Sunday, March 18, 2018

Ben Caplan Stars in OLD STOCK: A REFUGEE LOVE STORY

Ben Caplan in OLD STOCK: A REFUGEE LOVE STORY.  Photo by Stoo Metz Photography.
When Fiddler on the Roof, adapted from the stories of Sholem Aleichem, was first staged on Broadway in 1964, there were those who carped that it was unduly sanitized and superficial.  They were distressed that a Russian officer was portrayed in the musical as sympathetic, rather than cruel, as Sholem Aleichem had described him.  And they were even more upset that whereas in Aleichem’s stories, Tevya the Milkman ends up alone, his wife dead, and his daughters scattered, in the musical adaptation the entire family is still alive at the end of the show and most are on their way together to a new life in America.

Fortunately, those critics did not prevail and Fiddler, sanitized as it was, went on to become one of the great blockbuster musicals of all time: it won nine Tony Awards, was enormously profitable and highly acclaimed, was the first musical to run for more than 3,000 performances, and is still the sixteenth longest running show in Broadway history.  The creators and producers of Old Stock: A Refugee Love Story, written by Hannah Moscovitch and now premiering at 59E59 Theaters on East 59th Street in midtown Manhattan, would have been well-advised to bear the lessons of Fiddler in mind but unfortunately they did not.  And so, instead of a joyously entertaining yiddishkeit musical, we are being treated instead to a depressing rendition of the Jewish immigrant experience with excessive emphasis on the horrors of Romanian pogroms (even if it is set to klezmer music) – a truth that even Ben Caplan himself, the star of the show, cannot deny: in an aside to the audience he exclaims –

You guys all right out there?
It’s getting dark.
It’s getting a little dark
The laughs are turning into “why the fuck did I come and see this depressing show”

Well said, Ben.  I couldn’t agree more.

Fiddler set a very high bar for success for yiddishkeit musicals and Zero Mostel and Topol, both of whom starred in it at different times as Tevya, will long be remembered in the annals of theatrical history for their outstanding performances.  Ben Caplan is also an immensely talented performer - charming, personable and energetic to a fault – and I think he would prove a worthy successor to Mostel and Topol were he to be given the chance of reprising the role of Tevya in Fiddler.  Unfortunately, however, he is not currently being provided with that opportunity, starring instead in Old Stock – which is a far cry from Fiddler.  In this depressingly tasteless musical, Mr. Caplan’s enormous talents are largely squandered.  (Not that Mr. Caplan doesn’t have himself much to blame for that circumstance: in addition to starring in this production as The Wanderer, he also was responsible, together with Christian Barry, the play’s director, for writing most of the musical’s songs.)

Old Stock is the story of Chaya Yankovitch (Mary Fay Coady) and Chaim Moscovitch (Chris Weatherstone), two young Jewish Romanian emigrants to Canada in the early years of the Twentieth Century.  Chaya is 24 years old and has come to Canada with her extended family of 17.  Her husband, Yoachy, her one true love, died of typhus in Russia on the road they were traveling on their way from Romania to Canada and she lost the unborn child she was carrying on the same road.  Although her brothers may remain in the New World, ultimately she intends to return to Romania because she can’t bear the thought of an ocean separating her both from Yoachy’s and her father’s graves.

Chaim is 19 years old and has arrived in Canada alone, his entire family having been killed in Romania in a brutal pogrom.  He has no desire to ever return to Romania since, unlike Chaya, he got out of Romania “too late” - only after his family was destroyed - and Romania holds no attraction for him.

When Chaim first meets Chaya in 1908, it is love at first sight for him and he is eager for her to marry him.  Chaya eventually agrees, accepting guidance from her father to do so, but for her it is much more a marriage of convenience.  Over time, however, Chaim and Chaya do have four children – and eight grandchildren and sixteen great-grandchildren.  And fourteen great-great-great grandchildren with, hopefully, many more yet to come.

My disappointment with Old Stock, however, is not only that it is unduly depressing and gratuitously gory in its descriptions of Romanian pogroms, but also that it is tasteless, puerile, and misogynistic while paying lip service to political correctness.

For example, in a sophomoric song rife with platitudes, we are told that we should -  

ask for consent before you put your dick in –

Similarly, in another song that might have been composed by the Administration and Faculty of Antioch College, we are told again and again that –

Her pleasure is your obligation, if she gives the invitation
Has the right of course to say she’s not quite in the mood to play
Consent is still always de rigueur, you’ve gotta check with her.

But the truth, as attested to by the lyrics of the musical’s other numbers, is that sexual relations are perceived in the basest, most misogynistic, most puerile, and most anti-feminist manner.  To wit, sexual relations are described as, among other things -

Banana in the fruit salad…
Beard-splitting…
Batter-dipping the corn dog
Bringing an al dente noodle to the spaghetti house
Cattle-prodding the oyster ditch with the lap rocket
Cleaning the cobwebs with the womb broom…
Going crab fishing in the Dead Sea
Parking the Beef Bus in Tuna Town… [and]
Roughing up the suspect

And so, when we’re also gratuitously informed that there –

ain’t nothing wrong with homosexuality –

(even though the play has nothing to do with homosexuality) and when, at play’s end, in a final PC homage to the trans-gender community (which the play also has nothing to do with), Ben thanks us all for our attendance by addressing us as –

…Ladies and Gentlemen and those who identify outside the binary…

my only reaction is “Please, please, spare me the sanctimony.”

Thursday, March 15, 2018

EDUCATION by Brian Dykstra at 59E59 Theaters

L-R: Elizabeth Meadows Rouse and Jane West in EDUCATION.  Photo by Carol Rosegg.

Bryan Dykstra has covered all his liberal-progressive bases (or should that be biases) in Education, his two-act play currently premiering at 59E59 Theaters on East 59th Street in midtown Manhattan.  The play’s principal male protagonist, Mick (Wesley T. Jones) is an exceptionally intelligent high school senior with artistic pretensions and youthful rebellious enthusiasms; unsurprisingly, he is is cast as bi-racial, was orphaned as a young child, and was raised by his white uncle, Gordon (Matthew Boston), a highly articulate atheistic law professor.  The play’s principal female protagonist is Mick’s girlfriend, Bekka (Jane West), a high school junior who is white, similarly rebellious, and a singularly outspoken poet whose work is laced with expletives.   Bekka’s mother, Sandy (Elizabeth Meadows Rouse) is a God-fearing woman, much taken to citing the scriptures in support of her narrow-minded right wing religious beliefs while Bekka’s father (who we never actually meet) is a fundamentalist Christian deacon so mired in his primitive theology that it comes as little surprise when it turns out that he beats his daughter.  Rounding out the cast is Mr. Kirks (Bruce Faulk), the (similarly gratuitously bi-racial) principal of the school that Mick and Bekka attend who rues the fact that he has sold out his youthful liberal principles so that he might abide by the rules (arbitrary or not) and maintain some semblance of order at his school.

And there you have it:  Mr. Dykstra has written a play with a number of easily demolished straw men - flag-waving patriots, rule-bound types, and Christian believers – all of whom are presented as two-dimensional caricatures (the “dragons”), while those who are free speech advocates, atheists, academicians, quasi-activists, and young rebels passionately devoted to the expression of their “art,” are, of course, the “dragon slayers.”

Mick’s first art project is a trivial flag burning construct, for which he is summarily suspended from school.  His next project, the creation and burning of an effigy of Jesus made of dollar bills (so that he might attack both religion and capitalism in one fell swoop and for which he engages Bekka’s support), has even direr consequences.  When Bekka’s father beats her, he reveals his true sadistic nature.  When Sandy seeks to convince Gordon to keep Mick away from Bekka, she reveals her underlying racism.  When Gordon rejects Sandy’s entreaties, he exhibits the transcendent superiority of political correctness, academia, and atheism.  And when Mick and Bekka refuse to capitulate to the pressures brought to bear upon them, they establish that they, today’s youth, are, indeed, the true “dragon slayers.”

It is all too neat and predictable by half and this would have been a much better play if Mr. Dykstra had provided Mick and Bekka with more formidable antagonists in the personae of Bekka’s parents and Mr.Kirks.  But be that as it may and surprising as it may seem, Education still turns out to be quite an enjoyable play.  And there are two reasons for that.
 
First, while Mr. Dykstra may have fallen short on plot and character development, there is no denying that he has a wonderful ear for language.  Bekka’s conversation with Mr. Kirks concerning her Fuck Poem and her subsequent recitation of the poem itself are absolutely terrific as is the dialogue between Sandy and Gordon on the topic of separating Mick and Bekka.

Even more important, however, this play’s production has been blessed with a remarkable cast.  All five of the play’s actors are truly first rate but I was especially taken with Jane West as the fetchingly exuberant Bekka; with Elizabeth Meadows Rouse who perfectly expresses the small-mindedness of those on the extreme religious right; and with Matthew Boston who exquisitely succeeds in personifying the intellectual arrogance and self-satisfaction of all too many of today’s lawyers and academicians.

Monday, March 12, 2018

Outstanding Revival of TIME STANDS STILL by Donald Margulies at Theatre for the New City

Timothy Weinert as James Dodd
Maggie Alexander as Sarah Goodwin 















Time Stands Still by Donald Margulies premiered at the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles in 2009 and moved to Broadway in 2010 where, despite garnering rave reviews and a Tony Award nomination, it ran for only two months, re-opening on Broadway in late 2010 for another run of less than four months.  It is currently being revived in an excellent off off-Broadway production by Ego Actus and Lung Tree Productions at Theatre for the New City at 155 First Avenue in lower Manhattan that is well worth seeing.

Sarah Goodwin (Maggie Alexander) and James Dodd (Timothy Weinert) have been together for more than eight years, childless and unmarried (which is just the way they want it even if, by the standards of Sarah’s father, they are “living in sin”).  Their relationship works for them because it gives them both the freedom they require to pursue the vocations they love all around the world (she is an acclaimed photo-journalist dedicated to recording war’s atrocities and man’s inhumanity to man on film; he is a free-lance writer and journalist similarly engaged but in words rather than in pictures).

Recently they were both on assignments in war zones in the Middle East and the consequences for both of them were horrendous.  James had a mental breakdown – akin to shell shock – when confronted by atrocities that exceeded the limits of what his mind was prepared to absorb and he returned to their home in Brooklyn to recover.  Sarah did not accompany him then, remaining on assignment in the Middle East.  But what goes around comes around and so when Sarah subsequently was the victim of a devastating roadside bomb explosion which left her in a coma for two weeks, James was not there for her either.

As the play opens, Sarah is returning to their Brooklyn home where James, overwhelmed by guilt that he was not with her and upset by the fact that their legally unmarried status prevented him from assuming greater responsibility for her recovery, has become overly protective of her.  Sarah is eager for their lives to go back to just the way they were before her accident and for her to return to war zone assignments.  But James would prefer to change their lives completely: he would like them to marry, settle down, raise a family, and forego the adrenaline-rush dangerous lives they previously led.


Malcolm Stephenson as Richard Erhlich
Connie Castanzo as Mandy Bloom















Meanwhile Richard Ehrlich (Malcolm Stephenson), their very close friend and Sarah’s photo editor, is in the throes of an even more dramatic upheaval in his own life: his new girlfriend, Mandy Bloom (Connie Castanzo) is almost young enough to be his daughter and is as different from Sarah (with whom Richard had once enjoyed a more intimate relationship) as a woman could possibly be.  While Sarah is a serious-minded, mature, rational and goal-oriented professional photo-journalist, Mandy is a childlike, relatively immature party planner, more into ice cream and balloons than geo-politics.  But Richard is quite taken with her, perhaps because he is in the midst of his own mid-life crisis.  Or maybe because he simply has tired of the high pressure life he led which he has come to see as less meaningful and emptier than he once imagined.  Or he may just have fallen in love for the first time.

Time Stands Still is an insightful and incisive exploration of the changes that occur in people’s lives, of the compromises that must be made when loving partners find themselves in fundamental disagreement over which paths to take together in the future.  Or the consequences that must be accepted when the paths they choose are so mutually exclusive that no compromise is possible.

And it is even more than that.  It is also a thought-provoking commentary on the ethical considerations which might enter into one’s choosing to photograph an an injured or dying child or a keening mother searching through the rubble for the remains of a loved offspring rather than coming to the assistance of the child or the mother in the moment of tragedy.

The four actors are all outstanding, each in his or her own way.  Maggie Alexander exhibits the powerful single-mindedness required of her role as Sarah, the acclaimed photo-journalist who will allow nothing to stand in the way of her art.  Timothy Weinert’s performance as James is more nuanced as he expresses the changes in goals and values that he has experienced as home and family begin to appear even more meaningful than publishing a major expose of the refugee crisis.  Malcolm Stephenson as Richard adroitly balances the multitude of pressures and influences on his life: his dedication to his profession, his loyalty to his friends, and his love for Mandy.  And Connie Castanzo is simply delightful as Mandy as we come to realize that her apparent shallowness and lack of interest in serious matters may simply have obscured her much deeper recognition of home and family really being the most important things in life after all.

Sunday, March 4, 2018

Musicals Tonight! Stages Exuberant Revival of Cole Porter's ANYTHING GOES at Lion Theatre

L-R: David Visini (Ensemble); Jessica Moore (Erma); Beth Stafford Laird (Hope); Blake Spellacy (Purser); partially hidden - Cameron Lucas (Ensemble) and Cameron Benda (Ensemble); Nic Thompson (Captain); partially hidden - Kirsten Welsh (Ensemble); Brian Ogilvie (Evelyn Oakley); Jan Leigh Herndon (Evangeline); Daniel Scott Walton (Ensemble); and Spencer S. Lawson (Ensemble).

Musicals Tonight! was founded by Mel Miller in 1999 with the stated purpose of reviving early musicals that otherwise might have been lost to posterity.  Since then it has staged 99 shows – including Meet Me in St. Louis; Me and My Girl; Irma La Douce; Silk Stockings; Lady, be Good!; Paint Your Wagon; Milk and Honey; L’il Abner; Babes in Arms; Little Mary Sunshine; Carnival; Funny Face; Wonderful Town; and The Boys from Syracuse.  Its latest production, Anything Goes, is currently being staged at the Lion Theatre on Theatre Row on West 42nd Street in midtown Manhattan and it is absolutely terrific.

Anything Goes was originally produced in 1934, running for more than a year, and it has been revived on Broadway three times since then.  The original book was by the legendary team of Guy Bolton and P.G. Wodehouse and was updated by the equally renowned Howard Lindsay and Russell Crouse.  And what they all came up with was a typical rollicking 1930s musical with a preposterous plot and unbelievable characters which, on its own, might never have stood the test of time.

But that doesn’t allow for the fact that it was Cole Porter who composed the score and lyrics and it is that that has made all the difference.  What would otherwise have amounted to little more than another predictable theatrical entertainment became instead a wonderful musical delight featuring some of Porter’s most memorable works including “I Get a Kick Out of You,” “You’d Be So Easy to Love,” “You’re the Top,” “It’s De-Lovely,” “Let’s Misbehave,” “Friendship,” “Blow Gabriel Blow,” “The Gypsy in Me,” and, of course, “Anything Goes.”

The musical is set on board the transatlantic liner S.S American where Reno Sweeney (Meredith Inglesby), an evangelist turned nightclub singer, is en route to London.  Also on board are the English Lord Evelyn Oakleigh (Brian Ogilvie); his fiancĂ©e, Hope Harcourt (Beth Stafford Laird); and Hope’s mother, Evangeline Harcourt (Jan Leigh Herndon).  Reno’s pal, Billy Crocker (Nick Walker Jones) has also stowed away, in hopes of breaking up the relationship between Hope (the love of his life) and Evelyn, and spends much of his time on board stalking Hope or attempting to avoid his boss, Elisha Whitney (Mark Coffin) and the ship’s Captain (Nic Thompson). Rounding out the cast of principal characters on board are the gangster, Moonface Martin (Carlos Lopez), disguised as a minister, and his moll, Erma (Jessica Moore).  Plus the ship’s purser (Blake Spellacy); a couple of Chinese sinners, Luke (Jordan de Leon) and John (Albert Hsueh), thrown in for comic relief; and innumerable other sailors and showgirls.  It all makes for great silliness and lots of fun, and serves as a superb backdrop for Cole Porter’s songs.

Not to forget the fantastic choreography!  Indeed, if any one individual may be said to have stolen the show, it is Casey Colgan, the musical’s remarkable director and choreographer.  Colgan has performed a miracle on a small stage with a very talented cast and his dance numbers are as good, or better, than anything you’re likely to be seeing on Broadway or anywhere else.