Photo by Don Kellogg

Saturday, February 26, 2011


Currently back on stage in Chicago at the Broadway Playhouse is the 1970's not-so-big-a-hit, Working, adapted by Stephen Schwartz from the Studs Terkel book Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do.  I did a bit of research after seeing this one to understand what its first incarnation was like.  Originally on Broadway in 1978, the show only played 12 previews and about 2 dozen regular performances.  It came along just after the smash hit, A Chorus Line, and was seemingly presented in the same manner - a pastiche of stories told by "the average, everyday, working-Joe".  The stories highlighted the cultural, racial, and ethnic struggles, work ethics, career choices (or lack thereof) - and most importantly how hopes and dreams can be blind to all of these factors. 

It now seems Mr. Schwartz, after about 30 years of coaxing, has updated the book and score to be more culturally relevant in 2010 by including references to email, blackberries, computers, and the Internet as well as the outsourcing of jobs to India and the stock market on Wall Street.  He's also broadened the originally strictly blue-collar feel to now include a more diverse service worker element.  The cast has been trimmed down from 17 to 6 people who now play multiple roles.  The musical score, already boasting a potpourri of songsters including Mr. Schwartz, Craig Carnelia, and James Taylor, now also includes two fresh numbers by Lin-Manuel Miranda - an obvious nod to the modern Latino commercial and cultural influences both on and off Broadway.

One of the updates I especially enjoyed was the overt inclusion of the behind the scenes workers (non-actors) in the landscape.  On the generic and open two story steel-beam looking set that is constantly transformed by video projections he exposes the actual stage crew, make up artists, dressers, and stage hands doing their jobs.  The stage manager is also visibly lit in one of the house's boxes transformed into her working area (we hear her queue the lights and curtain at the start).  

The ensemble cast idea seems to have paid off - too many actors sometimes is overwhelming and you don't get to see individual talents as you do when a smaller cast plays multiple roles.  Every one of them here had a stand out performance at one point or another during the show - Emjoy Gavino, E. Faye Butler, Barbara Robertson, Michael Mahler (please come to Broadway, Michael!), Gabrial Ruiz, and Gene Waygandt.  By the names alone - you can tell this is quite an appropriately diverse cast and all earned their hearty applause from the audience throughout the show.

Does it need a bit more work? Probably.  Can this one make it to the Great White Way?  The verdict is out, but I'll tell you after this season of 11 new musicals - some of which are bound to flop - perhaps this could be our 2011 or spring 2012 stand-out revival.  Are three Stephen Schwartz musicals on Broadway at one time a bit much?  Move over Wicked and Godspell - something Working this way comes. 

Monday, February 21, 2011


Get your wallet out now. Pull out $30 bucks and fork it over for a ticket to the box office at Walkerspace for the powerhouse Swedish playwright Jonas Hassen Khemiri's US debut of Invasion!  Ask no more questions.  Do not hesitate.  This is without a doubt one of the best plays I have seen this entire season - and that includes Broadway, off-Broadway and off-off-Broadway. It's an extremely intelligent, linguistically complex, politically charged, attention grabbing, rapid-fire tour-de force for each of its 75 sharply written, cunningly directed, and superbly acted and deliciously well received minutes.

Each of the four young actors - Francis Benhamou, Andrew Guilarte, Bobby Moreno, and Debargo Sanyal (known only as Actors A, B, C and D) performs at full throttle the entire evening - never missing a beat or a word or a queue.  Emotions run the gamut from scene to scene but the pace is relentlessly and purposefully quick.  Scene changes are executed with precision and aplomb  By the time you reach the end, you find yourself at the beginning again.

I won't pretend to understand everything the playwright had to say.  There was too much there for my brain to have absorbed every layer, every overt or subversive gesture, word and idea.  Hours after the play ends and you're sitting at TriBeCa Bread enjoying your 3rd Manhattan, a new meaning or the nuance of a scene will reveal itself to you.  This, I promise.  Everything may not be as it seems.  Don't believe everything they tell you.  Open your eyes and think for yourself.  Think.  Period.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

The Body Politic

Wink, Wink, Nod.  James Carville and Mary Matalin must be ecstatic.  A whole play written about them - or at least about their story.  In case you live under a rock - they are two of the most diametrically opposed political operatives / commentators who fell in love and got married.  You know, they say politics make strange bedfellows.  Indeed, Richard Abrons and Margarett Perry (the playwrights and the latter also the director) have captured equal amounts of ideological sparing and the attractions it spawns.

Unfortunately, the story is somewhat stale to an audience bombarded on an weekly, daily, and hourly basis with political trickery, deception, and below-the-belt antics and shenanigans.  Who put that false story out there?  He said, she said.  I knew absolutely nothing about that.  Spin. Spin. Spin.  Make them look bad.  Let them bring themselves down.  Blackberries, laptops, and cell phones.  And lots of Starbucks.

The actors all did a fine job - two presidential candidates - Brian Dykstra (Democrat) and Daren Kelly (Republican) - making bumbling errors and pronouncing things incorrectly never fail to entertain.  Then there are two "older and more experienced" political advisors - Leslie Hendrix (Republican) and Michael Puzzo (Democrat).  Plenty of vitriol, bitterness, and regret going on there.  And then we have the two love-hate birds themselves - Matthew Boston (Republican) and Eve Danzeisen (Democrat).  Not enough chemistry for my taste here.  And it all might have been due to the mis-casting of Mr. Boston.  He appeared to me to be too old and out of step with his much younger opponent, Ms. Danzeisen.

Don't get me wrong - the story is entertaining, light, and mostly enjoyable - if only a scosche too long at 2 hours.  I don't think anyone should expect the  "oh my gosh, i can't believe how it ended" sort of show.  If you go in with the low expectations of such a satirical political romp, you'll do just fine.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

That Championship Season

Perhaps the play did win the Pulitzer Prize in 1972, but that doesn't guarantee a good show in 2011.  The play itself only ran for 144 performances in '72, and that should have been a clue.  The subject matter may have been fresh and shocking 40 years ago, but today it's like a bad re-run episode of All in the Family.  Playwright Jason Miller may have penned some good lines and started with some powder-keg material but in the end it's an over-hyped, sad, obvious, and pedantic walk down memory lane indicting men, the education system, small-town America, and the Catholic church all in one fell swoop.  The obvious topics covered (or uncovered as it were) are racism, bigotry, family duty, adultery, success (or lack thereof) and false role models.

I haven't seen a play in a very long time where the quality of the acting was so diametrically opposite to the quality of the script.  The all-star cast delivered in every way it could given the poor material.  Jason Patric, Keifer Sutherland, Brian Cox, Dan Gaffigan, and Chris Noth pour their hearts into the roles.  Trouble is, there are so many dead-ends, undeveloped story lines and lost opportunities in the script that all we're left with is the overbearing coach eternally blathering on about "what makes a winner" and "what it takes to win".  By today's standards, I think anyone (even in small-town America) would wonder why these men are so handicapped by and tied to this coach's "wisdom".  For all our faults, we're a much more open, independent and thinking society today.  I presume that Mr. Miller's desired outcome in 1972 was to see that "the emperor has no clothes", but in 2011 I think all that remains of this show is the picture of a sorry and sad past we should all regret.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

The Rubber Room

All around this is a perfect idea.  Write a play about teachers who are suspended from classroom instruction for some infraction and placed in a holding room indefinitely until their cases are adjudicated.  Seems like the makings of a great work of fiction - ripe with conflict and drama.   Only problem is - this is a true story.  Well, not the stories themselves (as far as I know), rather the concept itself.  New York City, from the 1960's until Mayor Bloomberg closed them in 2008, maintained these rooms - almost immediately coined "rubber rooms" for just this purpose.

Now here's where it gets good - - Take 5 different directors  - each of whom gets to rehearse a cast of 5 actors for the show  - and don't let them or their casts collaborate.  Next, call one member of each cast to the theatre each night to perform his or her part.  The result is a fresh, tense, and realistic experience of these characters meeting for the first time in the rubber room each night.  You get 25 different casts all performing the same show.  I'm sold!

So while I only saw 1 out of those potential 25 casts - I have to say the overall show is a power-packed drama.  In short order you get to meet the 5 characters and find out that there just may be 2 sides to every story and accusation.  Are teachers to blame for everything wrong in the classroom?  Where are the parents?  What happened to respect, discipline, and order in the classroom?  Who is really running the schools?

I can't say that each night is going to be a grand-slam, but the one I attended was excellent.  Discussing the performance we both witnessed and the overall state of the education system in NYC afterwards with my friend over a burger, we both realized how each director might play the same character differently and how the stories of each of the characters might totally change left us wanting to see the show again!  While this concept may not work for every show (I doubt you will see this anytime soon in commercial theatre) it certainly felt like it worked with this subject matter.  Anytime someone wants to go back and see a show - that seems like a good thing to me.  And I'm the one with the "no repeats" rule too!

Sunday, February 13, 2011

A Perfect Future

David Hay's new work at the Cherry Lane Theatre attempts to explore the "glory days"of a few 1970's college radicals in a Manhattan apartment 30 years later.  Lifetime movie, you may ask?  Unfortunately, worse than than, i regrettably report.

While the cast was aptly chosen for their good looks, the play, rather than focus on the subtleties of the relationships, chose to accentuate the stereotypical and painfully obvious plot twists that these people's lives cold have taken.  John Hudson (Michael T Weiss) is a rude, annoying, pompous, rich, Wall street guy.  Natalie Schiff-Hudson (Donna Bullock) is an over-the-top, former radical turned documentary film maker who seemingly turned "rich guy's wife" allegedly because they used to have good sex and apparently she never bothered to realize her husband was a complete phony, racist, capitalist ass.  Elliott Murphy (Daniel Oreskes) - the radical friend who "kept the faith" and has always "fought the good fight" amazingly comes out of the closet after it's safe to do so and is now a big gay daddy who defends terrorists and fights against AIDS  - and surprise - has lots of relationship issues.   Into this patently obvious storyline comes Mark Colvin (Scott Drummond) a young, good-looking associate at John's office who - get this - looks as straight as a Mormon arrow - but turns out he's gay too.  Over the course of this dinner party, more (expensive) wine was uncorked than at a medieval feast and (surprise) the participants reveal exactly what you would expect them to - that none of them are happy and some of them are not what they seem.

With a blueprint that could make a bad lifetime move look good, even the main prop - the wine - was a disaster.  Someone in the properties department needs a basic lesson in what color red and white wine should be.  (Hint - neither is pink).

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Good People

David Lindsay Abaire's new work at Manhattan Theatre Club's Mainstage - The Freidman Theatre (I still call it the Biltmore), may only be taking its first-ever bows but already I can tell this play will be a juggernaut.  Abaire's biting wit and stinging social commentary plunge into the audience like a sharp knife into a raw steak.

The plot centers around Margaret (Frances McDormand) , a down-on-your-luck, brutally honest, not-so-educated, but quick-on-her-feet, god-fearing, life-long resident of South Boston's tough as nails, blue-collar, Lower End known as Southie.  At the curtain goes up (or the geometric panels retract, as it were) she is being fired from her latest job at the local dollar store.  We soon see her back at her apartment socializing with her close friends, Jean (Becky Ann Baker) and Dottie (Estelle Parsons).  With some brutally funny and poignantly sharp dialogue, they are discussing and gossiping about how Margaret will make ends meet for her and her retarded adult daughter.  There's little hope and lots of worry, but through it all there's an sense that this latest turn of events may not be the worst of times for these folks.

Encouraged by her friends, Margaret takes her job hunt to a (now) "comfortable" doctor she went to high school with in Southie over 30 years ago.  They dated briefly and their breakup just might coincide with the time frame that her daughter was born.  He "got out" and made something for himself.  What will she say to him?  How does the meeting go?   These questions and more will be answered.  Or will they?

Even at just the first week of previews, Parsons and McDormand are turning in top notch performances - and it will only get better from here.  My dear friend Donna is usually a bellwether of good actors and great plays - but I fear she may have mis-under-estimated the humor and depth of this fine work.  I encourage her and everyone else to check out some Good People on West 47th.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

The Importance of Being Earnest

The Roundabout Theatre Company may have an occasional flop (at least one per season, by recent calculations), but their current production of Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest is certainly not in that category.  Esteemed stage actor, Brian Bedford, directs a superb cast at the same time starring in this 3 act romp.  Earnest is one of Wilde's timeless works and this production dishes up barrels of laughs and glamorous sets - a thoroughly entertaining evening in the theatre all around.

One cannot even say that Bedford, playing the role of Lady Bracknell in drag, stole the show.  The entire cast around him never missed a beat and elevated the pedestal upon which Lady Bracknell could perch.  David Furr (John Worthing) and Santino Fontana (Algernon Moncrieff)  - Wilde's two Earnests  - have impeccable comedic timing, dashing good looks, and abundance of energy.  Charlotte Parry (Cecily) and Sara Topham (Gwendolyn) are smartly coquettish and irresistibly innocent as the ladies who fall for their Earnests.  Supporting these two fine couples are the delightful Dana Ivey (Miss Prism) and the charming Paxton Whitehead (Reverend Chasuble). 

Wilde's writing is a good as it gets - and the tale told is one that is timeless.  Comparisons to the 2002 movie are likely to be made by some - but the stage version is still tops in my book.   This comedy of manners is a timeless tale that is is looking to have a long run into the summer at the American Airlines Theater. Get your tickets today.  You might want to use your real name or you might not be able to pick them up.