Thursday, June 13, 2019

HANDBAGGED by Moira Buffini Premieres at 59E59 Theatres as Part of Brits Off Broadway

L-R: Beth Hylton, Anita Carey, Kate Fahy, and Susan Lynskey in HANDBAGGED.  Photo by Carol Rosegg.

Although they were born just six months apart, Queen Elizabeth II and Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher entered the world under strikingly different circumstances: Elizabeth was born into one of the world’s oldest and most illustrious monarchies and her future role as her country’s Queen was virtually assured; Margaret was born the daughter of a grocer, rising through her own merits to become her country’s first female Prime Minister.  In the 1980s, the two “grande dames” met regularly behind closed palace doors and it would be enlightening to know just what they said to one another in those private moments.

Unfortunately, neither Moira Buffini nor anyone else (other than the two women themselves) could let us in on those secrets but Ms Buffini has done the next best thing.  She has written Handbagged, a totally fictionalized re-imagining of what might have been said behind those closed doors and, even if this two-act, Brechtian comedy is a theatrical version of “fake news,” it still has the ring of truth about it and is great fun.

Handbagged was a hit in London’s West End and now is enjoying its New York premiere at 59E59 Theaters on East 59th Street in midtown Manhattan as part of this year’s Brits Off Broadway program.  And  what could be more appropriate for a Brits Off Broadway program than a play about Queen Elizabeth and Margaret Thatcher?

The play is really about Margaret Thatcher and her conservative philosophy, not the Queen, with the Queen’s presence primarily serving as a contrast to the Iron Lady’s ideological extremism.  One might have assumed that the Queen would be the more conservative, perhaps even reactionary, of the two - she does, after all, embody the establishment – but then one would be wrong.  In fact, Queen Elizabeth was the more moderate, maybe even the more progressive of the two.  It may be counter-intuitive but that was the case.  Or at least it was in Ms Buffini’s opinion (and in my own).  We never really can know for sure since the Queen is constitutionally prohibited from overtly expressing anything other than support for whatever government is in power in Great Britain at any given time.

Both Queen Elizabeth and Margaret Thatcher are larger than life figures and it was perhaps that realization that led Ms Buffini to conclude that neither character could be captured on stage in her entirety by a single actor.  That is just idle speculation on my part but the fact is that the playwright did see fit to cast two separate actors in the role of the Queen (one older and one younger) and two different actors in the role of Margaret Thatcher (again, one older and one younger).  Or it may be that the playwright wanted to show how both characters had changed over the years (although, honestly, I didn’t see much evidence of such evolution in either one).  Or maybe the playwright wanted to show how faulty are our memories of our own younger selves (though I didn’t discern much of that either).

Be that as it may, the playwright has written the play with two Queens and two Prime Ministers, not just one of each.  In this production, Anita Carey plays the elderly Queen Elizabeth and Beth Hilton plays the younger Liz.  Similarly, Kate Fahy plays the older Margaret Thatcher and Susan Lynskey plays the younger Mags.  And fortunately all four actors are really spot on in their performances.

But while the playwright felt that the two leading roles required a doubling of the number of actors performing them, she had no such misgivings regarding the production’s other roles – and there are seventeen of them!  To perform those seventeen parts, she determined that just two actors would suffice.  Actor 1 (Cody Leroy Wilson) plays eight different roles including those of Kenneth Kaunda (the President of Zambia), Nancy Reagan (in drag), Michael Shea (the Queen’s Press Secretary), and Kenneth Clarke (the Conservative Party MP and Cabinet Member known as the “Big Beast”), among others.  And Actor 2 (John Lescault) goes him even one better, playing nine different roles including those of Denis Thatcher (Margaret’s husband), Gerry Adams (the leader of the Sinn Fein), Ronald Reagan, Rupert Murdoch, and Prince Philip, among others.

The two male actors are truly remarkable in the range of their performances and it is they who turn the play into the Brechtian carnival it eventually becomes.  And it is they who enable the play to shift seamlessly from a discussion of Margaret Thatcher’s role in the conduct of the Falklands War with Argentina to her granting the United States the right to use Britain as an airbase from which to launch a bombing attack on Libya to her reluctance to accept black majority rule in Zambia or to apply anti-apartheid sanctions to South Africa.

Ms Buffini has gone on record that she has “no sympathy for Margaret Thatcher or anything she stands for.”  Indeed, she has admitted to being “glad when she was dead” and has referred to her as a “monstrous woman” and a “villainess.”  But despite her personal antipathy toward the Iron Lady, Ms Buffini has been exceptionally fair and even-handed in her writing, eschewing the opportunity to satirize her or to take any cheap shots.  It is a credit to her, not only as a playwright but as a human being, and it has resulted in her having created a thoroughly entertaining and thought-provoking work that should appeal both to conservatives and progressives (as well as to royalists and anti-royalists alike).

Friday, June 7, 2019

PUBLIC SERVANT by Bekah Brunstetter Premieres at Clurman Theatre on Theatre Row

L-R: Christine Bruno and Chris Henry Coffey in PERFECT SERVANT.  Photo by Carol Rosegg.
NBC’s award-winning hit series, This Is Us, is a remarkable piece of work.  It deals sensitively with issues ranging from physical disability and infertility (Kate, one of the drama’s principal characters, is clinically overweight and successfully confronted her own infertility problem) to the pressures of balancing the strains of work against those of family (Randall, Kate’s adoptive brother, elected to the City Council following a successful career in the financial world, confronts the problem of satisfying the needs of his constituents with that of maintaining loving relationships with his wife and three daughters.)

Bekah Brunstetter, a co-producer and writer on the show, has drawn on the just those themes in writing Public Servant, a terrific three-hander currently premiering at the Clurman Theatre on Theatre Row on West 42nd Street in midtown Manhattan.  This is readily understandable since Ms Brunstetter has struggled with infertility issues herself and since her own father served as a County Commissioner for many years.  Ms Brunstetter readily acknowledges that Public Servant was inspired by her recollections of her father’s political career and the problems he faced in raising a family, working in the private sector, and seeking to please all of his constituents at the same time which was, of course, a near impossible task.

Public Servant is being produced by Theater Breaking Through Barriers (TBTB), under the Artistic Direction of Nicholas Viselli.  TBTB is an acclaimed Off-Broadway company that integrates able-bodied actors with artists with disabilities. Originally founded 40 years ago as Theater by the Blind, the company's mission is “to change the image of people with disabilities from one of dependence to independence, to fight stereotypes and misperceptions associated with disability, and to show how vibrant, fluid and exuberant the work of artists with disabilities can be”.

(It may be worth noting at this point that Christine Bruno, one of the three actors in Public Servant is, herself, a staunch advocate for the disabled, serving as chair of the SAG-AFTRA NY Local Board Performers with Disabilities Committee (PWD) and is a member of the SAG-AFTRA National PWD and Actors Equity EEOC Committees.)

The central character in Public Servant is Ed Sink (Chris Henry Coffey), a church-going small town politician in North Carolina who has the very best of intentions but who may have bitten off more than he can chew.  (Rather like Randall in that respect in This Is Us.)

Miriam Hart (Christine Bruno), one of Ed’s constituents and suffering from cerebral palsy, has arrived unannounced at Ed’s office in the hopes of soliciting his assistance in selling her recently-deceased mother’s house.  The problem is that plans are underway to build a new beltway in the town which could render her mother’s house worthless and she is seeking compensation for that loss.  All of which could interfere with Ed’s own pet project to build a pool in the town.  It really does seem that you never can do just one nice thing for someone – certainly not without pissing off someone else.

Moreover, Miriam is also desperately seeking to become pregnant, so far to no avail.  (Rather like Kate, I’d say, in This Is Us.)

Which brings us to the third character in Public Servant, Ed’s daughter, Hannah (Anna Lentz).   Insecure, promiscuous, insensitive and shallow, but with all the insufferable liberal certainty that only a nineteen-year-old can muster, she has come home to visit her father.  But she certainly doesn’t feel that she can tell him that she’s pregnant.

In her note on how to stage Public Servant, the playwright has suggested that the play be thought of “as a triangle that’s being constantly turned. When one character is the focus, the other two rest at the corners, and often participate in the focus character’s world.”  And the director, Geordie Broadwater, has succeeded in doing just that. 

Thus Miriam’s disability, her infertility, her problem selling her mother’s house – all are central to her but somewhat peripheral to Ed and Hannah.  And yet it is Ed who does participate in her world, at least to the extent of assisting her in selling her mother’s house.  Similarly, Hannah’s pregnancy is central to her even if it is peripheral to Ed and Miriam.  And yet Miriam ends up playing an outsize role in assisting Hannah in her time of need and Ed, as it turns out, is there for her as well.

I’m reminded of the old maxim “Don’t judge a man until you’ve walked a mile in his shoes” and I think the play truly succeeds at conveying that message, particularly in regard to today’s pro-life/pro-choice conundrum.  And it does so with great sensitivity.

L-R: Chris Henry Coffey and Anna Lentz in PUBLIC SERVANT.  Photo by Carol Rosegg.
All three actors deliver superb performances.  Chris Henry Coffey perfectly embodies the small town businessman, politician, and father who really wants to do the right thing and sometimes finds himself overwhelmed by life itself but somehow manages to succeed in the end.  Christine Bruno is incredible, exhibiting a fortitude in the face of adversity that we’d all be well-advised to emulate and an empathy for others even when their circumstances are antithetical to her own.  And Anna Lentz, in her Off-Broadway debut has brilliantly captured the inconsistencies, contradictions, and vagaries of youth.  I expect that we’ll be seeing a lot more of her.

The set design by Edward T. Morris is creative but I don’t think it really works.  The stage is basically set as an outdoor scene in which two white picket fences are set at an angle to one another and intended, I think, to fulfill the playwright’s suggestion that the play be thought of “as a triangle that’s being constantly turned.”  And to be sure, it does do that.

But the set also obscures the distinction between inside and outside.  Sections of the fence swing open and closed to reveal and conceal interior scenes – an office, a clinic, a home – and perhaps the intent there is to suggest that things are often not what they seem when one goes behind the scenes.  If so, I get the point but I found the process unnecessarily disconcerting.