Sunday, January 30, 2011

Frances Sternhagen at TDF Drama Dialogues

Whoever said “There’s no such thing as a free lunch” was obviously wrong. Theatre Development Fund (TDF) just proved that with its latest Drama Dialogues program featuring the acclaimed actress, Frances Sternhagen, in conversation with the noted director, Stephen DiMenna. The program was free, and included free bagels and coffee to boot (in case Ms Sternhagen alone was not enough, I guess, although she clearly would have been), and it was terrific.

From time to time, in its continuing effort to enhance the theatergoing experience for its members, TDF invites its membership, on a first-come first-served basis, to attend free open discussions between the audience and theatre professionals. Today’s program featuring the charming Ms. Sternhagen, was filled to capacity, and no one had cause for disappointment. Sue and I were there and we loved it.

Ms. Sternhagen reminisced delightfully about her theatrical, film and television career: the time Richard Burton forgot his lines, her role on “Cheers” as Cliff’s mother on the Johnny Carson show, her daughter’s distress over her turning down a role with Steve McQueen. The afternoon was great fun and further evidence (if any more be needed) that New York is, indeed, a frugal theatregoer’s paradise.

Thank you, TDF.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Off Broadway: My Sinatra

My Sinatra: A Musical About Obsession, now playing at the Triad Theatre, comes across as more of a “work in progress” than a fully realized musical tribute to Frank Sinatra. Based upon the successful national PBS special, My Sinatra – The Songs and the Stories, seen by more than ten million people in more than 70 cities, this updated rendition of that show attempts to explore the nature of Cary Hoffman’s fixation on Frank Sinatra by delving into Hoffman’s lower class Jewish upbringing in Long Island, the traumas he experienced from the deaths of his father and stepfather, his edgy relationship with his mother, his musical relationships with his uncles, and his Alexander Portney-ish adolescent and post-adolescent years. An attempt is made to accomplish this through Hoffman’s introspective monologues, interspersed with his renditions of some 30 classic Sinatra songs, including “That’s Life,” “Come Fly Away,” New York, New York,” “The Lady Is a Tramp,” I’ve Got You Under My Skin” and “My Way.”

Unfortunately, it doesn’t quite work – neither as an uplifting entertainment nor as an insightful psychological explanation of the nature of obsession. To be sure, Hoffman has a magnificent voice and he has, in several instances, done a superb job of capturing Sinatra’s style, timing, cadences and phrasing. But it’s just not enough. The PBS special benefited from having a big band on stage and, to paraphrase Hoffman himself as he expressed it in this show: “It’s easy to sing Sinatra successfully with a big band behind you but it’s a lot harder with just a piano player.” That’s for sure. But unfortunately, in this show, Hoffman only has a piano player backing him up and, while the pianist, Hubert “Tex” Arnold, is extremely talented in his own right, even he and Hoffman together are not sufficient to carry the whole thing off.

Hoffman has much in his life to be proud of. He has written a hit off-Broadway show; he was a successful songwriter, producer, and personal manager; he is currently co-producing the TV show, “Men of a Certain Age”; he is the former owner of Stand-UP NY Comedy Club; and he has performed the music of Frank Sinatra to audiences all over the world. Quite an impressive resume for a clearly talented individual. But, sadly, none of it seems to have been enough for Hoffman to have developed an integrated personality of his own nor to have become comfortable in his own skin and his obsession with Sinatra lingers as evidence of his attempt to adopt another’s persona because he is so unhappy or uncomfortable with his own.

And it is that which turns this show into a downer, rather than a joyous entertainment. One leaves the theatre empathizing with Hoffman for his anguish rather than taking pleasure with him in his interpretation of Sinatra’s work. When he begins the show, he remarks that the show is not about Frank Sinatra but is about Cary Hoffman’s relationship to Sinatra and, if Hoffman had stuck to that objective, this show might have proved to be great fun since Hoffman is, after all, a very talented performer. Alternatively, if Hoffman had simply settled for being a Sinatra impersonator or interpreter, that might have worked too. But Hoffman tried to have it both ways and in doing so ended up with neither.

Somewhere along the way, Hoffman lost his own way, sometimes delving into his own psyche and at other times attempting again to become Frank Sinatra himself which, of course, he is not. And he knows it: when he puts on Sinatra’s fedora late in the show, he remarks that it never did fit him. And yet, sadly, he keeps trying to make it fit. When he ends the show with Sinatra’s “My Way,” the most poignant thing about it is that Hoffman didn’t do it “his way”; he just kept persisting in trying to do it “Sinatra’s way.” Hoffman’s better than that but if he doesn’t believe it himself, we won’t believe it either.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Off Broadway: The Divine Sister

Charles Busch, the immensely talented playwright - whose credits range from Vampire Lesbians of Sodom (which ran for five years in the 1980s as one of the most successful plays in off Broadway history) to The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife (which ran on Broadway for 777 performances in 2000-2002 and received a 2001 Tony Award nomination for Best Play in the process) - has scored another resounding success with The Divine Sister, his delightfully zany latest production now playing at the Soho Playhouse. This wacky send-up of Hollywood’s classic nun films from The Song of Bernadette to The Singing Nun to Agnes of God (with side excursions along the way to “girl reporter” flicks, The Da Vinci Code, and James Bond movies) relates the tale of Mother Superior of St. Veronica’s school and convent (played in drag with politically incorrect abandon by Charles Busch himself) and her coterie of oddball denizens of that institution.

The presumptive plot of the play revolves around Mother Superior’s attempt to obtain funding from Mrs. Levinson (Jennifer van Dyck), a wealthy widow of Jewish descent and atheist convictions, to build a new school for the convent, but the play quickly devolves into a madcap vaudevillian romp featuring Sister Acacius (Julie Halston), the convent/school’s nun/wrestling coach; Sister Walburga (Alison Fraser), a visitor from the Mother House in Berlin whose behavior appears more typical of a dominatrix and assassin than a nun and whose off-the-wall feminist theology centers around the search for the remains of Joyce, Jesus’ little known sister; Jeremy (Jonathan Walker), who knew both Mother Superior and Sister Walburga in their earlier incarnations in the secular world before either had taken her vows; and Agnes (a role usually performed by Amy Rutberg, but played by her understudy, Marcie McGuigan, at the performance I attended), the postulant who sees visions, appears to exhibit stigmata and, just possibly, performs miracles of healing. Along the way, we also meet Timothy, an effete schoolboy (also played by Jennifer van Dyck); Mrs. MacDuffie (also played by Alison Fraser) ; and Brother Venerius (also played by Jonathan Walker). And we get to sort out the relationships among generations of interrelated lovers and their illegitimate offspring.

Busch is superb as the politically incorrect Mother Superior whose persona is reflected in her comment that “we are living in a time of great social change. We must do everything in our power to stop it,” and in the very title of her new book “The Middle Ages: So Bad?” But all of the other actors in this production are terrific as well, including Marcie McGuigan, the understudy in the role of Agnes. It is difficult for me to see how anyone could have improved on her role as she played it.

This is not a deep play and if you look to deconstruct it, searching for levels of meaning, you’re likely to be sadly disappointed. Rather it is just great fun – analogous to a day at the circus – and if you’re just looking for 90 minutes of hysterically funny – albeit crude and low brow - entertainment, here is where you’ll find it.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Lincoln Center: Other Desert Cities

Now playing at Lincoln Center's Mitzi Newhouse Theater, Other Desert Cities by Jon Robin Baitz is an intelligently written, well plotted drama of a family in crisis, brought to life by a marvelous ensemble cast. Don’t miss it!

We’ve all seen plays of this sort before (perhaps too often). Scene: A traditional family gathering. Action: Family members question their unexplained recollections, level accusations against one another, and confront their unresolved resentments. Denouement: To the relief of the actors on stage (and all too often to the relief of the audience as well), important unexpected truths eventually emerge. This is such a longstanding theatrical artifice that it is, by now, a virtual cliché and, in the hands of a less capable playwright than Jon Robin Baitz, a play of this sort is often not worth wasting one’s time on. But Baitz is no ordinary playwright and in Other Desert Cities, his contribution to this genre, he has created a terrific new play which may turn out to be one of this season’s big hits. You won’t be wasting your time on this one!

A brief synopsis: Lyman Wyeth (Stacy Keach) and his wife Polly (Stockard Channing) are leading members of that small endangered Hollywood species: the conservative Republican elite. He, a former movie star and U.S ambassador and she, a once successful screenwriter, are now comfortably settled in their luxurious Palm Springs home. Polly’s sister Silda Grauman (Linda Lavin), who collaborated with Polly in writing the successful “Hillary” film series, is present as well, on an extended stay at their home where she is recovering from alcoholism. Trip Wyeth (Thomas Sadoski), Lyman and Polly’s seemingly carefree son and the producer of a popular if inconsequential TV courtroom show, has joined his family for Christmas dinner - as has their clinically depressed daughter Brooke (Elizabeth Marvel), who has not written a book since her first novel six years ago but who now has flown in from Long Island, not only to celebrate the holidays with her family but also to present them with copies of her soon to be published new novel.

As it turns out, however, Brooke’s new book is not a novel at all, but rather a family memoir, revolving around her recollections and retrospective interpretation of the circumstances surrounding the loss of Henry, her other brother and best friend, a troubled, rebellious, drug-addled, terrorist wannabee and an apparent suicide. Publishing the book will rake up all sorts of painful memories for her family and draw considerable unsought attention to their lives but it is what Brooke feels she must do. And that is what makes this play such a pleasurable experience: it doesn’t simply tell the story of what actually happened to Henry, although that’s surely an important part of it, but it deals thoughtfully and intelligently with a great many of the existential questions the story provokes as well.

Does Brooke’s “art” trump her family’s real life concerns? Does the parent-child relationship require that the responsibilities of parents to their children are never-ending to the extent that the children, just by virtue of being offspring, get a “free pass” in life? Do mental disabilities brought about as a consequence of drug addiction, alcoholism or clinical depression relieve one of all responsibility for his or her actions? Can we ever fully remake ourselves or are important aspects of our personae largely determined by our genetic makeups and early upbringings? How reliable are our evaluations of one another based upon our stereotypical classifications? Indeed, can we ever truly know what makes another person tick?

The play itself is well constructed and extremely well written and Baitz deserves much of the credit for what I fully expect to be a successful run for this production. But credit must also go to an extremely talented ensemble cast. Channing is outstanding in the role of Polly (modeled at least in part on the life of Nancy Reagan), the complex, highly principled, controlling mother who is willing to abandon her Jewish roots in order to fit into mainstream Christian society and who would rather dine at her country club than prepare Christmas dinner for her family herself at home - but who is fierce in the defense of her family. Keach is equally effective as Lamar, the former actor and ambassador who attempts to use all his acting and diplomatic skills to bring about a resolution to the crisis confronting his family. Lavin is delightful in the role of Silda, the more relaxed alcoholic sister, who imbues the play with a measure of comic relief. Sadoski really plays a dual role: as Trip, he is not only Lyman and Polly’s son, Brooke and Henry’s brother, and Silda’s nephew, an important element in the familial mix, but he is also something of an observer, a narrator, almost a one-man Greek chorus, standing outside the play itself – and he does an exemplary job in both capacities. And Marvel, in the role of Brooke, arguably the most important character in the play, captures the disparate strands of her poorly integrated personality: her confused outlook on life, her dependency coupled with her independent spirit, her rebelliousness, her sense of entitlement, her denial of reality, her self-centeredness; she is superb.

The set by John Lee Beatty is perfect: a luxurious and obviously expensively furnished home but one that it bland, neutral and even, in a sense, characterless. There are no bright colors and the room lacks warmth: even the Christmas tree in the corner, decorated all in white rather than primary colors, is more of an elegant set piece than a gathering point for family and friends. It provides just the right setting for this particular family gathering.