Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Off Broadway: Rutherford & Son

(Left) Robert Hogan and (Right) David Van Pelt in RUTHERFORD & SON .  Photo credit: Richard Termine.
We saw Rutherford & Son at the Mint Theater last Saturday and very much enjoyed it.

In 1912, Rutherford & Son, by then-unknown Githa Sowerby, opened to rave reviews at London’s Royal Court Theatre. Initially scheduled for just four performances, the reaction to the play was so positive that it was moved to the West End and then across the Atlantic, opening on Broadway several months later to equally enthusiastic acclaim.

Sowerby was a talented writer of children’s books at the time but Rutherford & Son was her first play and for a first time playwright – and a woman to boot in 1912! – to achieve such success in her first playwriting experience was truly remarkable.  Emma Goldman, the early feminist, described Sowerby as history’s first significant female playwright and “The London Times” foresaw a future “full of promise” for her.

And yet it was not to be.  Sowerby did go on to write other plays but none were nearly as successful as Rutherford & Son and by 1980 the play, and Sowerby herself, had largely disappeared from view.  In 1980, however, an abridged version of the play was produced by a women’s group in London and since then, the play has occasionally been revived by amateur and professional troupes both in the US and England (most notably by the Royal National Theater in London in 1994, the Mint Theater in NY in 2001, the Shaw Festival Theater in Niagara-on-the-Lake in 2004, and the Northern Stage in Newcastle-upon-Tyne in 2009).  And in 1999, the National Theatre in London proclaimed Rutherford & Son to be one of the “One Hundred Plays of the Century.”

The Mint Theater Company, which has been incredibly successful in its self-proclaimed mission to produce “worthwhile plays from the past that have been lost or forgotten,” unearthed and first produced Rutherford & Son in 2001. Unfortunately, performances for that production began on September 7, 2001 -  just days before the attack on the World Trade Center – and, as a consequence, despite the fact that the play was well-received by the critics, it failed to get the attention it deserved.  Which explains why the Mint Theater Company made the decision to revive Rutherford & Son on this centenary year anniversary of its London premiere.

We can be very glad that they did.  Rutherford & Son is a terrific play, addressing timeless themes that are as pertinent today as they were in 2001 – or in 1912 - including the divisions which exist between generations, between the sexes, between social and economic classes, and between geographical regions as well as issues of honor, loyalty and family conflict.

John Rutherford (Robert Hogan, who appeared in the same role in the 2001 production), is a single-minded, cold, domineering widower, who owns and runs Rutherford’s, the family glassworks, a major business in the industrial north of England that was founded by his father but that has now fallen on hard times.  He shares his home with his spinster sister Ann (Sandra Shipley); with his 36 year old unmarried daughter Janet (Sara Surrey); with his younger son Richard (James Patrick Nelson) who has become a pastor; with his older son, John Jr. (Eli James); with John Jr.’s wife Mary (Allison McLemore); and with John Jr. and Mary’s baby son, Tony.  Rutherford runs his home with an iron grip , particularly where the women are concerned; they would seem to be there for no other purpose than to see to it that everything runs smoothly, that meals are served on time, that Rutherford’s boots are removed promptly when he returns from work, etc.

Rutherford runs his business much as he runs his home.  His glassworks manager, Martin (David Van Pelt, who also reprises the role he played in the 2001 production) is dealt with in the same manner as is Rutherford's family: he simply is expected to do his job, which is to do whatever is in the best interests of the Rutherford company as Rutherford sees it, no questions asked.  It is not that Rutherford is a cruel or mean-spirited man per se; he is not.  Rather, it is that he is totally insensitive to others’ feelings.

Unbeknownst to Rutherford, Janet is in the midst of an affair – which she sees as a possible escape route from her father’s tyranny.  Richard, too, by becoming a pastor, already has partially escaped the family’s clutches; while he may be ineffectual, it has at least gotten him out of the family business and he is even considering moving out and accepting a position as pastor in another town. John Jr. also has hopes of escaping from his father: by marrying Mary who was nothing more than a London shop girl, he has disappointed his father, who had hoped that his son would marry up in class, rather than down.  But John Jr., working in secret, has developed a process that could reduce the cost of glassmaking by a third.  If it turns out to be effective on a large scale, it could prove to be the salvation of the Rutherford company – and of John Jr. himself, who is looking forward to bringing his process to his father’s attention - not to give it to him but to share it with him if he “gets his price.”  And if he does not, there are other glassworks, larger than Rutherford, to whom he might sell it.  But, as you might imagine, the John Sr. is not on his son’s wavelength.

The play’s only other character is Mrs. Henderson (Dales Soules, who also reprises the role she played in the 2001 production).  It is she who comes to plead with Rutherford to re-hire her son, who he fired for having stolen money from the factory.

The three actors who are reprising the roles that they played in the 2001 production (Hogan, Van Pelt and Soules) are all wonderful in their portrayals of Rutherford, Martin and Mrs. Henderson, respectively.  Of the newcomers to the show, Surrey is a standout as Janet.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Off Off Broadway: The Thrill of the Chase

(L-R) Ryan Barrentine, Kevin O'Callaghan and Jenna D'Angelo in THE THRILL OF THE CHASE. Photo Credit: Julia Kinnunen
In the program notes to The Thrill of the Chase, now playing at The Drilling Company Theatre, the play’s production company, Mad Dog Theatre Company, describes itself as “a group of artists who tell stories….that are funny, ferocious, unlikely, sexy, rough, inconvenient, loud, unsightly, and - ultimately – provoke questions.”  If so, Mad Dog partially fulfilled its mission in its production of The Thrill of the Chase – but only partially.  To be sure, the play is ferocious, unlikely, rough, inconvenient, loud and unsightly.  But it is not at all funny and you’re unlikely to find it sexy either (unless your sexual proclivities extend to the sadistic).  And the only question it provokes is: Why did Philip Gawthorne, the playwright, have to spend two and a half hours to tell a story that might easily have been told in an hour and a half?

Charlie (Kevin O’Callaghan) is a lazy, selfish, cruel, misogynistic womanizer in his late twenties.  His wealthy father has given him a penthouse apartment in which he can drink beer, shoot pool, smoke weed, do Johnnie Walker shots, snort coke, entertain his girlfriends and revel in the psychological pain he causes them when, inevitably, he ceremonially and sadistically dumps them.  He shares his luxurious bachelor pad with his childhood best friend, Nicky (Ryan Barrentine) who, unlike Charlie, holds down a full time job and is in a committed relationship with his somewhat eccentric vegetarian girlfriend, Izzy (Nicole Samsel).  Charlie dominates the more mild-mannered Nicky and, when Nicky announces that he plans to marry Izzy, which threatens to bring an end to the two roommates’ shared bachelorhood, Charlie determines to stop at nothing to derail Nicky’s and Izzy’s marriage plans.  To that end, he enlists the aid of Faith (Jenna D’Angelo), the fourth member of the play’s ensemble.

The play’s conceit is not an original one and it is not developed in any new, unusual or creative manner.  Admittedly, there are twists and turns but they are mostly anticipated (indeed, in some cases even telegraphed) and it’s doubtful that you’ll find them very surprising.  And all four principals come across more as caricatures than fully fleshed out individuals.

The play’s press release asserts that “Following in the tradition of David Mamet and Neil LaBute, The Thrill of the Chase is a brutal, uncompromising, and darkly comic exploration of masculinity and sexual politics,” and I guess there’s some truth to that: the play is brutal and uncompromising and it does, in a way, seek to explore the more depraved aspects of what sometimes passes for masculinity and sexual politics.  But, unfortunately, Gawthorne is not really in a class with Mamet or LaBute, both of whom are so adept at plot structure and character development and have such remarkable ears for language and dialogue that one is more than adequately rewarded for sitting through their otherwise disturbing works.  Hopefully, Gawthorne, who has been named one of the United Kingdom’s top ten writers under thirty by “Broadcast Magazine,” may make it into their company someday but, based on his The Thrill of the Chase, he’s not there yet.

Given the hands they were dealt, all four actors play their roles admirably and ought not be faulted for the play’s shortcomings.  

Friday, February 17, 2012

Off Broadway: Poetic License

Poetic License by Jack Canfora, a terrific new play that recently opened at 59E59 Theatres, explores the blurred line between plagiarism and mutual cooperation, the secrets that haunt our lives, and the relationships among husbands and wives, parents and children, and young lovers. The entire four person cast is outstanding and this is one play I wholeheartedly recommend.

John Greer (Geraint Wyn Davies) is a distinguished professor of literature at an elite university and a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet to boot.  Moreover, PBS is about to do a piece on him and he is on the verge of being named Poet Laureate of the United States, a position with no power and of little remunerative value but one which would represent the capstone of his career.

A soft spoken, self-effacing gentleman, John is looking forward to celebrating his birthday at home with his wife, Diane (Liza Vann) and his daughter, Katherine (Natalie Kuhn).  Diane, a documentary producer, is a tough, controlling, manipulative, and acerbic woman who has played a large role in managing John’s successful academic career and, unbeknownst to John, is hoping to use the occasion of the family birthday gathering to further his career by tying it in with the PBS piece and Poet Laureate appointment.
Katherine, a  graduate student who aspires to be a poet in her own right, no longer lives with her parents but lives with her boyfriend, Edmund (Ari Butler).  She has come home for the occasion and has brought Edmund with her to meet her parents for the first time.  Katherine is clearly “Daddy’s little girl” and her relationship with her mother is strained as mother-daughter relationships often are.  She has warned Edmund at great length to be wary of her mother’s “charm offensive” but is unconcerned over how things might go between him and her father.  As she sees it, her father is “so unintimidating, it’s astounding.”
Edmund, a graduate teaching assistant in literature himself, doesn’t quite see it that way.  He claims to be more nervous about meeting John than about meeting Diane (not surprising as young men traditionally are nervous when meeting their girlfriends’ fathers for the first time – especially when it involves informing them that they are living with their daughters). Moreover, Edmund’s trepidation has been compounded by the fact that, as he puts it: “none of my other girlfriends’ fathers’ had a Pulitzer on the mantle.”
But as it turns out, there is much more that enters into Edmund’s anxiety than first meets the eye: Edmund believes that John’s entire life is based on a lie and that his poetic works have all been plagiarized.  And once he makes that accusation, the questions come fast and furious.
What would lead Edmund to hurl such a charge at so esteemed an individual as John?  Is there really any basis to his accusation and if so, what might it be?  Or is there something about Edmund that we don’t know; might he be mentally unbalanced and his charges totally groundless?
If Jack Canfora, in writing Poetic License, had limited himself only to answering those questions, this still would have been an enjoyable play, if nothing more than a good mystery story.  But Canfora has gone much further than that and has used the issue of plagiarism as a skeletal framework on which to layer issues of much deeper import.  And, as a result, this is not merely a good play but a terrific one.
For starters, Canfora has taken on the whole issue of what constitutes “plagiarism” in the first place.  Is it “plagiarism” to accept someone else’s words or phrases and construct a poem from them?  As John puts it, saying that “is like saying the workman who hauled the block of stone Michelangelo used was really the one who made the statue of David.”  But if that is so, where would one draw the line?
Moreover, what are the implications of all this for the inter-relationships among all the characters?  Has John been dishonest with his daughter in leading her to see him as something more than he is?  Has Diane been honest with anyone?  Has Edmund been honest in affirming his love for Katherine or has he merely used her to get to her father?
The four actors in this production are all absolutely superb in their respective roles.  Butler plays the role of Edmund just enough off-kilter to suggest that all might not be quite what it seems with him, without giving anything away – a fine line to walk.  Kuhn is wonderful as Katherine, capturing the essences of three different relationships in one character: a young woman infatuated with her new boyfriend, Daddy’s little girl who still idolizes her father, and the ever-rebellious daughter whose mother will never cease setting her teeth on edge.  Vann has perhaps the juiciest role of all and what are probably the best lines in the play – and she plays them for all they’re worth.  And the range of emotions and character shifts exhibited by Davies are extraordinary; if anyone comes close to stealing the show, it is he.
Try not to miss it.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Off Broadway: The Threepenny Opera

Joy Franz in The Threepenny Opera.  Photo by Jill Usdan
I have long been of two minds about The Threepenny Opera.  On the one hand, I love the music.  I am enthralled by Kurt Weill’s blend of folk, jazz and avant-garde melodies which is largely responsible for the play’s popular appeal.  (Indeed, the play's most popular song, “Mack the Knife,” has become a jazz classic having been performed by everyone from Louis Armstrong, Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald to Bobby Darin.)  And when the play is performed in one of its softer renditions (e.g. in the Mark Blitzstein translation staged in New York in 1954-61) wherein Macheath is portrayed as more of a lovable scoundrel, a seducer, a rogue, and the kind of bad boy good girls can’t resist, rather than as a vicious serial killer, then the play itself can be lots of fun.
Moreover, this is unquestionably and deservedly Bertolt Brecht’s best known work, an early example of what he considered to be his "epic theater" through which he sought to arouse his audience to social action (as opposed to what he considered to be the “theater of illusions” in which audiences were merely entertained.)  In attempting this, he was remarkably successful: the play was a sensation at its 1928 premiere in Berlin and, by 1933, by which time the rise of Hitler had forced Brecht and Weill to leave Germany, it already had been translated into 18 languages and been performed more than 10,000 times.
But therein lies the rub.  Brecht’s Marxist and anti-capitalist sentiments at the core of this show are anathema to me.  His belief that the least productive dregs of society - murderers and thieves, beggars and whores - ought not be held responsible for their actions; that it is capitalism, the free market and bad luck which have made them what they are; that they, themselves, therefore, bear no responsibility for their behavior, and that their salvation depends only upon some deus ex machina in the form of some sort of governmental magical largesse – all that is, to my mind, not merely preposterous but deeply immoral.
Which means that when the play is performed in one of its grittier translations, such as the one by Michael Feingold that Marvel Rep has chosen to use for this production, I don’t find the play nearly as entertaining as when it is performed in one of its softer and more fun-loving translations.
Of course, one must assume that the decision by Marvell Rep to use the Feingold rather than the Blitzstein translation was completely intentional.  When Marvell elected to include The Threepenny Opera as one of the six plays in its 2012 series of “Banned and Burned” plays in the first place, it was prompted to do so at least in part by its empathy for the Occupy Wall Street movement.  As Lenny Liebowitz, the director has stated: “While searching for a musical for our 2012 season, Occupy Wall Street began to capture national and international attention.  We realized, if there ever has been a time for Brecht, and particularly for Threepenny, it’s now.  The Threepenny Opera is just as radical today as it was when the Nazis banned it, and it still astonishes with its combination of filth and grandeur, savagery and charm.”
And I can readily understand that.  While few if any of the participants in Occupy Wall Street may be murderers and thieves, whores and beggars, they are certainly parasites, willing to accept monetary support, food, medical attention, sanitary facilities, and whatever else they can get from the productive members of society while doing nothing productive themselves.  And their mantra appears to be one of resentment against the “haves,” not because of anything illegal or immoral that the “haves” might have done to acquire their favored positions but simply because they “have” and the occupiers “have not.”  And, like the characters in The Threepenny Opera, the “occupiers” believe that that is simply a matter of luck or the consequence of an evil capitalist system which can and should only be redressed through some magical redistribution of wealth facilitated by the government.
In the Marvell Rep production of The Threepenny Opera now being staged at TBG Theatre, Macheath, aka Mack the Knife (Matt Faucher) is portrayed as a charming scalawag with inordinate sexual appeal to the ladies but, even more than that, as a gang leader, pimp, murderer and thief. A Casanova, to be sure, but a vicious lowlife to boot.  His latest conquest is Polly Peachum (Emma Rosenthal) who has married Mack (or at least believes she has).  Polly is the daughter of Jonathan Jeremiah Peachum (Angus Hepburn), who effectively controls all the beggars of London, and his wife, Celia Peachum (Joy Franz), both of whom are dismayed by the marriage and plot to get Mack arrested and hanged.
That is something of a complicated venture since Mack is a close friend of the constable Tiger Brown (Chad Jennings).  Mack and Tiger were at one time army comrades-in-arms and they have remained friends as Tiger provides Mack with protection from the police in exchange for a portion of Mack’s ill-gotten gains.  To complicate matters further, Mack is also carrying on an affair with Tiger’s daughter, (Kelly Pekar), who exhibits signs of carrying his child.  Nor has Mack completely severed his relationship with Jenny Diver (Ariela Morgenstern), the whore to whom he had been both lover and pimp nor, for that matter, his relationships with Jenny’s many associates.
As the play continues, Mr. and Mrs. Peachum seek to prevail upon both Tiger and the whores of London, including Jenny, to betray Mack, leading to his ultimate arrest.  To discover what happens next, you’ll have to see the show.
Despite my misgivings regarding the play’s underlying Marxist philosophy and the decision to use the Feingold translation, I must say that I still enjoyed the production.  Admittedly, it took a bit of a suspension of disbelief on my part and, to a degree, a measure of suspension of moral judgment as well – but isn’t that what theatre is all about anyway?
The performances, after all, were wonderful.  Emma Rosenthal’s voice was outstanding in the role of Polly Peachem but I also was taken with the singing of Matt Faucher (Macheath), Joy Franz (Celia Peachum), Ariela Morgenstern (Jenny Diver) and Kelly Pekar (Lucy Brown).  And Angus Hepburn was terrific in the role of Jonathan Jeremiah Peachum.
So, all told, I did enjoy the play and I imagine you will too.  And indeed, if if should turn out that you share the play’s philosophical, moral, economic and social values more than I do, you may well enjoy it even more than I did.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Off Broadway: Professor Bernhardi

Sam Tsoutsouvas as Professor Bernhardi.  Photo by Jill Usdan.
We saw Professor Bernhardi by Arthur Schnitzler at TBG Theatre last Saturday night and very much enjoyed it.  First produced in Berlin in 1912, this was one of the seminal plays written in German initially to confront the issue of anti-Semitism.  Schnitzler, an Austrian doctor, novelist and playwright, had sought to produce the play in Vienna but was not permitted to do so: it was banned by the Austrian authorities for being “polemically anti-clerical,” because it “betrayed Austria,” and for its “distorted depiction of Austrian public life.”  Hence, its ironic opening in Germany, that ultimate hotbed of anti-Semitism, where it (together with Schnitzler’s other works, described by Hitler as “Jewish filth”) subsequently was blacklisted and burned by the Nazis.

The play then was not fully translated into English until 1936, five years after Schnitzler’s death, when it premiered in London in a production directed by Schnitzler’s son Heinrich.  And not until now, 100 years after it was first written, has an English-language production of this work been mounted in New York.  This production, by Marvell Repertory Theatre is being presented as the first in its 2012 series of “Burned & Banned” works, which Marvell describes as “the plays you were warned about” and as “six incendiary, provocative, theatrical firestorms – masterworks that have been burned, banned, caused riots, and gotten their casts thrown in jail.”  (The other five are scheduled to be The Threepenny Opera, Night Games, God of Vengeance, Exorcism and Spring’s Awakening.)

We owe Marvell a big debt of gratitude for bringing this long neglected play to our shores in a terrific production now running at TBG Theatre.  The large and very talented cast of 18, led by Sam Tsoutsouvas as Professor Bernhardi, brings a verve, dynamism and theatricality to this production which one seldom finds in off Broadway productions.  Costumes and scenic design are first rate and the play’s director, Lenny Leibowitz, is to be especially commended for maintaining just the right balance among the play’s multitude of personalities.

The play is set primarily in the Elisabethinum, a private teaching medical clinic in fin de si├Ęcle Vienna.  Eighty-five percent of its patients are Catholic (in predominately Catholic Austria) but eighty percent of its doctors are Jewish.  Doctor Bernardi, a Jew, is attending to a young Catholic woman who is dying from a septic infection resulting from a backstreet abortion gone awry.  She is, however, unaware of her condition and is in a state of euphoria due to the camphor injection administered by her doctor to alleviate her end-of-life suffering.  When the Reverend Franz Reder, a Roman Catholic priest (Markus Potter) arrives at the request of the patient’s nurse, Sister Ludmilla (Jill Usdan), to perform the last rites, Professor Bernhardi bars his entry to his patient and she dies without ever having received them.

A variety of crises ensue involving the investigation of Professor Bernhardi, charges of anti-clerical behavior and counter charges of anti-Semitism, the continued viability of the Elisabethinum is put in doubt, loyalties and alliances are strained.  And the deepest philosophical and theological questions of right and wrong are raised.  Are the rights of individuals and concerns for the “truth” absolutes, trumping all other considerations, or are there circumstances (and if so, what might they be) when the individual or the truth ought be sacrificed for the greater good?  Should Bernhardi have violated his commitment to just one individual (his patient) as he saw it, in order to avoid jeopardizing the continued existence of the Elisabethinum and his ability to save the lives of many more future patients?  Or should he have acceded to the appointment of a Catholic doctor rather than a Jewish one as a new department head in order to avoid trouble?  Was Reder justified in telling less than the whole truth, at Bernhardi’s expense, for the “greater good” of preserving the reputation of the Church? Was Professor Dr. Flint, Minister of Education (Jonathan Cantor) justified in effectively betraying Bernhardi for the “public good”?

This is a long play (just under three hours) and one that is long on exposition but all that time and all those speeches, monologues and dialogues are used to great advantage.  It's a shame that it took 100 years for this play to make it here but if you see it (and I hope you do) I think you'll be glad that it finally did.