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04/23/14 4:00am
04/23/2014 4:00 AM |

Act One
Beaumont Theater

Moss Hart’s Act One is a very special book, particularly for theater people and the irrevocably stagestruck. Unlike most theatrical memoirs, Hart’s doesn’t hurry over early struggles in order to revel in later successes but instead takes you step by painful step through his very long apprenticeship, making you feel the cumulative weight of every setback he experiences while living with his family in abject poverty. It’s so vividly detailed and evocatively written that you share in all his doubts and fears and feel the roll-with-the-punches steadiness of his determination. In the last third of the book, when he’s writing his first play, Once in a Lifetime, with George S. Kaufman, you understand deeply why he can’t afford to give up, even when Kaufman is ready to do so.

Adapting Act One for the stage is surely an irresistible idea, even if the book already inspired a disastrous 1963 film version starring George Hamilton. The distinguished director James Lapine has written and directed this version for Lincoln Center Theater (through at least June 15) so that a young Hart (Santino Fontana) and an older Hart (Tony Shalhoub) come out front and narrate the story directly to the audience. There’s no urgency and no sense of the desperation that drove Hart forward; this lack of intensity extends to the narrative portions of the play, too. When Hart’s father orders his genteel and difficult Aunt Kate (Andrea Martin) from their house—a harrowing and complex scene in the book—it has little impact, chiefly because we’ve barely met Aunt Kate before she’s thrown out on the street.

In this iteration of Act One, we never feel Hart’s urge to succeed or his wolfish appetite. (Fontana, who was so touching in Stephen Karam’s Sons of the Prophet, is far too uncomplicatedly sweet as the younger Hart; the part calls for more ravenous shadings.) Lapine has chosen to omit the most powerful scenes in the book, in which Hart hit his nadir as a camp director for a godforsaken resort up in rural Vermont; at the end of a grueling and humiliating summer, the camp manager ran off without paying him, and Hart and his brother had to hitchhike home without money for food. By skipping this crucial section and offering instead a long party scene in which Hart meets a lot of famous people, Lapine goes directly against everything that’s great about Hart’s memoir, sacrificing embarrassing truth for the kind of namedropping that Hart scrupulously avoided. Shalhoub gives a fine and inventive comic performance as the eccentric Kaufman, but for those who haven’t read Act One, it would be easy to wonder just why we’ve been sitting through a longwinded recitation of Hart’s early experiences without any of the dramatic, confessional intimacy that makes the book a classic.

04/09/14 4:00am
04/09/2014 4:00 AM |

Red Velvet
St. Ann’s Warehouse

Actress Lolita Chakrabarti started researching the life of 19th-century African-American theater actor Ira Aldridge in the late 1990s, and it took years of readings, rewritings and rejections before her play about him, Red Velvet, debuted in London with Adrian Lester as its star. Sometimes a play can diminish over such a long period, but the opposite has happened here: every scene, every speech, every dramatic juxtaposition has been carefully thought out yet still boasts a bristling and very theatrical vitality.

We meet Lester’s Aldridge as a sick and embittered man who suffers no fools gladly. The second scene takes place many years before, when Aldridge is engaged to go on as Othello in place of the ailing actor Edmund Kean. Walking into a
rehearsal, Aldridge is met with some liberal and understanding responses, others reactionary and clearly racist. Kean’s mediocre son Charles (Oliver Ryan) is a particular problem, a stodgy, hateful twit who can barely conceal his apoplectic rage at having to act opposite a black man.

Chakrabarti makes it clear that Aldridge was not a careful assimilationist but a proud and intense man who had very definite ideas about acting. He challenges the out-of-date showboating of Kean’s company, which is met with excitement by some of the players, particularly Ellen Tree (Charlotte Lucas), who plays his Desdemona. Lucas has the difficult task of re-creating a 19th-century style of acting, in which the performers were always facing front, and then letting it change into a slightly different type of outmoded acting; she does a beautiful job of it. Even better, at the end of the first act, when Lucas and Lester play a scene from Othello in Aldridge’s preferred style, they reactivate everything that must have been exciting about the florid performances of this period without ever condescending to it or separating themselves from it. (The extremely evocative lighting design, created by Oliver Fenwick, also helps.)

The second act of Red Velvet details Aldridge’s dismissal from Kean’s company. When the viciously racist reviews of Aldridge’s performance are read aloud to the assembled players, some are appalled and others feel justified in their own racist misgivings. What follows is a hugely demanding scene in which Aldridge has a semibreakdown while pleading with the manager (Eugene O’Hare) to let him keep his job. Lester goes through an extraordinarily varied and intense series of emotions, and it’s clear that he’s as deeply involved in his role as it’s possible to be. He comes through with a hauntingly three-dimensional portrait of a complex, charming, gifted man fighting for his right to live and create. As theater goes, this is the real, living, breathing, violent thing, a major performance in a major new play.

03/26/14 4:00am
03/26/2014 4:00 AM |


All the Way
Neil Simon Theatre

Most audience members will want to see this lengthy political drama about Lyndon Johnson for one reason: Breaking Bad star Bryan Cranston making his Broadway debut. And though he has a large cast backing him up, including Michael McKean as a wormlike J. Edgar Hoover and Brandon J. Dirden as a taciturn Martin Luther King, All the Way (through June 29) is basically a one-man show—and, as such, often leaves a lot to be desired.

Cranston is capable of major work, as he proved on his signature television series, but he seems to think that acting on stage means Going Big. He’s not a natural fit for the large and paunchy Johnson, and he works hard to make up for that by slouching exaggeratedly and leading with his stomach. He wiggles his jowls and squints and does all kinds of busy work with his face and body, trying as much as possible to will himself into being a bigger and cruder type of man; he also works hard at his blustery Southern accent. This kind of performance impresses some people because you can see just how hard Cranston is pushing superficialities that don’t come naturally to him, but his extreme external characterization rarely connects to any kind of believable or plausible interior life.

Written by Robert Schenkkan, All the Way covers the year after the Kennedy assassination, when Johnson pushed through his landmark civil rights legislation. We watch him wheel and deal, threaten and cajole, pontificate and joke. We see him bully his wife, Lady Bird (Betsy Aidem), and we see him ruthlessly cut ties with Walter Jenkins (Christopher Liam Moore), a top aide and close friend arrested in a restroom for sexual misconduct with another man. We see him deal with Hoover and King, and we observe just what it takes to get reelected and get things done in Washington. At the end of nearly three hours, the play asks us to be surprised that you have to get your hands dirty if you want to accomplish something politically, which should surprise no one.

Schenkkan seems inspired by Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, with its detailed look at our political process. But what felt fluid and plausible onscreen feels awkward and false onstage; it’s a fast-moving but inert production, rushing from point to point with helpful screen projections of names and dates. Cranston does have a few quieter moments, when Johnson directly addresses the audience and talks about his past, in which his full, piercing talent is engaged: he stops worrying about his accent and his posture and just shares some pain and tells some truth. Hopefully he’ll return to the stage soon in a role more suited to his talent.

03/12/14 4:00am
03/12/2014 4:00 AM |


Stage Kiss
Playwrights Horizons

The playwright Sarah Ruhl, best known for her period piece In the Next Room (or the vibrator play), which transferred to Broadway for 60 performances in late 2009, has fashioned here a self-indulgently extended bit of whimsy. An actress known only as She (Jessica Hecht) returns to auditioning after a 10-year absence and immediately wins a role in the revival of a third-rate 1930s drawing room comedy/musical. The first act includes elaborate and lengthy rehearsals of this bad old play, and Ruhl shows no instinct for comic pastiche of older styles. Considering how long she’s been a playwright, it’s surprising that she also shows no instinct for depicting rehearsals, and this can’t just be because she’s trying to get across the amateurishness of the director (Patrick Kerr). The actors seem to move from scene to scene at will, and they’re always stopping themselves for a wig fitting or a smoke break or some private fancy. I suppose Ruhl would answer that this isn’t meant to be a realistic play, but it still feels lazy, facile and self-enchanted.

She’s leading man is He (Dominic Fumusa), who had been her lover years before; as they rehearse, old flames are rekindled. By the top of Act II, they’re back together, and Ruhl unleashes a whole new set of unconvincing characters (a girlfriend, a husband, a bratty teenager). These scenes are so terrible and so emphatically acted that you begin to pine for the more manageable terribleness of Act I. Then the characters put on another, even more unconvincing play—this one contemporary—with the same bizarrely casual rehearsal behavior. When this new play is finally done, our two lead actors come together to tell each other, and the audience, some truths about love… and marriage… and it carries on and on, insufferably.

My favorite moment came when She’s long-suffering financier husband (Daniel Jenkins) spouted some of his own threadbare ruminations on marriage; She, surprised, told him he was a poet. Yes, Ruhl has her leading character compliment Ruhl’s own bad writing, which not even Hecht can make better. A fine and soulful performer in many other plays, here she offers an affected star turn, all limp wrists and tossed hair and stagy mistress-of-monotone intonations. She gamely tries to sell this lame play by offering up a flurry of actressy mannerisms. But when a first-rate actress like Hecht is working in a void like this, the sense of disconnection becomes downright spooky.

How does a play as bad as Stage Kiss (through March 23) get produced? Well, Ruhl is a name, and maybe Playwrights Horizons wanted something from her, and maybe she dug up something from the bottom of a drawer and over-embroidered it. There’s no excuse for this kind of thing, but sometimes productions act as placeholders, and it’s best, as Ruth Gordon used to say, just to draw the veil.

02/26/14 4:00am
02/26/2014 4:00 AM |


4CHAMBERS
Arts@Renaissance

With the successes of Sleep No More and the haunting, spectacularly detailed Then She Fell, a lot of theatrical creatives are likely to start producing site-specific, immersive theater, even if it doesn’t suit their talents. One of these people, alas, is choreographer Jody Oberfelder, who has fashioned a ridiculous evening called 4CHAMBERS at Greenpoint’s Arts@Renaissance (through March 22). Sitting in the waiting area, I was greeted by the diminutive Oberfelder herself. When the time came to start the performance—only 12 people are led through at a time—she guided each of us by the hand into the space and made us lie down, which took quite a while. We then stared at an aimless video of her dancers jumping around, which also lasted quite some time. Finally we were led up, one by one, into another space, and I knew right away that something was wrong—it all felt so pointless.

Oberfelder’s limber dancers led us through some movements. They were nothing complicated and nothing that interesting; it felt like being in an acting class. The dancers took center stage by themselves for a while and performed lots of movements clearly related to the heart’s beating: pulling in, contracting. The dancers would grab our hands and put them over their hearts when they were really rac-
ing, and sometimes they put their hands over our hearts. Which were still beating. But not as fast.

Then half of us were led into a brightly lighted room, where we had heart monitors placed on our fingers. An image of a man appeared on a wall before us, and he asked very general questions. Whenever our own image showed up next to his, we were supposed to answer. He would ask something like, “How does being aware of your heart make you feel?” and one person would answer, and then he would ask the same question to another person. This was all aimless and irritating, but everyone remained polite. It amazes me, sometimes, just how polite people can be in the face of nonsense.

We were led into another room and made to stand in front of a heart monitor for a very long time while the others went through the same rigmarole with the questions in the other room, and at this point some people in our room started laughing. Everything seemed so comically inept. 4CHAMBERS ended with another little dance session and then we were done. Oberfelder should have just created a short dance about the heart at the Joyce or Dance Theater Workshop and left the immersive and site-specific theater to others.

02/12/14 4:00am
02/12/2014 4:00 AM |


Photos by Monique Carboni

There are no judgments and no boundaries in
Thomas Bradshaw’s plays, in which people transgress all social limits without retribution or guilt. His latest, Intimacy, is billed as a comedy, and it has laughs, but they’re queasy laughs, half on the edge of fear and anxiety. Most reviews will surely focus on the play’s physical demands. Some of the male actors must display their cocks at various levels of arousal; in one perilous scene near the end, one actor is even required to give head to another in such a way that it can’t be faked; there are scenes set on a toilet; there’s hardcore pornography played on a computer screen and even a glimpse of Deep Throat, in which we see Linda Lovelace going down on Harry Reems; a girl enters the porn industry and her liberal parents critique one of her films. Most memorably, when young Matthew (Austin Cauldwell) masturbates to climax, he shoots a huge load of jizz—two foamy spurting
fountains—up above his head, which looks both amusingly hyperbolic and also youthfully possible.


This is an uncomfortable play, and not just because of all its uncomfortable situations—the tone is far from realistic but not quite unrealistic enough. It’s as if Bradshaw had an idea about pornography and sexual license between friends and neighbors and parents and children but never found the right context for it. Intimacy lurches from one scene to another, from one idea to another, reveling in crudeness and then overreaching for poetic wonder and then plummeting into crudeness again. It can be lively and rude and sort of funny, but it never quite expands into a full-bodied play. Something’s
off here.

Bradshaw shows us things we don’t usually see on stage, but in his best plays, these appear in the service of larger issues. In Intimacy, they pile up to the point that any larger issues become obscured. When teenaged Sarah (Déa Julien) talks about how kids at school stopped talking to her when she got cancer and her hair fell out and then began talking to her again when her hair grew back, it sounds exactly wrong. Surely the kids in her bourgeois milieu would have been overly attentive to her when she got sick? Bradshaw needs to flip this scenario: Sarah should have complained about having all the friends in the world when she was ill and then losing them when she got better. That would have been more accurate and funnier—and also more painful. Bradshaw is one of our most original American playwrights, but Intimacy catches him with his own pants down.

01/29/14 4:00am
01/29/2014 4:00 AM |


Photo by Joan Marcus

Machinal
Roundabout Theatre Company

Sophie Treadwell’s expressionistic drama was widely acclaimed when it first appeared on Broadway in 1928, surely in no small part because the heroine’s lover was played by a pre-Hollywood Clark Gable. Loosely based on the case of Ruth Snyder, a woman who murdered her husband and went to the electric chair, Machinal uses rapid-fire dialogue and several jagged stream-of-consciousness monologues to convey the state of mind of its main character, known as Young Woman. The play was all-but-forgotten for many decades before 1993, when a colorful revival in London starring Fiona Shaw brought it back to prominence. This Roundabout Theatre production (through March 2), with Rebecca Hall in the lead, is the first time the play has been on Broadway since its premiere.

Machinal cries out for an aggressive, grotesque and decidedly avant-garde approach, but the Roundabout doesn’t do avant-garde anything. Instead, the company throws all its money behind a massive revolving set that the audience duly applauds. What takes place on that impressive set, alas, is a well-meaning but colorless interpretation, leading us point-by-point through the heroine’s nerve-wracking office job, her relationship with her dependent mother (Suzanne Bertish), her marriage of convenience to a crass businessman (Michael Cumpsty), and her awakening to sexual love with a lower-class drifter (Morgan Spector), which unleashes her pent-up passion and leads to the murder of her crushingly awful husband.

In the opening scene, a fellow worker says that Hall’s Young Woman isn’t meant to be in an office, and the script indicates that she’s too sensitive for the brutalities of modern life. But Hall takes this suggestion of over-sensitivity entirely too far, quivering in scene after scene and speaking in a high, disconnected voice. This is a very difficult part, one that requires a variety of approach so that the Young Woman doesn’t become monotonous in her despair. Hall falls into the trap of overplaying the girl’s sensitivity, and she has no natural talent for hysteria. She works very hard to put across her almost Beckettian monologues, but all we feel is her effort. Throughout, she holds fast to a limited conception of neurasthenia that leaves her with little to play save for anxiety, which doesn’t have the ring of truth or revelation required.

Beautifully willowy in her 1920s dresses, Hall only connects to her role in the extended scene in which the Young Woman finds happiness with her lover, when the heroine gets to calm down and spread out and feel something besides existential agony. She’s modestly touching in this scene, and capable enough in the others that it’s possible to imagine her scoring in this role in a different production—something at BAM, maybe, without some fancy revolving set.

01/15/14 4:00am
01/15/2014 4:00 AM |

Handle With Care

The Westside Theatre

Israeli tourist Ayelet is frantic in the first scene of Jason Odell Williams’s Handle With Care (through March 30) because bumbling messenger Terrence has lost a very important package—which, it turns out, contains the remains of Ayelet’s grandma Edna (Carol Lawrence). The language barrier between Ayelet (Charlotte Cohn) and Terrence (Sheffield Chastain) is played for laughs; so is her name, as when Terrence calls on his Jewish childhood friend Josh (Jonathan Sale) to translate. “Ayelet?” Josh asks, and Terrence says, “Yeah, like ‘I-Yell-It.’ And believe me, man, she does like to yell it.”

After this labored scene peters out, a taciturn stagehand enters to move a chair and slightly adjust the cover on a bed, which means that we’re about to get a flashback to Ayelet and Edna at the start of their trip. Every time this stagehand came out, I laughed harder, because she performs such minor tasks: vacuuming a little snow off the floor, moving luggage just across the room and then back again. These are the most useless scene changes I’ve ever seen, and they’re much funnier than anything else in the play.

Lawrence is a Broadway legend: she played Maria in the original 1957 production of West Side Story. After more than 60 years in show business, she knows how to take the stage and hold our attention. At the age of 81, she could easily pass for 50—not just because of her youthful energy and vivacity, but also because she still moves like a dancer. In a career as long as hers, she has had all kinds of material to work with, and while Handle With Care is most surely on the lower end of the spectrum, you would never know it from her performance. She acts as if she couldn’t be more thrilled to be onstage, and when Williams really gives her something to work with—like a monologue about Edna’s lost love—Lawrence plays it with skill and sensitivity. When the spotlight is on her, it’s possible to think that we’re watching a play that’s somewhat worthwhile.

But there’s a huge and obvious problem with this production, and it’s incredible that no one involved noticed and fixed it. The play’s conceit is that Ayelet can’t speak English but falls in love with the amiable Josh anyway through sign language. Yet in her flashback scenes with Lawrence’s Edna, Cohn speaks English easily and with almost no accent at all. Sometimes Cohn seems to remember that she’s supposed to have one, but only rarely, and this implausibility all but sinks this slight play. Sale and Chastain do charming work, and Lawrence is a real pleasure to watch, especially when performing some dance steps at her curtain call. But Handle With Care should have been handled with far more care by its director.

01/01/14 4:00am
01/01/2014 4:00 AM |


Photo via shortandsweetnyc.com

Nutcracker Rouge
Minetta Lane Theatre

In the program for this explosively hedonistic reimagining of the classic Christmas ballet, director-choreographer Austin McCormick writes that his “dream is to open a Baroque Burlesque nightclub in New York.” If his ideas for such a place include anything like the revelry on display in Nutcracker Rouge (through January 12), I hope he finds financing immediately. This show is a joyous antidote to the feeling we all have (at least sometimes) that theatergoing can be punitive. Baby candy canes are passed out in the festive lobby of the Minetta Lane, and when the show starts, all manner of visual candy is thrust playfully into our faces. McCormick has created a world of pasties and bustiers, of jeweled jockstraps and feather boas, of fans and pearls and dominatrix boots, and he has gathered dancers who gleefully show off some of the juiciest, fleshiest, most obscenely rounded bodies ever to be put on theatrical display.

The slim plot involves Marie Claire (Laura Careless), who seems to be a French lady of title plunged into a world of sensual delights presided over by the commanding and sometimes whip-cracking Drosselmeyer (Jeff Takacs) and his Texas Guinan-like wife Mrs. Drosselmeyer (Shelly Watson), who knows her way around a torch song. In the first act, the male dancers are often dressed in frilly women’s panties and garter belts while the women favor evening gowns and more ornate finery. There are acrobatic feats of wonder on parallel bars and trapeze, but they’re never mere virtuosic displays: McCormick keeps his dancers working toward the creation of a carnal netherworld where the idea of sex is pervasive, expressed through movements that start out as lingering and slinky and then move into outright staccato simulated rutting.

It feels like a party from beginning to end. Glitter keeps exploding from the ceiling onto the audience, whose members are encouraged to bring drinks to their seats and shout randy encouragement to the performers. It feels hot, yes, but also warm, an all-inclusive vibe bathed stimulatingly in smoky red light. Watson comes out during the intermission to sing to the crowd, laughing and joking and keeping up the convivial mood. Nutcracker Rouge closes with a series of violently energetic routines in which the dancers keep interlocking into hilariously filthy orgy-like patterns until Careless emerges as the Sugar Plum Fairy and does a striptease that would have made Tchaikovsky blush. When the show ended, I didn’t really want to leave, which is why this sort of thing really would make an ideal entrée act or floor show for a nightclub, even if it needed to be reduced in length. What is Nutcracker Rouge about? I don’t know. But all the bent-over bare ass and flaunted near-naked breasts amid the pirouettes and glitter make a wonderfully lurid impression.

12/18/13 4:00am
12/18/2013 4:00 AM |


Photos via wnyc.org and bam.org

≈≈≈≈ 25 ≈≈≈≈
A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Julie Taymor came back from her very public Spider-Man debacle to direct this dreamy and spectacular production of the Shakespeare comedy, featuring a memorable Kathryn Hunter as a Puck pitched somewhere between Joel Grey’s Emcee and Robert Blake’s Mystery Man.

≈≈≈≈ 24 ≈≈≈≈
Bodycast

We don’t get why Frances McDormand performed this artist’s lecture at BAM Fisher while its author Suzanne Bocanegra fed lines to her from stage left. But McDormand was great, and so was the lecture, so who are we to complain?


Photos via thehotelcolorsplay.wordpress.com and bravenewworldrep.org/

≈≈≈≈ 23 ≈≈≈≈
Hotel Colors

Anyone who speaks even just a little Italian would have been rolling in the Bushwick Starr’s aisles at this transliterated play about young people in a hostel. (“Does it displease you if I control my email now?”) But it was also a moving illustration of how, as strangers get to know each other, initial conflict fades, small communities form, and friendships are born.

≈≈≈≈ 22 ≈≈≈≈
Street Scene

Brave New World Repertory Theater took Elmer Rice’s 1929 Pulitzer-winning play about stoop life and set it on a real Park Slope stoop, forcing scripted drama to interact with unpredictable city life, which provided unscriptable energy, something spontaneous and real, blurring the lines of where the fiction begins and thus deepening the emotional impact of its heroes’ lovesicknesses.


Photos via davidbyrne.com and lct.org

≈≈≈≈ 21 ≈≈≈≈
Here Lies Love

Here is one of the rockin’-est shows ever made about oppression and dictatorship—and a great example of immersive theater being used for a reason rather than a gimmick. Telling the story of Imelda Marcos, the notorious first lady of the Philippines, it forced the audience to move and dance around a shifting set in an effective demonstration of how oppressed people are forced to march in lockstep behind their all-powerful leaders.

≈≈≈≈ 20 ≈≈≈≈
Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike

It takes no small amount of chutzpah to so directly model yourself after Chekhov, but Christopher Durang’s gambit paid off with a deserved Tony for best play. Backed by one of the ablest casts of the year—David Hyde Pierce and Kristine Nielsen are among 2013’s standouts—Durang’s brilliant dialogue probed unconventional family dynamics in ways both hilarious and heartwrenching.