Monday, June 25, 2018

THE PROPERTY by Ben Josephson Premieres at the Clurman Theatre on Theatre Row

L-R: Warren Kelley, John Long, Phil Gillen, and Rachel Botchan in THE PROPERTY.  Photo by Hunter Canning/@huntercanning

The first of Ben Josephson’s seven plays to be produced in New York, The Property is currently premiering at the Clurman Theatre on Theatre Row on West 42nd Street in midtown Manhattan.  Not totally realistic but not entirely impressionistic either, the play seeks to provide insights into the lives of five intimately-related but singularly dysfunctional individuals.

Irene (Rachel Botchan) is the play’s central character.  Previously married to Vernon (Sam Tsoutsouvas), an economically successful but flagrantly immoral man, she is currently married to Eddie (Warren Kelley), Vernon’s polar opposite.  While Vernon is an unapologetic wealthy beneficiary of our capitalist system, Eddie is a low-paid bookstore employee and would-be Marxist revolutionary. And where Vernon is a highly-sexed, fun-loving, womanizer whose philandering led to his divorce from Irene and his virtual abandonment of their son, Todd (Phil Gillen), Eddie is a faithful husband to Irene and a concerned and well-meaning step-father to Todd – albeit a rather boring and uninspiring man in his own right and one who much prefers to spend his time reading books in the family cottage rather than engaging in more personal contact with other human beings.

But Irene’s divorce and remarriage didn’t just affect Vernon, Eddie and Todd, it changed Irene too: once free-spirited and artistically creative (when married to Vernon), she has since settled for the more stultifying life of a mid-level bank employee.  When Greg (John Long), a compassionate school teacher but relatively ineffectual and unsuccessful individual shows up to rent the cottage, the lives of all concerned are up-ended.  Vernon, who has been estranged from both Irene and Todd for years, returns to attempt to advise Irene regarding the economic and financial ramifications of her rental of the cottage to Greg and, at Irene’s urging, to try (reluctantly) to assist Todd in establishing his own career path.  Greg becomes enamored of Irene and she of him, but not to much avail given their moral scruples.   Eddie loses his job – for which he blames what he perceives as a corrupt capitalist system - but he resents the loss of his cottage retreat to Greg even more than he resents the loss of his job and he turns increasingly to drink.  Meanwhile Todd’s teenage rebellion, aggravated by Vernon’s initial abandonment and subsequent interference in his life, his lack of respect for Eddie, and his dismay at his mother’s infatuation with Greg, result in his descent into full-fledged heroin addiction. 

In a program note, the play’s director, Robert Kalfin wrote:

“The play is not judgmental.  Rather it is humanely compassionate and understanding; offering no solutions, just a portrait for reflection.”

Well, you sure could have fooled me.  I found the play to be quite judgmental – and justifiably so.  The portraits it paints of the five principals virtually cry out for judgment.  Should one not be judgmental regarding Vernon’s infidelities and his abandonment of his children?  Or of Eddie’s refusal to accept responsibility for his own life?  Or of Greg’s reluctance to come to grips with the real world? 

In any event, notwithstanding Josephson’s or Kalfin’s intents, the play certainly elicited judgments from me.  And I think that’s a good thing.

Friday, June 15, 2018

Jessica Walker Channels Suzy Solidor in ALL I WANT IS ONE NIGHT at 59E59 Theaters

L-R: Joseph Atkins, Jessica Walker, and Alexandra Mathie in ALL I WANT IS ONE NIGHT.  Photo by Carol Rosegg.

It is no accident that Suzy Solidor lacks the name recognition of Edith Piaf or Marlene Dietrich; admittedly she was not in their class as a French chanteuse of the 1930’s and 1940s. And yet Solidor surely deserves greater recognition, not only as the openly bi-sexual, cross-dressing, flamboyant owner-entertainer of La Vie Parisienne, located in the first gay quarter of Paris and one of the hottest Parisian nightclubs of the time, but also as the “most painted woman in the world,” having had her portrait painted more than 200 times by such celebrated artists as Pablo Picasso, Georges Braques, Raoul Dufy, Francis Bacon, Man Ray, Erte, Jean Cocteau, and Tamara de Lempicka.

The illegitimate daughter of a charwoman, Solidor came to believe that her father, an attorney who had abandoned her, was really the descendent of an infamous French pirate, prompting her to sing of  “the sea, sex and sailors” – that is, when she was not belting out even more erotic, Sapphic tunes.  Consistent with her personality, Solidor catered to all comers, both heterosexuals and homosexuals, at La Vin Parisienne, and not only to French intellectuals and French entertainers but also to Nazi officers - which ultimately led to her conviction as a Nazi collaborator after the war.

Jessica Walker is an exceptional, multi-talented woman in her own right, as a playwright, translator, actress and singer.  Not only has she brought Solidor to our overdue attention by penning All I Want Is One Night, currently being staged as part of the Brits Off Broadway program at 59E59Theaters, but in doing so, she personally translated Solidor’s songs from French to English and now is starring, as actress and singer, in this production.

Walker is superb in channeling Solidor’s persona and is very ably supported by the other two members of the production’s small cast.  Rachel Austin portrays both Daisy and Giselle, the former being one of Solidor’s long-time lesbian lovers and the latter being her much put upon handmaid of her later years when Solidor was descending into an alcoholic abyss of her own making.  Alexandra Mathie is even more versatile, playing five different roles including those of Bengt Lindstrom (the latest in the long line of artists commissioned to paint Solidor’s portrait); Tamara de Lempicka (who painted the most famous of Solidor’s portraits and who was another of her many gay lovers); Bambi (a flamboyant drag queen); and her long lost father. 

And special mention must be made of Joseph Atkins, the play’s musical director without whose terrific accompaniment on the piano and accordion, the play may well have languished.  I only wish there had been more musical numbers than the eight with which we were provided, for him to have accompanied.

Friday, June 8, 2018

SECRET LIFE OF HUMANS by David Byrne Premieres at 59E59 Theaters

L-R: Andrew Strafford-Baker, Andy McLeod, Olivia Hirst, Stella Taylor, Richard Delaney in SECRET LIFE OF HUMANS. Photo by Richard Davenport  

Yuval Haran’s Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind is an extraordinary book.  An International best-seller, it took a fresh look at what it means to be human and raised such questions as: If there were half a dozen different species of humans inhabiting the Earth 100,000 years ago, why is there only one – homo sapiens – still around today?  What happened to the Neanderthals and all the others?  Was our tribe, homo sapiens, guilty of some form of genocide against those rival species?  And if so, does that suggest that such vestigial tribal genocidal traits may have remained within us - with who knows what implications for our own future survival?  A rather pessimistic outlook on life.

Jacob “Bruno” Bronowski was truly a “renaissance man” of the last century.  A brilliant mathematician and outstanding chess player, he also co-edited the literary magazine Experiment while at Cambridge and, during the Second World War, worked in operations research for the United Kingdom to enhance its bombing strategies.  After the war, he turned to biology in an attempt to better comprehend the nature of violence in man.  In the 1950s, he appeared on the BBC’s television version of The BrainTrust but he remains best known for The Ascent of Man – the documentary about the history of humanity that he produced in 1973 which, in his words, showed “our progression from our primitive ancestors to the masters of science and technology and art that we are today” – a work as optimistic in its interpretation of man’s evolution as Sapiens is pessimistic. 

David Byrne’s Secret Life of Humans, currently being staged at 59E59 Theaters as part of this year’s Brits Off Broadway program, represents something of an amalgam between The Ascent of Man and Sapiens and is a remarkably original work.  To be sure, man’s evolution can be interpreted (as The Ascent of Man does) as having consisted of continuing and sustained advancement – just think, for example, of indoor plumbing, the steam engine, the automobile, air travel, antibiotics, the internet, the smart-phone…. Yes, there have been setbacks from time to time but isn’t it unquestionably true that, overall, man’s health, wealth, longevity, and quality of life have all improved dramatically over time?

On the other hand, there appears to be no denying that man’s inhumanity to man has, in many ways persisted undiminished.  Thousands of years after primitive tribes engaged in human sacrifice, the supposedly civilized citizens of Nazi Germany allowed the Holocaust to occur, culminating in the genocidal extermination of six million Jews.  And even now, three-quarters of a century later, we are witnessing Islamist terrorism, genocidal inter-tribal wars in Africa, inexplicable school shootings, biological warfare, nuclear saber-rattling, and the persistence of brutal dictatorships around the world.  The League of Nations failed and the United Nations is not doing much better, the Arab Spring petered out, and it is not difficult to argue, as Sapiens might, that in many ways man is devolving and regressing, rather that evolving and progressing.

Secret Life of Humans addresses this disconnect through the life of Jacob “Bruno” Bronowski (Richard Delaney) who bears full responsibility for the sentiments expressed inThe Ascent of Man but whose own actions during the Second World War may have fallen short of that.  (Bronowski may or may not have participated in the Manhattan Project but he assuredly did contribute to the deaths of innocent German civilians by calculating how to cause the most damage through fire-raising, i.e. dropping small incendiary bombs on German cities.)  How might we reconcile such an apparent inconsistency (which is played out on a larger scale when one considers the disconnect between mankind’s economic progress and its socio-political shortcomings)?

Well, for starters, The Ascent of Man does provide a good description of mankind’s continued progress over time.  But that progress is not in a “straight, unbroken line” as Bronowski contends.  Rather, it occurs despite occasional temporary backsliding.  Similarly, Bronowski himself may simply have evidenced his own temporary fallibility in his actions during the Second World War but that does not change the fact that, overall, he was a decent and moral man.

Additionally, It is possible that what is true in the spheres of economics and technology does not necessarily carry over into the spheres of social and political activity.  The Ascent of Man is certainly correct in describing man’s economic and technological history as an upward-sloping straight line but that does not necessarily entail similar uninterrupted advances in politics and social relations.  In Bronowski’s personal case, that would suggest his continued progress in mathematics, technology and science despite any shortcomings he might have exhibited in other areas.  As Bronowski himself expresses it when grappling with the problem of whether or not to assist his Government in improving its bombing strategies during the Second World War:

“There are three questions to my mind.  Should we do this?  Well, maths, itself, cannot be good or evil.  It is either correct or incorrect, regardless of any later applications.  Must we do this?  The alternative is unimaginable.  And can we do this?"

Finally, there is the possibility that it all depends on our differing value systems.  Ava (Stella Taylor) is a soon-to-be-unemployed teacher who has a one-night stand with Bronowski’s grandson, Jamie (Andrew Strafford-Baker), in the course of which she prevails on him to provide her with the previously undisclosed material she needs in order to publish something “meaty.”  But Ava’s role in the play is more than that: she is also something of a narrator or one-woman Greek chorus and it is she who frequently raises the issues we’ve been discussing.  Thus it is she who claims that we all retain our “vestigial” traits, that “we’ve progressed, but we’ve not changed,” that The Ascent of Man was “pretty lightweight,” that Bronowski’s “view of the world is a little simplistic,” and that, in short:

“None of this is real….But it’s no less real than the value of the money in your pocket. Or the laws we decide to follow.  Or the borders of countries we’ve drawn on maps.  Or even human rights.  All only real because we’ve decided to believe in them."

But if human rights or any of our other values are only real because we’ve decided to believe in them, and not for any objective reason, then Bronowski’s wartime activities were only right (or wrong) if one believes them to have been so.  And capitalism or communism, democracy or dictatorship, terrorism or tolerance, globalization or xenophobia, genocide or foreign aid, are all only right or wrong because you think they are.  Quite a stretch and not one I’m able to make.

Richard Delaney is superb as Jacob “Bruno” Bronowski, initially supremely confident in his world view and the rightness of his actions but apparently ultimately coming to question his wartime activities.  Stella Taylor, as Ava, proves to be a formidable adversary and Andrew Strafford-Baker as Jamie provides the necessary linkage between the two and their conflicting philosophies.  Olivia Hirst is effective as Bronowski’s devoted wife, Rita, and Andy McLeod, as Bronowski’s wartime gay co-worker succeeds in deftly personalizing the emotionally devastating unintended consequences of wartime bombing when he loses his longtime partner, Martyn.

Secret Life of Humans is very creatively structured both in time and space with the characters, both alive and dead, in reality and in their own minds, communicating with one another over a period of decades, and with the simple re-arrangement of bookcases conjuring up images of offices, homes and libraries.  The play raises deep and thought-provoking questions and while no real answers are provided (how could there be?), it all makes for a more than satisfactory theatrical experience.