07/16/15 9:44am
07/16/2015 9:44 AM |
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.

06/17/15 10:09am
06/17/2015 10:09 AM |



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…)

05/20/15 11:29am
05/20/2015 11:29 AM |


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
05/06/2015 10:00 AM |
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
04/22/2015 6:28 AM |


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
04/08/2015 11:02 AM |
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.

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.


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

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…)

12/03/14 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. 


07/20/11 4:00am
07/20/2011 4:00 AM |


Written and directed by François Girard
Music by Nick Littlemore

Cirque du Soleil usually stages its circuses under a big top. But its latest, Zarkana, plays out across—and above—the boards at Radio City Music Hall (through October 8). Inspired by and designed for this old Deco theater, Cirque’s spooky and sumptuous new spectacle is not just a series of stunning stunts: it’s a full-blown theatrical production, an extravagant feast for the eyes that, for two hours, fills every floor-to-ceiling inch of the enormous Radio City stage.

Staged just blocks from the Foxwoods, where Spider-Man is swinging from the rafters in competition for tourist dollars, Zarkana and its Marvel rival invite comparison: both feature epic rock scores, an actor sailing above the audience, and hard-to-follow stories. But Cirque’s acrobatics are so impressive they compensate for the befuddled plot. Spectacle expiates the narrative confusion: while Spider-Man has a stuntman sailing from proscenium to balcony and back again—again and again—Zarkana showcases aerialists twirling from ropes, flag-throwers fashioning a fabric-ballet in the air, daredevils defying death on complicated contraptions, human totem poles rising four people high, and a trapeze act made of people, swinging and tossing each other from group to group. So who needs developed characters?

There is a plot here, but damned if I know what it is: if you wanted me to explain why an octopus fetus with a human face#&8212;an animation on a monitor wheeled across the stage#&8212;moans “welcome to my funeral” near the show’s end, I couldn’t even begin to. Like a more nightmarish Tales of Hoffman, Zarkana is a succession of fantastic episodes, each with its own circus act, rock song and featured creature (a snake, a spider), playing with a Gothic aesthetic that approaches kitsch—somewhere between a Tim Burton movie and the Jekyll and Hyde Club. In each, we experience the extravaganzas for which Cirque productions are known, but the performers’ near impossible feats of strength, stamina and movement—works of art unto themselves—share prominence and stage-space with video, animations, singers and clowns; “It’s almost too much to look at,” my girlfriend said. Showcasing so many attention-grabbers, Zarkana is not just theater of spectacle. It’s a spectacle of theater.

(Photo: Jeremy Daniel, Richard Termine)