Photo by Don Kellogg

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.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Perfect Harmony

A gleeful (pun intended) trip down the high school vocal club lane.  Andrew Grosso and The Essentials (a group of other actors and singers) penned a little glee-club-like drama back in 2006 (before there was Glee).  Unfortunately, the comparisons today abound.  And unfortunately for the stage show today, Fox television and their million dollar production budget does it much better.   Let me be clear - this is not a prequel to the TV series, just a similar concept.

Frankly, I enjoyed this stage production immensely.  First of all, it's primarily about the Acafellas (an all boys a-cappella singing group), not a glee-club that miraculously transforms into a full stage and recording studio production event periodically throughout the show.  Am I a bit tired of the over-the-top "camp" with the singing stuff - yeah, maybe.  But if you can put the constant comparisons to today's TV hit, you just might find this stage production storyline quite enjoyable.

Make no mistake, this show is cast with actors who can sing.  In contrast, another recent a-cappella off-Broadway show, In Transit,  took the opposite approach - a-cappella group singers who can act.  I think it makes a big difference in your musical and theatrical experience.  On a related note, I'm not sure if I should call this a comedy (as the broadwayworld.com does), a play with music, or a musical.  But I digress...

The cast, as expected,  is composed of a wonderfully eclectic, quirky, and off-beat group of high school vocal mis-fits with an wide assortment of social, medical, and family problems - one hot jock who sings (Jarid Faubel), one groovy black girl (Kelly McCreary), one prim and proper white girl (Dana Acheson) one Asian girl with Tourette's (Marie-France Arcilla), two boys clearly from rich families as evidenced from the roman numerals after their names (Robbie Collier Sublett and Kobi Libii), one uber-geeky freshman (David Barlow), one extremely shy girl who is obsessed with people looking at her (Faryl Amadeus), one boy who doesn't speak and only sings (Clayton Apgar), and one Herzegovinian orphan (Kate Morgan Chadwick) ... along with a multitude of alternate characters the actors take on to round out the storyline.  What brings them all together?  Music and singing.  Do we recognize any of them in ourselves?  Without a doubt.  Do we laugh at them?  Absolutely.   Do we enjoy the pop songs they turn into a-cappella performances?  Immensely.

Take in a performance of this tuner over at Theatre Row in the Acorn Theatre and you might just walk away humming a few popular tunes in a whole new way.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

A Free Man of Color

Quite an epic on stage at the Vivian Beaumont Theater at Lincoln Center!  Three hours - and chock full of action, education, and quite a few laughs along the way.  John Guare's new opus is an ambitious work - as evidenced by the size cast - 26 listed in on the billboard alone and most play multiple characters on top of that!

Guare takes us on a journey to New Orleans in 1801 - which, in case you didn't know, was not part of America at this point in time.  It was filled with Spaniards, French, and Caribbeans of all types.   New Orleans was a land where men of all shades of color - from white to dark filled the city and shared a grand life.  It was a city where a slave could buy his freedom and become the toast of the town - especially among the women (of all colors) of the town.  Not only does Guare's play give us a sense of life in this vaudevillian city - he goes further to educate us on the global politics of the (1801) day - teaching us how Spain, France, England and Sante Dominigue (Haiti) all were part of the story of how America came to own this vast new land that spanned westward from the Appalachians to the Mississippi River, from the Gulf of Mexico northward to Canada - and how it changed New Orleans forever.

Jeffrey Wright helms the cast as the main character, Jacques Cornet and gets tremendous support from dozens of actors playing multiple characters in at least 4 different countries.  Stand-out performances to be noted:  Mos Def (the rapper) as Cornet's slave, John McMartin as Thomas Jefferson, Veanne Cox as Dona Polissena, a scientist, a young Paul Dano as Meriweather Lewis (of Lewis and Clark), and Triney Sandoval as Napoleon Bonaparte - - just to name a few.

Three hours may seem like an eternity - but director, George C. Wolfe, crams enough witty and quick tempo dialogue, colorful costumes, lively action and an abundance of information in to the fast paced, multi-country story that before you know it, 11:00 is here and you're dumped out on the plaza at Lincoln center with all the hoity-toity opera snobs in their tuxedos and gowns.  I highly recommend you attend this epic tale before it sells out for the season.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown

Wow!  And this was only the 13th preview performance.  That says a great deal all by itself.  What a huge risk this could be.  A new, technically and theatrically complex musical opening cold in New York - no out-of-town tryout.  Talk about a risky proposition for the producers and investors and not to mention the stars themselves - and there are a lot of them packed onto the stage at the Belasco Theatre.  Rest assured, my loyal readers, this one is going to be a great big Broadway hit!

Where to start?!  First of all, this show is based on Pedro Almodóvar's 1988 film by the same name.  By way of background, you have to know that the style is supposed to be a little cheesy.  It's a story presented in the telenovela style - colorful, over-acted, and generally bold.  Stop right there.  Translating that to the Broadway stage is a feat all in itself.  Mr. Sher (director), Mr. Gattelli (choreographer), and the entire production staff have taken on the challenge and presented those three characteristics back to us in virtually every aspect of the production - the lighting, the scenery, the video, the sets and the costumes.  That in itself is worthless with the wrong actors.  Inside those costumes, under those lights, and on the stage is a an eclectic collection of the most talented actors you might find assembled in one place today.  Patti Lupone, Brian Stokes Mitchell, Sherie Rene Scott, Laura Benanti, Danny Burstein, de'Adre AzizaJustin Guarini, and Mary Beth Peil headline the massive undertaking and seem to defy the notion that there can only be one star in a show.  Each of them holds their own but together they are a powerhouse ensemble.  

Other than what was written into the script, I never felt any dueling divas on stage.  Each of them has their "moments" in the spotlight.  All of them complement each other.  Ms. Lupone has her bare stage moment in the spotlight along with a show's worth of light hearted Spanish diva moments.  Justin Guarini, in his Broadway debut,  proves he's got acting chops while getting the opportunity to showcase his amazing tenor voice.  Brian Stokes Mitchell fills the theatre with his perfectly pitched, powerfully melodic baritone vocals.  Laura Benanti might possibly be the next show stealing comedic actress of the season (ala Katie Finneran in Promises, Promises last season).  Sherie Rene Scott takes the lead as a  Brunette (most recently we saw her natural blond side in Everyday Rapture) and doesn't fail to entertain the entire show.  The entire cast works well together - constantly in motion, constantly in chaos and constantly on queue and pitch perfect.  

On a related note, I must also note that this is the first production to be staged at the Belasco Theatre after its extensive and first class renovation.  The wood paneled, marble clad and Tiffany stained glass filled theatre has been restored to its full glory and what a marvelous show to use as the vehicle to reveal the fine artistry conceived for theater impresario David Belasco in 1907. Technically speaking, I've never seen a more modern stage.  Digital lighting, video projection systems, hydraulics, extensive scenery fly-in capacity and a sound system to rival all others are among the many improvements that are clearly taken advantage of in this production.   

Does the show need some work?  Of course - no show is perfect out of the gate.  Nips and tucks needed here, choreography cleaned up there.  But at the 13th preview, this show and all its moving parts is far ahead of where most would be at this point.  Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown is cleared for takeoff and we get to enjoy the in-flight entertainment.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010


Were it not for the fine actors on stage, this play would have been a real snooze.  Notwithstanding the fact that this is an award winning play, it doesn't guarantee an engaged and awake audience.  Playwright Will Eno took a lofty academic subject and has tried to translate that into action on stage.  The problem is that the play is about nothing.  Literally.  So was the TV show Seinfeld, you might quip.  The difference is, this is a serious drama, not a light hearted comedy.  Boring and drama is a deadly combination on stage.

Now let me get back to my first statement.  Were it not for the actors Michael Park (cop), Heather Burns (Mrs. Swanson), Linus Roache (John Dodge), and James McMehamin (mechanic) and Georgia Engel (librarian), we might be talking about a train wreck.  Instead, they've taken this material and worked miracles.  Michael Park (recently seen in Burnt Part Boys) exudes just the right mix of loneliness, anger, and suburban frustration alongside small town popularity and familiar like-ability.  Linus Roach (most recognizable for his role as Jack McCoy's ADA replacement on Law and Order) turns in a fascinating study in strange, off-beat, lonely and friendly all wrapped up in one.   Heather Burns is a convincing pregnant lonely suburban housewife who's husband is perennially out of town on business.  James McMenamin aptly portrays the perfect "lost" kid who has a storied past, uncertain present, and hopeless future.  Georgia Engel quite possibly was the perfect pick for the innocent, naive, yet solidly grounded town librarian with eternal hope and endless love.

So what was this play about?  The main theme of birth, death and everything in-between (hence the title Middletown) is a good summation.  Where are we going?  How do we know when we get there? Where did we come from?  Why are we here?  Pretty heavy, academic stuff, huh?  In the end, the subject matter and words on the page probably deserved high praise and recognition with the Pulitzer.  However, when translated to the stage, it somehow loses its power and punch and looks more like a sad indictment of our suburban (or even American) plight overall.  The opening monologue to the audience was awkward (was it part of the play or done for the theatre?).  The end of Act I with the "onstage audience" was clever, but upon reflection, a bit insulting.  (Am I perceived by the playwright or director to be that dumb that I need this explained to me?).

An unfair early review, I don't think so.  Technically, there were no problems - lighting, scenery, and sound - all top notch.  I especially loved the astronaut radio communication scene sound effects and night sky lighting.  Actors turned in top notch, solid, and well rehearsed performances. Perhaps not my cup of tea, i admit.  But at least I stayed for Act II.  I can't say that for about a dozen or so of my fellow audience members.  At the Vineyard Theatre, that's a high percentage.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Miss Abigail's Guide to Dating, Mating, and Marriage

Ken Davenport seemingly does it all - he writes, directs and produces.  On stage we call something similar to that that a triple threat. His latest work is centered around Miss Abigail, a self-help dating guru - a throw-back to more genteel times in the modern age of on-line hookups, J-dates, gay-dates, speed-dates, sexing.   She's a champion of old time values and is hell-bent on sharing her experience with each and every audience that comes to see her in a little cabaret theatre downstairs in Time Square (interrupted only by the urgent phone calls of her "secret" celebrity clients).

The show isn't so much a performance, but rather structured more like a seminar - the audience is there to participate in a lecture being given by Miss Abigail and her adorable, able-bodied, and endlessly energetic assistant, Paco.   House lights up, hands up, quizzes, polls, hand-outs, and shout-outs abound.  You may even be called on stage during one of Paco's breaks backstage (beware, he's the jealous type!).  Eve Plum (aka Jan Brady) makes her off-Broadway debut in the title role and never fails to command the stage.  Her assistant, Paco (Manuel Herrera) ads just the right mix of shy and innocent vs hunky and sexy.  The duo energetically move the story forward with each passing topic of discussion.

Married couples, couples on a date, and singles of all types and all ages will enjoy the light-hearted and time tested advice Miss Abigail dishes out with aplomb.  Grab a cocktail and take it to your seat.  Don't be shy - learn how to kiss, go up and take a quiz, answer a question, or even read a line from one of the many experts' books Miss Abigail draws from.  A chance to perform on stage should never be passed up - especially with Miss Abigail and her adorable assistant.  You may even learn a thing or two in the process.  Who knows, maybe you'll even get a date with someone there before the evening is done.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Perfect Crime

Running over 20 years off-Broadway -  this is one mystery I simply cannot solve! It's complicated, confusing, and to get it in under 2 hours the pace is too quick and the actors so familiar with the parts they are like robots barking lines on stage without much effort.  At it's core, it's a confusing murder mystery Angela Lansbury might even give up on.  If there's one thing it's big on - it's soap opera "acting".  Was it given a life-estate in the Snapple Theatre?  Did a millionaire generously endow it?  Is it a mafioso money laundering front?  These are the only explanations to it's longevity I can come up with because there is no way it could have anything to do with the plot or the acting.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Driving Miss Daisy

If you count yourself among those that saw the 1989 Oscar winning film by the same name staring Morgan Freeman and Jessica Tandy, you're probably going to have the same reaction to the play that I did.  "So that's it"?  

I can't say I know the original play, but I can tell you that it is most probably pretty similar to this incarnation, its Broadway debut, than the movie.  The original play was part of a trilogy written by Alfred Uhry named the Atlanta Trilogy which dealt with Jewish residents of the aforementioned city in the early 20th century.  The movie certainly had a more sentimental, gentle, and quaint appeal.   As with many works that go from stage to screen, Driving Miss Daisy gained a great deal of cinematographic depth and character development that would never be possible on stage.  The play, as presented, is a series of vignettes - seemingly more detached than the flow on the big screen - certainly less colorful and much here is left up to the imagination, including the car itself - represented by merely a chair, a bench and the skeleton of a steering wheel. 
While it was the treat of a lifetime to see these two national treasures (James Earl Jones and Vanessa Redgrave) on stage together for the first time, I must admit that I thought it was more about the strategy of putting these two mega-starts together to perform, not necessarily fulfilling the author's intent of a much younger Hoke to the more elderly Miss Daisy.  That aside, not a second passed that the two of them, aptly complimented by 4 time Tony award winner, Boyd Gaines, failed to delight. 

As movies go - this one was top notch.  It's hard to beat that on stage the second time around.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Spirit Control

At first glance, one might think "Another cheerleader play"?  Alas, Spirit refers to an airfield in St. Louis and Control refers to the air-traffic control tower.  Now that we have that all cleared up - let's get this review off the ground.  Two hours - perfect length.  Jeremy Sisto - seems to nail the "wildly intense" and slightly disturbed" character with aplomb (Billy in HBO's Six Feet Under, Michael in Broadway's Festen, Det. Lupo in NBC's Law & Order).  Another bulls-eye here with Adam Wyatt.  Kudos, also, to a stand out performance by a young (and damn cute) up-and-coming performer - Arron Michael Davies (Tommy Wyatt). 

The play moves along somewhat predictably if you even breifly investigated what you were going to see - - something about an air traffic controller, a plane crash, and some dramatic circumstances that follow.   Sisto nails the first scene in the control tower magnificently.  What follows, however, is not so straightforward.  What I realized as the play progressed is that Maxine is not real.  Maxine, albeit a real human being on stage, (with real dialogue and comprehensible circumstances surrounding her) is just his twisted mind trying to grapple with the aftermath of his actions and the crash. 

Playwright, Beau Willimon, in my opinion has written a tremendous opus that asks us to explore how the subconscious can tear us, our families, and our lives apart if we we allow it.  However, he has, early on, thrown in so much that is believable, real, and tangible into the Maxine character (Mia Barron) that I think (correction, i know, based on my conversation with many confused patrons leaving the theatre - self included) that it didn't quite hit its mark.  By the time we got to the third and final scene - I assumed most people would have figured out (or at least suspected) what Maxine represented.  It could have ended without the curve-ball of one of the characters actually taking a multi-media dream sequence/aside (to Wyatt, however, not the audience directly) and explaining what we already should have known.  It was a crazy sequence that threw too much confusing, theoretical, and ultimately speculative information at the audience.  On a separate note, I also wondered why we were repeatedly told Wyatt had two sons, but then were only introduced to one of them, Tommy, on several occasions.  As the old saying goes "If you introduce a gun (or two, in this case) in Act I, you'd better use it (both, in this case) in Act II. 

I, for one, would rather have left the theatre asking some probing questions rather than asking "Did he really need to do that"?

Thursday, October 7, 2010


When John Doyle directs, we've come to expect a stage that is sparse and a play that is packed with emotion and energy.   Wings is no exception either.  It's Jan Maxwell on full throttle - and what a tour de force she packs in those 75 precious minutes.

You learn, virtually immediately, that something is wrong.  Emily Stilson has had a stroke.  The next 74 minutes take you on an audio-visual tour  - from inside her mind - the point of view of the stroke victim - her loss and confusion, her frustration and inability to put the right words together at the right time - all the while knowing inside what she wants to say.  Her slow climb back is emotional and inspiring.

Some will complain about the lack of sets (not me).  Some will complain it was too short (not me either).  The lighting, sound, and video effects were just enough to take you beyond the stage on a journey of the mind  - the mind of Emily Stilton - a 1920's stunt airplane wingwalker where adventure and courage can't be beaten down.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

A Life in the Theatre

What a lovely tale told by two delightful actors -  one old, one young; one revered, one an admirer; one established, one ambitious; one leader, one follower - -  I think you get the idea.  One lesson we'll all take away from this poem to a life spent in on stage is that theatre - just like life - has its ups and it has its downs.

(Sir) Patrick Stewart plays Robert an aging actor and mentor who's spent his life on stage.  T.R. Knight (ok, i admit it - I'd marry him tomorrow he's so adorable!) plays John, a young actor working his way up, hungry to learn, innocent, yet perceptive and smart.

The play unfolds in a series of vignettes - on stage, backstage, after a show, and rehearsing for a show.  Some quick, some longer.  Some funny, some sad, yet others - just a slice of life.  I lost count after about 20 of them, but i soon realized it's not the number of them that mattered - just that from each and every one of them we learned something, laughed at something, or just felt that warm feeling inside that can only come from doing what one loves.  By the end of the show, we learn that while it's good to have a mentor and a hero, at some point we all need to evolve and grow.  As in life, just as our heroes are fading, we are sometimes lucky enough to learn we, ourselves, have become one to someone else.  Kudos to director Neil Pepe who so cleverly included the backstage crew so prominently on stage  - after all, what would the actors be without props, lighting and scenery anyway?

A good friend of mine always reminds me - Love what you do.  Do what you love.  David Mamet certainly remind us of that in this little gem on stage at the Shoenfeld Theatre running thru January.