Saturday, June 26, 2010

Off Off Broadway: Family Dinner

Family Dinner, written by Michelle Willens and directed by Jamibeth Margolis, now being staged at the Beckett Theatre at Theatre Row on West 42nd Street, is a two act, two generational (and two dimensional) production. The play's conceit contrasts a family's life in Santa Monica in 1963 with that of their descendants in New York in 2002. It is pretty much of a cliche that would require sharp language, inventive plot structure, and/or exceptional acting to make it stand out from the ordinary. Unfortunately, none of those ingredients are present here and the play is ultimately disappointing.

In the first act, we meet the Leave It to Beaver-ish Wells family in all its glory: Jane (Nancy Nagrant), a cartoonish Betty Crocker lookalike who might have been a fine violinist if she hadn't sacrificed it all for husband and children; Howard (William Broderick), her self-made, demanding, borderline alcoholic husband who escaped the Cossacks in Russia as a child to emigrate to America and create a successful business in the garment industry; Alex (Rick Desloge) their under-appreciated, sensitive, literary son; Johnny (Marshall Pailet), their socially and athletically admired but otherwise generally over-rated younger son; and Maggie (Lily Corvo), a stereotypical confused teenage girl on the cusp of womanhood. We also meet Grampa (Daniel Pollack), Leonore (Mary McGloine), Jane's adventurous friend; and Mr. Kardadenas (John Hagerty), Maggie's school teacher and latest crush. Stir it all together and the results are predictable: Dad drinks, Mom denies, Johnny fails, Alex resents, and Maggie is victimized. Fifteen minute intermission and fade to the second act.

Maggie (now played by Nancy Nagrant who played her mother in the first act) is all grown up, married to Dan Barton (played by John Hagerty who played Mr. Kardadenas in the first act) and living in New York in 2002. Their son, Mike (played by Marshall Pailet who played Johnny in the first act) is very much a loser. Their daughter, Lexy (played by Lily Corvo who played Maggie in the first act) is graduating from high school. Grandma Jane (Mary Ellen Ashley), Uncle Alex (Patrick Riviere) and Uncle Johnny (played by William Broderick who played Howard in the first act) are all in for the graduation. In case you missed them, the acorns didn't fall far from the trees. Howard, incidentally, has passed away, presumably Grampa has too, and Leonore is off being an archaeologist. Everyone blames everyone else for the shortcomings in his or her life. Maggie gains the strength to face the trauma she experienced in the first act. Johnny walks off a loser. Jane tentatively reconsiders the reality of her roles as wife and mother. Yada yada yada.

A bunch of red herrings also are thrown into the mix: Howard is distraught in the first act when the IRS visits his business concerning some chicanery on the part of his partner, but we never learn more about it. Alex had a long love affair with a married woman - and we learn nothing more about that either. In sum, this isn't much of a play and it's probably just as well that it's closing soon.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Staged Reading: Everything in the Garden

Yesterday I was fortunate in having been able to attend a staged reading by The Peccadillo Theater Company of Edward Albee's Everything in the Garden. This infrequently revived work, which premiered on Broadway nearly a half-century ago in 1967, is actually an adaptation by Albee of a black comedy by the English playwright Giles Cooper. Originally set in suburban London, Albee transposed it to suburban America and transformed it into a scathing, acerbic attack on middle-class American values.

Unsurprisingly, the play is quite dated and Albee's anti-middle class sentiments are often knee-jerk and simplistic, but his genius still shines through and excellent direction by Dan Wackerman and the services of a more than talented cast surmount the play's shortcomings. Michael Hayden as Richard, Susan Jeffries as Beryl, Brent Langdon as Perry, Richard Poe as Chuck, Erika Rolsfrud as Cynthia, Christianne Tisdale as Louise, Zack Wall as Roger, and Michael Warner as Gilbert all turn in terrific performances but three actors deserve to be singled out for special praise: Angelica Torn is charming and delightful as Jenny, the suburban wife who resorts to afternoon prostitution to generate the funds she requires to keep up with the Joneses; Kathleen Butler is manipulatively Mephistophelean as Mrs. Toothe, the madam who employs Jenny; and John Rubenstein is splendid as Jack, the alcoholic neighbor who triggers the play's denoument and who doubles as something of a Greek chorus.

This play is generally considered one of Albee's lesser works, surely not in a class with his Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, but it is really much better than its reputation. And this staged reading did it justice. I do not know whether The Peccadillo Theater Company plans to launch a full-blown production of this play following this reading but I certainly hope they do, since it would be a shame to have expended all that talent on a one night stand. If they do, try not to miss it. You won't be disappointed.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Off Off Broadway: Order

Imagine The Silence of the Lambs as it might have been written by Jean Genet and adapted for the stage by Martin McDonagh and you will get some idea of the flavor of Order by Christopher Stetson Boal, the Oberon Theatre Ensemble production now playing at the Kirk Theatre in Theatre Row on West 42nd Street in New York.

This ambitious multi-layered psychological and philosophical work deals with the nature of good and evil, dominance and submission, psychopathy, power, relativism, sex, homosexuality, murder, cannibalism, and demonic possession - and does a first-rate job of it. The play revolves around Tom Blander (Ryan Tramont), a former philosophy professor obsessed with the desire to make a small positive difference in the world but who devolves into a power-hungry, murderous, cannibalistic monster and Bathug (Gabe Bettio), his evil unconscious alter ego or the demon who possesses him (and who, perhaps, someday may possess us all). Both Mr. Tramont and Mr. Bettio play their roles extremely well as do all of the other members of this excellent ensemble: Amanda Plant as Maisy, Tom's wife; Brad Fryman as Dr. Fine, Tom's psychiatrist; Mac Brydon as Adam Jacobi, Tom's boss; James Edward Becton as Joe Davis, Tom's friend; James S. Washington as the homeless man; and William Laney as Detective Arlow.

One caveat: while I thoroughly enjoyed this show, it might not appeal to the more squeamish. I am sure that many would find both the nature of the subject matter and the manner in which much of it is portrayed quite offensive and disturbing. Forewarned is forearmed.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Lincoln Center: The Grand Manner

The Grand Manner, A.R. (Pete) Gurney's partially autobiographical but mostly fanciful reminiscence of his meeting in 1948 with Katherine Cornell (Kate Burton) and her husband, Guthrie McClintic (Boyd Gaines) is now previewing at Lincoln Center's Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater (opening night will be June 27). This is a small show with but four characters (Ms. Cornell, Mr. McClintic, Pete (Bobby Steggert) and Ms. Cornell's companion/assistant/secretary and presumed lover, Gertrude Macy (Brenda Wehle). It runs just 90 minutes with no intermission.

Those four characters are more than sufficient to tell this slight tale and 90 minutes more than enough time in which to do it. In the preview performance I attended, all four did a fine job in their respective roles but their performances, frankly, were not enough to sustain my interest. That was not their fault but was a reflection of the shortcomings of the play itself. There is no conflict, no real dramatic impact to this play and nothing to engage the viewer on any visceral level. Rather the play is a self-referent and slightly pretentious snapshot of Ms. Cornell, the greatest actress of her time, behaving in "the grand manner" employed in the theatre of that era, both on stage and off.

The production includes the timeworn structure of a play (Antony and Cleopatra) within a play but when you peel away its several layers, there is no real core there. It also includes today's seemingly obligatory references to lesbianism (Ms. Cornell's) and homosexuality (Mr. McClintic's) and while a case might be made that Mr. McClintic's sexual orientation had something to do with the play's plot, the allusion to Ms. Cornell's orientation seemed gratuitous and merely intended to titillate.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Off Broadway: Dietrich & Chevalier The Musical

St. Luke's Theatre on Restaurant Row is one of the dingier theatrical spaces in NY and the pedestrian set designed there for Dietrich & Chevalier The Musical does little to enhance the surroundings. The first act of this small three person show is rather bland as well, all of which may have contributed to the fact that a number of those at the preview matinee performance I attended chose to leave at intermission and not return.

They made a mistake. The show perked up considerably in its second act and ended up providing an enjoyable afternoon's entertainment after all.

The story line is relatively slight. Marlene Dietrich (Jodi Stevens) and Maurice Chevalier (Robert Cuccioli), two of Hollywood's top stars, meet in 1932 and indulge in an illicit and inconsequential love affair. The affair ends but they remain lifelong friends. So much for Act I.

In Act II, the scene shifts from Hollywood to Europe and Ms. Dietrich's and Mr. Chevalier's lives take strikingly different turns. While Ms. Dietrich travels an honorable and heroic road, renouncing her German citizenship, becoming an American citizen, speaking out against anti-semitism and entertaining American soldiers during World War II, Mr. Chevalier allows
his voice to be used on Nazi radio broadcasts, performs in Paris before audiences including Nazi officers, and may visit Berlin as well. For his actions, he is charged after the war ends with collaboration with the enemy and is put on trial for his life. While he is ultimately exonerated for lack of proof, a stain remains on his reputation. As Act II draws to a close, he is attempting, with Ms. Dietrich's assistance, to rehabilitate his theatrical life and it looks as if he will succeed in doing so.

Not much of a tale and not much drama but who cares? The raison d'etre behind this production is not the plot but to provide a platform for the expression of 15 of Ms. Dietrich's and Mr. Chevalier's greatest musical numbers, including Falling in Love Again, Louise, Lili Marlene, Mimi, Valentine, Lola, The Boys in the Back Room and eight others. After a slow start, the show certainly succeeds in doing that.

In the first act, both actors do an acceptable job in playing their respective roles but neither makes the sparks fly. In the second act, however, Mr. Cuccioli's impersonation of Mr. Chevalier is excellent, reaching its peak with his rendition of Valentine, which is close to a show stopper. And Ms. Stevens is even better yet. For if Mr. Cuccioli does a grand job of impersonating Mr. Chevalier, Ms Stevens doesn't just impersonate Ms. Dietrich, she virtually channels her.

The third member of the cast, Donald Corren, plays the other Eight Fascinating Characters in the play and does so quite well, providing context, contrast, conflict and comic relief as called for. If you're of a certain age (and at the performance I attended almost all of those in the audience were), you're likely to enjoy this show. And even if you're not, you'll probably enjoy it too. Just remember to be sure to hang around for the second act.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Off Off Broadway: Another Part of the Forest

The Peccadillo Theater Company, whose expressed mission is "the rediscovery of classic American theater," has mounted an ambitious production of Another Part of the Forest, Lillian Hellman's infrequently revived prequel to her much better known The Little Foxes. Most off off Broadway theater groups have modest aspirations - but not Peccadillo, and for that they certainly are to be admired. With a highly professional and relatively large cast of thirteen and a well-designed and somewhat elaborate set, this two-and-a-half hour long production represents an ambitious undertaking for an off off Broadway company. The company deserves accolades for those efforts but, unfortunately, those efforts have not been well rewarded. Not that there is anything really wrong with this production but there is nothing especially memorable about it either. The entire cast performs competently but none of the individual performances truly soar.

The play revolves around the dysfunctional (and rather detestable) Hubbard family, living in Alabama in 1880. The patriarch of the family, Marcus Hubbard (Sherman Howard), a wealthy self-made war profiteer whose amorality borders on sociopathy, exploits his sons and mentally abuses his wife. His religiously obsessed wife, Lavinia (Elizabeth Norment) is far more concerned with the school she dreams of building some day for "poor colored children" than she is for the welfare of her own family. Their Machiavellian elder son, Benjamin (Matthew Floyd Miller) is as cruel and unfeeling toward his father as his father is to the rest of the world. Their whore-besotted younger son, Oscar (Ben Curtis) is a racist fool. And their daughter, Regina (Stephanie Wright Thompson), a sexual manipulator, may or may not have entered into an incestuous relationship with her father, with or without her mother's knowledge.

In short, an unlikeable bunch across the board and that, perhaps, is part of the play's problem: there are no good guys to root for. If Marcus or Lavinia or Ben or Oscar or Regina end up suffering at the hands of one of their relatives (or at the hands of some similarly unlikeable character in the play outside of their own immediate family), you might consider it their just due and take satisfaction in that. But if any such suffering results in unwarranted benefits accruing to some equally detestable character, there is little overall pleasure to be gained by the playgoer from the entire episode.

This may be an interesting play for you to see as an historical exercise if you are interested in the contextualization of Lillian Hellman's much more important play, The Little Foxes. But as a theatrical experience in and of itself, I would not recommend it.