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Sunday, January 27, 2013

Off Off Broadway: After the Fall

Thea Brooks and Kirk Gostkowski in AFTER THE FALL at The Chain Theatre

I love to travel - Egypt in 2010 (less than a year before the Arab Spring erupted); South Africa and Botswana in 2011; the Galapagos Islands and Italy in 2012; and, looking ahead, Scandinavia and St. Petersburg, Russia later this year.  And yet, as a typical Manhattanite, I seldom travel to the outer boroughs (indeed, I can’t even remember the last time I was in Staten Island or the Bronx).  And so it was with some reluctance that I determined to make the trek from my home on Manhattan’s Upper East Side to the Chain Theatre in Long Island City, the new home of the Variations Theatre Group (VTG), to attend a performance of their latest production, Arthur Miller’s After the Fall

I’m glad I did.

For starters, I ought mention that my expedition to the wilds of Long Island City turned out to be no big deal: it actually required less time and effort for me to get there than for me to get to Greenwich Village or the East Village or even the Theatre District of Manhattan, my more usual theatre haunts.  (Indeed, the unexpected simplicity of my trip – requiring no passport nor visa – may even encourage me to attempt a foray into the Bronx or Richmond one of these days.)

But, of course, my real pleasure in having traveled to Long Island City to see this production of After the Fall didn’t derive just from the fact that getting there was easy.  No, my real pleasure came from the production itself - a truly outstanding staging of one of Miller’s more controversial and difficult plays.  Nor was I really surprised: my initial acquaintance with VTG occurred when I saw their production of Neil LaBute’s The Shape of Things in 2010.  That one just blew me away and I was also greatly impressed by their production of Sam Shepard’s Fool for Love in 2011.  Rich Ferraioli and Kirk Gostkowski co-founded VTG and it was Ferraioli who directed both The Shape of Things and Fool for Love and it was  Gostkowski who starred in both of them.  Now it was Ferraioli who was directing After the Fall and Gostkowski who was starring in it (which is what prompted me to travel to Long Island in the first place) so my expectations were high.  I was not disappointed. 

After the Fall is one of Miller’s less frequently performed works, being relatively unpopular both with theatre-goers and with critics alike.  In part, that unpopularity reflects the fact that this is one of Miller’s most autobiographical works and some critics have been put off by its thinly-veiled depictions of Miller, himself, as well as its presumed portrayals of his family and friends, most particularly his second wife, Marilyn Monroe.  In part, too, it may be because it challenges its audience with its unconventional non-linear introspective structure, focusing as much or more on the thoughts and emotions of its protagonist Quentin (Kirk Gostkowski) as on the actual events surrounding him.  In part, it also may be because it asks its audience to confront a whole host of difficult philosophical questions ranging from the conflict that exists between loyalty to one’s friends and one’s obligations to one’s country to the moral issues underlying interfamilial relations to coming to grips with the horrors of the Holocaust and man’s inhumanity to man.

For my money, however, the play’s unpopularity reflects not the philosophical questions that Miller asks but rather the answer he suggests - to wit, his equation of the truly cosmic with the trivial.  Assuming the autobiographical nature of the play, Miller explores his relationships with his parents, his brother, his colleagues, his wives and the other women in his life; he addresses the moral issues involving the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) hearings; and he confronts what may have been the deepest moral issue of the twentieth century: making sense of the Holocaust.  All important questions and worth exploring in their own right, to be sure, but to suggest that an individual’s insensitivity or disloyalty toward another individual - or even his abandonment of a friend or wife or lover – reprehensible as such acts may be, can in any way be compared to the horror of the Holocaust is itself morally obscene, Yet that is just what Miller appears to be doing.  And that may be reason enough for the play’s relative unpopularity

In the play, Quentin is cast as a lawyer but it is pretty clear that his character has been based largely on that of Miller, himself.  The play’s very talented supporting cast of thirteen play a variety of roles, most importantly those of Quentin’s parents (Bill Toscano and Kathleen Stuart); his brother, Dan (Anthony Sneed); his colleagues, Mickey (Deven Anderson), who agrees to name names before the HUAC and Lou (Matthew Dalton Lynch) who refuses to do so; his first wife, Louise (Amy Newhall); his second wife, Maggie (Thea Brooks); and his final love interest, Holga (Liz Tancredi). 

Of them all, it is Brooks who truly stands out: it is pretty obvious that her character, Maggie, is based on the character of Miller’s second wife, Marilyn Monroe, the complex, drug-addicted, suicidal, sex goddess who was childishly na├»ve and trusting and yet so insecure and manipulative as to approach the point of paranoia.  Books has captured her persona so brilliantly that she might as well have channeled her and, as a consequence, the play turns out to as much Marilyn’s story as Arthur’s soul-searching memoir.      

Given the play’s unusual structure and its cast of fourteen very talented actors, this was a very ambitious production for an off off Broadway theatre group to have undertaken.  But they did and they pulled it off.  Chalk up another success for VTG, Ferraioli and Gostkowski!

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Broadway: The Mystery of Edwin Drood

The cast of THE MYSTERY OF EDWIN DROOD.  Photo by Joan Marcus.

Roundabout Theatre Company’s revival of The Mystery of Edwin Drood at Studio 54 in New York is great fun.  The singing is exuberant, the choreography energetically acrobatic, the acting infectiously joyous.  The sets and costumes are absolutely magnificent and the general ambience of this play within a play (the premise being that the incomplete Dickens novel, here adapted for the stage, is being produced by a theatrical troupe at the Music Hall Royale in Victorian London) is cheerily successful.  Add to that the play’s interactive conceit in which it is left to the audience to determine who killed Edwin Drood, who the bearded detective Dick Datchery might really be, and which of the play’s many characters are destined for romance, and you’ve got the makings of an entertaining evening.

To be sure, the show’s music is more derivative than memorable and I doubt that you’ll find yourself humming any of its tunes as you leave the theatre.  And the audience participation conceit is a bit hokey after all.  But, all things considered, the show has more to commend than to disparage.

The Mystery of Edwin Drood was Charles Dickens final novel.  It was scheduled to be serialized in twelve parts in 1970-71 but, by the time of Dickens’ death in 1870, only half of the book had been written and so it was never completed.  That allowed Rupert Holmes (who wrote this musical’s book, music and lyrics) to come up with the concept of having the audience vote to determine who Drood’s murderer actually was.  In 1985, he created this show, initially known by the full name The Mystery of Edwin Drood  but re-titled simply Drood midway through its original run.  That original production, by the way, went on to win five Tony Awards in 1986 including Best Musical.

The plot line of Dickens’ novel already was relatively complex, even though he’d only gotten halfway through his book.  To greatly oversimplify, Edwin Drood (here played with great panache by Stephanie J. Block) is betrothed to the lovely Rosa Bud (Betsy Wolfe).  John Jasper (Will Chase), Drood’s sinister uncle and guardian and Rosa Bud’s music master, is also in love with Rosa Bud.  Neville Landless (Andy Karl), who arrives from Ceylon with his twin sister Helena (Jessie Mueller), is instantly smitten by Rosa Bud but he and Edwin take an immediate dislike to one another.  Jasper frequents an opium den run by Princess Puffer (Chita Rivera).  Edwin and Rosa Bud break off their engagement but remain friends.  The Reverend Mr. Crisparkle (Gregg Edelman) apparently succeeds in bringing about a reconciliation between Edwin and Neville, who leave his dinner party together.

The next morning it is discovered that Edwin is missing and, while his body is never found (maybe it would have been or maybe he even would have turned up safe and sound if Dickens had only finished his book!), it is assumed that he has been murdered.   But by whom?  The pool of suspects would seem to include John Jasper, Neville Landless, Rosa Bud, and many others.

Some time after that, Princess Puffer appears in town to investigate the disappearance/murder.  But why?  So too does the bearded stranger Dick Datchery, who clearly is in disguise and may not be whom he seems to be.  Why again?  And it’s at about that point that the original Dickens text peters out…

What to do?  Well, in this rousing revival at Roundabout’s Studio 54, the solution is: Ask the audience!  And that’s just what the Chairman, our host for the evening at the Music Hall Royale (Jim Norton) does.  He asks the audience to vote on who they think the murderer is, and, while they’re at it, to vote on who might have been disguised as Dick Datchery: was it Rosa Bud?  Neville Landless?  Helena Landless?  The list goes on.

And then, as if that were not already enough, they’re asked to choose one male character and one female character to embark on a romance together.  I understand that alternate endings were written for every possible combination, no matter how unlikely, and I can only wonder whether in its next incarnation some years hence, the show will expand those permutations to include a variety of politically correct gay and lesbian combinations as well.  After all, it already has a woman playing the role of Edwin Drood (and perhaps another in the role of Dick Datchery). 

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Off Broadway: Midsummer [a play with songs]

Matthew Pidgeon and Cora Bissett in MIDSUMMER [A PLAY WITH SONGS].  Photo by Douglas Roberstson.

Midsummer [a play with songs] by David Greig has finally arrived in New York with its batch of mixed messages.  “Change Is Possible” is one (that one actually appears in lights on stage) but, at the same time, everything’s pre-determined so don’t think that you can affect matters because, as Helena (Cora Bissett) expresses it: “You think you’re making a decision but, in fact, whatever happened - it was already something you were going to do....Life deals us the cards and it turns out we don’t even play them we simply turn them over and see what we’ve got.  The pack gets shuffled when you’re born and all the rest’s just a slow unwinding.

Or again, in contemplation of Bob’s (Matthew Pidgeon’s) turning 35, Helena asks despondently: “Is this it?” to which Bob’s answer effectively is “Yes.”  He does express it less succinctly: “Basically we face a long slow haul towards death.  Every day will hold fewer surprises than the last.  Our body will decay irreversibly.  We will become less open to new ideas.  We will become increasingly aware of decay and waste….Disappointment will become our default position as each bright dream of our youth is snuffed out one after the other after the other.”  Pretty much of a downer, right?

And yet elsewhere, when Helena remarks that “…when you see them - the runners – weaving and glistening through the crowds – you might think ‘look at them, the fools, they’re trying to run away from death’ – but they’re not – they’re honestly not – they’re running towards something – ” to which Bob responds, “And sometimes – when the road and the rhythm and pace is just right – they lose the boundaries of themselves and catch it just for a moment - ”

One last example: Both Bob and Helena dwell on the fact that individuals are necessarily lonely and separated from one another
“…there are only inches between us
But there might as well be mountains and trees
In this lonely distance between us
There are cities and oceans and seas…”

And yet Bob also sings:

“…these could be the best days of our lives,
So you said to me,
And now we start again…
Could these be the best days of our lives?”

So what are we to make of it all?  I think that what the playwright is saying is Que Sera, Sera – whatever will be will be – and maybe there’s nothing you can do about it, but that doesn’t mean that whatever happens will necessarily be bad.  Maybe at least some of the random cards you’ll be dealt will turn out to be good ones after all.  So (to mix a metaphor), don’t throw in the towel (if you’re willing to assume that it’s even in your power to decide whether or not to throw in the towel in the first place, which in turn can get us bogged down in an infinite loop of philosophical sophistry).  Or maybe not.  And anyway it can’t hurt to try because maybe you will be able to affect matters after all.  Who knows?

And that’s what I think that Greig has done in this play, only he’s expressed it in much more entertaining fashion than I just have.  Bob is a petty car thief with no distinctive features (which is why he’s referred to as “medium Bob.”)  One wouldn’t expect him to be a frustrated poet or to be reading Dostoevsky or to dream of being an itinerant busker  – but he is and he does.  Helena is an elegantly attired divorce lawyer who has just been stood up by her date (likely her married lover).  One wouldn’t expect these two to even meet, let alone embark on an impetuous sexual relationship – but they do.  That’s just the way the cards were dealt.

One thing leads to another.  A night of sexual excess.  A weekend of debauchery. Japanese bondage.  Goths.  Fine wines.  Alcoholic blackouts.  Stolen funds. Threats on Bob’s life.  Chase scenes.  Miraculous escapes.  Wedding disasters.  It was all in the cards and it is very, very funny.

Midsummer [a play with songs] was a big hit at the 2009 Edinburgh Festival Fringe and went on to tour England, Ireland, Canada, Australia, and Washington, DC.  Now it has come to the Clurman Theatre on Theatre Row on West 42nd Street with the original cast, both of whom, Cora Bissett and Matthew Pidgeon, are absolutely terrific in this rollicking two-hander. And my only regret is that the show’s run is limited (it’s scheduled to run only through January 26).  But who knows?  Maybe it’s been written in the stars that it will be extended beyond that date.  I certainly hope so.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Off Off Broadway: The Fig Leaves Are Falling

Natalie Venetia Belcon and Jonathan Rayson in THE FIG LEAVES ARE FALLING.  Photo by  Dixie Sheridan.

The Fig Leaves Are Falling by Allan Sherman first opened on Broadway on January 2, 1969.  It received such scathing reviews (Clive Barnes of the “New York Times” wrote that “,,,there is nothing much wrong with [the play]…that a new book, new music, new lyrics, new settings, new direction, new choreography and a partially new cast would not possibly put right”) that it closed after only four performances.

In that original production, Barry Nelson played the role of Harry Stone, a 44-year-old senior executive at a greeting card company, living in Larchmont with his devoted wife, Lillian, and their two children.  Lillian, then played by Dorothy Louden (who received a Tony Award nomination for her performance, notwithstanding the play’s extremely short run), was the perfect wife, mother and homemaker.  Nice house, two cars, a live-in maid, the perfect life.  But this was the late 1960s, a time of social, political and sexual unrest (think Vietnam, the pill, sit-ins and love-ins) and so it was inevitable that Harry’s world would be rocked when he was confronted by his more sexually-liberated 24-year-old secretary, Pookie Chapman (then played by Jenny O’Hara).

The play is now being revived off-off-Broadway at the Connelly Theatre by Unsung Musicals and, considering its ignominious history, the question is not “Why did it take so long?” but, rather, “Why would anyone ever bother to revive it at all?”  Well, the answer is simply that that is what Unsung Musicals does: it has taken as its mission “the restoration and presentation of obscure but artistically sound works” and its artistic director, Ben West, saw enough that he considered worthwhile in the play to justify its revival.

But what is now appearing at the Connelly isn’t really a revival in the truest sense.  In order to make his new production work, West revised it extensively, eliminating much of its socio-political commentary, deleting some songs and adding others, patching together scenes from three different drafts of the original play, eliminating sub-plots, and focusing tightly on the main theme – the choice that Harry must make between Lillian and Pookie (here re-named Jenny in honor of the actress who played her in the original production).  What he ended up with then was, for better or worse, a far cry from what originally appeared on Broadway 44 years ago.

But is it better or worse?  Since I never saw the original play on Broadway nearly a half century ago, I’m not really in a position to say but I suspect that West’s new version may be more entertaining on balance than its predecessor was.  The 1969 production did set a very low bar and I don’t think that Clive Barnes’ caustic comments on that production would apply to what is now playing at the Connelly.  The current show, while by no means exceptional, is cheerfully engaging; it has its amusing moments; and its choreography is energetic and enthusiastic.

But there is a tradeoff.  So much from the original production has been excised that the current production simply re-tells the oft-told tale of one man’s mid-life crisis, a story that is as old as recorded history and that is not at all unique to the period in which the play is set.  As Harry puts it:

“Well, when you get right down to it, I’ve gotta make a choice: my wife or this girl.  The thing is, I like my wife.  Well you know Lillian.  We’ve been married twenty years.  She’s kept her figure, she’s kept the ashtrays clean, gotten the laundry done, took care of the kids, done social work, read all the latest books – all that stuff.  But…I like the girl too.  She’s 24…."

And that has nothing at all to do with the sexual revolution of the times (the falling of the fig leaves, if you will); it is simply the story of a man’s mid-life crisis – as likely to occur to 1929 or 2009 as in 1969.  And there really is nothing special about this particular individual’s mid-life crisis or how it plays out.  We’ve seen and heard it all before, many times over (and often with much more interesting characters and plot structures).

In the current production, Harry is played with considerable control by Jonathan Rayson, struggling to restrain his emotions in the face of Jenny’s advances..  Lillian is played by Natalie Venetia Belcon, whose unquestioning and loving acceptance of Harry’s disturbing behavior is most endearing but requires some suspension of disbelief.  And a similar suspension of disbelief is required in reacting to Morgan Weed’s perky portrayal of Jenny (formerly Pookie) who seamlessly evolves from an innocent girl threatening to quit her job over her boss’s unwanted advances into a flirtatious seductress who upends Harry’s life.

Friday, January 11, 2013

Off Broadway: The Wonderful Wizard of Song: The Music of Harold Arlen

Antoinette Henry & 3 Crooners (L to R): Antoinette Henry, Joe Shepherd, Marcus Goldhaber, George Bugatti.  Photo by Pamela Hall.

If asked “Who were the greatest American composers of popular songs of the twentieth century?”, chances are that George Gershwin, Richard Rodgers and Cole Porter would immediately come to mind.  But what of Harold Arlen?  Surprisingly, he is not nearly as well known – despite the fact that his Academy Award winning “Over the Rainbow” (composed for the motion picture “The Wizard of Oz”) was voted the Number 1 Song of the Twentieth Century by the Recording Industry Association of America and one of the “Songs of the Century” by the National Endowment for the Arts.

Nor was “Over the Rainbow” some kind of fluke, a one shot success by an otherwise mediocre composer.  On the contrary, in the course of his long and successful career, Arlen composed more than 500 songs, many of which appear in “The Great American Songbook,” including “Blues in the Night,” “It‘s Only a Paper Moon,” “I’ve Got the World on a String,” “One for My Baby,” “Stormy Weather,” “That Old Black Magic,” “The Man That Got Away,” and many more.  (In 1933, “Billboard” actually proclaimed Shakespeare to be the most prolific playwright in history and Arlen the most prolific composer!)  And yet it is probably fair to state that, today, Harold Arlen is the single greatest little-known American composer of the twentieth century.

The Wonderful Wizard of Song: The Music of Harold Arlen, the musical revue that has just opened at St. Luke’s Theatre on West 46th Street in New York following a national tour to 18 cities and a month-long run in Las Vegas, sets out to redress that shortcoming and to a great extent it succeeds.  The very talented Three Crooners (George Bugatti, Marcus Goldhaber, and Joe Shepherd) together with the dynamic Antoinette Henry deliver their renditions of more than two dozen of Arlen’s most popular compositions with great verve and pizazz.  In addition to the eight Arlen classics mentioned above, they belt out “Get Happy,” “Accentuate the Positive,” “Let’s Fall in Love,” “Come Rain or Come Shine,” and many, many more of Arlen’s classics including a medley of songs (in addition to “Over the Rainbow”) from “The Wizard of Oz.”  It’s doubtful if you’ll hear any songs you haven’t heard before many times over but you may come away from the revue surprised to realize that were all composed by  - what’s his name again? – oh, yes, Harold Arlen.

As a musical revue, the show is certainly worth seeing.  All three of the “Crooners” have distinctive, strong voices and deserve considerable praise for their performances (my personal favorite was the mellow Joe Shepherd).  And Antoinette Henry is simply terrific, channeling some of the last century’s top female entertainers including Pearl Bailey and Ethel Waters.  But as a show based on the life of Harold Arlen, it falls very short.

Harold Arlen was a complex individual whose successful musical career and ultimately tragic personal life provided ample material for a musical of greater depth.  Born in Buffalo, NY in 1905 as Hyman Arluck, the son of a Jewish cantor, Arlen’s music was influenced not only by Jewish liturgical tradition but also by his early exposure to African-American jazz (in the early 1930s, Arlen wrote music for Harlem’s famed Cotton Club).  Against his parents’ wishes, he left home at age 16 and, years later, he married Anya Taranda, a beautiful Catholic model, also against his family’s wishes.

Arlen remained in love with Anya until her death in 1970 (despite her institutionalization for seven years in a sanitarium in 1951).  His father died in 1953 and his mother three years later, at which time Arlen withdrew from music for a year, mourning her loss.  He returned to his music in the 1960s but subsequent to Anya’s death, became increasingly reclusive.  Suffering from depression and Parkinson’s Disease, Arlen died of cancer in 1986.  This is the raw material from which a truly successful play – more than a simple musical revue – might have been written and bits of it are alluded to in passing in The Wonderful Wizard of Song.  Most of it, however, is simply ignored and none of it is truly developed.

So the bottom line is this: The Wonderful Wizard of Song is a good musical revue with wonderful performances of more than two dozen of Harold Arlen’s greatest hits by four outstanding singers.  Arlen is given the credit he deserves for these musical compositions and if it’s just his music you’re interested in, you won’t be disappointed.  But if you were hoping for something more – some insight into Arlen, the man himself, not just Arlen, the composer – sad to say, you won’t find it here..