Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Off Off Broadway: Hapgood

This is a remarkable tour de force - on one level, an intricate tale of foreign espionage, much in the manner of a John LeCarre spy novel. And on another, a wonderfully intellectual explication of the seemingly inexplicable nature of particle physics. And I enjoyed it immensely on both levels.

Richard Feynman, the Nobel Prize winning physicist, once remarked that “Nobody understands quantum physics” and in that he was surely correct. The inherently counterintuitive and paradoxical nature of the subject is such that it cannot possibly be explained fully in words. How, after all, can light be both particle and wave, changing its very nature depending simply upon who looks at it and how? How can something be in two places at the same time? How can a particle travel from one place to another without traveling between the two? How can Schrodinger’s Cat be both alive and dead? The conundrums proliferate. And there really are no certain common-sensical answers.

And yet, while it is may be impossible to fully explain particle physics in words, in Hapgood, Stoppard surely has come closer than most in clarifying the subject – and he has done so with such linguistic and dramatic flair that even the most dyed-in-the-wool technophobe is likely to find the experience extremely enjoyable.

Stoppard originally wrote Hapgood in 1988 as the Cold War was winding down and then revised it in 1994 for its debut at Lincoln Center. It is now being revived in an excellent off off Broadway production by the Phoenix Theatre Ensemble at the Wild Project. This latest production does Stoppard proud.

The play’s conceit is in its use of the mechanisms of international espionage as metaphors for the imponderables of particle physics. If we cannot understand how a sub-atomic particle can be in two places at the same time (and we really can’t), can we understand how a secret agent can be in two places at the same time? Might the agent we thought to be one person actually be twins or, conversely, might those we thought to be twins actually be one and the same person? If we cannot comprehend how light can appear to be both particle and wave, ostensibly changing its very nature depending solely upon how we look upon it, might the same thing be said of a Russian spy? Could he be a Russian spy as perceived by his Russian handlers and a Western double agent when confronted by his Western handlers? Must he be one or the other or might he actually be both at the same time?

The entire cast does a first rate job. Elise Stone, co-founder and co-artistic director of the Phoenix Theatre Ensemble, is terrific in the title role of Hapgood, director of the Western spy agency, as is her husband (in real life),Craig Smith, the Ensemble’s other co-founder and co-artistic director in his role as Blair. The other cast members were all splendid in their respective roles as well but my personal favorite was David Joseph Regelman who brought a delightful lighthearted charm to his double agent (or triple agent or quadruple agent) role as Russian, adroitly capturing both the ostensible and metaphorical aspects of his part.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Off Broadway: The Language Archive

The Language Archive by Julia Cho, now playing at the Roundabout at Laura Pels Theatre, treads familiar ground in its explorations of language and the consequences of miscommunications between men and women – but it does so in such a delightful, original manner that it makes the whole endeavor more than worthwhile.

The basic story line is simple: George (Matt Letscher) is a professional linguist who runs an archive dedicated to the preservation of dying languages and who speaks a dozen languages (including the artificial universal language Esperanto) himself; yet he is somehow unable to communicate effectively with his own wife Mary (Heidi Schreck). Nor is she any more able to communicate effectively with him.

George is cool and abstract, grieving more over the death of a language than the death of an animal, a human being, or even a multitude of human beings. Mary, on the other hand, bursts into tears at the slightest provocation and is taken to attempting to communicate with George through aphorisms (with about as much depth as those found in Chinese fortune cookies) which she writes on scraps of paper, conceals about the house, and then denies having written. It comes as no surprise to the audience when Mary walks out of the marriage, although it does appear to come as a surprise to George.

There are several sub-plots as well. One centers on Emma (Betty Gilpin), George’s associate at the archive who has been in love with him for years, but who has been just as unable to communicate her feelings for him as he and Mary have been to communicate their feelings for one another. A second relates to a suicidal baker (John Horton) with whom Mary swaps roles, to their mutual advantage, shortly after she abandons her husband. And a third, the most phantasmagorical of them all, relates to Emma’s meeting with Ludovic Lazarus Zamenhof (John Horton), the true inventor of Esperanto who actually died in 1917.

But the most important of the play’s sub-plots – and this one not only does break new ground but, in doing so, provides the most entertainment of all - revolves around Alta (Jayne Houdyshell) and Resten (John Horton), an elderly couple from some unnamed Eastern European region who are the only remaining speakers of the Elloway language left on Earth. George is eager to transcribe their conversations before they die, lest their language die with them but, having transported them from their native land to his archive, he is suddenly confronted with another communications problem: it seems that Alta and Resten are angry with one another and, when they are angry, they refuse to communicate in Elloway (which they perceive as a language of love) but only speak English (which they consider an appropriate language with which to express hate and anger).

And why are they so angry with one another? For a host of trivial reasons, of course: Resten occupied the window seat on their flight from home rather than offering it to Alta. Resten hogged the arm rest between them. But for at least one other reason as well that might not be so trivial after all: Resten has refused to eat the food that Alta has so lovingly prepared for him.

(Apparently, in introducing this conflict over food, the playwright has focused on a traditional form of male-female interpersonal communication: women manifest their devotion by proffering food to their partners and men express theirs through their gracious acceptance of it. A bit one-sided, perhaps, but surely with a modicum of evolutionary truth to it. And, as if to underscore this point, when Mary assumes the role of bread baker after abandoning her husband, she does so with a vengeance, baking all night and distributing her breads all day. Once she has done that, she is capable of affectionately bestowing a loaf of bread on George when he ultimately discovers her whereabouts.)

But back to Alta and Resten. At one point, their mutual animosity rises to such a pitch that they impose irrevocable shunning spells on one another – vowing never to communicate with each other again. If the spells are not reversed (and, as it turns out, the last Elloway shaman capable of reversing such spells died years ago), they appear destined never to speak to one another again – which would completely thwart George’s aim at preserving their language for posterity.

So these are the intertwined linguistic questions requiring resolution. Will George find the words to win Mary back? Will Mary find the means to express her feelings to George in a way he will understand? Will Emma finally communicate her feelings to George? Will Alta and Resten resolve their differences and speak to one another again in their native Elloway?

I won’t disclose the answers to those questions because I don’t want to ruin the whole theatre-going experience for you. But I will say this: you are likely to discover that the actual resolution of those issues will be less important to you than the insights you’ll derive from interpreting the play’s themes. And it is even more likely that your interpretations of those ideas may be at considerable variance to my own or to those of whomever you might chance to see this play with. Which is all to the good, of course, since the most worthwhile plays, at least in my experience, are those which lend themselves to a variety of interpretations.

Consider, for example, whether our perception of reality is dependent upon the language we use to describe it or whether the language is selected to describe what is already there. Does a society or culture die when its language dies, or does the death of a culture presage the death of a language? On a slightly more mundane note, when Mary first told John she was leaving him, she entreated him to say something – clearly seeking an emotional, ideally tear-laden, response from him. But John, who we know to be a cool, abstract, dispassionate sort who cares more for languages than for people, did not weep nor even avow his unconditional love for Mary; the best he could muster why to tell her not to leave.

So does that mean that it was John’s fault that the marriage ended because he could have preserved it with a different choice of words and emotional expressions at the moment? But why should the choice of specific words be so important? When Alta and Resten are explaining expressions in Elloway to George later in the play, one of the points they make is that their idiomatic expression for “I love you” actually translates out literally as “Don’t leave me.” So if those words mean “I love you” in Elloway, why couldn’t Mary have understood them that way from John in English? And why should Mary get a pass on her idiosyncratic written messages, irrational behavior and the fact that it was, after all, she who left the marriage, not he. Finally, when John presents Mary with a mixed tape expressing “I love you” in every language he knows, why is that not enough? So is it really Mary’s fault after all?

The power of words apparently has its limitations, if substance is lacking.

The play intentionally has been staged and directed in something of a cartoony, two dimensional, or fairy tale manner which makes it difficult for even the most accomplished actors to portray their roles in considerable depth. Nonetheless, Matt Letscher, Heidi Schreck and Betty Gilpin all performed admirably and John Horton who, in addition to playing the part of Resten took on the additional roles of L.L. Zamenhof and the suicidal baker, performed all of his roles superbly.

But the highest praise must be reserved for Jayne Houdyshell who virtually stole the show in her roles as Alta and as Emma’s Esperanto teacher. Her performances alone are worth the price of admission.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Lincoln Center: A Free Man of Color

Part Restoration Comedy and part panoramic saga, A Free Man of Color by John Guare, now playing at Lincoln Center at the Vivian Beaumont Theater, doesn’t seem to know what it wants to be. Ultimately neither fish nor fowl, it proves to be a great disappointment.

Originally commissioned by The Public Theater in 2002 to write an epic play on race and class in New Orleans circa 1801, Guare submitted his initial draft to George C. Wolfe, then head of the Public, in 2004. That draft ran to 250 pages and, had the play been produced as then written, it would have run for five hours. Unfortunately, the Public’s attempt to convince Guare to cut it down to size was so at odds with Guare’s own vision of the play that the Public ultimately canceled its plans to produce it and the play was picked up by Lincoln Center where it has just opened with Wolfe still involved as director.

Under Wolfe’s prodding, the play has been cut back extensively so that it now runs just two and a half hours. But the price paid for that editing job has been enormous. The net result is that the play now comes across as two distinctly different plays, badly cobbled together.

The play’s first act is a hodgepodge of a Restoration Comedy (or perhaps a parody of a Restoration Comedy) with all the rhyming couplets, ribald humor, swooning insatiable frustrated wives, cuckolded husbands and adolescent references to Jacque Cornet’s (Jeffrey Wright’s) superior phallic endowment that we have come to expect of that genre. But the second act, in an apparent attempt at retaining Guare’s epic vision, spans the world, transitioning abruptly from New Orleans to Washington D.C. to Sante Domingue to France and back again, centering on the events leading up to the Louisiana Purchase and its subsequent social, racial and geopolitical consequences. Worse yet, the entire olio is liberally sprinkled with satirical buffoonish appearances by virtually anyone of note at the time who might have entered Guare’s mind: Thomas Jefferson, James Monroe, Napoleon Bonaparte, Josephine, Tallyrand, Georges Feydeau, Meriwether Lewis, Robert Livingston, Walter Reed, King Carlos Cuarto and more (indeed, the total cast comes to 33 with several actors playing more than one role).

Guare’s error (and by extension Wolfe’s and Lincoln Center’s, I think) was to refuse to make the difficult choice between settling for a thematically much smaller and more manageable play, on the one hand, or retaining the epic sweep of Guare’s initial vision and producing the play in all its original five hours grandeur - perhaps over a period of days as a trilogy in the fashion of Tom Stoppard’s epic and very successful The Coast of Utopia. Either of those approaches just might have worked but this attempt at doing it all in one appears to have been doomed to failure.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Off Off Broadway: Benefactors

First produced on Broadway a quarter century ago with a star-studded cast that included Sam Waterston, Glenn Close, Simon Jones and Mary Beth Hurt, Michael Frayn’s Benefactors opened in 1985 to rave reviews. Unfortunately, I never got to see that production – more’s the pity – but I have just done the next best thing: I saw Retro Production’s Off Off Broadway revival of the play at the Spoon Theatre and I found it absolutely mesmerizing. It is truly a gem.

The play revolves around the inter-relationships among David (Matthew Semlew), a well-meaning architect seeking to build new homes to replace the “twilight area” housing of Basuto Road; his wife Jane (Kristen Vaughan), an anthropologist; and their neighbors Colin (David Ian Lee), a journalist and his wife Sheila (Heather E. Cunningham), a one-time nurse. Set in 1968 in London, the play is infused with a sense of the political correctness of the time (which perhaps isn’t really all that different from today’s): the liberal establishment knows what is best for the lower socio-economic classes, notwithstanding what the lower classes might think is best for themselves (in Benefactors the issue is housing but think “Obamacare” today.)

The four characters appear to have two things in common, at least at the outset of the play. One is the need to seek gratification through the abstract contemplation or management of other people’s lives, rather than in living their own. Thus David evidences considerably more concern for the denizens of Basuto Road and for Colin and Sheila than he does for his own family. Jane views the world as an anthropological project, devoting herself to the market research aspects of David’s architectural scheme. Colin is a journalist, reporting on the lives of others while failing to come to grips with his own. And Sheila has so little regard for her own life, as opposed to that of others, that she chooses to relieve Jane of her household chores rather that fulfill her own familial obligations.

The second is their basic contrariness or need to define themselves only in opposition to others. As Jane describes it early on, if David favors something, she instinctively opposes it. But then if David favors something, Colin instinctively opposes it too, so Jane must then oppose Colin which aligns her with David after all. These automatic negative predispositions define the characters as well.

In the course of the play, all four characters change in different directions and it is that evolutionary development that provides the play with its intellectual and emotional depth. David, who truly does care about the plight of the denizens of Basuto Road, nonetheless comes to the conclusion, in regard to his architectural scheme, that “In the end, it’s not art, it’s mathematics.” His approach to life, while superficially remaining empathetic, becomes increasingly cold and analytical and, ultimately, the term “progressive collapse,” initially intended to describe an architectural problem of the sort that culminated in the tragedy at the World Trade Center, comes to describe his life.

Jane, the analytical outsider, becomes emotionally (not just abstractly) involved in the lives of those on Basuto Road and her allegiance may (or may not) shift from David to Colin. But is this truly an example of her psychological growth or just evidence of her continuing contrariness?

Colin, the ultimate outsider, clearly angry, probably jealous of David, and possibly mentally unhinged or just downright evil, stops reporting the news and begins to make it, first as a squatter attempting to block David’s project and then as an unsuccessful candidate for Parliament. But his motivations too are unclear: has he become truly concerned for the plight of the residents of Basuto Road or are his petty jealousies and animosity toward David continuing to drive him?

For her part, Sheila evolves from being a timid, subservient, needy, dependent housewife, barely able to cope with the limited responsibilities of picking her children up from school and preparing meals for her family, to becoming David’s secretary and confidante and, eventually, to freeing herself completely from Colin’s dominance and embarking on a course of therapy destined to make her whole again. But is that really what is happening to her or is she simply about to repeat her self-destructive attachment to another couple? That is what she did with one couple before meeting David and Jane; that is what she then did by falling in love with Jane (albeit not necessarily in a sexual sense) and then transferring her love to David; and it is possible that that is all she is doing now with her therapist and her therapist’s husband.

Both Semler and Lee play their roles well but the highest praise must be reserved for the two female actors. Vaughan is terrific, expressing a range of inner emotions within a tightly controlled exterior that one could only expect from a true professional. And Cunningham, who is also the company’s Producing Artistic Director, is simply phenomenal. She portrays Sheila with a depth and intensity that is absolutely breathtaking.

The Lighting Designer for most productions is often overlooked and I should like to make sure that such an oversight does not occur here. In that capacity, Justin Sturges has done an outstanding job with this production and has contributed considerably to its success.

Indeed, my only disappointment with the production was with the set design which I found to be pedestrian at best. This was surprising since the Set Designers, Jack and Rebecca Cunningham, are justifiably highly regarded in the field. To be generous, I’d assume that it was only the space limitations of the small Spoon Theater and/or the financial limitations of Retro Productions which thwarted their ambitions but, even so, I should have expected better of them.

That, however, is a very minor complaint. Overall, this is a marvelous production and I’d urge you to see it.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Broadway: Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown

For a while it appeared as if Lincoln Center’s production of Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, now playing at the at the Belasco Theatre, was itself on the verge of breakdown, what with preview performances having twice been postponed to allow for additional rehearsal time to iron out kinks in the show’s sets and musical numbers. But having seen one of the show’s last preview performances just a few days before official opening night, I think that I can fairly state that whatever problems may have existed appear to have been resolved and that the show now not only is not on the verge of breakdown but, rather, is on the verge of a successful Broadway run.

Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown is a musical based on the film of the same name by Pedro Almodovar which was first shown to wide acclaim at the New York Film Festival in 1988, being nominated for an Academy Award as Best Foreign Film of the Year. The musical sticks closely to the plot of the film, exploring the relationships among several women and their partners, once partners, or partners to be. It centers on Pepa (Sherie Rene Scott) who is the mistress of Ivan (Brian Stokes Mitchell) who is married to (albeit separated from) the mentally unbalanced Lucia (Patti LuPone) but who is in the process of abandoning Pepa for Paulina (de’ Adre Aziza) who, incidentally, is the attorney representing Lucia in her divorce action against Ivan. Got all that? Meanwhile, Pepa’s close friend Candela (Laura Benanti) has just discovered that her latest lover is a Shiite terrorist. And Ivan and Lucia’s son Carlos (Justin Guarini) and his uptight fiancée Marisa (Nikka Graff Lanzarone), in a bout of apartment hunting (largely to escape Luisa), just happen to arrive at Pepa’s home.

If you think that this has all the makings of a French farce, you’re absolutely right – and you still don’t even know the half of it. Throw in an unplanned pregnancy, an aborted suicide attempt by Candela, telephones ripped from the walls, the attempted murder of almost everyone by means of Valium-spiked gazpacho, Marisa’s loss of her virginity at the hands of a telephone repairman, a passionate interlude between Carlos and Candela, two inept cops, a motorcyclist and his angry girlfriend, a profoundly comic taxi driver (Danny Burstein), and Luisa’s thwarted attempt to kill Ivan and you’ll get an even better idea of what this zany production is all about.

Now add to the mix a terrific set incorporating a taxi and motorcycle, gymnasts’ rope swings and first rate pyrotechnics, as well as several top flight actors and singers and you have all the ingredients for a wonderful evening’s entertainment. In particular, Benanti comes close to stealing the show as Candela and Mitchell is absolutely superb as Ivan, but Scott, LuPone, and Burstein surely deserve praise for their performances as well.

That is not to say that this is a perfect production. LuPone is certainly capable of playing a bigger role than that afforded her in this show and one may only speculate on why she agreed to play the secondary role offered her here. Indeed, when she belts out the number “Invisible” in the second act, one can only regret that she wasn’t given more opportunities to display her extraordinary talent.

So far as the music goes, this is certainly no South Pacific nor West Side Story and, while some of the tunes are catchy, others are rather pedestrian. And as for the lyrics, they are reminiscent of the “little girl who had a little curl right in the middle of her forehead.” When they are good, as in Mitchell’s nearly show stopping number “Yesterday, Tomorrow and Today,” they are very, very good indeed, but when they are bad, they are truly horrid: what can say about lines such as "Madrid is my mama. Give me the nipple every day and I will taste it" and Mama Madrid might "push me out [but] I'll just crawl back up" other than that they simply make one cringe.

But these are small shortcomings in an otherwise highly pleasurable production. And who knows? If the cast and crew keeps working at improving this production, perhaps they’ll iron them out in time as well.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Tucson, Phoenix and the Grand Canyon

Whew! We’ve just returned from a whirlwind week-long trip to Arizona where we visited Sue’s cousins, Ed and Nancy (in Tucson) and her sister, Ellen (in Phoenix), with side trips (in no particular order) to the Grand Canyon, Montezuma Castle National Monument, the Sonora Desert, Gates Pass, the Cactus Forest in Saguaro National Park, Sabino Canyon, the Coronado National Forest, and the Phoenix Zoo (to mention just the high points). It was a terrific experience, even if absolutely exhausting!

Ed and Nancy's House in Tucson
For starters, Ed and Nancy are extraordinary hosts and Nancy is not only a wonderful cook but a great tour guide as well. Moreover, their territorial style house on the edge of the Sonora Desert (where we stayed for three days in Tucson) is a veritable museum, boasting outstanding collections of everything from Navaho sand paintings to apothecary jars, from lobster claws to ballet memorabilia, from sea shells to musical instruments, and from rugs and carpets to photos from their extensive travels (to the Galapagos Islands, New Zealand, and most places in between). As a launching pad for our trip, it couldn’t be beat.

But perhaps I’d better start at the beginning.

Since we weren’t able to book a direct flight from New York to Tucson, we did the next best thing: we flew out of La Guardia Airport to Dallas Fort Worth on the morning of Saturday, October 16, connecting in DFW for the second leg of our trip to Tucson. Both segments were uneventful (the best kind of flights to be on!) and both arrived ahead of schedule. An auspicious beginning.

Ed and Sue in Ed's 'Backyard'
Ed met us at the Tucson airport and drove us to his home - the sprawling 2500 square foot “museum” (I mean “house”) described above – and then escorted us in our explorations of his environs all the way down to the “wash” behind his house, while Nancy began preparations for dinner. Sue and I were astonished by the lush foliage surrounding their home; we never imagined cacti came in so many different varieties or in such abundance but if we weren’t totally disabused of that misconception immediately, we surely were by the end of our trip. By the time Ed, Sue and I returned to the house proper, Nancy’s marinated steak was ready for grilling (I guess that Ed has to get some credit for preparing dinner too since it was he who actually grilled the steak). The bottom line: the meal was superb, we were tired and we sacked out early.

Ed and Nancy in Their 'Backyard'
By the time we awoke the next morning (Sunday), Nancy already had prepared tuna fish salad sandwiches (with walnuts and cranberries) for a picnic lunch. By picnicking, she explained, we wouldn’t have to waste time stopping to eat at restaurants, it would be more economical, and it would be more fun. And it worked, enabling us to visit the Sonora Desert, Gates Pass, and the Cactus Forest in Saguaro National Park, stopping for our picnic lunch I forget just where.

Saguaro and Other Cacti
The Cactus Forest is awe-inspiring. As a Northeastern city kid, I always imagined that the deserts of the western United States were sort of like the Sahara with an odd cactus poking up here and there. Boy was I wrong! The saguaro cacti are massive and overwhelming, like a tribe of giant extra-terrestrials, rising as much as 75 feet in the air and living for a century and a half or longer. Encountering them for the first time is quite an experience.

That evening, Nancy went on a chef’s holiday: Instead of preparing dinner herself, she and Ed accompanied us to dinner at Mi Nidito, the renowned Mexican restaurant in Tucson which has played host to such celebrities as former President Bill Clinton, former Secretary of State Madeline Albright, Julio Iglesias, Bruce Babbit, Willie Nelson, Linda Ronstadt, Rich Little, William Shatner, Beau Bridges, Fran Tarkenton, Jimmy Smitts, and now us. The food (and the margeritas) were excellent. I had the “President’s Plate,” consisting of a Bean Tostada, a Birria Taco, a Chile Relleno, a Chicken Enchilada and a Beef Tamale; I figured if it was good enough for the President, it was good enough for me and it was. And for $12.75 it was an exceptional deal. If you get to Tucson, make a bee line for Mi Nidito.

After dinner, Nancy took us on a brief tour of downtown Tucson. And back to their house. And so to bed. A long day culminating in dreams of saguaro cacti.

In the morning (Monday), we discovered that Ed and Nancy had arranged for us to have a brunch of bagels, lox and cream cheese, lest we suffer withdrawal symptoms upon being away from New York for more than two days, I suppose. And we had another full day’s activities scheduled, including a drive to Sabino Canyon and a ride on the tram in the Coronado National Forest. Somewhere along the way, I also was directed to pick up a National Parks Senior Citizen Lifetime Pass. This is an extraordinary deal and one which any senior citizen should be sure to avail himself of if he has any intention at all of ever visiting any national park. The pass costs just ten bucks and is good for a lifetime, not just for the year. And it then gets you into any national park free. And not just you, but everyone else in your car (if admission is by vehicle) or for three more people in your party in addition to yourself (if admission is by individual). A real bargain.
Nancy was up to her old tricks again that night and prepared a great shrimp dinner for us. I was beginning to understand why people retire to Arizona

The next morning (Tuesday) we rose very early to drive to Phoenix to pick up Ellen en route to the Grand Canyon. We brought along another batch of bagels, lox and cream cheese to eat for breakfast in the car. And turkey sandwiches for a picnic lunch somewhere.

Montezuma's Castle
After picking up Ellen, we drove on to Montezuma Castle National Monument. With my National Parks Senior Citizen Lifetime Pass, entry to the monument cost the five of us a total of just $5 instead of $25. So I already was realizing a profit on my $10 investment and we hadn’t even gotten to the Grand Canyon yet.

When we finally arrived at the Canyon in the early evening, we checked in to the Maswik Lodge and then briefly hiked a short distance along the South Rim. (Incidentally, entry to the Canyon, normally $25 per vehicle, was free with my National Parks Senior Citizen Lifetime Pass; the profits on my $10 investment were increasing.) When night descended, we returned to the lodge for an evening snack from the cafeteria in the lodge. It had been a long day and we all turned in.

View of the Canyon From the South Rim
We arose early again on the following morning (Wednesday), breakfasted in our rooms on coffee and banana bread (which Nancy had baked before we left Tucson), then boarded the free shuttle bus which circled a segment of the South Rim of the Canyon. Nancy, Ed and Ellen had seen the Canyon before but for Sue and me, it was our first time – and we were truly overwhelmed. We’d seen photographs of the Canyon, of course, and we’d heard descriptions of it from others who had seen it first hand but unless you’ve seen it yourself, you simply cannot imagine just how awe-inspiring it is It is truly one of the modern wonders of the world.

Ellen Alan and Sue at the Canyon
Hating to leave but with a trip of several hours ahead of us before we would arrive in Phoenix, we reluctantly checked out of the lodge in the late morning, lunched at the lodge cafeteria, and returned to our car for the drive back. On the way, we traveled through Sedona and were duly impressed by the red rock geological formations of the area. Once in Phoenix, we dropped off Ellen at her home and dined out with Ed and Nancy at the Thai Café on Chandler Boulevard. After dinner, we checked into the Hawthorn Suites by Wyndham in Chandler/Phoenix while Nancy and Ed drove back to Tucson. Our time with Nancy and Ed had drawn to a close and they had provided us with a number of truly memorable experiences. Thanks, guys, we really appreciated everything you did for us.

Hawthorn Suites by Wyndham in Chandler/Phoenix
 Hawthorn Suites by Wyndham in Chandler/Phoenix provided us with more than satisfactory accommodations for the next three days. Our suite included a bedroom, living area and kitchen/dining area, all of which were clean roomy, well appointed, and comfortable. The staff was friendly and helpful; it was too cool to swim but we sat out at the pool and found it very pleasant; free fruit and coffee were provided in the lobby at all times; full complimentary buffet breakfast were provided daily and included everything from juice, fruit, cereal and yogurt to bacon, sausage, eggs, waffles and pancakes; and both the business center and fitness center, while small, were more than sufficient for our needs. And the price was right. All in all, I’d recommend staying there and I’d certainly stay there again myself.

We spent the next three days (Thursday-Saturday) in Phoenix with Ellen and let her choose what we would do. She opted to see two movies, “The Social Network” (which was excellent) and “Red” (which was a well made and fun movie of a genre which is not particularly to Sue’s or my taste) at Harkins Theatres in the Chandler Fashion Center and to visit the Phoenix Zoo (which we very much enjoyed). We snacked at the zoo and ate two meals at restaurants in the Chandler Fashion Center: Kona Grill (which was excellent) and BJ’s Restaurant and Brewhouse (which we also enjoyed). 

We checked out of our hotel early Sunday morning and flew home from Phoenix on a direct flight to JFK, again being lucky enough to arrive early. Our trip to Arizona had come to a close and we had had a grand time.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Off Off Broadway: Look Back in Anger

Last night, I attended The Seeing Place's opening night performance of John Osborne's Look Back in Anger, a play which I generally enjoy.  Unfortunately, this company's non-traditional ensemble approach to this play just didn’t work for me.

Brandon Walker, Artistic Director of The Seeing Place Theater and the lead actor in this production, merits respect as a man of strong convictions who is not merely willing but eager to defend his unorthodox approach to the theatrical process in the face of overwhelmingly contrary conventional theatrical wisdom. Thus, in a program note, he states that:

“It is unfortunate that theater history calls this show a star vehicle for Jimmy (and maybe Alison). I don’t care how good Kenneth Haigh or Richard Burton or Mary Ure may have been. As far as I’m concerned, this story has never been told from a group perspective. That is what we have set out to do. There’s no reason why this isn’t also Cliff’s play or Helena’s play – even the Colonel has one very major scene.”

Digging in his heels even deeper, Walker describes the play as “a forgotten relic, which is often dismissed because the protagonist is long-winded or because you can tell John Osborne wrote it in 14 days. It’s not the kind of polished play we’re used to seeing.”

And in a separate press release, describing how The Seeing Place Theater’s work differs from that of other theater groups, he writes:

“Some call us crazy. We spend a good deal of our rehearsal processes not doing the play. We remove the text completely at the beginning....We improvise our way through the situations of a play until we are telling the same story as the playwright...But once our story begins to have the same shape as the playwright had intended, we start adding the lines. It isn’t until the final week or two that our productions begin to take the shape that the audience will see.”

Well, that all sounds very principled, courageous and non-conformist and I suppose it is but I am largely in disagreement with Walker’s philosophy of theater and unfortunately, much of what has been attempted in this specific just doesn’t work (or at least it didn’t work for me.)

Jimmy Porter (Brandon Walker) is a passionate, over-educated, under-employed, working-class, angry young man in a dead-end job, married to Alison Porter (Anna Marie Sell) an upper-middle-class passive woman who shares none of his anger or enthusiasms. Jimmy’s good friend, Cliff Lewis (Adam Reich), who is inordinately fond of Alison, shares their quarters. Alison’s childhood friend, Helena Charles (Adrian Wyatt) visits for an extended stay. When Alison discloses to her that she is pregnant, Helena encourages Alison’s father Colonel Redfern (Rick Delaney) to extricate Alison from her relationship with Jimmy and Helena becomes involved with Jimmy herself.

This play can be appreciated on several levels. As an angry polemic against the class system. As a precursor to the sexual revolution. As a gritty rejoinder to the typical polished drawing room comedies that proliferate on stage. As a veiled reference to the homo-erotic bonding between male friends. And, notwithstanding Walker’s misgivings, as a “star vehicle” for outstanding actors.

Indeed, I think that Walker is wrong and theatrical history is correct in calling this show a star vehicle for Jimmy and Alison and I believe that the reason that this story has never been told from a group perspective before is because it does not lend itself to that kind of an ensemble approach. To be sure, Cliff, Helena and the Colonel all play important supporting roles but that is just what they are: supporting roles. This is not Cliff’s play nor Helena’s play nor the Colonel’s (notwithstanding his one major scene) and we shouldn’t forget it. This play belongs to Jimmy and Alison.

Moreover, I surely wouldn’t call this play “a forgotten relic, which is often dismissed because the protagonist is long-winded or because you can tell John Osborne wrote it in 14 days.” It was, after all, nominated for three Tony Awards including Best Play; it was made into a major motion picture starring Richard Burton, Claire Bloom and Mary Ure; it was extolled by Kenneth Tynan as "a minor miracle” which displayed all the “qualities one had despaired of ever seeing on the stage” and by Alan Sillitoe who wrote that Osborne "didn't contribute to British theatre, he set off a landmine and blew most of it up"; it was revived in an ambitious off off Broadway production by Clout in the Mug Productions only six months ago; and, call me naïve, but if I were seeing it for the first time, I should never have imagined that Osborne had written it in just two weeks.

Within the context of what The Seeing Place Theater has attempted, an ensemble production of Osborne’s play, all of the actors, including Walker, perform their roles competently, so it is not they who should be faulted for failing to deliver soaring performances. But if theater history is correct in seeing this show as a "star vehicle" for Jimmy and Alison (as I think it is), then Walker’s performance, in particular, falls far short of what one might have hoped to see.

Additionally, I guess you’d have to include me among those who do think it “crazy” for a theater company to spend much of the rehearsal process not doing the play, removing the text completely at the beginning, improvising its way through the situations of a play until it’s telling the same story as the playwright, and only then adding the lines, so that it isn’t until the final week or two that a production takes the shape that the audience will see. I imagine that it is at least possible that such an approach could work for some plays, but I don’t think it can work for plays for which words and language are as important as they are for Look Back in Anger.

And, unfortunately, the risks inherent in that approach struck with a vengeance in this production (albeit through no fault of the company’s own). The actor originally slated to play the role of Helena became unavailable just days before the play was scheduled to open, necessitating a last minute replacement. This was accomplished: Adrian Wyatt stepped in to play the role but with insufficient time to learn her lines, she was forced to refer to the book she held throughout the opening performance. Obviously, this would be a problem for any actor coming in to assume a role at the last moment in any play, but how much more difficult must it be for that actor to perform in a production which, by design, relied on the organic evolution of an ensemble team to extract the meaning of the play – rather than a direct understanding of what the playwright had written – which, of course, is just the situation which obtained here. Wyatt never had the opportunity to evolve her role in concert with the other members of the company. Under the circumstances, she cannot be blamed for that and probably deserves praise for the job she did but, all told, it might have been more prudent to postpone the opening night.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

An Aside: A Life in the Theatre

Having not yet seen the Broadway revival of A Life in the Theatre by David Mamet (one of my favorite playwrights), I eagerly awaited reviews of the play by Ben Brantley in today’s NY Times and Terry Teachout in today’s Wall Street Journal. But who ya gonna believe?

Here’s an excerpt from Brantley’s review of this production: ”A long running sentimental hit at the Theatre de Lys in Greenwich Village a quarter century ago, it was surely never meant to bear the weight of Broadway. Yet all shows it seems come to Broadway these days, regardless of their appropriateness to that loud and unforgiving neighborhood, if they have starry names attached.”

Whereas this is what Teachout says: “I can’t think why it took so long for A Life in the Theatre to get to Broadway. It’s a natural, a two character comedy with a wrenchingly serious coda and a plum part for a first-class actor capable of convincingly portraying a tired old ham.”

Did they see the same show? De gustibus, I guess….

Monday, October 4, 2010

Broadway: Mrs. Warren's Profession

We saw the Roundabout Theatre Company's production of Mrs. Warren's Profession on Saturday and just loved it.  Both Cherry Jones and Sally Hawkins were truly outstanding.

Mrs. Warren’s Profession, one of George Bernhard Shaw’s best and most controversial plays, centers on the relationship between Mrs. Kitty Warren (Cherry Jones), a high-class prostitute and madam, and her daughter Vivie (Sally Hawkins), who is shocked to learn that her mother has been engaged in the world’s oldest profession – and that her own Cambridge education and upper-class life style has been financed by the fruits of those “immoral” activities. Mrs. Warren initially placates her daughter by explaining that it was her own impoverished childhood and lack of any other real opportunities which led her into “the life” and the two women temporarily reconcile – until Vivie learns that her mother is still engaged in her highly profitable business, at which time she no longer accepts her mother’s explanation of early poverty as an adequate rationalization for her behavior.

Shaw claimed to have written the play in 1893 "to draw attention to the truth that prostitution is caused, not by female depravity and male licentiousness, but simply by underpaying, undervaluing, and overworking women so shamefully that the poorest of them are forced to resort to prostitution to keep body and soul together." In doing so, he ran afoul of the Lord Chamberlain, Britain’s official theatre censor, who banned the play in England for a decade before it was finally allowed to be produced in a members-only club in London. In actuality, the play may not have been banned as much for its portrayal of prostitution as for its scarcely veiled attack on society’s religious hypocrisy, conventional sexual mores, and exploitative capitalist economic system, all of which, in Shaw’s opinion, were complicit in permitting (if not, indeed, actively encouraging) the institution of prostitution.

All of Shaw’s plays, including Mrs. Warren’s Profession, are so well written, their plot structures so intriguing, and their characters so well developed, that one might think that even when they are not perfectly rendered on stage, they probably are still worth seeing. But that is not necessarily the case: the Compassion Theater Company’s recent ambitious Off Off Broadway production of Mrs. Warren’s Profession, for example, was so badly miscast and misdirected, and the lighting and set design so badly flawed, that the production was ultimately disappointing, notwithstanding Shaw’s genius (see my review of that production on July 19, 2010).

No such criticism can be lodged against this production by the Roundabout Theatre Company, however. On the contrary, the acting is so superb, the direction so precise, the casting so on point, and the set design so stylish and stylized that the play is a total triumph.

Kitty Warren’s character is so nuanced and multi-layered that a takes a truly accomplished actor to get it right, but Cherry Jones is more than up to the task. Both in word and manner, she manages to communicate the upper-class veneer her character has acquired as a high priced prostitute while retaining her lower-class origins, her need for control over her own life and her desire to extend that control to her daughter, as well as her love of money and what it will buy, while still evidencing the deepest love and concern for her daughter’s welfare.

Sally Hawkins makes her Broadway debut in this play as Kitty Warren’s daughter Vivie - and what a debut it is! Playing opposite Cherry Jones, Hawkins conveys a strength of purpose as Vivie that is more than a match for her mother’s steel will. Without ever saying so in so many words, Hawkins manages to get across the message that her character Vivie, a “New Age” woman of a century ago, in the very earliest stages of the feminist movement, might well have followed in her mother’s footsteps, had she lived a generation earlier and in her mother’s original economic circumstances. And Jones similarly succeeds in communicating (without ever saying so) that Kitty might well have turned her business acumen to a more socially acceptable profession than prostitution, had she grown up in her daughter’s time and with her daughter’s social and financial advantages.

The other characters in the play also do splendidly in their respective roles. Edward Hibbert portrays the part of Mr. Praed, one of Kitty Warren’s old friends (and perhaps one of her one time lovers or clients as well) with just the right degree of reserve and understatement. Mark Harelik beautifully plays the part of Sir George Crofts, Kitty’s business partner and assuredly one of her early lovers/clients, who is desirous now of extending his sway to Vivie, with the cool, dispassionate calculation that Shaw finds so despicable. Michael Siberry does an excellent job in the role of Reverend Sam Gardner, another of Kitty’s one-time lovers and just the sort of weak, class conscious, hypocritical churchman for whom Shaw exhibits such contempt. And Adam Driver plays the role of Frank Gardner, Reverend Sam Gardner’s ne’er-do-well son, with just the right touch of self-centered entitlement as to provide the perfect foil for Shaw to express his antipathy to male dominated class stratified society.

The many inter-related themes in this play include inter-generational strife, conventional social mores, the capitalist economic system, class stratification, marital relationships, patriarchy, prostitution, possible incest and, not least of all, early examples of feminism and the half dozen accomplished actors in the play deal with all of them brilliantly and play off one another as consummate professionals. Doug Hughes also deserves considerable credit for his pitch perfect direction and the exceptionally handsome sets designed by Scott Pask further enrich this theatre going experience.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Off Off Broadway: Ritter, Dene, Voss

I saw the New York premiere of Ritter, Dene, Voss by Thomas Bernhard at La Mama First Floor Theatre last Sunday and loved it. This is a perfect gem of a play and it is difficult to understand why it did not arrive in New York sooner: originally produced in German in 1986, it is beautifully written, elegantly translated into English by Kenneth Northcott and Peter Jansen, and intricately structured with levels upon levels of self-referential and symbolic allusions, and it is astonishing that it should have taken nearly 25 years for it to have made it here. And even after all that time, it still took a Canadian troupe, Toronto’s One Little Goat Theatre Company, rather than an American troupe, to bring it off!

Thomas Bernhard, although not that well known in the United States, was one of Austria’s most highly regarded and provocative novelists and playwrights of the last century. He developed a ranting manner and an unusual writing style: his plays are written without punctuation of any kind but with line breaks indicating cadence - which actually has the effect of making his plays all that more poetic (albeit a tougher challenge for the actors involved in performing his roles). Clearly influenced by Samuel Beckett, Eugene Ionesco, Jean Genet and others of their ilk, Bernhard might have been expected to assume a prominent role in the absurdist school, but he did not. We may hope that this production may redress some of that imbalance and that he may be more highly regarded in this country in the future.

On the surface, the plot of Ritter, Dene, Voss is a simple one involving the attempts of an older sister (Maev Beaty) and a younger sister (Shannon Perrault) to bring their highly eccentric if not actually psychotic brother Ludwig (Jordan Pettle) home from an insane asylum but the sibling rivalries and repressed psycho-sexual relationships among the three add so many layers of meaning to the play that a simple plot description does it little justice. Ludwig is clearly meant to be a fictionalized representation of Ludwig Wittgenstein, the most influential and arguably the greatest philosopher of the twentieth century. The press release for the play states that Ludwig is “loosely based on…Ludwig Wittgenstein” and in an “Author’s note” in the program, Bernhard states that “During my work on the play…my thoughts dwelt mainly on my friend Paul and on his uncle, Ludwig Wittgenstein,” but it seems quite clear to me that Ludwig is intended to be Ludwig Wittgenstein and not just a character loosely based on him or influenced by the playwright’s transient thoughts of his friend’s uncle. And the sisters are intended to be Wittgenstein’s sisters and the family to be the Wittgenstein family, at one time the wealthiest family in Austria.

Ludwig, after all, has been dictating his books on logic to his older sister. (Might those be his Tractatus?) He has recalled the time he spent at his remote cabin in Norway and has expressed his desire for a doctorate degree from Cambridge. His disdain for children and for money is made clear. And in a clever tour-de-force, he repeatedly proclaims his adamant refusal to see Doctor Frege for whom he exhibits little respect (a symbolic reminder, surely, of the relationship between Wittgenstein and Gottlob Frege, the mathematician-logician who had a profound influence on the early Wittgenstein but whose philosophy was almost directly antithetical to that of the later Wittgenstein.)

That is not to say, of course, that this play accurately portrays all aspects of the real Ludwig Wittgenstein. On the contrary, Bernhard clearly has taken poetic license in endowing his Ludwig with some traits that Wittgenstein surely lacked. It is, for instance, highly doubtful that the real Wittgenstein would have harbored incestuous longings for either of his sisters, as Bernhard suggests, since likely as not Wittgenstein’s inclinations were more of a homosexual than heterosexual bent. But that is what makes this a play, rather than a documentary, and all the better for that.

The title of the play itself, Ritter, Dene, Voss is a bit mysterious to begin with for it actually has nothing to do with the substance of the play nor any of the characters in it. Rather it is simply the surnames of the three actors who originally starred in the play and for whom Bernhard wrote it. But what is Bernhard getting at with that odd conceit? Perhaps a further clue is provided by the fact that two of the three characters in the play, the two sisters, are actors themselves and what Bernhard may be alluding to is the degree to which our personas are nothing more than self-referent roles. Bernhard returns to this idea in several guises. Are the portraits on the wall really pictures of the persons they purport to depict or do they provide false impressions of who those persons really were? Who are the truly insane in the institution from which Ludwig’s sisters seek to release him: the inmates or their keepers? And why does the older sister really want to bring Ludwig home – for his sake or for her own?

The three actors all do a superb job in their respective roles and the director deserves considerable credit for this production. The scenic design is creative and first-rate, particularly the arrangement and rearrangement of the various portraits which are designed and utilized to dramatic effect. And the decision to play the music of Ludwig von Beethoven is a good one, underscoring the relationships among the three Ludwigs (the play’s protagonist, Wittgenstein, and Beethoven).

All in all, this is a terrific play and, even if you’re not overly familiar with the life and work of Ludwig Wittgenstein, you’re likely both to enjoy it and to get a lot out of it. And if you are familiar with Wittgenstein’s life and work, more’s the better. In that event, you’re really in for a treat.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Off Broadway: Alphabetical Order

On Saturday, I saw the New York premiere of Alphabetical Order by Michael Frayn at the Clurman Theatre on Theatre Row. It was a very well-acted farce with some interesting ideas, but not up to the level of Michael Frayn’s dramas.

A disclaimer: I am a Michael Frayn fan. I think he is a thoughtful and deep thinker, an elegant writer, and a talented playwright. I thoroughly enjoyed both of his best-known dramas, Copenhagen and Democracy, when I saw them several years ago. I am currently in the midst of reading his philosophical tome, The Human Touch, and I find it provocative and challenging. But – and here comes the disclaimer – I really don’t much like his comedies. I think that he has a great talent for drama, but not so much for farce. So notwithstanding the general critical acclaim it received at the time and its successful Broadway run, I didn’t enjoy Noises Off when first I saw it many years ago. And I similarly wasn’t very impressed by this revival of Alphabetical Order either, despite the fact that it expressed some interesting ideas and was very well directed and acted.

Alphabetical Order was written and takes place in the 1970s and, as a consequence, is somewhat dated. All of the action takes place in the library of a provincial newspaper’s library and much of the action centers around the process of clipping out newspaper articles - a process rendered obsolete in this digital age. The library is a mess and Lesley (Audrey Lynn Weston), a new 25 year old assistant librarian is brought on board to bring order out of chaos. In that she succeeds admirably, beyond anyone’s highest hopes – but has something even more valuable been lost in the process?

In the first act, we meet not only Lesley but all of the play’s other characters: Lucy (Angela Reed), the paper’s head librarian; Geoffrey (John Windsor-Cunningham) the paper’s soon to be retired messenger who doubles as something of a narrator or Greek chorus; and Arnold (Brad Bellamy), John (William Connell), Nora (Margaret Daly) and Wally (Paul Molnar), all of whom are writers, journalists or editors at the paper. And what we come to suspect is that how they all view themselves is not really how they are at all.

In the second act, we witness the occurrence of a major crisis at the newspaper and minor crises in the lives of several of the characters. The dramatic and comedic aspects of their reactions and interactions to these crises are what then give meaning and value to the play.

The entire cast deserves kudos for their performances as does the director, Carl Forsman, and the scenic designer, Nathan Heverin. If, unlike me, you enjoyed Noises Off, you’ll likely enjoy this play too. But if you’re expecting another Copenhagen or Democracy, you may be disappointed.
This tension between order and chaos certainly is a major theme of this play and it is the one that most reviewers have focused on in the past. But there are other conflicts which I think are as important, or even more important, that have received shorter shrift from the critics: that between form and substance, for instance, and that between appearance and reality. 

Friday, September 17, 2010

Off Off Broadway: Exit/Entrance

I saw a preview matinee performance of Exit/Entrance by Aidan Mathews at 59E59 Theaters last Sunday and I'm glad I did. While at first blush, this intricately structured portrayal of a couple’s 40 year life together may seem little more than a slim reflection on the vicissitudes of life, its inevitable disappointments, and the inexorable debilitation that comes with age, on further consideration, there appears to be much more to this play than first meets the eye.

To begin with, the play’s structure is intriguing, blurring the distinction between spatial and temporal separation and between reality and imagination. In the first act, Exit, we are introduced to “Charles, perhaps 70” (Greg Mullavey) and “Helen, his wife, probably 65” (Linda Thorson). In the second act, Entrance, we meet “Charles, a young man, perhaps 30” (David L. Townsend) and “Helen, his lover, probably 25” (Lara Hillier). But are these two different couples, living in adjoining apartments, separated only by a thin wall? Or are they really one and the same couple, the latter pair nothing more than a 40 year old memory in the failing minds of the former? An argument can be made on either side but the preponderance of evidence, I think, suggests that it is time and memory, not spatial reality, that separates the two couples.

To be sure, it initially appears that these are four distinct personages. In the first act, we hear the elder Helen informing Charles of having met their new younger neighbors who have just moved into the building. And we hear the sounds of nails being hammered into the walls next door as pictures are hung. In the second act, we seem to get confirmation of all this as the young couple chat about having encountered the older Helen, consider inviting her and her husband in for tea and scones, and hang the pictures we could only imagine in Act I. On the other hand, is it nothing more than coincidence that both men are named Charles, that both are classics scholars, that both women are named Helen, that the elder couple have a son named Philip conceived on their trip to Greece while the younger couple contemplate the conception of a child of their own (also to be named Philip, of course) whilst Charles (the younger) dreams of their own potential trip to Greece? But the conclusive evidence that this is a memory play about one couple rather than an interwoven tale of two neighboring couples is provided by the playwright himself who notes that “The action takes place in the living-room of an apartment in a period town-house.” It is noteworthy, I think, that the action does not take place in two adjoining living-rooms but in “the living-room….” [emphasis added].

In the first act, Charles and Helen reminisce on their lives together, recalling a number of felicitous events ranging from their honeymoon in the south of France to the delivery of Charles’ most successful lecture to the publication of his first book to their youthful exuberance at seeing the Acropolis for the first time followed by their night of lovemaking which likely resulted in the conception of their son, Philip. But their pleasant memories are more than overshadowed by the disappointments and tragedies of their lives: Charles never did publish a second book; his physical health is failing following a serious operation in his earlier years; Helen suffered some sort of nervous breakdown in the past, now euphemistically referred to as her “tiredness,” and her present mental faculties clearly are waning; and their son Philip is an alcoholic (possibly) and a homosexual (probably) who exhibits little concern or feeling for his parents. Against this sad backdrop, Charles and Helen seek to affirm some control over their lives, if only to the extent of closing the curtains.

In the second act, the younger Charles and Helen prepare for their future together, unpacking their dishes, hanging pictures, sorting and arranging books. Helen presses Charles to marry and envisions a family with him while Charles studiously avoids commitment. A sense develops that marriage and family will occur inevitably, simply with the passage of time, whether or not Charles truly wills it, and that their lives will then evolve (or devolve) into the depressing spectacle we envisioned in Act I.

The playwright has much else to convey and generally does so well and cleverly. Whereas Charles proclaims his grand intention to write in the future, Helen simply writes in the present – although her writing is simply a practical shopping list rather that a critique of classical philosophy. When Helen has an itch on her back, she finds that she is unable to reach it until she borrows Charles’ copy of Plato and scratches it with that – perhaps the best use that has been made of the book for some time. When Charles rambles on about traveling to Greece and making Helen his “Helen of Troy,” she responds: “I don’t want to be Helen of Troy. I want you to be you and I want to be me.” We come to understand what makes Helen tick and to feel sympathy for her condition. We come to understand Charles, too, but it is more difficult to empathize with him: Helen’s tragedy seems to be largely a result of her love for Charles and her having hitched her wagon to his falling star but Charles’ tragedy seems more a result simply of his own mediocrity and self-delusion.

In terms of the play’s performers, one actor, Linda Thorson, deserves to be singled out for special acclaim. Thorson does an extraordinary job in her portrayal of the older Helen and, if nothing else, this play is worth seeing for her performance alone.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Off Off Broadway on Theatre Is Easy

Off Off Broadway Theatre in New York, the third and final article in my three part series on Retirement in New York - A Theatre Lover's Dream, has just posted on the Theatre Is Easy website (  (The first two articles dealt with Broadway and Off Broadway.)

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Guest Review by Naomi Hornik: The Audition

On Sunday afternoon, we took our granddaughter Naomi (age 9 1/2) to see the Adam Roebuck production of The Audition by Don Zolidis at the Roy Arias Theater Center.  Since the show is both about and performed by schoolkids who are aspiring actors and since Naomi is herself a schoolgirl and aspiring actor, I thought it would be most appropriate to ask her to review the show.  Here is her review:

When I went to see The Audition, I thought all the actors did a great job though I particularly thought Sarah Groginsky (Yuma) did an outstanding job. Though the show did not reach all my expectations, I still thought with all the work the actors put into the production the show was pretty great. I didn’t expect the theatre to be so small but it was a nice little theatre. The Audition is about these teenagers all auditioning for the show A Chorus Line and they all have very different personalities. I think this is a show any person would like because there are no parts that are unclear or difficult to understand. I didn’t love it but my grandpa did. I don’t think everyone will love it but I think a lot of people will love it.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

FringeNYC: The Swearing Jar

When The Swearing Jar by Kate Hewlett was first produced at the 2008 Toronto Fringe Festival, it garnered Best of Fringe and Best Ensemble awards. Now it is being revived at this year’s New York Fringe Festival, with two of the actors from the Toronto production - Kate Hewlett, the playwright (Carey) and Christopher Stanton (Owen) - reprising their Toronto roles and with two new actors – Vince Nappo (Simon) and Mimi Quillin (Bev) – rounding out the cast. And while I never saw the Toronto production, I can assure you that, if it was similar to this one in New York, it surely deserved the awards it got. This is one FringeNYC production certainly worth seeing.

The play begins with Simon and Carey, a loving, trusting couple happily married for twelve years, eagerly informing each other that they have really big news to impart. Carey gets to go first and her news is what one might expect: she’s expecting. In his joyous reaction to Carey’s news, Simon never does get to disclose what his news was but I can tell you this: if he had gone first, this would have been a very different play.

Over the course of the next hour, Simon and Carey exchange expletives (for which they agreeably contribute $5 per word to their “swearing jar,” whence derives the title of the play). They bask in the ultrasound photos of their unborn child and argue over baby names. Carey meets Owen, a bookstore employee and sometime guitarist, and she and Owen immediately hit it off – perhaps a little too well. Carey composes songs expressing her love for Simon and entertains at Simon’s fortieth birthday party - to the accompaniment of Owen’s guitar. Bev, Simon’s mother, gets into the act too, at one point coming upon Carey and Owen picnicking in the park.

But what does it all mean? Unfortunately, that’s what I can’t (or at least won’t) tell you lest I spoil all the surprises for you. This is a difficult play to review since it is nuanced and multilayered with a number of surprising twists and if I were to fully explicate it, it would ruin the pleasure you’ll derive from seeing it fresh. But suffice it to say that it all does tie together; that it deals with a slew of classical themes ranging from love and trust to life and death; that the temporal transitions necessary to make it all work are deftly handled; and that, in the final analysis, this is a most satisfying production.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

FringeNYC: Bunked! A New Musical

The arrival of Bunked! at this year’s Fringe Festival is the kind of event I thought I'd only get to dream of: a new musical with music, book, lyrics, direction and performances all by relatively unknown youngsters that bursts upon the scene as a full-fledged smash production. But that is exactly what has just occurred: Bunked! A New Musical is a smash production that may prove to be the show to see at this year’s FringeNYC.

This tale of five camp counselors, all just having recently graduated from high school and all typically apprehensive over what the future might have in store for them, is both exuberantly joyful and deeply serious. Anabel (Amanda Jane Cooper) is the wholesome good little girl next door, somewhat insecure and conscientious to a fault, on the verge of discovering her own sexuality, personality and true worth as she approaches womanhood. Oliver (Tim Ehrlich) is Anabel’s fraternal twin and as different from she as it is possible to be: he is overtly homosexual and proud of it, highly sexual, self-assured and the “bad” twin (to the extent that smuggling a bit of malt liquor and marijuana into Camp Timberlake is really “bad”).

Both Max (Jake Lowenthal) and (Carmen) Lizzie Klemperer are attempting to come to grips with the various consequences of mortality that they recently have encountered. And Stewart (Ben Moss) is grappling with his own sexual ambivalence and the pressure of having conformed all his life to the wills of his demanding parents. Thrust together during a summer that may represent a final brief respite before they are forced to embark upon their adult journeys, the five come together and drift apart, explore and form relationships, and make major decisions that are likely to affect the rest of their lives.

All five actors do a superb job, both in playing their roles and in belting out the songs that make this show such a success but if I were to single out just one for special praise, it would by Ms Cooper who is an explosive firecracker of a singer and actor. In doing such a grand job, all of the actors/singers are fortunate in having such good material to work with. The book and lyrics by Alaina Kunin and Bradford Proctor and the music by Bradford Proctor are creative, witty and memorable. The tunes are hummable and the lyrics sharp and clever.

What was most astonishing (and immensely gratifying) to me was that all of this was accomplished by such young and otherwise relatively inexperienced thespians. Ms. Cooper, who just received her BFA this year, is making her New York theatre debut in this show. Ms. Klemperer is also making her New York stage debut in Bunked! Mr. Erlich is making his Fringe debut in this show, Mr. Lowenthal will be entering his final year at Fordham College this year, and Mr.Moss is a sophomore at Harvard. Ms. Kunin received her Masters Degree just three years ago and Mr. Proctor his BA in Music just a year before that. Wow! What will these people be doing a decade hence?

Friday, August 20, 2010

FringeNYC: Platinum

I saw the Fringe production of Platinum at the Lucille Lortel Theatre today and very much enjoyed it. It's wasn't a great show by any means, but it was a lot of fun.

When Platinum was originally staged on Broadway in 1978, it ran for just 12 previews and 33 performances. And although two of the actors in that production (Alexis Smith and Richard Cox) were nominated for Tony Awards, the play otherwise was panned unmercifully by the critics, with Walter Kerr writing: "I have a feeling that if Platinum could just get rid of its book, its songs, its microphones and its almost arrogantly messy setting, it would be light miles ahead.”

In this developmental production at this year’s FringeNYC, Ben West, the Artistic Director of UnsungMusicalsCo, has accomplished much of what Mr. Kerr facetiously advocated more than thirty years ago. He has pared down the cast from thirteen to five, cut four songs and added two others, and generally focused, tightened and streamlined the whole production. Mr. West has been working on this project with an eye toward returning Platinum to the stage, and his pruning efforts appear to be bearing considerable fruit.

Having never seen the original 1978 Broadway production, nor the 1983 Off Broadway revival starring Tammy Grimes which had an even shorter run, I am not in a position to comment intelligently on the degree to which Mr. West’s pruning and revisions have improved this musical. But from what I saw today and the reviews I’ve read of past performances, I think it likely that Mr. West has been responsible for a vast improvement in this show.

That is not to say that this is now a terrific show. It is not. The story line is a bit of a cliché, revolving around Lila Halladay (Donna Bullock), a 1940’s movie star hoping to make a comeback in the music industry in 1976. The other four characters are equally predictable: Crystal Mason (Sarah Litzsinger), the young former back-up singer, possibly now on the cusp of stardom herself, but, oh, with so much yet to learn; Jeff Rollins (Bruce Sabath) Lila’s former lover and now a hard-nosed intransigent record producer; Dan Riley (Jay Wilkison), the once successful rock star, half Lila’s age and her new love interest; and Jamie Bradbury (Wayne Wilcox), the audio engineer and songwriter wannabe. All five actors perform their roles with great skill but that does not change the fact that, although it is no fault of theirs, the plot itself remains rather pedestrian.

The five characters do all inter-relate but, with all the paring that Mr. West has done, sometimes the relationships are difficult to fathom. Indeed, in focusing, streamlining, simplifying, and paring as much as he has, Mr. West may have gone a little too far: before attempting to move this production to off Broadway, it might be necessary for him to flesh it out a bit more, perhaps by bringing back one of more of the discarded characters and/or one of more of the excised songs.This is an enjoyable show but, with a little more work, it could be even better.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

FringeNYC: Just In Time - The Judy Holliday Story

I may have been disappointed in the Fringe Festival production of Running that I saw yesterday but the performance of Just In Time - The Judy Holliday Story that I saw today more than made up for it. I loved this show.

Much of the credit for its success must go to Bob Sloan, the writer and director, who created an intricate interwoven tapestry out of a variety of events in Judy’s life, ranging from her high school graduation to her beating out Anne Baxter, Bette Davis, Eleanor Parker and Gloria Swanson for the 1951 Academy Award for Best Actress; from her appearance on the television show What’s My Line to her appearance before the House Un-American Activities Committee; from her work in standup comedy with Adolph Green and Betty Comden to her playing opposite Katherine Hepburn in Adam’s Rib; and from her relationship with her mother to her relationship with Peter Lawford. And he has done it all with a deft light touch which preserves the basic comedic brilliance of Judy’s life.

But if much of the credit for this show’s success should go to Bob Sloan for having created this vehicle in the first place, an equal amount must go to Marina Squerciati who brings the role of Judy Holliday to life. A bleeding heart kneejerk liberal on matters of world affairs but a distant uninvolved mother when it came to her own son, an intellectlually gifted woman but a ditzy blonde when it suited her, a wannabe writer and director contending a disdain for the acting profession who nonetheless achieved her greatest success as a comedic-actor, Judy incorporated in her persona all the confusing, infuriating, contradictory attributes that define humanity. And Marina Squerciati has done a superb job in bringing all this out.

The other three cast members are all deserving of considerable praise as well. Mary Gutzi plays the role of Helen, Judy’s mother, with humor and charm – and boasts a wonderful singing voice to boot. Catherine LeFrere plays all the other women in the show – no easy task when the list ranges from Katherine Hepburn to Betty Comden and from Dorothy Kilgallen to Gloria Swanson – and she succeeds deliciously. And Adam Harrington plays an even greater number of men - including Adolph Green, Harry Cohn, John Daly, Peter Lawford, Orson Welles and Jimmy Durante - and does so with equal success and considerable aplomb.

FringeNYC: Running

Arlene Hutton, the author of Running, is certainly a talented playwright: her earlier work, Last Train to Nibroc was the first FringeNYC production to transfer Off-Broadway and her plays have since been produced around the world. Seth Barrish (Stephen) and Lee Brock (Emily), for whom Running was written and who are husband and wife in real life, are also excellent actors. Understandably, then, it was with great anticipation that I attended an early performance of Running at FringeNYC.

Alas, I was sadly disappointed. To be sure, Ms. Hutton created interesting characters in Stephen and Emily and a mildly intriguing situation at the outset of her play and she does have a fine ear for dialogue. And both Mr. Barrish and Ms. Brock played the roles that were written for them extremely well. But having said that, I found that the play rapidly petered out with any number of loose ends not being tied up and my not really caring that they hadn’t been.

The story line is rather simple. Emily arrives unexpectedly from London at Stephen’s home in Manhattan on the night before he plans to run his first marathon and while Stephanie, Stephen’s wife and Emily’s former roommate, is out of town (in London, herself, as it turns out). When Emily comes on to Stephen, the questions rapidly proliferate. Will he sleep with her and jeopardize his race – and maybe his marriage and self-image as well? Why did Emily show up in the first place: does she have some hidden agenda or ulterior motive? Why weren’t Emily and Stephanie in touch with one another in London? Indeed, what is Emily’s relationship with Stephanie anyway? Are Emily’s recollections of the time she smoked pot and lost her virginity true memories or just fantasies or outright lies? What really is the state of Stephen’s and Stephanie’s marriage? Is Emily fragile or traumatized or kooky or outright crazy? Is Stephen a “good guy” or a nebbish or a mildly agoraphobic loser himself?

I won’t ruin the play for you by telling you whether or not Stephen sleeps with Emily and what happens with his big race but I will tell you this about the other questions: most of them remain unanswered but, by the time the play ends, I don’t think you’ll care. Ms. Hutton, Mr. Barrish and Ms. Brock are all highly talented professionals but, unfortunately, their talents are not evident in this production.