Thursday, November 17, 2016

TERMS OF ENDEARMENT Adapted for the Stage at 59E59 Theaters

L-R: Molly Ringwald and Jeb Brown in TERMS OF ENDEARMENT.  Photo by Carole Rosegg.
Larry McMurtry wrote Terms of Endearment  in 1975.  It was the tale of Aurora Greenway, a self-absorbed widow, and her various relationships – with several different suitors; with her housekeeper; with her daughter, Emma; with Emma’s husband, Flap….  The story was largely farcical with a soap opera-ish conclusion revolving around the dissolution of Emma’s marriage and Emma’s ultimate death from cancer.   The book garnered mixed reviews: people generally enjoyed it but recognized its literary shortcomings and the disconnect between its comical beginnings and its tragic culmination.

The book was adapted for the big screen by James L. Brooks (who wrote, directed and produced it) in 1983 and the film version was enormously successful.  Indeed, Terms of Endearment received eleven Academy Award nominations and won five: Brooks walked away with Oscars for Best Picture, Best Director and Best Writing (Adapted Screenplay) while Shirley MacLaine won an award for Best Actress in the role of Aurora Greenway and Jack Nicholson won an award for Best Supporting Actor in the role of Garrett Breedlove, Aurora’s next door neighbor, a former astronaut, and her eventual lover.  (Garrett did not appear in the novel but was created for the film by Brooks who played fast and loose with many of the characters in McMurtry’s novel, eliminating several while adding Garrett.)

Now, in turn, McMurtry’s novel and Brooks’ screenplay have been adapted for the stage, this time by Dan Gordon, who hews closer to the film version than to the original book while paring down the cast of characters still further.  The play still revolves around the relationships between Aurora (Molly Ringwald) and her daughter, Emma (Hannah Dunne); between Aurora and her neighbor-astronaut-lover, Garrett (Jeb Brown); and between Emma and her husband, Flap (Denver Milord).  Emma’s best friend, Patsy Clark (Jessica Digiovanni) is retained in the play as well but most of the other characters who populated the film version are dispensed with: Janice, with whom Flap has the affair that leads to the dissolution of his marriage is mentioned in the play but never actually appears there as she did in the film; Sam Burns, Emma’s love interest outside of her marriage who was played in the film by John Lithgow, also is mentioned in the play but we never actually get to meet him either; neither does Vernon Dahlart, another of Aurora’s suitors who was played in the motion picture by Danny DeVito, ever appear in the stage version; and we don’t even get to see any of Emma’s three children, Tommy, Teddy and Melanie, all of whom appeared in the movie as well.

The net result is that Terms of Endearment, currently premiering at 59E59 Theaters on East 59th Street in midtown Manhattan, is but a pale imitation of the motion picture.  The characters on stage are drawn rather shallowly and it is difficult to take their relationships and personae seriously enough to really care about any of them.  To be sure, Hannah Dunne is engaging as Emma (the role played by Debra Winger in the film) and both Denver Milord as Flap and Jessica Digiovanni as Patsy are more than adequate in their relatively unchallenging roles.  But Molly Ringwald, despite her well-established competence as an actress, suffers badly in comparison to Shirley MacLaine in the role of Aurora.  In part that is because Aurora’s role in the play is not nearly as well-written or meaty as was Aurora’s role in the movie.  But in part, too, it is because Shirley MacLaine’s stellar performance in the film was just too tough an act to follow.

Surprisingly (at least to me), the actor who comes across best in Terms of Endearment is Jeb Brown as Garrett Breedlove.  I should have thought that effectively reprising an Oscar-winning performance by the inimitable Jack Nicholson would have been well nigh impossible, especially given the play’s additional constraints.  But Jeb Brown has pulled if off: he has succeeded in channeling Jack Nicholson in his performance as effectively and effortlessly as Tina Fey channeled Sarah Palin.  It is his performance that is the high point of the play.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Terrific Revival of THE CLEARING at 59E59 Theaters

L-R: Jakob von Eikel and Quinn Cassavale in THE CLEARING.  Photo by Carol Rosegg.
Arthur Miller’s The Crucible is set in the late seventeenth century at the time of the Salem witch trials but clearly is intended to be a metaphorical indictment of Senator Joseph McCarthy’s communist “witch-hunts” of the last century.  In similar fashion, Helen Edmundson’s The Clearing is set in Ireland in the mid-seventeenth century when Oliver Cromwell sought to force the Irish Catholics out of Ireland, but is meant as an indictment of the Bosnian “ethnic cleansing” of the late twentieth century (and, before that, of the Nazi Holocaust of the 1940s).

The Clearing, a very powerful and beautifully written work, was first staged to rave reviews in 1993 at London’s Bush Theatre and has enjoyed frequent revivals since then.  It is currently being revived again, this time by Theater 808 at 59E59 Theaters on East 59th Street in midtown Manhattan and, I must say, this outstanding production really is one not to be missed.

The play revolves around Robert Preston (Jakob von Eichel), the Protestant son of an English landowner who has re-settled in Ireland and his Irish Catholic wife Madeleine (Quinn Cassavale).  The couple are very much in love, she has just borne him a son, he has begun to develop his small farm, and their future appears extraordinarily bright.  Until, that is, word arrives that Cromwell’s government is about to confiscate the lands of the Irish Catholics in order to redistribute them to the soldiers of Cromwell’s army in lieu of their unpaid wages and to transplant the original Irish landowners to the much less hospitable province of Connaught.
 
The Prestons’ Irish Catholic neighbors, Solomon Winter (David Licht) and his wife Susaneh (Tessa Zugmeyer) are at immediate risk and they are forced to register for “transplantation.”  The Prestons, themselves, would appear to be at somewhat less risk, given Robert’s own aristocratic English background, notwithstanding his marriage to an Irish Catholic woman.  But Madeleine is not just any Irish Catholic woman: although her closest friend, Killaine Farrell (Lauren Currie Lewis) is a companion and servant in Madeleine’s home and godmother to her son, Killaine remains in close contact with their childhood friend, Pierce Kinsellagh (Hamish Allan-Hedley), a Tory Irish guerilla,.  And Madeleine, herself, still retains some contact and an affection for Pierce.

When Killaine is arbitrarily seized by English soldiers in the street and scheduled for transportation to Barbados where she would be an indentured servant, Madeleine pulls out all the stops in attempting to obtain her release, including a risky appeal to the English Governor, Sir Charles Sturman (Neal Mayer) and an attempt to purchase her release from the sailor guarding her (Ron Sims).  Robert, on the other hand, is as reluctant to stick his neck out for Killaine as he was for his friends Solomon and Susaneh, fearful that to do so would jeopardize his own position as a landowner in Ireland.  And when push comes to shove, Robert chooses to betray his own wife and friends, prompting Madeleine to take her young son and abandon Robert with the direst consequences for all involved.

The actors’ performances are superb across the board.  I was especially impressed by Quinn Cassavale who is vibrant, courageous and passionate as Madeleine and by Neal Mayer who is as coldly Mephistophelian as Sir Charles Sturman as one can possibly imagine.  But I also thought that Lauren Currie Lewis is delightful as the innocent Killaine and that Hamish Allan-Headly, as Pierce Kinsellagh, comes across as tough and single-minded in his belief in his cause.  Which is not to suggest that David Licht, Ron Sims, Jakob von Eichel and Tessa Zugmeyer don’t also play their parts with consummate skill for they certainly do.

I was a bit put off at first by the abstract simplicity of the set and the fact that all of the characters were portrayed anachronistically in modern dress.  But on further thought, I believe that those treatments were intended to emphasize the apparent inevitability and universality of the horrors of ethnic cleansing across the ages, whether in Ireland in the 1650s or Germany in the 1940s or Bosnia or Rwanda in the 1990s, and I think they succeeded in doing just that.  Indeed, the play’s set and costuming may also have been intended to remind us of the milder but still disheartening forms of xenophobia that exist today even in our own country - as evidenced, for example, by the rantings against Mexicans and Muslims by a candidate for the highest office in our land.

Friday, October 7, 2016

DADDY ISSUES at Theatre at St. Clements

L-R: Shua Potter, Alex Ammerman, and Matt Koplik in DADDY ISSUES.  Photo by Stephen M. Cyr.
Daddy Issues by Marshall Goldberg, currently enjoying its Off-Broadway premiere at Theatre at St. Clements on West 46th Street in Manhattan’s theatre district, is a preposterous slapstick farce that demands a greater suspension of disbelief on the part of its audience than should be asked of even the most passionate theatergoer.  While the playwright is clearly well intentioned, he does succeed in demeaning the gay community, disparaging the Jewish community, insulting the aged, and tossing in a bit of fat-shaming to boot.  Quite an accomplishment for what had likely been intended to be a politically correct entertainment in the spirit of the television classic, All in the Family. 

Donald Moscowitz (Matt Koplik) is a gay, aspiring actor.  His parents, Sid (Tony Rossi) and Marion (Kate Katcher) would like nothing better than for him to abandon his lifestyle and give them a grandchild.  His grandmother (Deb Armelino), portrayed as a cardboard caricature of Molly Goldberg, shares their desire that another Moscowitz child be born so that she might become a great-grandmother.

At his wit’s end in light of his parents’ pressure that he father a child, Donald hatches a hare-brained scheme to convince them that he already has.  As it turns out, Donald’s near-sighted alcoholic neighbor, Mary Ellen McGuire (Allyson Haley) has a ten-year old boy, Johnny Walker (Alex Ammerman), and Donald hires Johnny to play the role of his own son.  And in order to pull the whole thing off, Donald enlists the aid of two of his friends - Levi Krauss, a drag queen (Shua Potter), and Henrietta Hudson, an overweight casting director (Elizabeth Klein).

Of course the scheme collapses but fear not: as the most far-fetched coincidences pile up, all turns out for the best for everyone on stage (although not so much for members of the audience).  But just to end on a more positive note: Shua Potter turns in a bravura performance as the drag queen and Alex Ammerman, as the young Johnny Walker, appears destined to have a very successful acting career ahead of him.


Friday, September 16, 2016

THE BIRDS by Conor McPherson at 59E59 Theaters

L-R: Mia Hutchinson-Shaw, Tony Naumovski, and Antoinette LaVecchia in THE BIRDS.  Photo by Carol Rosegg.
Daphne du Maurier’s disturbing novelette The Birds was first published in her collection The Apple Tree in 1952.  It was the story of a farmhand, his family, and his community who were attacked by flocks of birds shortly after the end of World War II and it was generally interpreted to have been a metaphor for Britain’s survival of the London Blitz during the war.  Alfred Hitchcock adapted the story for the cinema a decade later, producing the classic film of the same name in 1963.

In 2009, Conor McPherson adapted the story for the stage and his play, also called The Birds, was produced at the Gate Theatre in Dublin.  It is that play that is now receiving its New York premiere at 59E59 Theaters on East 59th Street in midtown Manhattan.  Unfortunately, however, McPherson’s adaptation not only has considerably less impact than the Hitchcock film (for which Hitchcock required his screenwriter, Evan Hunter, to develop new characters and expand du Maurier’s plot) but it even has less impact than the original du Maurier story.

In McPherson’s play, there are only four characters (played by just three actors): Diane (Antoinette LaVecchia), Nat (Tony Naumovski, Julia (Mia Hutchinson-Shaw), and Tierney (also played by Tony Naumovski).  They are among the last survivors in a world in which flocks of predatory birds have killed virtually everyone else.  The play devolves into a cramped apocalyptic vision of some future dystopia in which Diane, Nat and Julia form a dysfunctional threesome struggling to survive.

The three actors play their parts for all they’re worth but, through no fault of their own, they’re not worth much.  The cardboard characters have all been drawn two-dimensionally and it’s not clear that the actors themselves really know what makes them tick.  Certainly the audience is never privy to their genuine selves and motivations.

It is possible, of course, to read deeper meanings into the play should you choose to do so, especially since the play is littered with Biblical references, but the results will still be rather trite and sophomoric at best.  A case could be made, for instance, that at the play’s end, Nat and Diane are metaphors for Adam and Eve about to embark (or attempt to embark) on the creation of a brave new world, with Julia’s spirit representing Lilith or the serpent in the garden or some such malevolent force preventing them from achieving their goal.  Or, in more mundane fashion, Diane’s antagonism toward Julia could be interpreted as a reprise of Diane’s similarly antagonistic relationship from her own estranged daughter in the years preceding the avian apocalypse.  But attempting to impose any such deeper meaning on what is essentially a disappointingly shallow play really would be more trouble than it’s worth.

THE VANITY at Theatre Row's Clurman Theatre

L-R: Patch David and Rosalie Burke in THE VANITY.  Photo by Nestor Correa Photography.
The title of The Vanity by Peter Covino, currently premiering at Theatre Row’s Clurman Theatre on West 42nd Street in midtown Manhattan, derives as much from the antique table inherited by Julian Gray (Patch David) from his mythical ancestor Dorian Gray as from the self-destructive urges that wrought havoc with both their lives.  It is a highly stylized musical farce, inspired both by Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray and by the classic film Sunset Boulevard (with allusions to everything from A Streetcar Named Desire to Death of a Salesman and from JFK’s one liners to Shelley’s Ozymandias), in which events transpire over the course of nearly two decades (from 1947 to 1966).
Claudia Wheelan (Ilene Christen) is the fading studio star who still sees herself as an ingĂ©nue (think Gloria Swanson as Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard).  Her husband, Hilton Wheeler (Erik Ransom), is an acclaimed director (largely due to his wife’s stardom) and it is he who discovers Julian, a charismatically handsome but rather innocent youth who has chosen to create a new life for himself in Hollywood.  Cast as the star in Hilton’s latest motion picture, Julian has stardom thrust upon him but still appears ready to risk it all when he falls in love with Stella Vaughn (Rosalie Burke).  Stella, the makeup girl on the film’s set, also sings at a sleazy club but aspires someday to achieve the acclaim Claudia has known.
When Julian inherits the Victorian vanity table once owned by Dorian Gray, matters quickly get out of hand.  As it turns out – time for your suspension of disbelief – Dorian Gray’s demonic Spirit (Brandon Haagenson) resides in the table and the Spirit has a proposition for Julian: it will grant Julian immortality, eternal youth, and a life of sexual and sensual abandon in exchange for Julian’s forsaking Stella and any real chance of true love.  It’s just the sort of offer that Norma Desmond or Dorian Gray of Claudia Wheelan would jump at.  So how could Julian refuse?
Of course, the Spirit ends up stealing Julian’s soul (and, indeed, comes close to stealing the whole show.)  Meanwhile, Julian’s friend Baxter Hughes (Roger Yeh) Is confronting his own demons.  He is gay at a time (1947) when homosexuality still was considered to be a mental illness or a vice or both and, in an attempt to conform to society’s norms, he not only marries but fathers a daughter (Kate Hoover).   (Minor spoiler alert: It doesn’t really work out well for him.)
One last aside: it is Declan (Remy Germinario), Claudia’s Irish cabana boy who, like everyone else, seems prepared to do whatever it takes to get a chance at Hollywood stardom himself, who sings the musical’s perkiest tune, “Aye, begorrah!”   In doing so, he provides further comic relief (not that the show really needed any).


Monday, August 1, 2016

Tenth Anniversary Season of SUMMER SHORTS at 59E59 Theaters

Elizabeth Masucci and Frank Harts in AFTER THE WEDDING.  Photo by Carol Rosegg.
Summer Shorts, New York City’s annual festival of new American short plays, is currently in its tenth season at 59E59 Theaters on East 59th Street in midtown Manhattan.  This year’s program consists of six plays – three in Series A  and three more in Series B.  We just saw the three in Series A at yesterday’s opening: The Helpers by Cusi Cram, After the Wedding by Neil LaBute, and This Is How It Ends by A. Rey Pamatmat.  (The three in Series B – The Dark Clothes of Night by Richard Alfredo, Queen by Alexander Dinelaris, and Black Flag by Idris Goodwin - will have their official opening on August 7.

The Helpers is a mildly amusing two hander in which Nate (David Deblinger) and Jane (Maggie Burke), Nate’s one time therapist, find their roles reversed, with Nate attempting to be of assistance to her rather than the other way around.  Both Deblinger and Burke perform with comedic sensibility, but the play itself remains little more than a one joke production.

After the Wedding was, in my opinion, far and away the best play on the program.  It was another two hander, this one featuring Frank Harts and Elizabeth Masucci as an unnamed but happily married couple celebrating their sixth anniversary.  In the course of the play, we learn of the single event on their honeymoon night that left such an indelible imprint on their lives that persist in their rationalizations and denials (both to themselves and to one other) of what actually occurred and what it all meant.  Both Harts and Masucci deliver superb performances.

This Is How It Ends was the most ambitious and complex play on the program – and the most preposterous and pretentious to boot.  Jake (Chinaza Uche) is rushing off to spend the day in sexual abandon, now that his roommate Annie (Kerry Warren) has revealed to him that she is really the Anti-Christ and that, with the assistance of her underlings, the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, she is about to destroy the world.  Warren is the cutest Anti-Christ you’re ever going to meet and her four underlings – Death (Nadine Malouf), Pestilence (Satyhya Sridharan), Famine (Rosa Gilmore) and War (Patrick Cummings) are similarly off-putting (each in his or her own way).  (Who would ever have imagined, for instance, that War and Pesilence really were closeted gay lovers, that  Famine got her rocks off by surreptitiously spying on their lovemaking, or that Death really fancied herself as humanity’s champion?)  The play is an off-the-wall, phantasmagorical extravaganza that might have been written by Adam Rapp on steroids but despite the clever conceit and the outstanding performances of the entire cast, it really was not my cup of tea.


Monday, June 20, 2016

OUT OF THE MOUTHS OF BABES by Israel Horowitz Premieres at Cherry Lane Theatre


Israel Horowitz, a very prolific writer with more than 70 plays to his credit, has the distinction of being the most produced American playwright in French theater history.  Appropriately enough, his latest play, Out of the Mouths of Babes, currently premiering at the Cherry Lane Theatre in Greenwich Village, is set in a Paris loft where four women meet to pay their last respects to the recently deceased centenarian professor whom they all loved at some time in their respective lives, and who, in turn, loved all of them at some time in his own.

Estelle Parsons is perfectly cast as Evelyn, the 88 year old grand dame of the group and one of the deceased professor’s oldest and earliest wives who shared his bed back in the Big Band era of the1940’s.  Judith Ivey is equally well cast as Evvie, twenty years Evelyn’s junior, and the only one of the four who never married him (by her choice, not his, as she remained his lover in the hipper 1960’s when their music centered on the Beatles and their ilk rather than Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald).  Janice (Angelina Fiorellisi), the craziest and most self-destructive of the lot, was younger still and arrived on the scene later, but she did succeed in teaching him to play Chopin’s Etudes (which does come in surprisingly handy as the play approaches its close).  Finally, Marie-Belle (Francesca Choy-Kee), young enough to be his granddaughter and the last of his many wives, turns out to have been the prime motivator in bringing the four women together for his funeral.  And it is she who really animates the entire production with her unbridled enthusiasm.

This is not a deep or thought-provoking play and you’re unlikely to spend much time pondering its nuances.  But it is nonetheless very entertaining, due to the exceptional performances of all four of these very talented actresses as they reminisce on the lives they led.