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.