Saturday, February 25, 2017

Jeff McCarthy Stars in KUNSTLER at 59E59 Theaters

L-R: Jeff McCarthy and Nambi E. Kelley in KUNSTLER at 59E59 Theaters.
William Kunstler, an ACLU director from 1964 to 1972 was a staunch civil rights advocate, attorney, and liberal icon who gained both notoriety and acclaim for his spirited defense of clients ranging from the Mississippi Freedom Riders to the Chicago Seven, from the Black Panthers to the Attica Prison rioters, and from the American Indian Movement to the Weather Underground.  But if his clients were controversial (and they certainly were), so was the man himself.  On the one hand, for example, he argued that he defended his clients because, guilty or not, everyone is entitled to the best possible defense.  That is why, he contended, he didn’t limit his clientele to men like Martin Luther King, Jr. or the Mississippi Freedom Riders but also chose to defend such unsavory characters as Colin Ferguson (the black man who killed six people in a shooting rampage on a Long Island Railroad train), Sheikh Omar Abdel-Rahman (the blind sheikh responsible for the World Trade Center bombing in 1993), and such mob bosses as John Gotti and Joe Bonnano.  And yet, at the same time he refused to defend right-wing groups such as the Minutemen, proclaiming that “I only defend those whose goals I share.  I’m not a lawyer for hire. I only defend those I love.”  Similarly, Kunstler viewed due process as merely a means to an end, unabashedly politicizing the issues in his cases if he thought that doing so might inure to the benefit of his clients.

Kunstler by Jeffrey Sweet, currently being staged at 59E59 Theaters on East 59th Street in midtown Manhattan, is an enormously entertaining paean to William Kunstler, featuring an absolutely bravura performance by Jeff McCarthy in the title role.  But the 90-minute two-hander in which William Kunstler is gently confronted by Kerry (Nambi E. Kelley), a young, black female law student who challenges him to justify his defenses of John Gotti or Colin Ferguson, could have been even better if it had addressed the contradictions in Kunstler’s persona more forcefully.  As it is, the play merely alludes to but generally glosses over Kunstler’s shortcomings – from the infidelities that led to the collapse of his first marriage to his rationalizing justifications for Ferguson’s murderous behavior as being “understandable” in terms of “black rage,” providing Kerry with limited opportunity to provide a strong counter-balance to the positive depiction of the liberal icon presented throughout most of the play.  And as a result, the play is neither intellectually stimulating nor thought provoking, although it certainly is extremely entertaining.

And maybe just being entertaining is quite enough. 

Thursday, January 19, 2017


L-R: Michael Hogan and Clea Alsip in WHAT HAPPENS IN VEGAS,  part of  LaBUTE NEW THEATER FESTIVAL
As a great fan of Neil LaBute, I eagerly anticipated attending a performance of his latest one act play, What Happens in Vegas, currently enjoying its world premier at 59E59 Theaters on East 59th Street in midtown Manhattan as part of this year’s LaBute New Theater Festival.  Unfortunately, I was to be sadly disappointed.  Not that this latest two-hander by LaBute doesn’t exhibit the same sort of sharp dialogue and clever character juxtapositions that exemplify his other plays for it certainly does.  Nor is it the fault of the two fine actors, Clea Alsip and Michael Hogan, whose portrayals of a sexy call girl and her cost-conscious client are spot on.  No, it is simply that What Happens in Vegas never comes across as a fully fleshed out play – not even a short one-act one – but rather as little more than a classroom exercise in playwriting.  To be sure, What Happens in Vegas is an occasionally mildly erotic and amusing riff on the encounter between that hot Las Vegas hooker and that married salesman on a tight budget, enabling LaBute to express at least a smidgen of his considerable literary talent, but it never amounts to very much more than that.
The remainder of the evening’s program consists of three other one act plays – Homebody by Gabe McKinley, American Outlaws by Adam Seidel, and Mark My Worms by Cary Pepper – all of which are currently enjoying their New York premieres (after having received their world premieres at past LaBute New Theater Festivals at St.Louis Actors’ Studio’s Gaslight Theater in prior years).  But again, despite some excellent performances, none of those three really grabbed me either.
Homebody is a disturbingly macabre tale of a dysfunctional twosome – Jay (Michael Hogan), an unsuccessful aspiring novelist in his late 30’s, and his mother (Donna Weinsting), with whom he is living.  The play reminded me of the work of Martin McDonagh whose The Pillowman and The Lieutenant of Inishmore took Broadway by storm more than a decade ago.  But much as I could appreciate McDonagh’s playwriting talents, I found both The Pillowman and The Lieutenant of Inishmore to be so fundamentally distasteful that I regretted having seen them both.  My reaction to Homebody is similar: admittedly it is a well-written and professionally performed work but I found it to be so distasteful that I just didn’t like it.  But if you’re a fan of McDonagh, you might very well enjoy it much more than I did.
American Outlaws is yet another two hander in which Mitch (Eric Dean White), a mild-mannered cuckolded accountant attempts to hire a hit man, Mike (Justin Ivan Brown), to kill his wife.  The relationship between Mitch and Mike turns out to be much more complicated than we might have imagined at first blush but making sense of it all required a greater suspension of disbelief than I thought the play was worth.  The play ends not with a whimper but with a bang but is sufficiently incoherent that I couldn’t really be sure who was banging whom (at least I didn’t have that problem in LaBute’s play).
Which brings us to the final play on the program – Mark My Worms – in which Mason (Eric Dean White) and Gloria (Clea Alsip) have been cast in a newly-discovered play by the renowned absurdist, La Salle Montclare.  The play is to be directed by John (Justin Ivan Brown) but the catch is that Montclare’s estate insists that the play be performed exactly as Montclare wrote it – typos and all - and Montclare was a terrible typist.  So when the play opens, for example, with Mason holding Gloria at gunpoint and saying, as per the script, “I’ve got a bun!,” when it should be apparent to anyone with a modicum of common sense that what he actually meant to type was “I’ve got a gun!,” Mason still is required to say “I’ve got a bun!,” rather than “I’ve got a gun!”  And when the script goes on to have Mason saying “Come out or  I’ll…hoot,” when Montclare obviously meant to say “Come out or I’ll shoot,” Mason is still required to express the absurd statement as written rather than what would actually make sense.  In a way it gives a whole new meaning to the term “theatre of the absurd.”
Gloria, however, does attempt to make sense out of it all and does so in an even more absurd manner.  She discovers a Ph.D. thesis written on Montclare by one Thorndike Farrington which attempts to explain Montclare’s obvious typos as intentionally distorted food references and, with the utmost pretension, she contends that Montclare “loved food as much as he hated violence…He thought food was the answer to all our problems…What he’s saying here is that you, the instrument of violence, should be wielding a bun.  Because if everyone who resorts to force did that, all violence would end.”  And in further reliance on Farrington’s thesis, Gloria goes on to cite him as saying that “Montclare’s unique dialogue should not be viewed within the framework of the traditional communications paradigm” and that the “transmutation of preconception is sublime subordination” - whatever any of that might mean.
It all reminds me, in its puncturing of academic pretension and pomposity, of the so-called “Sokal Hoax,” perpetrated by Alan Sokal, a physics professor, two decades ago in which Sokal submitted an article entitled “Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity” to Social Text, an academic journal of postmodern cultural studies, in which he proposed that quantum gravity is a social and linguistic concept.  The editors of that supposedly scholarly journal actually published the article and, on the day it was published, Sokal revealed that the article was a hoax, describing it as “a pastiche of left-wing cant, fawning references, grandiose quotations, and outright nonsense…structured around the silliest quotations…about mathematics and physics.”
It reminds me, too, of the very funny scene in the Woody Allen movie, Take the Money and Run, in which Virgil, a would-be bank robber, hands a note to a bank teller on which is written “I have a gun” – except that Virgil’s handwriting is so bad that the bank teller can’t decide whether it says “I have a gun” or “I have a gub.”  The point of all this being that while Mark My Worms is predicated on an amusing conceit, it’s been done before and, to my mind, not only more effectively (in the Sokal Hoax) but also more entertainingly (in Take the Money and Run).

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).