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.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Ayckbourn Ensemble Concludes With Time of My Life

L-R: James Powell and Rachel Caffrey in TIME OF MY LIFE.  Photo by Tony Bartholomew.
Time of My Life, the third and final Alan Ayckbourn play being performed in repertory by the Ayckbourn Ensemble, opened last night at 59E59 Theaters on East 59th Street in midtown Manhattan as part of that theatre’s annual Brits Off Broadway program.  We very much enjoyed the first two-thirds of this extended Ayckbourn program as we attested to in our reviews of Arrivals & Departures and Farcicals: A Double Bill of FrivolousComedies on June 5 and June 11.  But Time of My Life is far and away the best of them all.

The Ayckbourn Ensemble is a very talented troupe of 11 actors.  Four of them, Elizabeth Boag, Bill Champion, Sarah Stanley and Kim Wall were outstanding in both Arrivals & Departures and Farcicals but do not appear at all in Time of My Life.  The other seven did not appear in Farcicals and played multiple supporting roles in Arrivals &Departures where their considerable talents were not readily apparent.  But now, in Time of My Life, all seven have come into their own.  Each has been given a chance to shine and every one of them has made the most of it.

The play revolves around the lives of three couples: Gerry Stratton (Russell Dixon) and his wife Laura (Sarah Parks); their elder son, Glyn (Richard Stacey) and his wife, Stephanie (Emily Pithon); and their younger son, Adam (James Powell) and his latest girlfriend, Maureen (Rachel Caffrey).  Gerry is a successful businessman who has been happily married to Laura for more than thirty years but whose discovery of a decades old indiscretion of hers devastates his life.  Laura is a cold, self-centered bitch whose only concern, other than for herself, might be for Adam, with little love left for her older son, Glyn, or for his family.  Glyn is a philandering, unloved son, overshadowed by his successful father, and insensitive to his wife’s needs or those of his children.  Stephanie is his long-suffering wife – but only up to a point.  Adam is a spoiled, infantile romantic, seemingly unable to break free from his mother’s control.  And Maureen is a warm, loving, lower-class, hair dresser who doesn’t seem to have much of a chance if Laura Stratton is her competition.

It’s a volatile mixture and, in Ayckbourn’s hands, it holds forth the promise of great theatre.  With this very talented cast, that promise is realized.  All of the action takes place at tables in the Essa de Calvi, a restaurant owned by Calvinu (Ben Porter), at which the Stratton family tends to hold its celebrations and luncheon meetings.  But all of that action takes place over a period of years which provides the cast with ample opportunity to bloom, notwithstanding the confines of space.

Although Ayckbourn wrote Time of My Life in 1992, this production marks its New York premiere and it is difficult to understand why it did not make it to these shores sooner.  The play is intricately written in typical Ayckbourn fashion, with both flashbacks and flash forwards and with the most entertaining spatial and temporal convolutions.  It makes for a splendid conclusion to this long overdue Ayckbourn program. 

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Farcicals: A Double Bill of Frivolous Comedies: Chloe With Love and The Kidderminster Affair

L-R: Sarah Stanley, Kim Wall, Bill Champion, and Elizabeth Boag in FARCICALS: A DOUBLE BILL OF FRIVOLOUS COMEDIES.  Photo by Andrew Higgens.
The Ayckbourn Ensemble is a wonderfully talented company of actors currently taking New York by storm, performing three of Alan Ayckbourn’s plays in repertory at 59E59 Theaters on East 59th Street in midtown Manhattan as part of that theatre’s annual Brits Off Broadway program. The first of the three, Arrivals & Departures, opened last week and we loved it, as we expressed in our review of June 5.  Last night, the second of the three, Farcicals: A Double Bill of Frivolous Comedies, opened as well and, while strikingly different from Arrivals & Departures, it was even more fun.

Farcicals: A Double Bill of Frivolous Comedies consists of two one-act comedies, Chloe With Love and The Kidderminster Affair, featuring the same four characters: Penny Bottlecamp (Elizabeth Boag), her husband, Reggie Bottllecamp (Kim Wall), her friend and neighbor, Lottie Bulbin (Sarah Stanley), and Lottie’s husband, Teddy Bulbin (Bill Champion).  Ms Boag, Mr. Wall and Mr. Champion were terrific as the stars of Arrivals& Departures and Ms Stanley played several important supporting roles in that play.  In Chloe With Love and The Kidderminster Affair, all four are equally outstanding, providing comedic performances that will keep you laughing for nigh on two hours.

Chloe With Love takes place in the Bottlecamp’s garden on a warm summer evening while all of the action in The Kidderminster Affair occurs in the Bulbin’s very similar garden on another warm summer evening.  Both plays are slapstick farces and the plots of both revolve around Lottie’s suspicions of her husband’s infidelity.  The ways in which the two plays then evolve and their ultimate outcomes are strikingly different, but they both are rollickingly funny and deliciously insightful in their depictions of those fundamental psychological differences between men and women that remain at the root of the battle between the sexes. 

Saturday, June 7, 2014

Ethel Sings: The Unsung Song of Ethel Rosenberg at Theatre Row's Beckett Theatre

L-R: Ari Butler, Adrienne C. Moore, and Tracy Michailidis in ETHEL SINGS: THE UNSUNG STORY OF ETHEL ROSENBERG.
Ethel Greenglass was born in 1915 to Russian-Jewish immigrants on the Lower East Side of New York.  A precocious, talented and intelligent girl, she graduated from high school when she was only 15 years old and aspired to a singing and acting career.  That, however, was not to be.  Instead, she became a clerk and a labor activist, joined the Young Communist League and the American Communist Party, met and married Julius Rosenberg, and bore him two children, Michael and Robert.  Ultimately, she became embroiled in a conspiracy led by her husband to transmit atomic bomb secrets to the Soviet Union; she was tried, convicted of espionage, and sentenced to death; and she was executed in 1953 – becoming, at that time, only the second woman in US history ever to be executed by the Federal Government. 

There is no doubt that Julius Rosenberg and his other co-conspirators – including David Greenglass (Ethel’s younger brother), Ruth Greenglass (David’s wife), Harry Gold, Klaus Fuchs, and Morton Sobell – were all guilty of espionage, but there still are those who question whether Ethel herself was really involved in any significant way.  And, whether or not she was, there still are those who continue to deny that her and/or Julius’s actions rose to the level of a capital offense.  Such questions, revolving around Ethel’s role in the atomic spy ring and the applicability of the death penalty in any case, are certainly legitimate.  They haunt us to this day and provide the raw material from which a truly fine play may one day be written.

But, sad to say, Ethel Sings: The Unsung Song of Ethel Rosenberg, written by Joan Beber and currently being staged by Undercover Productions and Perry Street Theatricals at Theatre Row’s Beckett Theatre on West 42nd Street in midtown Manhattan, is not that play.

The problem with Ethel Sings is that its playwright and director are both so eager to be politically correct in every possible way that they simply content themselves with the creation and demolition of straw men in support of their pre-conceived notions, without ever addressing the deeper and more serious issues that the case presents.  In so doing, they present a biased and distorted view of the Rosenbergs’ story, trivializing the magnitude of their crime, alluding to unsubstantiated anti-Semitism as a factor in their convictions, and downplaying the extent of their treason.

In a program note, Will Pomerantz, the play’s director, states:

“I continued to be struck by how current the issues raised by the play remain.  The idea of guilt by association- something seemingly so discredited after the reign of terror that was McCarthyism – came roaring back post 9-11.The profligate use of incarceration, including the overuse of solitary confinement, and the overrepresentation of communities of color in our prison system, continue.  Although it is commonly accepted that our country has entered an era of wealth disparity the heights of which have not been seen for 100 years, we have also been living for many, many years with systemic inequality of justice….

“The Rosenbergs were liberals, Jews, labor activists, and communist sympathizers in an era of virulent anti-Communism and anti-Semitism.  The trial became a show trial for the rise of McCarthyism, and although the actual evidence against them was inconclusive at best, they were found guilty….”

Thus, in one fell swoop, Pomerantz pushes virtually every liberal hot button including guilt by association, racism, wealth inequality, anti-Semitism, the justice system, and the labor movement.  But the fact remains that the Rosenbergs were not convicted of espionage on the basis of “guilt by association” but on the basis of clear evidence that they had transmitted secrets relating to the development of the atomic bomb to the Soviet Union.  And that evidence, at least in Julius’ case, was not “inconclusive at best” but was overwhelmingly damning. 

Moreover, the Rosenbergs were not mere “communist sympathizers” but were card-carrying members of the Communist Party.  They may have encountered anti-Semitism in their lives but that was not the basis of their convictions.  (Indeed, it is an uncomfortable fact that the judge at their trial, Irving Kaufman, was a Jew as was the leader of the prosecution team, Irving Saypol, as was his associate, Roy Cohn.)  The percentage of blacks and whites in prison, the labor movement, and wealth inequality all may be issues of political interest but the fact remains that none of them had anything at all to do with the Rosenbergs’ having been charged with espionage.  And yet this play – really more of a polemic than a play – just expounds the sort of liberal talking points we hear again and again and then contends that since they are all obviously so politically correct, they must have something to do with the Rosenbergs as well.

As if to underscore just how baldly this Ethel Sings distorts the Rosenbergs’ story, its producers have availed themselves of color-blind casting to the worst possible end.  To be sure, the role of Ethel Rosenberg has been given to Tracy Michailidis, a white woman and a fine singer who plays her difficult part with great sensitivity.  And Ari Butler, who is also white, portrays the role of Julius Rosenberg with skill and passion.  But Tanesha Gary, a black woman, has been cast as Ethel’s immigrant Russian-Jewish mother; Serge Thony, a black man, has been cast as her older son, Michael; Kenneth Lee, an Asian man, has been cast as her younger son, Robby; and Sheria Irving, a black woman, has been cast as her sister-in-law, Ruth.  The point of such casting, I imagine, is to emphasize the universality of man and the superficiality of racial differences but here these casting decisions turn out to have been simply silly at best and distracting and annoying at worst.  Indeed, when Ms Gary attempts to express her feelings by utilizing stereotypical Jewish immigrant mannerisms and by speaking in a mixture of broken English and Yiddish, she only succeeds in offending both Jews and blacks simultaneously.

In addition to Ms Michailidis and Mr. Butler, to whom I have already called attention for their exemplary performances, I should like to commend Kevin Isola for his portrayal of the admittedly despicable Roy Cohn.  And I should like to single out  Adrienne C. Moore for her portrayal of Loraine, the transcendent figure introduced to pull the entire play together; I thought she had one of the most difficult roles and managed it superbly.

And as far as my expression of disappointment in the roles played by Ms Gary, Mr. Thony, Mr. Lee and Ms Irving goes, that ought not necessarily be construed as an indictment of their acting talents but rather of the degree to which they have been totally miscast.  In more appropriate roles, they well may have turned in strong performances.  Unfortunately, there’s just no way of knowing.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Ayckbourn Ensemble: Arrivals & Departures at 59E59 Theaters

L-R: Bill Champion and Kim Wall in ARRIVALS & DEPARTURES.  Photo by Andrew Higgens
Alan Ayckbourn is a prodigiously talented playwright with 78 plays to his credit.  Now, in commemoration of his 75th birthday and in celebration of the 50th anniversary of the staging of one of his plays (Mr. Whatnot) in London’s West End, the Stephen Joseph Theatre is producing three of his works – Arrivals & Departures, Time of MyLife, and Farcicals: A Double Bill of Frivolous Comedies – as the Ayckbourn Ensemble at 59E59 Theaters on East 59th Street in midtown Manhattan as part of that theatre’s annual Brits Off Broadway program.

The first of the three, Arrivals & Departures, opened last night in its US premiere.  It is an intricately structured memory play in which the lives of Ez Swain (Elizabeth Boag), a troubled young female soldier, and Barry Hawkins (Kim Wall), a garrulous middle-aged traffic warden, intersect briefly in a London train station in the course of their involvement in the attempted capture of a terrorist.  Captain Quentin Sexton (Bill Champion), an acting Major in the Strategic Simulated Distractional Operations Unit (SSDO) has organized an elaborate plot to trap the terrorist; Barry, who previously encountered the terrorist has been helicoptered in to assist in his identification; and Ez is there to protect Barry.

This is really three plays in one.  The first, and simplest, involves the plot to capture the terrorist, a straightforward and rollickingly comic send-up of police, military, and governmental incompetence.  This one is considerable fun.  But the other two are far more interesting (albeit much less humorous): they are both memory plays, one delving into Ez’s history and providing us with an understanding of why she is so cold, controlled, and un-smiling, and the other revealing the hidden secrets of Barry’s past that have made him the man he is today.

In addition to Ez, Barry and Quentin, some thirty other characters, played by ten other actors, appear in the course of the play, including: Ez’s parents, her step-father, her former boyfriend and his parents; Barry’s wife and her parents, their daughter, and the best man and maid of honor at their wedding; the terrorist; younger versions of Ez, Barry and Barry’s daughter; and various members of the SSDO Unit.  They all do a fine job in switching seamlessly from one role to another and their professionalism is much to be admired.

But the play really belongs to Quentin, Ez and Barry.  Bill Champion as Quentin is splendid as the blustering and incompetent officer in charge of a gang that can’t shoot straight.  Elizabeth Boag plays Ez with controlled emotion.  And Kim Wall as Barry is absolutely the best of all: a terrific actor who brilliantly portrays the role of a trusting and loving man of honor and principle who accepts whatever life may have in store for him with grace and humor.

Friday, May 30, 2014

The Anthem at Culture Project's Lynn Redgrave Theater

The Anthem, currently being staged at Culture Project’s Lynn Redgrave Theater on Bleecker Street in lower Manhattan, is an exquisitely stylized show.  The ultra-modern set, with its multitude of video screens and strobe lighting, is worthy of a Broadway production.  Futuristic costumes, intended to suggest what life might be like several centuries hence in some totalitarian dystopia, are just terrific.  Best of all is the play’s choreography, ranging from sensual dance to clip-clopping regimental marches and from cool roller-blading to the most extraordinary gymnastic, acrobatic and aerial feats.  The net result is that this is one hell of a show, a staged circus that I found to be immensely entertaining.

So much for the good news.

Now here’s the bad news.

While this original musical (with book by Gary Morgenstein, music by Jonnie Rockwell and lyrics by Erik Ransom) is being presented as “a radical retelling of Ayn Rand’s classic novella,” if truth be told, it likely would make Rand turn over in her grave.  Presumably inspired by Anthem, originally published by Rand in 1938, The Anthem cherry-picks phrases from the corpus of Rand’s work in a vain attempt at establishing some sort of identification with one of the Twentieth Century’s most polarizing and influential novelists and philosophers; it conflates Rand’s Objectivism with anarchy (which Rand abhorred); and it engages in the worst sort of ethically relativistic rationalizations which would have been anathema to Rand who tended to see things in terms of black and white.

Rand’s original novella falls into the literary genre of dystopic science fiction, as does George Orwell’s 1984 and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World.  But from a literary standpoint, it is clearly not in a class with either of those works.  The world depicted in Anthem is preposterous, its characters are two-dimensional, and it is delivered in such sophomoric fashion as to make it difficult to take seriously.  All of which means that I wouldn’t recommend reading Anthem for its literary value.

On the other hand, Anthem is worth reading for its historical value in providing Ayn Rand fans and students of her work with a window into the evolution of both her literary style and her Objectivist philosophy.  In Anthem, one will find the seeds that eventually blossomed into Rand’s magnum opus, Atlas Shrugged: Equality 7-2521 is clearly the precursor to Atlas Shrugged’s John Galt; Equality is a street sweeper who discovers an abandoned subway tunnel whereas Galt is a railroad track walker; Equality’s rediscovery of electricity foreshadows Galt’s invention of a machine that will change the world; Equality’s retreat to a sanctuary in the Uncharted Forest, whence he will embark on the creation of a new individualistic world, presages the creation of Galt’s Gulch in Atlas Shrugged; and on and on.  And Atlas Shrugged is such an important book in its own right, that that alone makes Anthem worth reading.

Anthem is set in a post-apocalyptic, futuristic dystopia in which much of the world’s knowledge has been lost (torches and candles, for example, are required to provide light and power since all knowledge of electricity is gone). The society is so collectivistic and anti-individualistic that even personal pronouns have been banned in human discourse (individuals refer to themselves as “we,” never as “I”).  Individual initiative is not merely discouraged but is prohibited and punished.  Inventions and discoveries are deemed to be less than valueless – they are outright evil – unless they are created collectively.

But one man, Equality 7-2521, somehow manages to break free of the collectivist society’s bonds.  He comes to see the light – both figuratively and literally – as he re-discovers electricity, finds a kindred spirit in his lover, Liberty 5-3000 and, with her, sets out to re-make the world into a free utopian individualistic paradise where “ego” is no longer a dirty word but the most sacred word of all.

And yet, while the world depicted in Anthem is a preposterous one, populated with cardboard characters, it at least exhibited the virtue of consistency.  Not so with The Anthem.  Equality 7-2521 becomes Prometheus (Jason Gotay) in The Anthem but here he’s less a seeker after liberty and individuality than an adolescent rebel without a cause.  His lover, Liberty 5-3000, becomes Athena (Ashley Kate Adams), the beautiful leader of a back-to-nature rebel band hiding in a forest.  The society is not one in which most knowledge – including that of electricity – has been lost.  On the contrary, it is very technologically advanced with the whereabouts of all of its citizens continually monitored on a universal electronic grid.  Yet for some unexplainable reason, light bulbs no longer exist and it is that – the re-discovery of a light bulb rather than the principles of electricity – that Prometheus stakes out as his claim to fame! 

In sum, The Anthem is a mash-up of a play that makes no logical sense and that bears little relationship to Rand’s Objectivist philosophy, let alone the original novella that presumably inspired it.  Go see this show by all means - for its brilliant set, its terrific costumes and, most of all, for its truly outstanding choreography.  Just don’t expect a rationally coherent story line, nor anything even remotely based on Rand’s novella or philosophy.