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

February 19th, 2017 Comments off

by Ryan Leeds

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

Review: ‘Sylvia’ on Broadway

November 7th, 2015 Comments off

by Samuel L. Leiter

sylvia on broadwayWe all know people who relate to dogs as if they were people, and how, to the non-canine obsessed such behavior can be maddening. Something like this is depicted in A.R. Gurney’s Sylvia, now being revived under Daniel Sullivan’s crisp direction at the Cort Theatre. Sylvia may be a play for grownups but it’s built around a childlike premise.

The grownup part concerns Greg (Matthew Broderick), who’s going through a midlife crisis, falls for a stray dog named Sylvia, and springs it on his unsuspecting wife, Kate (Julie White), when he brings it home to his apartment overlooking Central Park. Kate wants no part of Sylvia, not because she hates dogs but because now that the kids are off to college, she craves the chance to savor her freedom and her work teaching Shakespeare to inner city teens. Greg, though, is depressed about his meaningless job and needs something exciting to jolt him back to life. To keep Sylvia or not to keep, that is the question.

The childlike part is that Sylvia is played by an adorable, kneepad-wearing actress (Annaleigh Ashford) dressed in casually sexy clothes, her blonde hair in floppy pigtails suggesting doggy ears; she’s also able to talk—separately—with Greg and Kate (she goes “Hey, hey, hey” for barks). She romps around, sheds on the furniture, rubs her itchy butt on the floor, goes into heat, shouts filthy insults at a cat, pees behind an armchair, rolls over on command, and doggedly does all those doggy things we expect. Many men wanted to put a leash on Sarah Jessica Parker when she created the role in the 1995 Manhattan Theatre Club’s Off Broadway production, and many more will feel the same about the delectably hilarious Ashford (a Tony winner for You Can’t Take It with You).

Matthew Broderick and Annaleigh Ashford in 'Sylvia' (photo: Joan Marcus via The Broadway Blog.)

Matthew Broderick and Annaleigh Ashford in ‘Sylvia’ (photo: Joan Marcus via The Broadway Blog.)

Amiable as much of Sylvia is, it never goes much beyond its one-joke conceit, even with its scenes featuring three secondary characters played by Robert Sella: these are Tom, whose “studly” dog hooks up with Sylvia when Greg brings her to the park; Phyllis, a wealthy friend of Kate’s, whose crotch smell Sylvia can’t get enough of; and Leslie, a therapist of indeterminate gender who advises Greg when his Sylvia mania gets out of hand. Sella gets applause, but he’s so campy that even Sylvia looks believable by comparison.

Annaleigh Ashford in 'Sylvia' (photo: Joan Marcus via The Broadway Blog.)

Annaleigh Ashford in ‘Sylvia’ (photo: Joan Marcus via The Broadway Blog.)

David Rockwell’s pretty set combines a background of Central Park, with its familiar apartment house skyline, a flown-in wall with a huge window for Greg and Kate’s apartment (which suggests they’re far wealthier than the dialogue indicates), and a roll-on insert for the therapist’s office. Ann Roth’s costumes for Sylvia are appropriately cute, and Japhy Weideman’s lighting offers suitably atmospheric touches.

Ashford’s lovable, mischievous bitch (in both senses of the word) is the chief reason to see Sylvia, although White is wonderfully honest and comic. Broderick, however, floats along on a single, rather monotonous note of colorless abstraction. A highlight, though, is when all three join in a rendition of Cole Porter’s “Every Time You Say Goodbye.” If only the play were as sturdy as Porter’s tune.

Sylvia
Cort Theatre
138 West 48th Street, NYC
Open-ended 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 ‘Pawsome’ Deal For Broadway’s ‘Sylvia’

August 25th, 2015 Comments off

sylvia on broadwayThe box office of the Cort Theatre (138 W. 48th Street) will go to the dogs on Friday, August 28, 2015, when it opens for business for A.R. Gurney’s comedy Sylvia.

Has your pet changed your life? Have you ever wondered what she’s thinking when she stares up at you and tilts her head? Could she have the secret to understanding the world at large and your place in it? Or is she just more interested in how your shoe tastes? The world of a New York couple in mid-life is turned topsy-turvy when the husband brings home an exceptionally engaging canine running loose in Central Park in the hilarious and heartwarming comedy, Sylvia.

From two-time Pulitzer Prize nominee A. R. Gurney (The Dining Room, Love Letters), Sylvia takes a wonderful look into the complexities of love and commitment asks what it truly means to be devoted to your partner…and how do you choose between the love of your life and man’s best friend?

In celebration of Sylvia coming to Broadway for the first time since its MTC debut in 1995 patrons who go to the box office 10am-12pm EST will be able to purchase tickets for preview performances for only $19.95 each. Limit two per person.

In addition, the first 100 people to bring their dog to the box office that day will receive a limited edition Sylvia themed waste pick-up dispenser.

Matthew Broderick (photo: Featureflash/Shutterstock.com)

Matthew Broderick (photo: Featureflash/Shutterstock.com)

Sylvia stars Tony Award-winner Matthew Broderick (Brighton Beach Memoirs, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying), Tony Award-winner Julie White (The Little Dog Laughed, Airline Highway), Drama Desk Award-winner Robert Sella (Stuff Happens), and Tony Award-winner Annaleigh Ashford (You Can’t Take It With You, Kinky Boots). Tony Award-winning director Daniel Sullivan (Proof) will direct.

Performances will begin on Friday, October 2, 2015, and will hold its official opening night on Tuesday, October 27, 2015. Tickets for Sylvia are available for purchase online at www.telecharge.com, by calling (212) 239-6200, or by going to the box office of the Cort Theatre starting Friday, August 28, 2015.

Review: It’s Only a Play

October 18th, 2014 Comments off
The cast of 'It's Only a Play' (photo: F. Scott Schafer via The Broadway Blog.)

The cast of ‘It’s Only a Play’ (photo: F. Scott Schafer via The Broadway Blog.)

Broadway is going meta and I wonder if producers are interested in plot lines that don’t involve a life in the theater. Earlier this month we saw the opening of The Country House by Donald Margulies, a new play about a family of actors ensconced in the Berkshires. This week Michael C. Hall stepped into the role of Hedwig, a star-turn performance about a gender-bending performance artist. And of course, we’ve still got Alan Cumming and Michelle Williams traipsing along in the revival of the revival of Cabaret. But none of them tackle the theme of a life on the boards with such biting humor as Terrence McNally’s It’s Only a Play. Dating back to 1978 and originally titled Broadway Broadway, the script has gotten a 21 century makeover with no additional writing credits, but I would guess that the playwright had some keen millennial eyes on the prize, as this latest version is peppered with references to Lady Gaga, One Direction and other chart-toppers.

Megan Mullally and Nathan Lane in 'It's Only a Play' (photo: Joan Marcus via The Broadway Blog).

Megan Mullally and Nathan Lane in ‘It’s Only a Play’ (photo: Joan Marcus via The Broadway Blog).

The play centers on the opening night of Peter Austin’s (Matthew Broderick) new play as he and others gather at the home of lead producer Julia Budder (Megan Mullally) to await the reviews. Along for the ride are his longtime friend, James Wiker (Nathan Lane), who has returned from L.A. and a long TV stint to see his best friend’s work; leading lady Virginia Noyes (Stockard Channing); critic Ira Drew (F. Murray Abraham), who has another agenda on his mind; British Wunderkind director Frank Finger (Rupert Grint) and a fresh-of-the-bus coat attendee, Micah Stock.

Together, the cast rattles through McNally’s script, which is packed with one-liners and smart commentary about the business. The audience seemed revved up for a Lane-Broderick reunion, as the team appeared so famously together in The Producers. Mr. Broderick also appeared opposite Ms. Mullally in the 1995 revival of How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. There’s a lot of history on that stage and when Mr. Lane entered for the first time, the audience burst into applause as if he was theater royalty. By the final curtain call (yes, there’s an actual curtain, along with a lux set by Scott Pask), he’s earned every last clap.

The supporting cast for the most part keeps up. Mr. Stock makes a charming Broadway debut as a naïve actor who has stepped into the world he’s dreamt about. Ms. Channing captures both the humor and gravitas of an actress of a certain age who can no longer rely on “pretty.” But Mr. Grint’s stomping and hair-pulling turn as the director desperate for a bad review is somewhat of a self-prophecy. It is an unwieldy performance untamed by director Jack O’Brien’s otherwise deft hand.

If you’re looking for a light-hearted night at the theater—about the theater—then head to the Gerald Schoenfeld where this cast of Broadway vets and their up-and-coming counterparts offer laughs, perhaps a swelling tear or two, and a gentle reminder that a play (even though it’s only a play) is a beautiful thing.

It’s Only a Play
Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre
236 West 45th Street
Through January 4

Rupert Grint, Megan Mullally, Matthew Broderick, Nathan Lane, and Stockard Channing in a scene from 'It's Only a Play' (photo: Joan Marcus via The Broadway Blog).

Rupert Grint, Megan Mullally, Matthew Broderick, Nathan Lane, and Stockard Channing in a scene from ‘It’s Only a Play’ (photo: Joan Marcus via The Broadway Blog).

TO SEE OR NOT TO SEE: “Nice Work” & “Clybourne Park”

April 24th, 2012 Comments off

I hope you’ve been pacing yourself because the tsunami of Broadway openings continues through the end of the week. (Maybe I’m crazy but wouldn’t a show get a lot more free publicity and buzz if it opened in a less packed couple weeks? Just saying…) Today, we’re looking at two new shows inspired by old material.

Kelli O'Hara & Matthew Broderick in "Nice Work If You Can Get It". Photo by Joan Marcus.

NICE WORK IF YOU CAN GET

Acclaimed director/choreographer Kathleen Marshall (Anything Goes) whips up a Gershwin confection about a boozy playboy and a tough gal bootlegger starring Matthew Broderick and Kelli O’Hara.

“…a shiny, dutiful trickle of jokes and dance numbers performed by talented people who don’t entirely connect with the whimsy of a bygone genre.” New York Times

“…the primo supporting cast is talented enough to sell it all.” New York Post

“A bulging box of musical-theater candy.” Hollywood Reporter

“But director/choreographer Kathleen Marshall and a stellar cast ensure that the show is as charming in execution as it is disheartening in theory.” USA Today

Read more…