Photo by Don Kellogg

Monday, November 24, 2014

The Invisible Hand

A force to be reckoned with, Ayad Akhtar has penned yet another powerful drama now playing out on the stage at New York Theatre Workshop.  He's currently on Broadway representing his Pulitzer prize winning work, Disgraced.

This time around he has infused cultural anger and religion in a new way - a kidnapping of an American banker in Pakistan who has to literally trade his way out of captivity.   Potent, riveting, intelligent, and well explained, (I felt like i needed to short a stock after I left the theatre!) the show succinctly laid out our different religious and societal beliefs between the west and east and proved through plot twists and revelations throughout the show how money and power corrupts and just how absolutely it does so.
Photo from Seattle Production

Justin Kirk (Nick Bright) must have taken a crash course in the stock market and its various economic theories in order to master this role - and master it he did.  He was quite literally like the play's namesake - an Invisible Hand - guiding us through the technicalities of the market. Part sheepish boy, part super-intelligent banker, his character seemed at ease with this tough role.  Dariush Kashani (Imam Salem) walked a tough line between religion, beliefs, and corruption with his tragic character.  Usman Ally (Bashir) portrayed his character with zeal, zest, and power.  Young, eager, and possibly the most corrupt and most compassionate at the same time.  His word, in the end, was his most honest trait.

The brutal honesty of this play told through the lens of a kidnapping and the captors lends new credence to the idea that we really don't know the power of our respective cultures and when they meet the consequences can be explosive.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

On A Stool at the End of the Bar

A new play by Robert Callely had its debut over at 59E59 Theaters.  I always enjoy seeing different things over on the east side in the intimate theaters.  The productions that grace the stage are usually unique, provocative, or just a different and interesting theatrical experience.

Last night's opening, however,  of On a Stool at the end of The Bar left me feeling a bit empty and somewhat puzzled.  Mr. Callely wants to convince us of something that simply seems preposterous (not only to the characters in the play).  When the entire premise of the play is suspect, it's hard to really enjoy the general goings-on.  Despite some fairly decent performances, there's not much to salvage from this show.

However, to be applauded are the three young actors who grace the stage - Luke Slattery (Joey), Zachary Brod (Mario), and Sara Kapner (Angie).  Anyone who writes material for such young, eager, and energetic talent is to be applauded.  All three turned in fine performances, with Mr. Slattery and his good college-boy looks taking the pole position.  Robert Hogan (Father Connors) made a fairly impactful cameo appearance in his scene playing and old and old fashioned priest with limited experience in dealing with the issues presented to him.  Possibly the most well written part of Mr. Callely's play.  Timothy John Smith, a Boston native recently transplanted to NYC, has a bright future in front of him here whether in musicals (his bio suggests he has much experience in this area) or dramatic plays - which is what he demonstrates quite nicely in this awkwardly written conflict of this play.

That just leaves Antoinette Thornes, quite a quixotic choice for the leading lady.  She turned in as best a performance she could for the very awkward and poorly written part for her.  She never fought.  She never stood up for herself.  She found herself in quite a pickle and with such a past I would have expected an entirely different, potent, angry, repressed, and strong character.  And since this is the central nerve of the entire play... well, I think u see the problem now.   None of this is Ms. Thornes' fault, of course.  She herself is a rock-band singer/songwriter - and this likely may have been her debut on stage.  To that end, she is triumphant and I applaud her risk taking.  Her character, on the other hand, was likely the most disappointingly written character I have ever encountered.

In the end, direction by Michael Parva was lackluster and lacked any sizzle given the explosive nature of the subject matter.  Actors were angry but that anger was flat and muted.  In such a small theater, sometimes miracles are possible and the show transports you in an intimate setting to an entirely other place.  Unfortunately none of that happened this evening.  We were left in the end with uncertainty, anger, unresolved conflict, and although I believe we are supposed to see a glimmer of hopefulness in the very last line of the script, it was not nearly enough to clear the black cloud of gloom that hung over the entire evening.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Love Letters

A. R. Gurney admits it right up front in his script - "This is a play, or rather a sort-of-a-play, which needs no theatre, no lengthy rehearsal, no special set, no memorization of lines, and no commitment from its two actors beyond the night of performance."

So how on earth can this be good?  Sounds like you slap it together and throw it out there.  Sounds like a reading you're paying Broadway prices to watch - or rather - merely listen to.  So is it worth it?

The answer to this question is a resounding YES provided the actors are ones you want to see - or rather hear.  I suspect the secret to a production of this sort is to cast actors who generally embody the phrase "I could listen to them read the phone book".

The show itself is simply a recitation of various letters and thoughts exchanged between two friends over 40+ years who never quite caught up with each other as their lives slipped away in two vastly different directions all the while clinging to each other's letters for that single thread that bound together over time.

Of all the announced couple pairs there were a few individuals in each pair I wanted to see perform but the only pair I wanted to see BOTH was the current cast of Candice Bergen (Melissa) and Alan Alda (Andrew Makepeace Ladd III).  Yes, I could listen to them read the phone book and what a joy it was to see them read the love letters over time to each other - according to the stage directions - never looking at each other.  Direction in this case, by Gregory Mosher, is focused on vocal queues, pauses, pace, and rhythm.

This isn't much of a play.  It's a sort-of-a-play.  More like a long bedtime story read to you by two hopefully brilliant actors with irresistible voices.  You'll either fall asleep happy in the theater (hopefully not) or leave the theater with a smile on your face after hearing such cherished actors tell you a story.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

You Can't Take It With You

Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman's stale and dated play is currently exploding (literally) on stage at the Longacre Theatre in a 3rd Broadway revival since it was written in 1936.  This is a commercial run that was somehow caught up in the non-profit theatre vortex of Roundabout Theatre Company at the same time (I'm sure this was another trick up Roundabout's leave to keep costs low by not having to produce an original work this season).  

While the plot is madcap (frankly, crazy), the mayhem level and star level on stage is quite substantial.  The only problem is that it's frankly too stupid with a rather banal message of simply "be happy".  There is a love story going on amongst all the hubbub and but the Carol Burnette and Saturday Night-like sketch and physical comedy simply overpowers the message and muscles its way through all 3 acts with laughter often the result but never much satisfaction past that.

The cast is huge and stars abound - James Earl Jones (Martin Vanderhof) could read the phone book and we'd all be happy and the role of the patriarch fit him age wise, but not quite stylistically.  Kristine Nielsen (Penelope Sycamore) simply knocked it out of the park with her physical comedy and infectious personality.  Annaleigh Ashford (Essie) was a bit too over the top for me as the incessant ballet dancing ditsy daughter, Mark-Linn Baker (Paul Sycamore) seemed lost in the overall mix for his talent level, Elizabeth Ashley (Olga) came in at the very end and it seemed her voice was straining to make sound.  Plus by the time she entered, the endless cast of characters parading on stage simply got me tired.  There were no less than 10 other cast members who all looked good and seemed to complement the ensemble but after a while too many characters are introduced.  I applaud a producer who undertakes such an ambitious production and employs such a large cast, but this old firecracker is a dud.  I could go on... as did the play for over 2 hours and 30 minutes over  three acts... but I won't.  

In traditional Roundabout style, the set was magnificent (kudos David Rockwell).  I do not think the actors were mic'd and it was pleasing to hear real people speaking in non-electonicized tones on stage for a play.

You could skip this production, save a few bucks, and leave the audience-going to the Roundabout subscribers who paid good money into their subscription only to find out they were subsidizing a commercial run of a Broadway production.