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Photo by Don Kellogg

Saturday, April 30, 2011

The School for Lies

One thing that is not a lie is that this show is one of the best off-Broadway productions that I have seen in a very long time.   I'm not very high-brow, so I went in thinking Moliere + The Misanthrope = big snooze-fest.   Surprisingly, I came out energized, entertained, engaged, and ecstatic!  A cast of wall-flowers this was not.  Strong, confident, talented, and bold are all adjectives that can only start to describe this cast.  David Ives has penned a modern, witty, and extremely intelligent take based on this old gem and Walter Bobbie has taken the directorial reigns with panache and style like no other could.

The ensemble cast lead by the stunningly beautiful daughter of Merryl Streep,  Mamie Gummer (Celimene/Ivory Gown) and dashingly handsome Hamish Linklater (Frank/Black Frock) incessantly worked the meanings, double entendre, and sheer comedy out of every (very) poetic line.  Hoon Lee (Philante/Maroon Frock), Frank Harts (Clitander/Purple Frock), Rick Holmes (Oronte/Yellow Frock), and Matthew Maher (Acaste/Green Frock) charm the pants off you, each in his own endearing, imperfect way.  Jenn Gambatese (Elainte/Blue Gown) and Allison Frasier (Arsinoe/Purple Gown) each tussle with Ms. Gummer for the affections of her men men and the chance to unseat her as queen of the castle.  And last, but certainly not least, Steven Boyer (Dubois/Basque/Brown Frocks) provided regular intervals of a little Shakespearian humor.  (I prefer that to Monty Python, but truth be told, it could fit).  Canapé anyone?.  Truth be told, the language is lofty, but if you follow the humor and witty repartee, the rhymed couplets (or is it iambic pentameter?) start to complete themselves in your head just as they roll off the tongues of the talented actors on stage.   I had a little trouble with the very Elizabethan names of the characters but if you focus on the boldly colored and elegantly designed costume for each character, you'll do just fine.

Speaking of a stage - the elegant costumes were made only more so by the simple, clean ivory-colored stage floor and walls.  Pure white lighting served to highlight the fine detail on the masterful costumes and left your focus on the lofty comedic performances.

I bring this to you not as gossip.  I, too, am merely reporting.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

The Normal Heart

The life-story of Larry Kramer, AIDS activist, author and playwright, finally makes it to Broadway - a late, but welcome addition to the spring season.  Having had several off-Broadway runs, most recently in 2004 staring Raul Esparza, this incarnation puts a Tony award winning director, Joe Mantello, in the leading acting role.  Directed by Joel Grey (who's kinda busy with Anything Goes) and George C. Wolfe, the production takes on a brisk rhythm, maintains it's level of anger at or just below the boiling point, and serves to educate us all, once again, as to the political, social, and medical roots of this plague called AIDS.

Mantello shows off his superb acting chops as Ned Weeks, the central character of of this 1980's real-life drama, for which a Tony nomination is certainly due for his outstanding performance.  I took notice on several occasions that with both eyes firmly on the scene in front of him, a third, unseen eye in his brain was feeding him all sorts of instructions for little gestures, movements and pauses in dialogue that only a keen director would want to see an actor give.  The ensemble cast that supports him; Luke MacFarlane, Patrick Breen, Wayne Alan Wilcox, Ellen Barkin, Lee Pace, John Benjamin Hickey, Mark Harelick, Jim Parsons, and Richard Topol; is equally talented and in lock step with Mantello's energy, passion, emotion, and intensity.  A true ensemble cast at its best.

I recall seeing the 2004 production at the Public Theatre, but as with all shows that are re-staged and re-presented - this version in 2011 seemed to pack a bigger punch, emphasize the explosive emotional nature of the story and focus less on the back story and friendships and founding of GMHC.

The play is always performed, as far as I know, without scenery and this production was no exception.  The words and headlines in white-on-white on the back and side walls of the stage were effective in communicating unspoken dialogue and both the lack of audio (the performers were not mic'd) and the inclusion of audio at each scene change were both powerful and subtly effective tools which served to amplify the impact of the overall performance.

Mr. Kramer was, and still is, a complex and confrontational human being.  This is his story, his life's work and and it certainly deserves the fine production that Ms. Roth and her partners have given it.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

The House of Blue Leaves

John Guare just had a grand Broadway run with latest work, A Free Man of Color.  Now he's back on Broadway with one if his his first works, The House of Blue Leaves.   Despite the 40 years in-between the creation of the two, his style remains remarkably similar.  While Blue Leaves is substantially less grand and not quite the epic of an era that was Free Man, it still tells a wild and crazy tale in the characteristically Guare-like story-telling style.

Taking the helm in this 2nd Broadway revival are a divine Edie Falco (Bananas), a slightly bristling Jennifer Jason Leigh (Bunny), and an enthusiastic Ben Stiller (Artie).  Supporting this fine leading cast are the always sublime Allison Pill (Corinna), and uber-adorable Thomas Sadowski (Billy).  It's interesting to note that Mr. Stiller is not new to the production, having played the son, Ronnie, in the first Tony award winning (Best Play)  Broadway run in 1986.  Anecdotally, his mother, Anne Meara, played in the original 1971 off-Broadway run in also.

I didn't see that production in 1986 (staring John Mahoney, Stockard Channing, Swoosie Kurtz, Danny Aiello, Julie Hagerty and Ben Stiller - and later Christine Baranski and Patricia Clarkson), but it seems to me the current revival's cast is somewhat different.  I've asked a few people who have seen both and the two adjectives that are repeatedly used are related to temperature and energy.  According to my "experts" polled - the current cast has less warmth, less love, is more mechanical, detached, and, dare I say, "crazy".  In a way it makes sense to me.  Isn't that the general state of who we are in 2011 vs 1971?  The actors are simply reflecting our current norms and general state of sensational being.   The show, after all, is about a bat-shit-crazy family in Queens that starts out crazy and ends up 3 levels crazier.   It's part farce, part comedy, and part family drama.   Some may call it honesty, and some may call it drama, but the interactions between the characters (mostly between Stiller and Falco) can jump from moderately funny to mildly offensive and mean-spirited in a heartbeat.  I found the audience unable to discern between the two and prone to laugh at some of the most inappropriate points in the dialogue unfolding on stage.

Overall the show is a powerhouse - - of both drama and comedy.  It was written mainstream pre-terrorism, but rings as true today in that sense as it did the say it debuted.   While it's not my general cup of tea, I did enjoy the significant performances - - and it frankly left me wishing I could have compared all the performance casts.  But alas, live theatre is just that - live.  You can't press rewind.  That's something Artie probably wishes he could do too.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Picked

Upfront I will recognize the fine performances by all the actors - Mark Blum, Tom Lipinski, Michael Stahl-David, Liz Stauber, and even Donna Hanover too!   The fine acting notwithstanding - the playwright, Christopher Shinn, has a creative failure on his hands.

The plot sold on the Vineyard Theatre website sounds enticing, but it never develops.  For two acts over two hours all you get is a frustrating tease.  Will it go in this direction? (No.) Will it go in that direction? (No again.)  Is the obvious homo-erotic tension between the two actors going anywhere?  (Nope.)  The brain scan stuff had great potential.  As with much, it was introduced but we never saw the results of it - i.e. the movie-within-the-play.  (Teased again.).  The actors seem to make substantial life-decisions yet we never really understand where they come from or a complete context.  Contradiction after contradiction; Dead end after dead end.  Don't get me wrong, I understand that Mr. Shinn was going for the ethereal, the psychological, the intangible questions about why we get "picked" and how "getting picked" affects our perception of ourselves as well as how others perceive us and how that affects us and the effects of the constant over-analysis of "why".  Yes, I get that and see where it could have fit in your play.  Main problem being - you didn't translate that into a discrete, linear, comprehensible plot.

The actors, despite all this mismatched, undeveloped work deserved a hearty round of applause.  I think they were as confused as the entire audience as to why they were there.  I found myself speaking with about 6 different theater-going couples out front of the theatre and not one of us had a good word to say.   Why on earth did the Vineyard present this play was the question of the hour.  That, too, like many of our questions about the play, remains unanswered.  If you have options, don't pick this one.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

By the Way, Meet Vera Stark

Lynn Nottage has penned a unique and clever work now being performed at Second Stage Theatre.   The play takes place in two distinct parts - Act I in 1933 and Act II 1973/2003 involving the same cast - some playing the same characters and others taking on new roles.  The work itself is a film-within-a-play and a TV-show-flashback within-a-lecture within a play.  Yes - all that and I promise you'll never get confused.  It's all done with perfection!

Act I all by itself is simply enchanting.  A small and funny dramady all in itself, it introduces us to the characters, provides background and setting (Hollywood 1933).  It then sets the stage for the future possibilities for the main character, Vera Stark (Sanaa Lathan) as she embarks on her life's journey.

Act II is where the real meat of the intrigue and playwright's message lies.  Act II brings us forward almost 70 years with looks back at what became of Vera and her hallmark film debut, The Belle of New Orleans.

The sets are charming and the costumes period-perfect.  I loved the way they orchestrated the scene changes - making the stage look like a Hollywood sound stage exposing the construct of the sets and leaving all the pieces of the sets exposed to the audience at different times.

Ms. Lathan is pitch perfect in her delivery and timing.  Stephanie J. Block is marvelous as the young Hollywood star, Gloria Mitchell.  It was a pleasure to see the ever-handsome Daniel Breaker perform both of his charmer roles.   Karen Olivo gives a hysterical performance as Anne Mae in Act I and a slightly more serious one as poet, rapper, lesbian, feminist, Afua Assata Ejobo.  Kimberly Herbert Gregory charms us as Lottie in Act I and provides some over the top commentary as the intellectual Carmen Levy-Green in Act II.

No spoilers here, but I'll just say Ms. Nottage's message is brilliant.  If you think about it you'll realize that maybe you shouldn't believe everything some seemingly intelligent and educated people tell you.  Just think about Vera.  You'll understand what I'm saying after you see it.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Sister Act

If you're in the mood for a night of good, clean, innocent fun - Sister Act at the Broadway Theatre has just what you've been looking for.  By the way, don't run out and rent the movie.  Cheri and Bill Steinkellner along with Douglas Carter Beane have adapted the original TouchTone motion picture quite a bit for the stage.

So - what's the result?  Fun, frivolity, glitz, glamour along with dancing, singing, high-kicking, sequin wearing nuns!  How could you go wrong?!  The stained glass sets on the cavernous stage are magnificently grand (kudos Klara Zieglerova) and the colorful and sharp lighting is equally sublime (kudos Natash Katz).

In the staring role, Patina Miller (Deloris Van Cartier) and Victoria Clark (Mother Superior) never fail to delight.  Ms. Miller gives it all she's got and Ms. Clark never fails to entertain with her quick wit and sublime vocals.   Surrounding these two fine actors is an equally fine cast of nuns, gangsters, and police officers.   The two nuns you'd most likely recognize are Sister Mary Patrick (Sara Bolt) and Sister Mary Robert (Marla Mindelle) - literally channeling the identical side-kick characters in the film, Kathy Najimy and Wendy Makkena.

Filling in the supporting roles, Fred Applegate does a magnificent deadpan with Monsignor O'Hara and Audrie Neenan takes on the aging Sister Mary Lazarus with chutzpa.  Relative newcomer, Chester Gregory (Eddie Souther) has a few surprises up his sleeves (and pant legs), oozes that awkward, charming sensitivity, and and never fails to delight - especially when those surprises are revealed.

This show lives up to its bold expectations.  You'll leave the theatre with a big, old-fashioned smile on your face.  After seeing nuns in glitzy habits singing and dancing all night long - the only thing that could top it is the star coming out at the end in the fabulous dress she always wanted.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Benefactors

Michael Frayn's play, Benefactors, is a gripping, poignant, and dramatic new work now playing off-Broadway at Theatre Row on 42nd Street.  You might recognize another of his hit-plays, Noises Off, which has played on and off-Broadway multiple times.  The 4 actors, Vivienne Benesch, Daniel Jenkins, Stephen Baker Turner, and Deanne Lorette, each give superb performances and seem to be perfectly cast in their roles.

Is the play a scosche too long? Probably.  Could that be easily fixed?  Certainly.  I'm not worried one bit.  What I am worried about is the title itself.  After you hear the dialogue and absorb the subject matter, it seemed to me, and a few others leaving the theatre, that the title was a bit deceptive in two ways: First, it drove me to think that the entire play there was some invisible character that was going to pop out of the woodwork who would be a plausible explanation for the mounting conflict we were watching unfold on stage.  No such luck.   Second, it had no direct connection to the play unfolding before my eyes.  It was only after the play upon reflection that I properly determined what it was supposed to represent.  Mr. Frayn, how about the obvious - Basuto Road.  Innocuous.  Mysterious.  Has a powerful, dramatic, and ominous tone to it, no?  After the obvious, I'm sure there are some other equally appropriate lines from the play that could have been turned into the show's title.   The choice of Benefactors served only to un-focus my attention to the story because I was constantly distracted in trying to figure out - who is the mystery man behind the story that is the "Benefactor"?  When are we going to meet him?  When will the plot be resolved?   It moved my focus away from the brilliantly crafted character study being performed.  

Title aside, the play is thought provoking, intelligent, well acted and well-structured.  Kudos to the director, Carl Forsman for what appeared to me to be quite snappy staging with a subtle story-telling aspect cleverly built into the delivery of the dialogue.