Photo by Don Kellogg

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Other Desert Cities

Perhaps the working title of this play used to be How to Ruin a Family in 12 Easy Steps.  Boy oh boy, What a punch this play packs!  The brilliant playwright Jon Robin Baitz is back from his brief detour to Hollywood and very glad we should be.  Under the direction of Joe Mantello, this production hits all the high notes in all the right places - comedy, religion, social commentary, drama and politics - all within the confines of the (very) white, upper middle class Palm Springs, California home of the Wyeth family.

Take all those powder-keg ingredients and toss in a top notch cast - Linda Lavin, Stockard Channing, Stacy Keach, Elizabeth Marvel, and the very sexy Thomas Sadowski and you've got a 2 1/2 hour weapon of mass destruction on your hands.   How did news of this stellar cast escape the news media, PR people, and me?.   I'm just glad my good friend, Donna, sent me the Playbill offer and I could end the year on such a high quality note as seeing this cast perform this play.

So what's it about?  It's about family, secrets, lies, love, protecting, and possibly at the same time, potentially destroying your children and your entire family.  In many ways, this play is like an season of Brothers and Sisters concentrated into two power-packed acts.  I mention this specifically because I was thinking about the similarities in format and style the entire time I was watching the family drama unfold.  I only realized afterwards as I was reading my playbill that Jon Robin Baitz actually wrote for the series for a season.  Now it all makes sense.

There are a few minor points that I'd like to see clarified in the text - one being the time frame - it's not until you really do the math that you realize the incident they are all dancing around happened in the 1970's (most of the audience spent the intermission discussing the math of how old the characters all were) and the other has to do with the ending.  No spoilers - but let's just say it was not clear to me right away what Mr. and Mrs. Wyeth actually did - it happened too quickly and was not clearly articulated.  It was perhaps the most important revelation of the entire play and it was done too quickly, I had about 3 versions of what was running in my head in parallel for a while.

Whether you like the family drama format, the actors, or the playwright - (or maybe all of the above) - Run, Don't walk - over to the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater at Lincoln Center and catch a performance of Other Desert Cities. It's currently in previews with an opening night slated for January 13th.  I think this one will be around for a while.  I could even imagine a Broadway transfer being discussed.  Hey - if God of Carnage can do it, this one is a shoe in.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

A Small Fire

Adam Bock's new play, A Small Fire, is a solid, well-acted family drama but it leaves you asking more questions than were answered as you exit the theater.  When someone starts to lose their senses - not the mental kind - i mean the actual ones - smell, taste, vision, and hearing - something is wrong.  Very wrong.  Yet we never hear more than one passing reference to a visit to the doctor!  A play that centers around a woman losing all these abilities needs to provide some sort of medical explanation. Perhaps Mr. Bock's intent was to focus on the family drama and not the medical - and I applaud him for that - but some sort of cause or possible explanation should have been at least a small part of this story.

As for the actors, although the play centers around Emily Bridges, (Michele Pawk), this play is Reed Birney's (her husband, John Bridges) to steel and he's done just that.  It's role reversal at its best.  Emily, a tough, hard as nails woman, owns and operates a construction company and seems more at ease with the boys at the site than with her own family, household chores, and femininity in general.   John is more of a homebody - a caring, meek and dependent sort of fellow.  Birney's finesse of the tender moments was sublime.  As his wife is losing her senses one at a time, he finds himself even more dedicated to her - despite the fact that if all this were not happening their marriage may have fallen apart.  Their daughter, Jenny, (Celia Keenan-Bolger), clearly emotionally damaged by the lack of motherly love over the years, is, expectedly, distant and detached.  Ms. Bolger isn't given very much to do or say but it's clear where she stands as she's about to get married and start a life of her own.  Birney's emotional description of the wedding reception scene to his wife (at that point blind) was one of the most poignant scenes in the entire play.  Overall, Ms. Pawk seemed to be a bit lost with character, but gave it her all.

On a disappointing note, Billy Fontaine's (Victor Wiliams) reason for his unwavering support for his boss, Emily, was a complete distraction.  Mr. Bock, not every play needs to have a gay sub-plot - and certainly there was a less distracting way to convey Billy's unwavering support without bringing up AIDS (and pigeons!).   And while I understand the meaning of the ending of the play (she may have lost all her senses, but she can still feel) - did we really need to see such a gratuitous sex?  In this case, less would have been more.

From a production stand-point - I have to point out the extremely well thought-out, unobtrusive and well placed sound and lighting effects.  I don't often point these more technical aspect out (or even notice them), but in this case, they added the perfect emphasis time and time again.  I assume this credit must go to David Weiner and Robert Kaplowitz.

While Mr. Bock's script may not dazzle, the acting in this 90 minute drama is top notch and well worth the price of an off-Broadway ticket over at Playwrights Horizons MainStage.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

The Wife

If you're in the mood for something different - edgy and uncomfortable - check out The Wife, now playing downtown at the Access Theater on White Street and Broadway.  Sometimes you need a change of pace and Tommy Smith has penned a work that's sure to leave you reeling and thinking when you leave the massive open floor plan performance space.

A Hasidic couple in NYC is very unhappy.  They lost a baby a few years ago and she hasn't been intimate with him since.  He visits prostitutes.  She wants to leave the marriage and return to Israel.  She secretly finds work cat sitting for a young white neighbor.  He's nice but a little "off".  His ex-girlfriend is one of the prostitutes her husband has encountered.  The prostitute's daughter crosses paths with the husband.  The guy visits the store where the husband works, mentions the wife and upsets the husband.  The neighbor guy ends up killing the daughter in the woods and gets arrested.  The prostitute and the wife end up taking a train trip.  Everyone's got problems in this play and it doesn't end happily for just about any of them.  Through the dark and crazy plot connections are made, paths crossed, and lives destroyed.

All this and more bat-shit-psycho crazy in 75 minutes with no intermission.  It's intense, it's dark, and it's not your mother's afternoon soap opera.  The acting is top notch and the writing is superb.  Don't be shy - leave Broadway for an evening and shake things up in your life.  It's worth well more than the subway ride there and back and you'll get quite a workout climbing the 4 flights of stairs to get to the theatre!

Wednesday, December 8, 2010


If my memory serves me correctly, I believe I heard that Edna O'Brien originally wrote Haunted in a series of tele-plays.  She later asked Brenda Blethyn to read it - and hence we are finally seeing this version of the touching story of an older married couple growing apart in their later years, distracted and turned upside down by the appearance of a younger woman performed on the live stage in the Brits off Broadway 2010 season.

Tony nominated Brenda Blethyn and Niall Buggy take the helm as Mr. and Mrs. Berry.  Mr. Berry is enamored with the appearance of a strange young woman, Hazel, (Beth Cooke) at his door.  While his wife is out to work each day, the retired Mr. Berry finds himself diving deeper and deeper into his fantasy of a happier life with this woman.   So strong is his fantasy, that he tells her his wife is dead and begins to give her gifts of her clothing and belongings in exchange for her providing elocution lessons.  Things spiral helplessly out of control until finally Mrs. Berry returns home to catch the two in a dramatic, well acted, penultimate scene of the play.

Mrs. Blethyn is superb in her portrayal of the quirky, coy, yet biting and witty Mrs. Berry and virtually steals the show with her meaty performances.  O'Brien's work could certainly use some trimming to eliminate the drawn out, repetitive (read boring) nature of some of the dialogue and scenes.  I thought the addition of the rather (comparatively) high-tech video projections between the scenes provided a much needed emotional and mental picture of the subconscious and ominous emotions that O'Brien was intending to convey.

Do the British prattle on too much?  Of course.  This play is no exception, but top notch acting saves the day.  I wish I could say the same for Mr. and Mrs. Berry.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Looking at Christmas

A delightful poem to the the Christmas windows that dot the sidewalks of New York City during the holiday season.  Skip the madness of of Radio City Music Hall and take a relaxing stroll downtown to the Flea Theater to see what I consider to be one of the best new additions to the holiday show repertoire.  Steven Banks, the playwright, is the head writer for Sponge Bob Square Pants and he's penned a charming, witty, and unique take on a chance meeting of two lonely and lovelorn strangers on Christmas Eve in New York City.  Jim Simpson, artistic director at the Flea Theater, could not have made a more entertaining and satisfying choice to produce this holiday season.

As the two strangers, John (Michael Micalizzi) and Charmian (Allison Buck), meet in front of  Bloomingdale's and decide to stroll down the streets of New York on Christmas Eve, they find themselves questioning their relationships, careers, directions, family and friends.  After revealing a little something about themselves in front of each store window, the window then comes alive and adds a little commentary about what it just saw.  This year, according to the paper Charmian is carrying,  the general theme of the windows is Favorite Christmas Stories - Mrs. Claus and an Elf, Hans Christian Anderson's Little Match Girl, Scrooge and Tiny Tim, A Snowman and Snow Princess, and Jesus and Mary in the stables are among the stories represented in the windows.   With a story and character-specific dash of whimsy, we find out a little something about what each window thinks - and at the same time the romance buds a little bit more.

It's no secret where the story is headed.  And while the pace could be stepped up a bit (changing between the couple and the windows), the story still strikes a perfect holiday note.  When you leave the theatre, you just might want to take your own stroll to see the windows for yourself.  Who knows what they'll be saying when you walk away?

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Spiderman Turn off the Dark

Let's be clear right up front.  This is not a review.  It's a preview.  I had the unique opportunity to see Spidey roar to life on it's fourth-ever performance.  I went because I wanted to see what a show looked like as they were in the final stages of putting it together.  My fascination with this show is the unique process by which it is being brought to Broadway, not with the show itself.  I don't think I knew anything about the Spidey story growing up.  I stuck to Bugs and Fred and Barney mostly.

Normally, a big new show starts out of town - say in Los Angels, Chicago, or Seattle.  The creative team has never built sets before, never seen how one scene flows into the next from beginning to end, and maybe has only seen the show in a workshop room - never staged at all. They build it all and perform it all in a city away from the eyes of the critical New York press, perfect it, and then, when ready, move it to Broadway for a magical debut.  Makes sense, right?  Sometimes when you are cooking a meal for the first time, you do a "dry run", right?  I know people who get a new job and they drive there 2 or 3 times just to make sure they don't get lost along the way and show up late on the first day!

Well, that's how it all used to work, anyway.  What one of the producers told us on stage just before the preview performance was just this - with one caveat - this show was too big, too complex to do that. There was only one theatre in the world that could handle the massive undertaking - and we were sitting in it.   I'm not so sure I really believe that - but that's the producers' story and they are sticking to it.  And this is where my problem begins.

The house was a sell-out.  By way of history - Spidey's opening has been delayed several times.  So the theatre was filled with people who may have bought tickets month's ago and this particular performance would have been well into the initial weeks of the run - not the 4th preview.  By the sounds of the French, British, German and mid-western and southern US accents all around me - many were tourists.  After all, this is a "big deal" on Broadway, what tourist wouldn't want to get a piece of this action?  The problem is - some of these people paid upwards of $140-$200 per ticket.  (full disclosure, my ticket in the center orchestra, Row O cost me $77).  When you're paying that much to see a show, you may come in with expectations of perfection.  Clearly that was not going to be the case.  I found myself thinking, what's going to happen when these people who paid that much see a show stop, see the lights come up and the actors reset a scene, the stagehands actually on the stage at times?  Will a rope fall on our heads like it did during the first preview? Can I sue them if Spidey falls on my lap and breaks my neck? (OK, i digress...).  Will the people who just expect to be dazzled want to see all that?  Will they walk out in disgust and spread bad news about the show?  Well, here is what I think happened and it's based on, of all things, an interview on Larry King with Al Pacino that recently aired.

Larry was asking Pacino about his performance as Shylock in The Merchant of Venice on the summer stage in Central Park.  Pacino described how it was a unique stage in a unique environment - tree branches fall on stage, an unexpected wind blows your robe above your head, and occasionally it rains - which of course stops the show.  He described how every time it rained and the stage manager announced that the show would pause, the audience seemed to love this.   Larry grimaced and Pacino went on to describe that he could only speculate that people just love to be a part of something unique - and when rain stopped the show - they got to experience something unique - witness how the actors handled it, how the show re-grouped and moved on.  "Always applause", he said.  As if they were cheering us on for being able to handle the interruption.  They were now part of a performance that nobody up to this point had experienced.  People are people.  They all look at the car accident on the side of the road, and apparently they all love when rain stops a show in central park too.

So I apply this principle to the Spidey phenomenon.  My preview performance did stop.  Spidey got stuck. Randall, the production stage manager sitting up in the first box in a little booth who was introduced to us by the producer prior to the show, indeed, had a moment with us.  House lights went up, he fired off some instructions to the actors and stage hands and in a few minutes, we were back on track. During the pause, of course many people decided it was appropriate to clap, cheer on the stuck spidey up on the mezzanine landing spot.  People felt obliged to blurt out comments, others got up and went to the bathroom (and came back in the dark because we were back on in less than 5 minutes).

My point here is that people seem to be publicly condemning the imperfect product, but actually enjoying it at the same time.  Do I have a laundry list of notes for director, Julie Taymor?  Yes.  Do I think she'll ever read this blog post and call me up to discuss them?  Not a chance.  So I'm going to wait until the show opens to see it again and see just how many of those things are gone from my list.  I'll even promise to post the entire list and cross off the ones that were resolved.  But I do have one idea that maybe if everyone was starting this mess all over again would have considered  - - and here it is - -   Everyone must have known this show was going to be mammoth and expensive and technically complex from the get-go.  The producers have sunk an estimated $65M into bringing this show to life - and it will cost them over $1M in running costs each week to keep it running - above and beyond the $65M investment.

Since they were doing something never done before - why didn't they do something in the ticketing world they've never done before - sell tickets to the early performances as dress and technical rehearsals for a fraction of their costs?   The producers are trying to have it both ways - bring a show to Broadway in one of the most unique ways - but all the while stick to the old fashioned model of pricing and selling tickets and they get angry when reviewers prematurely make negative comments - all the while selling full price tickets to the performances.  If every ticket in the house was $40 and the entire preview period was deemed a "dress rehearsal" from the outset - I believe the concept would have generated unique interest - above and beyond the hype for the show itself.  Sell out the preview period with cheap tickets intended to showcase the initial weeks as a work in progress.  Remember, people like to be part of something unique.  Why not sell your strong point - SpiderMan is unique and every aspect of the production, including the ticket pricing and preview performance model should have been be ground breaking and a novel way to publicly birth the show.  Maybe my idea is flawed, maybe someone already thought of it and poo-poo'd it.  Or maybe it was a missed opportunity.

You'll just have to wait for my review which I'll reserve for when the show is officially ready to be reviewed.  I certainly hope some of the items on my list get addressed.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

The Extraordinary Ordinary

Scott Burkell and Paul Loesel have a lot to be proud of.  After only two years in development and a short rehearsal period, I had the privilege of attending the opening night of their delightful new tuner, The Extraordinary Ordinary, at the Clurman Theatre on West 42nd Street.

It's a slice of life story with 5 thirty-something friends now all living in New York City, growing older and experiencing life - each exploring, doubting, loving, and learning about themselves along the way. Karen (Courtney Balan) is the neurotic, list-making, perennially single glue who hosts monthly Friday night and holiday get-togethers for the group.  She's got a BFF, Sam (Kristoffer Cusick), another longtime friend from college - fabulously gay and usually bouncing from one dead-end relationship to another who is now dating Joey (Jonathan Parkey), a much younger, wise beyond his years college boy.  Bev (Kelly McCormick) and Zach (Patrick Oliver Jones) are the classic successful, driven married couple who have started to grow apart. Last, but certainly note least, there's the zany, off-beat, and quirky Kate (Pamela Bob) who needs, among other things, to figure out if her boyfriend, Stu, is a keeper or not.

This just might be one of the most delightful show I've seen in a long time - the contemporary story doesn't go overboard with the stereotypes, the relationships and the problems seem real, and most importantly, the cast has some genuine chemistry which is intelligently harnessed with some excellent direction by Chip Klose.  Of course, it also helps when the songs never fail to delight and entertain the entire evening.  Through life's little mishaps, personal self-doubts, afternoons in the park doing crossword puzzles, 3-way phone calls, relationship issues, and the many evenings at Bev's apartment, the message of true friendship and love shines brightly throughout the show.

Call, text, or email your BFF today and take them out to see this upbeat, entertaining, and thoroughly enjoyable musical before it's too late - it only runs thru December 18th.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Priscilla Queen of the Desert

Here she comes boys.... the granddaddy of all drag shows will be rolling it's bus into our town this winter.  For me, I got the chance to go see her out of town in Toronto this past weekend and let me tell you right now - it is going to be over the T.O.P - filled with glitter, glitz, and gay boys in outrageously colorful costumes singing campy pop hits.  One note, probably because there is already one ABBA show running on Broadway, the producers made a wise decision to change (and update) the young character's obsession from ABBA to Madonna.  A very wise choice, indeed. Who doesn't want to see 3 drag queens strutting their stuff to any number of Madge's tunes, right?

By way of background - I've never seen the movie (yes, i know, take my card away).  So this experience was a genuine first.  Many people have told me what the movie was like - and i can read too - but for me not having seen the movie might have made this production even more special.  I have a feeling, like so many iconic movies, no matter what they do on stage, everyone will say "it doesn't compare" or "the movie was so much better".   That's probably a losing battle for the producers so they don't even try to fight it.  Where they win is in the production quality (read camp) of the musical numbers.  Nothing beats a bunch of drag queens in outrageous costumes strutting their stuff on a broadway stage.  Throw in some really cool and over the top video projection and lighting effects and a book that keeps it gay gay gay and you end up with something that's destined for success on the great pink way.

Bringing a show like this to the stage is bound to introduce some complications to downsize and focus the book.  The fact that there was an actual bus on stage was a big score for the production.  Without that one rather large piece of technology, i doubt this show would ever have made it out of previews.  I would also think when it gets to the Palace, the first thing they'll do is remove the Chandelier in the middle of the theatre and replace it with one great big disco ball.  The one downside I feel obliged to highlight is that I didn't feel there was a very deep story being told.  Many have told me that the movie (remember, the inevitable comparison) was touching and tender as well as being campy and gay.  Well, if there is one thing this show is lacking, it's a deep story.  It felt a bit shallow, trimmed down and condensed for the sake of Broadway's unavoidable moderate, fun-loving audiences.

Despite this one minor drawback, the talent on the stage more than made up for lack of story.  Nick Adams (Felicia), Will Swenson (Tick) and Tony Sheldon (Bernadette) helm this production like no others could.  Adams, who most call a triple threat,  is drop dead gorgeous, unbelievably pliable and genuinely adorable all rolled up in one.  And folks, when I say hot, i mean burn your fingers off if you touch him HOT.  Swenson is tender and lovable and Sheldon takes Bernadette to a level I think only Charles Busch could compete with (Busch wasn't in the show, just for the record).

Ladies, when this bus rolls into town at the Palace Theatre you had better have exact change all lined up!  Next stop - Alice Springs!

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Long Story Short

It's no secret - Jerry Seinfeld has now conquered Broadway - well only as a director, for now.  Colin Quinn's stand-up comedy routine, Long Story Short, is certainly long on marketing, but falls short on substance and meaningful theatre for a Broadway house.

Is it funny, witty, amusing, and entertaining?  Sure.  Somehow I guess I expected some theatrical magic to accompany Quinn's abridged 75 minute tour through civilization's (cherry picked for the humor) major societies.   Instead all I got was the seemingly left over set from Xanadu (a previous production at the Helen Hayes Theatre), some artful graphics on a large projection screen and lighting that changed colors more times than Sarah Palin said "maverick" on the campaign trail.

It's not like Quinn did back flips or dance moves on the stage - he stood there - occasionally climbing up and down the cheap set telling us mildly amusing jokes and stories in his ever-blunt fashion.  I'm pretty sure that Quinn didn't need Seinfeld  - since he's a pretty funny guy all unto himself - and it was more about his name associated with the show.  Branding.  Seinfeld is known as a comic genius.  What better way to sell tickets to a stand-up comedy routine taking up residence in a Broadway house than to associate yourself with one of the most successful names in the business today.  Quinn and his show are good.  But not that good.  Broadway is still no place for a stand-up comedy routine, no matter who's directing.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

The Science of Guilt

What would you do if someone told you all that guilt would wash away if you took this little pill?  Would you take it?  Throw in a dash of family drama and there you have the premise of this new play by Jason Odell Williams playing at the DR2 Theatre in Union Square.

This 3 character play is not without its problems - an unrealistic view of how the pharmaceutical industry works along with an unrealistic view of how a drug is actually invented.  Top that off with a family twist that is so confusing you're head hurt and you'll need a pill for yourself.  Anatol Yusef (Kevin) and Vincent Piazza (John) do a generally upstanding job at weaving and ultimately unraveling the sibling rivalry that exists between them, despite the fact that it's hard to believe the John has created this little pill even thought he's a medical school dropout and has no job that involves a laboratory.  Kevin, a seemingly well off business man (undefined as to how) welcomes John, his younger brother back into his life after an 8 year absence (also undefined as to why).  The family drama is thrown in when we find out Kevin's wife, Marcy (Sarah Kate Jackson) was formerly (or maybe not so formerly) John's fiancée before he disappeared.  Who's screwing who here is more the question.  Deeper and deeper plunge into this family debacle until finally one man (it's obvious from the start that it won't be the girl) is left standing.  Can you guess who it is?  I was there and could barely follow it all.

The trouble with this play is Williams' confusing material, not the actors.  Perhaps if you take a little something to relax your brain before you see it - you, too, will be rewarded.  If nothing else, the pharmaceutical industry certainly will be.

Friday, November 19, 2010

You've Got Hate Mail

Billy Van Zandt and Jane Milmore wrote and star in this screwball comedy playing at The Triad involving sex, lies, and most importantly, laptops.  Mis-directed chat messages, emails, and fake identities run amok among Richard the cheating spouse (Billy Van Zandt), Stephanie the naive suburban housewife (Jane Milmore), Peg the eternally single friend (Barbara Bonilla), George the dirty minded boss (Glenn Jones), and Wanda an office bimbo (Fran Solgan).

Staged like a reading, the actors sit in a line in front of their laptops frantically sending messages, reading them aloud as fast as they can type them.  Despite the simple and repetitive nature of the staging, the show finds many moments of hilarity in the relationships the cyber world spawns and the freedom that faceless, often comical, communications it seems to encourage.   One of my favorite characters (and that is indeed a perfect word here) is George and his cyber abbreviation malapropisms.  He turns LMAO into "laughing my face off" and TTYL into "talk to you soon".   After you catch on that he didn't just screw up a line, you'll be salivating for the next.  Van Zandt and Milmore's production could use a few cuts and maybe one less "act", but in the end - if you're in the mood for a few cocktails and a bunch of computer based chuckles, google this one and book yourself a seat on line.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010


Something told me as soon as the curtain went up - this is not an American play.  (Maybe if i noticed the date and place atop the huge diary entry scrawled on the curtain I'd have realized this too).   Instead, a sparse stage with Ikea-looking furniture clued me in.  Indeed, the play was written by someone from and takes place in Norway .  The subject matter is a bit odd, but enjoyable nonetheless - Two men get released from a mental hospital into what we Americans might call a half-way house.  They are not dangerous people and the show is a comedic, mis-hap laden, and touching chronicle of their rehabilitation and re-introduction into society.

Dennis O'Hare (Elling) and Brendan Frasier (Kjell Bjarne) certainly have chemistry and it instantly permeates the air as the two odd-ball men engage in their banter.  If an American TV series were to be spawned from this play, it might be aptly titled The Odd Odd-Couple.  Richard Easton (Alfonz Jorgensen) and Jeremy Shamos (Frank Alsi) also rounded out the cast but frankly didn't provide much to the overall hilarity of the story itself.  The magic formula for this show lies squarely on the shoulders of O'Hare and Frasier.  I'm not convinced, however, that Jennifer Coolidge (Reidun Nordsletten) is even certified to be up on stage, nonetheless with these two stage pros.  Her performance was often stilted (Gunn) and even confusing at times (Reidun).

There were quite a few laughs and after I warmed up to the idea of the show, I must say I enjoyed it thoroughly.  A few surprises break up the action including the poetry-slam scene in which Shamos had a show stealing moment and the restaurant bathroom scene where Elling meets Alfonz - let's just say the sound effects stole that one.  Note to readers: the next time you buy sauerkraut, look inside the package.  Like Elling, you might just find a pleasant surprise inside.

Monday, November 15, 2010


I love going to see plays downtown.  Downtown. That's shorthand for plays that take risks, aren't full of makeup and costumes, and really showcase the artists' talents.  Edgewise, Eliza Clark's new work now being performed at WalkerSpace in Soho, is just one such play that just might rip open your mind and explode itself all over your evening. (um, I mean that in a good way).

Youth, rebellion, bullying, anger (lots of anger), romance, and an undefined active war on US soil are just a few of the subjects that fill the afternoon a dumpy suburban New Jersey burger joint named Dougal's.  Philip Ettinger (Ruckus) and Tobias Segal (Marco) take center stage along with Aja Naomi King (Emma) as the unsuspecting teen workers at the joint concerned with the usual age-appropriate things when Alfredo Narcisco (Louis), a bloody man,  stumbles in the front door after an apparent attack outside and a stranger (Brandon Dirden) wanders in for a burger .  Where their individual emotions, suspicions, and prejudices take them is the fuel that makes the engine of this play fire on all cylinders.  It's raw.  It's powerful.  It's not perfect.

Sometimes plays aren't all sunshine and lollipops.  Due to the graphic violence, I doubt we'll be seeing this one transferring to Broadway for a commercial run any time soon, but it doesn't mean you won't be deeply moved and you might even think about the subject matter after you leave the theater.  You might even recommend the play to a friend.  I was. I did. I do.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Mrs. Warren's Profession

Deception, lies, money, bribes, love, lust, an illegitimate child, prostitution... and that's just the first act!  George Bernard Shaw's world in 1893 wasn't far off from our own today.  Difference being, all he had was a pen, a stage, and actors to tell a provocative story his audience could see and hear no other way.   Shaw was a big believer in theatre that engaged the audience in the issues of the day rather than letting them escape from them - hence this stinging work he penned.

Set in four equal acts, the show depicts Vivie Warren (Sally Hawkins) as the young, well educated, pragmatic daughter of Mrs. Kitty Warren (Cherry Jones) who, in her coming of age, finds out that her entire upbringing and education was funded by her mother's secretive business endeavor - Brothels.  She briefly reconciles with her mother after coming to terms with the reasons her mother turned to such a life, but then quickly rebukes her after she realizes that the secretive business is not just a faded memory, but an ongoing operation.   Throw in a dirty older gentleman business partner (Mark Harelik) who seeks an "arrangement" to marry Vivie and keep the entire operation within the family, a dashing young suitor (Adam Driver) with no money who wants to marry Vivie for love (and her money), his father (Michael Siberry), the local vicar who strangely rejects the idea of his son's marriage to Vivie for suspicious "reasons undisclosed", and a worldly, trusted friend (Edward Hibbert).

Unfortunately, I don't think this play is going to be a Tony contender, although it surely entertained.  Jones is a powerhouse on stage, a force to be reckoned with.  However, Hawkins seemed to be screaming all the time rather than exuding her "power of the new age woman" - proud, educated, professional, independent, and ethically sound - as I believe Shaw meant the part to be - - a complete counter-weight to her mother's character.  The men on stage turned in sound performances, and certainly seemed to be enjoying their roles in this turn of the 19th century Payton Place drama.

I must say, despite some minor flaws i may have mentioned, I thoroughly enjoyed the show - I think more because of the story itself than the specific actors.  Shaw was a realist and this play contained real issues of the day (one might argue they are timeless).  At the end of the day, anything with Cherry Jones is worth seeing and almost anything at Roundabout Theater is worth seeing - a combo that, just like a steamy night at a red hot brothel, can't be passed up.

Monday, November 8, 2010


The British invasion has arrived.  Each year 59E59 Theaters hosts Brits off Broadway - a theater festival chock full of shows of all forms, sizes, and shapes from across the pond.  Pieces is a brilliantly disquieting work by Hywel John staring 3 British actors who grace the intimate stage for 90 minutes of non-stop intensity.

From the get-go, Steven Meo (Jack), Louise Collins (Beatrice), Jennifer Kidd (Sophie) weave an eerie and well-acted tale.  At first blush it seems a simple sad story - Jack and Beatrice, two young children, have lost both their parents (seemingly in a car accident by the screeching tires we hear in the dark as the lights come up).

The deeper we dive into the mysterious life of these twins who are isolated in the British countryside with their god-mum, now guardian, an eerie, bizarre tale unfolds.  The seemingly innocent, well-raised children are adamant about preserving the memory of their parents - wearing their clothes, repeating their words and phrases and, with grave consequences, attempting to re-enact their life - Picking up the pieces and moving on, as it were.  What they attempt is the literal, but what we see is how that literal is not fully understood by the child's mind.  Though this odd behavior we see the relationship between the adult and children progress as the days wear on.  When Jack learns a secret about Sophie, we see the tale take a bizarre journey to a shocking and unsettling end.  Applause at the end seemed inappropriate, yet very well deserved.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

The Break of Noon

Neil LaBute's new play is vague.  Was I supposed to walk away thinking this guy was a a phony?  He faked it?  Or was I supposed to walk away snickering to myself about how awful society is and how if one man claims to have found religion, we rebuke him?  Well, to tell the truth, I, along with several heretofore unacquainted theatergoers, I walked away asking for the 100 minutes we invested back.

David Duchovny (John Smith) was flatter than a penny after being run over by the #1 train.  I couldn't tell what he was trying to emote.  The two ladies in the cast turned in decent but generally unremarkable performances - Amanda Peet (Ginger/Jesse) and Tracee Chimo (Jenny/Gigi).  The only actor who impressed was John Earl Jelks (Lawyer/Detective).  He had a presence and a power on stage that none of the other actors seemed to be able to summon.  Peet, as Jesse, came close near the end but the poorly directed character she was playing just got in the way.  Great Long Island accent, however.  

So, I'm wondering the whole time what LaBute was trying to convey here - and along comes this last, incongruous scene where we are presumed to be watching John go "evangelist" to get his message out - and it ends with him levitating.  Levitating?  WTF?

The play was in that dump, The Lucille Lortel Theatre, in the gay ghetto on Christopher Street, which didn't serve to improve my mood any either.  I wouldn't rush out to see this one.  Unless you need a nap in a bad seat.  Don't worry, the play won't wake you.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Angels in America - Part Two: Perestroika

I believe this two part opus by Tony Kushner is powerful no matter how it is viewed.  I chose to view it sequentially in one day - Saturday - a 3 hour Part One at 2pm and a 4 hour Part Two at 8pm.  While most may consider this a long day in theatre - it could alternatively be viewed as a unique immersive experience.  Taking a break of several days or weeks between the two parts is not a bad thing - but if you can handle it, the rewards of the 7 hour marathon are well worth the sacrifice.  The show is being performed in repertory at the Signature Theater for the entire run with both Wednesdays and Saturdays being the opportunities for the marathons and all other days the single plays alternate with regularity.

Part Two:  Perestroika continues on exactly where Part One:  Millennium Approaches leaves off - New York City 1986.   At the end of the first play, Prior Walter is visited by the angel in an emotional and theatrically compelling scene.  The concept of fantasia is only a flirtation in the first play, but is fully exploited in the second.  As the latter play unfolds, Kushner uses the powerful devices of theatre and the fantasia to lay out his theories of God, heaven, and humanity.   Without going into the specifics, Kushner presents to us the idea that, yes, there is a God who created the universe and there are angels.  But his twist on the idea is that the angels are actually lost.  God left us.  The Angels are waiting for him to come back but humanity is moving ever faster and forward, creating more and more social problems, political schisms, and global conflict.  The angels want us to slow down, stop migrating, and wait for God to return so that harmony can be restored.  Wow.   

The conflict presented in the fantasia and in parallel in real life in politics, religion, and society is that we can't do what the angels in the fantasia want.  As Prior Walter ultimately does reject the angel's proposal in the fantasia - so does he reject the idea in real life too.  He does not accept his boyfriend back, instead he moves forward.  He does not initially accept the AZT medicine for his disease, but he does move forward (whether or not he eventually does, one can only speculate),  Joe's mother rejects her hateful religious beliefs and moves forward a more enlightened human.   Most of all life itself moves forward.

After 7 hours, I was emotionally exhausted and intellectually drained, but not so much that I couldn't walk away hopeful and optimistic.  Kushner's play is a brilliant work of our time and the fine actors on stage at the Signature Theatre provide it the voice he intended it to have.  

The great work has already begun.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Angels in America - Part One: Millennium Approaches

To be precise the full title of the play is Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia On National Themes.  We tend to leave off that last part and I believe with the passage of time, that portion of the title holds an ever more important role in explaining the nature and purpose of the play.

The play is a 7 hour opus divided into two independent plays of equal length often performed in repertory.  Part I:  The Millennium Approaches takes place in 1986 New York City and introduces us to 3 overlapping story-lines - a young gay couple one of whom reveals he has AIDS; a tough as nails, un-stereotypically gay power-attorney diagnosed with AIDS; and a troubled Mormon couple recently relocated to New York City.  As Part I unfolds, it is revealed to us just how entangled these stories are about to become as the Millennium (both lower case m and capital M) approaches.

If the play were merely about these 3 plot-lines, this work would have been turned into a soap opera running on Lifetime Television every night at 9pm.  However, Tony Kushner's opus is contextually much deeper.  It thrusts the visceral socio-political thorns in America's side in 1986 to the forefront - specifically homosexuality, Ronald Reagan, AIDS, racism, conservatism, and the religious right and what it means to be an American in the context of history, religion, and modern day politics.  In some ways, the play is not about the actual characters themselves.  Again, the second part of the show's title:  A Gay Fantasia on National Themes, is truly the point.  This play is a documentary of an era, a sermon, a call to action.  The use of fantasia serves only to enhance the message, provide a rich context, generate conversation and spark dialogue.

The choice of the very intimate setting of the Signature Theatre - Peter Norton Space was a brilliant staging decision.  With some assistance from panoramic video projections and a very vibrant sound and lighting system (Ken Travis and Ben Stanton) they are able to transport the audience to the multitude of locations with the seemingly simple rotation of the box-like sets (Mark Wendland) that were most definitely complex under the hood.  This leaves the power of the show to the spoken words and underlying concepts.  What about the cast, you ask - without a doubt it is simply top notch.  As customary with this work, the cast plays multiple characters - and often those choices of who plays which alternate character are, themselves, a clever social commentary all in themselves.  Kushner's opus fires on all cylinders and attacks on all fronts.

Christian Borle gives a tremendously emotional, and vibrant portrayal of Prior Walker.  In his New York debut, Zachary Quinto plays a superbly analytical, emotionally torn Louis Ironson.  Billy Porter, as Belize, shows us a defiantly gay and deeply loyal Belize.  Frank Wood quite possibly has surpassed all others, including Al Pacino in the HBO mini-series, in his portrayal of Roy Cohn - striking the perfect balance of anger, intellect, hypocrisy, and arrogance.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

The Language Archive

Asian American Julia Cho's new play, The Language Archive, is a surprisingly entertaining and satisfying piece of theatre with a simple message currently playing at the Roundabout Theatre Company's Laura Pels Theatre on West 46th Street.  I've seen the play up on the "paper the house" ticket sites that I belong to and assumed it was one of those, you know, marginal plays with a subscription base that wasn't quite pulling its seat filling weight.  Well, I was wrong.

George (Matt Letscher) and Mary (Heidi Schreck) are married but something is just not right.  George is a brilliant linguist, a scientist of sorts - a preserver and documentarian of languages no longer spoken.  Mary is simply unhappy - with life, herself, and being married to George - yet George, the brilliant linguist is at a loss for words when it comes to Mary.  Into his laboratory, or library as it were, comes Alta (Jayne Houdyshell) and Resten (John Horton), an elderly couple from a distant land (Uzbekistan-like, by the looks of their humorous frocks) who are the last two speakers of another dying language.  He expects to record their conversations and preserve their tongue, but what he gets instead is a lesson in life and love.  George's wife leaves him to find herself, Emma (Betty Gilpin), George's assistant goes on a journey to summon the courage to reveal her unrequited love for him, and Alta and Resten fight (in English) like you'd expect an old married couple to do.  

Cho has brilliantly woven the fabric of the characters together, an overlapping pattern of sorts.  Each of them experiences something unexpected in their life and each of them learns from the others both through direct dialogue and indirectly through circumstance and observation.  In the end, Cho's message is not about language at all, it's about love - the many different types of love and how not everyone may end up loving the way they expect. 

Mark Brokaw's direction was smart and the grand moving bookcase sets by Neil Patel set the perfect mood and atmosphere for the story.  Overall, this play was quietly powerful.  No guns, no strobe lights, no 3D effects - just an enjoyable evening in the theatre with an honest message about life.  Thank you Julia Cho.