Photo by Don Kellogg

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Master Class

Tyne Daly?  I don't know what you are talking about.  I saw a show with Maria Callas in the flesh.  No? I could have sworn....

Tyne Daly takes command of the stage at 8:07pm and holds court, except for a brief interval, for 2 1/2 electrifying, mesmerizing hours as the incomparable, indomitable Maria Callas, star of the opera, diva extraordinaire!

As you would imagine, the play takes the form of an actual master class.  Three already very talented students of the opera (Sierra Boggess, Garrett Sorrenson, Alexandra Silber) are scheduled to perform for Ms. Callas and we, the audience, are there to observe and learn as she critiques.  And boy, does she critique.  A truly clever idea for a play  - as the 4th wall is not present.  The lights stay on in the house occasionally and the actors look to and converse with the "other students" filling the seats in the house.  As for Ms. Callas, never one to be shy, she picks and pokes at all aspects of her her students' performances - their entrances, clothing, diction and choice of music, to name a few;  at the piano accompanist, Manny (the uber-adorable Jeremy Cohen), the dis-interested stagehand (Clinton Brandhagen), and occasionally the audience too (none of you have a "look").

Terrance McNally has not only captured the current Ms. Callas, but brilliantly weaves her storied past into the performance to craft a more complete understanding of this dynamic woman we see before us.  Director, Stephen Wadsworth, takes us on a journey using very simple (almost non-existent) sets, superb lighting, and movement to navigate, almost operatically, thru the crescendos, decrescendos, sfortzandos and pianissimos of Ms. Callas' storied life - both on stage and off.

Ms. Daly's performance is as close to flawless as one could imagine.  Her diction, wit, humor, force, sheer presence, and overall performance are magnificent.  Maria Callas used to say that she was channeling the music all the way back thru a character to Verdi or Shakespeare.  Ms. Daly was most certainly doing the same to Ms. Callas.

Tyne Daly?  I don't know what you are talking about.  I saw a show with Maria Callas in the flesh.  No? I could have sworn....

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Zarkana: Cirque Du Soleil

Zarkana - It's what Jack Murphy and Frank Wildhorn's Wonderland dreamed [but couldn't afford] of being on Broadway.  It's what Julie Taymor and Bono wished their musically-boring, lackluster-flying spider-flop could do for audiences [hint: spidey isn't even in the ballpark].  It's pageantry for the eye and abundance for the ears.  Writer and director, Francois Girard, has married the perfect proportions of circus, music, and theatre.  It's eerily odd, majestic and bold, sexy and fun all at the same time.

High flying acrobats fill the grand hall at Radio City Music Hall.  Clowns, spiders, creatures, and other assorted oddities inhabit the stage and permeate mystery all the way to the cheap seats.  Radio City has one of the largest stage fly systems in the world and the complex, grand, multi-media sets of Stephane Roy never fail to dazzle and amaze as they continually morph into something new with each progressive act.

The story follows Zark, a magician who has lost his powers (but apparently not his ability to dress in grand style) who is searching for the lost love of his life - not clear to me at the time, but but apparently in an abandoned theatre.  It is in this theater that he crosses paths with this pastiche of oddity and amusement.  Will he find her?  Will his quest end in joy or despair?  

Zarkana is one event this summer that should not be missed.  With an estimated budget of $50 Million, you can tell these producers know how to put on a show.  This show invests wisely in technology, costumes and talent.  The dividends that investments pays to the audience are invaluable. 

Preview a VIDEO of the show.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

All New People

 Zack Braff's new play, All New People, feels more like an episode of Scrubs than an evening in the theatre.   Don't get me wrong - it was pretty good - certainly well acted - but the comedy reminded me something for a TV set rather than a stage.  

The substance of the play is a nicely packaged story about an air traffic controller interrupted in the act of killing himself in a beach house during the sparsely populated winter season on Long Beach Island, New Jersey.

Braff certainly has an ear for comedy, but I'm thinking it's misplaced on the stage.  With the introduction (or perhaps i should say abrupt interruptions) of movie-quality back story video projected on a large white wall, Braff and director, Peter DuBois, confuse you.  The scenes were not just video clips.  They were actual scenes in the play - indispensable to the story.  Seemed to me like the entire play could have been packaged up for a movie.  And for the record, I wouldn't be surprised it it's not already been optioned.

If this sounds cool to you, I recommend you see it.  It's entertaining.  And for actors, he's got a decent lineup.   The adorable Justin Bartha (Charlie), the off-beat David Wilson Barnes (Myron), the hysterically quirky Anna Camp (Kim) and brilliantly dizzy Krysten Ritter (Emma) are entertaining, wacky, and lovable all rolled up in one.

Sitcom or drama - you decide, but just know you're paying a tad bit more than you would for a movie.  You'll have to decide for yourself if the price differential is worth it.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Yes We Can

Down Payment Productions' play, Yes We Can, a new New York Play, by Daniella Shoshaun, is indeed chock full of issues.  Perhaps, dare I say, even too many.  Ten actors enthusiastically take the well lit and well crafted black box theatre stage at WalkerSpace and take us on a journey - a journey not only of the diverse people of New York City, but the ideas, hopes, dreams, frustrations, inequality, and discrimination they face on a daily basis.

Performed in short vignettes that overlap and intertwine, Yes We Can, in a few instances, cleverly takes one actor and transforms that actor, mid-dialogue, into a diametrically opposite character.  Hence, a Rabbi (Duane Cooper) instantly changes into a black evangelical priest.   A crusty, middle aged Jewish lesbian (Judith Dry) becomes a crazed black ghetto kidnapper.  The action, however, centers around a woman (Makeda Declet) who is "accused" of being black on a bus (that's her version of the story).  Her "accuser" (Ronald Washington), a self-assured black man himself, fields her rebuff and is mystified yet energized and intrigued by the response and sets out on a mission to meet her and confront her further about it.  At the same time, she sets out about the city crossing paths with her friends and others trying to make sense of it all.  I'm going to take a guess that the role of "black woman" was intentionally cast as a very black woman - so we would be smacked in the face with the contradiction and irony of the entire scenario.  

Rounding out the cast of New Yorkers is a very funny white girl nanny (Gina Marie Jamieson) taking on the issue of immigrants, low paying jobs and class warfare, an Indian mother (Meera Rohit Kumbhani) taking on heritage, culture, and class issues,  Jesus (Jeffrey Omura) taking on the issues of well, I think you can figure that one out,  a black nanny (Jehan O. Young) and her young white client (Stephen Stout) taking on class and love at the same time, and an Asian man who owns a bodega (Dax Valdes) endlessly struggling to make it against all odds.  Outside of these characters, we also cross paths with a plastic masked gang of kids, a gospel choir, a gay couple, a group of Latino nannies in the park, a local organic-Nazi farmer, and a few other random city folk young and old.   

The play's dialogue is certainly intelligent and witty, and points out through humor and irony that to those less fortunate or newer to this country or to those that have been struggling to "arrive" that just about anything is possible here if we stick to it.  Set on the eve of the election of Barak Obama as president of the United States, Yes We Can shows us anything is possible.  While I doubt we're headed toward any Pulitzer prize here, it's still nice to see a fresh, young, ambitious and idealistic work on the stage.  Congratulations,  Daniella Shoshan.  You've arrived.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Unnatural Acts

"Fasten your seatbelts, ladies and gentlemen.  Prepare to be mezmerized, electrified, and transported to another time and place for the next two hours" is what the pre-show announcement should proclaim.  Director and co-conceiver, Tony Speciale, has amassed a mightly arsenel of high drama in this haunting play presented at the Classic Stage Company, Unnatural Acts,  filling it with intergue, evidence, tension, speculation, passion, and betrayal.   

The play, inspired by the true story of the Secret Court of 1920 at Harvard University that attempted to rid the institution of "homosexualism" after the suicide of one of its students, Cyril Wilcox, opens on an elegantly, warmly and purposefully lit, darkly-hewn wooden-clad stage where we meet each of the very handsome and well clothed upper-crust Harvard boys attached to the scandal and begin our journey into their intricate, delicately balanced lives filled with intelect, innuendo, pride, double-talk, and deeply-guarded secrets and we follow them to their ultimate demise by play's end.  Each of the elvevn young actors brings an etherial and haunting presence to the stage under what I can only categorize as the superb directorial and choreographical choices of Mr. Speciale.  Actors Jess Burkle, Joe Cumutte, Frank De Julio, Roe Hartrampf, Roderick Hill, Max Jenkins, Brad Koed, Jerry Marsini, Devin Norick, Will Rogers, and Nick Westrate form a perfect union, an ensemble cast in the truest sense of the word.  Amplifying thier fine performances was lighting and lighting effects by Natalie Robin and sound design and the subtle and supremely effective sound effects by Christian Frederickson

I am torn between screaming from the mountain top that this play, cast intact, should be moved to Broadway and the thought that a Broadway house would most surely destroy the intimacy and power of the show.  Unnatural Acts is a an evening of compelling, well-written, well-acted, well-directed story-telling that lured me in, captured and held my attention, and, most importantly, kept me thinking about it and discussing it long afterwards.  Now that's powerful theatre!

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Desperate Writers

A wholesale waste of time at the Union Square Theatre.  The house was virtually empty.  I knew this wasn't going to be a good sign.  It only got worse from there.

Written as a complete farce, it pits two desperate writers against three alleged "power-producers" in Hollywood.  Throw in some over-the-top, completely unnecessary characters on top of the bad writing and flat out dumb plot and you've got the formula for the complete mess that wasted about 90 minutes of an otherwise decent Saturday afternoon.    I've seen farce before, and for it to work, it has to be funny.  This was just crap.   Two otherwise normal writers are so desperate to sell a script that they kidnap some producers, lock them in a cage and force them to listen to their script.  On top of the already farcical plot - the script that they are trying to sell pure garbage too.  It was like double torture listening to them read the script of a bad play IN a bad play!

The actors all came with game faces on - full of energy and some even with some good comedic delivery Jim Stanek (David) was a stand-out.  But in the end the material was just so plain old dumb nothing could save it.  Think tiny bucket on the deck of the Titanic.  Wasted effort.   But my congrats to some of the fine character acting on stage.

Upon closer examination of the program at home, I realized that one of the writers of the play itself, Catherine Schreiber, was actually also one of the main characters performing too - one of the producer characters!  Now isn't that the pot playing the kettle?!  While I admire the effort of all the writers and actors involved (none of this is easy by any stretch of the imagination), I really don't even think this material was of the caliber of something like Saturday Night Live - where this farcical stuff is most at home.

Disappointed to say the least.  At least I got some delicious strawberries at the Farmer's Market in Union Square on the way home.  Barely a consolation.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

The People In The Picture

Too Cliche?  Maybe.  Another installment in the "thou shalt never forget" series?  Perhaps.  Delightfully entertaining?  Absolutely.   In any other season, I think this show would be receiving above average acclaim.  Well, at least it would be receiving reviews that said "if you clean up Act I and speed up the dying old lady scene in Act II - you're got a hit on your hands."  But alas, strong competition this season has placed this possibly underrated show on the back burner.   It's either that or we're just tired of the the genre.  You decide.

Donna Murphy (Bubbie/Raizel) is sublime.  Clearly the star of the show.  Clearly the mistress of character acting.    I can't say anyone else in the cast was a stand-out, but they were a strong ensemble and put Bubbie on a golden pedestal the entire evening as she seamlessly slid between her younger self in 1935-1946 Warsaw, Poland and her older self in New York circa 1977   Overwrought with Yiddish and old Jewish humor, perhaps, but that's the story, for heaven's sake.  I have a few friends who actually saw it early in the run.  They got very bored during Act I and left.  They never found out who, exactly the people in the picture are.  Alas, the story is about the title of the show and Act II cleverly reveals all.

Sets by Riccardo Hernandez  - a decent job at recycling previous Roundabout materials.  And heaven knows, the Roundabout must have invested a boatload in the video projection equipment for Sunday in the Park with George and Brief Encounter - so why not drag it out again.  But since there's money at the Roundabout - it's always a top notch, class-act.  Costume and lighting - up to the usually high Roundabout quality too.

So who are the people in the picture?  I won't spoil it - you'll have to get your own ticket and let the divine Donna Murphy tell you herself.   Tape recorders, at least in the audience, not allowed.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Side Effects

Michael Weller wrote two plays back to back in 2007.  I saw Fifty Words at the Lortel then and just this week, the follow-up play, Side Effects, in the same (dumpy) theater.  I must say there's more to the idea then the reality of the link between the two plays.  They really aren't connected at all, except for the infamous phone call.  I thought there would be more.  But alas,  that doesn't detract from this or the prior play in any way at all.

This time around, Joely Richardson (Melinda Metz) and Cotter Smith (Hugh Metz) take the helm as the power couple for entire 100 minutes.  Like Weller's last play, children and others are only spoken about, never seen or heard.  Mr. Smith was last seen in similar conservative fatherly roles in Next Fall on Broadway and Kin off-Broadway at Playwrights horizons.  Ms. Richardson was last seen in in season 6 of Nip/Tuck and The Tudors.  In case didn't make the connection - she's the sister of the late Natasha Richardson and daughter of Vanessa Redgrave and Tony Richardson.  I must say that she bears a striking resemblance both visually and vocally to another fan favorite, Julie White.  Perhaps that was amplified by the role - one in which I could very easily picture Ms. White also.

This play, as the prior one, is an emotional roller-coaster dealing with issues such as marriage, fidelity, mental illness, and family.   Mr. Smith, again, plays an exceptional tightly-wound, politically-aspiring and conspiring, conservative, mid-western, husband.  Ms. Richardson does a magnificent job playing bat-shit-crazy (perhaps a perfect replacement for Edie Falco in House of Blue Leaves - another bat-shit-crazy role?).  Just one note to director David Auburn - shorten up that last scene - too long and unnecessarily repetitive. We were only there 100 minutes and didn't need to revisit all the issues and problems again before wrapping it up.  Other than that - I think I've written more than fifty words on this one but catching a performance of this one will leave you with little side effects other than having experienced an enjoyable evening of theatre at a relatively decent price.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Next Thing You Know

Joshua Salzman and Ryan Cunningham take a walk down Twenty-Something Lane with their fresh, new gen-X musical.  Well, of course they do, the are twenty-something themselves and if I had to guess, wrote from many a personal experience.  The subject matter and title, Next Thing you Know, comes from that age-old phrase we all know - "Last time I checked, I was young and having a blast on my 23rd birthday and .... here it comes... next thing i know, I'm 30 and need to grow up".  That about sums up the story line here.  Fear not, tho, it's light, fresh, honest, fun and while never over indulging.  Salzman and Cunningham even turn a hangover into something to chuckle at.

Needless to say, a cast of good looking (drop dead gorgeous in the case of Heath Calvert, but I digress...) actors helm the spacious performance floor (not exactly a traditional stage) in CAP21 Theatre Company's brand-spankin' new expanded space on West 18th Street.  Lauren Blackman (Lisa), Heath Calvert (Luke), Adam Kantor (Darren) and Lauren Molina (Waverly) enthusiastically take on their respective tortured young souls - singing and drowning their sorrows in booze in the Sullivan Street Tavern and surrounding neighborhood.  It's not hard at all to imagine these young denizens as the actual characters - good looking (did i mention that Heath with his shirt off is jaw-droppingly handsome?), smart, creative, young urbanites searching for love, connection, and meaning in their lives.

Besides Heath's drop dead good looks and flawless body (OK, Adam I really thought you were cute too), I was especially entertained by the music and lyrics.  Well written, well constructed, catchy and fun - a little pop (OK, maybe a lot) and a few ballads and lite Broadway styled numbers thrown in for good measure too. I believe this is Joshua and Ryan's second trip down the aisle in musical theatre composition.  I'm thoroughly impressed and sincerely hope that we will hear more from them very soon.   In the meantime - catch a bus, subway or cab over to CAP21 and catch a slice of your quickly vanishing youth performed nightly on stage before it's too late and ... next thing you know....

Sunday, June 5, 2011

The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures

Tony Kusher's much anticipated new work is fantastically engrossing, scintillatingly intellectual, and mentally exhausting - all at the same time.   From minute 1 to minute 210 (that's 3 and 1/2 hours, folks) you are on the edge of your seat absorbing every word, watching every movement, and processing, processing, processing.  Make no mistake, this is a heady play.  It's not for everyone, but certainly for those who are up for the mental gymnastics that it sponsors.  See it before it's too late.  Run.  Don't Walk.

What is this play about, you ask?   Well, there are so many layers here, it's hard to convey.  It's literally about a man's decision to kill himself before Alzheimer's gets him.  Adding a few more layers - it's a play about politics, relationships, marriage, economics, labor, sexuality, religion, suicide, and sex - just to list a few.  I'm not kidding.  There are others.   But let me try to boil it down to something simpler.  It's about family and struggle.  That's it. Family - all the good, all the bad and everything in-between.  It's also about struggle - in the family, among the family, outside the family and everything in and around the family.  There are really two kinds of families - the ones that look on the outside to be perfect, but are really a big mess on the inside - and the ones who look (and act) like a hot mess on the outside, but at the end of the day nothing, and i mean nothing, could tear them apart.  Gus Marcantonio and his family are the most definitely the latter.  A mess so hot they make August Osage County's Weston family look like dry ice.

The cast is superb - a better ensemble cast than any I have ever seen.  They seemed like an actual family rather than individual actors simply cast in the roles.  The performances were sublime.  At times there were 7 or 8 family members on stage and every single one of them was talking (arguing, more likely) at the same time and you could still follow the argument, the thoughts, and the scene.  And when a play lasts over 3 and 1/2 hours, you bet they were damn good if I'm using such superlatives.  Each and every actor brought his game to the stage.  (Michael Esper apparently brought his game and a rockin' hot bod, puppy dog eyes, and boyish smile to accompany it... but i digress).  Kudos in no particular order or preference to each performer in the cast:  Michael Christofer (Gus), Linda Eamond (Empty), Michael Esper (Eli), K. Todd Freeman (Paul), Hettienne Park (Sooze), Steven Pasquale (V), Molly Price (Shelle), Matt Servitto (Adam), Danielle Skraastad (Maeve), Stephen Spinella (Pill), and Brenda Wehle (Clio).

I don't pretend to know all the layers Mr. Kushner has written into the play.  Heck, I don't even know much about Karl Marx, but that's not what's needed to understand this play.  Listen carefully and absorb the feelings, emotions, the feelings and tones, the over arching them of family, struggle, and identity will reveal themselves to you as the minutes tick away into hours on Gus' (and your) watch.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Now. Here. This.

Lab productions don't and shouldn't get reviews.  What they should get is encouragement and word of mouth.  Here are some words and they came out of my mouth.

Full of Heart.

If you get the chance to get a ticket to the show over the next few weeks at the Vineyard Theatre, don't hesitate for one minute.  Hunter, Susan, Heidi, and Jeff and are back again.  (And if Jeff Bowen isn't Miriam Webster's definition of absolutely adorable, i don't know what is).