Thursday, October 16, 2014

Signal Failure Premieres at Soho Theatre

L-R: Sasha Ellen and Spencer Cowan in SIGNAL FAILURE.
Signal Failure made a bit of a splash at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, garnering rave reviews and playing to sold-out audiences, but it has made scarcely a ripple since transferring to the Soho Theatre on Vandam Street in downtown Manhattan for its US premiere.  At the matinee performance I attended, there were only eight others in the audience and, judging from their subdued reaction, that is not about to change.  Their reaction really was one of willing acceptance or, at best, mild satisfiaction, rather than enthusiasm or exuberance and I’m afraid I’d have to agree.

Lorna (played by Sasha Ellen, who also wrote the play) and Brian (Spencer Cowan) are two damaged souls who meet as a result of their convoluted travels on the London Underground.  From there, the play is basically a minor variation on the “boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy recovers girl” theme, spiced up with some gratuitous sex.  As it turns out, both characters have been mourning losses, which presumably affects their relations with one another, but the playwright seems to have thrown that in after the fact with little theatrical exploration or analysis of the effects of those losses on the two protagonists.

Both Ellen and Cowan are accomplished, talented actors and they play this two-hander for all it’s worth.  But, unfortunately, the play itself isn’t worth much. with the result that the actors’ formidable talents are largely wasted.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

A Feast for the Philosophically Famished: Uncanny Valley at 59E59 Theaters

L-R: Barbara Kingsley and Alex Podulke in UNCANNY VALLEY.  Photo by Seth Freeman.
Although Julian Barber is terminally ill with pancreatic cancer, he still harbors visions of his own immortality.  Not that he thinks that his emaciated 76 year old body might yet be salvaged – that, of course, would be quite impossible.  No, it is not his body that concerns him for he realizes that his “self” is something quite other than his body - just as we all do when thinking about our own “selves.”  The religious among us may think of our “selves” as our “souls” but even the most scientifically-inclined, secular non-believers recognize that we are “something” more than the mere sum of our body parts.  After all, at least in theory, if we were to replace all of our limbs and organs with prosthetics, wouldn’t we still be “us” -  if only we could retain the “essence” of who we are (however we might define that): our memories, our behavioral patterns, our emotional states, our intellects, our personality traits – what we might refer to as our very “consciousness”?

It all sounds quite far-fetched but that’s where Mr. Barber has a big advantage over the rest of us: he’s a billionaire and is prepared to spend hundreds of millions of dollars in pursuit of his improbable dream.  And that is precisely what he does in Uncanny Valley by Thomas Gibbons, currently enjoying its New York premiere at 59E59 Theaters in midtown Manhattan.

Inspired by the supposedly “sentient” robot BINA48 commissioned by Martine Rothblatt and created by Hanson Robotics in 2007, and billed as “a modern-day Frankenstein tale,” the play revolves around Mr. Barber’s contracting with a highly advanced robotics company to create a perfect simulation (in physical appearance) of himself when he was 34 years old – a thoroughly lifelike android into which he could download his “consciousness” (whatever that might entail), thereby achieving the immortality for which he yearns (or at least another couple of hundred years of life).  The android turns out to be Julian (Alex Podulke) whom we first encounter onstage as nothing more than a head and torso but to which are sequentially attached first one arm and then the other and then the legs, until he constitutes a remarkably complete replica of Mr. Barber’s younger self - even if only in physical appearance.

But it is one thing to build an android that looks very much like a particular human being and that can simulate a host of human actions including seeing, hearing, walking, talking, remembering, analyzing, recognizing, and so on.  It is quite another to actually breathe life into that creation which is where Claire (Barbara Kingsley), the play’s updated version of Dr. Frankenstein, comes in.  Claire is the 70 year old brilliant neuroscientist whose job it is to teach Julian how to really be human, how to smile, how to laugh, how to express surprise - in short, as Claire herself put it, how to pass “a Turing test of the emotions.”

The play has everything one might expect from an updated version of the Frankenstein legend including the creation of the “monster” itself (Julian), the scientist who brings it to life (Claire), and allusions to the “villagers…gathering with torches and pitchforks” to destroy that which they cannot comprehend.  But it really is a great deal more than that.  Indeed, it is truly a feast for the philosophically famished.  It touches on issues ranging from the philosophy of science to the philosophy of mind, from epistemology to metaphysical questions regarding the identity of the self, from ethics to the meaning and purpose of life itself.

Ultimately, the play provides us with no answers but it raises the most important questions and it articulates them both intelligently and entertainingly.  Once Claire has taught Julian to smile, to laugh, to express surprise, in short, to pass an emotional Turing test, is he really conscious or aware or intelligent or human?  Or is it all nothing but a facade?  And if it is nothing but a simulation, why should we believe that we humans are doing anything different?  Are we ourselves anything more than a set of algorithms and electrical synapses?  Alan Turing would argue that passing a Turing test would, ipso facto, constitute evidence of true artificial intelligence.  But John Searle (he of the Chinese room) surely would disagree.

Once Julian has been completely assembled and Claire has taught him all she can, but before Julian Barber’s “consciousness” has been downloaded into him, we can think of him as “Julian A”.  And when Julian Barber’s “consciousness” has been downloaded, we can think of him as “Julian B”.  But then what has become of “Julian A”?  Or is he now “Julian C” – a composite of “Julian A” and Julian B”?  And what are the implications of all that for you and me?  Are we the same people we were ten or twenty years ago?  If we are, how can we explain how different we seem today?  And if not, when did we change – and what does it even mean to be “me, myself” (or “you, yourself”) anyway? 

We learn, too, in the play, of Claire’s husband, Paul (who we never actually get to meet), who is in the early stages of dementia, and of her daughter, Rebecca (who we also never meet), who was once a lovely, vibrant girl, but from whom Claire is now completely estranged.  Are they the same people they were decades ago?  We know that matter retains its continuity over time (Rebecca proved that for herself when she was just a little girl by pouring water from a tall narrow container into a short wide one and back again).   But much as we tend to believe similarly in the continuity of self, is that necessarily the case?
And then there is Julian’s son, Paul (who also never actually shows up in the play), who denies that the Julian android is his father in any sense and who claims that his real father abused him as a child.  But did he, and how would we even know?  Julian has no recollection of such abuse but perhaps he simply deleted such memories from his download.  And if he has no memory of those events, in what sense was he (the he of today, that is) truly a participant in them, if we define him in terms of his memories?

Alex Podulke is superb as Julian, expressing the evolution of a machine into a human being and Barbara Kingsley is equally impressive as the brilliant scientist, overwhelmed by the demands of her profession and her marriage and, for whatever reason, largely in denial regarding her relationship with her daughter.  In sum, this is an extremely thought-provoking play, beautifully performed, finely designed and directed, and certainly well worth seeing.


Wednesday, October 1, 2014

A Walk in the Woods Revival on Theatre Row

L-R: Kathleen Chalfant and Paul Niebanck in A WALK IN THE WOODS.  Photo by Carol Rosegg.
A Walk in the Woods by Lee Blessing was first produced on Broadway in 1988, starring Sam Waterston as John Honeyman, an American arms negotiator, and Robert Prosky as Andrei Botvinik, his Russian counterpart.  Based largely on the 1982 arms negotiations that took place between Paul H. Nitze and Yuli A Kvitsinsky, the play was generally well received, garnering both Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award nominations.  Now it is being revived at the Clurman Theatre at Theatre Row by Keen Company in celebration of the opening of Keen’s fifteenth season.

The current revival is excellent – with a twist.  The roles of Honeyman and Prosky have typically been played by men but, in this production, Botvinik’s name has been changed from Andrei to Irina and the role is being played by a woman, Kathleen Chalfant.  (The role of John Honeyman is still being played by a man, Paul Niebanck.) This gender shift in casting might have had enormous consequences – but it didn’t.  The change didn’t introduce any sexual dynamics into the relationship between Honeyman and Botvinik and it didn’t attempt to express any special female insights or attitudes on issues of war and peace or the arms race or disarmament.  Minimal changes (mostly pronouns) were made to the script and the net result was no substantive difference between the scripts of the 1988 and the current productions.

That is not to say that Chalfant interpreted the role of Botvinik in the same way that Prosky did.  Far from it!  But the difference was not one of sex; rather it was the difference between Prosky and Chalfant themselves.  Prosky played the role as a joyful, earthy, boisterous, cynical Russian bear whereas Chalfant plays it as a much more sophisticated, self-controlled, worldly-wise (albeit just as cynical) Russian technocrat.  And while Prosky was superb in the original role, Chalfant is also absolutely delightful in her own very different interpretation.

The role of Honeyman – a callow, uptight, idealistic youth who has not fully grasped just how the game of international arms negotiation is really played and the politics behind it - is not nearly as juicy a part as that of Botwinik but Niebanck does a fine job with it.  But there really is no way he can compete with Chalfant, who truly steals the show.

When all is said and done, however, A Walk in the Woods, while very well written, remains quite dated (even if Botvinik is now played by a woman, which would have been totally unrealistic a quarter century ago when the play was first produced).  It is hard to imagine that any similar sort of disarmament negotiations could take place between the US and Russia today, what with Russia’s seizure of Crimea and its incursion into the Ukraine, and any “disarmament” talks with Syria, regarding the elimination of its chemical weapons stockpiles, or with Iran, regarding its nuclear aspirations, are of a wholly different nature and would require a completely different play.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Bauer by Lauren Gunderson at 59E59 Theaters

L-R: Sherman Howard, Stacy Ross, and Susi Damilano in BAUER.  Photo by Carol Rosegg.
Bauer by Laura Gunderson, currently being staged at 59E59 Theaters on East 59th Street in Midtown Manhattan, is a cleverly contrived, smartly written, and very well acted, imagined account of what might have occurred had Rudolf Bauer (Sherman Howard), his wife Louise (Susi Damilano), and his one-time lover Hilla von Rebay (Stacy Ross) actually met again in the months prior to Bauer’s death.  Of course they never did but Ms Gunderson has composed the purely fictionalized meeting well, using the conceit to tell Bauer’s real story in a most entertaining fashion, while engaging the audience in a counterfactual quest for “what might have been.”

In reality, Rudolf Bauer, a contemporary of Paul Klee, Wassily Kandinsky, and Marc Chagall, was a German painter and leader of the Non-Objective (abstract) art movement.  Between 1917 and the early 1920s, he had a love affair and shared an art studio with Hilla von Rebay and they remained friends for decades after their affair ended.  Subsequently, Hilla came to the United States where she met (and bedded) Solomon Guggenheim, introduced him to Bauer’s work and encouraged him to create a collection of Non-Objective art. 

In 1936, the Gibbes Museum of Art hosted the first public exhibition of Guggenheim’s collection of Non-Objective art and Bauer traveled to the US to attend the opening.  A year later, Guggenheim officially formed the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation to house his collection and appointed Hilla as its curator; ironically that was the same year that the Nazis staged the infamous Degenerate Art Show in Munich, a show designed to mock and threaten the abstract art movement, and in which they included Bauer’s work. The following year, Bauer was imprisoned by the Nazis for producing and selling his “degenerate art” but somehow Hilla and Guggenheim managed to extricate him and he emigrated to the US in 1939.

Bauer arrived in New York just after the Museum of Non-Objective Painting opened in midtown Manhattan, living with Hilla for a few months before moving into one of Guggenheim’s homes in New Jersey. He then signed a new contract with Guggenheim, misunderstanding many of its implications because of his limited English: what he thought was to be a lump-sum payment for 110 paintings he already had provided to Guggenheim turned out to be a $300,000 trust fund from which he would receive monthly stipends; the major role he had expected to have in running the Guggenheim Foundation turned out to be no such thing; and, worst of all, he discovered that the contract committed him to leaving all his future work to the Foundation.

Things careened downhill for Bauer from there.  With no real role to play at the Foundation, he had little to say about what would become of those of his paintings already in the Foundation’s possession; in reaction, he stopped painting, thereby depriving the Foundation of any more of his works.  His relationship will Hilla deteriorated and virtually ended when he sued her for libeling his new wife, Louise (who had previously been his maid) in 1944.  When Guggenheim died in 1949, the Foundation’s trustees abandoned his vision of a Non-Objective art collection, relegating all of Bauer’s paintings to storage, and dismissed Hilla as curator.  Bauer died of lung cancer in 1953, without ever painting again.

Ms Gunderson’s play, which originally premiered at the San Francisco Playhouse, takes off from these facts, imagining what might have occurred had Bauer, Hilla and Louise re-united.  Would the Bauers have forgiven Hilla for having defamed Louise?  Would the spark between Bauer and Hilla have been rekindled?  Would Louise and Hilla have convinced Bauer to pick up his brushes again?  It’s all speculation, of course, but none the less entertaining for that.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Boys and Girls at 59E59 Theaters

L-R: Sean Doyle, Maeve O'Mahoney, Claire O'Reilly, and Ronan Carey in BOYS AND GIRLS at 59E59 Theaters.  Photo by Carol Rosegg..
Boys and Girls, written and directed by Dylan Coburn Gray, was a hit at the Dublin Fringe where it won the Fishamble New Writing Award before transferring to the Project Arts Centre in Dublin.  It is now receiving its US premiere at 59E59 Theaters on East 59th Street in midtown Manhattan as part of Origin’s First Irish, the world’s only all Irish theatre festival.

The play, emerging from the Irish spoken word scene, features Ronan Cary, Sean Doyle, Claire O’Reilly, and Maeve O’Mahony as four young, single individuals hitting the Dublin bars and hoping to get lucky.  The playwright has a wonderful ear for language, including its rhymes and rhythms, and a talent for playwriting in a form almost the equivalent of free verse.  The four characters’ intercut monologues, all addressing one or another aspect of their sexual desires and performances, are individually clever, sharp, literate, and articulate - and range from impersonally analytic to sexually exhilarating, from potty-mouthed to emotionally incisive, from banally mundane to rollickingly funny.  And yet, when all is said and done, although the play is well-written and all four actors are quite competent in their respective roles, the entire production comes across as being something less than the sum of its parts, with the intercutting of the actors’ passages serving to fragment, rather than integrate, the play as a whole.

In its promotional material, the play’s producers urge would be theatre-goers not to bring their kids to this one and they’re quite right: the play is well-written, humorous and entertaining, but it is also dirty to a fault, and most inappropriate for children.  A good example of this would be Maeve O’Mahony’s riff on what to call the vagina (her own personal “vagina monologue,” as it were) which was, to my mind, one of the play’s funniest, albeit dirtiest, passages. 

So given that this is not one for the kids, what about you adults out there: ought you make an effort to see it?  Well, that’s really up to you.  If you can appreciate unabashedly low-class and grossly ribald humor, then you might very well find it worth your while.  But if gutter language and rampant sexuality is not your cup of tea, then this is one you might do best to avoid.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Next in Line Productions Revives Someone Who'll Watch Over Me by Frank McGuinness

L-R: Austin Jones, John Garrett Greer, and Hardy Pinnell in SOMEONE WHO'LL WATCH OVER ME.
Next In Line Productions, a relatively new theatrical troupe, has just launched its inaugural production – an excellent revival of Someone Who’ll Watch Over Me by Frank McGuinness.  This is a fine production of which any long established off off Broadway theatrical company might well be proud and it is truly a remarkable accomplishment for such a newly formed group.

Someone Who’ll Watch Over Me was first produced in London’s West End in 1992 and was subsequently staged on Broadway where it ran for more than a year, receiving Tony Award nominations for Best Play and Best Actor.  It has been successfully revived several times since, both in London and in the US, and this latest revival - at the Gene Frankel Theatre on Bond Street in lower Manhattan – is well worth seeing.
This is the story of three men – an American, an Irishman, and an Englishman – who have been kidnapped separately in Lebanon by unknown captors but who were all brought to the same place and who now are all being held as prisoners in the same room.  In a way, reviving this play today may seem especially timely, in light of events in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Gaza.  And so it is.  But in a larger sense, the Middle East today, while providing a backdrop for the play, is not really what this play is all about.  Rather, this is a classic rendition of man’s indomitable spirit, in the face of the inevitable despair he must feel in light of his own mortality and the incomprehensibility (if not outright meaninglessness) of the world.  Thus, the play is not so much an international geopolitical narrative as it is an existential exposition of man’s helplessness in the face of forces beyond his control, coupled with his fortitude in confronting them, much in the manner of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot or Jean-Paul Sartre’s No Exit.
Someone Who’ll Watch Over Me is a three-hander, featuring John Garrett Greer as Adam Canning, Hardy Pinnell as Edward Sheridan, and Austin Jones as Michael Watters.  All three are not only convincing but exceptionally accomplished in their respective roles: Greer is cool and self-controlled as Adam, an American doctor; Pinnell is much more volatile and belligerent as Edward, an Irish journalist; and Jones is effectively prissy and mildly paranoid as Michael, an English professor who can’t even fully accept that he is where he is.  Through it all, the three are chained to the walls of their prison (suggestive perhaps of Plato’s allusion to man’s limited perception of the world as being based erroneously only on the shadows cast on the walls of his cave rather than on true reality), somewhat limiting their physical mobility but not their imaginations.

And so, in the course of the play, the three play games, sing, act out their recollections of past events, compose letters that they know will never be posted, imbibe imaginary drinks, pretend to direct and film movies, and force themselves to laugh in the face of the horror confronting them, in sequences that range from the inane to the insane, with the line between the two increasingly blurred.  It is, in its way, theatre of the absurd or, as the characters themselves are wont to say: “Ridiculous.”
The final words in Samuel Beckett’s novel, The Unnamable, actually may say it all: “You must go on.  I can’t go on.  I’ll go on.”  And so they do.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

The Pianist of Willesden Lane at 59E59 Theaters

Mona Golabek in THE PIANIST OF WILLESDEN LANE.  Photo by Carol Rosegg.
Lisa Jura, a Jewish child prodigy, had two dreams: (1) to debut at the Vienna Musikverin playing the Grieg piano concerto and (2) to have a daughter of her own someday and teach her to play the piano, just as her mother, Malka, had taught her.  Lisa never quite realized her first dream but she certainly came close: she didn’t debut at the Vienna Musikvering but did debut at London’s Wigmore Hall – and did it playing Grieg’s concerto.  And her second dream, surely the more important of the two, was fully realized: she bore a daughter, Mona, who she not only taught to play the piano but who went on to become an exceptionally accomplished professional pianist herself.

In 1938, when Lisa was just fourteen years old, her parents, Abraham and Malka, arranged for her to evade the Nazis by traveling from Vienna to London via the Kindertransport (the children’s train) - which explains why she debuted in London rather than in Vienna.  In London, separated from her parents, her sisters, and her friends, Lisa had a tough time, being handed off from one guardian to another.  But she was fortunate in being cared for and befriended by other compassionate adults and she never abandoned her musical dreams, ultimately winning a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Music which led to her debut at Wigmore Hall.
Several years later, after World War II had ended, Lisa managed to emigrate to the United States, where her daughter, Mona, was born.  And many years after that, in 2003, Mona (together with Lee Cohen) wrote The Children of Willesden Lane: Beyond the Kindertransport: A Memoir of Music, Love, and Survival as a testimonial to her mother’s extraordinary life.  Subsequently, that book was adapted by Hershey Felder into the play The Pianist of Willesden Lane, currently enjoying its New York premiere at 59E59 Theaters on East 59th Street in midtown Manhattan, directed by Hershey Felder and starring Mona Golabek both as herself and as her mother, Lisa.

This is a wonderfully evocative production.  Ms Golabek is not simply a very talented pianist but is also a charming story teller to boot.  Her virtuoso piano performances range from Bach and Beethoven to Grieg, Chopin, Debussy and Rachmaninoff, with a bit of Gershwin thrown in as icing on the cake.  And the musical performances are vastly enriched by Ms Golabek’s accompanying commentary on her mother’s life.

This play is especially timely today.  Ms Golabek’s final words to her audience are these:

“It will always be through the music that I pay tribute to my mother’s life, to the grandparents I never knew, and to every mother and father who had the courage to save their child by saying goodbye.”

In those few words, Ms Golabek makes crystal clear the sacrifice that all parents, whatever their backgrounds, have made for their children since time immemorial.  Italian parents, Irish fathers, Jewish mothers from Russia and Eastern Europe, Asian parents – all have sent their children to America with tears in their eyes and hope in their hearts.  Today it is Central American parents whose children are massed on the southern border of the United States in one of the major humanitarian crises of our time.  And whatever your politics, whether you believe that America’s highest immigration priority should be to secure our borders or whether you believe it should first address the issue of providing a path to citizenship for those illegal aliens who already are here, few would deny that a compassionate concern for the children arriving here in droves must trump all other considerations.

Indeed, the only exception I can think of to such universal parental love is that being evidenced today by Palestinian parents toward their own children to whom they say goodbye after cloaking them in explosive vests and utilizing them as human shields in playgrounds and school yards, on beaches and rooftops, in furtherance of their own political and religious agendas.  It is a monstrous distortion of the normal bond between parents and children and it is well past time for the entire civilized world to take a stand against it.