Arts In LA
A Play a Day

Former LA critic and current New England correspondent Bob Verini tasked himself with reading a play a day and then commenting on it. Let's check in and see how he's doing.

And let us know what you think, via email or in our Guestbook.

Enchanted April
Adapted by Matthew Barber from the novel by Elizabeth von Armin

Was your April enchanted? Mine wasn’t bad, but it got a last-minute boost from Enchanted April, adapted by Matthew Barber from the same 1922 Elizabeth von Armin novel that became a charming 1993 film along Merchant-Ivory lines. Two unfulfilled Edwardian wives—one taken for granted, the other sexually repressed—take a “small castle on the Mediterranean” with two other unsatisfied souls, and all concerned find the winds of Italy, as they so often are, a tonic for mind, body, and spirit. And we all need a tonic from time to time, because life so often disappoints, does it not? (This is the sort of play that gets one writing and speaking like Joan Plowright.) Lottie, our heroine, at the start of Act One rather marvelously lays out both the necessary remedy and the frequent trap: “Were it only that some enchantment would step in for us all, to change what we have into what we wish for. To bridge the awkward gap between all of our many ‘befores’ and ‘afters.’ Because, for every ‘after’ found, a ‘before’ must be lost. And loss is by nature an unbalancing thing. More unbalancing, however, is to discover your ‘before’ gone without an ‘after’ having taken its place. Leaving you merely to wait and to wonder if there is to be an ‘after’ at all. Or if, perhaps, waiting and wondering are your ‘after’ in themselves.”? I don’t know how much of that is Arnim and how much Barber, but I think it delicately but definitively lays out the source of much of life’s letdown. Fortunately, the play goes on to whisk away pessimism by affirming, ever so joyfully, the possibility of spring renewal.
April 30, 2018

Arnold Wesker

Arnold Wesker’s Longitude: Now here’s my idea of a historical play. The author himself, perhaps immodestly but certainly accurately, defines it this way: “Its feel is Hogarthian. Its sweep is epic. Its drive is storytelling. Its staging convention is, let’s say—loose.” And within that loose staging is the decades-long narrative (first told in prose by Dava Sobel) of how John Harrison, wife Elizabeth, and son William labored to win the £20,000 prize for a means by which ships could accurately plot longitude, only to have the Royal Society keep moving the bar further and further. A vast historical panorama, it’s also a tale of upper-class disdain for working men with rude manners, and a character study of a cantankerous old bastard who, if the nabobs had bothered to look past his poor manners and accepted the truth of his discoveries, could have saved thousands of sailors’ lives and salvaged millions of pounds of goods lost on treacherous rocks. Wesker makes the science lucid and the 18th-century diction persuasive and musical.
April 27, 2018


Smart People
Lydia R. Diamond

Lydia R. Diamond’s Smart People is meant, I guess, to examine how attitudes about race insinuate themselves into every aspect of love relationships and friendship. Her four Harvard-based principals provide a cross-section of interracial intellects: a black aspiring actress; a black surgical resident; a Chinese-Japanese-American psychologist studying Asian-American women’s attitudes; and a white dude neuroscientist attempting to prove a genetic basis for white racism. The sheer hoops Diamond puts herself through to make these four individuals intersect challenge plausibility for me, and once the characters begin interacting they behave like mouthpieces for ideology; it seems they exist to communicate their ideas rather than to change each other. Put it this way, I had no trouble accepting these people’s smartness, but their emotional lives rang hollow, and they neither moved me nor developed. I’ll stick to the fully realized characters of Diamond’s previous Stick Fly.
April 21, 2018

The Prescott Proposals
Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse

Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse—Pulitzer winners for State of the Union and authors of what remains the longest-running non-musical in Broadway history, Life With Father—didn’t always hit the jackpot. Their 1953 The Prescott Proposals seeks to combine the vagaries of United Nations diplomacy (U.S. delegate Mary Prescott is pushing a plan designed for “the saving of Western civilization”) with romantic melodrama (when her old flame dies in her flat, the corpse is spirited out by the reps of Britain and France). Critics called it tedious, and it only managed 125 performances despite the legendarily critic-proof Katherine Cornell in the lead. Yet today I found it less naïve and contrived than I'd expected, and to my even greater surprise, it’s more prescient about the eventual fall of Communism than anyone could have guessed back in the day. Still, those hoping to mine 1950s dramaturgy for revival had better look elsewhere; I’ll suggest a couple of possibilities over the next few weeks.
April 18, 2018

Time Alone
Alessandro Camon

My former colleagues on the LA Drama Critics Circle done good in presenting this year’s Ted Schmitt Award (for a local world premiere) to Time Alone by Alessandro Camon. It’s structured as a simple series of direct-address monologues by two Californians: Gabriel, 34, who got trapped in gang warfare and is serving 50-to-life for murder, and Anna, 53, mother of a policeman killed in the line of duty. I worried that once we learned who these people are and the sources of their miseries, the play would just spin its wheels. But I underestimated Camon’s gifts, because his bifurcated narrative remains active as it unfolds. Even if the two stories didn’t end up intersecting—and they do, in a twist held in abeyance—they transcend stereotypes to touch upon most of the hot-button issues revolving around American crime and (in)justice, and touch the heart as well.
April 15, 2018

The Birthday Party
Harold Pinter

I wish I liked The Birthday Party more than I do. I admire Harold Pinter’s English twist on a Kafkaesque nightmare—having the forces of oppression conquer artistic rebel Stanley as much by easy bonhomie as bullyboy tactics. But to me, it lacks the unity and precision of later masterworks like The Homecoming, Betrayal, Old Times and No Man’s Land. The riffs on seemingly irrelevant topics, and lists of non sequiturs, have a forced, finger-exercise quality that make me impatient to turn the pages. On the other hand, it’s the one Pinter full-length I’ve never seen performed. Might I be persuaded differently by a competent production—perhaps the one closing Saturday in London?
April 12, 2018

The Playroom
Mary Drayton

Some days I love me a thriller, even a would-be thriller, even a limp one. Mary Drayton sets The Playroom in the Upper West Side’s “Montana” (read The Dakota), in which a spoiled, psycho teen kidnaps her little stepsister to spite the ’rents, and Psycho Teen’s even creepier friends argue that she should go further…. This would have translated nicely to the screen around its long-ago premiere. (How long ago? The late Karen Black played Psycho Teen.) And though it would demand considerable rewriting in this era of cellphones and the Internet, you know what? As trashy as this stuff is, I think the rewritten effort might be worth it.
April 9, 2018

The Treasurer
Max Posner

Not yet 30, Max Posner shows a highly promising talent for sentiment-with-an-edge in The Treasurer, this month’s published play in American Theatre magazine. Avowedly inspired by events in his family, it pits a 60-year-old geologist against the willful, capricious mother he has resented ever since she abandoned husband and family for another man, decades before. Now she has dementia and The Son, as he’s called, has to navigate all the emotional traps set for us when, on some level, we simply don’t care for our relatives. The dialogue is wondrously written in a kind of blank verse, with line breaks meant to “suggest naturalistic patterns in which these people search for words, and the waves in which thoughts come to them,” e.g.:

Also just
Regarding suicide
I actually just don’t have
Sad emotions
Don’t have them and
I am a morning person, which
As you know probably means
I am *much less* likely to commit suicide
Than all of You
Than all of you who hate the morning
Than all of you whose first thought each day is:
*No* or *Stop*

   When I read aloud long swaths of the play, I felt the searching and the waves as providing actors with provocative hints to character, and precise rhythmic phrasing like a composer’s score. On top of all that, Posner seems to have a knack for interjecting whimsy without its necessarily feeling superimposed, as when The Son attempts to get into his mother’s bank account by answering a series of identity questions (“Mother’s maiden name?” “Name of first pet?”) and the computer starts to pry: “How many times did you see her car parked outside the motel?” “Did you sob in your mother’s arms?” I look forward to hearing from Posner again.
April 6, 2018

Matt Hartley

After the angsty, muddy Miss Reardon yesterday, an angsty, febrile shocker from London today, Matt Hartley’s Deposit. Rachel (primary school teacher, £28K/yr) and Ben (press officer, £29.5K) rent a teeny-tiny attic flat and elect to share it with Rachel’s longtime best friend Melanie (marketing director, £40K) and Sam (doctor, £45K). Why all the emphasis on money? Well, it’s where we’re at these days, isn’t it? The plan is that both 30ish couples will save enough in one year to enable each to marry and find their own place. But the close quarters and close finances begin to eat away, first at the group dynamic, then at each character’s poise, and finally at each couple’s very bond. Teasing about W eating X’s yogurt, and flared tempers because Y buys all the house loo paper and Z never does, escalate into full-out verbal slugfests fueled by class resentment and personal jealousy. In addition, the depicted flat—which “should feel like a cage, a prison, a UFC fighting ring, a zoo enclosure”—is specifically described as getting smaller and smaller as the action progresses. Any play so boldly meshing the personal and political in a pressure cooker gets my attention. I hope to read more of this Hartley: He’s got something.
April 3, 2018

The White Steed
Paul Vincent Carroll

The Irish myth of Ossian and Niam informs Paul Vincent Carroll’s The White Steed, set in a remote village in which a cruel reformist priest attempts to subvert the civil law so as to wipe out immorality. Carroll’s Niam—the half-pagan dreamer riding the titular mount—is Nora, a spirited lass who refuses to kowtow or forgo her freedom. Her warrior Ossian is Denis, a timid schoolmaster who can’t resist the influence of wicked priests and divils, so she’s unable to whisk him off on metaphorical horseback and their romance is doomed. The original 1938 production must’ve been a corker, with Jessica Tandy as the passionate Nora, George Coulouris (Citizen Kane’s Walter Parks Thatcher) as the would-be Savonarola, and none other than Barry Fitzgerald as the doddering old priest and authorial mouthpiece who overcomes the effects of a stroke to bring about a (somewhat) happy ending. In the canon of plays pitting self-righteousness against decency and understanding, this work holds its own right well.
March 31, 2018

Checkpoint Chana
Jeff Kent

“Checkpoint Chana” is a recent poem by noted British poet Beverley Hemmings, once acclaimed as “the Sylvia Plath of the Morrissey generation” and now in the middle of public and private shitstorms. Publicly, the poem has been deemed a virulently anti-Semitic screed from a noted advocate of the Palestinian cause; privately, an already troubled artist is battling large quantities of pills and booze to cope with the slow death of her dad. Will her personal assistant—herself a budding poet—be able to groom Beverley for a public London reading to kick off an apology tour? Jeff Kent has loaded up his play with issues many and huge, and I fear too many and too huge: I never quite “bought” Bev as a three-dimensional character, nor did her encounter with a young Jewish journalist ring true. (His later description of the race hatred he encountered as a young boy, on the other hand, most assuredly did.) Reviews of the recent Finborough Playhouse run have suggested major rewrites were made to the published script I read. I hope so, but I would be skeptical whether they could bring about the credibility and tension that I find currently lacking.
March 28, 2018

The Cocktail Party
T.S. Eliot

T.S. Eliot’s The Cocktail Party seems as much of a queer duck as it must have 70 years ago, but perhaps for different reasons. It starts out as a mashup of Noël Coward comedy of manners and Terence Rattigan domestic drama topped with Wildean wit, then takes a turn into psychological mumbo-jumbo and winds up as an existential cri de coeur which surely threw audiences for a loop in 1950, winning the Best Play Tony; William Goldman cites it as the first example of the Broadway Snob Hit phenomenon, the cultural “must” that draws awestruck yet baffled crowds. But in the intervening years we’ve encountered many plays that more seamlessly tap into multiple genres to mix the serious and the comic, and Eliot’s grand experiment now seems quaint and even risible. One is perfectly willing to accept his central theme that “One is always alone…Every meeting is with a stranger,” and concede a sense of worldwide helplessness after World War II, without feeling that its logical consequence (spoiler alert) is a troubled socialite’s rushing off to spread the Gospel in Africa only to be crucified naked over an anthill. An outcome, incidentally, which the other characters seem to take as blandly as if learning she’d missed her tram. The first act is enjoyable enough, but Act Two’s murkiness would not, in 2018, leave many in their seats for Act Three.
March 25, 2018

The Only Game in Town
Frank D. Gilroy

She’s a Vegas showgirl hung up on a married millionaire. He’s a so-so lounge pianist who can’t push away from the craps table. The aftermath of a one-nighter convinces them that marriage is The Only Game in Town, and they decide to go all-in. A Broadway flop which recouped after its movie sale, this semi-adult fluff is hardly what you’d expect from a Pulitzer Prize winner, but after The Subject Was Roses, it seemed as if Frank D. Gilroy never quite established his footing. As for the movie, an even bigger flop, it was most notable as the sorry last work of the great George Stevens, who was forced to construct the Vegas Strip in Paris to accede to the whim of Elizabeth Taylor. For all concerned, including co-star Warren Beatty, the dice came up snake eyes.
March 22, 2018

The Magic and the Loss
Julian Funt

It’s mostly forgotten now, but The Magic and the Loss, one of the “Best Plays of 1953-1954,” is a most interesting commentary on the lot of ambitious working women in the 1950s. Grace Wilson, having risen up the Madison Avenue ladder (think Elisabeth Moss during the middle episodes of Mad Men), is in line for a promotion, though warning signs are flashing. Current boss Edith, an aging alcoholic, warns of the pitfalls of reporting to the mercurial, withdrawn CEO known as The Moose. Adolescent son Nicki needs a lot of attention; ex-husband George, having left the rat race for Oregon, thinks Nicki should too; and current lover Larry may not be as supportive as he professes. The Best Plays editor suggests the playwright, Julian Funt, might have been better off writing it a novel, and I tend to agree: the accumulated detail and texture make the plot feel rushed and foreshortened to the point of near-melodrama. But there’s no denying the validity of Grace’s complaint or the forceful way in which she describes it, as in her summary of the consistency among the men in her life: “For Larry I’m not passive enough. For the Moose I’m not stable enough. For you I’m not compliant enough. You all want something different, but it adds up to the same thing: I’m not submissive enough. But don’t let that worry you. The woods are full of women who are.” Ouch!
March 19, 2018

The Other Place
Sharr White

Road Theatre

The Other Place is the Cape Cod house that dementia researcher Juliana and oncologist Ian owned and visited for their entire married lives, the house that daughter Laurel ran away from at age 15 when caught canoodling with an older research assistant. But Sharr White’s title also connotes the land of the mind to which Juliana is retreating, as at 52 she has begun to exhibit the effects of early-onset Alzheimer’s. As awfully as dementia impacts the simple routines of everyday life, as seen in such works as Still Alice and Away From Here, White’s play suggests that even more pain may be derived from the Cuisinarting of one’s memories, that can start smashing barriers between recollection and wish-fulfillment, and between truth and illusion. The plot’s stock in trade is letting hints of dislocation peek through, and threaten, what Juliana (and we) see as “reality,” dragging her (and us) down into an other place. I suppose one could complain of a too-present playwright’s hand in places, but I prefer to go with it and enjoy its strange and rare experience.
March 16, 2018

Angel Street
Patrick Hamilton

With all the recent talk about “gaslighting” I thought I’d revisit the original purveyor of the tactic, Jack Manningham in Patrick Hamilton’s Angel Street. I love Ingrid Bergman and the florid romanticism of George Cukor’s 1944 movie version, but terrifying it ain’t, not compared to the stage play with its intimacy and tight cast: nasty maid Nancy; sturdy cook Elizabeth; implacable Inspector Rough; and the central couple. Mr. M. applies thumbscrews to poor oppressed Bella that Ingrid never had to endure. Not to mention the thrilling moment when the cop leaves his hat on the sofa, remembering to retrieve it a split second before the monstrous killer returns. Invested with the right intensity, Hamilton’s masterpiece would still play like gangbusters. And of course it’ll never be forgotten as long as there are productions of On the Town, in which Chip asks cabbie Hildy to take him to see Tobacco Road: “Hey what for did you stop?”/“That show has closed up shop/The actors washed their feet and called it Angel Street.”
March 12, 2018

On the Waterfront
Budd Schulberg

You might think On the Waterfront—as a novel and a world-famous, Oscar-honored 1954 movie—had exerted enough cultural influence to last Budd Schulberg a lifetime. But as he maintains in his preface, the need to inform the public of unabated mob rule on the Port Authority docks, and to indict the Catholic Diocese for its complicity therein, prompted him to re-tell, with Stan Silverman in 1995, the saga of Terry Malloy: ex-boxer, low-level thug, and (eventually) corruption whistle-blower. The stage version beefs up the role of Father Barry (Karl Malden) to more explicitly dramatize his struggles with the church hierarchy. It also changes the ending significantly (a spoiler I’ll save till the end). But otherwise, it’s the same melodrama millions have come to know and love, minus the documentary realism of the settings and—except in one’s head—the unforgettable line readings of its stars. I daresay many a young thesp salivates at the prospect of dressing down brother Charlie for taking away his chance to be a contender, to be somebody instead of a bum etc., though audience members are likely to be skeptical of finding new values in the familiar lines. I can’t help but think that constructing a sequel might’ve been a more effective vehicle for a waterfront update, than revisiting the original so slavishly.

(Spoiler alert: In the movie, Terry is cruelly beaten by racketeer Johnny Friendly’s goons but walks on his own steam to the work gate, thus signaling that right can prevail. In the stage version, Terry dies of his injuries, the hopeful symbolism transferred to alpha male pigeon Swifty, who survives the massacre of Terry’s brood by a local youth. And Father Barry, who soliloquizes that he doesn’t regret standing up for the working man, gets a one-way ticket to Palookaville.)
March 9, 2018

Clybourne Park
Bruce Norris

At Mark Taper Forum
Photo by Craig Schwartz
Having just reread A Raisin in the Sun, I was moved to revisit Clybourne Park, Bruce Norris’s Pulitzer-winning gloss on/sequel to on the Hansberry play’s backstory and themes. It’s as blisteringly funny as ever, still a stinging indictment of how we talk and think about race. It takes place in the north Chicago single-family home purchased by the Younger family in Hansberry’s 1959 classic. Act 1 dramatizes the all-white neighbors’ panic at integration arriving on their doorstep, while Act 2 leaps ahead 50 years as the now mostly black neighborhood confronts the juggernaut of gentrification by seemingly well-meaning white liberals. The parallel structure is clever enough, but what really impresses is Norris’s dazzling wordplay: In both eras, the gaps among what the struggling characters want to say about race relations, how they say it, and how they actually feel are explored to, really, awe-inspiring effect. The play offers no easy answers to the questions it raises about the ownership of history, or the dilemma of claiming one’s rights without depriving others of theirs. But as I noted six years ago about the L.A. production that went on to Broadway, “it sharpens the viewers’ antennae to the obfuscation in which we timidly traffic when trying to discuss those questions, and that’s a public service right there.”
March 6, 2018

A Free Man of Color
John Guare

Jeffrey Wright
Courtesy Lincoln Center Theater

John Guare painting in epic/fantastical mode in A Free Man of Color, rather than the subtler colors which to me represent his greater gift. (Career best, the screenplay of Atlantic City.) Cribbing plot elements from The Country Wife and Volpone to weave a fable about Jacques Cornet, mixed-race bon viveur/toast of New Orleans circa 1801, Guare weaves in the legacy of slavery, as well as the Louisiana Purchase, Lewis and Clark’s expedition, Toussaint L’Ouverture’s abortive Haitian revolt, power politics between Jefferson, the Spanish Empire and Napoleon, with wicked winks at the present day. Here’s Napoleon’s rant on the topic of Great Britain: “I hate Shakespeare. I hate Chaucer. I hate Richard the Lion Hearted. I hate Henry V. When the future comes, I will hate Big Ben. Queen Victoria. James Bond. Charles Dickens. Florence Nightingale. British Air. Julie Andrews. Mick Jagger. No, I will like him.” Ham on wry but funny, much of the play delivered, like Six Degrees of Separation, in direct address: intellectual vaudeville with questionable focus and emotional grounding.
March 3, 2018

Hercule Poirot’s First Case
Jon Jory

Agatha Christie fans will find much pleasure in Jon Jory’s adaptation of The Mysterious Affair at Styles, retitled for the stage Hercule Poirot’s First Case. It’s pretty fleet—moving among some four dozen locations by means of cards on an easel, “The Hallway,” “The Garden” (I’d opt for projections myself)—and offers up the novel’s characters and dialogue straight, no chaser. The no-frills approach leaves plenty of opportunity for us mystery addicts to try to stay ahead of the Dame and the Belgian, which I admit I rarely can. If Mr. Jory cares to oblige, his bringing all of Poirot’s cases to the playhouse would be just fine with me.
February 28, 2018

The Assembled Parties
Richard Greenberg

Raven Theatre, Chicago
Photo by Dean La Prairie

Richard Greenberg’s The Assembled Parties is a throwback to the prewar era of gentle, witty, civilized Broadway playwrighting. I know I’ve been complaining about not enough Americans writing about political and social issues, but if we must have family plays—and of course we must; the family is a social unit too—they don’t write them better than this. The two acts represent two Christmas parties, assembled in 1980 and then in 2000 among the members of an upper middle class Jewish family, in a sprawling Manhattan flat whose 14 rooms house any number of negotiations, secrets, resentments, and unspoken truths. There’s much more going on, plot-wise and thematically, than a synopsis can reveal, and besides which I don’t want to give away any surprises to anyone who might be moved to pick up this magnificent script and get lost in it. But I will say that one of its singular features is Greenberg’s ability to assign a very specific yet very different and believable voice to each member of the extended family. Aunt Faye gets the kvetching and cynical one-liners while Aunt Julie speaks the poetry. Alienated cousin Shelley is practically monosyllabic while cousin Scott—being groomed for political office one day—is the essence of smooth social discourse. In the midst of them all is friend-from-school Jeff, the outsider who…ach, I’m saying too much. It’s just great. Read it.
February 25, 2018

Let Me Hear You Whisper
Paul Zindel

Of all things, a play is in the news! The Paul Zindel estate is suing everybody in the world connected with “The Shape of Water”—maybe even you if you bought a ticket; check your spam folder—alleging plagiarism of Let Me Hear You Whisper. The superficial similarities are striking: In both, an empathetic, underestimated cleaning lady at a secret research facility bonds through recorded music with a creature in a tank, resolving to try to spirit it out in a rolling hamper when its execution looms. That’s where the two diverge, as Zindel’s purpose is to deliver a general broadside against animal testing and a plea for interspecies respect that would make PETA swoon, whereas Guillermo del Toro has that whole mystical-romance thing going, the thriller element, and the intecession of that Justice League of outcasts. Del Toro, co-writer Vanessa Taylor, and friend and associate producer Daniel Kraus, who is said to have floated the film’s idea seven years ago, all deny ever having read, seen, or even heard of Zindel’s little play, though the complaint alleges Kraus’s brainstorm was coincident with a TV broadcast of Whisper. Ripoff or coincidence? You be the judge, though the U.S. District Court will be as well; I have to say that the legal issues may be more interesting than anything in either Shape or Whisper.
February 22, 2018

Tom Stoppard

I’ve admired Travesties since I was in college. For its mashups of Joyce, Tzara, and Lenin’s language and lore. For its multiple ingenious twists on, and parodies of, The Importance of Being Earnest. For the dotty, logorrheic ravings of elderly main character Henry Carr, painfully reconstructing an eventful but implausible WWI sojourn in Zurich. All impressive and laugh-out-loud funny, but nothing stuck to the ribs, you know? But thanks to the humanity director Patrick Marber and his superb cast have infused in the current Broadway revival, Tom Stoppard’s Tony winning play finally makes me misty as well. Of course it will always smack of a precocious upperclassman’s intellectual exercise. And yes, I suppose it does bring alive the conflict between art and politics, or if you like, between the interior life and the external. But the brilliant Tom Hollander showed me Carr’s vulnerability for the first time, as he inhabited the lonely little man, on his last legs, desperately trying to invest his life with meaning through fabricated fancies of espionage and imagined hobnobbing with the great. For all the cerebral hijinks, the play has become for me a moving character study—a discovery I’m glad I made at a time of life when, like Carr, I have more behind me than ahead and I need to sort it all out. But I take away an even more important reminder: For me at least, ideas can never take the place of emotion in the theater. The art’s in the heart.
April 28, 2018

The Red Lion
Patrick Marber

Patrick Marber’s The Red Lion inspired me to reflect that there are many sport-as-life American movies, but precious few sport-as-life homegrown plays. We’re such a sports-mad culture, and Moneyball and Any Given Sunday took us vividly into the belly of our national games. I wonder why so few stage plays attempt to do so. For its part, Britain brings out sport-as-life plays with some regularity, whether as musicals (The Beautiful Game) or straight plays (The Changing Room). Is that because they have so many variations to explore—soccer as well as rugby; pro as well as semi-pro? Or do hundreds-more years of sport history occupy a special place in their writers’ hearts? Anyway, Marber plops us down into a semi-pro club’s changing room, with sweaty crumminess that practically wafts up from the printed page. Into it march an elderly star of yesteryear, now reduced to ironing the players’ “kit”; the foul-mouthed manager, deep in debt and personal chaos; and a young up-and-comer with moral scruples and secrets. What loyalty does each owe to their club, to themselves, to each other? How far will honor bend in the name of self-interest? See what I mean? This is sport-as-life just as surely as business-as-life is the real engine of Glengarry Glen Ross (which The Red Lion distinctly resembles in tone and particulars). Me, I’m a sucker for overarching metaphors, provided the foreground story is specific and engaging enough. Which Marber’s is, I believe. Despite the unfamiliar athletic terrain, this could work stateside provided three killer actors agreed to play in it; preferably stars.
April 25, 2018

The Postman Always Rings Twice
Adapted by Jon Jory from the novel by James M. Cain

On a London visit in 2005 I was thrilled that my favorite crime novel of all time, James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice , was running on stage, though the never-published adaptation by Andrew Rattenbury was stodgy and overproduced. Jon Jory’s new stage version is much more fleet of foot and exudes heat, though he changes—or rather, omits—the novel’s ending, thus rendering the title meaningless. Upshot of both: Note to self: Avoid, or at least maintain low expectations for, adaptations of favorite works of fiction. Whoever first said “The book is always better” knew what they were talking about.
April 22, 2018

Book by Michael Bennett, lyrics by Dorothy Fields, based on the play by William Gibson

What I remember best about the run of Seesawwas the onstage appearance of then-Mayor John Lindsay during a Big Apple celebration number, so publicized it prevented the expensive, troubled musical from closing in a week, instead limping along at a loss from March to December of 1973. At the time, nothing I heard or saw about the musical remotely induced me to spring for a ticket. Here it is 45 years later, and finally exploring the show now confirms my worst fears, that it would simply graft some irrelevant musical numbers onto William Gibson’s soapy and predictable two-hander about the short-lived love affair between an East Coast beatnik kook and an uptight Nebraska attorney. (The back of the album cover practically telegraphs how little the story had to do with all the exuberant goings on.) I didn’t, I’ll concede, bargain on the score by Cy Coleman and Dorothy Fields being so far below their usual high standard. As the only hit song goes, “It’s Not Where You Start (But Where You Finish),” and Seesawfinishes at a distinct low.
April 19, 2018
Marius von Mayenburg

Marius von Mayenburg’s Perplex is an urban absurdist whatzit that perplexed the hell out of me. But I chuckled a lot too. It begins with Robert and Eva returning home from vacation to find the furniture’s been moved, the cat’s gone, all the plants have been changed, and the lights are cut off. Where are Judith and Sebastian, who were to watch over the place? The supposed house sitters come downstairs, treat the house like it’s their own, and throw Robert and Eva out. With me so far? Shortly thereafter, Eva returns as the couple’s au pair with Robert in tow, now Judith and Sebastian’s surly eight-year-old. Perplexed yet? Wait till Robert shape-shifts into a Nazi youth and, later, a homosexual elk, while Judith transitions into a Viking and Eva into a volcano. (All pictured.) It reads like A.R. Gurney’s The Dining Room as performed by four actors on an acid trip, searching for the meaning of life in a topsy-turvy world. Which sounds painfully familiar, actually.
April 16, 2018


Ferdinand von Schirach, translated by David Tushingham

There have been a number of plays which involve the audience in the act of voting to resolve a situation: Ayn Rand’s Night of January 15; Jeffrey Archer’s The Accused; and of course the musical Mystery of Edwin Drood. But none of them challenge the conscience like Terror, by Ferdinand von Schirach, in David Tushingham’s translation.
   Attorney-turned–first-time-playwright von Schirach presents a German court of inquiry in which both sides have stipulated to the facts: Using an air-to-air missile, a fighter pilot has shot down a Lufthansa airliner, which crashes killing 164 aboard, because the terrorist in the cockpit was sending it toward a football stadium and a 70,000-person sellout crowd—a decision explicitly prohibited by German law in the absence of a direct state order. To prepare for our vote, we hear from an Air Force officer, a representative of the passengers’ survivors, and the pilot himself. Along the way, counsel offer historical examples and philosophical principles which variously celebrate the rule of law, the demands of individual conscience, and (most provocatively) the idea of preventing a “lesser evil.”
   I figured that to read the play I ought to try to consciously abandon any gut reaction or preconceived notions I might have, just as actual jurors and an audience would. This was a freeing decision. The play’s arguments haunt me and, I suspect, will continue to do so. And since its issues may become frighteningly real any time soon, I recommend having the experience now. The Faber & Faber edition includes von Schirach’s speech on living in a civilized society, delivered on the occasion of an award to Charlie Hebdo.
April 13, 2018

The Jail Diary of Albie Sachs
David Edgar

Through the true story of a young Jewish law student with dubious acquaintances—dubious by South African lights, anyway—David Edgar’s The Jail Diary of Albie Sachs exposes that nation’s erstwhile, odious (and little known here) 90-Day Act of 1964. Astoundingly, it permitted the government to indefinitely detail anyone for 90 days at a time, over and over again without trial; it further specified that (get this), after completing their sentence, political prisoners could be held in continuous detention anyway. Sachs’s testimony is a classic of prison literature, and Edgar must have felt its horrors needed no heightening, because its treatment is decidedly understated: A great deal of first-person monologue confronts us on a one-on-one level, and young Sachs’s encounters in prison are amiable as often as not, even with a fascist guard. (Those conversations convey the essential gentility of Sachs, who still lives and works in South Africa—he’s worth reading up on.) While I was surprised that Edgar didn’t rattle the bars, the reading experience was nevertheless chilling. I would think it impossible to leave this play less than outraged that such travesties of justice could have taken place, or without wondering whether it could happen here.
April 10, 2018

The Body of an American
Dan O’Brien

I think one would have to be made of stone not to be moved by Dan O’Brien’s The Body of an American. (And I imagine that seeing it performed, with the right cast and director catching the difficult balance of drama and humor, could wipe one out totally.) O’Brien contrived it out of his unique relationship with Paul Watson, the war photographer who won a 1993 Pulitzer for that awful, memorable photo of Sgt. William David Cleveland’s stripped corpse, trussed up and jeered at by Mogadishu crowds. Watson claims that from the moment of the click he heard and has been haunted by Cleveland whispering, “If you do this, I will own you….You watched my desecration, now here comes yours.” But O’Brien—a playwright with his own personal and historical ghosts—was in turn haunted by Watson’s memoir Where War Lives, and a long e-mail correspondence ensued in which the two men opened up to each other in ways intimate lovers often fail to. Their journey, ending with a face-to-face in the icy North, is candidly enacted by a cast of two who—and this is the amazing thing—share the roles of Dan and Paul and everyone else involved. It’s an exciting notion, to have the actors simply alternate lines and roles, reflecting Dan’s eventual realization of the extraordinary bond between them: “This is you speaking, though it might as well be me…. I felt like I knew you. Or I was you in some alternate reality.” By extension, the play speaks to the connective tissue among us all.
April 7, 2018

Oliver Cotton

Oliver Cotton’s Daytona offers three meaty roles for senior citizens. Maybe too meaty; some of its speeches seem to go on and on unnecessarily in a melodrama that none too seamlessly weaves together family tensions and the legacy of the Holocaust. Joe and Elli, residents of Brooklyn in 1986, suddenly discover on their doorstep his brother and onetime business partner Billy, who in the 30 years since his disappearance has gained a new family and (non-Jewish) identity in the Midwest. As it happens, the three are all survivors of the camps, with shared histories that come to the fore when Billy announces that, just days ago on a Florida vacation, he spotted and murdered the most vicious Nazi tormentor of their imprisonment. A national manhunt is on; what should Joe and Elli do? And how should an eminently deserved act of vengeance resonate, decades after the fact? The hugely consequential theme of wartime retribution is always of interest, though to me it feels diminished here in the context of the personal triangle.
April 4, 2018

Children of Eden
John Caird

It’s never played Broadway—never came closer than Paper Mill Playhouse—but Children of Eden has been one of the world’s best known and most popular musical properties since it opened (and flopped) for the RSC in 1991, but quickly found favor with school and church groups drawn to its Story Theatre staging and Stephen Schwartz’s propulsive pop score (less pastichey than Godspell, more folk/world-music than Wicked). Adding to its appeal is an ingenious focus on fundamental human questions, with John Caird’s libretto interpreting the first nine Books of Genesis as the conflict between two irresistible impulses: to remain modest, unquestioning, innocent (and content), vs. to question, set out on adventures, explore and learn (risking misery). In act one, first Eve and then Cain are filled with “The Spark of Creation, as one of Schwartz’s most exciting songs puts it, while Adam and Abel prefer merely to make their garden grow; Caird conjures up even more excitement than the original source material as Adam and Cain struggle desperately and Abel tragically intervenes. Act two passes the staff of life many generations forward from Adam to Noah, who cannot persuade God that His wretched children are worth saving. (The character of The Father makes the same appearances as in the Bible, and maintains the same stubborn silences too.) There’s a glorious sequence as the animals arrive on the ark—right up there with “March of the Siamese Children,” sez I—and it’s hard for me not to think of the title song as the single most beautiful Schwartz composition ever. Serious but never solemn, joyous with no trace of camp, Children of Eden will endure.
April 1, 2018

The Robe
Lloyd C. Douglas

Many theater folk have probably never heard of The Dramatic Publishing Co. of Chicago, yet in their 128th year they remain a principal supplier of plays for everyday people—that is, high schools and community theaters. When I was a kid I knew them for their stage versions of popular movies like Cheaper by the Dozen, One Foot in Heaven, and The Robe; in latter years Ordinary People was big for them, and up till now with Aaron Sorkin’s version pending, it’s been Christopher Sergel’s To Kill a Mockingbird that’s ruled the stage. The adaptations are workmanlike rather than inspired, unchallenging scenically but unquestionably sincere; in The Robe, for instance, the characters in Lloyd C. Douglas’s Biblical yarn dutifully troop in, execute their purpose to the plot and then troop out again. Yet the essential conflict between old doubt and new faith is portrayed with clarity and even moments of eloquence. I daresay many would find the output of The Dramatic Publishing Co. quaint (hell, even the company’s name is quaint). But for thousands just starting out in their theatrical journey as artists or audience members, it’s not Hamilton or The Crucible that marks their liftoff point but, most likely, a creaky bit of construction out of Chicago.
March 29, 2018

The Spoils
Jesse Eisenberg

Photo by Monique Carboni

Someone must have approached Jesse Eisenberg and said, “See here, Jesse Eisenberg, you know those passive-aggressive, narcissistic but secretly insecure assholes you’re always portraying? I’ll bet you can’t pen the ultimate version of that particular character type.” And Jesse Eisenberg must have replied, “Why, I’ll take that bet,” and (possibly with a passing look at Mark Medoff’s The Wager) came up with The Spoils, the portrait of a pathetic, lying Gen-X’er so toxic in his dealings with two male friends and the women who love them as to bring about appalling emotional chaos. I don’t know how many miserable, deluded, unregenerate shits like the character of Ben there are out there, but I can only hope their number is small and shrinking.
March 26, 2018

David Mamet

Courtesy Geffen Playhouse

In Speed-the-Plow, David Mamet demonstrates what seems to me a pluperfect command of the values, behavior, and patois of Hollywood, which is to say of human industry in general. (Film is far from the only biz that takes as its mission to “make the thing everyone made last year. Make that image people want to see.”) Few plays more fully understand how difficult it is to attain power and, once it’s attained, how impossible it is to wield power in a way that remains true to our best instincts. When I first experienced it—can it really be 30 years ago? Yes it by God can—the laughs and frissons were frustratingly, periodically interrupted by the lumpen presence and flat line readings of the pop star cast in the female role. Now, after a few more productions and some time away from the text, I return convinced that it’s a minor masterpiece. At the time of the Geffen Playhouse’s 2007 take I noted, “In the inevitable showdown between God and Mammon for Everyman’s soul, the audience holds its breath as if the fate of nations were at stake. This is first rate, scintillating stuff.” I’ll stand by that judgment.
March 23, 2018

The Cake
Bekah Brunstetter

Given the premise of The Cake—a religious-minded baker refuses to cater a gay wedding—you might expect it simply to fictionalize a few details from the Masterpiece Cakeshop case the way Law & Orderdoes, and proceed as if ripped from the headlines. But if I may mix cooking metaphors, Bekah Brunstetter has different fish to fry. She’s more interested in family than about litigation, less in accepting others’ differences than in accepting oneself. Jen, a North Carolina gal in from the big city, is new to this lesbian thing and her upbringing still nags at her. Della, Jen’s late mother’s best friend and a virtual godmother, knows her Bible, but she also knows that something of the physical is significantly missing from her marriage. Each finds herself pitted against the love of her life, and forced to wonder about choices past and future in a play replete with bold theatrical devices smacked up against—and complementary to—strong naturalistic conversation. I first encountered Brunstetter—who’s working on This Is Us but thank God keeps returning to the stage—through SoCal productions of Be a Good Little Widow and Going to a Place Where You Already Are; she is the real deal, and The Cake I’m sure will seal that deal with audiences all over the country going forward.
March 20, 2018
Three Hand Reel
Frank O’Connor stories adapted by Paul Avila Mayer

St Patrick’s Day is an opportunity for us non-Hibernians to think about Ireland, and the three Frank O’Connor stories effectively adapted by Paul Avila Mayer into Three Hand Reel was my wearin’ o’ the green. Two one-time seminarian pals in love with the same woman, one now a priest, the other her husband...a tram inspector and a prostitute trapped together in a trolley car in the midst of Easter 1916...a tetched seacoast lad driven mad with desire for a schoolteacher indifferent to him while his ma looks on helplessly: three compelling narratives engaging the passion, religiosity, and patriotism of that land, told with an absolute minimum of blarney.
March 17, 2018

The Glass Mendacity
Maureen Morley and Tom Willmorth, with story credit shared with Doug Armstrong and Keith Cooper

Welcome to the world of The Glass Mendacity. “I have no tricks in my pocket,” muses Mitch O’Connor as he smokes a cigarette on a fire escape, “or things up my sleeve, or wires running down my pant legs and back behind the flats where an accomplice is rigging smoke bombs.” He promises to give us truth in the pleasant disguise of illusion, and “already tonight you’ve seen $27.50 disappear before your eyes, so I hope you like illusion.” He takes us back to Belle Reve, the Dubois clan ancestral mansion, for a family battle royale over who will inherit when Big Daddy succumbs to his (cough, cough) spastic colon. Maybe crazy daughter Blanche, who thinks she slept with Napoleon and keeps quoting Hamlet to the annoyance of brutish husband Stanley. Or shy daughter Laura, who doesn’t realize her glass collection is actually ice cubes, and who saw her high school hero play Pirates of Penzance all three times because the brace on her leg got stuck to the auditorium seat. It would suit sultry Maggie the Cat if her husband Brick won the prize, but isn’t that drunken first-born actually a mannequin? Satire is best when it affectionately respects its target while taking advantage of every chance to poke holes in pretentiousness and coincidence, and that’s what this Illegitimate Players (Chicago, Ill.) spoof does beautifully. I think a company could enjoy a windfall if it played this in rep with any of the three Williams classics mashed-up here, the only danger being that it might be impossible to approach the originals with a straight face thereafter. Giving the clever devils their due, it was penned by Maureen Morley and Tom Willmorth, with story credit shared with Doug Armstrong and Keith Cooper.
March 14, 2018

A Delicate Ship
Anna Ziegler

at the Road on Magnolia
Photo by Brian M. Cole

The Road Theatre Company in North Hollywood apparently has only five more performances of A Delicate Ship, and on the strength of the text (and the company, which I know well) I would urge my LA friends not to miss this one. Anna Ziegler impresses me more with each play I read—they’re all so different, yet they share a distinctive poetic sensibility, and the capacity to locate equal portions of drama in the quotidian and the extraordinary. A Delicate Ship provides plenty of both in its dissection of an unexpected Christmas Eve spent among the three legs of a highly fraught romantic triangle, all thirtysomethings variously paralyzed by their past and present. And I do mean dissection, because beyond the surface good humor, some boozy reminiscence, a party game, and a moment of violence (all par for the course when two men are battling for the same woman), Ziegler also tears apart each character through direct address, poetic reverie, soliloquy, and a flash-forward. This strikes me as one of the most Cubist naturalistic plays I’ve ever encountered, and it stirred me the same way the great Cubist masterpieces do when their deconstruction of everyday reality suddenly hits me with what I’ve been missing.
March 13, 2018

Compulsion or The House Behind
Rinne Groff

The little-remembered 1950s controversy over Anne Frank’s diary, its rights and meaning, inspires Rinne Groff’s Compulsion or the House Behind. The word “Compulsion” refers to a well-known novel, film, and play retelling the Leopold and Loeb murders, for which bestselling author Meyer Levin changed all the names but fictionalized little else. Groff follows suit in creating bestselling author “Sid Silver” (amusingly, Levin’s name for the Chicago reporter based on himself, investigating “Artie” and “Judd” on their crime spree). Silver/Levin discovers the diary in a limited printing, obtains a vague offer of rights from patriarch Otto Frank, and not only muscles it into publication but writes a NY Times rave establishing an instant classic. But Broadway producers reject and suppress Levin’s stage adaptation of what has become less holy testimony than hot property, in favor of the now world-renowned version by a non-Jewish, Hollywood writing couple. Obsession, fueled by the conviction that the Franks’ Semitic authenticity has been insidiously soft-pedaled, turns into mania and finally raving paranoia directed at Doubleday, producer Herman Shumlin, Lillian Hellman (who allegedly urged the play’s Gentile-ification), and—in surely one of the worst PR ploys of all time—survivor Otto himself. Silver/Levin’s personal crises are presented vividly while still bringing out the fundamental questions of ownership and moral responsibility. And it’s partly told with marionettes. Neither hero nor villain, victim nor oppressor, Meyer Levin is a fascinating study in ambiguity at which Groff succeeds handsomely.
March 10, 2018

Working for the Mouse
Trevor Allen

I really hoped to enjoy Working for the Mouse, a first-person narrative of summers in service to Disneyland, mostly as Pluto. There are plenty of anecdotes of in-park and backstage happenings, but they don’t add up to a shaped narrative because Trevor Allen’s monologue fails to establish a personal journey or quest to run in parallel with the job stories: The character never changes or learns anything. For that matter, there’s no real point of view on Disneyland and what it means to Trevor, just the peculiar notion of a straight man inexplicably dying to play Peter Pan and hang out with weirdos. As a one-actor tour de force, this strikes me as a far cry from Buyer and Cellar, The Santaland Diaries, and Fully Committed, in each of which the main task is character revelation rather than straightforward reportage.
March 7, 2018

Completely Hollywood (Abridged)
Reed Martin and Austin Tichenor, additional material by Dominic Conti

While my back was turned, looks like the creators of The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (abridged), which I remember as a jolly gloss on themes and characters in the canon, have created a cottage industry satirizing, to date, the Great Books, the Bible, American history, Dickens, and the entirety of Western Civ. On the evidence of Completely Hollywood (Abridged), further encounters with their output won’t be in my future. They present a theatrical Cuisinart of what they deem Hollywood’s 186 Greatest Films—The Wolfman is included, Citizen Kane is not, Gandhi is misspelled—that encompasses the sheer quotation of famous quotes (“Run, Forrest, run!”); tortured puns (“I coulda had class, I coulda been a Pretender”); and a thin storyline in which the three performers have each written a screenplay they want to peddle. I suppose there are opportunities for audience participation, as in this encounter with Oz’s Scarecrow: “Pardon me, but that way’s a very nice way. Or you could go that way. Of course, in Hollywood, ________________.” But it’s mostly Close Encounters of the Tired Kind, as when a chief meets a Kevin Costner type looking for the Fakawi tribe. “We’re the Fakawi.” “I have no idea.” I had hoped to kick off Oscar night with mirth, but neither this script nor Kimmel’s jokes amused me as much as The Onion, which headlined: Academy Honors Retiring Daniel Day-Lewis With Small Farewell Happy Hour In Dolby Theatre Kitchen. With a photo of DDL holding a red plastic cup and chatting with co-workers, two pizzas open on the counter.
March 4, 2018

Lee Hall (based on Paddy Chayefsky)

Bryan Cranston
Courtesy National Theater
Network is one screenplay-to-straight-play transposition that isn’t just acceptable, it’s practically necessary. Why? Because the thrust of Paddy Chayefsky’s prescient argument about the impact of the media is more relevant, in the era of Internet, polar politics and mass anger, than ever; yet aspects of the 1976 film remain stubbornly stuck in that bygone era. So Lee Hall has jettisoned the far-fetched Sybil the Soothsayer, as well as the twitting of terrorists as radical-chic media whores (we see terrorism in a very different light today). At the same time, he’s gone back to Chayefsky’s drafts and notes, and made the commentary even more robust and timely than before. A smash at the National Theatre last fall, Network, its killer Ivo van Hove staging, and its inspired Howard Beale, Bryan Cranston, are sure to hit the States quite soon. Or at least, I’ll be mad as hell if they don’t.
March 1, 2018

But for Whom Charlie
S.N. Behrman

But for Whom Charlie is set among the principals of and applicants to the Seymour Rosenthal Foundation, a literati-support concern established to expiate the sins of the father, a scuzzy movie tycoon. Theme—the conflict between authenticity and artifice in one’s public and private lives—and witty dialogue are far more important to the venerable author of now-forgotten hit boulevard comedies than story. And alas, the meandery narrative works against the play’s freshness date 50+ years on, even though that theme is ever-timely and permeates the work from first to last. Titular Charlie, for instance, the Rosenthal heir’s college buddy, is the foundation administrator whose geniality covers up a viper’s heart. The main antagonist is a wicked stepmother with enough surface charm to pull off multiple random seductions. And the most engaging character is an elderly roué who, riding on the rep of his sole long-ago distinguished novel, specializes in bilking foundations for a living. Interest in people’s disguised selves is even woven into the best passages, like this provocative attack on psychoanalysis by the old phony: “They’re always rooting, these psychiatrists, for antecedent causes for evil conduct. I don’t think there was any antecedent cause for Iago. He was just naturally mean. This search for motives behind bad actions seems to me silly. It is based on the assumption that people are naturally good. It is an untested assumption. The history of the inhuman race contradicts it. Maybe people are just naturally bad. It is virtue that should be explained. That’s where the hidden motive should be sought.” I think those ideas are awesome, but dramatic that speech ain’t, and to my ear it’s stilted spoken aloud. Written for the brand new Repertory Theater of Lincoln Center, “Charlie” barely eked out its 47 subscription performances, a cup of weak tea just when our drama was poised to start serving up the hard stuff.
February 26, 2018

A Raisin in the Sun
Lorraine Hansberry

Claudia McNeil and Sidney Poitier in the 1961 film
Courtesy Columbia Pictures

If you’re anything like me, an encounter with last month’s exceptional PBS American Masters portrait of Lorraine Hansberry (well worth hunting down) will prompt an eager revisit to A Raisin in the Sun. After almost 60 years of film and TV productions and stage revivals, not to mention a torrent of tumultuous events pertaining to race, it really does retain extraordinary surprises and power. I’m struck by the skillful, even elegant way Ms. H. manages, in the course of a narrative about one specific Chicago family’s coping with a financial windfall, to weave in so many different aspects of the African American experience: the hierarchy of classes; affinity or antipathy to one’s roots; generational conflicts; another race’s animus; and the slipperiness of the much-vaunted American Dream. But when you stop to think about it, doesn’t that list of thematic elements actually apply to every American’s narrative, whatever their ethnic or racial background? It reassures me yet again that the universal is best reached through an appeal to the particular. Back in the 1940s, much was made of the transposition of Philip Yordan’s Anna Lucasta, about a lower-class family’s reaction to a daughter’s prostitution, from Polish characters onstage to Black characters on film, with no loss of relevance. In no way would I advocate for an alternative-race Raisin, but it’s a marvelous thing, that such a meaningful clarion call for African Americans can at the same time speak directly to everyone, Black or white.
February 23, 2018
Tigers Be Still
Kim Rosenstock

An escaped zoo tiger is prowling the streets in Tigers Be Still, but he’s just a stand-in for the psychic demons plaguing Kim Rosenstock’s characters: protagonist Sherry, in her mid-20s, living at home and flailing to establish a career as an art therapist; elder sister Grace, constantly drunken on the couch watching Top Gun and plotting ways to avenge the man who done her wrong; their mother (never seen), paralyzed with fear in her bedroom; Joseph, the local middle-school principal who once dated the mom and never got over it; and Zack, Joseph’s kid, battling anger management issues and serious guilt. I don’t know how much of that sounds like the comedy Rosenstock intends—maybe just the sister? But I found it extremely funny indeed, and the reason is that these sad sacks’ deep depression is never allowed to overwhelm what Rosenstock calls, in a preface, their “effortful search for joy.” As it happens, an effortful search for joy is pretty much a necessary condition for my enjoying virtually any play. And if you share my sentiments, I think you will find Tigers Be Still pretty moving too.
April 29, 2018

Oren Safdie

UnseamlyUnseamly was written and produced years before the Weinstein revelations of 2017, and may have been percolating in Oren Safdie’s mind even before the downfall of American Apparel’s Dov Charney, whose details closely parallel those of the play’s horny mogul Ira. But of course—and sad to say—there are any number of role models available to ground in reality a tale of sexual harassment as seen from the different angles of accuser and accused. Certainly Ira’s profane rants against enemies without and within, his spitting contempt for women, and his methodology for sexual conquest (here a compliment, there a wheedle, now an outright threat) are painfully familiar in this #MeToo era. But having said that, where do we, and Safdie, go from there? What, I wonder, is gained by subjecting an audience to Harveyesque verbal diarrhea (and there’s plenty of it), and insisting that the actor playing the PTSD-struck victim reenact her recollections in skimpy underwear? Seems to me it places us squarely in the position of the third leg of this dramatic tripod, Adam the hotshot lawyer, who’s pulling the stories out of her to determine whether accepting this she said/he said case will be worth his time. And since Adam proves to have his own inappropriateness issues, that’s a very uncomfortable position indeed. I’m willing to believe that sexual misconduct stories can be dramatized without exploiting, for audience delectation, the very behavior that’s being condemned. But it’s a treacherous assignment and Unseamly, to me, falls into the trap.
April 26, 2018

The Book of Will
Lauren Gunderson

A perfect day to add my personal salute to the winner of this year’s Steinberg Award as voted by a committee of the American Theatre Critics Association. Lauren Gunderson’s The Book of Will begins like so:

To be, or not to be…
I there’s the point,
To Die, to sleep, is that all? Aye all:
No, to sleep, to dream, aye marry there it goes,
For in that dream of death, when we awake,
And borne before an everlasting Judge,
From whence no passenger ever returned—

The aforequoted “fobbing hackery,” as enraged surviving player Richard Burbage describes it, is from the quarto “Bad Hamlet,” product of Tudor games of Telephone in which scribes were sent in to copy out the plays and got them wrong, wronger and wrongest. When Burbage suddenly passes, taking his lightning memory with him, it’s left to actor Henry Condell, manager John Heminges, and daughter Alice to locate every scrap of physical evidence and preserve the canon by getting it published, sparing us at the very least any more productions of The Two Gentlemen of Antwerp. As Gunderson describes their endeavors with bold wordplay and cinematic fleetness, the project encounters more immovable obstacles than a Pearl White serial and just as many last-minute rescues, as well as a running joke about Pericles which everyone loathes but manages to creep its way in anyway. Maybe you can’t go by me—once a month or so I get genuinely depressed at what got lost when Julius Caesar’s troops torched the library at Alexandria—but I know what a near thing it was, preserving the works of the world’s greatest dramatic poet, which have meant so much to the human race. Gunderson does us all a distinct service by rendering the saga in such involving, exciting terms. (Dramatists Play Service)
April 23, 2018

Home Is the Hunter
Helen MacInnes

In the early ’60s thriller queen Helen MacInnes surprised with a domestic comedy set in Ithaca on the day when Ulysses comes back from the Trojan War—17 years late—to salvage his estate and his marriage. Home Is the Hunter dawdles much as the mythical hero did, slowly revealing his return to one character at a time. But once his ingenious plan to thwart the 11 warriors suing for Penelope’s hand is underway, the action crackles as only an experienced action writer can contrive it. Homer shows up as a character as well. For those interested in Greek mythology, a pleasant read.
April 20, 2018


In-Soon Chappell

If you’re not already fascinated by North Korea, as I am, it’s about time we all of us got to know that part of the world better, don’t you think? I strongly recommend Barbara Demick’s stunning work of nonfiction, Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea. But you might want to start with a play titled P’yongyang, by Korean-born, British-raised In-Soon Chappell.
   It follows a pair of decidedly star-crossed lovers beginning in the 1980s, when they hope to enter the film industry in the capital until differences in caste (‘songbun’) intervene. In the 1990s, Eun Mi is an aspiring actress in the thrall of a VIP, while Chi Soo has followed his father—who fought for the South—into a coalmine and hopelessness. Finally, in the summer of 2011 they are reunited, only to find that the roots of totalitarianism grow deep even in nominally free soil.
   I can’t remember another play in which the political, historical, and emotional are so intertwined into such a heartbreaking reading experience, never more so than when Chi Soo’s dying father reminds the aspiring screenwriter that his dreams can stay alive against all odds: “Your imagination, your thoughts, they’re still yours. We have to be careful, can’t trust anyone. But in the dark…your thoughts are your own.” (Oberon Books)
April 17, 2018

Tory Boyz
James Graham

Tory Boyz, the first of five plays in James Graham’s first Methuen anthology, involves a strange, wistful intersection between a young, gay Tory researcher in Parliament and the backstory of Prime Minister Edward Heath, whose private life continues to be whispered about and figures here in vignettes from the 1920s on. In its way, the play says a lot about the need for who seek power to take great, great care in the portrait they present to others. It explores the Tory/Labour differences (and similarities) in a way that would likely resonate on this side of the Atlantic as well, with our current loggerheads of Left and Right. Plus there’s an excellent final twist. Remember Graham’s name, you’ll be hearing it plenty once Ink and Quiz open on Broadway.
April 14, 2018

Need to Know
Jonathan Caren

Jonathan Caren’s 2015 play keys off of maybe the most ubiquitous and sinister of today’s covert habits. Googling and Facebooking whomever one meets begs the question, exactly what about people does one Need to Know. Into a semi-crummy Manhattan apartment move Lilly, whose first novel was a hit but she’s been blocked since, and partner Steven, a conceptual artist coming out of some sort of uptown funk. Immersed in their own pain, they’re instantly put off by upbeat, intrusive new neighbor Mark. (Caren specifies that the actor have “some physical quality” prompting us to “judge him before we know him”; in the L.A. premiere, the great Tim Cummings was a sort of doughy man/boy, prone to gushing sympathy and nasty innuendo by unpredictable turns.) The tension between the hints derived online and the encounters in real face-time can be read as an unanticipated, unsung consequence of our personal tech explosion. For though the rules and means of invading people’s privacy have taken a quantum leap forward, the desire to protect that privacy is the same as when the only threat came from too-thin walls. (P.S. The walls in Mark’s building are paper-thin.) The sparklingly original Need to Know derives humor and even suspense from the modern ramifications of the old saw, “You can’t judge a book by its cover.” And without naming titles, I’ll say there are certain plays being produced hither and yon in this country that aren’t half as entertaining or provocative as this one. (Dramatists Play Service)
April 11, 2018

Of Human Bondage
Vern Thiessen

Anyone who’s “always been meaning to read” Somerset Maugham’s massive Of Human Bondage should take a look at Vern Thiessen’s stage version, commissioned by Toronto’s Soulpepper Company and recently brought to New York. The epic yet tight (under three hours) adaptation deftly brings out all the major themes, arguing for the source material as one of the great novels ever written in English, and possibly *the* greatest. While superficially detailing the hopeless, on-again/off-again tightrope walked by impoverished medical student Philip Carey and his slatternly Circe, waitress Mildred Rogers, it does ever so much more. The club-footed Carey is defined by the world—and even more tragically, by himself—through his disability, symbolizing that which each of us possesses that makes us feel or appear “Other.” He’s also paralyzed by career indecision between medicine and art, a familiar wrenching choice. Torn between multiple lovers while drawn to the worst of the bunch, insecure and struggling to find existential purpose, Philip Carey is a fully-realized stand-in for modern man, and his story can prompt deep thinking about one’s own place in the world even as it engages with its sheer narrative drive. (The published text includes an afterword by a disability ethicist with cerebral palsy, offering a striking interpretation of Carey’s modern dilemma and how Maugham works it out.)
April 8, 2018

Adapted by David Lee

At Pasadena Playhouse
Photo by Craig Schwartz

I agree with Ethan Mordden that Camelot can lay a strong claim to the title of best all-around musical score of all time. But however one ranks the songs, it’s the too-long, too-overstuffed book that, to echo Liza Doolittle, done her in. David Lee’s adaptation, which premiered eight years ago at the Pasadena Playhouse, zips briskly through the narrative to play at just over two hours. (And how often has the phrase “zips briskly” been applied toCamelot?) As I noted in 2010, Lerner and Loewe unveiled their Broadway original, in 1960, exactly seven months to the day after the very first off-Broadway performance of two-planks-and-a-passion The Fantasticks. And now here comes Lee to bring a Fantasticks/minimalist approach to the old superspectacle: eight actors impersonating traveling players (“revellers”) with a trunkful of props and snippets of narration. The great thing about Lee’s version is that by cutting away all the extraneous crap (bye-bye, Pellinore; ta-ta, Morgan le Fay; don’t let the door hitcha on the way out, Merlyn) the core story—of Arthur’s idealistic vision of a perfect society, compromised by the betrayals of those he loves most—takes total stage, gaining in both clarity and emotional force. Even better, it leaves room for all of the score, whose lyrics carry the story perfectly well. (Indeed, there’s more score than expected, with the restoration of the often-cut “Fie on Goodness!”) I believe this slimmed-down Camelot, with its Pippin vibe and whiff of the rehearsal room, has been produced since the Pasadena run. I hope so. It deserves to be, because it restores the luster to a famously imperfect but gloriously lyrical show.
April 5, 2018

And Miss Reardon Drinks a Little
Paul Zindel

And Miss Reardon Drinks a Little And Miss Reardon Drinks a Little—That’s Miss Catherine Reardon, and who can blame her? Her delusional sister Anna, suddenly turned violent vegetarian, is on suspension from the local high school for molesting a student. The oldest sister Ceil, a Board of Ed bureaucrat, wants to put Anna away and is still resented by Catherine for stealing her only beau years ago. Catherine herself is a foulmouthed cynic, and all three are coping with the recent death of their possessive, emotionally crippling mother. Lawdy, this Paul Zindel play is gaudy, and the vitriol escalates when pushy guidance counselor Fleur (“Think of snow FLUR-ries”) and her bullying husband Bob come by to snoop and weasel. I directed this play some 20 years ago, and found to my dismay that all the naked conflict, and the juicy insults and witty one-liners spat out like poison for two hours, did not (as I’d hoped) make up for the unbelievable neurosis overkill of neuroses, and a general sense of pointlessness brought on by the distinct lack of forward action. Actresses of a certain age chomp down on these roles like the chop meat Catherine nibbles on the sly from a candy box. (Julie Harris, Estelle Parsons, and Nancy Marchand got bravos and Rae Allen won a Tony.) But only the cast enjoys a satisfying repast.
April 2, 2018

Howard Brenton

Howard Brenton’s Paul was an unorthodox but absorbing Good Friday reading experience, as thoughtful and theatrical as everything else Brenton pens but with an extra sting in the tail for true believers. We first meet Saul—ruthless persecutor of fellow Jews caught up in the Christ “cult”—precisely as a vision of the resurrected Yeshua inspires the renamed Paul to embrace and spread the Good News of the Resurrection worldwide. Yet before long, he and we are exposed to a radically alternative scenario provided by Jesus’s brother and wife, chief disciple Simon Peter and, in a surprise cameo in the apostles’ dungeon, the Emperor Nero himself. Paul was hugely controversial at the RNT and has had, as far as I can tell, exactly one production stateside (in 2011 at a 168-seat venue in Pawtucket, R.I., of all places.) Surely the “Passover Plot” narrative is destined to rankle many with its categorical rejection of some of Christianity’s first principles. Still and all, much of the literary beauty and moral force of Paul’s message comes through, especially in the Letter to the Corinthians, which Brenton presents with genuine respect. I think one has to leave the play with a greater appreciation of the hold Jesus’s teachings have had on the world, however skeptical or downright hostile one may be toward their origin.
March 30, 2018

A Dog’s House
Micah Schraft

IAMA Theatre Company
Photo by Patrick J. Adams

Huge dog Jock, owned by cohabiting couple Eden and Michael, has just ripped to pieces little Phoenix, owned by Nicole and Bill. Both sets of neighbors live in A Dog’s House, and this one sad incident exposes a series of fissures already present in the relationships and now primed to explode. I am in awe of Micah Schraft’s accomplishment here, setting one action after another on a path that’s totally logical yet escalatingly dire. A devastating expose of how man's best friend can play a part in tearing man from his best friend.
March 27, 2018

Beau Jest
James Sherman

James Sherman’s Beau Jest was a smash in Chicago in 1989, went on to be performed all over the country and for all I know may still be on the boards someplace. It’s a gentle, non-Gentile romantic comedy in which kindergarten teacher Sarah Goldman hires a fellow from an escort service to impersonate her new beau, “Dr. David Steinberg,” as her parents are appalled at her current fiancé, investment banker Chris Cringle. (Yes, it’s that sort of play.) To Sarah’s chagrin, escort Bob Schroeder is much less Jewish than his name implies—he’s actually not at all—but the out of work actor manages to fool the older folks with some tricks he picked up on a Fiddler tour with Topol. (Yes, it’s that sort of play.) Clearly the premise is ridiculous and it all ends up going exactly where you’d expect it to go. Yet I confess I found the predictable plot mechanics and sharp one-liners strangely warm and comforting—a chicken soup of a play. I figure something this successful must be extremely difficult to pull off, else everybody would be writing it. Which they aren’t.
March 24, 2018

The Handyman
Ronald Harwood

As the Greatest Generation vanishes, works like Ronald Harwood’s The Handyman remain to help ensure that the moral challenges presented by war in general and the Holocaust in particular don’t vanish as well. A British country couple is startled when the police pull in for questioning the elderly Ukrainian handyman they’ve employed for decades. Did he participate in a massacre of Jews in 1943? Should there be some kind of statute of limitations on long-ago crimes? And most fundamentally, when so many were complicit in the genocide of millions, what is the effect of simply ascribing it to “evil?” The mystery is so huge and the issues so titanic, I’m not sure there could ever be a satisfactory denouement available to Harwood, whether ambiguous or conclusive. But I certainly was gripped and moved by what he pulls off here.
March 21, 2018

Blown Sideways Through Life
Claudia Shear

Blown Sideways Through Life, the monodrama that put Claudia Shear on the map, is her searing saga of the 64 (by 2002 count) jobs she had held, jobs of all types united—in her telling—by their universalities: all prompted by the universal need to Get By; all subject to the oppression of ubiquitous human folly. She employs a collage form and a fugue-link rhythm reminiscent of the John Dos Passos U.S.A. Trilogy (with whose empathy with everyday Americans Shear is totally in sync), though she wisely pauses for some extended yarns to help us get our bearings (the best: her experiences working on commission at a whorehouse). There’s no self pity here, rather a constant simmering rage that when any of us put on our apron, of whatever kind, somehow that’s a signal for the rest of the world to devalue and belittle us. There’s even a moral which ought to change behavior but probably won’t: “You talk to people who serve you the food the same way you talk to the people you eat the food with. You talk to the people who work for you the same way you talk to the people you work for. It’s a one way proposition.” Amen.
March 18, 2018

The Children
Lucy Kirkwood

Lucy Kirkwood’s The Children—a postapocalyptic domestic drama involving three 60-ish nuclear scientists, onetime colleagues at a reactor that has just gone Chernobyl-plus. Robin and Hazel, married, share a ramshackle cottage at the edge of the hot zone, visited by Rose who has old coals to rake over and a new proposition to make. Preoccupied with aging, illness, their checkered past, and uncertain future, these three sharply defined characters took on even greater poignancy for me in the wake of the disaster that isn’t always talked about but is clearly gnawing at the edges of their minds. Lockwood wonders about our responsibility for each other in a world that we ourselves have set off spinning into possible oblivion. So do I; so does anyone with a brain and a conscience. Her play makes one think and feel in equal measure.
March 15, 2018

Bill Naughton

Michael Caine
Courtesy Paramount Pictures

My goodness, could there be a more unpalatably retro choice for revival, in this day and age, than Alfie? Bill Naughton’s cheerful Cockney cad who calls his women “birds” and “it,” and casually impregnates them and walks away whether they decide to go to term or abort, established Michael Caine permanently as a charismatic movie star. But although he’s put through emotional wringers along the way, you can’t exactly say that he gets his just deserts, and his elaborate rationalizations certainly seem cringe-worthy at the present moment. Yet don’t Alfies still exist, like, everywhere? And isn’t it worthwhile to have their stories told? This is one of those once-charming, now toxic artifacts that pose a huge conundrum for producers, but I wonder whether the answer is to consign it to the dustbin of history. Anyone have an opinion has to how the 2004 Jude Law reboot turned out?
March 11, 2018

The Letter
William Somerset Maugham

Reading the delicious The Letter, I can’t help but think we’re due for a Maugham revival. Judging by that which is “selling” on TV and in film these days, audiences seem hungry for the kind of vigorous, feet-on-the-ground, balls-out narrative presented in his masterwork Of Human Bondage, as well as dozens of sturdy short stories. He created superb roles for women, perhaps more than anyone else in his era: think of Sadie Thompson, shadiest lady of the South Seas; career-weary Julia Lambert, unforgettably captured by Annette Bening in TitlesBeing Julia; and Constance in The Constant Wife, ultra-modern in her insistence on equal rights in all matters including the sexual. Then, too, his agnostic speculations and dabbling in Eastern mysticism feel very au courant—I know of at least three people in the last year or so who told me The Razor’s Edge changed their lives. As for The Letter, his murderess Leslie Crosbie (“With all my heart, I still love the man I killed”) is rich enough to have earned Oscar nominations twice, for Jeanne Eagels and Bette Davis. I could say a lot more about its erotic mood, suspense, and complex take on racism and colonialism, but I feel the overpowering need to go read a Maugham tale right about now….
March 8, 2018

Five Finger Exercise
Peter Shaffer

The dysfunctional family, theme and variations, occupies Peter Shaffer’s first big hit Five Finger Exercise, which coops up under one roof more types guaranteed to irritate each other than “The Poseidon Adventure. How in the world French-born, Continental-uppity Louise managed to get hitched to stolid old Stanley, a furniture manufacturer of all things, remains a mystery even though pages of dialogue are devoted to explaining it. (He had a handsome figgah but she just never got acclimatée to him, she sighs.) They begat Clive and Pamela, he a moody, snotty mama’s boy who stays out all hours, doubtless running into Tom Wingfield from time to time; she, utterly spoiled and willful. The thumb pressing against these four fingers is young Walter, Pamela’s live-in tutor, a German émigré with his own family problems (sieg heil). But instead of forming a fist, these five digits simply slide into a lacy Freudian glove of dream interpretation and free association. That is to say, bullshit. Oh, why cahn’t we talk, rahlly talk to each other? Zee doctor will see you now. Having made an early bundle, Shaffer thankfully got out of the naturalism business and took up the epic theater where, in perhaps an excess of thrift, he wound up writing the same hit play three times in a row (The Royal Hunt of the Sun, Equus —Dr. Freud, I believe you know Carl Jung?—and Amadeus), differing only in their drag.
March 5, 2018

Rolf Hochhuth

While Gary Oldman airs out his tux in preparation for his (well-deserved) Oscar for Darkest Hour, I figured I’d take in the contrarian view of Churchill espoused by Rolf Hochhuth in Soldiers. Whereas his earlier controversial verse drama The Deputy famously excoriated Pius XII for his kid-glove treatment of Nazi Germany, Soldiers has two passionate chips on its shoulder. It’s quite tough on the P.M.’s abandonment of (and possible involvement in the plane crash death of) Polish head of state Sikorski, whose mission—at whatever risk to the anti-Hitler alliance—was telling the world about the Soviets’ massacre of 4,000 of his officers at Katyn. At the same time, the playwright is livid at Churchill’s not just tolerance, but downright encouragement of saturation bombing of civilians, highlighted in a white-hot debate with the Bishop of Chichester in Act III, the best dramaturgy in the piece. (Churchill: “Two wars have taught me this:/the man who wants to win must be as ruthless/as he whom he must destroy.” Bishop Bell: “You have written that all our actions,/like the moon, have an unseen hemisphere./Think if the night-side of your fame were such/that those who bomb civilians in the future/should use your name as precedent.”) Whatever one’s view of Hochhuth’s theses—and I certainly don’t advise anyone to derive their history or core values from popular media alone—both topics are illustrative of realpolitik at its harshest, and thus deserving of an interested hearing. I do wish, though, that Herr Hochhuth could have invested his cardboard Churchill with more energy and wit. Whatever the Prime Minister was, he was never dull, but you’d never know it by Soldiers.
March 2, 2018

The Nap
Richard Bean

Sheffield's Crucible Theatre
Photo by Mark Douet, courtesy of the Crucible Theatre

“Do you want a prawn sandwich?” “I don’t eat owt w’ a brain.” “They’re prawns, they’re not novelists.” So beginneth The Nap, which refers not to a siesta but to the lay of a snooker table’s fabric. Playing against it, we’re told, “the ball can deviate and drift off line,” which is the way Richard Bean plots: Midway through a farce involving big-time international snooker betting, a police scam, a kidnapping, a transgender gang boss and a drug dealer who can’t mentally work out 20 percent of £100, he tosses in a flashback to the 1857 invention of the game in a British mess in India, hilariously sending up the Raj in a way Monty Python would’ve envied: “Have you tried living like a woman?” “I was a woman on Tuesday, all day.” “Did you pee sitting down?” “Five times.” “What’s it like?!” “Thrilling. It all happens kind of underneath you, so there’s nothing to look at. It’s like listening to a radio play.” Despite the worldwide success of One Man, Two Guvnors, the prolific Bean has never quite taken off in the US. Maybe producers see his orientation as too provincial? Too bad, even a snooker novice would be falling out of his chair in laughter at the likes of this. Anyway, you have to admire a comic imagination that has a character mutter, apropos of nothing, “Old MacDonald was dyslexic/E-I-O-I-E.”
February 27, 2018

The Force of Change
Gary Mitchell

The average British playwright is so engaged with the world, the realities of the present day make their way even into genre pieces. On the surface Gary Mitchell’s The Force of Change is a tight Belfast police procedural in which two suspected Ulster Defence Association paramilitaries—one a big cheese, the other a very small fry—are being separately interrogated. The suspense over whether any hard evidence of terrorist activity will emerge, and whether the little guy will turn on Mr. Big, is palpable enough. But as it happens, the head investigator is a woman up for promotion, and among the passed-over, resentful fellows on her team may be a copper on the take. (His unmasking must be a stunner on the stage, because my jaw dropped upon just reading it.) Even if one isn’t up on all the historical backstory and dizzying acronyms (UDA, RUC, IRA, LVF, not to mention a stolen BMW), the overlay of both nationalist politics and sexual politics brings extra tension to an already suspenseful pulp setup. The jacket copy calls Mitchell “unflinching,” and that feels about right. Whereas, for my money, on this side of the Atlantic our writers are overly obsessed with dysfunctional families and mommy issues and self-expression. It’s not that they’re flinching at the state of the body politic—too many seem just plain oblivious to it.
February 24, 2018
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