window.

Fail’s pacing is ragged, his actors seem to be blocking themselves on the fly, most scenes lack dynamic tension, and, sadly, much of the acting is inadequate. There’s one memorable feature, though: Andy Evan Cohen’s jazzy-blues sound design for the scene changes.

Pendleton, with his impish quirkiness, can be delightful when playing the right role; however, he’s anything but an acting chameleon. Here he resorts to his familiar bag of mannerisms: making jittery hand and foot movements; rubbing his face or racing his hands through his thinning, white hair, when agitated; delivering speeches to the floor instead of the person he’s addressing; coupling sudden bursts of anger with equally sudden retreats into quiescence; and smiling ironically when delivering painful remarks.

As David, Davis slouches, grimaces, and, despite artists’ agents generally being fashion conscious, wears costumer Lauren Levin’s schlubby costumes with schlub-of-the-year panache.

If you’re considering Consider the Lilies I’d advise you to reconsider.

Consider the Lilies
TBG Theatre
312 W. 35th St., NYC
Through January 28

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).

 

 

 

Review: Hamlet at Classic Stage Company

April 17th, 2015 Comments off

by Samuel L. Leiter

Penelope Allen and Peter Scaarsgard in "Hamlet" (photo: Carol Rosegg via The Broadway Blog.)

Penelope Allen and Peter Sarsgaard in “Hamlet” (photo: Carol Rosegg via The Broadway Blog.)

In 1989, when he was forty-nine, Austin Pendleton tackled the title role in Hamlet in an Off Broadway production. Despite stretching credibility—he was too old for the role and encumbered with a comic presence that made him less than ideal for the melancholic Dane—he gave what a New York Times critic called “an intelligent, articulate and reasoned reading”; notably, he excellently captured Hamlet’s sardonic sense of humor.

Except for a few fleeting moments, however, chiefly stemming from Stephen Spinella’s smugly bureaucratic Polonius, there’s very little to laugh at in Pendleton’s own staging of the tragedy for the Classic Stage Company, in which Peter Sarsgaard’s wearily petulant Hamlet seems not to know a joke from a handsaw. Hamlet, of course, is a brilliant wit, but Sarsgaard throws most of his potential laughs away by racing through them and speaking as conversationally as possible, ignoring the meter, and—like the entire cast—performing as if this were a contemporary domestic drama. While he often delivers insight and feeling, he’s rarely more than a shadow Hamlet, lacking the prince’s romantic nobility as his trademark sleepy-eyed persona shuffles uneasily through a colorless and problematic production only fitfully pulsing with life.

Peter Sarsgaard in "Hamlet" (photo: Carol Rosegg via The Broadway Blog.)

Peter Sarsgaard in “Hamlet” (photo: Carol Rosegg via The Broadway Blog.)

Pendleton, who, even at 75, remains one of New York’s busiest actor-directors (his staging of Between Riverside and Crazy was a recent cause célèbre), offers a Hamlet with only ten actors. This radical slimming down, while not original (the Bedlam Theatre does a four-actor version), is done without costume changes (other than the inconspicuous removal or donning of a jacket). Constance Hoffman’s modern dress designs provide the nobility with formal clothing while offering not a stitch of eye-catching theatricality for the drably dressed visiting Players. Even at Ophelia’s graveside, Gertrude (Penelope Allen) must stand there in her silver evening gown and high heels.

The production is rife with tics. Actors morph from role to role before our eyes, only rarely assuming identifying characteristics; if, like Hamlet, you’ve always had trouble separating Rosencrantz (Scott Parkinson) from Guildenstern (Daniel Morgan Shelley), there’s little here to help you, not even that one is black and one white. (You’ll be interested to know that R and G have a coke habit). Glenn Fitzgerald’s graying Laertes could be Claudius in another production, while casting senior citizens Harris Yulin as Claudius and Penelope Allen as Gertrude diminishes the possibility that—for all Hamlet’s ravings—passion played a role in their nuptials (or that Hamlet might harbor Oedipal urges).

Lisa Joyce in "Hamlet" (photo: Carol Rosegg via The Broadway Blog.)

Lisa Joyce in “Hamlet” (photo: Carol Rosegg via The Broadway Blog.)

The music-deficient sound design (by Ryan Rumery/Soundscape) is mainly ominous droning. Hamlet, despite Sarsgaard’s full beard on the program cover, sports smooth cheeks and a freshly shaved head, not unlike Yorick’s skull, into whose cavity Hamlet echoes some of his lines, skull to skull. There’s no grave, thus forcing Laertes to writhe about on the floor, with Hamlet following, as the dead Ophelia (Lisa Joyce) stands blandly by with the funeral party at graveside. The battlement scenes are so dimly lit by the usually reliable Justin Townsend you’re tempted to help with your pocket flashlight. And principals (one at a time) invade scenes in which they play no part to become distracting pieces of human statuary, waiting to come to life in the following scene.

Walt Spangler’s simplified setting sits on a white Lucite floor capable of being lit from beneath; it’s dominated throughout by a dining table and chairs, a huge wedding cake up center, and an impressive, white floral canopy overhead. This is fine for the opening wedding celebration, but why is it still there for the fatal duel?

During that dully executed (pun intended) conventional fencing match (in the course of which Claudius poisons himself), the dead Polonius walks calmly by. Polonius, in fact, is more a zombie than a corpse, since when he’s slain in Gertrude’s bedroom, he simply takes a long, leisurely stroll through the scene, perhaps on his way to take one last pee before shuffling off this mortal coil. Could his addition be compensation for the complete absence of the play’s actual ghost, who appears to have gotten stuck on the LIE coming from Beth Moses?

Volatility is too infrequent in this lugubriously paced, low-keyed, unexceptionally acted rendering of a play requiring full-blooded, and emotion-packed vitality. Only Penelope Allen’s dignified Gertrude gives us a taste of Shakespeare’s classic flavor. After three hours and ten minutes (despite many cuts), one prays that the outmoded way of ending the play will be used—even if destructive of its political intentions—by concluding with Horatio’s “Goodnight, sweet prince. And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest”; the Fortinbras business be damned. Our prayers are answered. Finally, Pendleton, for the audience’s sake, if not the scholars’, has chosen wisely, if not what scholars would call well.

Hamlet
Classic Stage Company
136 E. 13th Street
Through May 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).