12/04/13 4:00am
12/04/2013 4:00 AM |

Waiting for Godot
Cort Theatre

In George Cukor’s Camille (1936), Greta Garbo’s Marguerite Gautier says, “I’m afraid of nothing except being bored!” For people who have empty lives, or lives that have been reduced to the bare essentials, the ever-threatening encroachment of boredom can be a serious problem. It’s that problem that activates Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. Estragon (Ian McKellen) and Vladimir (Patrick Stewart) have known each other maybe since time began, and they need to fill more time. They work, they get beaten, they eat when they can, and they don’t get to wash much; they’re bums. They’re the kind of people you see every time you ride the subway, and they talk to themselves in that uncanny way that the subway bums do, as if they live at another level of consciousness. They have no creature comforts; all that’s left is the bald and often smelly fact of sheer survival.

McKellen has been on the stage for half a century, and he’s the pro of pros. He plays Estragon in a childlike manner redolent of the English music hall; each of his lines lands in a specific and original way. Stewart is his straight man, as it were, and his foil, and if they don’t burrow deep into the play, they generally do suggest all of its contours. As the tyrannical Pozzo, who is later blinded and brought low, Shuler Hensley does a full-on imitation of Foghorn Leghorn; this doesn’t work out well at all. As his slave Lucky, however, Billy Crudup makes for a harrowing picture of chained-up, nearly feminine beauty, and when he is called upon to speak, he builds a great, mad thing out of Lucky’s difficult “thinking” monologue.

The audience at this Waiting for Godot kept going “Aww” every time Estragon and Vladimir clung to one another, as if they wanted to sentimentalize this most depressing of all pieces of dramatic literature. To do that is to misunderstand it. This production isn’t ideal: the set is rather grand and much too pretty, and the four actors sometimes do not seem to have been in the same rehearsal room. Crudup has extraordinary moments, but he can’t work up any decisive interactions with Hensley’s cartoonish and mistaken interpretation of Pozzo. Similarly, McKellen is giving an effortlessly major performance (look at the way he strips two half-eaten chicken legs of all of their meat!), but Stewart often seems like he’s just along for the ride, mugging and indicating emotions whenever he doesn’t actually feel them. This is a starry and obvious version of Godot, enjoyable for what it is, but very much put in the shade by the stark, muscular version of Beckett’s radio play All That Fall playing just a few blocks uptown.

11/20/13 4:00am
11/20/2013 4:00 AM |

Photo by Carol Rosegg

All That Fall


We’re all going to fall—and maybe we’re all fallen in the biblical sense. Samuel Beckett rings many humorous and tragic variations on that theme in this piece, which was originally written as a radio play. The Trevor Nunn production from London (through December 8), which features heavy hitters Eileen Atkins and Michael Gambon in the lead roles of Mrs. and Mr. Rooney, is staged in what looks like a radio station, with microphones hanging overhead. The actors carry scripts, and though this is part of the radio station concept, it has the unfortunate effect of suggesting a staged reading rather than a full production. That aside, this version gets to the core of the play because Atkins and Gambon are such enormous talents, and this is the richest possible material for them.

All That Fall starts off with a somewhat lighter tone than usual for Beckett. With her woebegone expression and her dainty movements, crabby Atkins gets plenty of laughs, especially in a naughty scene rife with double entendre in which an old admirer tellingly named Mr. Slocum (Trevor Cooper) helps her into his car. “You’ll have to get down, Mr. Slocum, and help me from the rear,” she tells him, and he cries, “I’m coming, Mrs. Rooney, I’m coming, give me time, I’m as stiff as yourself.” On the radio, this bit of business is truly filthy because you can’t see what Mrs. Rooney and Mr. Slocum are doing as they huff and puff to get her into his car, but Atkins and Nunn garner cleaner laughs by playing up the encounter’s physical comedy.

11/06/13 4:00am
11/06/2013 4:00 AM |

The Mutilated

New Ohio Theatre

Nothing this fall theater season is more enticing than Mink Stole and Penny Arcade in Tennessee Williams’s raw and dangerous comic one-act The Mutilated, which opens at the New Ohio Theatre on November 10 (through December 1). “Working with Penny Arcade and Mink Stole is unlike anything else I’ve experienced so far,” director Cosmin Chivu, pictured above, tells us. “We belong to three completely different worlds. Mink Stole comes from a film background, and I adore her work in all of her John Waters movies. Penny began in the East Village at the Playhouse of the Ridiculous in the late 1960s when Off-Off Broadway was flourishing with experimentation. My training started in Eastern Europe and continued at the Actors Studio and partly in the commercial world. But we’ve learned how to find common ground and grow together.”

At 17, Chivu was working as an actor and director of plays by Brecht, Pinter and Ionesco in his native Romania shortly after the fall of communism. In 2011, he staged a Tennessee Williams one-act called The Remarkable Rooming-House of Mme. Le Monde at La MaMa, and during its brief run he was approached by Thomas Keith, an editor of late Williams work, about staging Williams’s autobiographical play Something Cloudy, Something Clear on a Provincetown beach. And now he will continue his association with late, difficult Williams material with this production of The Mutilated, which played on Broadway for only one week in 1966 with another play, The Gnädiges Fräulein, under the title Slapstick Tragedy. “The Gnädiges Fräulein is a deeply funny, sometimes cruel, wickedly dark play,” says Chivu. “It is widely done in colleges and is considered one of Williams’s funnier late works, and Zoe Caldwell won a Tony award for her performance in the original production.  The Mutilated, on the other hand, has always been the ugly sister of the two plays. It needs a production that realizes its full potential for humor, burlesque, and pathos.”

Mink Stole met Chivu when she was doing a production of another late Williams play, Now the Cats with Jewelled Claws, and Keith suggested that they should do The Mutilated together with Arcade, the earth-mother of downtown performance art. “This play is virtually unknown outside of Williams scholars and aficionados,” says Chivu. “Once the critics had almost completely given up on him because he was unable to reproduce or compete with his early work, Williams said that he would write chamber pieces. The Mutilated is one of those chamber pieces that I hope will be better understood and appreciated because of our production.” Chivu hopes to continue to work on later and lesser-known Williams plays. “A House Not Meant to Stand, Vieux Carré, Will Mr. Merriwether Return from Memphis? and A Cavalier for Milady are wonderful plays,” he says. “I believe that the appetite for the late work of Williams will continue and hopefully change the perception of his
nontraditional plays.”

10/23/13 4:00am
10/23/2013 4:00 AM |

Photo by Spencer Moss

And Miles to Go

Partial Comfort Productions

You might think Chad Beckim’s latest starts out as one play and then drastically turns into another, but in retrospect it’s clear how carefully he planned this shift. Adele Priam (Randy Danson) is a teacher about to celebrate her 40th anniversary at a rundown school in New York. In the opening scene, she addresses a conference about shutting it down and then reopening it; she starts calmly, politely, but this is a woman whose patience is at its end, and whose thankless job has made her into something of a pill. Danson pulls no punches with her character. She doesn’t seem like an actress playing a teacher but like a teacher we all might have had: someone who deserved better than what she got, someone whose best qualities aren’t so much destroyed as buried. By the end of her speech, Ms. Priam is haranguing the crowd, demanding drastic change, and her microphone is turned off.

After the speech, we see a realistic and unpleasant conflict in Ms. Priam’s classroom in which she goes up against her steely principal, Leslie Winkfield-Porcher (Maria-Christina Oliveras). A lesser playwright might have made Porcher a simple antagonist, but Beckim slowly reveals that these women have become enemies not because of personal antipathy but because their jobs are so hopeless that they’ve been reduced to such squabbling. Porcher admires her adversary in a way, but she’s also tired of her self-righteousness. A group of problem-kids are put into Ms. Priam’s class, and we observe their good-natured lack of discipline for just the right amount of time before Beckim plunges his audience into abject terror.

It would be unfair to reveal what happens at the midway point in And Miles To Go (through November 2 at the Wild Project), but it’s both expected and unexpected, and the suspense Beckim builds is nearly unbearable. You can write about school violence in an article, or a story, or a novel, or a film, but there’s something about doing it in the theater that feels exactly right, because the theater is about immediacy, about something happening right now. What happens in this play is horrible, so convincingly horrible that it drives home in a uniquely visceral and upsetting way what too often happens in schools. In the theater, there’s no real distance. When we’re trapped with characters in the midst of a trauma, we feel exactly what they’re feeling, so it affects us more deeply. This is a short play, 70 minutes with no intermission, but it feels large, and it leaves you without easy answers.

10/09/13 4:00am
10/09/2013 4:00 AM |

Photo by Michael J. Lutch

The Glass Menagerie

The Booth Theatre

Ever since it first played in Boston at the American Repertory Theater, this John Tiffany-directed revival of Tennessee Williams’s classic has received superlative reviews from critics and message-board posters. Some have joked that the star, Cherry Jones, has healed the sick with her mere presence on stage as Amanda Wingfield, a voluble Southern belle desperately trying to find a place in the world for her pathologically shy daughter Laura (Celia Keenan-Bolger).

Menagerie is a warhorse, and it needs to be handled delicately to avoid getting mired in its symbolism and poetic reaching. There are some memorable or at least unusual directorial choices in this production, like having Tom (Zachary Quinto) introduce Laura to us by pulling her out of a sofa. But the cramped Wingfield apartment is surprisingly spacious here, even though these three people should be right on top of each other; the stage is surrounded by a watery surface, and Tiffany has directed the actors to look out at this surface periodically as if they’re staring into some future abyss, which also distances them from each other.

Jones has been a canonized theater actress for 20 years now, and a rare soulfulness shines out of her face, but as Amanda she often buries this quality beneath a barrage of overdone physical mannerisms that signal to us that she’s Acting. Her sweeping arm gestures are so elaborate that they’re disconnected from any recognizable human behavior—even that of faded and slightly crazed Southern belles. She slaps her hands together to make a point so many times that each slap moves her farther from the text. Jones continually goes for the most far-out emotional choices, and so does Quinto—but they’re not in sync. When Amanda and Tom fight, these two actors are so deeply involved in their own dramatic showboating that they barely seem to hear each other.

Jones and Quinto are playing for effect, and their effects are all extreme, and so they ignore the nuts-and-bolts of actually inhabiting the play. If they would cut what they were doing in half and just listen and respond to each other, I’m sure both of them would have very fine performances in them. But they over-embroider their work at every turn, and not even the perfectly played and judged late scene between Laura and the Gentleman Caller (Brian J. Smith) can save this production. Perhaps the acclaim will continue, because Jones and Quinto are working so hard at it in such an obvious way, but they both need to settle down and just be these characters and stop acting all over the place.

10/02/13 9:00am
10/02/2013 9:00 AM |

Mr. Burns, A Post-Electric Play at Playwright Horizons

The idea that it’s The Simpsons that endures after armageddon is moving—that cartoon hijinks could be enough to form communities and stave off despair. Mr. Burns, A Post-Electric Show (through October 20) imagines an America in which an apparent nuclear catastrophe has brought down the power grid and crippled society, where strangers warm themselves over barrel-fires and the memory of the time Bart received threatening letters from Sideshow Bob. That episode is where the show begins, as survivors painstakingly reconstruct each line and scene from their memories. (Those somehow unfamiliar with “Cape Feare” will find this section tedious, despite how well-written the ramblings are, while those who have every line memorized will find it difficult not to shout the dialogue at the stage.) Laughing at old jokes provides a temporary reprieve from the danger around them, and as much as food or shelter, this is what keeps them going.

As time passes and society begins to rebuild, our heroes morph into a theater troupe that reenacts old episodes and barters for forgotten lines. (This is fiction’s only post-apocalyptic wasteland where my skill set would make me at all valuable.) Anne Washburn’s script does a good job striking the balance between the humor of the situation, especially the details of the charmingly makeshift productions, and its underlying sadness. But it’s from here that Burns enters its most audacious and problematic section, as the action jumps 75 years to an abstract musical retelling of the episode. Where the first two acts consider the importance of even low culture, the third examines how stories evolve and take on new meanings.

The idea is interesting, but it suffers here from a lack of context. The music by Michael Friedman (Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, Love’s Labour’s Lost), is often amusing and even moving, but we don’t know who these performers are or what the material means to them. It’s also pretty abstruse; understanding this section requires a working knowledge of the Simpsons universe so you can see how it has mutated to fulfill new purposes: Bart goes from this century’s Dennis the Menace to an ideal of endurance and innocence; that civilization needs these symbols is self-evident, but it makes him as relatable as a god in a Greek tragedy. Burns’ early insights about lowbrow entertainment are profound, but trying to add profundity to the entertainment itself misses the point.

09/25/13 4:00am
09/25/2013 4:00 AM |

Photo © 2013 Al Foote III

You Never Can Tell

The Pearl Theatre Company

As the saying goes, you never can tell, but that might be truer in life than in theater. I could tell, for instance, not long after the curtains parted on this production of George Bernard Shaw’s venerable comedy, that stiff, uninspired acting, awkward staging, and slow pacing were going to stifle any laughs and distract the audience. In fact, this feeling began when I saw the director, David Staller, greeting every member of the audience in the lobby with a set speech about how he hoped they’d enjoy the play. Staller, who claims in his program note to be the only person to have directed all of Shaw’s 65 plays, also took to the stage beforehand to talk some more about how he hoped we would enjoy everything.
Staller, it seems, has spent his life devoted to “all things Shaw,” which is admirable. Shaw is seldom revived with the frequency or enthusiasm given to new productions of Chekhov, Ibsen or Wilde. Fifteen years ago on Broadway, however, Robert Sean Leonard starred in a brisk and highly pleasing staging of You Never Can Tell, so frequent playgoers might at least have that production in their memory as a fine representation of one of Shaw’s lesser plays. If you hadn’t seen or read this play and were just coming upon it in this Pearl Theatre production (through October 13), you’d be forgiven for thinking that it was stuffy, dated, tediously rambunctious and filled with coincidences (as if Shaw is bowing to the theatrical conventions of his time by making those conventions seem ridiculous.)

There’s a good deal of bad acting going on in this You Never Can Tell, lots of face-making and forced emotional outbursts and lugubrious mistiming that bungles even the simplest jokes. When you’re watching a bad movie, there’s at least the chance that the camera will cut to a different location, or a flashback, or a different storyline with a different cast, but when you’re watching a play that’s going badly, there can be no such relief.

To be fair, the second act, if you stay for it, plays much better than the first. As the free-thinking Mrs. Margaret Clandon, Robin Leslie Brown gives a heroically professional and presentable performance, and at the very end of the play, Zachary Spicer zestily plays a deus ex machina character in a way that satisfies our thirst for something novel. The well-meaning Staller has made several very mistaken directorial choices here, the worst of which is his tendency to stop the action for important moments and bring on music and even different lighting to get the point across. I’m sure he has done better work with those other 64 Shaw plays, but it’s easy to tell that this is a low point for everyone involved. 

09/11/13 4:00am
09/11/2013 4:00 AM |

Photo by Hunter Canning

The Recommendation

The Flea

The Flea Theater in downtown Manhattan is almost 20-years-old. It’s an institution at this point, even if its essential energy—which is also the energy of its resident theater troupe, The Bats—is still rambunctious: energetic, eager, earnest, and young. It has served as a training ground for the best young playwrights and actors in the city, and the fun of going there is in seeing talented people at the beginning of their careers. Case in point is Jonathan Caren’s The Recommendation, a play and production that exhibit the best qualities of fresh talent—as well as fresh problems that still need solving.

Izzy (James Fouhey) narrates the first part, telling us about his college friendship with spoiled rotten trust-fund brat Aaron Feldman (Austin Trow). There’s a lot of pushy talking to the audience at first, so that the play seems a little remedial and telling-not-showing, but that changes when Aaron finds himself in jail after getting pulled over for a busted taillight. His parents decide to teach him a lesson by leaving him there, and so Aaron finds himself trapped into asking for help from Dwight Barnes (Barron B. Bass), a strong-minded convict who may or may not have some mental health issues. In exchange for protection, Aaron promises Dwight he will get his father to help with Dwight’s case. In a moment of fear, he also confesses to a crime he has committed.

This scene in the jail lasts so long after all the short scenes that have come before that it feels structurally eccentric. But it’s also original. After Aaron gets out of jail, he tells Izzy how Dwight humiliated but also protected him when they were moved to a tougher part of the facility. Aaron understandably doesn’t want anything more to do with Dwight, and Izzy is understandably haunted by Aaron’s broken promise, so he takes on Dwight’s case pro bono through the fancy law office that Aaron helped get him into. By the top of the second act, everyone has good reasons to hate and resent someone else as the play moves steadily to its climax.

It’s there that Caren falters, tripping up on the faults of the first part of the play: he forces something dramatic that probably felt organic while he was writing but feels manipulated and also truncated as the end of his play. The Recommendation seems to be moving in several potentially dangerous directions, but Caren puts a lid on these possibilities by telling us what we’ve already seen. There’s a very fine play here—it just needs a little more work to really start boiling.

08/28/13 4:00am
08/28/2013 4:00 AM |

Photo © Russ Rowland

The Cheaters Club

Abrons Art Center

Twenty-six actors make up the cast of this play, a typical load for the Amoralists, for whom size counts, and consistency is a hard-won virtue. Derek Ahonen, the troupe’s resident playwright, both wrote and directed the company’s new joint (through September 21), and it can be safely said that he doesn’t take himself seriously. Usually when someone says that a creative work doesn’t take itself seriously, and they mean it as a compliment, I reach for my revolver. But in this case the playfulness is an asset.

The Cheaters Club runs for a sprawling 150 minutes, and they’re not all smooth. The Abrons Arts Center on the Lower East Side is a musty space that has always seemed to me redolent of a high school auditorium, mainly because the stage is so high and far away from the audience. Amoralists shows thrive on immediacy and the gut connection between spectator and going-for-broke actor, so this distance is a problem during the first act; the staging too often puts actors behind pieces of furniture when they’re already so far away from us. But this is such a resourceful group, with so much energy to spare, that they eventually overcome the hurdle and settle in to have their fun—and provide us with some, too.

Everybody on stage is clearly having a blast, and it’s easy just to catalog my favorite performances. As Vladimir Anton, who serves as narrator for the play, Zen Mansley is a delight from start to finish with his exaggerated ham-actor hauteur, his grand but muddy diction, and his sense of control and command. As an immodest singer, Kelley Swindall serves up full-on Teri Garr-in-Young Frankenstein flakiness and ass-wiggling sexuality, while Amoralist mainstay James Kautz enjoys doing a preposterous accent that veers from Irish to Scottish to Jamaican. Best of all, perhaps, is Ben Reno, who’s on stage for almost the whole play as a mysterious character known as Piano Man. Though he has only one line toward the end, Reno has clearly thought out a whole eccentric characterization that he signals to us when he isn’t playing the theme from Rosemary’s Baby on a piano.

Sarah Lemp outright stole the Amoralists’ production of The Bad and the Better, and in The Cheaters Club, she’s been given a large role as a fast-talking Southern belle that doesn’t always play to her strengths; the part seems to call for someone older, broader and hammier, but I’m sure Lemp will have more fun with it once she settles in (and doesn’t have to worry about remembering all the verbose speeches Ahonen has given her). What is The Cheaters Club about? It’s about a playwright feeling his oats and cooking up a spicy entertainment for his actor friends, maybe after binge-watching a season or two of American Horror Story.

08/14/13 4:00am
08/14/2013 4:00 AM |


Ars Nova

To call what Jeannette Bayardelle is doing in her new one-woman musical play a tour-de-force seems somehow inadequate. Her performance is filled with blood, guts, tears, pity and terror, and it alone would be enough to marvel at. But what’s really impressive is that she also wrote the book, music and lyrics. That seems so overwhelming that you’d expect some of the components to suffer, but none of them do. Bayardelle played Celie on Broadway in The Color Purple and Dionne in Diane Paulus’s production of Hair, and she has recorded albums, but Shida (through August 28) is the kind of apotheosis and calling card that any performer might covet. Bayardelle is the whole show. Make no mistake­—she’s a whole show all by herself.

Backed by a driving and sensitive four-piece band, Bayardelle takes the stage at a low point in the life of her protagonist. High on crack, her eyes half-dead, her wardrobe don’t-give-a-damn messy/sexual, Bayardelle’s Shida sings “Let My Light Shine,” a song about how drugs kill all of her pain. Bayardelle then makes a drastic transition to Shida in grade school, a cheerful little girl and aspiring writer who soon has her whole personality blotted out by five years of sexual abuse at the hands of her mother’s boyfriend. When she sings the song “I Would Never Tell,” Bayardelle doesn’t care at all about sounding pretty; she hits musical notes that sound like uninhibited cries of agony. She has some fun with her commanding voice, holding a high note for so long that it seems like she could keep going forever, but Bayardelle never seems to be showing off. She’s trying to communicate with us on a deep level. She’s doing what an artist is supposed to do. She’s making it hurt, but the payoff is
total catharsis.

Storywise, Shida might be heavy going in someone else’s hands, or too familiar. (Shida’s sexual abuse is followed by an unwanted pregnancy, the death of her mother, her descent into drug addiction and prostitution, and then a rising back up.) What makes it such a powerful evening of theater is how deeply specific and involved Bayardelle is, as this promising girl descends rung after rung down the ladder until Shida is begging the audience for a dollar so she can get something to eat. The ending is maybe a bit too simplistically hopeful after the devastations we’ve just witnessed, but surely she still has an uphill battle ahead of her. When you check in at the box office for Shida, you don’t get a ticket; instead, your hand is stamped with a heart. I still have this heart on my hand as I’m writing this, and I don’t feel like washing it off.

Photo by Walter McBride