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01/14/15 8:55am
01/14/2015 8:55 AM |
Photo By Simon Hayter

 

Winners and Losers
Soho Rep. 46 Walker Street

 

Was Marilyn Monroe a winner or a loser? How about Sylvia Plath? These are some of the questions that come up in Winners and Losers, a curious sort of game show (or grudge match) that grew out of improvisations between Marcus Youssef and James Long, long-time friends and Canadian theater artists. They ask the “winner or loser?” question about people and also countries (Mexico, Canada) and even appliances like microwaves. But just what they mean by the subjective words “winner” and “loser” is slippery, or imprecise. They never really define these words for themselves or for us, and so they wander all over the place verbally.

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01/05/15 9:15am
01/05/2015 9:15 AM |
Photo by Jeremy Daniel

Pocatello
Playwrights Horizons
416 West 42nd Street

Samuel D. Hunter’s new play Pocatello begins with a hubbub of overlapping conversation at an Olive Garden-like restaurant run by Eddie (T. R. Knight), who has invited his brother, Nick (Brian Hutchison), and his mother, Doris (Brenda Wehle), for a family week event. Though it never leaves this restaurant, Hunter’s play is a landscape that stretches out and then contracts and then stretches out again, accommodating the needs and feelings of ten closely drawn characters all at once and then narrowing down to their one-on-one interactions. Hunter adds so much insightful detail about each of his people that they feel thick with life and possibility, and the actors dig into their roles like they’re feasting on a huge Thanksgiving dinner. (more…)

12/17/14 1:34pm
12/17/2014 1:34 PM |

Albums2

Best Actor Adrian Lester

Adrian Lester pulled out all the stops as the 19th-century theater actor Ira Aldridge in Lolita Chakrabarti’s Red Velvet, a powerful and detailed examination of the racism Aldridge faced and the way he chose to deal with it. Lester offered a three-dimensional portrait of a man who was ahead of his time.

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12/17/14 1:22pm

Albums

Choreographer Austin McCormick founded his theater troupe, Company XIV, in 2006, gathering together dancers, singers, musicians, and stylists to create inviting and enveloping erotic worlds on stage. The troupe’s Nutcracker Rouge, a neo-burlesque and very adult take on the traditional Tchaikovsky ballet, was a memorably sexy success last year when it played at the Minetta Lane Theatre, and now it is returning in a new version just in time for Christmas and New Years.

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12/03/14 4:00am
12/03/2014 4:00 AM |
Photo by Hannah Woodard

 

A Delicate Balance
Jonathan Golden Theatre
252 West 45th Street

Anyone who was privileged to see the phenomenal 1996 revival of Edward Albee’s A Delicate Balance with Rosemary Harris, George Grizzard, and Elaine Stritch knows that the next major New York staging of this play has a difficult act to follow. I will never forget how fast the curtain rose on that production to reveal Harris’s Agnes speaking her first hyper-articulate lines at a peak of inner tension masked by WASP control. Nor will I ever forget Stritch’s formidable booziness as Agnes’s parasitic sister Claire, or Grizzard’s climactic scene where the lies upon which his character Tobias has built his whole life dissolve.

The surprise of this current production of Albee’s masterpiece of existential dread in a drawing room is how ideally cast it is and how the actors find all kinds of original ways to play their juicy but difficult roles. Glenn Close chooses to play Agnes as a woman whose sanity is almost at the breaking point, an apt and exciting approach that gives new meaning to her first lines about going mad, which other actresses have played far more theoretically. Lindsay Duncan’s Claire is provokingly raffish, whispering where Stritch barked, retiring to the sidelines where Stritch hauled a natural spotlight wherever she went. Best of all is Martha Plimpton, who takes the play’s most unappealing but necessary part, the unhappy daughter Julia, and makes her into a bratty but sexy, worthwhile person who is clearly on the road to becoming just like her drunken Aunt Claire. And John Lithgow makes for a properly befuddled and ineffectual Tobias, at least at first.

A Delicate Balance is about many things, but its main theme is the test of love and friendship that comes about when Harry (Bob Balaban) and Edna (Claire Higgins), the supposed best friends of Agnes and Tobias, knock on their door uninvited and try to move in. Why? Because they are frightened and they don’t know why. Claire and Julia see the couple as rivals for space in the house; Agnes sees them as carriers of disease; and poor Tobias doesn’t know what to think. He finally tells Harry they can stay, but Harry turns him down. This is a devastating climax, and if it doesn’t work then the whole play collapses. Unfortunately, Lithgow doesn’t quite have the emotion for it yet. He has made the choice to stalk around the stage and bluster out his feelings, and it isn’t working for him.

This is a bright and superlative production in practically all ways except the most important one, but as I say, I’m sure Lithgow will get it soon (the emotion should eventually come to him if he just stands still and says the lines). A Delicate Balance is maybe the finest play by our finest living dramatist, and to see it so imaginatively acted and directed (by Pam MacKinnon) is a
real tonic. 

 

11/21/14 11:13pm
11/21/2014 11:13 PM |

Photo By Joan Marcus

Lost Lake
New York City Center
130 W. 56th Street
 

A play that has only two characters is heavily reliant on its two actors and on its central situation. In David Auburn’s Lost Lake, an extremely modest two-character play, Hogan (John Hawkes) is a shiftless guy renting out his ramshackle cottage to Veronica (Tracie Thoms), a widow and mother who is at loose ends. The first scene involves them haggling over the price of the cottage, and this opening is very unpromising. Hawkes and Thoms don’t have any particular chemistry, but they work hard on that problem as the play goes on.

Hogan comes back to fix the hot water tank and take care of some other problems with the place, and the two of them keep talking. And talking. You know perfectly well that these characters would not be talking to each other past a certain point, but they have to keep going because that’s all there is to the play. They have to chat, essentially, until they have revealed something about themselves. And so Hogan keeps coming back because his brother’s wife has kicked him out of their house and he is staying in his car on the property. This freaks Veronica out a bit, but just a bit, because they need to keep chatting about themselves and their past.

This is the sort of play where the people involved probably congratulated themselves a bit over not making it a romance (Hogan makes a half-hearted pass at Veronica toward the end that gets instantly shot down). This is also the sort of play where fear of taking any kind of risk has boiled the whole thing down to a quiet, plodding, digestible little mini-drama, low stakes, carefully structured, like a doll’s house with only two little dolls in it. By the end, it has improved slightly, or deepened, if only because Hawkes is such a fine and soulful actor. In the last scene, he sits on the floor and widens his eyes a bit and lets his talent take over, and it doesn’t even really matter what he is saying because he is in the zone, and he is offering something to us far beyond what the play is tentatively trying for.

Lost Lake is defined not by what it is but by what it is not. It is not a love story, and it is not a drama of any kind, really. It is about two fairly unhappy people who gradually reveal their unhappiness and problems to each other and gain some measure of comfort from that. There’s nothing wrong with a theme like this in theory, but everything has been so circumscribed and tidied-up that all you can feel is the falseness of the set, the lines, the actors trying to communicate with each other. Auburn’s play Proof in 2001 was a memorable vehicle for Mary-Louise Parker, and he has worked sparingly since then. He has skill and talent. What he needs to do is dare to take some chances.

11/05/14 4:00am
11/05/2014 4:00 AM |


Billy and Ray
Vineyard Theatre
108 E. 15th Street


When Billy and Ray begins, we hear screenwriter-turned-director Billy Wilder (Vincent Kartheiser) screaming at his longtime writing partner Charles Brackett and breaking up with him for the moment; when the lights come up, Wilder’s loyal secretary, Helen (Sophie Von Haselberg), is cowering under her desk waiting for the fight to stop. Wilder needs to find himself a new partner to work on a screenplay for what will become his classic film noir, Double Indemnity (1944), and he finally settles on mystery writer Raymond Chandler (Larry Pine), a man deep into middle age who would prefer to write at home.

Wilder swears colorfully, likes to drink in the office, and carries on openly and boastfully with every starlet who will have him. Chandler is a secret alcoholic who carries a bottle of whiskey in his briefcase and surreptitiously drinks from it whenever he can, a World War I veteran who has been through hell and insists on certain standards in order to keep on living. He reveres his wife and is scornful of Wilder’s easy way of talking about sex. He dislikes the James M. Cain book they are adapting and has to be led into creating some of the film version’s double entendre dialogue. And he has a xenophobic streak when it comes to expatriate writers like Wilder and their criticism of America. It is made painfully clear in this play that Chandler has no idea what is really happening in Europe. When Wilder gets a letter explaining that his mother and other relatives have been moved to concentration camps, Chandler tells Helen that they will probably just be sewing uniforms.

The writing of a screenplay between two very different men is not necessarily the most dramatic idea for a play, but this is an unlikely production in many ways that winds up being lively, enjoyable, and even touching, particularly when we see just how deep into alcoholism Chandler is when Wilder goes to visit him in the hospital. It takes a little while to get used to Kartheiser’s Viennese accent, but once we get past that stumbling block he makes for a very good approximation of what Wilder must have been like in the early 1940s: impish, baby-faced, filled with nervous energy, unable to stop talking for a moment because if he did he might have to think about where his family is. Pine has a very sobering kind of authority that contrasts nicely with Kartheiser’s lustiness, and Von Haselberg smartly never makes too much of her role as their secretary, though she must have been tempted to (even if you didn’t know she was Bette Midler’s daughter, that progeny would become obvious with her every warm sidelong glance). Director Garry Marshall is known only for crass hit movie romantic comedies, but he keeps the play moving nicely, and playwright Mike Bencivenga skillfully manages to make every scene seem both accurate and affectionate in regard to Wilder, Chandler, and
1940s Hollywood.

10/22/14 4:00am
10/22/2014 4:00 AM |


The Tempest
La MaMa
74 E. 4th Street

As perhaps the last play written by Shakespeare, The Tempest has a magisterial, august, almost removed quality, a sense of summing up and a saying farewell to all that. It is not particularly dramatic, but it has provided much fodder for academics because of its themes of colonialism, of the enslavement of indigenous people by conquerers, and the forbidden, knotty love between Caliban and Miranda. As such, it would seem like good material for a staging at La MaMa, with its proud multicultural approach and vast space, but the air of friendly collaboration at this theater and the sense of everyone working together in a warm and supportive way actually drains the material of any tension it might have.

Many of the players here are vocally limited and not too attentive to the language, so that the first scene of exposition doled out by Prospero (Reg E. Cathey) to Miranda (Miriam A. Hyman) gets pretty deadly. In the middle of all the information, when Miranda says, “Your tale, sir, would cure deafness,” I had to laugh, for there was a couple behind me who kept asking what Prospero was saying. Luckily, the actors playing the more fantastical characters run from serviceable to inspired. Joseph Harrington’s Ariel shows his beginnings as one of the boys who played Billy Elliot on Broadway: He’s all childlike balletic grace and earnest movement. And Slate Holmgren’s Caliban is properly fierce and pathetic.

Still, this production of The Tempest would be a well-meaning snooze if it weren’t for the performances of Liz Wisan as Trinculo and Tony Torn as Stephano. Wisan sends her huge comic performance out to every member of the audience, connecting with just about everyone she can as she prowls around the enormous space, and this made her especially popular with a group of extremely well-behaved pre-adolescents who seemed to be attending the play as part of a school trip. Torn, a past master of the comic grotesque, matches Wisan leer for leer and take for take, finding laughs with her where there are none, goosing the staid production as much as possible.

There’s the expected score from Elizabeth Swados—thoughtful, modest, awfully nice. You see, that’s the thing about so many productions at La MaMa. Everybody is pitching in to do a tiny and rather educational job for us, so that there is never any point where there feels like something dangerous or upsetting or threatening might happen. For The Tempest to pack the wallop it should, there needs to be more attention paid to the conflict amongst the characters, so that when Prospero gives up his power at the end, we know just what he’s giving up, and why. This Prospero seems like he would free Ariel and Caliban at the very start, so that we feel none of his struggle to let go of things, to become someone better, and without that, the play just drifts away.



10/08/14 4:10am
10/08/2014 4:10 AM |


A Walk in the Woods
The Clurman Theatre
410 W. 42nd Street

Lee Blessing’s two-character play A Walk in the Woods first bowed on Broadway in 1988, and it won much attention and many nominations for Tony awards, as well as one for the Pulitzer Prize. It is very much of its moment, a dramatization of talks between two diplomats, one from America and one from the then-Soviet Union, who are trying to put together a document that will reduce nuclear arms on both sides. They speak in the woods on the outskirts of Geneva, and there is much talk about Switzerland as a neutral country and what it might mean as a model for world peace.

In the original play, the diplomats were both men. One of our major theater actresses, Kathleen Chalfant, expressed an interest in playing the Russian diplomat, and so Blessing made some changes to his play to allow her to do so (the character is now called Irina instead of Andrey). I have not seen the play as it was originally written, but making it a duel between a Russian woman and an American man brings out a whole other layer that deepens the drama. Chalfant plays some of her character’s early scenes in a somewhat coquettish way that activates a slight romantic comedy edge to the material, and this feels like an advantage. There are times when this new way of doing the play makes it seem like a variation on Ninotchka (1939) where the dour Greta Garbo Russian commissar character is flipped, so that she is a lady who has so often been trapped in gloomy surroundings that she insists on being frivolous.

The American diplomat, John Honeyman (Paul Niebanck), sees her bent for frivolity as a delaying tactic at first, and it is partially that. But gradually we begin to see that Irina’s need for human contact is a desperate attempt to keep her spirits up in a game that she knows she cannot win. Honeyman is still young and new enough to diplomacy that he doesn’t understand the anxious futility of what they’re doing yet, and it is Irina’s job to alert him to that gently over time.

There is one area where the sex change has an unwanted emphasis: Irina has dry eyes and spends a lot of the play putting artificial tears into them. When she first tells Honeyman about this, she goes on to say that she is dry everywhere, and the fact that this doesn’t get a Joan Rivers laugh is testament to Chalfant’s nearly seamless technical command. This is a modest production, with a bare-bones set, and if it has any weight at all it is due to Chalfant and her partner Niebanck, who works his part up slowly and brings it to a state of honestly broken emotion. Chalfant is theater royalty, with Angels in America and Wit as her highest achievements so far, and if this revival is an appetizer in comparison, she manages to make it a tasty one.

09/24/14 4:00am
09/24/2014 4:00 AM |


George Kelly was one of the most noted of our playwrights during the 1920s, particularly for his drama Craig’s Wife, the heavy story of a woman who values her home and possessions above all else, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1925. He was also famous for his social comedies The Torch-Bearers, a definitive send-up of amateur theater groups that was wonderfully revived in 2000 with Marian Seldes, and The Show-Off, a sharp dissection of an all-American blowhard and boaster. His work tapered off in the 30s, where he spent some time in Hollywood spinning his wheels. In the late 40s, he returned to Broadway with The Fatal Weakness, which starred the light comedienne Ina Claire, a peerless technician who had made her name in the plays of S.N. Berhman. It got some good reviews, but it was not a success, and Kelly did little else but enjoy the movie stardom of his niece Grace and live out the rest of his life with his companion of fifty years, William E. Weagly.

The Mint Theater revived a 1931 Kelly play last year called Philip Goes Forth, and now they have turned their attention to The Fatal Weakness in their customary sensitive and coaxing style. It’s a fragile thing, this play, like a sweet little flower that keeps drooping, and the company does all it can to get it facing upright and in the sun again. It concerns Mrs. Ollie Espenshade (Kristin Griffith), a cloistered, romantic, upper-class woman who gradually finds out that her husband is having an affair. That’s really the extent of the plot, stretched out over three extremely talky acts, with a running subplot about Ollie’s daughter Penny (Victoria Mack) and her modern ideas about child-rearing that never quite comes to anything.

You have to hand it to Griffith and Cynthia Darlow, who plays Ollie’s friend Mrs. Wentz: they get through reams of fussy dialogue as quickly and stylishly as possible. They sometimes lean a little too hard on their prim standard American accents, but it might be remembered that Grace Kelly herself actually did sound this way, odd as it seems to our ears now. Griffith brings a pleasingly fluttery vulnerability to her marathon star part, but it must have been difficult for even Ina Claire to have been this fey over such a long distance.

What is the fatal weakness of the title? It seems to be Ollie’s maidenly romanticism, which Kelly suggests has kept her distant from her husband all these years. It’s really rather a sad play if you think about it, and you’ll have plenty of time to think. The real star here is the set by Vicki R. Davis, a world of flowers and Dresden china that perfectly evokes the never-never land psychological state of the heroine. This is a vital production of a neglected late Kelly play, but I’d love to see the Mint tackle Craig’s Wife or The Show-Off next.