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).