Thursday, June 16, 2011

Off Broadway: The Fantasticks

Nearly half a century ago, I, as a newly married but still callow youth of 25 and Sue, my much more worldly-wise 23 year old child bride, attended an early performance of The Fantasticks starring Jerry Orbach as El Gallo at the old Sullivan Street Playhouse in Greenwich Village.  We loved the show and, as it turned out, so did most of the rest of the world: it went on to run for 42 years, finally closing in 2002 after playing a record 17,162 performances.  It was the world’s longest running musical and the longest-running uninterrupted show of any kind in the U.S.

Little more than four years later, the show was revived in an off Broadway production at the Snapple Theater (since renamed The Jerry Orbach Theater in honor of the first El Gallo).  With some hesitancy, we recently purchased tickets to the revival, fearful that we would now find the show dated, that the revival wouldn’t be anywhere near as charming as the original show had been or, more to the point, that we, now septuagenarians and on the cusp of celebrating our own fiftieth wedding anniversary, would simply not react to the show as we had as twenty-somethings.

But we did want our 10 1/2 year old granddaughter, Naomi, who already is quite enamored of the theatre, to see the show.  And so we bit the bullet, threw caution to the winds, mixed our metaphors and purchased tickets to yesterday’s matinee performance.  And we’re very glad we did.

Yes, the play is dated.  And changing sensibilities did require some politically correct modifications to at least one of the show’s musical numbers: in an apparent concession to the feminist movement, “The Rape Ballet” became the “Abduction Ballet” (although the term “rape,” as it was used in the original production was clearly intended to convey the word’s Middle English meaning “to seize, take or carry off by force” with no particular sexual connotation.)  But in a way, the fact that the play was dated only added to its charm and the bit of bowdlerization didn’t detract significantly from the play’s overall effect (certainly nothing like deleting the “n-word” from “Huckleberry Finn” although who could ever imagine anybody proposing anything like that?)

The staging, direction and choreography were all excellent and several of the performances were absolutely delightful.  To be sure, we were disappointed to discover that Charles West would be filling in for Bradley Dean in the role of The Narrator (El Gallo) at the performance we attended; West didn’t bring Jerry Orbach’s elan to the role (but then, there’s no way of knowing whether we would have thought that Dean did either, had we seen him in the role.  Jerry Orbach is a tough act to follow, even after 50 years, and our nostalgic memories do play tricks on us.)

Juliette Trafton as The Girl (Luisa) was lovely and refreshing and she does sing beautifully.  Dan Sharkey as The Boy’s Father (Hucklebee) and Bill Bateman as The Girl’s Father (Bellomy) were as entertaining in their roles as an old Abbott and Costello duo or burlesque act.  McIntyre Dickson as The Old Actor (Henry) was wonderful in the role originally played by Tom Jones himself (who wrote the book and lyrics and directed this production).  And Michael Nostrand as The Man Who Dies (Mortimer) is a Chaplinesque marvel to watch; so far as my granddaughter, Naomi, is concerned, he stole the show.

So here’s the bottom line:  It may be true that “you can’t go home again” – at least not to stay – but you certainly can go home again for a short visit.  And that’s what we found this revival of The Fantasticks to be: a short and enjoyable visit back to an earlier and more innocent time in our lives.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Off Off Broadway: Strindberg's The Father

The Father by August Strindberg, now being revived by The Mush-Room Theatre Design as part of the 2011 Planet Connections Theatre Festivity, is a symbolic, heavy handed portrayal of the “war between the sexes” as envisioned by Strindberg at his misogynistic worst: in Strindberg’s view, men are heroic, bedeviled and enslaved by their wives and mothers, while women are deceitful, greedy and self-centered.  Swindberg wrote this in Sweden in 1887, when fathers were legally in full control of their children’s secular and religious educations and mothers had no say in such matters – and when Strindberg’s own marriage was deteriorating.

The play begins with the Captain (Ridley Parson) informing his wife, Laura (Sarah Doudna), of his intent to raise their daughter, Bertha (Danielle Patsakos), as an atheist and to educate her to be a teacher.  Laura would prefer that her daughter become an artist while the other women in the household would like to see her raised in one or another Christian denomination.  (The Captain’s motives, of course, are portrayed as intelligent, rational and honorable while Laura’s are depicted as selfish, unscrupulous, and parasitic.)

Since Swedish law precludes her interfering directly with the Captain’s plans, Laura attempts to achieve her goal through deceit: she implants the idea in the Captain’s mind that he might not be Bertha’s biological father, in the hope that that might dissuade him from caring about Bertha’s future at all.  But there is a downside to that: if it is accepted that the Captain is not Bertha’s father, who will pay for her education and what will become of Laura herself?  So Laura embarks on an even more deceitful course: she frames the Captain to appear mentally unbalanced (in which case she might gain custody of her daughter while the Captain still would remain financially responsible for both of them).  Having already insinuated to him that Bertha might not be his biological daughter and that she, herself, might have been unfaithful to him, Laura began the process of undermining his sanity; now she raises the stakes by intercepting the Captain’s mail and by lying to the family Doctor (Craig Anderson), to her brother, the Pastor (Anthony Castellano), and to the family nurse, Margaret (Barbara Mundy), seeking to convince all of them of the Captain's madness.

The Mush-Room Theatre Design, the cast and director are all to be applauded for their ambitious efforts in staging this work, which is only infrequently produced in the United States.  But their best efforts, unfortunately, are not enough.  The actors generally are spatially peripatetic but temporally static which, in simpler terms, means that they seem to wander about the stage a lot, often for no apparent reason, but that their characters and personalities scarcely change, let alone evolve, over time.  In his poem “Andrea del Sarto,” Robert Browning wrote that “a man’s reach should exceed his grasp or what’s a heaven for?” and that may generally be good advice.  But given its limited resources, this theatre group may have reached a bit too far this time.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Broadway: Jerusalem

Last night’s Tony Awards have restored my faith in the critical acumen of the theatrical community.  Jerusalem, which had been nominated for six Tony Awards including Best Play, walked away with only one – the one for Best Actor to Mark Rylance for his portrayal of Johnny “Rooster” Byron. To my mind, that award was richly deserved - and it was the only one for which the play was nominated that it did deserve to win.

For a while there, I wasn’t  too sure about my own critical judgment.  I attended the matinee performance of Jerusalem yesterday and was stunned by the standing ovation that the play received at its conclusion.  Yes, Mark Rylance’s performance was brilliant.  And the set was very well-designed.  But the play as a whole, it seemed to me (and to both of my two companions, I might add), left much to be desired.

For starters, there’s not much of a plot.  Rooster is a washed-up has-been of a daredevil, a drug-dealing, alcoholic, pathological liar and child predator, broken in mind and spirit, and now reduced to relying on a motley crew of mostly teenagers for adulation, companionship and financial sustenance.  He lives in relative squalor in a mobile home in the English countryside.  But the times they are a’changing.  A new residential development is sprouting up within hailing distance of Rooster’s abode and the residents of that new community, understandably, would like to see Rooster gone.

It is St. George’s Day in England and the locals are holding their annual county fair and parade.  Rooster has received an eviction notice.  And the rag-tag group around him are bemoaning the fact that things ain’t what they used to be and that this year’s fair won’t hold a candle to those of the old days, back when Rooster was performing his daredevil motorcycle stunts (and shattering his body in the process).

There are a number of subplots but they don’t really go anywhere.  Rooster’s young son and the child’s mother show up for a brief visit and…nothing.  One of Rooster’s hangers-on is planning to emigrate to Australia…or maybe not.  A 15 year-old girl has gone missing…oh, there she is.

To all of which, I can only say: “So what.”  If Rooster suffers the consequences of his actions, should we pity him?  Or even empathize?  Not me.

Or should we somehow “admire” him?  That surely doesn’t seem to make much sense.  And yet, how then is one to explain the critical acclaim that this play has received?

Ben Brantley, the highly regarded theatre critic for The New York Times, for example, has called this play “an enthralling production” and an example of our finding “grandeur in unexpected places” and he describes Roosteras one of the last of the titans, a man who taps our lust for life lived large and excessively, without social restraints” and adds that “he incarnates the spirit of a mythic England that may never have been but that everyone, on some level, longs for.”  Indeed, Brantley writes that “this work takes you places — distant, out-of-time places — that well-made plays seldom do. And it thinks big — transcendently big — in ways contemporary drama seldom dares.”

And in concluding his rave review, Brantley writes:

“Everyone has a hunger to believe in legendary figures (whether it’s King Arthur or Frodo), but these are times of shriveled fantasies. And, really, how can you hero-worship a lying, physically broken-down stoner like Johnny?

“Except that, improbably, you can.”

To which I can only respond: “No, Mr. Brantley, you can’t.”

So what is it really that Ben Brantley sees in this play that I’m missing?  Frankly, I think: nothing.

And I am pleased to see that much of the theatre-going public seems to agree with me.

To its credit, The New York Times invites readers to post their own reviews of plays on its website and so far more that 50 people who have seen Jerusalem have taken advantage of that opportunity to post their own reviews of the play there.  And here are some excerpts from what the last six people to post reviews on that site had to say:

One called it “Absolutely brilliant!” and “an amazing production.”

One said that “Rylance was great…but this three hour play is filled with many subsidiary, unfleshed-out, characters….the somewhat forced giddiness of the ‘debaucheries’ that dominate the first two acts, seemed amateurish, shrill and dull.”

One titled his review “Sound and fury, signifying nothing” and wrote “Not much happens in this play but there’s not much message either.  Like others, I came away somewhat baffled.”

Another titled her review “Much Ado About Nothing” and wrote that “this overwritten sophomoric play contains a bravura performance by Mark Rylance but I for one was not riveted.  After the first act, it dragged on.”

One titled his review "There's No There There," writing that “Mark Rylance is a great actor, but I've never had the chance to see him in a great, or even good, play. For some reason, he seems (lately) to choose material that's way beneath him, of which ‘La Bete’ is the most egregious example, with ‘Jerusalem’ coming in second. This play may have intimations of something mythic, but they remain mere intimations; nothing adds up. My friends and I left the play baffled.”

And the sixth put it most succinctly, writing that “Butterworth and Rylance snookered the critics with this unbearably tedious piece of bombast.”

My sentiments exactly.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Off Off Broadway: Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead

Tom Stoppard is regarded justifiably as one of the world’s greatest living playwrights, in part for his monumental trilogy, The Coast of Utopia (which set a record for a play in 2007 by winning seven Tony Awards), and in part for Arcadia (which was nominated for a Tony Award for Best Play in 1995 and nominated again for Best Revival of a Play this year). But it was Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, now being revived by Big Rodent in a very satisfying production at the Abingdon Theatre Arts Complex, that originally launched Stoppard’s career, and it is that play which first comes to mind when his name is mentioned. Originally staged at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 1966, Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead exploded on Broadway a year later in a Royal National Theatre production that garnered eight Tony Award nominations (winning four, including Best Play) as well as an award for Best Play by the New York Drama Critics Circle in 1968 and an award for Outstanding Production from the Outer Critics Circle in 1969.

This is an extraordinary work – a tongue-in-cheek comedy and an existential and absurdist tour-de-force all in one and it owes as much to Samuel Beckett as it does to William Shakespeare. On one level, it is a comedic spin-off from Hamlet, focusing on the misadventures of two minor characters from the Shakespearean play, the courtiers Rosencrantz and Guldenstern. Shakespeare’s play begins with Hamlet, the Prince of Denmark, returning home from his studies abroad, only to discover his father dead and his mother, Gertrude, married to his father’s brother, Claudius (who has assumed the throne). Hamlet is plunged into melancholy, which surprises Claudius and Gertrude (apparently none too bright, those two!), prompting them to send for Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, two of Hamlet's college friends - initially in the hopes that the courtiers might find out what ails him but, ultimately, to accompany him to England so that they might rid themselves of him entirely.

In Shakespeare’s play, Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern are no more than incidental characters and what we are really meant to care about is what happens to Hamlet, Claudius, Gertrude, Polonius (a trusted advisor to Claudius), Ophelia (Polonius’ daughter and the love of Hamlet’s life) and Laertes (Polonius’ son). But in Stoppard’s play, everything is turned upside-down. Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern assume center stage; they are blissfully unaware of the dramatic events roiling about them; and it is their personal plights which are meant to concern us.

And in Stoppard’s hands, the plights that confront Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern are predetermined – or not. They are inevitable – or coincidental – or accidental – or random – or fated - or a consequence of the exercise of one’s own free will – or not. In other words, they are just the sorts of events that allow Stoppard’s imagination to take flight and permit him to explore the mathematical and physical paradoxes which so obsess him in Arcadia, Hapgood, Jumpers, and most of the other works which comprise his intellectually exhilarating oeuvre.

And yet, on another level, the play could be a re-working of Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern could be the very reincarnations of Estragon and Vladimir (the protagonists of Beckett’s greatest work) and the Player King and his acting troupe (who play important roles in Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead) could stand in well for Beckett’s Pozzo and Lucky.

In sum, Stoppard here addresses the fact that we all must go through life with limited knowledge – and yet we must go on. We, like Rosenkrantz and Guldenstern, don’t really know what’s going on about us, what is transpiring on the other side of the curtain, whether or not our seeming freedom of action is anything more than an illusion. And yet we must go on.

In this production, Big Rodent has taken the liberty of clothing the two courtiers, Rosenkrantz (Adam Aguirre) and Guildenstern (Jordan Gray), in relatively nondescript modern dress and has located the Player King (Jeremy Weber) and his band of itinerant actors temporally in the Victorian Age, with particular emphasis on the illusionist craze of that time. But those anachronisms are not negatives: on the contrary, they work to underscore the very illusory nature of life - which would appear to have been Stoppard’s intent in the first place.

The entire cast does a first rate job, but I was particularly taken with Aguirre, Gray and Weber in the principal roles. I think that Stoppard would be pleased.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Off Broadway: A Little Journey

Rachel Crothers was one of the most successful American playwrights of the early 20th century, with nearly 30 of her plays having been produced on Broadway between 1906 and 1937. In 1921, she provided Katherine Cornell and Tallulah Bankhead with their first important roles in her play Nice People. In 1930, she was cited by Ira M. Tarbell as one of the “50 Foremost Women of the United States.” In 1939, she was awarded the Chi Omega national achievement gold medal by Eleanor Roosevelt. And in 1918, another of her plays, A Little Journey, opened on Broadway, ran for 252 performances, went on to tour the country, and was nominated to receive the first Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Yet today, A Little Journey and, indeed, Crothers herself, might be all but forgotten were it not for the efforts of the Mint Theater Company which revived another of her plays, Susan and God, to considerable acclaim in 2006, and which now appears to be on the verge of achieving a similar success with its current revival of A Little Journey.

For all of which we owe the Mint Theatre Company, which takes as its mission the production of “worthwhile plays from the past that have been lost or forgotten,” an enormous debt of gratitude!

A Little Journey is a wonderful play which really deserved to have been revived long before this. And the Mint Theater has done a truly first rate job across-the-board with this revival – in casting, set design, direction, costuming, performances - you name it. This is one terrific production which can be enjoyed by anyone with an appreciation of theatre (but most especially by those whose tastes run more to the traditional than to the avant garde).

Set in 1914 inside a Pullman sleeping car bound from New York City for the Pacific Coast, A Little Journey is an inspirational comedy focusing on the relationships that develop among ten travelers thrown together on a four day transcontinental railroad trip; the fundamental decency of human nature; the redemptive power of love, labor, and caring for others; and second chances. The play centers on Julie Rutherford (Samantha Soule) who, having just broken up with her boyfriend Alfred Bemis (John Wernke), is heading out to Montana alone to live with her brother and his large family, believing that her life now might well be over. On the train, she meets Jim West (McCaleb Burnett), a Good Samaritan who, having prevailed against his own personal demons in salvaging his own life, now seeks to do the same for others.

The other passengers on the train are something of a motley crew. They include Mrs. Bay (Rosemary Prinz), a feisty, slightly hard-of-hearing, old lady and Lily (Chet Siegel), her lovely, young and relatively innocent granddaughter; Mrs. Welch (Laurie Birmingham), a pseudo-sophisticated self-centered busybody; Annie (Jennifer Blood) an unmarried mother traveling with her infant daughter and presumably seeking to reconnect with the baby’s father, Bill; Leo Stern (Craig Wroe), a traveling salesman whose ostensible line is men’s pants but might as readily have been snake oil; Frank (Ben Hollandsworth) and Charles (Ben Roberts), two callow college youths; and Mr. Smith (Douglas Rees), a narcissistic plutocrat who may be more than a match for Mrs. Welch. Also present on the train are the Conductor (also played by Douglas Rees) and the Porter (Anthony L. Gaskins). Kittie Van Dyck (Victoria Mack) and Ethel Halstead (Joey Parsons), friends of Julie appear early in the play to see her off but do not accompany her on her journey.

The play’s story line is rather predictable (although there are some surprises) and plot structure is not its great strength. Rather, its value resides in its allowing us to tread familiar ground so well, bringing us close to the edge of cliché but never quite pushing us over it, and providing us with an opportunity to share the play’s characters’ most human experiences. This is a play with more than a dozen wonderful roles and the entire cast does an exemplary job of bringing all of them to life.

The set designed by Roger Hanna also deserves special commendation. The train’s Pullman sleeping car is depicted not as a linear means of transportation moving on and off stage but rather as a revolving carousel – a creative solution to a variety of potential problems. For one thing, it makes maximum use of limited space. For another, it allows audience members to see what is happening in different places on the train at the same time. Additionally, it evokes a sense of the claustrophobia that must have affected the rail travelers at that time. And, finally, it adds a delightful whimsical touch to the whole endeavor.