Saturday, September 28, 2013

Bless You All! A Broadway Revue Revived After 60 Years

Ruth Pferdehirt in BLESS YOU ALL! A BROADWAY REVUE.  Photo by Dixie Sherican
Bless You All!, A Broadway Revue with sketches by Arnold Auerbach and music and lyrics by Harold Rome, originally opened at the Mark Hellinger Theatre on Broadway to positive reviews in 1950 – but that still didn’t prevent it from closing after only 84 performances.  Now, after more than sixty years, UnsungMusicalsCo. (UMC), is staging the show’s first ever revival off off Broadway in a limited three-week engagement at The Connelly Theatre on East 4th Street in downtown New York – including in it some new sketch material by Herman Wouk.

This revival does have  a lot going for it.  Some of its jazzy tunes are quite delightful; the choreography is very impressive; and both the singing and the dancing are memorable.  I was especially impressed by the long-legged, balletic Jennifer Lee Crowl, by Ruth Pferdehirt’s terrific rendition of “Little Things” (which came close to being a show-stopper), and by Billie Wildrick’s powerful and touching “You Never Know What Hit You.”

But it wasn’t quite enough for me.  The show’s material was very uneven to begin with more than a half-century ago and, despite the valiant efforts of Ben West, UMC’s Artistic Director, to re-organize the show’s sketches, eliminating its weakest numbers and tacking on the Wouk skit, it remains a very uneven production to this day.  The comedy sketches, in particular – a send-up of the snooty 21 Club, a vaudevillean slapstick pie-in-the-face routine, a caricaturish mockery of presidential campaigning on television, and Wouk’s comedic depiction of a corrupt judge on the lam, to name just four – were sophomoric at best and failed Borscht Belt routines at worst.
So here’s my bottom line: if you’re into nostalgic reminiscence of Broadway revues of the 1940s and 1950s – including some fine song and dance – this revival of Bless You All!, A Broadway Revue might just do it for you.  But if your sights are set somewhat higher than that, you may find yourself more disappointed than delighted by this production.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

English Language Premiere of Mr. Bengt's Wife by August Strindberg

Kersti Bryan as Margit and Eric Percival as Mr. Bengt in MR. BENGT'S WIFE.  Photo by Jingxi Zhang.
In Mr. Bengt’s Wife, August Strindberg’s ambivalent attitude toward women, coupled with his view of marriage as an emotional battleground, are in full display.  Sometimes referred to as Strindberg’s response to Ibsen’s The Doll House, this play has only been performed infrequently and never before in English.  Indeed, since 1882, it has been produced just five times – in Stockholm in 1882, Cologne in 1908, Vienna in 1914 (where the Austrian Church demanded that it close after only two performances), Berlin in 1920, and again in Stockholm in 1971.

The current production, very professionally staged off off Broadway by The August Strindberg Repertory Theatre at The Gene Frankel Theatre on Bond Street in lower Manhattan, is based on the play’s first translation into English (by Malin Tybahl and Laurence Carr) and is directed by Craig Baldwin.  Set in Sweden in 1882, it focuses on the life of Margit (Kersti Bryan), a complex character with sado-masochistic tendencies, given to childlike fantasies of being swept off her feet by a dashing knight on a white charger, both victim and seductress, at times submissive while at other moments nothing but a selfish, self-centered bitch.  A prototype of the independent New Woman, perhaps, and a potential feminist icon.  Bryan plays her role brilliantly, practically stealing the show.

Margit was orphaned as a young girl and sent to a convent where she was abused both physically and emotionally by the Abbess (Vicki Blackenship) but befriended by The Confessor (Matt Hurley).  She is rescued from the convent by Mr. Bengt (Eric Percival), a mounted nobleman, just as she had fantasized she would be and he carries her off to be his wife and live happily ever after with him in his castle.

Unfortunately, Margit’s expectations are not fulfilled.  Mr. Bengt’s crops fail.  He goes bankrupt and is plunged into poverty, losing his estate to The Bailiff (Shawn Fagan), the King of Sweden’s unscrupulous representative and Margit’s childhood friend.  Margit’s marriage collapses and she sues for divorce.

After her divorce, Margit not only is pursued by The Confessor and by The Bailiff but also remains the love of Mr. Bengt’s life.  Or at least we are led to believe all that.  It’s also possible that the entire realistic-surrealistic story we’ve just witnessed on stage was nothing more than Margit’s dream.  You’ll have to decide.

While Kersti Bryan may steal the show as Margit, she is ably supported by all of the other five members of the cast, particularly Matt Hurley as The Confessor, Shawn Fagan as The Bailiff and Vicki Blackenship in the dual roles of The Abbess and The Chief Judge’s Wife. 

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Freefall by Charles Smith at Drilling Company Theatre

L-R: Omar Evans, Milena Davila, and Rosario Salvador in FREEFALL.  Photo by Lana Davidovich.
Freefall by Charles Smith initially premiered at Victory Gardens Theater in Chicago in 1993 and had its off-Broadway debut at Theatre Row the following year.  Now, nearly 20 years later, it is being revived in an outstanding limited run off off Broadway production by Theatre for a New Generation at Drilling Company Theatre on West 78th Street in Manhattan.

The play is set on the south side of Chicago in 1991 but it is far from dated.  Its broadest themes relating to familial and quasi-familial relationships - parents and children, siblings, and the brotherhood of the streets – are as compelling today as they were two decades ago.

Grant (Jason Bond) and Monk (Rosario Salvador) are two brothers whose lives have diverged sharply over the years. Grant is a desk cop in Chicago who, with his wife, Alex (Milena Davila) is attempting to live out a version of the middle-class American suburban dream.   Monk, on the other hand, has just been released from prison after having been incarcerated for five years for burglary and is seeking to establish a new life for himself while searching for the mysterious benefactor who befriended him in prison.  Complicating Monk’s efforts are Spoon (Omar Evans) a Chicago crime lord and drug kingpin who is attempting to lure Monk back into a life of drugs and burglary.

When Monk shows up at Grant’s and Alex’s home, the brothers are forced to confront the meaning of family ties, a confrontation made all the more difficult by the fact that it was Grant who arrested Monk in the first place.  And the issue of family relationships is further underscored by Alex’s own seeming ambivalence toward her own familial responsibilities: is her primary role that of a daughter to her own aging parents or that of a wife to her despondent spouse?

All four actors are absolutely first rate in their portrayals of relatively dysfunctional characters in difficult circumstances but I was especially impressed by Omar Evans as the street-wise gangster Spoon and by Rosario Salvador as the struggling conflicted Monk.  

Monday, September 16, 2013

Playing Sinatra by Bernard Kops at Theater For The New City

L-R: Katharine Cullinson, Austin Pendleton, and Richard McElvain in PLAYING SINATRA at Theater For The New City.  Photo by Jonathan Slaff.

Bernard Kops, an 87 year old immensely talented and prolific playwright, has written more than 40 plays for stage and radio, nine novels and six volumes of poetry.  Despite his well-deserved European recognition, to date few of his plays have been produced in the United States.  Fortunately, that oversight is now in the process of being at least partially corrected: his Playing Sinatra, which originally opened to rave reviews in London in1991, is finally receiving its American premiere at Theatre For The New City on First Avenue and East Tenth Street in downtown Manhattan.  And it is just terrific.  Indeed, it is difficult to understand why it took so long for it to get here.

Theatrical history is rife with plays dealing with dysfunctional siblings, in many instances focusing primarily on sexually repressed spinster sisters.  Think The Glass Menagerie or The RainmakerPlaying Sinatra is a play of that genre but one packing even more of a wollop.  It is The Glass Menagerie or The Rainmaker on steroids.  Imagine The Glass Menagerie as it might have been written by Jean Genet or The Rainmaker had it been penned by Harold Pinter and you’ll get some idea of what I’m driving at.Since the death of their parents just a few weeks apart, Sandra Lewis (Katharine Cullison), a middle-aged spinster has lived with her brother Norman (Richard McElvain), a sometimes violent  bookbinder whose agoraphobia may be the least of his mental ailments in their cavernous ancestral home in Streatham, London.

Norman appears to be content with his life as it is.  He seldom leaves the house and busies himself with his bookbinding and with his fancied gourmet cooking (which, if truth be told, amounts to little more than microwaving TV dinners which are transformed in his mind’s eye into haute cuisine).  He remains the boy he once was, albeit now in a man’s body.

Sandra, on the other hand, does leave the house on a daily basis to work at a tedious office job and she, at least, has not given up entirely on life.  Indeed, she even may have been exploring the possibility of selling or moving from their home. .In a way, she is the opposite of Norman, not a girl trapped in a woman’s body, but rather a middle-aged sexually repressed woman who never allowed the young girl she once might have been to emerge.  Today, the only things that bind the siblings together are their shared history, promises they made to their deceased parents, and a mutual passion for the life and music of Frank Sinatra.  It is in Sinatra’s lyrics that they find what others might discover in Ecclesiastes.

When Phillip de Groot (Austin Pendleton), an American and self-described “seeker” arrives on the scene, his disruptive influence on the lives of Sandra and Norman is immediately palpable.  But will Phillip be Sandra’s “platonic lover,” her savior, or her destroyer.  He’s certainly nothing like Laura Wingfield’s “gentleman caller” (a la The Glass Menagerie) and whether or not he’ll turn out to be the likes of Lizzie Curry’s Bill Starbuck (a la The Rainmaker) remains to be seen.

Cullison is absolutely wonderful as Sandra Lewis, at one moment capturing her distraught angst and sexual frustration, in the next portraying her fear of men seeking to get into her knickers, moving on to exhibit her deep devotion to her brother (which almost appears to border the incestuous), only to affirm her dream of finding in Phillip the “platonic lover” she has long sought.  McElvain is equally good as the mentally disturbed Norman, whose delusional quirks run the gamut from a damaging agoraphobia, to a compulsive love of Sinatra, to momentary ourbursts of violence to repressed homosexuality.  And Pendleton is just grand as the enigmatic and manipulative Phillip who, chameleon-like, manages to allow the other characters and the audience to make of him what they will.

This is one hell of a play and deserves a longer run.  Go see it.