07/16/15 9:44am
Photos by Joan Marcus

Shows for Days
Newhouse Theater, W. 65th Street

Douglas Carter Beane’s Shows for Days is an admirably crafted valentine to his own beginnings in community theater. This is a comedy with the sort of laughs that land big and then build into second, smaller laughs, and it cleverly masquerades as light fare in its first act before grounding its humor in a more painful reality in the second act. The laughs are tough to get on the very large thrust stage at the Mitzi Newhouse at Lincoln Center, particularly with a playing area that reaches so far back from the audience, and the play will likely get even more laughs if and when it is done in a more intimate space.

Shows for Days is narrated from start to finish by a stand-in for the playwright named Car, who is performed with enviable physical wit and authority by Michael Urie, an actor who has that rarest and least describable of stage qualities: genuine charm. Urie’s Car, who is speaking from an adult point of view, takes us back to his high school days when he got his first job in the theater, working with ambitious small-time theatrical grande dame Irene (Patti LuPone), lesbian stagehand Sid (Dale Soules), needy ingénue Maria (Zoe Winters), flamboyant ham Clive (Lance Coadie Williams), and bisexual leading man Damien (Jordan Dean), with whom Irene is carrying on an extramarital affair.

Remarkably enough, Irene is never presented as a deluded theater diva-type for laughs but always as a tough, smart, and faintly unknowable person. As played by the fierce and exacting LuPone, who sometimes evokes the spirit of that unforgettable theater creature Marian Seldes, Irene is a woman blessed with a surprising amount of self-knowledge, and most of the laughs in the play come from her somehow warm-heartedly ruthless exploitation of those around her. There is competition with other theater troupes to contend with, mayoral ass to kiss, and many personal problems to deal with within her troupe, but Irene handles all of these things with aplomb.

Urie’s Car worships George S. Kaufman (one of the best jokes in the play is about the title of You Can’t Take It With You), and Shows for Days is a comedy that is worthy of that lineage; old-fashioned in its well-made play structure but modern in its content. It is Beane’s achievement here that even though the second act introduces some extremely traumatic material (Car becomes involved with Damien and has to hear a particularly brutal line of rejection from him), the play never veers off its elevated, sophisticated course. Shows for Days is in love with theater and theater-makers but clear-eyed about their lives and their struggles. This is a personal play that is wedded to early suffering but basically light-hearted, like a liqueur with a strong aftertaste. The ending gets rather heavy and even a little sentimental, but it is honest sentiment, and it has been earned.

07/01/15 9:00am
Photos by Joan Marcus

The Qualms
Playwrights Horizons
416 W. 42nd Street

The modern theater has increasingly given itself over to frank discussions of sex and sexual behavior, for both comedic and dramatic purposes, and there comes a point when this dialogue about sex cannot really go any further. Bruce Norris’s The Qualms is very much a discussion of sex and sexual boundaries, working its way gradually from sex comedy to something slightly more serious, and it hints at the need for a time-out from sex, or at least from talk about sex.

Gary (John Procaccino) and Teri (Kate Arrington) are hosting a swinger party at their condo near the beach, and in the opening scene they are getting to know two new members, Chris (Jeremy Shamos) and Kristy (Sarah Goldberg). Gary seems like a bit of a blowhard at first, but he’s actually a go-with-the-flow hippie type, and Teri, who seems perpetually stoned and comically accepting, is clearly his ideal mate. The beautiful blonde Kristy heads to the bedroom in back for a brief tryst with Teri, and when they come back a whole lot of new characters are introduced.

There are eight characters in The Qualms, not including a briefly seen delivery guy (Julian Leong) who gets a big laugh toward the end, and that’s a lot of characters to keep track of. There’s the complex, extroverted Deb (Donna Lynne Champlin), who was recently widowed, and her lover Ken (Andy Lucien), who seems obviously gay. There’s the sophisticated Regine (Chinasa Ogbuagu), who struts around in silk stockings, and Roger (Noah Emmerich), the none-too-bright alpha male who did a tour of duty during the first Iraq War. There are times when all eight of these people are on stage at once, which presents big staging problems for director Pam MacKinnon. None of the interactions within this group ever seem to occur naturally or effortlessly, and there isn’t enough cohesion among the cast members, who are too focused on their individual characters and not enough on what’s happening between them in the moment.

Shamos’s Chris is the de facto lead of the ensemble because the drama in The Qualms is in his increasingly unlikable objections, or qualms, to the swinger event itself. He’s basically a conservative sort of guy who has come to this orgy because of his own insecurity about his relations with his beautiful wife, and so he feels the need to get into petty pissing matches with the other male characters; when the female characters assert themselves with him, he puts them down until he finally pricks the balloon of Deb’s over-confidence. The conflict between Chris and the others reaches a height and then the play quiets down as we watch most of the characters clean up the physical mess that has been made. And then several of them share a few memories, and a modest amount of hope is signaled. The Qualms is compelling and it ends rather well, but the staging needs to find more fluidity if it is to reach its full potential.

06/17/15 10:09am



Manhattan Theatre Club
131 W. 55th Street

“I love Mary-Louise Parker!” crowed an exuberant audience member at a curtain call for Heisenberg, which is very much a Mary-Louise Parker vehicle. This modest new two-character play by Simon Stephens has no set aside from two tables and two chairs, and so there is nothing to distract us from Parker’s star performance, which is pretty much the whole show. Parker has always possessed an unusually sensitive and open emotional range, and her physical reactions have become so extreme in Heisenberg that it seems like she is fetishizing her own gift, just as her audience is. This is maybe enjoyable for her, and for some of the audience, but it is basically not a healthy state of affairs. (more…)

06/03/15 12:21pm
Photo by Joan Marcus

The Flick
The Barrow Street Theatre
27 Barrow Street

Annie Baker’s The Flick , which premiered to some controversy at Playwrights Horizons in 2013, subsequently won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2014, and now it has re-opened for a commercial run at the Barrow Street Theatre. This is the best new American play in at least twenty years, a cause for wonder and rejoicing that feels like an entirely new way of doing theater, and it makes all the other current theater seem false, showy, and trivial. In its own radically anti-lyric, anti-conventional way, The Flick resembles Carson McCullers’s The Member of the Wedding, another major play about three disparate people thrown together and trying hard to reach each other across increasingly immense distances. That’s how good it is, how piercing it is, and how essential.

For a little over three hours, we watch three employees who work at a movie theater in Massachusetts in the summer of 2012. Avery (Aaron Clifton Moten) is a 20-year-old African-American, a smart, guarded depressive, and a passionate cinephile. He is trained by the 35-year-old Sam (Matthew Maher), who at first seems to be a typical kind of Massachusetts guy with a Beavis-and-Butthead inflection, and Rose (Louisa Krause), the deadpan projectionist who also seems at first to be a type, a no-hope cool girl, but these types break down immediately when they start to discuss movies with each other. Avery insists that there have been no great American films made since Pulp Fiction. Sam says Avatar was great, and when Avery expresses his disgust with that choice Sam lists some Coen Brothers movies. Rose mentions The Tree of Life and eventually brings up Mulholland Dr.

It is clear that Baker herself is a hardcore cinephile, and her play is partly an elegy to 35mm projection and the move to all-digital projection in movie theaters, but this is only the start of her achievement here. What she has done in The Flick is focus minutely on the passage of time so that the characters become multi-dimensional, forever expanding, mysteriously, painfully, cathartically, before our eyes. The three actors give performances that match the high level of the writing, which means that they don’t give conventional performances at all.

Do you know what it’s like to enter an empty theater at night and suddenly sense and feel all the things that have ever happened in it? That’s what The Flick is like, extra-sensory, galactic, patiently unearthing the layers under the layers of experience, interrogating appearances, viewing the inevitable worst in people and the possibility of the best with austere charity. This is a realistic play that still believes in the possibility of magic, as when the mild-mannered Avery is uplifted and cleansed by reciting Samuel L. Jackson’s Ezekiel speech from Pulp Fiction. Baker makes us realize that we love the movies because they offer the seeds of transformation, and that is also what her play is offering us, on a very profound level.

05/20/15 11:29am


One Hand Clapping
59E59 Theaters 59 E. 59th Street

According to One Hand Clapping, an imported British stage version of a 1961 Anthony Burgess novel adapted and directed by Lucia Cox, if you try to imagine one hand clapping you can come closer to the concept of God; this would seem to link God to nothingness, which is a Zen sort of thought. Burgess published his novel originally under the pseudonym Joseph Kell, and he meant it as a rant against the transformation of Britain, as he saw it, into a “mini-America.” So his viewpoint seems to be that of an angry, reactionary young man, and if so this is unusual because most of the angry young men and women plays of this time in England came from a more leftist perspective. (more…)

05/06/15 10:00am
Photo Courtesy of O&M Co.

The Visit
Lyceum Theatre 149 W. 45th Street

John Kander and Fred Ebb’s musical version of Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s The Visit, an uncompromising tale of revenge and human weakness, has taken an unusually long time to play in New York. It was originally scheduled to open in March of 2001 with Angela Lansbury in the lead. When Lansbury withdrew, Chita Rivera stepped in and played it in Chicago, where it got good reviews but no forward momentum to open here. Rivera played The Visit periodically for years after this initial run until a one-act version of the musical opened at Williamstown last year under the direction of John Doyle. And now at last, after so many years of stalling, Rivera is opening The Visit on Broadway. All the time she spent playing and refining it has resulted in a production that seems like the last bitter flowering of a certain kind of 1970s American musical, perfectly judged, tuneful, biting, and nearly Brechtian in its cerebral formalism. (more…)

04/22/15 6:28am


Hand to God
Booth Theatre
222 W. 45th St.

When it played downtown in 2014, Hand to God drew rave reviews for Steven Boyer, who played a nice but troubled schoolboy seemingly possessed by a demon puppet. Boyer’s performance is just as virtuosic now in this Broadway transfer of Robert Askins’s play, which offers many comic
opportunities to its actors while also making steep physical demands on them.

Very loud Christian rock plays before the curtain, preparing us for the deep Texas milieu of Hand to God, which mainly takes place in a Sunday school recreation room. Margery (Geneva Carr) has recently been widowed, and she is dealing with her grief by trying to corral her son Jason (Boyer) and two other students into putting together a religion-themed puppet show. But foul mouths and foul tempers hold sway from the beginning here, as Jason quietly lusts for deadpan cutie Jessica (Sarah Stiles) and deals with his anger and jealousy toward Timothy (Michael Oberholtzer), a very dim bulb who is crudely lusting after Margery. The lonely Pastor Greg (Marc Kudisch) is also lusting after Margery in a far more respectable and overbearingly nice way, and her rejection of his marriage proposal sets lots of bad things in motion. (more…)

04/08/15 11:02am
Photo by John Haynes

John Golden Theatre
252 W. 45th Street

David Hare’s plays require a special depth and commitment from their actors in order to be anything more than left-wing agitprop, which is his predilection and specialty. In his best and most noted work, Plenty, the anti-heroine Susan Traherne tells off the complacent British bourgeoisie around her in an increasingly erratic, mentally unhinged way. The excitement of Plenty lies in the fact that Susan is right about most of what she’s saying but sometimes cruelly wrong about the way she says it. Plenty has a kind of variety and challenge that most of Hare’s other work for the theater lacks, and that would include Skylight, a modest play from the mid-90s that depends nearly entirely in this current production on star performances from Carey Mulligan and Bill Nighy.

Mulligan’s Kyra is a classic Hare heroine—an outcast who sticks up for her leftist principles and social engagement at the expense of all love and personal pleasure. She is living in such a drab, ugly apartment that it seems as if it has been chosen for its ugliness, for its air of self-denial. In the first scene, a young boy named Edward (Matthew Beard) comes to visit her, and we learn that she once carried on an affair with his father Tom (Nighy), a posh restaurateur, right under the nose of his mother, Alice. When Alice found out about the affair, Kyra bolted, never to return or to explain herself. Edward tells Kyra that Alice has just died of cancer, and that Tom isn’t doing well.

But when Tom himself comes to call, only Nighy’s habitual twitching and wincing lets us know that this man is very unhappy underneath his privileged, arrogant manners. Nighy is giving a very mannered performance, as is his wont, but he effectively brings most of the sympathy to Tom in the second act, when he engages in a long debate with Kyra about her life and her choices. Mulligan has the perpetual look of a kicked puppy, and so she has a hard time getting as angry and violent as Kyra needs to be. When Kyra throws a whole drawer of utensils in Tom’s general direction, it feels like something the script has told Mulligan to do, not something that feels natural to her.

Mulligan’s moist, victimized manner throws the whole play to Nighy’s Tom when it should really be more of a contest between them. Kyra needs to be a bit more of a strong-hearted bitch, something closer to Susan Traherne in Plenty, for the meanings in the admittedly-thin material to be activated. As it is, it is perfectly enjoyable to watch Mulligan and Nighy do their stuff, but the play itself has no bite or sting in their hands. They seem resolutely separate on stage, when the writing is indicating that they are supposed to have powerful feelings for each other. And so a small play of ideas becomes merely a mismatched star vehicle only.

03/25/15 7:34am
photo by Richard Termine

The Heidi Chronicles
Music Box Theatre
239 W. 45th Street

Wendy Wasserstein was a beloved figure in the theater community, and there was much grief at her untimely death in 2006. Wasserstein won the Pulitzer Prize in 1989 for The Heidi Chronicles, a zeitgeist-surfing hit that starred Joan Allen on Broadway. Heidi, along with The Sisters Rosensweig, was her most successful play, a summing up for Baby Boomers and the feminist movement that spans the years from 1965 through the time the play was written, and so Heidi is in a curious sort of time warp, too near and yet too far. It has the air of a smartly written 1970s TV sitcom, with just enough esoteric cultural references to satisfy college-educated audiences, and it isn’t bad, really; if it were worse, it would be easier to write about. As a piece of material, it is always precociously straining toward excellence, but it is also sometimes better than that, painful and personal and honest. (more…)

03/11/15 6:55am
Photo by Greg Endries

The singular David Greenspan has carved out an idiosyncratic place for himself in the theater as a character actor of sinuous force and also as a very demanding playwright. Greenspan has been seemingly everywhere on New York stages for years, in a Richard Foreman play here, a Tennessee Williams revival there, on Broadway and in more confined spaces. Unsettling, uncanny, his work never takes the easy way and always insists on looking straight into psychic areas that most of us would prefer to keep hidden. Any new play by Greenspan is an event, just as any appearance he makes is unlikely to be forgotten.