Monday, October 27, 2014

The Brightness of Heaven at the Cherry Lane Studio Theatre

L-R: Peter Cormican, James Michael Lambert, Paula Ewin, Kate Kearney-Patch, Emily Batsford, Kendall Rileigh, and Mark Banik in THE BRIGHTNESS OF HEAVEN.  Photo by John Quilty.
From time immemorial, children have rebelled against their parents, testing the bonds that tie them to prior generations, their real challenge being to stretch or loosen those bonds sufficiently to accommodate the new world into which they were born without breaking the old bonds entirely.  For their part, parents have always attempted to inculcate their own religious, social and moral rules and beliefs in their children, the challenge for them being to do so without completely alienating their kids through a heavy-handed dismissal of the very real changes taking place in their world.  And never was that more true than in the 1960s and 1970s, when the early stages of the Civil Rights Movement, the Women’s Liberation Movement, the Gay Rights Movement, the Vietnam War and Watergate all came together to create one of the biggest societal upheavals in American history.

That is what The Brightness of Heaven by Laura Pedersen, now enjoying its Off Broadway premiere at the Cherry Lane Studio Theatre on Commerce Street in Greenwich Village, is all about: the inevitable intergenerational strife that all too often tears many families apart but that leaves those who survive it all the stronger for having dealt with it successfully, once it has played out.  The play is set in Buffalo, NY in 1974, in the home of the Kilgannon family and it is likely to resonate especially well with those who share the characters’ Irish Catholic backgrounds.  But the play has much more universal appeal than that and those of entirely different ethnic and religious backgrounds should be fully able to appreciate and enjoy the play’s message.  (I certainly did, despite being Jewish and of mixed Russian and Austrian descent myself.)

The play’s action takes place on the day that a surprise party is to be held for Ed Kilgannon (Peter Cormican) at St. Aloysius Catholic High School, as a tribute to him on the 30th anniversary of his having joined the school as its music teacher.  (Ed once dreamt of having a successful career in show business but was forced to settle for the life of a music teacher instead; with the help of a whisky bottle, he seems to have made his peace with that).  Many of his former students are expected to show up for his party but, most importantly, his family will be there.

That, of course, will include his wife, Joyce (Kate Kearney-Patch), who once aspired to be a nun but ultimately opted to become a good Catholic wife and mother instead and who now teaches Home Economics at St. Aloysius;  Brendan (Bill Coyne), Ed and Joyce’s first-born prodigal son (but still their favorite) who has been no more successful than was his father before him in seeking a theatrical career and who shares his father’s taste for the sauce; Dennis (Mark Banik), their middle and highly responsible son, on whom they rely for considerable support; and Kathleen (Kendall Rileigh), their successful and very strong-willed youngest child whose life choices are most at odds with those of her parents.  Also in attendance will be Mary Jablonski (Paula Ewin), Ed’s widowed sister and her two children: Grace (Emily Batsford), her 28-year old, unmarried, clinically depressed daughter; and Jimmy (James Michael Lambert), her gay 24-year old son who would prefer to be out of the closet but who is continually pressured by his family to conceal his sexual orientation.  

We meet all of the actors at the Kilgannon family home where they have come together for dinner before going on to St Aloysius (where Joyce is determined that they will again do “the family act,” their traditional song and dance routine).  The conceit is that their real “family act” is the one to which we’re all being made privy onstage, the one in which they all pretend to be other than they really are, whether by choice or under pressure from the other members of their family.

The play is set within the context of the Irish Catholic faith which consumed the lives of the members of the older generation.  As Joyce readily admits: “You children don’t understand.  The Church was the whole world for us.  That’s where our friends and social life were.  We went from Mass to Sunday School to Thursday Night CYO to Friday Night Fish Fry.”  And implicit in that was the conviction that the “hereafter” or the “next life” was of far greater consequence than the real world around us which was perceived as little more than a testing ground for the ”world to come.”  Thus, Mary can seriously justify her having urged her children to wear clean underwear not for any reasons of health or comfort in this world but because “whatever clothes you’re wearing when you die are what you’ll have on throughout all eternity.”  And when Mary discloses that she has “thought about taking my own life,” Joyce doesn’t seek to dissuade her by pointing out everything she’d be losing in this world but, rather, exclaims “Why Mary!  You wouldn’t go to Heaven and spend eternity with Ronnie [Mary’s son who died in Vietnam]! – and that, remarkably, really seems to have been the strongest argument Joyce could have made to her sister-in-law in her moment of despondency.

It is this attitude toward the primacy of the hereafter, the Church, and the Church’s rules regarding sex, abortion and homosexuality, that the members of the younger generation all seem to be rebelling against, each in his or own way and some more strongly than others.  As Kathleen puts it: “much as I’d like to go to Heaven, I’m more interested in Heaven on Earth – a place where all God’s creations are at home, complete with all the glorious faults, differences, and desires that He in His infinite wisdom bestowed upon us.”  Brendan’s alcoholism; Grace’s decision to see a secular therapist rather than a priest in dealing with her psychological problems; Jimmy’s overt acceptance of his homosexuality; and even Dennis’ decision to teach at a public school rather than a Catholic school - all are expressions of the same generational shift in values and attitudes away from the Church’s teachings.

Depending upon your point of view, you might see the four male characters as strong and admirable and the four female characters as far less worthy.  It was Ed, after all, to whom Kathleen turned in her moment of greatest need and who has kept her secrets – not her mother.  It is Dennis who can always be counted on by his parents when they need help, not his sister.  Brandan does manage to overcome his alcoholism, at least temporarily, so as to be there for his father on his special day.  And even Jimmy defers to his family by downplaying his sexual orientation in their presence.  Joyce and Mary, on the other hand, are so self-righteously stuck in their ways that they cannot really countenance homosexuality, abortion, pre-marital sex, and even intermarriage as anything other than sin or an offense against God and the Church, resulting in eternal damnation.  Kathleen is a headstrong young woman who, despite her business success, seems to have made all the wrong choices in her personal life and who appears to be concerned only for her only life, with little thought for her parents’ well-being.   And Grace is so psychologically damaged and depressive that there is not much good that can be said about her.

But it all can be looked at quite the other way around: maybe it’s really the women on top and the men toward whom we ought be dismissive.  There is no question but that Kathleen is the strongest willed character in the play: she has succeeded in becoming the first female manager at her bank at the tender age of 23 and in 1974 she was clearly well ahead of her time in refusing to let anyone but herself control her body and her life.  Difficult as it may be for Mary, given her religious values, she never rejects her gay son.  Joyce, too, can always be counted on to be there for her children, should push come to shove: she might not approve of her daughter’s life style but she’ll always be there for her.  (When Kathleen angrily attacks her mother, saying “You’ll never change!” her mother’s response may say it all: “No I won’t Kathleen.  And my greatest hope for your child is that you’re always there for him or her.  For the most part, that means not changing.”)  Even Grace merits our respect for seeking medical help for her condition, rather than relying on religious guidance.  But when we look at the men we realize that while Ed may have been there for Kathleen when she most needed him, he’s never willing to stand up to Joyce, apparently modeling himself after Mary’s husband Joseph in the Bible who never speaks a word.  Both he and Brandan are alcoholics, after all, and they may have other weaknesses that they have kept secret to boot.  Brandan may have sought a theatrical career simply to appease his father and Dennis may have become a school teacher simply because that was the easiest route to follow.  Even Jimmy, eager to be out of the closet, doesn’t seem to have the guts to come out all the way.

So which view is correct?  Both!  None of us are all of a piece and the characters in this play are no exception.  They have their strengths and their weaknesses, their good points and their bad, and it is a credit to Ms Pedersen, to Ludovica Villar Hauser, the play’s director, and to the entire cast that they have succeeded so well in conveying their multi-layered personae.  Or as Ed responded, when Kathleen told him that sometimes she wondered who he really was: “Different things to different people.  But I’ll always be your father and I’ll always love you.  And that’s been my favorite role of all.”

Friday, October 24, 2014

Pulitser Prize Winning "Disgraced" by Ayad Akhtar on Broadway

L-R: Gretchen Mol, Karen Pittman, Hari Dhillon, and Josh Radnor in DISGRACED.
Disgraced, the 2013 Pulitzer Prize winning play by Ayad Akhtar, is a highly contrived, yet disturbingly compelling, work that forces one (especially one who may pride herself on her “political correctness”) to face some of the more unpleasant realities in a world that all too frequently fails to conform with how one might prefer it to be.  Having opened to positive reviews in Chicago, the play subsequently enjoyed short runs off Broadway at the Claire Tow Theatre and in London’s West End; it has now moved to Broadway’s Lyceum Theatre on West 45th Street in midtown Manhattan, where I should expect it to generate considerable controversy.

The play’s five person cast manages to cover a plethora of ethnic bases: two male Pakistani Muslims (Abe and Amir), one male white Jew (Isaac), one female African-American (Jory), and one female WASP (Emily).  Both Abe and Amir are attempting to assimilate in America: Abe (Danny Ashok) has gone so far as to change his name to Abe Jensen from Hussein Malik.  His uncle, Amir (Hari Dhillon), an American-born upwardly mobile attorney, has changed his own surname to Kapoor, thereby emphasizing his pre-partition Indian (rather than Pakistani) ancestry and deflecting attention away from his Muslim roots by suggesting that he might actually be Hindu instead.  Jory (Karen Pittman) is Amir’s colleague - and they are both on partner track at the same firm.  Emily (Gretchen Mol), Amir’s wife, is an artist whose paintings are heavily influenced by Islamic themes.  And Isaac (Josh Radnor) is not only Jory’s husband but is also a curator at the Whitney Museum who is considering including Emily's work in an exhibition at the museum.  It all makes for one helluva combustible mix.
Ayad Akhtar has not written a balanced play but that is not meant as a criticism; it was obviously his intention not to do so.  To be sure, he provides us with a host of politically correct liberal shibboleths right from the get-go: There’s a happily married white Jewish man and his black Christian wife and there’s a happily married Pakistani Muslim man with his blond WASP wife.  Sure, the Koran can be interpreted as condoning wife-beating and worse – but it doesn’t have to be – and anyway, aren’t there pretty outrageous mandates in the Talmud as well?  Yes, Ahmadiinejad  is monstrous – but Netanyahu’s no saint either, is he?  The bombing of the World Trade Center was horrific – no one will deny that - but does that really justify racial profiling?  Beneath such superficial differences as skin color or religious conviction, aren’t we all basically the same?

Unfortunately, Akhtar suggests, we may not be.  As it turns out, his having paid lip service to a batch of politically correct platitudes may have been nothing more than his clever ploy to lull us into a state in which he might hit us with his much more disturbing politically incorrect message: in many respects, Islam is an inherently violent and barbaric religion that truly deserves our condemnation, rather than our convoluted attempts to equate it with other religious traditions which, for all their shortcomings, have evolved over millenia to levels well beyond that of mainstream Islam.  And Muslims, having been inculcated with its values virtually from the time they were born, may very well see the world quite differently, and hold very different values, from non-Muslims.  It is not that Muslims are genetically different from the rest of the human race – that would be quite an absurd contention – but the very different cultural and religious influences to which they have been subjected from birth has resulted in their acceptance of a value system quite different from that of the rest of the civilized world.

That is not to say, of course, that every Muslim is evil or violent or a terrorist; indeed, many are fine, upstanding, principled, compassionate, and decent human beings, exhibiting the very best human traits.  But it is to say that those who have so earned our respect have done so by overcoming, rather than succumbing to, the worst aspects of Islamic culture.  In other words, many of the teachings of Islam must be surmounted, not embraced, and the humanity of many, if not, most Muslims is a function of the degree to which they have succeeded in rejecting, rather than accepting, the worst aspects of their culture.

All of the action in this 90 minutes long one act play takes place in Amir’s and Emily’s Upper East Side apartment to which they have invited Isaac and Jory for dinner.   But as talk turns to politics and religion, the underlying cultural differences among people that form their personalities inevitably rise to the surface: notwithstanding Emily’s love of Islamic art and culture and Amir’s superficial rejection of his Islamic roots, the Koran and its commands cannot mean to her what they still mean to him.
(Similarly, of course, Jory has been molded by American racism and Isaac by anti-Semitism in ways not fully comprehensible by those with other racial, religious or cultural backgrounds.  But that is not a serious problem today since Judeo-Christian culture, unlike Islamic culture, has evolved well beyond the primitive strictures of its early beginnings.) 

Today, the problem, it would seem, is almost unique to Islam; much as we might like to deny it, the world today, by and large, is not confronted by Buddhist terrorism, or Jewish terrorism, or Christian terrorism, or Hindu terrorism.  It is confronted by Islamic terrorism promulgated by the Taliban and Al Qaeda, by Boko Haram and Al Nusra, by Hamas, Hezbollah and ISIS.  Certainly we can attempt to explain, or even justify, such terrorism as a natural reaction to the fact that Western civilization attempted over the centuries to impose both its values and arbitrary geographical borders on the Islamic world.  But the very suggestion of such an explanation requires an acceptance of the reality that, yes, for whatever reason, justifiable or not, the greatest threat to the civilized world today is, indeed, posed by Islam.  (And that is without our even addressing such issues as stoning, beheading, genital mutilation, and forced conversions upon pain of death, all of which, it would seem, have become integral to more different Islamic societies around the world than one would like to admit.)

Karen Pittman is outstanding as Jory, capturing both her drive to succeed in white America and her recognition of her own African-American history, a black woman married to a white man who persists in defining herself without relinquishing that right to anyone else, and who recognizes the tenuous balance that exists in our society between justice and order.  I was, however, somewhat less impressed by the other four actors, all of whom left me with the feeling that I was watching four excellent actors performing on stage but who never really succeeded in bringing me fully into their world.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Signal Failure Premieres at Soho Theatre

L-R: Sasha Ellen and Spencer Cowan in SIGNAL FAILURE.
Signal Failure made a bit of a splash at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, garnering rave reviews and playing to sold-out audiences, but it has made scarcely a ripple since transferring to the Soho Theatre on Vandam Street in downtown Manhattan for its US premiere.  At the matinee performance I attended, there were only eight others in the audience and, judging from their subdued reaction, that is not about to change.  Their reaction really was one of willing acceptance or, at best, mild satisfiaction, rather than enthusiasm or exuberance and I’m afraid I’d have to agree.

Lorna (played by Sasha Ellen, who also wrote the play) and Brian (Spencer Cowan) are two damaged souls who meet as a result of their convoluted travels on the London Underground.  From there, the play is basically a minor variation on the “boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy recovers girl” theme, spiced up with some gratuitous sex.  As it turns out, both characters have been mourning losses, which presumably affects their relations with one another, but the playwright seems to have thrown that in after the fact with little theatrical exploration or analysis of the effects of those losses on the two protagonists.

Both Ellen and Cowan are accomplished, talented actors and they play this two-hander for all it’s worth.  But, unfortunately, the play itself isn’t worth much. with the result that the actors’ formidable talents are largely wasted.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

A Feast for the Philosophically Famished: Uncanny Valley at 59E59 Theaters

L-R: Barbara Kingsley and Alex Podulke in UNCANNY VALLEY.  Photo by Seth Freeman.
Although Julian Barber is terminally ill with pancreatic cancer, he still harbors visions of his own immortality.  Not that he thinks that his emaciated 76 year old body might yet be salvaged – that, of course, would be quite impossible.  No, it is not his body that concerns him for he realizes that his “self” is something quite other than his body - just as we all do when thinking about our own “selves.”  The religious among us may think of our “selves” as our “souls” but even the most scientifically-inclined, secular non-believers recognize that we are “something” more than the mere sum of our body parts.  After all, at least in theory, if we were to replace all of our limbs and organs with prosthetics, wouldn’t we still be “us” -  if only we could retain the “essence” of who we are (however we might define that): our memories, our behavioral patterns, our emotional states, our intellects, our personality traits – what we might refer to as our very “consciousness”?

It all sounds quite far-fetched but that’s where Mr. Barber has a big advantage over the rest of us: he’s a billionaire and is prepared to spend hundreds of millions of dollars in pursuit of his improbable dream.  And that is precisely what he does in Uncanny Valley by Thomas Gibbons, currently enjoying its New York premiere at 59E59 Theaters in midtown Manhattan.

Inspired by the supposedly “sentient” robot BINA48 commissioned by Martine Rothblatt and created by Hanson Robotics in 2007, and billed as “a modern-day Frankenstein tale,” the play revolves around Mr. Barber’s contracting with a highly advanced robotics company to create a perfect simulation (in physical appearance) of himself when he was 34 years old – a thoroughly lifelike android into which he could download his “consciousness” (whatever that might entail), thereby achieving the immortality for which he yearns (or at least another couple of hundred years of life).  The android turns out to be Julian (Alex Podulke) whom we first encounter onstage as nothing more than a head and torso but to which are sequentially attached first one arm and then the other and then the legs, until he constitutes a remarkably complete replica of Mr. Barber’s younger self - even if only in physical appearance.

But it is one thing to build an android that looks very much like a particular human being and that can simulate a host of human actions including seeing, hearing, walking, talking, remembering, analyzing, recognizing, and so on.  It is quite another to actually breathe life into that creation which is where Claire (Barbara Kingsley), the play’s updated version of Dr. Frankenstein, comes in.  Claire is the 70 year old brilliant neuroscientist whose job it is to teach Julian how to really be human, how to smile, how to laugh, how to express surprise - in short, as Claire herself put it, how to pass “a Turing test of the emotions.”

The play has everything one might expect from an updated version of the Frankenstein legend including the creation of the “monster” itself (Julian), the scientist who brings it to life (Claire), and allusions to the “villagers…gathering with torches and pitchforks” to destroy that which they cannot comprehend.  But it really is a great deal more than that.  Indeed, it is truly a feast for the philosophically famished.  It touches on issues ranging from the philosophy of science to the philosophy of mind, from epistemology to metaphysical questions regarding the identity of the self, from ethics to the meaning and purpose of life itself.

Ultimately, the play provides us with no answers but it raises the most important questions and it articulates them both intelligently and entertainingly.  Once Claire has taught Julian to smile, to laugh, to express surprise, in short, to pass an emotional Turing test, is he really conscious or aware or intelligent or human?  Or is it all nothing but a facade?  And if it is nothing but a simulation, why should we believe that we humans are doing anything different?  Are we ourselves anything more than a set of algorithms and electrical synapses?  Alan Turing would argue that passing a Turing test would, ipso facto, constitute evidence of true artificial intelligence.  But John Searle (he of the Chinese room) surely would disagree.

Once Julian has been completely assembled and Claire has taught him all she can, but before Julian Barber’s “consciousness” has been downloaded into him, we can think of him as “Julian A”.  And when Julian Barber’s “consciousness” has been downloaded, we can think of him as “Julian B”.  But then what has become of “Julian A”?  Or is he now “Julian C” – a composite of “Julian A” and Julian B”?  And what are the implications of all that for you and me?  Are we the same people we were ten or twenty years ago?  If we are, how can we explain how different we seem today?  And if not, when did we change – and what does it even mean to be “me, myself” (or “you, yourself”) anyway? 

We learn, too, in the play, of Claire’s husband, Paul (who we never actually get to meet), who is in the early stages of dementia, and of her daughter, Rebecca (who we also never meet), who was once a lovely, vibrant girl, but from whom Claire is now completely estranged.  Are they the same people they were decades ago?  We know that matter retains its continuity over time (Rebecca proved that for herself when she was just a little girl by pouring water from a tall narrow container into a short wide one and back again).   But much as we tend to believe similarly in the continuity of self, is that necessarily the case?
And then there is Julian’s son, Paul (who also never actually shows up in the play), who denies that the Julian android is his father in any sense and who claims that his real father abused him as a child.  But did he, and how would we even know?  Julian has no recollection of such abuse but perhaps he simply deleted such memories from his download.  And if he has no memory of those events, in what sense was he (the he of today, that is) truly a participant in them, if we define him in terms of his memories?

Alex Podulke is superb as Julian, expressing the evolution of a machine into a human being and Barbara Kingsley is equally impressive as the brilliant scientist, overwhelmed by the demands of her profession and her marriage and, for whatever reason, largely in denial regarding her relationship with her daughter.  In sum, this is an extremely thought-provoking play, beautifully performed, finely designed and directed, and certainly well worth seeing.


Wednesday, October 1, 2014

A Walk in the Woods Revival on Theatre Row

L-R: Kathleen Chalfant and Paul Niebanck in A WALK IN THE WOODS.  Photo by Carol Rosegg.
A Walk in the Woods by Lee Blessing was first produced on Broadway in 1988, starring Sam Waterston as John Honeyman, an American arms negotiator, and Robert Prosky as Andrei Botvinik, his Russian counterpart.  Based largely on the 1982 arms negotiations that took place between Paul H. Nitze and Yuli A Kvitsinsky, the play was generally well received, garnering both Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award nominations.  Now it is being revived at the Clurman Theatre at Theatre Row by Keen Company in celebration of the opening of Keen’s fifteenth season.

The current revival is excellent – with a twist.  The roles of Honeyman and Prosky have typically been played by men but, in this production, Botvinik’s name has been changed from Andrei to Irina and the role is being played by a woman, Kathleen Chalfant.  (The role of John Honeyman is still being played by a man, Paul Niebanck.) This gender shift in casting might have had enormous consequences – but it didn’t.  The change didn’t introduce any sexual dynamics into the relationship between Honeyman and Botvinik and it didn’t attempt to express any special female insights or attitudes on issues of war and peace or the arms race or disarmament.  Minimal changes (mostly pronouns) were made to the script and the net result was no substantive difference between the scripts of the 1988 and the current productions.

That is not to say that Chalfant interpreted the role of Botvinik in the same way that Prosky did.  Far from it!  But the difference was not one of sex; rather it was the difference between Prosky and Chalfant themselves.  Prosky played the role as a joyful, earthy, boisterous, cynical Russian bear whereas Chalfant plays it as a much more sophisticated, self-controlled, worldly-wise (albeit just as cynical) Russian technocrat.  And while Prosky was superb in the original role, Chalfant is also absolutely delightful in her own very different interpretation.

The role of Honeyman – a callow, uptight, idealistic youth who has not fully grasped just how the game of international arms negotiation is really played and the politics behind it - is not nearly as juicy a part as that of Botwinik but Niebanck does a fine job with it.  But there really is no way he can compete with Chalfant, who truly steals the show.

When all is said and done, however, A Walk in the Woods, while very well written, remains quite dated (even if Botvinik is now played by a woman, which would have been totally unrealistic a quarter century ago when the play was first produced).  It is hard to imagine that any similar sort of disarmament negotiations could take place between the US and Russia today, what with Russia’s seizure of Crimea and its incursion into the Ukraine, and any “disarmament” talks with Syria, regarding the elimination of its chemical weapons stockpiles, or with Iran, regarding its nuclear aspirations, are of a wholly different nature and would require a completely different play.