Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Funny and Poignant SHOWS FOR DAYS at Lincoln Center

L-R: Dale Soules and Patti Lupone in SHOWS FOR DAYS.  Photo by Joan Marcus.
Drawing freely on his own experiences, Douglas Carter Beane,  a very talented gay playwright, has written a wonderfully funny and poignant fictionalized “coming of age” story that is sure to resonate not only with the gay community but with theatergoers of every possible sexual orientation.  In Shows for Days, currently premiering at Lincoln Center’s Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater, Car (Michael Urie), the playwright’s 14 year old alter ego, who is tentatively beginning to explore his own sexuality, learns about the pleasure and pain of first love as well as how he might best confront the larger world around him.

With time to kill before taking the next bus home, Car wanders into a run-down community theater in Reading, Pennsylvania and finds more than he had bargained for.  Irene, a heterosexual, married, Yiddish-spouting, self-styled New York theatrical “maven” with delusions of grandeur (Patti Lupone) and Sid, a rough and tumble, down to earth “butch” lesbian, co-founded the little theatre group.  They are joined in their efforts to make a go of it by Clive, a gay African-American actor with a superficial resemblance to James Earl Jones (Lance Coadie Williams), Maria, a straight, melodramatic aspiring actress (Zoe Winters), and Damien, a duplicitous, self-serving bi-sexual narcissist (Jordan Dean).

As it turns out, the members of the group have big dreams but small resources and limited talent and they are called upon to make all sorts of questionable decisions and compromises.  To paraphrase a line from Irene: they don’t sell out but they do adapt to circumstances in their own financial self-interest.  Along the way, Car discovers his literary talent and just who he is: in making that role come alive, Mr. Urie is exquisitely charming and self-deprecating and the play’s success owes much to him.  Irene is forced to confront her own self-deceptions and in doing so, Ms Lupone is a force to be reckoned with.  Clive faces the hypocrisy inherent in his relationship with a closeted white Republican politician; Mr. Williams is splendid in that role as he seeks to reconcile the inconsistencies in his character’s own persona.  And Ms Soules is simply terrific as Sid, who would prefer to wield a sledge hammer than wear a dress - but who will wear a dress too, and to maximum effect, if that’s what it will take to keep the theater alive.

Monday, June 29, 2015

Pride & Prejudice at Theater for the New City

Amanda Yachechak, Lissa Moira, James Parks, and Emily Hin in PRIDE & PREJUDICE - A MUSICAL.  Photo by Peter Welch.
Adapting a complex literary classic such as Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice for the stage is a difficult task.  Turning that adaptation into a musical is even harder, requiring the seamless integration of a musical score into the work.  And doing it all as an off off Broadway production is hardest of all, given that venue’s spatial constraints and limited resources.

But that is just what Theater for the New City has just pulled off with its current staging of Pride & Prejudice – A New Musical: a musical production that hews closely to the novel’s original story lines, employs an exuberantly talented cast of 19, and provides its audience with three solid hours of theatrical fun.

Which is not to say that this show doesn’t have its flaws.  It does.  The score is derivative, the lyrics are pedestrian and I didn’t leave the theater humming any of its tunes.  The choreography is repetitive and clumsy, as it focuses almost exclusively on a half dozen couples engaged in one or another reel-style dance and the theater’s stage is too small to accommodate them all comfortably.  The sets and the costumes are serviceable but not memorable.

What is redeeming about the play in the face of those shortcomings, however, is its fealty to Jane Austen’s original novel, the attractiveness and talent of its enthusiastic cast and, most especially, the extraordinary operatic voices of many of the actors.  They may not have had the best musical material to work with but their renditions of the songs they were given were absolutely extraordinary.

The primary plot line revolves around the desire of Mr. Bennet (Robert Charles Russell) and Mrs. Bennet (Henrietta Stevenson) to marry off their five daughters: Jane (Stephanie Leone), Elizabeth (Amanda Yachechak), Mary (Britney Simone), Kitty (Hallie Wage), and Lydia (Rebecca Knowles).  The pressure on Mr. and Mrs. Bennet to do so is considerable since the British laws of “entail” at that time prevented Mr. Bennet from bequeathing his property upon his death to anyone but a male heir; since he had fathered no sons and had five daughters, it meant that upon his death, his property would go to his closest male relative, his cousin Mr. Collins (James Parks).  And that meant that if his daughters did not marry well, they would be left homeless and helpless upon his demise for what else was a respectable but relatively uneducated woman good for at that time other than to be a wife and homemaker?

Jane falls in love with the dashing Mr. Bingley (Chris Donovan) and he with her (although it takes a while before each realizes that the other shares his or her passion).  But not to worry: by play’s end, they are engaged.  Headstrong Elizabeth is a tougher case: Mr. Collins proposes to her and had she accepted his proposal, it would have provided a neat solution to the problem of the family estate: the home in which she had grown up would have remained hers after Mr. Collins inherited it from her father.  But Elizabeth dismisses him out of hand: that would be too big a price to pay.  At which point Mr. Collins transfers his affections to Elizabeth’s best friend, Charlotte (Emily Hin), who, being more practical than her friend, accepts his proposal to their mutual advantage.

But back to Elizabeth.  She finds herself strongly attracted to Mr. Bingley’s good friend, Darcy (Jonathan Fox Powers), but simultaneously repelled by his diffident, prideful style and his questionable past.  Wickham (Thom Brown III), the son of Darcy’s father’s one-time steward, claims to have been mistreated by Darcy for no other reason than their class difference, a claim which, if true, the egalitarian (for her time) Elizabeth could not possibly abide.  As it turns out, of course, it is Wickham who is the villain of the piece and Darcy the hero.

True to his villainous nature, Wickham seduces Lydia, the youngest and most innocent of the Bennet children, and runs off with her – and it is Darcy who comes to the rescue.  He makes the very best of a bad situation by assuring that Wickham does, indeed, marry Lydia, thereby making an honest woman of her, restoring her family’s reputation (and chalking up another marriage for the Bennet family). Darcy also lets Elizabeth know the truth about his and Wickham’s past relationship, thereby further restoring his own honor as well.  As you might expect, after that, Elizabeth’s marriage to Darcy is inevitable.

And so, by play’s end, three of the Bennet daughters have been married off: Jane to Mr.Bingley, Elizabeth to Darcy, and Lydia to Wickham.  That still leaves Kitty, of course, but, with her considerable beauty and sex appeal (at least as played by Ms Wage), I doubt if she will lack for male proposals.

And Mary will always have her books.

Saturday, June 6, 2015

Traveling Papers at The Lion Theatre on Theatre Row

The cast of TRAVELING PAPERS.  Photo by Hunter Canning.
For the first 30 minutes or so of this 90 minute production, Traveling Papers (currently premiering at The Lion Theatre at Theatre Row in midtown Manhattan), comes across as a theatrical classroom exercise – albeit one executed by seven very talented students.  In a scattershot assortment of soliloquies, excerpted from the works of authors ranging from Robert Louis Stevenson to Paul Theroux and from Edith Wharton to Joseph Conrad, the seven actors express their understanding and appreciation of the joy of travel.  Unfortunately, contrary to the sentiment expressed by Robert Frost in his memorable The Road Not Taken, the road these actors are traveling is a road that already has been traveled all too often, and their combined paean to the pleasures of travel appears to be little more than a theatrical conceit.

In the final two thirds of the production, however, matters improve considerably, as the play belatedly focuses increasingly on a single story line.  Miss Reid (Gwen Arment ), a well-meaning but loquaciously boring spinster and the sole passenger on a a German steamer, is driving the ship’s crew to distraction.  In typical male fashion, the ship’s Captain (John Camera ), the ship’s Doctor (Peter Husovsky), and the ship’s First Mate (Macy Idzakovich) determine that what Miss Reid really needs is to take a lover.  To that end they enlist the aid of the ship’s Radio Operator (Kyle Doherty), a handsome but callow youth half her age, with amusing and ultimately very satisfactory consequences.