Monday, November 30, 2015

Outstanding Revival of GOOD BOYS AND TRUE by Retro Productions

Retro Productions is an exceptionally talented theatre company dedicated to the presentation of “good theatrical stories that have an historical perspective - with an emphasis on the 20th century.”  Since 2005, it has staged eighteen full length plays to considerable acclaim, including terrific revivals of Michael Frayn’s Benefactors in 2010 and George S. Kaufman’s The Butter and Egg Man earlier this year.  Now in its eleventh season it is reviving Good Boys and True by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa at the Gene Frankel Theatre on Bond Street in lower Manhattan, an excellent production that can only further enhance Retro’s well-earned reputation.

Good Boys and True had its world premiere at The Steppenwolf Theatre in 2007 and its New York premiere at the Second Stage Theater the following year.  Moreover, the tale it tells, centering on the ramifications of the discovery and dissemination of a sexually explicit video tape, takes place in 1988, a generation earlier.  And yet this revival does not come across as dated at all.  Indeed, although the internet and sexting may have supplanted videotaping in today’s world, the play’s message is as salient today as it ever was.

Brandon Hardy (Ryan Pater) is an upper class upperclassman - a handsome, popular, intelligent senior at the prestigious and elite St. Joseph’s Preparatory School for Boys located in a suburb of Washington, D.C.  He is the son of two medical doctors, he is the captain of his school’s football team, and he has just been accepted to Dartmouth.  In sum, he would appear to have it all – until Coach Russell Shea (C. K. Allen) discovers a sex tape in which the male protagonist bears a striking resemblance to Brandon.  The female protagonist appears to be a working class girl from one of the public schools in the area, clearly not one of the upper class girls from one of St. Joseph’s sister schools.  To put the best light on it, the boy on the tape may have been exploiting, objectifying and using the girl for nothing but his own gratification; at worst, the tape might have been depicting rape.

Coach Shea, a friend of Brandon’s family (he was one of Brandon’s father’s classmates and teammates at St. Joseph’s a generation earlier), is as concerned (or even more so) over his school’s reputation and the potential consequences of the tape’s dissemination for Brandon and his parents as he is about the welfare of the girl or the implications of the tape’s having been made in the first place.  To that end, he enlists the aid of Brandon’s mother. Elizabeth Hardy (Heather E. Cunningham), entrusting her with the tape so that she might view it for herself, confront her son, and determine whether or not he actually is the boy on the tape.  Only then would they determine what action to take.

Spoiler Alert: Brandon does turn out to have been the boy on the tape and the girl, Cheryl Moody (Rebecca Gray Davis) was a working class public school girl he picked up at the mall.  The tape ends up being broadly disseminated (you really never can put the genie back in the bottle) and the repercussions for all concerned are considerable.

But that’s the easy part.  The mystery of who did what is relatively simple to determine but the question of why such things happen at all is much more difficult.  And it is the attempt to understand the “why,” not the “what,” that makes this such an interesting play.

The actual motivations that inform our actions often are unknown – even to ourselves.  As it turns out, Brandon’s closest friend at St. Joseph’s is Justin Simmons (Stephan Amenta) who has also applied to Dartmouth; in fact, the two intend to room together in college.  But Justin is not only gay and out of the closet but also services Brandon orally from time to time.  So was Brandon’s behavior as depicted on the sex tape an attempt to repress his own homosexual inclinations?  Did he make the tape and connive to have it discovered in order to affirm his own heterosexuality?

Cheryl admits to being more than suspicious when Brandon brought her to his friend’s empty house for their sexual romp and she is seen smiling on the tape at its inception.  So was she complicit in the entire affair or is it impermissible to even consider such a thing since to do so would constitute “blaming the victim”?

In the course of the play, we learn of Elizabeth’s own questionable behavior a generation earlier (as well as that of Coach Shea and of Brandon’s own father) when they were no older than Brandon is today.  Are they guilty of providing Brandon with a sense of entitlement and creating an environment in which such behavior would not only be acceptable but could flourish?

Is Brandon just a normal decent adolescent whose hormones ran rampant on one fateful day?  Or is he a basically bad kid with slightly sadistic tendencies who just didn’t think the rules applied to him?

In a program note, Heather Cunningham, the Retro’s Producing Artistic Director (who also plays the part of Elizabeth Hardy) understandably and quite justifiably focuses her attention on the play’s most overt message:

Rape culture and negative attitudes toward women are pervasive in our society.  It’s in how we address each other every day.  Slut shaming is nothing new – it’s been around since the 50’s and beyond.  “She’s easy” or “She’s a tease” have simply been replaced by “She’s a slut” and “She’s a whore.”  Making “those women” somehow “less than”.  Not important.  Not worthy of respect.

So I ask you…and myself…what are we going to do to change it?

Yes, we must change it.  But before we can change it, we really have to understand it and we don’t seem to have even reached that point yet.  Which really is what this play is all about.


Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Schreiber Revival of HOT L BALTIMORE by Lanford Wilson

L-R: Stephanie Seward, Anna Holbrook, and Alexandra Hellquist in THE HOT L BALTIMORE.  Photo by Bob Degus.
The Hotel Baltimore has seen better days (as evidenced by the missing “e” on the hotel’s sign which accounts for the play’s somewhat unusual title).  So, too, have its long term residents, including three members of the oldest profession.  Suzy (Jill Bianchini) is so accepting of her submissive state that she is prepared to return to a former pimp should she be forced to vacate the hotel, all the while persisting in flouncing about as if she were a glamour queen.  April Green (Stephanie Seward) simply does whatever if takes to keep going, including turning tricks on the floor, on a table, in a bathtub, or wherever.  And the Girl (Alexandra Hellquist) has so little understanding of who she really is that she cannot even decide on a name for herself and persists in seeking alternative worlds incorporating ghosts and concepts of reincarnation which ostensibly would prove to be more palatable to her than her own reality.

Nor will the three hookers be the hotel’s only casualties in the event that it is forced to close (which seems highly likely now that all its residents have received eviction notices).  What is to become of Jackie (Lisa Sobin), a tough, conniving thief and her passively pathetic brother, Jamie (Philip Rosen)?  Or the older folks: the mildly eccentric Mr. Morse (Peter Judd) and the sedate Millie (Ann Holbrook)?  Indeed, we might also ask what will become of the hotel’s employees, Bill Lewis (Jerry Topitzer) and Mrs. Oxenham (Joan D. Saunders).

Not that we’re going to find out.  The Hot L Baltimore by Lanford Wilson, won the Drama Desk and Obie awards for best play when it was first staged in 1973, and it is now being revived in a very professional production by T. Schreiber Studio for Theatre & Film at The Gloria Maddox Theatre on West 26th Street in Manhattan.  But the play wasn’t big on plot structure when it was first produced and, not surprisingly, it isn’t any bigger on plot structure in this latest incarnation.  Rather, its claim to fame rests on its depiction of various individuals and their relationships (trivial though they might be) under all sorts of circumstances.

In my opinion, that is the play’s shortcoming.  This would have been a much better play, I believe, if Wilson had allowed his plot ideas to evolve and then resolved them, instead of just leaving them out there as unresolved background issues, focusing solely on his characters’ emotional reactions.  Given the play as it has been written, however, the cast has performed splendidly.  I was particularly impressed by the performances of Jill Bianchini, Stephanie Seward, and Alexandra Hellquist as the three hookers; Lisa Sobin as Jackie; and Ann Holbrook as Millie.

Monday, November 9, 2015


L-R: Miranda Jean Larson and Jocelyn Vammer in ROSENKRANTZ AND GUILDENSTERN ARE DEAD.  Photo by Al Foote III.

Tom Stoppard, arguably the greatest living English language playwright, achieved his first major success in 1966 when Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead was staged at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival (before moving on to Broadway a year later in a Royal National Theatre production that won the Tony Award for Best Play as well as an award for Best Play by the New York Drama Critics Circle in 1968 and an award for Outstanding Production from the Outer Critics Circle in 1969).  Now, nearly a half-century later, it is being revived by The Onomatopoeia Theatre Company in a delightfully rambunctious production at The Gene Frankel Theatre on Bond Street in lower New York.

This is an extraordinary work – a tongue-in-cheek comedy, an existential and absurdist tour-de-force that owes as much to Samuel Beckett as it does to William Shakespeare, and an exploration of the philosophical concepts of determinism, free will, chance and the laws of probability – all in one.

On the simplest level, it is a comedic spin-off from Hamlet, focusing on two minor characters from the Shakespearean play, the courtiers Rosencrantz and Guldenstern, who have been tasked with accompanying Hamlet to England. In Shakespeare’s play, Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern are no more than incidental characters and what we are meant to care about is what happens to Hamlet, Claudius, Gertrude, Polonius, Ophelia, and Laertes.  But in Stoppard’s play, everything is turned upside-down: it is Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern who assume center stage while Hamlet, Claudius, et al. are reduced to little more than supporting roles.

On a somewhat deeper level, Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead may be seen as a re-working of Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern may be the very reincarnations of Estragon and Vladimir (the protagonists of Beckett’s greatest work) and the Player and his acting troupe, The Tradedians (who play important roles in Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead) may represent Beckett’s Pozzo and Lucky.

On its deepest level, however, Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead may be interpreted as a philosophical exploration of the inter-related concepts of death and determinism, free will and the illusion of intentionality, chance and the laws of probability (this is a Stoppard play, after all).

In Stoppard’s hands, the plights that confront Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern are seen to have been predetermined – or not. They are inevitable – or coincidental – or accidental – or random – or fated - or a consequence of the exercise of one’s own free will – or not. In other words, they are just the sorts of events that allow Stoppard’s imagination to take flight and permit him to explore the mathematical and physical paradoxes which have informed so many of his other works (e.g.  Arcadia, Hapgood, and  Jumpers).

In sum, Stoppard here addresses the fact that we all must go through life with limited knowledge – and yet we must go on. We, like Rosenkrantz and Guldenstern, don’t really know what’s going on about us, what is transpiring in the sea around us while we focus all our attention on what’s happening on the deck of our own small ship, or whether or not our seeming freedom of action is anything more than an illusion. And yet we must and do go on.

In this production, Thomas R. Gordon, the Artistic Director of The Onomatopoeia Theatre Company, has cast two women, Miranda Jean Larson and Joceylyn Vammer, as Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern.  Those roles have traditionally been played by men but this instance of gender-blind casting works beautifully, with both Larson and Vammer providing a welcome degree of light-hearted insouciance in their roles.