Friday, September 28, 2012

Broadway: Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Amy Morton and Tracy Letts in WHO'S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF?  Photo by Michael Brosilow.
Coming on the heels of successful runs in Washington D.C. and Chicago, Steppenwolf Theatre Company’s terrific revival of Edward Albee’s classic Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? will be opening officially at the Booth Theatre in New York on October 13, 2012 – just 50 years to the day after it first opened on Broadway.  The original production starred Arthur Hill and Uta Hagen as George and Martha; a 1976 revival featured Ben Gazzara and Colleen Dewhurst in the same roles; in 2005, Bill Irwin and Kathleen Turner reprised the viciously combative couple; and a film version released in 1966 starred  Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor.   We’ve been around long enough and have been fortunate enough to have seen all of those productions – and we very much enjoyed them all.  Assuredly, those were tough acts to follow.  But now that we’ve had the opportunity to see a preview performance of this latest revival starring Tracy Letts and Amy Morton, I can tell you this: this production of this play is as good as any we’ve ever seen before.

Amy Morton, who starred in the Pulitzer Prize and Tony winning August: Osage County and who received a well-deserved Tony nomination for her performance in that play, surely merits a similar nomination for her performance as Martha in this production of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?  Martha is the wife of George, a burnt-out associate professor of history at a small college, and the daughter of the college’s president.  While she plays her role as George’s bitter, shrewish, mentally unbalanced, and emasculating wife in a somewhat lower register than did her predecessors, we mean that as a compliment, not a criticism.  It has allowed her to create an even richer, more nuanced, and more complex character on stage than we have come to expect.  And it has allowed Tracy Letts, the highly regarded Chicago actor who wrote August: Osage County and who is making his Broadway debut here as George, to play his role even more dynamically that had his very talented predecessors.

And Mr. Letts has taken full advantage of that opportunity by turning in a truly powerful performance.  Indeed, if it was Martha who dominated earlier versions of this work, it is George who dominates this one.  Surely that is a credit to Mr. Letts, but it is a credit to Ms. Morton and to Pam MacKinnon, the play’s director, as well.  They all have contributed to what must be deemed a true ensemble success.

Carrie Coon as Honey and Madison Dirks as Nick round out the ensemble cast and do so brilliantly. Nick has just joined the college’s faculty in the biology department and seems to have all the drive that George once may have had but no longer does. (When Martha first married George, both she and her father thought that George someday might succeed his father-in-law as the college’s president but as things now stand, it appears likely that he won’t even make it to the chairmanship of the history department).  Honey is Nick’s mousey wife.

As the daughter of the college’s president, Martha has taken it upon herself to welcome new faculty members and their families – which is why she invited Nick and Honey to her home following her father’s late night faculty reception.  When Nick and Honey arrive after 2 AM, they already have had too much to drink (as have George and Martha) but that doesn’t stop any of them from imbibing even more.  One thing leads to another and the sexual tensions, pent-up emotions, and long held secrets that are released are explosive.  Distinctions between reality and fantasy are increasingly blurred and the inevitable crisis toward which the play has been building is…well, inevitable.

If you’ve never seen Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, don’t miss this opportunity to see this outstanding production of Albee’s masterpiece.  And even if you have seen it, here’s your chance to see it again as you’ve surely never seen it before.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Off Off Broadway: Something Wild...

Semantha Steinmetz and Jack Haley in 27 WAGONS FULL OF COTTON.  Photo by Cecilia Senocak
Pook’s Hill, a new theatre company dedicated to the production of classic plays, is currently staging Something Wild…, three one act plays by Tennessee Williams, at the Abingdon Theatre Arts Complex on West 36th Street.  The three plays - 27 Wagons Full of Cotton, Hello From Bertha, and This Property Is Condemned - share a common theme: in each, the protagonist is a woman who has been victimized, brutalized, exploited, or abused and who, as a consequence, is now mentally deranged, on the verge of death, or both.
In 27 Wagons Full of Cotton, the first and by far the best of the three plays, Jake Meighan (Jack Haley) burns down the cotton mill of his rival, Silva Viccaro (Brian Gianci).  Jake then pressures Flora (Semantha Steinmetz), his childless, sexually submissive, somewhat masochistic, and simple-minded wife, to provide him with an alibi but, whether inadvertently or purposefully, she fails to do so.  When Silva realizes that Jake is responsible for the fire, he seeks revenge by seducing (or raping – it’s not clear which) Jake's wife -  the first of Williams’ three victimized women.  (We meet the other two – Bertha and Willie, in Hello From Bertha and in This Property Is Condemned).  Only this time we can’t really be sure that Flora is a victim after all.  Given her submissive nature, her mild masochism, and her apparently long-festering resentment of her husband, one can only wonder whether her “accidental” betrayal of him was truly accidental or not and whether her succumbing to Silva wasn’t what she really intended in the first place.
In Hello From Bertha, the second and not nearly as successful play on the program, the victimized female protagonist is Bertha (Andrus Nichols), an aging whore in a run-down brothel who is not only sick but probably paranoid as well and ostensibly on her deathbed.  What little plot there is revolves around Bertha’s tentative reaching out to a former lover, but nothing comes of that and, relative to Williams’ other works, the play itself proves to be a meandering disappointment.
David Armanino and Tess Frazer in THIS PROPERTY IS CONDEMNED.  Photo by Cecilia Senocak.
Which brings us to Willie (Tess Frazer) the almost preternatural sylph in This Property Is Condemned.  Having been abandoned sequentially by both of her parents only to lose her older sister to tuberculosis, Willie is a street urchin who scavengies for food, fantasizes about following in her sister’s footsteps by trading sexual favors for a more glamorous life, and otherwise spends her days tightrope walking along a railroad track with the sole goal of going a bit farther than she had before without falling off.  When she comes upon Tom (David Armanino), a callow youth playing hooky from school so that he might fly his kite, nothing very dramatic occurs but we are treated to Williams’ marvelous literary exposition of the almost surrealistic life and mind of this third in his series of victimized women.

All three of the actors in 27 Wagons Full of Cotton – Samantha Steinmetz, Jack Haley, and Brian Gianci – are truly outstanding in their respective roles but special recognition must be accorded Ms Steinmetz whose nuanced portrayal of a mentally challenged, sexually confused, and alternately submissive and manipulative woman is really extraordinary.  And Tess Frazier in This Property Is Condemned deserves similar praise for her exceptional rendition of the otherworldly Willie. 

Monday, September 17, 2012

Off Broadway: The Anderson Twins Play The Fabulous Dorseys

Tommy Dorsey, born in 1905, was an immensely talented jazz trombonist, trumpeter, composer and big band leader.  His brother, Jimmy, born in the following year, was an equally talented jazz clarinetist, saxophonist, trumpeter, composer, and big band leader in his own right.  Together they reached the pinnacle of success as co-leaders of the Dorsey Brothers Orchestra until a falling out between them prompted Tommy to walk out in 1935 to form his own band.  And so the brothers re-climbed the heights, this time each on his own with his own band.  After a decade of estrangement, the brothers ultimately reconciled: Jimmy joined his brother’s band which became known as “Tommy Dorsey and His Orchestra Featuring Jimmy Dorsey.”  Upon Tommy’s death in 1956, Jimmy assumed leadership of the band but his leadership was short-lived: Jimmy died in 1957, less than seven months after his brother passed away.
Pete and Will Anderson, twin brothers who are very musically talented in their own right – they both play the saxophone, clarinet and flute and co-led the Anderson Brothers Sextet – are now channeling the Dorsey brothers in their unusual multi-media work The Anderson Twins Play The Fabulous Dorseys, premiering at 59E59 Theaters.  Against a backdrop of videoclips from the once popular “What’s My Line” TV show in which the Dorseys appeared as mystery guests and the United Artists 1947 fictionalized biographical film,” The Fabulous Dorseys,” in which Tommy and Jimmy play themselves, Pete and Will Anderson lead a terrific jazz sextet in reprising many of the classics that the Dorseys had played in the 1940s, 50s, and 60s.  Bantering over their differing jazz interpretations and styles, Pete and Will also exhibit their own simulated sibling rivalry in an attempt to bring to life the passions and attitudes that motivated the Dorseys in the last century.
As far as the music goes, this is one terrific show.  Both Pete and Will are outstanding on all three of the instruments they play: saxophone, clarinet, and flute.  And they are backed up by four other very talented musicians: Jon-Erik Kellso on trumpet, Ehud Asherie on piano, Devin Dorn on drums, and Clovis Nicolas on bass.  I was especially impressed by Jon-Erik’s trumpet-playing and Ehud’s virtuosity on the piano.  But so far as everything else about this production goes – the TV and movie video-clips, the artificially created similarity between the Dorseys and the Andersons, the dialog on stage – well, not so much.  Indeed, I don’t think anything would have been lost had the show simply consisted of this Anderson Brothers Sextet playing a variety of Dorsey Brothers classics, without the schtick.
The space at 59E59 Theaters in which this show is performed has been reconfigured as a cabaret with too many audience members crammed into uncomfortable seats around small tables in too small a space.  Again, simple tiered seating might not have been as clever or creative but it sure would have been more comfortable.  But enough of my nit-picking.  When all is said and done, despite my complaints about the show’s structure or the theatre itself, the jazz musical performances themselves are so good that nothing else really matters.  If you’re into jazz, this is one show worth seeing. 


Thursday, September 13, 2012

Off Broadway: Fly Me to the Moon

A little more than a decade ago, when we first saw Marie Jones’ best known and multiple award-winning work, Stones in His Pockets, in its London debut, we realized that we had come upon a remarkably talented playwright with an exceptional gift for dialogue.  And so it was that we eagerly anticipated seeing her latest work, Fly Me to the Moon, in its New York premiere as part of 1st Irish at 59E59 Theaters.
Well, we’ve seen it and the good news is that Fly Me to the Moon does confirm Ms Jones’ considerable talent.  The play is well constructed and sharply written.  And there is more good news: the two actors, Tara Lynne O’Neill (as Loretta Mackey) and Katie Tumelty as (Frances Shields) are supremely talented in their own rights, both delivering wonderful comedic performances as two care workers looking after Davy, a wheelchair-bound octogenarian , unable to speak and paralyzed on one side as the result of a stroke.  And the bottom line (of the good news, that is) is that the play does provide one with an hour and forty minutes’ worth of genial entertainment.
But, sadly, there is some bad news too: this play is not anywhere near as good as Stones in His Pockets.  The plot of Fly Me to the Moon is little more than a minor variation on a hackneyed Grade B movie theme.  Davy, whose only real passions were Frank Sinatra and playing the horses, dies as the play begins (we never actually do get to meet him) and Loretta and Frances are presented with an opportunity to steal his racetrack winnings and last pension check.  Loretta and Frances are basically decent women but they live hardscrabble minimum wage lives and they succumb to temptation.  Who, after all, will be hurt and who is to know?  Certainly not Davy – he’s dead.  His bookmaker – who cares about him?  And the Government – don’t make me laugh.  But as plots of this sort always do, one thing leads (or rather descends) to another and Loretta and Frances find themselves sliding down a slippery slope toward self-destruction.
Here’s where I’d normally be issuing a “spoiler alert,” before saying much more about the play’s plot – if there was much more to say.  But there isn’t and there’s the rub: the play’s resolution involves some half-hearted attempts to come up with some creative O’Henry-ish twists but to no avail.  There are no truly unanticipated surprises and so the real bottom line is that despite some clever dialogue, excellent acting, and amusing moments, the play turns out to be a disappointment.  Or maybe, having seen Stones in His Pockets, my expectations for Fly Me to the Moon were simply too high.