Thursday, June 12, 2014

Ayckbourn Ensemble Concludes With Time of My Life

L-R: James Powell and Rachel Caffrey in TIME OF MY LIFE.  Photo by Tony Bartholomew.
Time of My Life, the third and final Alan Ayckbourn play being performed in repertory by the Ayckbourn Ensemble, opened last night at 59E59 Theaters on East 59th Street in midtown Manhattan as part of that theatre’s annual Brits Off Broadway program.  We very much enjoyed the first two-thirds of this extended Ayckbourn program as we attested to in our reviews of Arrivals & Departures and Farcicals: A Double Bill of FrivolousComedies on June 5 and June 11.  But Time of My Life is far and away the best of them all.

The Ayckbourn Ensemble is a very talented troupe of 11 actors.  Four of them, Elizabeth Boag, Bill Champion, Sarah Stanley and Kim Wall were outstanding in both Arrivals & Departures and Farcicals but do not appear at all in Time of My Life.  The other seven did not appear in Farcicals and played multiple supporting roles in Arrivals &Departures where their considerable talents were not readily apparent.  But now, in Time of My Life, all seven have come into their own.  Each has been given a chance to shine and every one of them has made the most of it.

The play revolves around the lives of three couples: Gerry Stratton (Russell Dixon) and his wife Laura (Sarah Parks); their elder son, Glyn (Richard Stacey) and his wife, Stephanie (Emily Pithon); and their younger son, Adam (James Powell) and his latest girlfriend, Maureen (Rachel Caffrey).  Gerry is a successful businessman who has been happily married to Laura for more than thirty years but whose discovery of a decades old indiscretion of hers devastates his life.  Laura is a cold, self-centered bitch whose only concern, other than for herself, might be for Adam, with little love left for her older son, Glyn, or for his family.  Glyn is a philandering, unloved son, overshadowed by his successful father, and insensitive to his wife’s needs or those of his children.  Stephanie is his long-suffering wife – but only up to a point.  Adam is a spoiled, infantile romantic, seemingly unable to break free from his mother’s control.  And Maureen is a warm, loving, lower-class, hair dresser who doesn’t seem to have much of a chance if Laura Stratton is her competition.

It’s a volatile mixture and, in Ayckbourn’s hands, it holds forth the promise of great theatre.  With this very talented cast, that promise is realized.  All of the action takes place at tables in the Essa de Calvi, a restaurant owned by Calvinu (Ben Porter), at which the Stratton family tends to hold its celebrations and luncheon meetings.  But all of that action takes place over a period of years which provides the cast with ample opportunity to bloom, notwithstanding the confines of space.

Although Ayckbourn wrote Time of My Life in 1992, this production marks its New York premiere and it is difficult to understand why it did not make it to these shores sooner.  The play is intricately written in typical Ayckbourn fashion, with both flashbacks and flash forwards and with the most entertaining spatial and temporal convolutions.  It makes for a splendid conclusion to this long overdue Ayckbourn program. 

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Farcicals: A Double Bill of Frivolous Comedies: Chloe With Love and The Kidderminster Affair

L-R: Sarah Stanley, Kim Wall, Bill Champion, and Elizabeth Boag in FARCICALS: A DOUBLE BILL OF FRIVOLOUS COMEDIES.  Photo by Andrew Higgens.
The Ayckbourn Ensemble is a wonderfully talented company of actors currently taking New York by storm, performing three of Alan Ayckbourn’s plays in repertory at 59E59 Theaters on East 59th Street in midtown Manhattan as part of that theatre’s annual Brits Off Broadway program. The first of the three, Arrivals & Departures, opened last week and we loved it, as we expressed in our review of June 5.  Last night, the second of the three, Farcicals: A Double Bill of Frivolous Comedies, opened as well and, while strikingly different from Arrivals & Departures, it was even more fun.

Farcicals: A Double Bill of Frivolous Comedies consists of two one-act comedies, Chloe With Love and The Kidderminster Affair, featuring the same four characters: Penny Bottlecamp (Elizabeth Boag), her husband, Reggie Bottllecamp (Kim Wall), her friend and neighbor, Lottie Bulbin (Sarah Stanley), and Lottie’s husband, Teddy Bulbin (Bill Champion).  Ms Boag, Mr. Wall and Mr. Champion were terrific as the stars of Arrivals& Departures and Ms Stanley played several important supporting roles in that play.  In Chloe With Love and The Kidderminster Affair, all four are equally outstanding, providing comedic performances that will keep you laughing for nigh on two hours.

Chloe With Love takes place in the Bottlecamp’s garden on a warm summer evening while all of the action in The Kidderminster Affair occurs in the Bulbin’s very similar garden on another warm summer evening.  Both plays are slapstick farces and the plots of both revolve around Lottie’s suspicions of her husband’s infidelity.  The ways in which the two plays then evolve and their ultimate outcomes are strikingly different, but they both are rollickingly funny and deliciously insightful in their depictions of those fundamental psychological differences between men and women that remain at the root of the battle between the sexes. 

Saturday, June 7, 2014

Ethel Sings: The Unsung Song of Ethel Rosenberg at Theatre Row's Beckett Theatre

L-R: Ari Butler, Adrienne C. Moore, and Tracy Michailidis in ETHEL SINGS: THE UNSUNG STORY OF ETHEL ROSENBERG.
Ethel Greenglass was born in 1915 to Russian-Jewish immigrants on the Lower East Side of New York.  A precocious, talented and intelligent girl, she graduated from high school when she was only 15 years old and aspired to a singing and acting career.  That, however, was not to be.  Instead, she became a clerk and a labor activist, joined the Young Communist League and the American Communist Party, met and married Julius Rosenberg, and bore him two children, Michael and Robert.  Ultimately, she became embroiled in a conspiracy led by her husband to transmit atomic bomb secrets to the Soviet Union; she was tried, convicted of espionage, and sentenced to death; and she was executed in 1953 – becoming, at that time, only the second woman in US history ever to be executed by the Federal Government. 

There is no doubt that Julius Rosenberg and his other co-conspirators – including David Greenglass (Ethel’s younger brother), Ruth Greenglass (David’s wife), Harry Gold, Klaus Fuchs, and Morton Sobell – were all guilty of espionage, but there still are those who question whether Ethel herself was really involved in any significant way.  And, whether or not she was, there still are those who continue to deny that her and/or Julius’s actions rose to the level of a capital offense.  Such questions, revolving around Ethel’s role in the atomic spy ring and the applicability of the death penalty in any case, are certainly legitimate.  They haunt us to this day and provide the raw material from which a truly fine play may one day be written.

But, sad to say, Ethel Sings: The Unsung Song of Ethel Rosenberg, written by Joan Beber and currently being staged by Undercover Productions and Perry Street Theatricals at Theatre Row’s Beckett Theatre on West 42nd Street in midtown Manhattan, is not that play.

The problem with Ethel Sings is that its playwright and director are both so eager to be politically correct in every possible way that they simply content themselves with the creation and demolition of straw men in support of their pre-conceived notions, without ever addressing the deeper and more serious issues that the case presents.  In so doing, they present a biased and distorted view of the Rosenbergs’ story, trivializing the magnitude of their crime, alluding to unsubstantiated anti-Semitism as a factor in their convictions, and downplaying the extent of their treason.

In a program note, Will Pomerantz, the play’s director, states:

“I continued to be struck by how current the issues raised by the play remain.  The idea of guilt by association- something seemingly so discredited after the reign of terror that was McCarthyism – came roaring back post 9-11.The profligate use of incarceration, including the overuse of solitary confinement, and the overrepresentation of communities of color in our prison system, continue.  Although it is commonly accepted that our country has entered an era of wealth disparity the heights of which have not been seen for 100 years, we have also been living for many, many years with systemic inequality of justice….

“The Rosenbergs were liberals, Jews, labor activists, and communist sympathizers in an era of virulent anti-Communism and anti-Semitism.  The trial became a show trial for the rise of McCarthyism, and although the actual evidence against them was inconclusive at best, they were found guilty….”

Thus, in one fell swoop, Pomerantz pushes virtually every liberal hot button including guilt by association, racism, wealth inequality, anti-Semitism, the justice system, and the labor movement.  But the fact remains that the Rosenbergs were not convicted of espionage on the basis of “guilt by association” but on the basis of clear evidence that they had transmitted secrets relating to the development of the atomic bomb to the Soviet Union.  And that evidence, at least in Julius’ case, was not “inconclusive at best” but was overwhelmingly damning. 

Moreover, the Rosenbergs were not mere “communist sympathizers” but were card-carrying members of the Communist Party.  They may have encountered anti-Semitism in their lives but that was not the basis of their convictions.  (Indeed, it is an uncomfortable fact that the judge at their trial, Irving Kaufman, was a Jew as was the leader of the prosecution team, Irving Saypol, as was his associate, Roy Cohn.)  The percentage of blacks and whites in prison, the labor movement, and wealth inequality all may be issues of political interest but the fact remains that none of them had anything at all to do with the Rosenbergs’ having been charged with espionage.  And yet this play – really more of a polemic than a play – just expounds the sort of liberal talking points we hear again and again and then contends that since they are all obviously so politically correct, they must have something to do with the Rosenbergs as well.

As if to underscore just how baldly this Ethel Sings distorts the Rosenbergs’ story, its producers have availed themselves of color-blind casting to the worst possible end.  To be sure, the role of Ethel Rosenberg has been given to Tracy Michailidis, a white woman and a fine singer who plays her difficult part with great sensitivity.  And Ari Butler, who is also white, portrays the role of Julius Rosenberg with skill and passion.  But Tanesha Gary, a black woman, has been cast as Ethel’s immigrant Russian-Jewish mother; Serge Thony, a black man, has been cast as her older son, Michael; Kenneth Lee, an Asian man, has been cast as her younger son, Robby; and Sheria Irving, a black woman, has been cast as her sister-in-law, Ruth.  The point of such casting, I imagine, is to emphasize the universality of man and the superficiality of racial differences but here these casting decisions turn out to have been simply silly at best and distracting and annoying at worst.  Indeed, when Ms Gary attempts to express her feelings by utilizing stereotypical Jewish immigrant mannerisms and by speaking in a mixture of broken English and Yiddish, she only succeeds in offending both Jews and blacks simultaneously.

In addition to Ms Michailidis and Mr. Butler, to whom I have already called attention for their exemplary performances, I should like to commend Kevin Isola for his portrayal of the admittedly despicable Roy Cohn.  And I should like to single out  Adrienne C. Moore for her portrayal of Loraine, the transcendent figure introduced to pull the entire play together; I thought she had one of the most difficult roles and managed it superbly.

And as far as my expression of disappointment in the roles played by Ms Gary, Mr. Thony, Mr. Lee and Ms Irving goes, that ought not necessarily be construed as an indictment of their acting talents but rather of the degree to which they have been totally miscast.  In more appropriate roles, they well may have turned in strong performances.  Unfortunately, there’s just no way of knowing.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Ayckbourn Ensemble: Arrivals & Departures at 59E59 Theaters

L-R: Bill Champion and Kim Wall in ARRIVALS & DEPARTURES.  Photo by Andrew Higgens
Alan Ayckbourn is a prodigiously talented playwright with 78 plays to his credit.  Now, in commemoration of his 75th birthday and in celebration of the 50th anniversary of the staging of one of his plays (Mr. Whatnot) in London’s West End, the Stephen Joseph Theatre is producing three of his works – Arrivals & Departures, Time of MyLife, and Farcicals: A Double Bill of Frivolous Comedies – as the Ayckbourn Ensemble at 59E59 Theaters on East 59th Street in midtown Manhattan as part of that theatre’s annual Brits Off Broadway program.

The first of the three, Arrivals & Departures, opened last night in its US premiere.  It is an intricately structured memory play in which the lives of Ez Swain (Elizabeth Boag), a troubled young female soldier, and Barry Hawkins (Kim Wall), a garrulous middle-aged traffic warden, intersect briefly in a London train station in the course of their involvement in the attempted capture of a terrorist.  Captain Quentin Sexton (Bill Champion), an acting Major in the Strategic Simulated Distractional Operations Unit (SSDO) has organized an elaborate plot to trap the terrorist; Barry, who previously encountered the terrorist has been helicoptered in to assist in his identification; and Ez is there to protect Barry.

This is really three plays in one.  The first, and simplest, involves the plot to capture the terrorist, a straightforward and rollickingly comic send-up of police, military, and governmental incompetence.  This one is considerable fun.  But the other two are far more interesting (albeit much less humorous): they are both memory plays, one delving into Ez’s history and providing us with an understanding of why she is so cold, controlled, and un-smiling, and the other revealing the hidden secrets of Barry’s past that have made him the man he is today.

In addition to Ez, Barry and Quentin, some thirty other characters, played by ten other actors, appear in the course of the play, including: Ez’s parents, her step-father, her former boyfriend and his parents; Barry’s wife and her parents, their daughter, and the best man and maid of honor at their wedding; the terrorist; younger versions of Ez, Barry and Barry’s daughter; and various members of the SSDO Unit.  They all do a fine job in switching seamlessly from one role to another and their professionalism is much to be admired.

But the play really belongs to Quentin, Ez and Barry.  Bill Champion as Quentin is splendid as the blustering and incompetent officer in charge of a gang that can’t shoot straight.  Elizabeth Boag plays Ez with controlled emotion.  And Kim Wall as Barry is absolutely the best of all: a terrific actor who brilliantly portrays the role of a trusting and loving man of honor and principle who accepts whatever life may have in store for him with grace and humor.