Friday, February 28, 2014

Paddy Chayefsky's Middle of the Night in Revival at Theatre Row

L-R: Niclole Lowrance and Jonathan Hadary in MIDDLE OF THE NIGHT.  Photo by Carol Rosegg.
In its mission statement, Keen Company asserts that it is “not afraid of emotional candor, vulnerability or optimism” and expresses its “desire to invigorate the theater with productions that connect us through humor, heart and hope.”  In its current revival of Paddy Chayefsky’s Middle of the Night at The Clurman Theatre at Theatre Row on West 42nd Street in midtown Manhattan, it has more than fulfilled that mission.  This play is quintessential Paddy Chayefsky – a heart-warming uplifting tale of two lonely and insecure characters who ultimately find the love and companionship they seek in one another’s arms – and this sensitively performed revival is everything one might have hoped for.

Chayefsky’s best-known work, Marty, is the story of a fat, lonely butcher who eventually finds love and happiness with Clara, a shy, homely school-teacher.  (That play first appeared on The Philco Television Playhouse in 1953 and was adapted for the movies in 1955, earning Chayefsky the first of his three Academy Awards.)  Set in New York City in the mid 1950s, Middle of the Night is a variation on that theme: the male lead here is not a butcher but a garment center manufacturer and the female lead is not a librarian but the manufacturer’s employee - but those are mere surface differences.  The lonelinesss, sadness, vulnerability and despair these characters experience are very much the same.   

Originally produced on television a year after Marty, Middle of the Night featured E.G. Marshall and Eva Marie Saint in the leading roles, before moving to Broadway in 1956 in a production starring Edward G. Robinson and Gena Rowlands.  In 1959, the play was adapted for the screen, starring Frederic March and Kim Novak.  In this current revival, the play stars Jonathan Hadary as Jerry Kingsley, the lonely, widowed garment center manufacturer who is all too aware of his own mortality at age 53 (an age at which his friends already are retiring, dying or, at the very least, experiencing their own mid-life crises) and Nicole Lowrance as Betty, his very pretty and equally lonely, relatively immature, 24 year old employee (who is young enough to be his own daughter).  Both Hadary and Lowrance are terrific, bringing a level of sensitivity and poignancy to their respective roles that make this production well worth seeing.

Since his wife’s death, Jerry has been lonely and apathetic, searching unsuccessfully for another life partner (he did propose to one woman, Grace, a buyer at Lord & Taylor’s, but was rejected).   His family has attempted to provide him with a support system: his older sister, Evelyn (Denise Lute), lives with him and cares for him, unsuccessfully attempting to match him up with one of her widowed canasta playing friends (played by Amelia Campbell).  His daughter, Lillian (Melissa Miller) visits him with his grandchild and urges him to visit her, but that doesn’t do much good either.

Meanwhile, Betty is unhappily married to George (Todd Bartels), a decent enough chap who certainly does not mistreat her and is attentive to her sexual needs, if not her emotional ones, leaving her feeling lonely and unfulfilled.  Her mother (Amelia Campbell, who also plays the role of Evelyn’s widowed friend) isn’t really sensitive to her needs either and neither is her friend Marilyn (also played by Melissa Miller).  To be sure, they all mean well but the best of intentions is seldom good enough.

And so Jerry and Betty find each other.  But, as Shakespeare put it, “The course of true love never did run smooth.”  Jerry and Betty encounter obstacles both of their own making and those placed in their way by others.  They are both fully aware of the consequences that may result from the disparity in their ages and it has given them both pause.  If it had not, Betty’s mother and Jerry’s sister and daughter, are all there to remind them:  Betty’s mother never paid that much attention to Betty while she was growing up (which may, at least in part, account for her current insecurities) but now that Betty is grown up, her mother has no doubt that she knows what is best for her.  And it certainly is not to divorce a decent and sexually satisfying husband (no matter what his other shortcomings) in order to marry a man old enough to be her father – let alone a Jew.  (Remember: this all takes place in the 1950s, an age that was not merely pre-pill, but was even pre-pantyhose, an age of cinched waists and garter belts.  It was a time in which marriages were expected to be “age appropriate” and to last, a time in which divorce may not have been absolutely taboo but was certainly frowned upon much more than it is today, and a time in which “mixed marriages” between Christians and Jews were scarcely mainstream.)

Both Evelyn and Lillian couldn’t agree more with Betty’s mother.  Indeed, Evelyn’s hostility has been even further deepened by the realization that Jerry’s marriage to Betty would challenge her own role as mistress of Jerry’s house.  And for Lillian, Jerry’s marriage to Betty would threaten her role as “Daddy’s little girl.” Imagine her fear of being usurped by a girl even younger than herself.  And a shiksa to boot.

This Keen Company production of Middle of the Night is a pared down version of the original play in which eleven roles are played by just seven actors (each of four actors plays two roles apiece with the other three actors playing the remaining three roles).  For the most part, this works out well: Amelia Campbell delineates the roles of Betty’s mother and Evelyn’s widowed friend with clear differentiation and considerable humor; Denise Lute is very effective both in her role as Evelyn and as the next door neighbor; and Melissa Miller handles her roles as Lillian and Marilyn with consummate skill.  Requiring Todd Bartels to play both the role of Jerry’s son-in-law, Jack, and that of Betty’s husband, George, however, may have been a reach too far: to be sure, he is terrific as Jack and his explosive tirade at Lillian is one of the play’s high points.  But the demands made of him in that role may have taken too much out of him and, perhaps as a result, his performance as George is rather flat.

My only other negative comment on what I otherwise very much enjoyed as a fine theatrical experience related to the stage set.  All of the action in the play takes place in one of two locales – Jerry’s home which he shares with Evelyn or Betty’s home which she shares with her mother and her sister, Alice (Alyssa May Gold) – and far too little effort was made to distinguish one locale from the other.  But that is a minor criticism.  On the whole this really is a terrific production and I urge you to go see it. 

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

London Wall by John Van Druiten in US Premiere at Mint Theatre

L-R: Stephen Plunkett and Julia Coffey in LONDON WALL.  Photo by Richard Termine.
Mint Theater Company on West 43rd Street in midtown Manhattan has taken it as its mission to produce “worthwhile plays from the past that have been lost or forgotten.”  Thus it is that London Wall, written by John van Druten more than four score years ago, is at long last reaching an American audience.
Admittedly, John van Druten was not a great playwright (as were, say, Tennessee Williams, Eugene O’Neill, or Arthur Miller), but he was one of the more commercially successful playwrights of the twentieth century.  His Broadway triumphs included Old Acquaintance; The Voice of the Turtle; I Remember Mama; Bell, Book and Candle; and I Am a CameraLondon Wall, however, which premiered in London in 1931, wasn’t even revived there until just last year, and it never made it to New York.  Not until now, that is, for which we have Mint Theater to thank.

It is not that this exploration of the lives and loves of four shorthand typists in a London solicitor’s office in the 1930s is a great play for it truly is not.  Even allowing for the fact that it was written nearly a century ago, its story lines are trivial and hackneyed and its characters stereotypical.  But just because it is not a great play does not mean that it is not very entertaining, for indeed it is.  Van Druten was very astute in his observation and depiction of what life was like when men and women were first being brought together to work in close proximity in business offices.  This romantic drama is the result and it really is great fun.

The play’s four shorthand typists are four classic types that are all too common on the stage, in literature, and, I daresay, in real life.  Miss Bufton (Katie Gibson) has been around the block: she knows the rules in the war between the sexes and we need lose no sleep over her.  Both Miss Hooper (Alex Trow) and Miss Janus (Julia Coffey) are a bit more worrisome: Miss Hooper has been patiently awaiting her married lover’s promised divorce from his wife to come through and Miss Janus is equally patiently awaiting her boyfriend s finally agreeing to tie the knot (after seven long years).  We can’t be too sanguine about their prospects.

As for Miss Pat Milligan (Elise Kibler), a 19 year old naïf and an orphan to boot, innocent in the ways of men – well, we probably ought be most concerned about her.  Of course, we’ve seen and heard it all before and matters develop much as we might have expected.  Mr. Brewer (Stephen Plunkett), the office Lothario who preys on innocent young women, does come on to Pat, and her relationship to her boyfriend Hec Hammond (Christopher Sears) is put at risk.  In motherly fashion, Miss Janus takes Pat and Hec under her wing and when things get really out of hand, there is the fatherly, compassionate, principled Mr. Walker (Jonathan Hogan), the firm’s senior partner, to set matters right again.

Meanwhile, Birkenshaw (Matthew Gumley), the firm’s young messenger, general gofer and switchboard operator, amuses himself by listening in on the calls that come through his switchboard and disclosing the contents of legal documents that he had no business reading in the first place.  Finally, popping up un-invited at the seemingly most inopportune moments, is Miss Willesden (Laurie Kennedy), one of the firm’s oldest clients, a very wealthy and somewhat batty spinster with a heart of gold and an obsessive need to write and re-write her will.   We just know that she’ll eventually have an important role to play in all this and, in fact, she does.

So there you have it.  It’s a story we’ve all heard many times before and there are no major surprises (well, yes, there are a couple of minor ones but nothing truly earth-shattering).  But as van Druten tells it, London Wall is a story you’re likely to enjoy hearing again.  And as the extremely talented Mint Theater ensemble performs it, this is a play very much worth your seeing

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Hurlyburly by David Rabe in a Powerful Revival at The Chain Theatre

L-R: Brandon Scott Hughes and Kirk Gostkowski in HURLYBURLY.  Photo by Abi Classey..
To my mind, Variations Theatre Group (VTG) is one of the very best off off Broadway companies around and, if you have to trek out to Long Island City to see their productions (which, unfortunately for those of you who are cloistered Manhattanites, you will), I think you’ll find that it’s well worth your while to do so..  Over the past four years, I have attended performances of VTG’s revivals of both The Shape of Things and Some Girl(s) by Neil LaBute, Fool for Love by Sam Shepard, and After the Fall by Arthur Miller - all starring Kirk Gostkowski and all but one directed by Rich Ferraioli, VTG’s co-founders and co-Artistic Directors - and they have been uniformly terrific.
David Rabe’s Hurlyburly, the latest in VTG’s string of productions of powerful gritty plays that don’t seem to be revived nearly often enough, has just opened at the Chain Theatre on 45th Road, just over the bridge in Long Island City, for a limited run through March 1.  Directed by Ferraioli and starring Gostkowski, this is a very courageous project: in its original Broadway incarnation in 1984, Hurlyburly was directed by Mike Nichols and featured an extraordinary cast consisting of William Hurt, Ron Silver, Harvey Keitel, Jerry Stiller, Judith Ivey, Sigourney Weaver and Cynthia Nixon.  That is quite a cast to live up to but all that star power failed to dissuade VTG from going ahead with this revival.  And I’m glad they did.  As it turns out, the VTG revival is a powerful production that will only further enhance VTG’s well-earned reputation.

Hurlyburly is a black comedy set in Hollywood in the 1980s – a world of drugs, decadence, and debauchery.  It is the tale of four self-destructive, jaded, drug and sex addicted misogynists, all hoping to make it in the film industry, insensitive to the needs of others, and oblivious to the fact that even if they do succeed in gaining the world, if really might not be worth it if, in the process, they lose their own souls.

Eddie (Kirk Gostkowski) is a narcissistic, cocaine-addicted, somewhat paranoid casting director, estranged from his wife and so self-obsessed as to be almost solipsistic in his outlook on life.  The only question that pervades his existence seems to be: “How does it pertain to me?”  In his search for meaning, he seeks out dictionary definitions, constructs abstract faulty syllogisms, and resorts to a trivial, almost kabalistic, approach to language through anagrams and numerology.
Eddie’s roommate, Mickey (Deven Anderson) is as self-centered and manipulative as Eddie is, but his personality is quite different.  He is cold, aloof, unfeeling and unemotional, indeed almost autistic in his relationship to others.  Where Eddie selfishly and consistently chooses to put his own feelings ahead of anyone else’s, Mickey never even seems to consider that others might have any feelings of their own at all.  When Mickey sleeps with Eddie’s girlfriend, Darlene (Christina Elise Perry), It never enters his mind that Eddie might be upset by it.  And when he returns Darlene to Eddie days later, it is with no regard for Darlene’s feelings in the matter.

Phil (Brandon Scott Hughes) is Eddie’s best friend and Mickey’s polar opposite.  He is a passionate actor wannabe, an ex-con, a ball of fury, an accident waiting to happen.  His penchant for violence is such that in the course of the three hour play, he batters his wife Susie; throws another woman, Bonnie (Jacklyn Collier) from a moving car; smashes in the face of Donna (Rachel Cora) in a mindless exhibition of what football is all about; threatens more than one of his male friends with violence; and crashes a second car.

Artie (Chris Harcum) is a blur, or maybe really no more than a smudge, in all their lives, generally passing through in what appears to be a continual alcoholic or drug-induced stupor.  He is envious of Phil and Eddie’s friendship and appears to be the quintessential loser although, as things ultimately turn out, he is the only one who seems to achieve at least a modicum of success, both in finally getting the production deal he’d been seeking and in establishing what might turn out to be the beginnings of a normal relationship with Bonnie.

The four men differ greatly in personality but share certain traits – including their misogyny and their sense of entitlement where women and sex are concerned.  The women, on the other hand, don’t seem to be nearly as concerned about manipulating or using the men in their lives; rather, they appear content  simply to be there to be used and they are more than complicit in their sexual relationships.  Thus Donna (the spacey teenage girl who Artie finds in his elevator is more than happy to be his sex toy for awhile and then to be handed off by him to perform the same role for Eddie and Phil.  Bonnie, barely a level higher than Donna in sophistication, is a single mother and stripper, delighted to have sex with just about anybody.  And Darlene, who might be described as the most discriminating of the three, may not automatically make herself sexually available to anyone – but that doesn’t mean she necessarily limits her affections to any one man at a time either.  Indeed, two would seem to be more her speed.

This is a well-directed and well-performed powerful, gritty play, depicting the levels of depravity to which men (and women) may descend and, as such, it won’t appeal to everyone’s taste.  It is certainly not “family entertainment” and I wouldn’t advise taking the kids to see it.  But for adults with strong stomachs and a love of good theatre, it’s really not to be missed.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Blind Angels at Theater for the New City

L-R: Francesco Campari, Alok Tewari, and Scott Raker in BLIND ANGELS.  Photo by Ina Stinus.
It may be fashionable today to pride oneself on being non-judgmental, on being able to see things from the other guy’s point of view, on realizing that there are two sides to every question, and on recognizing that nothing ever is completely black or white.  Yes, it may be fashionable to proclaim such moral relativism but I’m sorry, I just don’t agree.

There are not two sides to every issue.  The Nazis were evil and the Holocaust was absolutely wrong; there were no mitigating circumstances and anyone who chooses to explore whatever political, economic, social or psychological factors may have motivated the Nazis in order to better “understand” them is himself morally bankrupt.  On a smaller scale, sexual child predators are monsters and while one may sympathize with them for whatever abuse they may have suffered themselves as children, that in no way explains, let alone justifies, their adult behavior.  Similarly, one may disapprove of specific Israeli actions and the effect that such actions may have on Palestinians (the expansion of settlements, for example, comes to mind) but in no way can such Israeli actions be used to rationalize the launching of rockets from Palestinian-held territory into Israel or any attempt to totally destroy the State of Israel.  No, there is no “moral equivalency” in such cases and any attempt to argue otherwise is itself morally reprehensible.

This is especially true of terrorism.  US drone strikes, launched to destroy individual terrorists and terrorist cells, may result in such terrible collateral damage that they should be suspended, but that does not mean that there is any sort of moral equivalency between such strikes and terrorist acts.  Terrorist attacks on innocent civilians – e.g. the destruction of the World Trade Center on 9/11 and the Boston Marathon bombings – simply cannot be justified and to argue otherwise, to attempt to examine such acts from the points of view of their perpetrators instead of just outright condemning them, reveals the moral bankruptcy of anyone who would do so.

Which brings me to Blind Angels, currently premiering at Theater for the New City on First Avenue in downtown Manhattan and being marketed as a “nail-biting drama [that] shows the ‘other side’ of terrorism: how people who enjoy our way of life might turn against this country.”  Inspired by the story of Daniel Pearl, the journalist who was captured and beheaded by terrorists, Blind Angels tells the story of Aaron (Scott Raker), a news reporter who is taken prisoner by three secular American Muslims who are planning to launch a small nuclear terrorist attack in downtown Manhattan.  Two of Aaron’s captors are Aaron’s former college roommate, Sadri (Francesco Campari), a brilliant mathematician and weapons expert, and Danny (Qurrat Ann Kadwani), Sadri’s second cousin and Aaron’s former girlfriend.  His third captor is Yusuf (Alok Tewari), a married family man and hands-on technology expert who runs a photo and video studio in Montclair New Jersey.

Sadri is distressed that Senator Hammond (Cynthia Granville) has chosen to ignore his warnings regarding the worldwide proliferation of nuclear weapons and that her negative attitude toward him has thwarted his career.  His pique is compounded when he learns of the death of his favorite aunt (Danny’s mother) as the result of a US drone strike gone awry.  All of which apparently prompts him to mastermind the plot that forms the basis of this play.

Dick Bruckenfeld, the playwright, clearly would not agree with the sentiments I expressed at the beginning of this post.  In explaining why he wrote Blind Angels, he states:

“I wanted to write a play that would look at the other side of terrorism.  My goal was to get beyond the self-serving cliché ‘they want to destroy us because they hate our way of life.’  I felt I could get closer to the truth by exploring why people who enjoy our way of life might turn against this country.”

Melissa Attebery, the play’s director, is also on Bruckenfeld’s wavelength, not mine (which is certainly a good thing since, if she agreed with me, I don’t think that she ever could have directed this play at all).  In a recent interview on Bronxnet, she stated:

“the characters [in the play] are our next door neighbors.  I mean we all live next door to Danny and she goes to work every day just like all the rest of us….Dick’s written a play with characters that we could all identify with.”

I’m sorry, Ms Attenbery, but he really hasn’t.  I can’t identify with a character like Sadri who plots to explode a small nuclear weapon in downtown Manhattan out of a combination of pique at the way he was mistreated by a US senator and his grief over the death of his favorite aunt. Nor can I identify with Danny in her opting to involve herself in this plot, even granting the fact that it was her mother who was killed by a US drone.  And least of all could I identify with Yusuf whose motivations in all this are totally beyond me.

Moreover, my difficulties with this play go beyond the enormous difference between my moral sentiments and those of Bruckenfeld and Attebery.  I am also troubled by the huge suspensions of disbelief that this play requires of me in order for me to make any sense of it at all.  Aaron, the son of an Orthodox Jewish rabbi, has become a Reform Jew; he is in love with a secular Muslim whom he still is reluctant to marry because of his father’s opposition to their relationship. But, we are led to believe, he might yet be convinced to reconsider his position.  Or maybe not.

Sadri, Danny and Yusuf are all secular Muslims – apparently the furthest thing from jihadists one could imagine - who drink alcohol freely, engage in premarital sex with multiple partners, and dress in typical Western garb; yet we are asked to believe that they are prepared to launch a nuclear terrorist attack not out of religious fervor but just because…well, Senator Holland really was mean to Sadhi and Danny’s mother was killed, and Aaron doesn’t want to marry her just because she’s not a Jewess and Yusuf – oh, I really I don’t know what’s going on in Yusuf’s mind but he probably has some similarly good reason.  And there I was thinking all along that Islamist terrorism had something to do with Islamist religious fervor.  My mistake.

I do have something good to say about this play, however.  I thought that the acting was first-rate across the board and it certainly wasn’t the actors’ faults that they were called upon to play roles that just didn’t ring true.

In the play’s final moments, Aaron addresses the audience:

“So I have a question I’m going to keep asking: ‘Suppose one of our drones kills your favorite aunt.  And like Sadri you’re punished for speaking your mind?  Would you just stand there and take it?  Would you?”

My answer is easy: Of course I wouldn’t just stand there and take it.  I’d protest, I’d grieve, I’d get angry, I’d write letters to newspapers and my congressman.  But I’ll tell you what I wouldn’t do: I sure as hell wouldn’t plan a nuclear attack and anyone who would is so sociopathic or psychotic as to deserve none of our “understanding.”