Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Simon Callow Stars in Tuesdays at Tesco's

Simon Cowell in TUESDAYS AT TESCO'S.  Photo by Carol Rosegg.
Even as a child, Paul knew that he really was a girl “inside” (notwithstanding the external physical evidence to the contrary) and, as an adult, he rectified the mismatch by becoming Pauline, a transsexual woman.  Andrew, his selfish and cantankerous father, never could come to terms with Pauline’s transition to womanhood and, despite his daughter’s most valiant efforts at establishing at least some semblance of a loving relationship between the two following the death of her mother, it was all to no avail.  Although she visited her father every Tuesday, washing and ironing his clothes, cleaning his house, preparing his meals for the following week, and accompanying him to Tesco’s (the UK’s leading supermarket) to do the week’s shopping (all in her mother’s stead now that she was gone), Andrew persisted in rejecting and belittling his “domestic goddess,” consistently addressing her as Paul rather than Pauline and mocking everything from her facial stubble to her broad shoulders.

Simon Callow is an extraordinarily talented British actor, justifiably acclaimed for his past solo performances, and it is he who brings Pauline to life on the stage in Tuesdays at Tesco’s, now enjoying its US premiere at 59E59 Theaters in midtown Manhattan as part of the theater’s annual Brits Off Broadway program.  Written by Emmanuel Barley, the play was originally produced in France as Le Mardi a Monoprix, before being translated into English and adapted for the British stage by Michael Hurt and Sarah Vermande in 2011.  It debuted that year at the Edinburgh Festival before coming to America.

To be sure, there is no denying Mr. Callow’s considerable talent and there are moments in which his solo rendition of Pauline’s plight is evocatively moving.  But his comical galumphing about the stage in high heels and graceless dancing, intended perhaps to merely break up the monotony of a less than memorable soliloquy, comes across as less of a paean to femininity than as a mockery of it.

Mr. Callow shares the stage with Conor Mitchell, a pianist who stands off in a corner, plinking from time to time on his instrument but mostly looking bored.  His performance does nothing to enrich the play, only distracting from it and, for the life of me, I have no idea why he’s there at all.  (This is not meant as a criticism of Mr. Mitchell’s musical ability.  Indeed, in light of his extensive resume, I’d imagine that he is quite talented.  But based on the minor role he’s been given to play in this production, there’s just no way to tell.)

The play begins as a tragic-comedy and concludes as a full-fledged tragedy.  But the greater tragedy is the waste of Mr. Callow’s enormous talent on such a trivial enterprise.

Monday, May 18, 2015

Retro Productions' Dazzling Revival of The Butter and Egg Man by George S. Kaufman

The cast of THE BUTTER AND EGG MAN.  Photo by Kyle Connolly.
Although The Butter and Egg Man may be viewed as something of a precursor to Mel Brooks’ The Producers, the fact remains that it was written by George S. Kaufman and first staged at the Longacre Theatre nearly a century ago, so it really ought come as no surprise that the play may seem quite dated today - what with its flappers and bootleggers, its vaudevillians and blue laws.  The play debuted, after all, in the “Roaring Twenties,” a time that was in many ways quite unlike our own, a time when hotel managers looked askance at a single woman’s visiting a man’s room, and a time when the police were more likely than not to shut down a theatrical production if it included a scene in a brothel.  And that, of course, may well be the very reason that Retro Productions selected this particular play to revive for its Tenth Anniversary production since Retro takes it as its mission to “tell good theatrical stories which have an historical perspective – with an emphasis on the 20th century – in order to broaden our own understanding of the world we live in.”

And we all may be very glad that they did because this is one helluva revival – or to use the vernacular of the 1920s: “This show’s a pipe.”  (No, I didn’t know what the phrase meant either until I read the definition provided in the play’s program: “It’s a cinch, easy as pie, sure to succeed.”)  For that is just what this revival deservedly is: a pipe, a cinch, and sure to succeed.

Joe Lehman (Brian Stillman) is a sleazy theatrical agent and wannabe theatrical producer.  Together with his equally sleazy partner, Jack McClure (Matthew Trumbull), he hopes to stage a production of Her Lesson, a convoluted mess of a story featuring the aging actress, Mary Martin (Shay Gines), in the lead role.  There is only one problem: the partners lack the funds to finance the production and Fanny Lehman (Heather E. Cunningham), a one-time vaudeville performer and now Joe’s wife, who could afford to finance the show herself if she chose to, refuses to do so.

Not to worry.  Along comes Peter Jones (Ben Schnickel), a wholesome lad who lives with his mother in Chillicothe, Ohio and who has just arrived in New York in the hopes of parlaying the $20,000 inheritance he received from his grandfather into a large enough sum to enable him to buy the hotel at which he works and return to Chillicothe not merely as one of its employees but as its owner.
Voila!  Peter encounters Joe’s secretary, Jane Weston (Alisha Spielmann), and is immediately smitten.  Jane is as wholesome as Peter but the two are no match for the likes of Joe and Jack.  Predictably, Peter is prevailed upon to invest his $20,000 in Her Lesson, the play opens in Syracuse, and it bombs.  Peter, it seems, is the quintessential “butter and egg man” of the play’s title (defined in the play’s program as 1920s slang for “a na├»ve but rich investor, a sap, a mark”).

But things are not always as they seem.  Peter buys out Joe’s and Jack’s interests in Her Lesson and the apparent flop goes on to become an unlikely hit on Broadway.  Peter has turned the tables on Joe and Jack, he has won Jane’s hand, and he is on top of the world.  Until, that is, it all comes crashing down upon him with the arrival of A. J. Patterson (Seth Sheldon), an OCD attorney whose client contends (with considerable supporting evidence) that Peter never owned the rights to Her Lesson in the first place.  It looks as if Peter may be nothing more than a “butter and egg man” after all.

Or is he?  The play’s not over yet and you’ll have to see it to find out.

The cast is wonderful across the board with several terrific standouts.  Brian Stillman plays the role of Joe as a loud, trumpeting, cigar-chomping alpha male – something of a cross between Zero Mostel, Jim Belushi and Jackie Gleason – while Matthew Trumbull acts the part of his sidekick, Jack, in truly reptilian fashion.  Shay Gines channels Gloria Swanson in her portrayal of Mary Martin and both Ben Schnickel and Alisha Spielmann are the fresh-faced innocents, Peter and Jane, that any mother would be proud to call her own.

Ricardo Rust, the play’s director, also deserves a special shout-out, not only for his overall success in eliciting such fine performances from his very talented cast but also for his remarkably creative choreography of the play’s scene transitions.  It is all too often the case that audiences at off off Broadway plays must suffer through distracting and time-consuming scene changes that not only do nothing to enhance the theatrical experience but actually detract from it.  Quite the opposite is the case here.  In this revival of The Butter and Egg Man at the Gene Frankel Theatre on Bond Street in lower Manhattan, the scene transitions themselves are entertaining as the entire cast acts in concert, rearranging and transporting furniture and props in a delightfully choreographed dance straight out of the “Roaring Twenties.”

Monday, May 11, 2015

One Hand Clapping by Anthony Burgess at 59E59 Theaters

L-R: Eve Burley and Oliver Devoti in ONE HAND CLAPPING.  Photo by Emma Phillipson.
Anthony Burgess wrote the novel One Hand Clapping under the pseudonym Joseph Kell in 1961.  The book subsequently was adapted for the stage by Lucia Cox and was first produced at the Bolton Octagon Theatre in Lancashire, Burgess’s birthplace, last year.  The play has since crossed the pond and, in a House of Orphans production and under the direction of Lucia Cox, is currently enjoying its US premiere at 59E59 Theaters in midtown Manhattan as the second production in this year’s highly regarded annual Brits Off Broadway program.

The central character in One Hand Clapping is Janet Shirley (Eve Burley), a 23 year old ordinary housewife and supermarket clerk, content with her simple lot in life and relatively happily married to Howard Shirley (Oliver Devoti), a 27 year old sleep-walking, obsessive-compulsive, used car salesman, who appears to be rapidly descending into full-fledged madness.  Nor is Howard simply OCD and somewhat loopy; he also has a photographic memory and may even be clairvoyant (or perhaps just very lucky) as well.

It is Howard’s photographic memory which enables him to win 1,000 pounds on a British television quiz show and his clairvoyance (or plain dumb luck) that results in his parlaying the 1,000 pounds into 79,000 pounds by betting on the horses – enough to bring about a really substantial change in the Shirleys’s lives.  Or so they thought.

Their new-found wealth could just be used to buy stuff – a mink coat for Janet, for instance, or fancy dinners – but as they quickly discover, that doesn’t really work.  Indeed, Janet finds that she much prefers “something nice to eat, beans on toast and some corned beef….a welcome relief after all that fancy muck…duck in some horrid orange sauce and fancy Champagne when a cup of tea would have done just as well.”

Well then, how about using the money for some good cause?  At one point, Howard does donate “1,000 pounds to support a starving artist” and later he suggests contributing to such causes as “Guide Dogs and Starving Chinese Children and things like that.”  But his donation to Redvers Glass (Adam Urey), a presumed “starving artist,” doesn’t go well at all: for starters, the journalist who Howard authorizes to make the donation on his behalf skims 100 pounds off the top; then Red, himself, turns out to be something of a charlatan; and finally, apparently finding that 900 pounds isn’t really such a big deal, Red turns his attention to the seduction of Howard’s wife instead.  And as for the “Guide Dogs and Starving Chinese Children,” those ideas never even get off the ground.

But if buying stuff and donating to good causes don’t make the Shirleys any happier, what might?  Howard’s answer: travel and experiences.  Or, as he puts it: “The time for buying things of a permanent nature is all finished….The money is to be spent on living and not to be saved at all or converted into ornaments or furnishings or things of that nature.” And so Howard arranges for them to travel – to New York, Cleveland, Detroit, Chicago, Salt Lake City, Los Angeles and San Francisco.  But when they’ve been there and back, they find that they’re no happier than before (in fact, maybe even less so).  And Janet concludes: “I suppose the only real reason for traveling is to learn that all people are the same.”

Eve Burley is terrific as Janet, clinging to the world she knows and understands and comfortable in the subordinate marital role she has chosen to accept in a pre-feminist time, but realizing that a line must be drawn short of her total sacrifice to her husband’s insanity.  Oliver Devoti is as tightly wound up as a cyborg in his role as the rapidly disintegrating Howard.  And Adam Urey contributes just the comic relief that the play requires in his dual roles as Red and as Laddie O’Neill, the talk show host.

Anthony Burgess being Anthony Burgess, of course, One Hand Clapping is meant to be a direct attack on America’s capitalist free enterprise system and its leading to – horror or horrors! – consumerism run amok and the danger that Great Britain might follow the US down that sordid path to hell.  But it is even more than that: it is an existential and nihilistic tirade against life itself, questioning the very morality of bringing new lives into a world threatened by nuclear weapons or the ethical calculus involved in measuring the value of lives lost against those newly created.  And as such, despite the stellar performances of the entire cast, the play itself really was not my cup of tea.