Arts In LA
Arts In NY archives 2012–2015
(these shows are closed)

China Doll
Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre

Reviewed by David Sheward

“I’m too old for the game,” moans Al Pacino as Mickey Ross, the billionaire wheeler-dealer at the center of David Mamet’s China Doll. Pacino could be speaking for himself and the playwright as well as the character. This latest work from the one-time master of the blistering, testosterone-fueled style of American drama is flabby (meandering monologues) and undeveloped (sketchy storyline). The actor is delivering a faint suggestion of the brash Pacino schtick. It’s like watching an early rehearsal of a first draft. One can only feel pity for director Pam MacKinnon who has previously shot new life into Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and A Delicate Balance. Her imprint is barely discernible as the pacing is slow and the plot confused.
   The title is confusing as well. The china doll could mean Mickey’s girlfriend Frankie whom he frequently refers to as needing his protection. She, along with almost everyone connected with Mickey, is offstage at the other end of a Bluetooth connection. For most of the play, Pacino delivers one-sided conversations except for brief dialogues with Ross’s bland assistant Carson (Christopher Denham does the best he can with this shadowy role.)
   From what we can piece together, the about-to-retire Ross has purchased a new airplane and had it flown to Canada, with the British Frankie as sole passenger, in order to avoid American sales tax. But the pilot had to touch down in the US before moving on to Toronto, and Mickey is now on the hook for $5 million. The whole frame-up is engineered by New York’s young governor—perhaps modeled on Andrew Cuomo—whom Mickey blasts as a rich hypocrite. This predicament gives Mamet the cue to have Ross launch several rambling speeches about the corruption of public officials and how being ruthless in business and politics is the sole path to wealth. (Spoiler alert: Apparently Mickey gets his comeuppance, but it’s ambiguous.)

What is Mamet saying here? That all politicians are liars, all voters are fools, and the only way to get ahead is to lie, cheat, and steal? And that we should admire those cutthroats and pirates who have the honesty to recognize this and rob the rest of us blind? That’s a perfectly valid, if extremely cynical viewpoint, but Mamet fails to make it compelling, as he has in earlier works. To compound the script’s flaws, Pacino appears to be struggling with his lines at the performance attended (to be fair, it’s a gigantic undertaking). He spends too much of the show sprawled on the attractive sofa in Derek McLane’s cavernous penthouse setting, only occasionally rousing himself to the old Pacino intensity. Mickey may be exhausted, but the star shouldn’t be.
   After the curtain fell and the obligatory standing ovation was delivered, I felt a bit like Pacino and Mamet were laughing at us. Like Mickey and the slick salesmen of Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross, they’ve taken advantage of the public’s gullibility and charged top dollar for shoddy goods.

December 13, 2015
Dada Woof Papa Hot
Lincoln Center Theater at the Mitzi Newhouse Theatre

The New Group at the Pershing Square Signature Center

Reviewed by David Sheward

Now that same-sex marriage is the law of the land and many gay men are leading “heteronormative” lives complete with children and mortgages, how will they adjust to the excruciating rigors of monogamy, parenthood, and not constantly going to bars? That’s the vital questions two new Off-Broadway plays are daringly asking (sarcasm intended.) Side note: There is a lesbian character in one of the plays, but she plays a supporting part and is not essential to the action.
   Coincidentally Peter Parnell’s Dada Woof Papa Hot from Lincoln Center Theatre and Mark Gerrard’s Steve from The New Group opened within a few days of each other. Both shallowly portray a group of upper-middle-class gay friends, many of whom are unable to cope with long-term commitment and indulge in meaningless affairs. The acting, direction, and design are professional and precise in both cases, but the scripts wear thin long before their respective 90-minute running times click off. Dada focuses on parenthood and is a tad deeper than the jokier Steve, which overdoses on musical theater references and gimmicky supertitles. Both have moments of humor and pathos but are ultimately disappointing.

In Dada, Alan and Rob’s marriage seems perfect on the surface. They have a lovely apartment (John Lee Beatty created the gorgeous sliding sets), a sweet prekindergarten-age daughter named Nikki, and apparently successful careers as writer and therapist. But Alan is frustrated by a shortage of journalistic work and Nikki’s preference for Rob, her biological father. So he launches an affair with Jason, a much younger married gay dad with fidelity issues of his own.
   The two daddies in Steve, Steven and Stephen—cute that they have almost the same name, huh?—face similar conflicts. Stephen compulsively trades sexually explicit texts with one of the couple’s best friends Brian, and Steven retaliates by sleeping with an attractive waiter named Esteban. Meanwhile, Brian and his partner Matt are having a live-in threesome with their trainer, also named Steven. Do you sense a pattern here? The nearly identical names bit is stretched too much like many of Gerrard’s other gags such as the endless quoting of show lyrics. Also in the mix is Carrie, the token lesbian of the group who is afflicted with cancer and may get a movie deal out of her blog. Steven, Matt, and Carrie met as singing wait staff in a Broadway restaurant and have abandoned their attempts at musical-comedy careers. The theme of crushed dreams and mourning for lost youth is an intriguing one, but Gerrard fails to develop it.

The playwrights have the worthy concept of showing that gay people can be just as screwed up as their straight counterparts when faced with the challenge of building a socially sanctioned life with one partner, but the protagonists of Dada and Steve are defined by their sexual impulses, and their psychological motivations are not sufficiently explored to get us to care about them. In Dada, Alan comes across as a whiny narcissist, and in Steve we get sketchy show fans. A good therapist would work wonders with these people. Since they can afford nannies, weekends on Fire Island, private schools, and fabulous NYC apartments, you’d think they would try one.
   Despite the thinness of the material, directors Scott Ellis (Dada) and Cynthia Nixon (Steve) deliver polished, sparkling stagings, and the casts gamely try to infuse their roles with the subtext the authors fail to provide. In Dada, John Benjamin Hickey almost makes the kvetchy Alan bearable, and Tammy Blanchard illuminates her cameo part of a pushy actor with an attractive energy. The Steve crowd has more opportunity for fun including a preshow sing-along at a standup piano. As the main couple, Matt McGrath and Malcolm Gets search in vain for the lovers beneath the quips and the song lyrics. Ashlie Atkinson is more successful in defining the caustic Carrie, and the hilarious Mario Cantone at least gets to cut up as Matt.

November 30, 2015
King Charles III
Music Box Theatre

Cort Theatre

On Your Feet! The Story of Emilio and Gloria Estefan
Marquis Theatre

Reviewed by David Sheward

Three recent openings offer examples of the most prevalent types of Broadway shows: the British snob hit (King Charles III), the star-vehicle revival (Sylvia), and the jukebox musical, Lifetime-TV biopic subdivision (On Your Feet! The Story of Emilio and Gloria Estefan). The first is perfection. The latter two have their share of flaws endemic to their genre but still contain pleasures of a kind.
   King Charles III arrives from London on a wave of adulation including the Olivier Award, and it’s all deserved. This is an ingenious political satire, acted and staged with just the right combination of passion and humor. Employing Shakespearean verse and referencing several of the Bard’s royal dramas, playwright Mike Bartlett imagines a near future when Queen Elizabeth II has died and her son, patient Prince Charles (the brilliant Tim Pigott-Smith) will finally ascend the throne. But a constitutional crisis arises when Charles refuses to sign Parliament’s bill curtailing freedom of the press. Machiavellian plots unfold as Prince William (a dashing Oliver Chris) and a Lady Macbeth–like Kate Middleton (the multidimensional Lydia Wilson) scheme to surpass the new king before his coronation. William’s brother, a fun-loving Prince Harry (a strong Richard Goulding) provides another wrinkle. Tired of endless public scrutiny, he begs his dad to allow him to renounce his title and join his girlfriend Jess (flinty Tafline Steen), a radical art student, as a private citizen. Both plot threads examine the perilous role of the monarchy in the 21st century. Bartlett asks hard questions such as: Is England still England without a crowned head, however ceremonial, atop its government?
   I was pleasantly surprised at Bartlett’s clever and deft script, since I was less than enchanted by the last play of his I saw, the simplistic and condescending Cock, presented Off-Broadway in 2012. King Charles is light years away from that bisexual triangle comedy, where gay relationships were reduced to purely sexual connections. Government, media, history, and national identity are considered here in complex and fascinating detail. Rupert Goold’s sleek production and the gradually deepening performances draw us in. At first these royals seem like caricatures and are greeted with audience laughter, but as the stakes grow higher, they take on the Shakespearean qualities of ambition and tragedy their dialogue suggests. Pigott-Smith is shattering as the Richard II–ish Charles, initially a buffoon but increasing in dignity as he battles for his convictions against the forces of convenience.

From sharp satire, we move to comfy comedy. Sylvia is a pleasant enough little number from the prolific pen of A.R. Gurney, the chronicler of the American WASP in such keenly observed works as The Cocktail Hour, Love Letters and The Dining Room. Originally presented Off-Broadway in 1995, Sylvia concerns Greg, a disaffected money-market salesman whose midlife crisis manifests itself in a borderline obsessive affection for the titular stray mutt he finds in Central Park. The gimmick is the pooch is played by an actor, and she communicates with the other characters in intelligent speech. (Barks are replaced with Hey-Hey-Hey.) Gurney affectionately depicts Greg’s malaise and the anchor he finds in the Sylvia’s unconditional love, much to the dismay of his practical and jealous wife, Kate.
   This revival has its share of chuckles and pathos, but the four-person ensemble is wildly off-balance in a rare disjointed staging by the usually proficient Daniel Sullivan. The nominal star is Matthew Broderick, whose wife, Sarah Jessica Parker, played Sylvia in the original production. The once-charming Ferris Bueller and adorably nebbishy Leo Bloom of The Producers is now in a middle-age funk not unlike Greg’s. In his last few Broadway outings such as It’s Only a Play and the musical Nice Work If You Can Get It, Broderick has been stiff and dull, bordering on zombie status. He does show signs of life here, but a regular pulse is hardly enough to sustain a leading role. As if to compensate, Robert Sella overplays his three supporting parts—including a boorish fellow dog-lover Greg meets in the park, an alcoholic female friend of Kate’s, and a transgender marriage counselor (this last one borders on the offensive).
   The real star power is wielded by the two women of the cast: Tony winners Annaleigh Ashford as the canine female lead and Julie White as the put-upon spouse. The delightful Ashford has the showier role, flinging herself around David Rockwell’s cartoonish set with abandon, but both are brilliant. White captures Kate’s comic frustration with Sylvia’s slobbering, pooping, and stealing her husband’s affection without going overboard as Sella does. Because of the two actors’ dynamism, the focus shifts to the interspecies rivalry between Sylvia and Kate, and away from Greg’s male menopausal struggle. The most striking moment of the show comes at the end when Greg and Kate address the audience directly about their final days with Sylvia. White laughs to hide Kate’s reluctant but real love for the dog, and then she pushes back tears. It’s a beautiful ending. But Broderick’s Greg barely registers.

On Your Feet! The Story of Emilio and Gloria Estefan registers on the Richter scale, but not on the believability curve. This latest jukebox-bio musical is given a dance floor–worthy staging by director Jerry Mitchell and choreographer Sergio Trujillo, but Alexander Dinelaris’s book is strictly by the numbers. There is one genuinely funny line about Swedish fans at an Estefan concert being so white they look like Q-tips, and only the Act 1 finale displays any originality. In order to get their potential crossover hit “Conga” played on mainstreams stations, Gloria and Emilio play it anywhere they can get a booking—including a bar mitzvah, an Italian wedding, and a Shriners’ meeting (shades of Bye Bye Birdie). The partygoers at these various events joyously clash with audience members in the aisles in a riotous celebration.
   Otherwise it’s business as usual: the Estefans rising to the top despite personal hardships, then suffering a catastrophic setback, to finally triumph with Gloria belting out an inspirational number at a music award ceremony. All of these events are true, yet they could have been depicted with more wit and imagination. Despite the shortcomings, the rhythm will definitely get you. Ana Villafane becomes a Broadway star in a blazing turn as Gloria, re-creating her vocals but not imitating them. Josh Segarra is a sexy and compelling Emilio, Andrea Burns gives steely support as Gloria’s disapproving mother, and Alma Cuervo is an endearing grandmother. On Your Feet!
will get you on your feet, Sylvia will give you a few laughs, but King Charles III gives you a truly exciting night of theater.

November 8, 2015
Thérèse Raquin
Roundabout Theatre Company at Studio 54

The Humans
Roundabout Theatre Company at the Laura Pels Theatre

It’s the Halloween season and two productions from Roundabout Theatre Company explore scary demons. The big star vehicle, Thérèse Raquin, is full of fake emotion, while the Off-Broadway intimate drama The Humans is truly terrifying in its portrayal of the bumps and creaks in the night we all hear and fear.
   The first act of Helen Edmundson’s stage adaptation of Emile Zola’s classic 1867 novel, Thérèse Raquin, from Roundabout at Studio 54 really had me going. I was totally enraptured by Keira Knightley’s nearly silent performance as the titular frustrated heroine, expressing her sexual and spiritual longing through body language and eloquent features. Thérèse is trapped in a passionless marriage to her bourgeois cousin Camille, first in a provincial backwater and then in a confining Paris apartment. Edmundson’s conceit is that Thérèse can only react to the stifling conditions of her life and remains silent as the oafish Camille and his control-freak mother order her existence. That is, until Camille’s dashing friend Laurent, a would-be painter, enters the picture. (Spoiler alert here if you have not read the novel or seen any of the numerous previous stage versions, including Harry Connick Jr.’s 2001 musical update Thou Shalt Not.) The connection between Thérèse and Laurent is electric, and they plot to eliminate Camille. The drowning scene on a real river is really scary; kudos to director Evan Cabnet and set designer Beowulf Boritt.
   So far, so good, but in the second act Therese opens her mouth. Knightley and Matt Ryan as Laurent start overacting all over the place, and Cabnet turns a tragic tale of passion into an episode of Dark Shadows. The lovers become racked with guilt and imagine Camille’s accusing ghost haunting them as Josh Schmidt’s twisted sound design and Keith Parham’s haunted-house lighting grow more ominous. There are some effective moments, mostly provided by Boritt’s impressive set. Thérèse seems to be crushed by her all-black apartment as it descends from the flies, and she appears to soar when she meets Laurent in his attic, suspended above the stage amid a starry backdrop (Parham’s lighting achieves the right romantic tone here). Gabriel Ebert’s comically clueless Camille, Judith Light’s well-meaning Madame Raquin, and Jeff Still, David Patrick Kelly, and Mary Wiseman as a trio of shallow family friends provide welcome depth. But they cannot rescue this scream fest from the spook house.

Thérèse attempts to evoke genuine fear, but The Humans succeeds in doing so. Stephen Karam’s new play starts out like a dozen other dysfunctional-family works. The Blake clan reveals harsh secrets on Thanksgiving as the turkey is served and the wine flows. What sets this haunting and heartbreaking drama apart is the subtle depiction of the nightmares that invade and twist the lives of everyday people. The six characters’ fears for the future take various frighteningly familiar forms. Dad Erik obsesses over terrorist attacks and floods. Mother Deirdre forwards emails of dire scientific studies to her daughters: Aimee, a lawyer struggling with losing her lesbian lover, her job and her health, and Brigid, a young composer facing a dead-end career. The senile grandmother Fiona (“Momo”) is lost to dementia, and Richard, Brigid’s much older boyfriend, has recovered from depression but still has bizarre dreams. Still, those dreams are much less frightening than Erik’s, which involve a faceless woman and a forbidding tunnel.
   During 90 intermissionless minutes, an expert cast, directed with subtlety by Joe Mantello, conveys the petty conflicts and major tragedies of these frightened people, beset by the shifting and uncertain landscape of modern America. Lights switch off, weird sounds emanate from all over Brigid and Richard’s spacious but crumbling Chinatown duplex (great set by David Zinn and sound by Fitz Patton), and the lives of the Blakes are gradually revealed as pitiful and desperate. The entire cast is top-rate with veterans Reed Birney and Jayne Houdyshell delivering their customary solid work. But Cassie Beck’s Aimee is outstanding in this standout ensemble. Her shattered, scattered cellphone call to an estranged girlfriend is a heartbreaking moment in an intensely real performance.
   Just after it opened, The Humans announced its transfer to Broadway next year. It will be fascinated to see if it this disturbing, unflinching look at the way we live now succeeds on the Great White Way.

Reviewed by David Sheward
October 30, 2015
Dames at Sea
Helen Hayes Theatre

Manhattan Theatre Club at City Center Stage I

Reviewed by David Sheward

A show doesn’t have to be a masterpiece to provide an enjoyable evening of theater. Case in point: Two recent openings may not win a shelf full of Tonys or a Pulitzer Prize, but they kept me entertained for their respective two hours’ traffic. Both Dames at Sea on Broadway at the Helen Hayes and Ripcord from Manhattan Theatre Club at its Off-Broadway berth at City Center employ familiar tropes. In the case of Dames, the director and cast execute cinema clichés with infectious charm, and in Ripcord playwright David Lindsay-Abaire expands on the familiar mismatched-roommates theme.
   Dames is an affectionate spoof of 1930s movie musicals. It was first presented Off-Off-Broadway at Caffe Cino in 1966 as a one-act with a then-unknown Bernadette Peters. The clever cameo was lengthened, knocked an “Off” from its credentials when it moved to the Theatre de Lys (now the Lucille Lortel) two years later, and made a star out of Peters. The piece is basically an extended sketch like the ones they did on The Carol Burnett Show, sending up every plotline in the book—including the unknown kid going on for the star, the gutsy troupe surmounting incredible odds to put on a show, and the innocent ingénue winning the hero from the scheming leading lady. The fizzy songs by composer Jim Wise and lyricists George Haimsohn and Robin Miller offer just as many pastiche references as the book does. Gershwin, Porter, Berlin, Warren, and the team of Desylva, Brown, and Henderson all get the tribute treatment.
   It’s as light as a soap bubble and just as lasting, sure to burst as soon as you hit the pavement outside the Helen Hayes. But while the hardworking cast keeps the bubble afloat, Dames is a delight. Director-choreographer Randy Skinner served as Gower Champion’s assistant on The Carol Burnett Show and staged the 2001 revival. He supplies the same kind of polished production values and tip-top taps for this miniature from the same template.
   The six-member company captures the archetypes with precision and humor. Eloise Kropp's plucky Ruby, Carey Tedder’s earnest Dick, Danny Gardner’s goofy Lucky, and Mara Davi’s wisecracking Joan display amazing dance and comedic skills. John Bolton brilliantly doubles as the slave-driving director and the pompous ship’s captain. But all are second bananas to Lesli Margherita’s hilarious Mona Kent, the diva to end all divas. Margherita, the brainless ballroom-dancing mother from Matilda, can get a laugh just by walking across the stage with a ladder (the gag is Mona is off to fix her misspelled name on the marquee). The performer perfectly captures the narcissistic excesses of this spoiled star, covering up her lower-class roots with a ridiculous upper-crust accent. She opens the show with a boffo “Wall Street” (a knock-off of “We’re in the Money”), sends up every torch song ever written in “That Mister Man of Mine,” and perfectly pairs with Bolton on a witty satire of Porter’s “Begin the Beguine.” A dynamite dame in a dazzling Dames.

Just as Dames sounds like a rerun of Carol Burnett, Ripcord has the ring of an old Golden Girls segment. Grouchy Abby and good-natured Marilyn share a room in an assisted-living facility. The outgoing Marilyn is as pleased as punch with the arrangement, but ill-tempered Abby wants to be alone. They bet on who can make the other break her respective façade—first with Marilyn vacating or winning the bed by the window as the stakes. It sounds like sitcom fodder. But, as he did with his Fuddy Meers, Good People, Rabbit Hole, and Kimberly Akimbo, author David Lindsay-Abaire combines comedy with pathos for realistic depiction of life where the line between hilarity and heartache blurs.
   Marilyn and her loving family maintain their quirky sense of humor even after we learn dark secrets of their shared lives. Abby is not just a comically nasty crone but also a deeply wounded woman who has come by her forbidding nature thanks to a series of devastating tragedies. Director David Hyde Pierce and the cast, led by a razor-sharp Holland Taylor as Abby and sweet-but-tough Marylouise Burke as Marilyn, tread a fine line between laughter and tears, achieving the perfect balance between the two. Slapstick is cheek by jowl with sorrow, and it works.

October 28, 2015
Metropolitan Opera at Lincoln Center

Reviewed by David Sheward

Barlett Sher’s new production of Verdi’s Otello for the Metropolitan Opera begins with a bang. Lightning strikes and Luke Halls’s vivid video projections depict a violent storm at sea as Otello’s ship battles the elements making for Cyprus and his fateful deception with the duplicitous Iago. But this dynamic opening is followed by static staging with the huge chorus standing nearly motionless as Aleksandrs Antonecko in the title role stolidly holds forth. It takes quite a while for the production to regain its momentum, thanks largely to Zeljko Lucic’s powerful Iago and Sonya Yoncheva’s magnificently sung Desdemona.
   Antonenko does create a stirring presence in the later acts as the Moor is caught in the grip of uncertain jealousy. His tenor is largely strongly supported, though there were a few wobbles, but his acting does not match the unwavering intensity of Lucic or the impassioned fluidity of Yoncheva’s rich soprano tones. Sher has chosen not to have his lead in dark make-up, thus eliminating Shakespeare’s racial dimension and diminishing the character’s alienation in an all-white society. (There have fascinating expressions of the play’s racial politics such a production starring Patrick Stewart in the title role with all the other characters played by African-Americans.)
   Es Devlin’s set design also does not add to the tension. A series of transparent structures glides through a 19th-century seaport, supposedly reflecting the inner turmoil of the characters. Apart from one fascinating sequence as Otello eavesdrops on Iago and Cassio (a capable Dmitri Pattas), the see-through set pieces are not utilized to their fullest potential. Fortunately, Donald Holden’s awe-inspiring lighting provides subtle commentary as in a climactic Act 3 confrontation between the Moor and the visiting dignitaries of Venice. A dazzling sunset erupts as the full extent of Otello’s irrational behavior is revealed—a stunning moment in a vocally arresting but dramatically uneven production.

October 19, 2015
Cloud Nine
Atlantic Theater Company

Public Theater

The Christians
Playwrights Horizons

Reviewed by David Sheward

Theatrical conventions are shattered in three Off-Broadway productions as playwrights explore the hot-button topics of race, gender, and religion. Two are contemporary (Robert O’Hara’s Barbecue and Lucas Hnath’s The Christians) and one is more than three decades old (Caryl Churchill’s Cloud Nine), but the latter is still the boldest and most innovative. Churchill’s works have always turned expectations on their heads. Cloud Nine was her first transatlantic hit, running Off-Broadway in a Tommy Tune–directed production for more than two years after a London production. The author plays with sexual stereotypes by having women play male parts and vice versa. She further stretches boundaries by having dead people enter the action and 100 years collapse into 25 without any of the characters’ batting an eye. She has played other weird tricks in later plays such as Top Girls, Fen, and Serious Money.
   Here her theme is sex—both the activity and the biological differences in the human species. In the first act, a Victorian family represses all kinds of urges in a colonial African outpost. In the second act, the same family is only a quarter century older in modern London, and though the restrictive chains have been lifted, they are still tormented by their carnal drives. Churchill offers no easy answers nor observations, but compassionately charts the messy journeys of her confused Britons.
   In James Macdonald’s intimate revival for Atlantic Theatre Company, the audience is seated close to the cast on wooden benches in designer Dane Laffrey’s in-the-round arena (and Gabriel Berry’s costumes define the characters and their attitudes). It’s a small, claustrophobic space, and you can feel the heat along with the characters. Seven versatile performers brilliantly play a variety of sexes, races, and persuasions. Brooke Bloom is particularly moving as an effeminate boy and then his own mother discovering the joys of self-pleasure. Izzie Steele, a Carey Mulligan lookalike, sharply conveys the desperate longings of two lesbians of different eras and a fiercely independent widow. Clarke Thorell is delightfully aggressive as a proper, pompous father and then a nasty tomboy of a girl.

Robert O’Hara also defies time and space in his examination of the impact of racism and homophobia in his plays Insurrection: Holding History and Bootycandy. In his newest work, Barbecue, at the Public Theatre, he takes a leaf out of Churchill’s book but bends and twists it in his own way. The play is set in a public park (like the second act of Cloud Nine) where a lower-middle-class family stages an intervention to get a drug-addicted sister to enter rehab. But is it the family black or white? At first, we don’t know for sure because alternate scenes feature both races. By switching from one to the other, O’Hara forces us to confront our prejudices. As the play progresses and additional layers of reality are added, our perspective shifts, and the author makes us consider the distortions imposed by media and pop culture. Kent Gash’s direction is wildly funny, as are the performances by a company as boisterous as the Cloud Nine crew. Tamberla Perry and Samantha Soule are given the juiciest opportunities as two versions of the junkie sibling, and they run with them. Kudos also to Paul Tazewell’s clever costumes, which subtly contrast the two families.

After sex and race, religion used to be the topic you were supposed to avoid in polite conversation. Lucas Hnath tackles this third rail of American discourse in his electrifying and scary The Christians. Just after the debts for his megachurch have been paid off, Pastor Bob announces he no longer believes in literal damnation and that God is all-forgiving to non-Christians, nonbelievers, and even Hitler. His congregation, his board of directors, and his wife slowly fall away as Bob continues to preach his personal vision, which runs contrary to the fire-and-brimstone stance of his rival Joshua, a former associate now starting his own ministry.
   Hnath delivers a hard-hitting work on the necessity of hell for some people to do good. Like Dr. Stockmann in Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People, Pastor Bob becomes an outcast for pursuing what he perceives as the best possible course for his community. But he’s no unblemished saint. Hnath makes Bob a complex and flawed visionary, and Joshua is no fire-breathing bigot but a sincere advocate for his position. Andrew Garman and Larry Powell give multiple shadings to these two adversaries, and Emily Donahoe is stunningly compelling as a questioning parishioner. Complete with a choir, organ, stained-glass windows, and microphones, the action becomes a full-on Sunday service (the accurate setting is again by Dane Laffrey), staged with insight and power by Les Waters.
   Like the previous two plays, The Christians covers a difficult theme in an unexpected format, offering new insights and provoking audiences to think differently—the goal of engaged and engaging theater.

October 19, 2015
Fool for Love
Manhattan Theatre Club at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre

Old Times
Roundabout Theatre Company at the American Airlines Theatre

The Gin Game
John Golden Theatre

Reviewed by David Sheward

The fall Broadway season is in full swing with a trio of star-studded revivals of small-cast plays, each failing their author’s intent by varying degrees. Sam Shepard’s Fool for Love, Harold Pinter’s Old Times, and D.L. Coburn’s The Gin Game present dark visions of human connections and the clash of memory and personality. But only this production of Fool for Love approaches the play’s full impact, though it falls short.
   At Fool for Love, as the curtain rises on Dane Laffrey’s desolate Mojave Desert motel setting, we know we’re in Shepard country—a lonely place where cowboys and good ol’ gals bluster to conceal their desperation. Three scruffy characters sit in silence for several seconds, but you can feel the tension. Nina Arianda and Sam Rockwell are May and Eddie, former lovers with a deeper, tragic bond. Gordon Joseph Weiss as The Old Man sits just outside the scene, not really there, but very present in the minds of the other two. May and Eddie have an explosive on-again, off-again relationship, which Eddie wants to renew as May is trying to get on with her life. She’s awaiting Martin, a new gentleman caller, but Eddie refuses to leave. Fireworks supposedly ensue when Martin shows up and we learn the true nature of the lovers’ link.
   Director Daniel Aukin’s production for Manhattan Theatre Club, transferred from the Williamstown Theatre Festival, has the right atmosphere of dusty anguish, abetted by Laffrey’s sleazy setting, Justin Townsend’s stark lighting, and Ryan Rumery’s haunting sound design. But, despite solid performances, Arianda and Rockwell fail to generate the necessary lava-like temperatures to fully melt the audience’s butter. Weiss is an arresting figure as the spectral Old Man, and Tom Pelphrey is perfect as the confused Martin, an ordinary guy who’s wandered into an emotional minefield.

While Fool wants to be volcanic, Douglas Hodge’s distractingly showy production of Pinter’s Old Times for the Roundabout Theatre Company is frozen, literally. Christine Jones’s bizarre set is dominated by a slab of ice that serves as a perfect metaphor for this chilly staging. Pinter’s 1971 triangular drama concerns the slipperiness of recollection. Married Deeley and Kate entertain Anna, Kate’s friend and roommate from their early days in London. As the weird evening progress, bits of the past slip out, and a hazy, uncertain puzzle emerges. We don’t know what’s true and what isn’t. Did Deeley know Anna in the past? Is Anna dead? Did Anna steal Kate’s underwear and were they more than just flatmates?
   Hodge directs a leering Clive Owen, an overacting Eve Best, and an arch Kate Reilly to play the rivalries and power struggles right on the surface rather than burying them in subtext as in most Pinter productions. In addition to that hunk of ice, Jones’s set features rock formations, a revolving living room, and an enormous backdrop of concentric circles, all of which remove us from the central action. The outsized environment seems more appropriate for a Wagnerian opera directed by Robert Wilson. Strobe lights and an intrusive rock underscore by Radiohead front man Thom Yorke further push us away from Pinter’s subtle conundrum of a play.

The Gin Game also disappoints. D.L. Coburn’s Pulitzer Prize winner for 1978 returns to Broadway with two highly touted stars: James Earl Jones and Cicely Tyson. The casting might lead you to expect a powerhouse confrontation, but Leonard Foglia’s staging offers a sitcom. Jones and Tyson are Weller and Fonsia, a pair of abandoned senior citizens playing gin in a depressing elder residence (wonderfully detailed set by Riccardo Hernandez). They attempt to become friends, but Fonsia’s endless winning streak sets off Weller’s explosive temper. The game is a metaphor for the mismatched couple’s extended relationships with their now-absent families—Weller cannot deal with unexpected losses, while Fonsia cannot resist judging and controlling. It’s no surprise these unpleasant people have no visitors. But Tyson plays Fonsia as a sweet old lady, only slightly showing her mean streak. Jones does not succumb to such tricks and makes Weller a sharp-witted but difficult codger whose inner grouch pops out at the slightest provocation.
   As a result, Jones’s Weller comes across a bully menacing Tyson’s coquettish Fonsia, and we get an episode of The Golden Girls, complete with old-age jokes, rather than a slyly observed comedy of two lonely individuals unable to escape their self-imposed isolation. There are plenty of laughs, but The Gin Game, like the other recent openings, deserved to be dealt a better hand.

October 14, 2015
Spring Awakening
Brooks Atkinson Theatre

Daddy Long Legs
Davenport Theatre

Reviewed by David Sheward

Though the memory of Spring Awakening is still green—the original Broadway run of the electric rock musical ended only six years ago—Michael Arden’s jagged and heartfelt rendition for Deaf West Theatre, transferred to Broadway after a Los Angeles engagement, makes it feel like a totally different, brand-new show. The juxtaposition of the story’s 1891 setting and the intense, heart-pumping, contemporary score by Duncan Sheik and Steven Sater remains fresh, but the added element of a combined deaf and hearing cast gives Spring an extra jolt. Sater’s book, derived from Frank Wedekind’s original play, focuses on a group of German teens discovering sexual urges that the staid adult society pushes them to either ignore or repress—with tragic results.
   Arden explains in a program note that 11 years before the publication of Wedekind’s explosive play, the deaf community was dealt a serious blow at an education conference in Milan. The attendees passed a resolution advocating lip reading and attempting speech over sign language, forcing deaf students to imitate their hearing peers rather than developing communication skills of their own. The production has the oppressive adults not listening to the youngsters both figuratively and literally.
   This conflict is most sharply felt in a classroom scene where a tyrannical schoolmaster (a chilling Patrick Page) forces his deaf pupils to speak Latin translations rather than sign them. He mocks their gestures and their imperfect voices with shaming brutality. The pressure to conform— whether in speech or sexuality—pervades Arden’s production. Many of the roles are cast with deaf performers in period clothes while hearing actors dressed in modern duds provide their voices, acting as their caged modern selves trapped in the puritanical past. Dialogue is either signed or projected onto Dane Laffrey’s industrial nightmare of a set, as words and signs meld and overlap through Arden’s eloquent staging and Spencer Liff’s poetic choreography.

Interestingly, the lead roles are played by unknowns, while Broadway, film, and TV vets take supporting turns. The main character Melchior, a rebellious student seeking to throw off the restrictions of his elders, is played by the vibrant Austin P. McKenzie, a hearing actor fluent in sign language. He makes this anguished rebel serve as a bridge between the hearing and deaf worlds. Melchior’s equally distraught sweetheart, Wendla, is given passionate life by Sandra Mae Frank and sensitive voice by Katie Boeck.
   Daniel N. Durant makes an intense Moritz, sort of a Sal Mineo to Melchior’s James Dean, and Alex Boniello provides his pained vocals. Andy Mientus and Krysta Rodriguez, both breakout performers in earlier Broadway productions and the TV series Smash, are arresting as the smug Hanschen and the lost Ilsa. The adult roles are shared by the hearing Page and Camryn Manheim and the deaf Russell Harvard and Marlee Matlin. Page, Manheim, and Harvard have moments of impact, but the Oscar-winning Matlin is underused as Melchior’s compassionate mother.

While Spring Awakening is a refreshing challenge to the rigid Broadway template (still firmly in place despite game changers like Hamilton and Fun Home), Off-Broadway’s Daddy Long Legs is an unimaginative miniature employing almost every Main Stem cliché, musically and dramatically. Ironically, this two-hander also deals with a young protagonist searching for identity in restrictive era (in this case America in the first decade of the 20th century). Jean Webster’s original 1912 novel has previously been adapted into lighthearted movie musicals with Shirley Temple (Curly Top, 1935) and Leslie Caron and Fred Astaire (1955). Composer-lyricist Paul Gordon and book author-director John Caird worked on a short-lived Broadway version of Jane Eyre, and Caird collaborated on Les Miz. Daddy employs the same kind of soupy romantic score and soapy libretto. The only unusual music can be heard during a brief section of a comic song about snobby New Yorkers.
   The story may have been charming in 1912, but it lacks tension and surprise today. Jerusha Abbot, an orphan girl, writes letters to an unknown benefactor she assumes to be an avuncular old man, but he turns out to be her young suitor, the wealthy but noble-hearted Jervis Pendleton III. Fortunately, Megan McGinnis and Paul Alexander Nolan endow the two roles with wit and rich voice, making this postcard-sized show bearable for an overlong two acts.

September 30, 2015
Shaw Festival Roundup Part II
Shaw Festival

Reviewed by David Sheward

The Shaw Festival in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario, celebrates the dense and witty plays of George Bernard Shaw, but it also presents modern authors who follow in his intellectual tradition. The contemporary playwright who probably comes to the closest to following Shaw’s intellectual dramas of ideas is Tony Kushner. After Angels in America—his mammoth two-part exploration of the AIDS crisis and its impact on our political, social, and religious life—his most challenging work is the ponderously titled, rarely produced The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism With a Key to the Scriptures. This massive drama runs a staggering three hours and 45 minutes, and covers labor relations, faith, love, money, suicide, and sexual and family issues. (The lengthy moniker is a reference to a Shaw pamphlet and a treatise by Christian Science founder Mary Baker Eddy.) Eda Holmes’s intimate production in the Shaw Fest’s 194-seat Studio Theatre makes us feel as if we were in set designer Peter Hartwell’s lived-in living room along with the Marcantonios as they clash over the family Brooklyn brownstone and the fate of patriarch Gus (a solid Jim Mezon), a retired union organizer contemplating suicide as he struggles with Alzheimer’s.
   Each of his three grown children, their former and current partners, and Gus’s sister Clio have issues of their own, paralleling the conflicted crises of America in the first decade of the new century. Though Kushner takes on multiple themes, his complex script never feels scattered and none of the characters or their concerns is shortchanged (unlike another Shaw Fest production, The Divine: A Play for Sarah Bernhardt, which fails to sufficiently develop its myriad plotlines). Mezon gives a shattering performance as a disillusioned radical whose ideals have been crushed by a materialistic society. Amazingly, the actor is on double duty as a director.

Down the street at the more traditional Royal George Theatre, the Festival is offering Shaw in a lighthearted vein with Mezon’s merry staging of the playwright’s You Never Can Tell. Given that it’s Shaw’s version of a romantic comedy, the usual boy-meets-girl conventions are turned on their heads, and though the play was written in 1897, it’s as fresh and funny as if it were turned out today. In a quaint seaside town (charmingly designed like a checkerboard by Leslie Frankish), Valentine, a penniless dentist, falls in love with the independent Gloria Clandon, who spurns traditional marriage, while Gloria’s eccentric, progressive family is uneasily reunited with its estranged father, the crotchety, hidebound Fergus Crampton. Marital mixups and intrigues proliferate, while the unflappable hotel waiter William acts as a sort of nonplussed master of ceremonies. That is until his son, a blustering lawyer, barrels in and resolves all complications.
   Gray Powell, admirably volatile as Vito, the construction-worker youngest son in Guide, is equally energetic as the bubbly but more expressive Valentine. Peter Millard is a cool and composed William, while Peter Krantz bulldozes with vigor as his take-charge son.

My visit to the Festival was capped off with director Blair Williams’s delightful rendering of Moss Hart’s 1948 backstage tribute to a vanished Broadway, Light Up the Sky. Caricatures of then-famous theater folk such as Gertrude Lawrence, Guthrie McClintic, and Billy Rose (Claire Jullien, Steven Sutcliffe, and Thom Marriott, all delightfully over the top) carry on extravagantly in a Boston hotel suite during a disastrous out-of-town tryout. The first act is a bit slow with lots of exposition being laid down. We get introduced to the earnest young playwright, an older dramatist standing in for Hart, the producer’s ice-skater wife, the star’s brassy mother, a squawking parrot named Orson (after Welles, one presumes), and a truckload of partying Shriners. But once the groundwork is established, comic fireworks explode after the intermission. Hart’s loving valentine to the crazy world of 1940s showbiz has long been a staple of the community and summer-stock circuit and shows its age. The hoary jokes creak at times, but Williams and his cast give it a shot of much-needed adrenaline.
   From the heavy lifting of Tony Kushner to the frothy wit of Moss Hart and one of Shaw’s lighter works, the Shaw Festival offers up comedy and drama with equal aplomb.

September 13, 2015
Shaw Festival Roundup Part I
Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario

Reviewed by David Sheward

The mission of the Shaw Festival, presented annually in the pretty little town of Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario, is not only to present the works of George Bernard Shaw and his contemporaries. The mission is also to present the works of modern playwrights who, like the great master, explore social issues in a complex manner. On a recent visit to the fest, I took in seven plays by Shaw and others, many examining women who challenge the restrictive roles forced on them by a male-dominated society—in Shaw’s time and today.
   The most striking staging was Peter Hinton’s modern-dress Pygmalion. Known mainly as the source for My Fair Lady, this comedy of social manners is too often thought of as a cozy romance between the pushy phonetics professor Henry Higgins and the gruff but ambitious cockney flower girl Eliza Doolittle to whom he teaches proper English. But love is the least of Shaw’s concerns as he takes apart the rigid British class system and the intolerable position women held in it. By putting the action in 2014–15 (much like the National Theatre’s recent updating of Shaw’s Man and Superman), Hinton shows the issues raised are still relevant. Women are no longer trapped in marriages as a means of advancement or escape, but class distinctions are largely as ironclad and impenetrable as ever. Between acts, videos on language and upward mobility document the new paradigms modern-day Elizas face.
   The production includes gimmicky choices. Higgins’s proper mother has been transformed into a trendy fashion designer, complete with a retinue of models and security staff, and Eliza’s streetwise dad is made over into a reality-TV star. But the connection between Patrick McManus’s bulldozer of a Higgins and Harveen Shandhu’s scrappy Eliza is palpable and overcomes any such distractions. Eo Sharp’s sets and Christine Poddubiuk’s costumes create the perfect 21st-century setting for this updated classic.

Sweet Charity may not seem an ideal companion to Shaw’s brainy wordfest, but the 1966 Broadway musical is also about a woman attempting to free herself from a degrading dead-end situation. Based on Fellini’s classic film Nights of Cabiria, Neil Simon’s book takes an unflinching look at a hopelessly love-struck taxi dancer seeking a prince charming to rescue her from her sleazy dime-a-dance profession. In Fellini’s original, the heroine is a prostitute and here she isn’t quite, but she is forced to allow customers to grope her on the dance floor. Morris Panych’s direction and Parker Esse’s choreography are not as sharp and polished as your average Broadway show, but with the aid of Ken MacDonald’s distressed subway-themed set, Charlotte Dean’s kicky costumes, and Cameron Davis’s period projections, they summon up the right gritty atmosphere for Charity’s tale of woe. Panych and Esse blend just the right amount of razzmatazz with the material’s neorealist roots for a show that is both heartbreaking and exhilarating. Several of the Cy Coleman–Dorothy Fields musical numbers display the influence of Bob Fosse, the creator and stager of the first production, with Esse adding touches of his own. Julie Martell makes for a lovably tough Charity, slowly revealing the soft center beneath her hard shell.

The inspiration for Michel Marc Bouchard’s play The Divine: A Play for Sarah Bernhardt also involves a woman defying male authority, but it attempts to cover too many other topics to be totally effective. Bouchard’s new commissioned work for the Festival is based on Bernhardt’s 1905 visit to Quebec City. The city’s powerful archbishop forbade her from performing her repertory, which the local church considered sinful. Rather than focusing on Bernhardt and her conflict between the restrictive religious leaders, Bouchard gives the spotlight to a melodramatic plot involving the two seminarians delegated to deliver the archbishop’s letter of condemnation. One is a stage-struck aspiring playwright while the other is a victim of abuse by an older clergyman. In addition, there’s the latter student’s mother and brother who work in grueling conditions in a shoe factory. Between child labor, artistic expression, Canadian provincialism, and a dozen other themes, there’s just too much going on. Whenever Fiona Reid’s flamboyant Bernhardt is on stage, there is an electric connection between actor and script, but she is consigned offstage for too much of this confusing play.

At the other end of the attention-span spectrum, J.M. Barrie’s 1910 one-act The Twelve-Pound Look runs a mere 35 tightly focused minutes and effectively delineates the conflict between self-determined women and inflexible males. When the briskly efficient female typist hired by a pompous newly knighted businessman turns out to be the fellow’s ex-wife, a brief scintillating debate on marriage, materialism, and the battle of the sexes ensues with Patrick Galligan and Moya O’Connell as the main talkers battling brilliantly. Lezlie Wade’s gem-like staging in the intimate Court House Theatre is a perfect cameo.

I’ll cover the three remaining Shaw fest productions in my next review.

September 3, 2015
Stratford Festival Roundup
Stratford Festival, Stratford, Ontario

Reviewed by David Sheward

The theater experience changes when you visit a town where the stage is the main industry. There is a sense of community and celebration absent when patronizing most commercial productions. Instead of consuming a mass Broadway product, you’re sharing the artisanal offering of passionate local practitioners. (Even Off-Broadway companies’ seasons tend to be seen as containing potential transfers to bigger runs or possible prizewinners as opposed to pure dramatic expressions.) In the Canadian province of Ontario, several hours’ drive from Manhattan, two well-established annual theater festivals—the Stratford in the town of the same name and the Shaw at gorgeous Niagara-on-the-Lake, offer the opportunity for playgoers to indulge in nonstop theater for its own sake with two and sometimes three performances a day. On a recent visit, I crammed in 11 shows in five days. My Stratford impressions are below and I’ll take up the Shaw shows in the next column.
   My theater marathon began at the impressive Festival Theater (my favorite venue of the seven attended) with a matinee letdown in the form of a rather sleepy staging by John Caird of Shakespeare’s Love’s Labour’s Lost. This merry comedy of four academic male courtiers unsuccessfully resisting the romantic advances of the French princess and her three ladies-in-waiting falls victim to the trap of over familiarity. The capable cast led by handsome Mark Shara’s Berowne and attractive Sarah Afful’s Rosaline relies on flowery and forced line readings rather than establishing connections with each other. There is no chemistry between any of the four supposedly loving pairs, and so their witty declarations of amour fall flat. The supporting comic turns are equally stale; Juan Chioran’s pompous Don Armado and Josue Laboucane’s buffoonish Costard strike poses instead of believably pursuing the dairymaid Jaquenetta (Jennifer Mogbock in one of the few sincere performances, probably because she has little to say).

Matters improved that evening at The Physicists, Friedrich Durrenmatt’s black comedy in a new Canadian translation by Birgit Schreyer Duarte. Written at the height of the Cold War in 1961, this dark play imagines a nuclear nightmare set off by three allegedly insane scientists in a Swiss asylum. When nurses begin turning up dead, the authorities intervene, and a complex plot combining elements of Agatha Christie, John le Carré, and Jonathan Swift is unraveled. The play premiered on Broadway in 1964, starring Jessica Tandy and Hume Cronyn. It’s hard to imagine such a cynical satire on today’s comfy Main Stem.
   Miles Potter’s sharp direction strikes just the right balance between outrageousness and verisimilitude. The world the characters inhabit is crazy, and the actors proceed logically within its terms, no matter how nuts their actions may seem. As the trio of afflicted physicists, Gearing Wyn Davies, Graham Abbey, and Mike Nadajewski are dazzling as they switch from goofily eccentric to coolly rational and back again, and Seana McKenna is riotously versatile as their Strangelove-like psychiatrist, transforming from flustered administrator to power-mad dictator without missing a beat.

The following day provided examples of smashing productions of oft-seen favorites, staged with imagination and flair. Martha Henry’s She Stoops to Conquer makes clever use of Douglas Paraschuk’s revolving set and doesn’t attempt to “conceptualize” Oliver Goldsmith’s 1773 farce of mistaken identity in a rambling country house. Henry delivers the antics in a straightforward, fun manner. Unlike the disconnected lovers in Love’s Labour’s Lost, Maev Beaty’s Kate Hardcastle and Brad Hodder’s Charles Marlowe shoot sparks toward each other, and their blazing dynamic is apparent despite the obstacles Goldsmith places in their way. Joseph Ziegler and Lucy Peacock make merry as the confused heads of the household, and Karack Osborn is a jolly Tony Lumpkin, the chief prankster.
   Next was The Taming of the Shrew. Modern productions of this Shakespearean warhorse can cross themselves by trying too hard to repudiate its period sexism. Chris Abraham wisely tones down any apologies for the behavior of the chauvinistic Petruchio and emphasizes the unlikely love match between him and the headstrong Kate and the wild comic elements surrounding it. He begins by restoring the oft-cut prologue wherein the drunken Christopher Sly is duped into thinking he’s a great lord and Shrew is an entertainment for his pleasure. Here Sly is a disruptive arts blogger refusing to turn off his cellphone, played with proper petulance by Ben Carlson who later turns up as Petruchio. This allows tasty insider jokes about both the Stratford and Shaw festivals and sets the right ungirdled atmosphere. Carlson as Petruchio and Deborah Hay as Kate are perfectly matched combatants, athletically tossing each other around during their jousts, and spectacularly romantic when their boxing gloves come off. The supporting clowns are among the best I’ve ever seen in these roles. Tom Rooney and Gordon S. Miller as the servants Tranio and Biondello nearly steal the show with the on-target tomfoolery. This Shrew provided a glorious and joyous ending to my two-day visit. (The Shaw Festival will be covered in my next review.)

August 31, 2015
Shakespeare in the Park at the Delacorte Theatre

Reviewed by David Sheward

One of the most problematic of Shakespeare’s late plays, Cymbeline is a fairy-tale fantasy full of cross-dressing heroines, lost princes, thwarted love, wicked stepmothers, and epic battles. The only way to treat the episodic, byzantine plot is to gently mock it. In a memorably awful 1989 staging at the Public downtown, JoAnne Akalaitis took it too seriously and made it into a bizarre nightmare. Andrei Serban’s 1998 version in Central Park was an unashamedly epic tale featuring a moat and a scene-stealing Liev Schreiber as the villainous Iachimo. Barlett Sher’s 2002 production for Theater for a New Audience was frankly theatrical and embraced the story’s incredible coincidences and conventions. Daniel Sulivan’s current frolic at the Delacorte in Central Park employs the basic principles as the better stagings: a troupe of actors telling the audience a far-fetched bedtime story.
   The tale focuses on the plucky princess Imogen, who is launched on a twisted path when she in wrongfully accused of infidelity to her husband, Posthumous, by the conniving Iachimo. The titular Cymbeline is a relatively minor character, Imogen’s noble father, the king of ancient Britain wed to a secretly scheming second wife, out to subjugate her stepdaughter. Imogen becomes even more Snow White–like when she hides in the woods with a poor all-male family and falls into a death-like sleep after drinking poisonous concoction prepared by the queen. After much chaos and bloodshed, the wicked are punished, and the good are reunited and rewarded.

Sullivan transforms this silliness into a joyous celebration of stagecraft and directs with infectious energy. Nine actors play all the roles (in one particularly funny bit, Teagle F. Bougere rapidly switches headgear when he realizes he must deliver a line as a different character). When not involved, they sit in full view, observing and waiting for their next cues. Audience members sit on Riccardo Hernandez’s charming stage-within-a-stage set and participate in the action, heightening the presentational effect.
   The small ensemble tears into its multiple assignments with relish. Lily Rabe endows Imogen with blazing courage and passion, and kicks up her heels in a brief bit as a bored cocktail waitress. Hamish Linklater is a gallant Posthumous and an equally clottish, cowardly Clotin, the Queen’s oafish son. The show is nearly stolen by Raul Esparza’s slick Iachimo, a Fosse-dancing devil who breaks into a delicious Rat Pack riff in a Las Vegas version of Rome (Tom Kitt composed the versatile original music). Kate Burton is marvelously evil as the Queen and stalwart as a grizzled male forest dweller. Patrick Page is a regal Cymbeline and provides laughs as a gravel-voiced Mafia type. Bougere, David Furr, Steven Skybell, and Jacob Ming-Trent also have fun with their many and varied assignments, as does the audience with this captivating staging of the normally convoluted Cymbeline.

August 15, 2015
Bard SummerScape at the Fisher Center for the Performing Arts

Reviewed by David Sheward

There is a homey, welcoming feeling as you enter the intimate Luma Theater in Bard College’s Fisher Center for the innovative SummerScape production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s classic musical Oklahoma!. Friendly ushers greet you. Audience members are seated at long wooden tables with napkin holders and crockpots full of chili for a down-home meal during intermission. The denim-clad six-piece band is tuning up, greeting patrons, and looking like it’s ready for an old-fashioned hoedown. But your eye may stray to the racks of shotguns on the wall of Laura Jellinek’s town-hall set (based on an original concept by John Conklin), which could instill a slight sense of foreboding.
   At first Daniel Fish’s sunny, stripped-down staging offers few glimmers of disquiet. The folks living on and visiting Aunt Eller’s farm are mostly good-natured and kind. They sweetly sing the classic songs “People Will Say We’re in Love” and “The Surrey With the Fringe on Top” with a Country-Western twang in Daniel Kruger’s flavorful new arrangements and are dressed by costume designer Terese Wadden in contemporary duds.
   But then, close to the show’s end, Fish throws in a startlingly violent twist not in Hammerstein’s book nor Lynn Riggs’s original play Green Grow the Lilacs that seems to come out of nowhere, and this warmhearted favorite becomes an anti-NRA commercial. I don’t want to give away too much, but this new piece of staging involves the final confrontation between the good-natured cowpoke Curly and the sour-souled farmhand Jud, his rival for the beautiful Laurey. In Fish’s radical rethinking of the show’s final moments where frontier justice takes on a totally different tone than the comic bonhomie of the original, the characters transform from hearty neighbors to a cold coven out of Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery.” It’s too much of the director inserting himself into the event. Fish foreshadows his ultimate dark climax with frightening stagings of the scene in Jud’s smokehouse (starting in total darkness and then shadowy video) and Laurey’s dream ballet (a nightmarish, cross-gendered pop concert from hell). But the ending still feels imposed and wrenching rather than creepy and inevitable as was probably intended.

Aside from the bizarre finale, this is an enjoyable, ingenious, and fresh interpretation of a beloved classic with the audience cast as townsfolk, joining in on the rites and travails of the territory community. Everyday activities blend seamlessly with the familiar Rodgers and Hammerstein show tunes such as Aunt Eller mixing corn bread during “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’ ” and Laurey angrily snapping corncobs while she claims she’s not in love in “Many a New Day.” Damon Daunno and Amber Gray are attractive and appealing as Curley and Laurey, while Broadway veteran Mary Testa invests Aunt Eller with grit and wit. James Patrick Davis is an agile, eager Will Parker and Allison Strong wonderfully captures the flirtatious recklessness of Ado Annie. Benj Mirman gives a subtle spin to the peddler Ali Hakim rather than the usual broad comic relief. Mitch Tebo, John Carlin, and Mallory Portnoy make the most of supporting roles in this small ensemble.
   The standout here is Patrick Vaill’s complex Jud Fry. Usually played as a dangerous villain, Vaill expresses not only Jud’s obsessive, psychotic tendencies but also his heartbreaking loneliness. Despite his antisocial behavior, you actually feel sorry for this Jud. Vaill achieves the ambiguity Fish wants to convey and would have been just as effective without the director’s forced reinterpretation.

July 6, 2015
The Qualms
Playwright Horizons

10 Out of 12
Soho Rep

Reviewed by David Sheward

We don’t always play well with others. That’s the common theme of two Off-Broadway productions in which the characters clash but the actors mesh with near perfection. Bruce Norris’s The Qualms is set at a beachside group sex party, while Anne Washburn’s 10 Out of 12 takes place at an endless tech rehearsal for an avant-garde New York show. Both display how an odd man out can gum up the works and cause members of the entire temporary community to examine their motives for joining in. Both plays have flaws, but their casts and directors find the connections and passions within each.
   In Norris’s clever comedy at Playwrights Horizons, newlyweds Chris and Kristy join a club of veteran swingers for an evening of debauchery. But uptight Chris spoils the evening when his jealous anger at Kristy boils out in all directions, spewing lava-like rage on the fun-loving spouse-swappers. The couples clash and explode, finally quietly cleaning up the debris and sharing sex stories over banana pudding.
   As he did in his Pulitzer Prize–winning Clybourne Park, Norris probes the explosive emotions just beneath the polite surface and records the fallout when they break through. In the earlier play it was racial tensions and prejudices getting the grilling; here it’s sexual attitudes and repressions. The context seems a bit dated. I can recall “swinging” as a hot topic at the height of the sexual revolution in the early 1970s with TV comedy sketches about staid suburban couples trading car keys. There was a skit on trading bed partners in the nudie revue Oh! Calcutta! and even an Emmy-winning episode of All in the Family with Archie and Edith Bunker unknowingly inviting a pair of swingers (played by Vincent Gardenia and Rue McClanahan) into their Queens home.
   Aside from the datedness of the concept, my central qualm with Qualms is the protagonist Chris. If he’s such a tightly wound prude, what’s he doing at this libidinous get-together in the first place. Norris offers the excuse that he’s angry with Kristy from going to lunch with a former lover without telling him, but it seems a weak motivation for such a drastic step. Fortunately, Chris is played by Jeremy Shamos, who gave dimension to a similar asshole in Clybourne. He almost succeeds in making Chris’s contradictory behavior plausible, but not quite. The rest of the ensemble, unburdened by such heavy demands, turns in wildly funny and touching performances, particularly Donna Lynne Champlin as the overweight, fun-loving Deb, and Kate Arrington as the airheaded Teri, particularly in a detailed monologue of a haphazard sexual history.
   Norris creates hilarious conflict and dialogue, staged with just the right amount of increasing intensity by Pam MacKinnon, who also skillfully directed the domestic warfare in Clybourne.

Washburn’s 10 Out of 12 at Soho Rep has similar fireworks with the cast and crew of a pretentious Off-Off-Broadway play enduring the stress of an interminable tech rehearsal. The title refers to the amount of hours that can be devoted to rehearsing under union rules. Audience members are given headsets so they can listen in on the snarky chatter of the stage manager and techies. Anyone who’s ever done a show will get a giggle of recognition from the multiple slipups, delays, resettings, and arguments, but it’s all a bit too “insider baseball” for nontheater types, and the premise wears a bit thin at two and a half hours.
   There is a shattering scene in which longtime actor Paul unleashes a tantrum over what he regards as the deficiencies of the playwright and the director. His scene partner Ben calms Paul down with the observation that nothing in life is ever perfect, there will always be something lacking, and we have to do the best we can. It’s a perfect evocation of the futility and love theatrical practitioners bring to their craft, beautifully played by Thomas Jay Ryan as Paul and Gibson Frazier as Ben.
   Director Les Waters, sound designer Bray Poor, and lighting designer Justin Townsend make brilliant sense of the chaos of Washburn’s Altman-esque script as endless sound and light cues pile up, creating a mosaic of impressions and a prismatic view of a communal experience.

July 6, 2015
Vineyard Theatre

Significant Other
Roundabout Theatre Company at the Laura Pels Theatre

Reviewed by David Sheward

Two new, effective Off-Broadway shows defy expectations, but in different ways. Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’s Gloria starts out as a fairly conventional office comedy with a bunch of twentysomethings bitching about their nowhere editorial-assistant jobs, but it then takes a bizarre turn and veers into uncharted territory. Joshua Harmon’s Significant Other at Roundabout’s Laura Pels space also covers the familiar ground of young people bemoaning their lack of purpose. In Harmon’s case, the cri de coeur revolves around romance rather than career and, unlike Jacobs-Jenkins, Harmon has no great surprises up his sleeve. But he charts the protagonist’s journey through the urban landscape of loneliness with such compassion and wit that the play becomes a compelling portrait of yearning youth.
   With Jacobs-Jenkins, we’ve come to expect the unexpected. He turned racial clichés and tired theatrical templates inside out in his Obie-winning plays An Octoroon and Appropriate. The path Gloria takes is similarly twisted. We begin in the confining cubicles of a quartet of diverse drones at a major magazine. Their complaints detail the sagging fate of mass media over the past few decades. As the Internet overwhelms print, three of the four find themselves stuck at unfulfilling assistant positions; the fourth is a smiling college intern with no clear goals. The two main catalysts for action involve the early suicide of a once-popular singer and the pathetic housewarming party of the longtime, gloomy copy editor (the titular Gloria). Just as you think the author can’t develop his premise any further than the end of the first act, a shocking event changes everything, and we are taken in a totally different direction.
   The show’s press agent has requested critics not reveal what that event is, but it allows the brilliant Jacobs-Jenkins to ruminate on several issues roiling throughout modern America. These include the corrosive effect of the Web on mass culture; the pervasiveness of violence and its traumatic afterburn on victims; and the cannibalistic nature of film, TV, and what’s left of the publishing industry. Evan Cabnet directs with just the right amount of understatement, and the versatile six-person cast is nasty and moving in equal measure. Jeanine Serralles is particularly memorable as the Eeyore-like titular character, and when she gives a stunning monologue describing the explosive act that changes everyone’s lives. Gloria is an insightful and thought-provoking portrait of how we live now.

Joshua Harmon is another young playwright with an impressive resume. His Significant Other is not as challenging as his acidic Bad Jews, a smash hit at the Laura Pels a few seasons back, but the new play is a tender and fun evening though the setup is familiar. His hero Jordan is a cute, engaging, clever gay young man in search of a boyfriend. He feels abandoned as all three of his female BFFs march down the aisle. With marriage equality now the law of the land, Jordan’s kvetching could have come across as whining, but Harmon largely sidesteps the victim trope and emphasizes the universality of the difficulties of finding a soul mate—although he gives Jordan a hissy-fit monologue late in the second act, pointing out the ridiculous excesses of the hetero wedding industry.
   Jordan could easily have become an entitled obnoxious neurotic, but Harmon’s dialogue is so fresh and snappy, Trip Cullman’s direction so compassionate and well-paced, and Gideon Glick’s performance so endearing and layered, we weep and laugh along with him. Lindsay Mendez, Carra Patterson, and Sas Goldberg are a riot as the trio of girlfriends, while Barbara Barrie is luminous as Jordan’s loving grandmother, an embodiment of Jordan’s family.

June 28, 2015
Manhattan Theatre Club at NY City Center Stage II

Reviewed by David Sheward

As I am not a serious science student, my only knowledge of Werner Heisenberg, the German physicist, is that he is a character in Michael Frayn’s Copenhagen. So I walked into Simon Stephens’s play at Manhattan Theatre Club’s studio space in City Center, which bears his name, with little knowledge of the scientist’s connection with the material. It turns out to be a tenuous one in a slight work rescued by two committed performers.
   Heisenberg is never mentioned, but one of the characters explains his Uncertainty Principle—which posits, simply put, that if you try to measure an object’s trajectory, momentum, or position, you will change those qualities. That character is Georgie (an electric Mary-Louise Parker), a 40-ish American woman living in London, and the brief play follows her growing bond with the 75-year-old Irish butcher Alex (a solid Denis Arndt) from chance encounter to romantic affection. Stephens appears saying if you try to examine or evaluate a relationship, you alter it. What an insight (sarcasm intended).
   Heisenberg is one of group of recent British imports including Nick Payne’s Constellations and Jez Butterworth’s The River of short length and little impact bolstered by star performances. Not much happens in the play’s 80 minutes. Georgie meets Alex when she impulsively kisses the back of his neck at a train station. They go to dinner and become unlikely lovers. She asks him for a large sum of money so she can find her estranged adult son in New Jersey. There’s a little conflict over this but he finally concedes and accompanies her. In their hotel room, they agree to continue seeing each other. That’s it. Fine for a short story, but the play feels incomplete. For instance, we learn little about Georgie’s relationship with the son or why he ran away from her, and the dynamics of the age difference between the two protagonists is hardly addressed.
   Georgie is one of those vibrant, attractive kooks who seem to exist only in plays. She thinks nothing of telling her life story, which turns out to be a fabrication, to a total stranger. Why she lies at first is also never gotten into. She later gives Alex the real story. Alex is an equally clichéd counterpart, the isolated bachelor brought out of his shell by the quirky but exciting younger woman. The flimsy play is a disappointment, given Stephens’s brilliant stage adaptation of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time and his moving Bluebird, seen at Atlantic Theater Company a few seasons back.

Director Mark Brokaw gives this acting exercise its best possible production, staged tautly with audience members on both sides of a strip of playing space. The simple set is by Mark Wendland and telling lighting is by Donald Holder. Parker and Arndt give their roles weight and depth. Georgie could have been an obnoxious flake, but Parker makes her endearing. Arndt, a veteran of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and several regional theaters, lends dignity and intelligence to a role that might have played second fiddle to the more eccentric Georgie. These two skilled actors prove a theatrical version of Heisenberg’s principle: that by examining and enriching a thin play, you alter it for the better.

June 6, 2015
An Act of God
Studio 54

The Spoils
The New Group at the Pershing Square Signature Center

Reviewed by David Sheward

Stars of the hit TV series The Big Bang Theory have opened on and Off-Broadway in new plays. While both showcase the talents of the individual actors, the productions give off less than a huge explosion. Jim Parsons, four-time Emmy winner as the brilliant but bedeviling physicist Sheldon Cooper, stars as the All-Mighty in David Javerbaum’s satiric semi-standup routine An Act of God at Studio 54, while Kunal Nayyar, the painfully shy Raj Koothrappali of TBBT, co-stars with Jesse Eisenberg in the latter’s The Spoils presented by The New Group at the Signature Center.
   God is the first Broadway play inspired by a Twitter account, and it shows. Javerbaum, an Emmy-winning writer for The Daily Show, curates @TheTweetofGod where he posts 145-character zingers as if he were the Creator of the Universe. This popular account—1.75 million followers—led to a book and now a play. But this Act comes across as a collection of jokes rather than as a dramatic whole. The conceit here is that God is speaking through a charming TV star in order to lay down 10 new, less-restrictive commandments. The Lord is accompanied by two archangels: the contrary Michael who pleads with his boss to have more compassion for mankind, and the solemn Gabriel who quotes from the Bible to help illustrate God’s points.
   Not a bad idea for a 10-minute sketch, but Javerbaum has stretched it out to an hour and a half, and the premise hits its comic peak at the fifth commandment. There are several stinging lines, such as God’s stern denunciation of sports fans who invoke his name when their team wins. But for every solid witticism, there’s an equally leaden one such as the timeworn jibes about Florida resembling male genitalia and the crack about the rooster coming before the chicken or the egg.
   Parsons is brilliantly dry as a humanistic deity, self-aware enough to realize his “mysterious ways” are the product of a deranged mind. He spends most of the evening on a couch in Scott Pask’s celestial living room of a set and manages to infuse a stationary performance with conflict and tension, and he’s actually tender and moving when Javerbaum attempts pathos as God discusses his “little superstar” Jesus. Joe Mantello performed a similar miracle when he directed Bette Midler in her sedentary solo turn as agent Sue Mengers in I’ll Eat You Last a few seasons back. Christopher Fitzgerald and Tim Kazurinsky make admirable foils for Parsons’s quixotic deity. But all that comic timing and sharp delivery do not rescue what is basically a lounge Act.

Jesse Eisenberg’s play is a sturdier venture but still suffers from shortcomings. The actor-playwright must have real self-esteem and xenophobia issues. In each of his three plays—Asuncion, The Revisionist, and this latest one, The Spoils—he casts himself as a highly intelligent but narcissistic asshole who has difficulties connecting with a foreign character. In this case, Eisenberg is Ben, a rich film-school reject sharing his expensive NYC apartment with Kalyan (Nayyar), a Nepalese economics student. Despite his vulgar manner, Ben appears to be genuinely fond of his roommate, but when Sarah, his grade-school crush re-enters his life, the slacker sets out to destroy her impending marriage, and the well-meaning but naïve Kalyan gets caught in the crossfire.
   Directed with high energy and precision by Scott Elliott, The Spoils, like Act of God, has more than a little sitcom in its structure. Eisenberg writes snappy dialogue, and his characters are well-observed, but it’s difficult to care about the destructive Ben; and the plot, particularly some of Ben’s extreme actions, strains credulity at times. Even though his character is obnoxious, Eisenberg endows him with a manic intensity and keen wit. Nayyar conveys Kalyan’s desperation and anger beneath the friendly veneer. Erin Darke is compassionate but no pushover as Sarah, while Annapurna Sriram makes Reshma, Kalyan’s bossy girlfriend, more than just a scold. Michael Zegen is particularly funny as Sarah’s nebbishy fiancé Ted.
   The title seems to refer to the gains awarded to white Americans of privilege like Ben who squander their wealth and comforts. Eisenberg tries for a measure of redemption for Ben at the end as Sarah recounts an admirable act she saw him perform long ago in their schoolyard. But it’s too late. Any lofty theme or message is obscured—or spoiled—by the protagonist’s vile behavior.

June 2, 2015
Man and Superman
NT Live

Reviewed by David Sheward

When Ralph Fiennes makes his first entrance in the National Theatre’s production of George Bernard Shaw’s epic comedy Man and Superman, he’s talking a mile a minute and constantly in motion. He remains that way for the show’s marathon running time of three hours and 40 minutes, which includes the usually excised “Don Juan in Hell” dream sequence. It’s an athletic endurance test for actor and audience as Fiennes bounds about Christopher Oram’s stark, sterile set and precisely spouts Shaw’s brilliant arguments for the destruction of conventional morality. This challenging, riotously funny production is now being broadcast to cinemas worldwide as part of the NT Live series and theater- and filmgoers eager for a huge intellectual meal should partake.
   First produced in 1905, Man and Superman was hailed as Shaw’s most brilliant and controversial work. Fiennes plays Jack Tanner, a revolutionary philosopher determined to break down the repressive structures of Western society to create a new, freer one inhabited by the superior beings of the title, not necessarily those with capes, tights, and super powers. Chief among his targets is marriage, which he regards as a trap set by pregnancy-minded women to ensnare the creative life-force of the male. Determined to capture Jack in that unhappy state of wedlock is Anne Whitfield, the manipulative debutante whom Jack compares to a python. A subplot concerns the secret marriage of Violet Robinson to American Hector Malone, which allows Shaw to expound on his theories of class and morals.
   After a conventional beginning in the study of Roebuck Ramsden, a stuffy representative of the British upper-middle class, Shaw breaks all theatrical boundaries and sets the characters on a mad chase across Europe with Anne in hot pursuit of the fleeing Jack. Along the way, they encounter an intellectual brigand named Mendoza and his band of socialist-minded thieves. This leads to the famous “Don Juan” portion with Jack, Anne, Ramsden, and Mendoza becoming figures from myth and opera in a metaphysical debate in hell over the nature of man, religion, heaven, hell, and wars between nations and the sexes.

Director Simon Godwin’s decision to place the play in contemporary times at first seems unnecessary and gimmicky (the stylish modern costumes are also by Oram). But with only a few minor alterations in the dialogue (a delivered letter becomes a text and the automobile speeds are increased), the transposition works. Though the roles of men and women have altered drastically in the 110 years since the play was written, the elemental conflict between the genders remains, as do the basic questions Shaw raises about marriage, wealth, sexual relations, and the aspirations of humanity. Godwin wisely stages the action at a rapid pace so that it is never bogged down in talk.
   Fiennes is one of the few international film stars who tackles the classics with any degree of regularity—I can’t think of an American star of his stature who would dare take on this role—and he handles the complex repartee and physical demands with agility and poise. Indira Varma makes a formidable adversary as Anne, pleading innocence with a smile while scheming to advance her own ends. Tim McMullan is devilishly entertaining as the rascally Mendoza and the devil himself in Jack’s dream. Nicholas Le Prevost is a convincingly rigid Ramsden who loosens up considerably in the underworld scenes. Faye Castelow is a determined Violet and Nick Hendrix a stalwart Hector. Ferdinand Kingsley is adorably forlorn as the puppy-dog-like Octavius, who moons over Anne and loses her to Jack.
   This is a massive, funny, challenging comedy. You’ll barely notice that nearly four hours have flown by. It’s a great opportunity to see the best of London theater without purchasing an expensive plane ticket.

May 18, 2015
Fun Home
Circle in the Square

Something Rotten!
St. James Theater

Two of the biggest contenders for the 2015 Tony Award for Best Musical are polar opposites, but they demonstrate that when theater practitioners are playing at the top of their game, the results can be sublime whether the content is serious or silly. Fun Home is a jagged memory piece about a deeply dysfunctional family, while Something Rotten! is a screwy satire skewering Shakespeare as well as the conventions of musical comedy. The former will break your heart while the latter will break your funny bone.
   Fun Home was a hit during its limited run Off-Broadway at the Public Theater last season, winning almost every possible Best Musical accolade including the Lortel, the Outer Critics Circle, and the New York Drama Critics Circle awards. Based on Alison Bechdel’s graphic memoir, the musical takes a zigzag tour through Bechdel’s childhood, focusing on the impact of her coming out as a lesbian had on her family, particularly on her closeted gay father. Not exactly what you’d expect from a musical, but Lisa Kron’s compassionate book and witty lyrics and Jeanine Tesori’s rich music make the potentially intense tale warm, insightful, and, when appropriate, funny.
   While a successful commercial engagement on Broadway will prove challenging, Home has become even an even deeper experience in its new environment. Ironically, it’s also become more intimate even though it’s now playing a much bigger house. At the Circle in the Square, the audience surrounds the action, so the performers seem even more like a real family sharing their secrets. Director Sam Gold and set designer David Zinn have adapted the action from the Public’s revolving proscenium to the Circle’s oval by employing trap doors to raise and lower furniture like figures in memory.
   The cast is almost entirely intact from the Off-Broadway run. Michael Cerveris and Judy Kuhn have deepened their portrayals of the repressed parents, while Beth Malone seems more of a central voice setting the memories in motion as the adult Alison. Eleven-year-old Sydney Lucas still brings multiple layers to her Small Alison, and Emily Skeggs captures the awkwardness of first love as the college-age iteration of the heroine.

While Fun Home wants to make you feel and think, Something Rotten! only wants to make you laugh, and it succeeds like gangbusters. Written by a trio of Broadway neophytes—John O’Farrell and brothers Wayne and Karey Kirkpatrick—this lampoon lovingly sends up every musical as well as every Elizabethan comedy, tragedy, or history you could possibly think of (I filled three pages of a legal pad trying to keep up with all the references and finally gave up).
   Brothers Nick and Nigel Bottom want to take the 17th century stage by storm, but a white-hot rival named Shakespeare is stealing the spotlight. Nick goes to a soothsayer (Nostradamus’s brother, Thomas, get it?) to find out what audiences of the future will crave, and it’s musicals. So the siblings stage the first-ever tuner while the Bard attempts to ruin it. It all sounds like an extended Carol Burnett Show sketch or that episode of Gilligan’s Island where castaways put on a musical version of Hamlet, but it’s brilliantly fleshed out by the authors and staged riotously and tightly by Casey Nicholaw.
   The book gets weak in the second act when the initial premise runs out of steam, but it comes on strong with the Bottom brothers’ climactic mock musical “Omelette,” which will go down in Broadway history along with “Springtime for Hitler” from The Producers as one of the funniest shows-within-a-show ever. The cast of Broadway veterans constantly delights—Brian d’Arcy James commandingly klutzy as Nick; John Cariani adorably nebbishy as Nigel; Heidi Blickenstaff and Kate Reinders endearingly clever as their respective ladies; Christian Borle rock-star sexy as the Bard; and reliable clowns Brad Oscar, Peter Bartlett, Brooks Ashmanskas, and Gerry Vichi cutting up uproariously.

Reviewed by David Sheward
May 13, 2015
Airline Highway
Manhattan Theatre Club at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre

Reviewed by David Sheward

Yes, we’ve seen these people before: desperate but lively outsiders congregating at a run-down hotel, or bar, or other common area, forming an unconventional family unit because their own relatives and society in general have rejected them. American theater has given many examples of the genre: O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh, Saroyan’s The Time of Your Life, Williams’s Small Craft Warnings, Lanford Wilson’s Hot L Baltimore, and August Wilson’s King Hedley II, Two Trains Running, and many of his other masterpieces. But though the inhabitants and visitors to the decrepit Hummingbird Motel in Lisa D’Amour’s Airline Highway may seem familiar, they still touch your heart and get under your skin.
   In Joe Mantello’s exquisitely orchestrated production, now filling the final slot of Manhattan Theatre Club’s 2014–15 Broadway season after a run at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre, these colorful but marginal denizens of the New Orleans party culture celebrate their fabulousness as they eke out a living providing pleasure to the tourist trade. Just as she did in her Pulitzer finalist play Detroit, D’Amour creates a mesmerizing mosaic by assembling dozens of fascinating details. In that earlier work, she captured a broad section of the vanishing American middle class through the travails of two underemployed suburban couples. Here her canvas is broader with portraits of several more characters—a loving makeshift club just barely scraping by and whooping it up as their unique NOLA world is slowly swallowed up by Costcos and strip malls.

The loosey-goosey plot follows 24 hours in the parking lot of a once-glamorous motel (designed with gritty realism by Scott Pask). The semi-permanent guests are preparing for the jubilant “funeral” of their beloved, still-living mother figure, the chronically ill Miss Ruby, a once vibrant stripper and club owner. There’s Tonya, a middle-aged hooker with a drug problem; the cross-dressing and sassy Sissy Na Na; the forlorn Krista, currently homeless; incompetent but compassionate handyman Terry who harbors a crush on Krista; and Wayne, the easygoing manager who turns a blind eye to the group’s shadier practices. In the midst of the various dramas comes the former Bourbon Street barker Bait Boy, now leading a “legit” life as the live-in boyfriend of an older Atlanta businesswoman.
   Bait Boy brings along Zoe, the teenage daughter of his lover, who interviews the residents for a school project. This excuse for exposition is one of the play’s flaws. But though she is being used as a dramatic device, Zoe, along with all the other characters, is a fully drawn, complicated figure, attracted to this glittering but chancy demi-monde.
   The cast, almost all holdovers from Steppenwolf, creates an entire solar system of interconnected friends revolving around the extinguishing sun of Miss Ruby. You want to know these people and their stories, and these actors fill that need. Julie White, a New York addition, is particularly rich in her limning of Tonya. Watch as White silently reacts to the implied offer of a drug dealer. Tonia’s entire history of drug dependence, bad choices, and resolve to change play on White’s expressive face, in her limbs and her whole body, and all she says is “I’m fine.”
   K. Todd Freeman is an explosive Sissy, Caroline Neff an intensely needy Krista, Judith Roberts a bizarrely funny Miss Ruby, and Joe Tippett a seductive and destructive Bait Boy, all lonely travelers on this endearing and heartbreaking Airline Highway.

May 6, 2015
Doctor Zhivago
Broadway Theater

The Visit
Lyceum Theater

Finding Neverland
Lunt-Fontanne Theater

Reviewed by David Sheward

The 2014–2015 Broadway season has come to an end with a flurry of new musicals that opened just before the cutoff date for Tony Award eligibility. They all know what they want. Doctor Zhivago wants to be Les Miz. The Visit wants to be a Brecht-Weill punch to the gut. Finding Neverland just wants to make money. Only the third one is succeeding.
   Based on Boris Pasternak’s massive novel and David Lean and Robert Bolt’s 1965 film adaptation, Doctor Zhivago is the latest in a long line of Euro pop–influenced tuners seeking to cash in on the record-shattering success of the first smashes in the field, Phantom of the Opera and Les Misérables. Zhivago’s emulation of the latter show is apparent throughout, right down the same upturned-chairs motif in Michael Scott-Mitchell’s stark set design. Only this time, instead of the French revolution, we’re in the middle of the Russian one, and the saintly hero (Zhivago in place of Les Miz’s Jean Valjean) has two antagonistic adversaries (the slimy Komarovsky and the fanatic Pasha) rather than one (Valjean’s nemesis Inspector Javert).

   Book-writer Michael Weller crams in enough plot twists for a decade’s worth of Soviet soap operas, while the music of Lucy Simon and lyrics by Michael Korie and Amy Powers evoke the score of every other show of this genre, from Chess to Love Never Dies to A Tale of Two Cities. Only Maurice Jarre and Paul Francis Webster’s “Somewhere My Love,” the familiar theme from the movie, imparts honest emotion rather than clichés. Yet the song is basically thrown away, briefly sung by a chorus of wartime nurses. Unlike Les Miz, this show includes no comic relief (remember the avaricious Thenardiers?) except for one forced number in which the jokes involve vomiting and the toilet. Des McAnuff’s frantic staging confuses rather than clarifies the action, despite constant projected supertitles announcing the dates and location as if we were in a train station.
   Tam Mutu has a virile presence and singing voice, but there’s not much chemistry between him and Kelli Barrett’s sweet-voiced but too contemporary Lara. Paul Alexander Nolan’s hysterical Pasha goes way over the top, while Tom Hewitt’s subtler Komarovsky is the only compelling figure amid the endless carnage and upheaval. The Doctor’s prognosis for a long run is not a good one.

Fake tumult pervades Zhivago, but actual mortality haunts The Visit. It’s the last show by the late Fred Ebb and John Kander and will likely be the final star vehicle for the legendary Chita Rivera. “I’m unkillable,” her character, the icy millionairess Claire Zachanassian, says, and the audience wildly applauds. That acknowledgement jerks us out of the dark world book-writer Terrence McNally, the songwriters, and director John Doyle have created and thrusts us into the nicey-nicey region of “up” Broadway musicals. And that’s the show’s whole problem. This visit is supposed to be a journey into the corrupt soul of mankind, and it winds up being a stroll down memory lane.
   The original play, by Friedrich Dürrenmatt, details the return of Claire, the world’s wealthiest woman, to her impoverished hometown. She promises to give the burg billions if the citizens will give her the corpse of shopkeeper Anton Schell (a bedraggled Roger Rees), the man who wronged her as a girl. Employing only black suitcases, a coffin, and yellow shoes symbolizing Claire’s golden offer, and setting the story in designer Scott Pask’s nightmarish depot environment, Doyle delivers an eerie, hypnotic production. But McNally, Kander, and Ebb emphasize the long-ago romance of Claire and Anton. They add ghost versions of the couple’s younger selves (gorgeous Michelle Veintimilla and John Riddle) and transform Claire from an avenging angel into a slightly sardonic old darling. The authors are split between cynicism and sentiment, and the result is a middling porridge, neither too hot nor too cold, but not just right either.
   But Rivera is the raison d’être of this show, and she elegantly conveys Claire’s harsh history of abuse, neglect, and avarice. Though in her 80s, Rivera moves with grace and economy, her slightest gesture evidencing decades of experience. The same holds true for her voice, which she husbands with care, doling out each note like a precious drop of her very essence. When she dances with Veintimilla as her girlish self, it’s heartbreakingly bittersweet. Rees adeptly depicts Anton’s shabbiness and desperation—aided by Ann Hould-Ward’s eloquently distressed costumes—but Anton is required to sweetly accept his fate with a smile in this version, a move not even an actor of Rees’s skill can make creditable. Plus, Rees seemed unsure of his lyrics at the performance attended. David Garrison, Mary Beth Piel, Rick Jones, and Jason Danieley are suitably grasping as the townspeople, and Tom Nelis, Chris Newcomer, and Matthew Deming are fascinatingly spooky as Claire’s entourage.

The Visit may be a lukewarm entrée, but Finding Neverland is an overly sweet plate of melted ice cream. Based on Allan Knee’s play and the 2004 film, this gloppy confection follows Scottish playwright J.M. Barrie as he draws inspiration from a widow and her four boys to create Peter Pan. The film appealed to adults and kids, but this musical version is strictly for the small fry. James Graham’s book is loaded with ninth-grade gags, and the music and lyrics by Gary Barlow and Eliot Kennedy are generic and sloppy. I ran out of space on my notepad to write down all the awkward rhymes (“time/blind,” “hide/survive,” “leaving me/believe in me”). The biggest shock was Diane Paulus’s juvenile staging. This skilled director has combined the wonder of theater with a mature sensibility in Pippin, but here the effects are theme-parkish and the actors mug up a storm, forcing tears and laughs instead of allowing them to flow naturally. As Barrie, Matthew Morrison does his best to create a believable throughline of character, as does Laura Michelle Kelly as Mrs. Davies, the charming widow. Kelsey Grammer stoops to sitcom shtick as the producer Charles Frohman and a dream version of Captain Hook. Unless you are 7 years old, don’t bother trying to find this Neverland.

May 2, 2015
An American in Paris
Palace Theatre

Neil Simon Theatre

It Shoulda Been You
Brooks Atkinson Theatre

Reviewed by David Sheward

Three recently opened Broadway musicals rely on old forms, but only one employs its source material with originality and charm. An American in Paris and Gigi are based on classic 1950s MGM movies set in the City of Light and starring Leslie Caron, while It Shoulda Been You retreads TV sitcoms.
   Let’s take the successful one first. The credits for An American in Paris say it was “inspired” by the 1951 Gene Kelly–Leslie Caron film favorite, which won the Best Picture Oscar over such weightier dramas as A Streetcar Named Desire and A Place in the Sun. Alan Jay Lerner’s screenplay wrapped a simplistic story around the George and Ira Gershwin songbook, and legendary helmer Vincente Minnelli give it his unmistakable stamp of class and joy. Similarly, director-choreographer Christopher Wheeldon gives an elegant and intoxicating spin to Craig Lucas’s new book. We are still in postwar Paris, but now the brutalities of the just-ended Nazi occupation seep into the basically silly plot of three pals in love with the same gamine girl, this time a fledgling dancer.
   Though the romance is farfetched, the Gershwins’s evergreen tunes (gorgeously adapted by Rob Fisher) and Wheeldon’s ballet-informed dances—along with Bob Crowley’s sophisticated sets and costumes, Natasha Katz’s painterly lighting, and the evocative video projections of 59 Productions—create an inviting Paris that is fantasy and reality. Ballet stars Robert Fairchild and Leanne Cope not only dance the Kelly and Caron roles to perfection, they also sing and act with conviction, conveying the churning emotions of these love-struck dreamers. When they come together in the titular ballet sequence, it’s as close to ecstasy as you’ll get on the Broadway stage. Brandon Uranowitz, Max von Essen, Jill Paice, and Veanne Cox enliven their supporting roles.

Gigi from 1958 also starred Caron, was directed by Minnelli and written by Lerner, and won the Best Picture Oscar over such darker nonmusicals as Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and The Defiant Ones. Lerner and his composer partner Frederick Loewe provided the original score to the film’s sanitized adaptation of Colette’s novel about the title heroine who is bred to be a French mistress but who would rather be a bourgeois wife. Unlike that of An American in Paris, the plot contains scant conflict, and while the songs from the film still enchant, the newer ones from a 1973 stage version add little. Heidi Thomas’s adapted book is even more scrubbed up than Lerner’s screenplay, and Eric Schaeffer has directed his company to play every line with exaggerated “ooh-la-la” broadness (Howard McGillin in the Maurice Chevalier role is particularly guilty of this Gallic mugging).
   As Gigi, Vanessa Hudgens of the High School Musical films sings with brio, as does her leading man Corey Cott. She has plenty of spunk but no irresistible sparkle, while Cott exudes manly charm. They are closer in age than the originals of Caron and Louis Jordan, but there is no sexual tension between them. Broadway vets Victoria Clark and Dee Hoty provide much-needed vinegar as Gigi’s worldly guardians. Catherine Zuber’s gowns are ravishing.
It Shoulda Been You
is nominally a totally original musical—not being based on an old movie, novel, or play. But, Brian Hargrove’s book uses hackneyed gags that went out of date 40 years ago, and Barbara Anselmi’s music is generic but pleasant. Anselmi is also credited with the “concept,” and five lyricists in addition to Hargrove are credited. This is definitely a case of too many cooks. Two families of stereotypes clash at a Manhattan wedding, and the guestbook reads like checklist of clichés: overbearing Jewish mother of the bride, alcoholic WASP mother of the groom, flamboyant wedding planner, panicky bride, goofy groom, etc. Sitcom-level plot twists proliferate as doors slam on Anna Louizos’s two-level set.
   I will admit the show is much better than when I saw it four years ago at New Jersey’s George Street Playhouse. It’s much tighter and shorter. Fortunately, director David Hyde-Pierce (Hargrove’s husband) and a cast of polished professionals headed by Tyne Daly and Harriet Harris transform the second-drawer material into a tolerable 100 minutes. Special kudos to Lisa Howard as the plus-sized sister of the bride for creating a full-sized character in this tiny tuner.
   Final verdict: cheers for American; a shrug of the shoulders for Gigi and Shoulda.

May 2, 2015

Classic Stage Company

Reviewed by David Sheward

Ever been to a wedding where you only knew one or two people, the reception never seemed to end, and you couldn’t wait to get out of there? That’s the feeling I got at Austin Pendleton’s sluggish production of Hamlet for Classic Stage Company. This is a major disappointment: Pendleton is one of our most insightful directors and actors (his staging of Between Riverside and Crazy for Atlantic Theatre Company and Second Stage is a highlight of this season) and his lead is Peter Sarsgaard, a fine performer and a rare film star with a commitment to the stage classics.
   But Pendleton seems to have based his entire concept on Hamlet’s sarcastic remarks to Horatio about the “bak’d meats” from his father the Danish king’s funeral “coldly furnish[ing] forth the marriage tables” for the ceremony uniting his newly widowed mother, Gertrude, to his hated uncle, Claudius, who secretly murdered the monarch to take the crown. The entire three-hour production takes place in set designer Walt Spangler’s icy grey banquet hall with a conspicuous wedding cake upstage. I kept hoping someone would fall into it during a sword fight, but no such luck. As the tragedy unfolds, whenever an actor is not involved in a scene, he sits at one of the well-stocked bars on either side of the stage to knock back a few. I often wished I could join them.
   It’s not a bad idea to use the o’er-hasty marriage ceremony as the central metaphor for the production. It is the event that drives Hamlet to seek his revenge against Claudius and to examine all of his life choices. But there is so little passion among the participants, this claustrophobic party grows tiresome quickly.

Sarsgaard is an intelligent actor. His performances in The Seagull, Uncle Vanya, and Three Sisters (the latter two directed by Pendleton) offered fresh and surprising takes on Chekhov’s conflicted heroes. Yet his melancholy Dane is all jittery poses and eccentric, choppy line readings. Almost everything he says is given a sarcastic edge. His few sincerely delivered observations are invariably followed by a dismissive laugh. Ultimately, this Hamlet is a spoiled teenager, stuck in his smartass phase.
   Most of the cast is equally stale, flat, and unprofitable. Harris Yulin’s dry Claudius is a tired old man, ready for bed. Penelope Allen goes in the opposite direction and overplays Gertrude’s sorrow. Lisa Joyce is a beautiful but empty Ophelia. Glenn Fitzgerald’s Laertes has a temper tantrum every few minutes. Only the reliable Stephen Spinella’s Polonius gives a hint of an inner life, conveying the loyal but naive statesman’s love of his family and a desire to serve his king. He’s the only guest at this wedding worth sitting next to.

April 18, 2015
Wolf Hall, Parts One and Two
Winter Garden Theatre

Reviewed by David Sheward

King Henry VIII’s annulment from Catherine of Aragon in order to marry Anne Boleyn and produce a male heir for the English throne has been told in plays, film, and TV from many points of view. Robert Bolt’s A Man for All Seasons cast the event as a matter of conscience for Sir Thomas More, Henry’s lord chancellor, who resisted the separation and lost his head. Anne of the Thousand Days, The Other Boleyn Girl, and Showtime’s The Tudors emphasized the romantic aspect. In all of these iterations, Thomas Cromwell, More’s successor as Henry’s chief advisor, is seen as a Machiavellian villain coldly engineering Catherine’s downfall and then Anne’s when she also fails to give her king a son.
   Hilary Mantel’s wildly successful series of historical novels, Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, rethought that model and makes Cromwell the center of the story. Cromwell is seen not as a man lusting for power but instead as one doing what he thinks is best for his sharply divided country. By aiding Henry in defying the domineering Catholic Church, Cromwell seeks to strengthen England. You could even make the argument that the break with the rest of Europe in kowtowing to the Pope led to the British Empire.

Now, Royal Shakespeare Company has brought Mike Poulton’s absorbing two-part adaptation of Mantel’s books, under the umbrella title of Wolf Hall, to Broadway after successful runs at Stratford-on-Avon and in London. A BBC TV version is also being broadcast on PBS, so we’ve got even more Tudormania on our hands. The two parts of the stage version run nearly six hours, but at a marathon bout of theatergoing to see both sections on the same day, I was riveted for every minute. Plot follows counterplot in rapid and fascinating succession. My only quarrel is Poulton’s tendency toward overly broad bawdy humor, which pops up a bit too frequently.
   Poulton’s otherwise precise script and Jeremy Herrin’s lightning-quick direction puts a huge cast of 23 playing more than 70 roles through its historical paces like champion thoroughbreds. The main racer is Ben Miles as Cromwell. Almost never leaving the stage in either part, Miles is never flashy nor obvious, as Leo McKern was in the 1966 film version of A Man for All Seasons. Miles subtly conveys this lower-class lawyer’s thirst for recognition while never descending to melodrama. His Cromwell’s motives are also mixed with a passion for what Cromwell regards as the truth and the greater good. Cromwell is also a loving husband and father, as well as a loyal friend to his mentor Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, whose failure to secure an annulment for Henry leads to his disgrace. Miles blends these elements together for a shaded portrayal of a figure usually painted in black and white.

But this is far from a one-man show. There are multidimensional offerings from the entire court. Nathaniel Parker captures King Henry’s egotistic appetites for women, food, and power, but also the monarch’s childish fears. Likewise, Lydia Leonard skillfully displays Anne Boleyn’s arrogance as well as her insecurities. Lucy Briers is memorably defiant as Catherine of Aragon and delightfully malicious as Lady Rochford, Anne’s gossipy sister-in-law. Paul Jesson is an earthy Wolsey, and Leah Brotherhead is outwardly meek but inwardly resolved as Jane Seymour, Henry’s future wife, and Princess Mary, his daughter by Catherine. Even the smallest courtier and servant roles are full fleshed out.
   With the exquisite lighting of Paule Constable for Part One and that of David Platter for Part Two, Christopher Oram’s austere set transforms into taverns, palaces, dungeons, and riverboats for this intriguing event that is equal parts historical spectacle and political drama.

April 11, 2015
Fish in the Dark
Cort Theatre

Hand to God

Booth Theatre

Reviewed by David Sheward

Two new Broadway comedies feature obnoxious main characters. Ironically, the one made of fabric with sewn-on eyes is more complex than the flesh and blood one. Tyrone, the demonic sock puppet of Hand to God, Robert Askins’s dark and scary examination of the souls in a tiny Texas town, exhibits a lot more depth than Norman Drexel, the latest iteration of Larry David’s misanthropic TV persona in the star-writer’s first work for the theater, Fish in the Dark.
   Fish, one of the biggest financial hits of the season, is really an extended sitcom. Norman, a grouchy urinal salesman, has a lot on his plate: His father is dying, his mother is moving in, his wife is moving out, his brother is putting him down, his daughter is driving everyone crazy practicing her accents for an amateur production of My Fair Lady, all his relatives are constantly kvetching, and his housekeeper has just revealed a tremendous secret. That’s about it as far as the plot goes. As in David’s Curb Your Enthusiasm series, the humor derives from his misanthropic character’s total lack of self-awareness as he boorishly commits one social faux pas after another. In Seinfeld which David co-created, this role of chief schlemiel was taken by the George Castanza role played by Jason Alexander (who will replacing David as of June 19). If you find this sort of shtick funny for two hours, you’ll get plenty of laughs, but it wears a bit thin for me.
   This kind of light nonmusical entertainment used to be a staple on Broadway where you could include the kind of slightly racy antics that were not allowed on network TV. But then small-screen shows like David’s broke down these barriers, and there was no reason for audiences to spend big bucks on Broadway when they could get the same easy, somewhat spicy laughs for free (or the price of a monthly HBO subscription).
   Director Anna D. Shapiro demonstrates that her proficient style works as well with shallow comedy as with the pyrotechnic family confrontations in August: Osage County. David gives the audience what it wants: the same character as he played on Enthusiasm. Fortunately, Broadway veterans Marylouise Burke, Lewis J. Stadlen, Ben Shenkman, and Jayne Houdyshell offer a bit more in the way of characterization as Norm’s batty extended family. Glenne Headley, filling in for a reportedly ailing Rita Wilson, is bubbly and charming as Norm’s long-suffering wife, leading us to wonder what such a wonderful woman would be doing with such a schlubby husband.

While David delivers a TV retread, Robert Askins dives into the depths of demonic darkness while laughing hysterically on the way down. His Hand to God arrives at the Booth Theatre after downtown productions at Ensemble Studio Theatre and MCC Theatre, and brings with it a refreshingly brutal sensibility that rocks tired old Broadway.
   Like Norman, shy teenager Jason is beset with problems. His father has recently died, his mother, Margery, is struggling financially and emotionally, he pines after the equally quiet Jessica, and he is tormented by the bully Timothy. But, unlike Norman, Jason has an outlet in the form of his raging sock puppet, Tyrone, innocently created so the lad can participate in a Christian puppet workshop at the church of Pastor Greg, who has a thing for Margery. Tyrone spews all the repressed emotions Jason conceals as well as revealing the hidden passions swirling within everyone else, challenging the pious hypocrisy of his community.
   Directed with a fever-pitch intensity by Moritz von Stuelpnagel, who staged both Off-Broadway runs, the play is both wildly funny and terrifyingly honest. The five-person cast marvelously blends the outrageous with the sincere. Chief among the actors is Steven Boyer, delivering a double-barreled shotgun of a performance as the tormented Jason and the satanic Tyrone. He somehow manages to simultaneously convey the fear and longing of the puppeteer and the titanic fury of the puppet. Even though we see Boyer’s mouth moves as he speaks Tyrone’s guttural lines, he’s also still convincing as the nerdy Jason. It’s a colossal feat of acting. Not quite as dazzling, but equally truthful, are Geneva Carr’s equally repressed Margery, Sarah Stiles’s deadpan Jessica, Michael Oberholtzer’s libidinous lunkheaded Timothy, and Marc Kudisch’s well-meaning but ineffectual pastor.
   Hand to God is dangerously hilarious, forcing us to confront the very real monsters within, while Fish in the Dark reduces them to annoying little pests to chuckle over.

April 7, 2015
On the Twentieth Century
Roundabout Theatre Company at the American Airlines Theatre

Reviewed by David Sheward

Okay, let’s just get this out of the way. Kristin Chenoweth is a goddess. Helen Mirren may be playing the Queen of England in The Audience, but in the Roundabout Theatre Company’s revival of On the Twentieth Century, the 1978 screwball musical, Chenoweth is the Queen of Broadway. As the magnificently vain movie star Lily Garland, Chenoweth displays the rubber-faced antics of Carol Burnett, the vocal calisthenics of Audra McDonald, the timing of Estelle Getty on Golden Girls, and the versatility and quick-change artistry of Jefferson Mays of A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder.
   Like such Broadway stars of previous generations such as Ethel Merman, Carol Channing, and Zero Mostel, Chenoweth is simultaneously her unique self and the character she inhabits. Lily Garland is a volatile headliner, torn between her independent status as a film icon and her longing to return to the stage and the arms of Oscar Jaffe, the equally narcissistic impresario who launched her career and now needs her back to bolster his sagging fortunes. Derived from plays by Ben Hecht, Charles MacArthur, and Bruce Millholland, the book and lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green and music by Cy Coleman employ traditional musical-comedy idioms along with influences of operetta and Gilbert and Sullivan to fuel the battle between these two gigantic egos onboard a Chicago-to–New York 1930s train.

In the original production, John Cullum and Madeline Kahn (soon replaced by Judy Kaye) were equally prominent, but here the show is totally Chenoweth’s. She informs every gesture and expression with subtext in this exquisitely outsized star turn. From her first entrance, when she seems to plead with paparazzi to stop snapping her but loving it all the while, she commands the stage. Then there’s her transformation from mousy but sharp-tongued accompanist to sizzling femme fatale in Lily’s first big break. Later she gets to have a nervous breakdown when choosing between a Noël Coward comedy and a religious epic. I could go on and on. Suffice it say this performance deserves a shelf full of Tonys.
   Then there is the little matter of the remainder of the cast and the production itself. Director Scott Ellis sharply employs David Rockwell’s glittering Art Deco set and a dexterous chorus performing Warren Carlyle’s high-stepping choreography to keep the zany action moving at a breakneck clip. William Ivey Long’s exquisite period costumes deserve praise as usual.

Peter Gallagher, a perfectly adequate singer and actor, is not quite up to Chenoweth’s Olympian standards as Jaffe, Garland’s sparring partner and former lover. He relies too much on generalized, theatrical poses and an affected “stage” voice in the manner of John Barrymore, who played the role in the 1934 film version. As a result, the romantic connection between the two leads is not as strong as it should be. The supporting stooges fare much better. Mark-Linn Baker and Michael McGrath as Jaffe’s long-suffering henchmen offer just the right amount of wry commentary on the self-aggrandizing of the lead characters. Andy Karl athletically delineates the lunkheaded but gorgeous Bruce Granite, Lily’s current paramour; and Mary Louise Wilson is daffily delightful as the insane passenger Mrs. Primrose who figures in Oscar’s scheme to finance a comeback.
   Marvelous as these performers and the staging are, Kristin Chenoweth is the motor that powers this train and it’s a joy to watch her drive it along its crazy track.

March 21, 2015
The Audience
Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre

Reviewed by David Sheward

The Audience, Peter Morgan’s play about Queen Elizabeth II and her prime ministers, begins with the ever-so-upper-crust Geoffrey Beevers acting as combination tour guide and Buckingham Palace major-domo of protocol. He explains the concept of the weekly meetings between the sovereign and the head of her government, and he describes the royal room in which these confabs take place, with loving attention paid to the furniture’s period and makers. As Bob Crowley’s elegant set rolls in, we transition into the first of many short vignettes depicting these historic encounters, with Helen Mirren and Dylan Baker accurately made up and costumed to resemble Her Majesty and John Major, Conservative PM, 1990–97.
   Morgan then crisscrosses through the years, switching from various leaders, as Mirren miraculously sheds and gains years as easily as she dons and discards Crowley’s period-defining costumes. There are occasional side visits with a child version of the queen, confiding her struggles with awesome responsibilities to her older self. This tour-guide approach is fitting because Morgan’s script is sort of a package-deal view of Elizabeth’s seven-decade reign, while the Broadway theatergoers are cast as worshipful Anglophiles being treated to a greatest-hits medley of historic moments.
   Morgan’s screenplay for The Queen also starred Mirren in an award-winning monarchial performance (she copped the Oscar for that film, took the Olivier for the London run of he Audience, and will likely snatch the Tony for this Broadway engagement). That film concentrated on just one crisis in Elizabeth’s long tenure—the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, and the British public’s anger at the throne’s perceived lack of sorrow—and the queen’s connection with one prime minister, Tony Blair. This specific focus allowed for deeper insights into the monarch’s personality, her feelings about her tradition-laden position in a modern world, and her place in posterity. (Tony Kushner’s script for Lincoln was similarly pinpointed and sharp.) With The Audience, Morgan attempts to cover too much ground. As a result, we get a snapshot of recent English history and a brief peek at Elizabeth’s psyche.

In spite of this smash-and-run approach, Stephen Daldry’s staging is expertly smooth, and there are many effecting moments, facilitated by a proficient cast combining veterans of the West End run and Americans new to the show.
   Among the British holdovers aside from Mirren, Richard McCabe is given the most opportunity to shine as the rough-hewn Labour leader Harold Wilson. In several scenes, McCabe adds color and quirk to Wilson’s bond with the sovereign, which grows from guarded antagonism to genuine affection. Beevers is an effective master of ceremonies, and Michael Elwyn is elegantly deceptive as the tragic Anthony Eden, whose government was destroyed by the Suez Canal fiasco of the mid-1950s. Representing the American contingent, Dakin Matthews is a spry and mischievous Winston Churchill, Judith Ivey exudes no-nonsense authority that shakes even the Queen as a frosty and frosted Margaret Thatcher, and Dylan Baker tellingly illuminates Major’s ambivalence toward his job and his doubts about the necessity of the monarchy.

First and foremost, of course, is Mirren, simultaneously regal and human. Her Elizabeth is much more than a figurehead, ever mindful of her impact upon her subjects yet intensely seeking to maintain a space for personal life. Mirren masterfully hits all the notes: from dry humor (watch as she reacts to a cell phone going off in her ever-present purse) to righteous anger (exploding at Major for suggesting the royal family pay income tax) to tricky political maneuvering (pleading with Churchill and Thatcher to achieve her ends, successfully and not so much).
   Though her film version of Elizabeth gave us a more intimate look at the queen, and this stage edition is more of a condensed overview of her tenure on the throne, Mirren makes it a command performance.

March 11, 2015
Public Theater

Reviewed by David Sheward

American history gets a vigorous shot in the arm with Hamilton, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s bracing new musical about the most abrasive of our founding fathers, now playing at the Public Theater. You could argue, and Miranda does, that outside of George Washington, Alexander Hamilton was the key figure in the birth of our new nation. Scrappy, ambitious, and sometimes obnoxious, he didn’t care whom he offended as he fought at Washington’s side and instituted the national debt as a means of financing our government. After being disgraced by a sexual scandal, he famously dueled with the power-hungry Vice-President Aaron Burr and lost his life at 47.
   Already a sell-out hit and announced for a Broadway transfer, Hamilton—which Miranda wrote, composed, and stars in—takes the bold step of telling its audacious hero’s story with largely hip-hop and rap, and recasting the historic roles with mostly African-American and Latino actors. By using the music of today’s disenfranchised youth, Miranda reinforces the image of the young American rebels as dangerous outsiders. Hamilton, a bastard born in the Caribbean, is constantly derided as an “immigrant,” drawing parallels to hot-button issue of the 21st century. In addition, the dueling machismo culture of Hamilton’s era echoes the sometimes violent jousting amid contemporary rappers.
   Miranda’s score, brilliantly orchestrated by musical director Alex Lacamoire, incorporates a variety of styles to convey the diverse mixture of the new nation. Even the distant figure of King George III, played as a hilariously effete snob by Brian d’Arcy James, is given a signature leitmotif, a Beatles-style pop sound for his ballad of lost love for his former colonies.

This is an invigorating history lesson, but it’s not a perfect one. Clocking in at close to three hours, it could do with cutting before it moves to Broadway, and Miranda is bit too much in love with his subject at the cost of just about everyone else. His Hamilton is almost too smart for the room; all the other main figures—except Washington—come across as jerks or cads such as the preening, shallow Jefferson, the doddering Madison, and the incompetent, unseen John Adams.
   Despite the show’s flaws, Miranda’s overall achievement is staggering. He tells a complicated story in a sung-through work with a host of distinct voices, juggling political intrigue, passionate ideals, and interpersonal connections. Hamilton’s complicated rivalry with Burr, his tragic family life, and his father-son relationship with Washington are given full weight and depth. Director Thomas Kail and choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler, who served in those capacities on Miranda’s In the Heights, stage the sweeping epic with invention and energy. Howell Binkley’s versatile lighting sets the scenes from battlefield to executive mansion.
   Miranda intensely conveys Hamilton’s quicksilver intelligence as well as his quick temper. Leslie Odom Jr. delivers a breakout performance as the nefarious Burr, equally convincing as a scheming politician and a loving father tenderly crooning to his baby daughter. Phillipa Soo, so moving in Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812, is just as heartbreaking here as Hamilton’s put-upon wife Eliza while Renee Elise Goldsberry gives off sparks of wit and passion as her sister Angelica, also smitten with the title treasury secretary. Christopher Jackson is a stalwart Washington, Okieriete Onaodowan is formidable as a rough rebel, and Daveed Diggs is delightfully bubbly as a party-boy Lafayette and a popinjay Jefferson.
   Although this Hamilton is not quite as revolutionary as Oklahoma!, Hair, Rent, or even 1776, it’s an exciting sign that American musical theater is moving forward with the times even as it examines our past.

March 3, 2015
Lives of the Saints
Primary Stages at the Duke on 42nd Street

Vineyard Theatre

Reviewed by David Sheward

There’s a fine line between satire and realistic comedy, which two Off-Broadway productions attempt to walk. Lives of the Saints, David Ives’s program of short plays from Primary Stages, and Brooklynite, a new musical from Vineyard Theatre, contain elements of parody and sketch-style work, as well as dashes of verisimilitude. While both raise chuckles for their more outlandish antics, they don’t quite get us to identify with their pratfalling characters.
   The Ives evening consists of six playlets (one was cut during early previews) examining human relations from a decidedly comic perspective. Three are from an earlier same-named edition, which had regional productions in Philadelphia and the Berkshires in 1999. Two of the older works and two of the new ones are one-joke premises stretched a tad thin. From 16 years ago, “Soap Opera” spins an amorous tale of a repairman in love with a washing machine that never breaks down (for younger folks, this is based on the then-famous Maytag washer commercials), and “Enigma Variations” pits a pair of identical patients with twin therapists. The former devolves into a series of puns related to detergent brand names, and the latter exhausts every possibility on the theme of dualism. Among the more recent pieces, “The Goodness of Your Heart” is a two-hander about the price of friendship, and “Life Signs” details a deathbed confession delivered after the body has officially expired. “Goodness” is a slight curtain raiser, and “Life Signs” has a hint of wistfulness amid the zany jokes mixing sex and mothers.
   The two pieces that work best examine Ives’s Chicago Polish roots and don’t try so hard to tickle the audience’s collective funny bone. The new “It’s All Good” follows a writer encountering an alternative version of himself on a visit to his old neighborhood while the 1999 title piece peeks at two elderly church volunteers preparing a funeral breakfast. Both begin with gimmicks—“Good” employs a Twilight Zone trope of the protagonist entering a parallel universe where he made different life choices and “Lives” is performed without props or sets as a trio of onstage techies make the sound effects, perhaps to indicate that an unseen, benevolent force is looking out for those who give of themselves. In these bittersweet cameos, Ives goes beyond wisecracks and wordplay for two sensitive looks at the pain and joy of everyday existence.
   Ives has successfully combined goofy premises with in-depth insights in previous sextets such as All in the Timing and Mere Mortals. Unfortunately, he achieves the perfect balance between the ridiculous and the sublime in only two of the offerings. Director John Rando, who delivered a snappy Primary Stages revival of Timing in 2013, is on the money again. Carson Elrod who sparkled in that production is on point once more as the hapless washing-machine fixer and other strugglers in life’s mysteries. Liv Rooth and Kelly Hutchinson are particularly touching as the gossipy church workers, while Arnie Burton and Rick Holmes also find guffaws and pathos in multiple roles.

Similarly, the new musical Brooklynite at the Vineyard attempts to merge a wild riff on comic-book superheroes with characters we are supposed to care about. There are some genuinely funny bits about superpowered folks and the trendy titular borough in Michael Mayer and Peter Lerman’s book, as well as Lerman’s sprightly score, but they don’t come together as a whole. In addition, Mayer’s direction has a stop-and-start quality with slow builds toward punch lines that elicit only mild smiles. Among the zanier bits is the lameness of the weakest member of the Legion of Victory, Avenging Angelo, who can miraculously find a good parking space. (Sorta funny, but not comic gold.) As a self-confessed comic-book geek and former Brooklyn dweller, I was particularly disappointed, but there are pleasures to be had in this show. Matt Doyle makes for an adorably dweeby superhero wannabe, and Nicolette Robinson is a dynamic Astrolass, the object of his idol worship. Tony nominee Nick Cordero (Bullets Over Broadway) gets laughs as the thick-witted Angelo; Gerard Canonico is a bubbly, dancing Kid Comet; and any show benefits from the presence of the witty Ann Harada (Avenue Q and Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella).
March 1, 2015
The Iceman Cometh
The Goodman Theatre at BAM/Harvey Theater

Reviewed by David Sheward

While its demanding running time doesn’t exactly fly by, Robert Falls’s mammoth revival of Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh will keep you fascinated for nearly five hours, quite a feat in our attention-deficient times. Now at the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Harvey Theater after a successful run at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre in 2012, this bleak depiction of the self-deluding drunks at a last-chance saloon holds you in its hypnotic spell and doesn’t release you until you’re as exhausted as the pipe dreamers onstage. But you’ll also be strangely exhilarated at having witnessed a great production of one of the greatest of American tragedies.
   It begins, appropriately, in darkness. We can barely make out the shapes in Kevin Depinet’s prison-like set (inspired by John Conklin’s design) or hear the voices of the hungover habitués of the ironically named Harry Hope’s bar in 1912 Lower Manhattan. Gradually, Natasha Katz’s eloquent lighting reveals the crew of dreamers, each repeating a personal illusion of escaping his or her rock-bottom existence. They eagerly await the arrival of Hickey, the glad-handing salesman whose annual visit promises free drinks and feeding of fantasies. But this time Hickey brings cold hard reality, encouraging his pals to be honest about themselves, believing it will bring them peace. But it’s the peace of the grave Hickey offers, as O’Neill shows that the drunks—a microcosm of the world representing all classes, races, and political persuasions—need their pleasant lies in order to live.
   There are flaws in this giant of a play. O’Neill indulges in repetition, and there’s an unnecessary, parallel subplot involving the whining Don Parritt, a former revolutionary, and his father figure, the misanthropic Larry Slade. But all the weaknesses are brushed aside in Falls’s masterly staging. There’s enough variety and energy in the galaxy of booze-guzzlers to keep the action from flagging, and each member of the large cast endows his or her role with individual quirks and subtext.

Musical comedy star Nathan Lane may seem an odd casting choice for Hickey; but as soon as he makes his big entrance well into the first act, it makes sense. Bursting into the bar’s gloomy backroom, he displays a jolly showman’s slick song-and-dance, only this time he’s selling his idea of peace rather than good times. When the smiling mask slips and Lane reveals the heartache beneath Hickey’s whimsical façade, it’s shocking. As the life-weary Larry Slade, Brian Dennehy adds another indelible portrait of devastation to his gallery of O’Neill immortals from such works as Long Day’s Journey Into Night and Desire Under the Elms. Even though Slade can be seen as static—his main action is pushing away Hickey and Parritt and begging to be left alone—Dennehy gives him a palpable vitality and a clear objective: to kill off his compassion and retreat from life though part of him still desperately wishes to partake.
   Additional outstanding performances are delivered by Stephen Ouimette as the pugnacious bar owner Harry Hope, John Douglas Thompson as the rage-filled Joe Mott, Kate Arrington as the sentimental prostitute Cora, and Lee Wilkof as the anarchist Hugo Kalmar who goes in and out of a drunken stupor. But the entire company brings O’Neill’s hopeless souls to blazing life in this glacier-sized Iceman.

February 15, 2015
A Month in the Country
Classic Stage Company

Reviewed by David Sheward

Taylor Schilling and Peter Dinklage
Photo by Joan Marcus

The Classic Stage Company production of Ivan Turgenev’s A Month in the Country features high-wattage TV stars present and past: Taylor Schilling of Orange Is the New Black, Peter Dinklage of Game of Thrones, Megan West of How to Commit Murder, and Anthony Edwards of ER. It includes arresting moments courtesy of director Erica Schmidt. But it lacks the essential spark of passion. Like too many productions of plays by Turgenev’s fellow Russian Anton Chekhov, this Month falls into the trap of portraying bored people in a boring way.
   As in Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya and The Seagull (though the Turgenev play was written about 50 years earlier), the action takes place on a rural estate where the indolent landowners and their guests suffer from ennui and frustrated emotions. Dazzling Natalya is locked in a loveless marriage with the banal but decent Arkady. She strings along the witty Rakitin, who wants more than a platonic relationship but never presses the matter out of consideration for Natalya’s husband, his best friend. This delicate balance is upset when Natalya develops a Phaedra-like adoration for her young son’s tutor, Aleksey. To complicate things, Natalya’s girlish ward Vera is similarly smitten with the schoolmaster. On the edges of the action lurks cynical Dr. Shpigelsky, scheming to marry Vera off to his chum, the clumsy Bolshintsov, in return for three new horses.
   The trouble is, there is no fire coming from Schilling’s icy Natalya, who glides above the action like Tippi Hedren in a Hitchcock thriller. Similarly, the faun-like Aleksey of Mike Faist, who resembles a young Danny Kaye, is puppy-dog cute and endearing, but hardly charismatic enough to make us believe all the women are falling over themselves to get to him. Apart from one intense monologue describing his blighted romance, Dinklage’s Rakitin is lackluster. Edwards makes Arkady more than just a cuckolded buffoon, but the smallness of the role gives him little opportunity to make much impact. Of the characters caught in the main love tangle, West’s Vera is the most interesting, and West vivifies the girl’s transition from joyful innocent to disappointed but wiser woman. Schmidt and costume designer Tom Broecker aid in this transformation by having Vera switch from childish play clothes to a somber, dowdy frock after Aleksey has rejected her and declared his feelings for Natalya. For an added touch, Vera’s hair is now worn up, and the previously prim Natalya’s locks are cascading like a mermaid’s.

With the principal storyline rendered unexciting, the supporting players take over. Thomas Jay Ryan practically steals the spotlight with his rakish and brutally frank Shpigelsky. In a delightfully comic scene, he woos a sly Annabella Sciorra, as the spinsterish Lizaveta, by bluntly laying out all his faults and stating she is not likely to do better. Veteran character actor Elizabeth Franz is a vinegary Anna, Arkady’s mother; and Peter Appel an appropriately doltish Bolshintsov.
   The design elements are proficient, but set designer Mark Wendland has placed a huge barn-like set of walls over the characters. This is probably meant to convey the suffocated lives they lead, but it only succeeds in adding to the sense of claustrophobia the production induces.

February 7, 2015
Manhattan Theatre Club and the Royal Court Theatre at Samuel J. Friedman Theatre

Reviewed by David Sheward

Jake Gyllenhaal and Ruth Wilson
Photo by Joan Marcus

The concept of multiple universes with infinite possibilities has been used as fodder for many sci-fi movies and TV shows. (Who can forget that Star Trek episode with the evil Capt. Kirk and Spock?) A few plays have tackled the subject, usually in which a couple plays out variations on the stages of their relationship. This type of playful playwriting can be fun for a brief comedy sketch (David Ives and Caryl Churchill have done effective short pieces on this theme), but any longer than 10 minutes and the gimmick wears thin.
   So it’s no wonder that Nick Payne’s Constellations, a joint production from the Royal Court Theatre and Manhattan Theatre Club, feels a bit drawn out even at 70 minutes, possibly the shortest running time for a Broadway show since David Mamet’s The Anarchist. On set designer Tom Scutt’s bare, balloon-decorated stage, Jake Gyllenhaal and Ruth Wilson enact dozens of varying vignettes from the on-again, off-again romance between beekeeper Roland and scientist Marianne. I suspect Payne gave her that occupation solely so she could introduce the idea of flowing timespans with alternative versions of reality.
   The duo meet cute at a barbecue, move in together, break up, reconcile, and face mortality as Marianne contemplates assisted suicide when she develops a brain tumor—or not. Each possibility is followed by an opposite outcome. Like the time-travelling Doctor Who, Payne skips back and forth between possible scenarios. In one, Marianne cheats on Roland; in another, it’s the other way around. A later segment has Marianne eagerly accepting Roland’s awkward proposal, followed up by her rejecting him. You get the general idea. The short scenes are broken up by flashes of Lee Curran’s lighting or the balloons falling, which may represent shifting molecules or just balloons. Payne does deliver clever dialogue, and director Michael Longhurst and his two-person cast give the rapid sequences variety and punch.

Film star Gyllenhaal is the box office draw, and he turns in a fun, charismatic performance, but Wilson (fresh off her Golden Globe win for Showtime’s The Affair) provides the electric current that keeps this toy-like play running. Through all the different storylines, her Marianne fizzes like a glass of soda about to flow over. Her fumbling attempts at breaking the ice with Roland are particularly hilarious, and the desperate anger she displays when the tumor cripples her ability to express herself is devastating.
   Unfortunately, the play comes across as more of an acting exercise than a fully realized work. Gyllenhaal and Wilson’s ability to create markedly distinct emotions and intentions with almost exactly the same words is admirable, but it’s not quite enough to make up for the thin material. Plus asking Broadway prices for such a short, slight piece is pretty cheeky. An additional one-act curtain-raiser would have been most welcome.

January 13, 2015
Playwrights Horizons

Reviewed by David Sheward

“I don’t know where I live,” says Eddie, the misbegotten hero of Samuel D. Hunter’s deceptively simple yet hugely affecting new play, Pocatello, at Playwrights Horizons. This shattering cry of despair is uttered in an even voice by T.R. Knight, who plays Eddie with painfully real insight, after he recites a seemingly endless list of local landmarks: Starbucks, Home Depot, Walmart, Staples, etc. Nothing is unique to the titular Idaho town, taken over by brand-name chain outlets, like the rest of America. Pocatello is probably best-known to showbiz types as the site where Judy Garland’s character was “Born in a Trunk” in A Star Is Born. But, to Eddie, a manager of one of those generic restaurants, it’s his home. His great-grandparents settled here, but his current family is distant, either physically, emotionally, or both, ever since the suicide of his father. His employees are rudderless. One of the waitresses remarks that theirs aren’t the kind of jobs you care about, you just show up and try to have a good time while mindlessly performing your tasks. To compound his lack of community, Eddie is gay in a red state where the word gay isn’t even mentioned.
   He’s not the only one with troubles. Waiter Troy (Danny Wolohan) is coping with an alcoholic wife (Jessica Dickey), a senile father (Jonathan Hogan), and a bulimic daughter (Leah Karpel), while former drug addict Max (Cameron Scoggins) is struggling to stay clean, and Isabelle (Elvy Yost) does her best to scrape together a living. It sounds like a soap opera, but Hunter, who has depicted other lonely Idaho souls in such plays as A Bright New Boise, The Whale, and The Few, turns it into a symphony of small-town angst. The expert liming of the 10-member cast and Davis McCallum’s masterful direction gives full voice to each character’s yearning and despair.
   The opening scene is set in designer Lauren Helpern’s detailed faux-Italian restaurant, perfect in its banal pseudo-hominess down to the salt shakers. Sound designer Matt Tierney’s tinny Musak rendering of country hits plays over the loudspeakers. Two different dramas are taking place at once with dialogue often overlapping. Eddie’s family including his complaining mother Doris (Brenda Wehle) and visiting brother Nick (Brian Hutchinson) and his sister-in-law Kelly (Crystal Finn) are at one table, while Troy’s bickering clan is at another. The frazzled Eddie, trying to connect with and impress his relatives, is running in and out, as is the entire wait staff. In lesser hands this sequence would be incomprehensible, yet, in McCallum’s hands, we understand each character, why they are there and what they want.
   The entire company is first-rate, but Knight as the pathetic Eddie and Wehle as the crotchety Doris are especially heartbreaking. In the final scene, mother and son make a silent truce over a midnight meal of gluten-free pasta. They chat about their town’s lack of community and the whereabouts of old friends as old wounds are quietly healed. It’s a shattering and simple moment in one of the best plays of recent years.

December 23, 2014
The Elephant Man
Booth Theatre

A Delicate Balance
John Golden Theatre

Reviewed by David Sheward

Two current productions reflect a growing Broadway trend: all-star vehicles in their third Main Stem incarnation. The Elephant Man and A Delicate Balance are established dramatic fare in limited runs headlined by surefire box-office champs. They are satisfying evenings, but only the latter challenges its audience.
   The Elephant Man is Bernard Pomerance’s 1977 biographical work of John Merrick, whose hideous deformity masked a gentle spirit. The play is a moving portrait of its subject (his real name was Joseph) and a scathing indictment of the puritanical Victorian era in which he lived. Merrick is rescued from a pitiable existence as a sideshow freak by prominent surgeon Frederick Treves, who attempts to give the misshapen man as normal an existence as possible by introducing him to high society. This includes the actress Madge Kendal. Her sympathetic visits culminate with a brief erotic display when she exposes her breast to Merrick, who has never been looked on with romantic tenderness before.
   Director Scott Ellis emphasizes the sentiment and turns the spotlight on film star Bradley Cooper in the title role at the expense of Pomerance’s cool observations. (Sean Mathias took a more objective stance in his 2002 revival.) Ellis chooses to eliminate the Brechtian song warbled by a pair of Belgian “pinheads” to Merrick just before he expires by sleeping on his back, letting his heavy head crush his windpipe, and then adds a syrupy finish by having Mrs. Kendal make a final entrance and embrace the dead Merrick.
   It’s laudable of Cooper to attempt this difficult role, and he carries it off with expertise and passion, twisting his muscular frame and handsome features into Elephant Man’s pitiable form. Alessandro Nivola is commanding and compassionate as the conflicted Treves, expressing the doctor’s desire for conformity and his doubts about his strict morality. Patricia Clarkson is delightfully droll as Mrs. Kendal but overplays her theatricality. Anthony Heald admirably doubles as the avaricious manager and a pious bishop, both of whom exploit Merrick for their own ends.
   Timothy R. Mackabee’s bare set resembles a stark exhibition hall, lit with unforgiving sterility by Philip S. Rosenberg, and the exterior of the Booth Theatre is decorated like a period circus. Ellis and company deliver a solid professional staging, but a deeper rendering of the script would have produced a richer experience.

Edward Albee’s A Delicate Balance gets a more shaded interpretation in Pam MacKinnon’s thoughtful revival. The 1966 play was received with quizzical shrugs by the press and audiences in its initial edition and closed after a brief run. It won the Pulitzer, but many saw that as a consolation prize after Albee had been denied the award for Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Gerald Guitterez’s 1996 Lincoln Center version gave fresh perspective to the drama, and MacKinnon adds even more in this nuanced revival.
   The central conceit of Albee’s play is wide open to interpretation. Wealthy suburban couple Agnes and Tobias, already dealing with the return of their much-divorced daughter Julia and the troubled residence of Agnes’s alcoholic sister, Claire, find themselves in a ethical dilemma when their best friends Harry and Edna show up one night, asking to move in because they’re frightened. The source of their terror is never explained, and the question becomes not what is scaring the refugees but what to do with them. Albee asks the difficult questions: What are the limits of friendship and what do we owe those close to us?
   With the same insight she brought to her 2012 direction of Virginia Woolf, MacKinnon makes this existential conundrum very real. The relationships are believable and the cause of Harry and Edna’s flight and fright is as tangible and yet as ephemeral as Godot. They don’t want to die alone, and they believe their friends will save them from this fate. At least that’s what I got from the marvelously specific acting of Bob Balaban and Clare Higgins as the terrified couple. John Lithgow is equally intense as the confused Tobias. At first Tobias is mystified by the problems besetting him and hides behind his newspaper and brandy, but this incisive actor gradually reveals the character’s awareness of his isolation. His final entreaty for Harry to stay becomes a desperate plea for meaning. Lithgow makes us see that Tobias realizes that 40 years of friendship count for nothing when it comes to facing death, and it terrifies Tobias just as it does Harry and Edna. It makes Albee’s sometimes obscure living room drama a searing confrontation with the unknown.
   As the in-control Agnes, Glenn Close is coolly commanding but fails to show the tremors beneath her icy surface. Lindsay Duncan makes a marvelously acerbic Claire and doesn’t take over the play as Elaine Stritch did in the 1996 version. Martha Plimpton keeps Julia from turning into a whining brat, but the actor affects a stereotypical “stagey” voice. Santo Loquasto designed the well-appointed set and Ann Roth provided the chic costumes, though Agnes appears as if she’s headed for a Kennedy Center Gala rather than an evening dealing with life’s biggest mysteries.

December 15, 2014
Off-Broadway Roundup II

Reviewed by David Sheward

As the year winds down, Off-Broadway has been unusually active with new American plays examining religious faith and family relations, as well as those reconsidering the Oedipus myth and our country’s penchant for violence. Katori Hall’s Our Lady of Kibeho at Signature Theatre and Sarah Ruhl’s The Oldest Boy at Lincoln Center benefit from imaginative productions with exceptional design elements. The plays present questions about belief but offer no easy answers.
   Kibeho focuses on the real-life incidents of a trio of teenage girls receiving visitations from the Virgin Mary at their Catholic school in Rwanda in the early 1980s. Hall isn’t as concerned with the validity of the girls’ visions as with the reaction from the community and the Vatican. At first, the girls are treated with skepticism, then celebrated as a tourist attraction. But when they predict an upcoming devastating war, they are greeted with anger. Michael Greif delivers his usual excellent staging with exquisite lighting by Ben Stanton, mesmerizing video projections by Peter Nigrini, and evocative sound design by Matt Tierney. There are even flying special effects, realistically created by Paul Rubin. Hall’s script effectively documents the story and fleshes out a fascinating cast of characters—from the innocent visionaries, each distinct, to the sympathetic priest, to the doubting expert from Rome. She draws no conclusions but leaves the central issue of belief up to the audience.

In The Oldest Boy, Ruhl presents a similar conundrum—this one fictional and relating to Buddhism and reincarnation. An American woman married to a Tibetan immigrant discovers her young son may have lived previously as a lama. When two visiting monks apparently confirm the boy’s past life and wish to take him to live with them in Tibet, she must make a terrible choice. Like Hall, Ruhl does not probe deeply into the religious debate. Instead she zeroes in on the mother’s dilemma, given full weight by Celia Keenan-Bolger’s intense performance. Veteran actor Ernest Abuba brilliantly conveys the spirit of the boy (embodied by a puppet) as well as the lama. Rebecca Taichman’s production is spare but powerful, benefiting from Japhy Weideman’s eloquent lighting.
   The heroine of Heidi Schreck’s Grand Concourse, just closed at Playwrights Horizons, also deals with doubt. Sister Shelley, a nun running a soup kitchen in the titular Bronx neighborhood, times her prayers by a microwave since she has trouble speaking to the Lord for even a minute. Her crisis of faith comes to a head when mentally disturbed volunteer Emma disrupts the center, the staff, and the homeless people who depend on them. Schreck’s play is sharp and funny, as well as penetrating in its observations of the obligations religion places on its followers. Schreck draws the radical conclusion that sometimes it’s okay not to forgive. Kip Fagan’s direction keeps the proceedings from getting too heavy, and Rachel Hauck’s set design is accurate down to the kitchen sink. Quincy Tyler Bernstine masterfully chronicles Shelley’s conflict, and Ismenia Mendes is a complex Emma.

Sharyn Rothstein’s By the Water, about a Staten Island family dealing with the aftereffects of Hurricane Sandy, plays like a TV script, which should come as no surprise as Rothstein has numerous video credits. Her script is rife with plots, secrets, betrayals, and familiar father-son conflicts, all tidily wrapped up within 90 minutes. But as played by a veteran cast including Obie winner Deirdre O’Connell as the mother, it’s an entertaining and occasionally moving hour and a half.
   Also clocking in at the same running time is Sam Shepard’s A Particle of Dread (Oedipus Variations), also at the Signature Theatre Center, mashing together different recastings of the classic tragedy in Ireland and California. At one point, the playwright unwisely has a character directly ask the audience if it is getting anything out of the play. Like most of Shepard’s oeuvre, Particle is fragmented and somewhat obscure, so the question may have received a few negative responses. In a series of short scenes, we are introduced to various modern versions of Oedipus, Jocasta, Antigone, Tiresias, and others; then some characters disappear, while others meet the legendary unhappy ends. But Shepard’s muscular style fascinates and creates a hypnotic American version of the blood-soaked story, indicting our obsession with violence, a topic that often grasps us more than religion does. Stephen Rea is gripping as the contemporary Oedipus in the climactic speech.

December 7, 2014
Father Comes Home From the Wars (Parts 1, 2, and 3)
Public Theater

Reviewed by David Sheward

The prolific Suzan-Lori Parks, who once wrote a 365-play project, continues her ambitious examination of American history and race with Father Comes Home From the Wars , a nine-play cycle stretching from the Civil War to the present. The first three parts are on display in a nearly three-hour single bill at the Public Theater. While there is much heavy-handed symbolism and a few overly obvious references to the Odyssey, Father sets off many dramatic sparks and in the second of the three works it really catches fire.
   As she did in The America Play and Topdog/Underdog, Parks combines allegory and verisimilitude to scrutinize the African-American experience. This cycle follows the slave Hero who leaves his wife, Penny (read: Penelope), to serve as valet to his despicable master in the Confederate Army in return for his freedom. Greek classic parallels continue: Hero changes his name to Ulysses (after General Grant) upon emancipation, and his loyal dog named Odyssey (for “odd-a-see” because of crossed eyes), played by a human actor, accompanies him to war. There’s also Hero’s fellow slave Homer who longs to escape to the North but remains on the homestead because he loves Penny.
   The first and third parts, which take place at the master’s Texas plantation, drip with significance as each character seems to speak in capital letters, often addressing the audience directly. There’s even a Greek chorus of slaves in Part 1 and of runaways in Part 3. But the middle part, called “A Battle in the Wilderness,” is the juicy, satisfying entrée of this three-course meal. Hero’s master, identified only as the Colonel, has captured a Yankee captain, and the three of them are separated from regiments of the other side. The captain encourages Hero to defy the Colonel and set both of them free, but Hero, suddenly confronted with the possibility of being on his own, fears the changes such liberation would bring. “Who would I belong to?” he asks.

Questions of race, identity, responsibility, and morality are hotly debated as the Colonel sadistically toys with both his slave and his prisoner who has several unexpected secrets of his own. It’s a taut, three-sided boxing match staged with remarkable tension by Jo Bonney and fought with precision by Sterling K. Brown’s passionate and ambivalent Hero, Ken Marks’s sly and villainous Colonel, and Louis Cancelmi’s deceptively simplistic soldier. Unfortunately, the first and third plays lack the same punch.
   But the cast endows Parks’s sometimes pretentious sections with gritty realism, and music director Steven Bargonetti performs tangy vocal and guitar accompaniments. Jacob Ming-Trent delivers a canine tour de force as Hero’s dog Odyssey, relating their adventures. Jenny Jules is a compelling Penny and Jeremie Harris a noble Homer. Amid the high-flying verbiage, Parks makes many sharp observations on the messy course of our country’s history. It will be interesting to see what she has to say in Parts 4 through 9.

November 5, 2014
The Death of Klinghoffer
Metropolitan Opera

Reviewed by David Sheward

Operas rarely make headline news, but the Metropolitan Opera’s debut of John Adams’s rich and complex 1991 work The Death of Klinghoffer has become an international sensation—not so much for what happens onstage but for the controversy it has ignited. Inspired by the real-life terrorist incident in which an American-Jewish tourist was murdered abroad a hijacked Italian pleasure cruise ship, the opera has been assailed by some factions as anti-Semitic, as well as sympathetic and even propagandistic in favor of the Palestinian cause. Hundreds of protestors gathered outside the Met on opening night and a few bought tickets and attempted to disrupt the show with catcalls. At the performance attended (the third), there were a handful of demonstrators carrying signs calling for the cancellation of the “racist” opera. Although several of the characters express anti-Jewish vitriol, the work is not anti-Semitic and attempts to explore the complex, never-ending Middle East crisis through compassion and poetry.
   It doesn’t entirely succeed. Alice Goodman’s dense libretto often veers into obscure territory invoking agricultural and mystical imagery—at one point the passengers sing of a “lion-ant,” whatever that is—rather than focusing on the devastating issues at hand. But Adams’s rich and intense score brings us back to the terrible conflict and gives color and depth to the figures caught up in it. Tom Morris’s thoughtful production combines the demands of opera and drama by giving constant movement to arias, group, and choral sequences while Arthur Pita’s inventive and kinetic choreography delineates the raging emotions at work.

Most of the action is told in flashback. After a prologue with separate choruses of exiled Jews and Palestinians, survivors including the captain and first officer recall the horrifying takeover in what appears to be a panel discussion. Tony winner Paulo Szot (South Pacific) magnificently expresses the moral confusion and guilt of the captain, who feels he could have done more to prevent the murder of Klinghoffer but feared endangering the rest of the lives in his care.
   This seminar sequence leads into scenes aboard the ship, alternating with mostly mystifying chorus numbers. Perhaps the most controversial moments involve those in which the four terrorists are presented as human beings—terrible, twisted villains, yes, but also real people with motivations behind their heinous actions. For example, Mamoud (the scary and moving Aubrey Allicock) sings of his favorite popular songs as he fiddles with a radio while guarding the captain. In the same bittersweet melancholy tones, he recalls seeing his brother’s decapitated body and explains there can be no peace in the region. Jesse Kovarsky as the youngest hijacker, the one who pulls the trigger on the wheelchair-bound title character, expresses his violent urges through dance in an electrifying performance.

Klinghofferworks best when capturing the small moments of the tragedy such as a grandmother calming her grandson, an Austrian woman’s taking stock of her food while trapped in her cabin, or Marilyn Klinghoffer innocently chatting about medical problems as her husband is being killed on deck. Maria Zifchak, Theodora Hanslowe, and Michaela Martens illuminate the heartbreaking significance of the seemingly trivial details in these arias. Martens later delivers a devastating finale when Mrs. Klinghoffer learns of her spouse’s fate and confronts the shattered captain.
   The contrasting arias of the title character, beautifully performed by Alan Opie, exemplify the strengths and weakness of the work. In his first solo, the handicapped Klinghoffer bravely snaps back at the terrorists after a vicious vocal assault by the most venomous of the quartet (Ryan Speedo Green in an appropriately brutal turn). It’s heroic, specific, and powerful. Then, after he is shot, Klinghoffer stands and sings the “Aria of the Falling Body.” Opie performs it with great artistry, but Goodman’s words are so vague and symbolic, we are left unmoved. That’s The Death of Klinghoffer in summary—stunning one moment, cold and remote the next.

November 2, 2014

On the Town
Lyric Theatre

Reviewed by David Sheward

On the Town, the iconic musical following three sailors pursuing romance while on a 24-hour leave in wartime Gotham, has had a strange life since its 1944 premiere. That watershed original staging marked the Broadway debuts of a quartet of talents whose collective influence on the American musical has been nothing less than seismic: composer Leonard Bernstein, director-choreographer Jerome Robbins, and book authors–lyricists Betty Comden and Adolph Green who also played leading roles. A weird hybrid of the sophisticated sensibilities of Bernstein and Robbins and the showbiz sketch humor of Comden and Green, Town was a smash-hit celebration of youthful exuberance having one last fling before facing the perils of war. But the 1949 MGM film version, starring Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra, scrapped most of Bernstein’s complex score, replacing it with Hollywood pablum. Revivals in 1971 and 1998 did not strike the right balance between high and low culture, received mixed notices, and achieved only brief runs.
   In its latest incarnation at the newly renamed Lyric, director John Rando, who won a Tony for his outlandish staging of Urinetown, has restored the zany cartoon aspect of the show. The performances are mostly as broad as the character’s names—Claire DeLoone, Pitkin W. Bridgework, Lucy Schmeeler, Professor Figment—but there is also just the right hint of sentimentality amid the shenanigans. For starters, the show opens with “The Star-Spangled Banner” rather than the traditional overture. Beowulf Borritt’s comic-strip sets and projections, Jason Lyons’s primary-colored lighting, and Jess Goldstein’s Technicolor costumes create a kiddie-fantasy New York in which the sailors and their girls cavort.
   But the biggest contribution toward blending the satiric with the humane is made by Tony Yazbeck as Gaby, the lovelorn serviceman. While his pals Ozzie (a comically macho Clyde Alves) and Chip (a sweetly naïve Jay Armstrong) make sexual conquests, Gaby hunts for a more idealization goal: the illusive Ivy Smith (the gorgeous Megan Fairchild, principal dancer with the New York City Ballet), Miss Turnstiles for June. He sees her poster on the subway and immediately falls in love. As singer, dancer, and actor, Yazbeck captures Gaby’s intense longing for amorous connection, perfectly meshing virility and vulnerability. His intense rendition of “Lonely Town” accompanied by the chorus stationed throughout the theater, is achingly real. When paired with the magnificent Fairchild in choreographer Joshua Bergasse’s extended ballet sequences, Town soars like an eagle. Completing the lead female contingent are the deliriously highbrow Elizabeth Stanley as a sex-mad anthropologist and Alysha Umphress as scat-singing cab driver, who cooks on “I Can Cook, Too,” a double entrendre–laden ode to the character’s kitchen and bedroom skills.
   The always hilarious Jackie Hoffman pops up in multiple roles—including Ivy’s alcoholic voice teacher, an irate old lady, and a pair of put-upon club singers. If she doesn’t get a Tony nomination, there is no justice. There are also riotously effective contributions from a deep-voiced Philip Boykin, a pompous Michael Rupert, an antic Allison Guinn, and a versatile Stephen DeRosa. Altogether a wonderful Town.

October 20, 2014
It’s Only a Play
Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre

Reviewed by David Sheward

Nathan Lane is a miracle worker. What other Broadway star—and he is one of the few whose name alone sells tickets—could breathe comic oxygen into a dated script and overcome a comatose co-star? Those two Herculean feats are accomplished by the amazing Lane in the revival of It’s Only a Play, Terrence McNally’s insider comedy about the opening night of a Main Stem flop. The castmate that Lane carries is Matthew Broderick, his compatriot from The Producers and The Odd Couple. The Lane-Broderick combination, along with four other big film and TV headliners, has cemented the production’s status as a sold-out, limited-run hit before the reviews even came out. While Lane is energetic and clockwork-precise in his portrayal of a frustrated sitcom actor, Broderick is stiff, awkward, and tired as his best friend, a once-promising playwright who looks every minute of the actor’s 52 years.
   In addition, too many of McNally’s gags about the state of the New York stage have passed their sell-by date. Play first appeared Off-Broadway in productions in 1982 (at Manhattan Punch Line) and 1986 (Manhattan Theatre Club) and before that it closed out of town in Philadelphia under the title Broadway, Broadway in 1977. I saw the Philadelphia and MTC productions. The current incarnation, which features several updates, revisions, and edits (a female cab driver delivering the much-awaited NY Times review has been dropped), is the least of those three. Perhaps it’s because the characters are in a sort of weird time warp co-existing in the 1980s and 2014. Many of the conditions the characters complain about no longer exist or are no longer funny. Freeloading union musicians don’t play poker backstage anymore, and gay actors are not constrained to stay in the closet. The chief theater critic of the Times is not as powerful as the position once was, and the current office-holder is not British. Internet forums are called chat boards now, not chat rooms, and David Mamet is not the only author who uses foul language.

Yet despite the tired quips, director Jack O’Brien and the brilliant Lane keep the audience howling. The actor lands every punchline at exactly the right moment, guaranteeing maximum guffaws. He accurately skewers almost every big name on Broadway—including his own. While Lane is onstage the fun never stops, and O’Brien keeps the pacing at a rapid clip. This is, until Broderick shows up and slows everything down. Totally lacking in vitally, the former Ferris Bueller seems to be phoning his performance in…from a hospital bed. The remainder of the cast delivers mixed results. As the neophyte producer, Megan Mullalley offers a stylish, clenched-jaw variation on her bitchy, ditzy Karen Walker from Will & Grace. Despite the use of a cane due to a knee injury, Stockard Channing is firing on all cylinders as a pill-popping, coke-snorting diva. Rupert Grint is effectively gruff as a nasty British director, the polar opposite of his nebbishy Ron Weasley persona from the Harry Potter films (By the way, the joke involving Grint and the cloak of invisibility falls flat). Grint needs to work on his vocal projection; too much of his dialogue was unintelligible. F. Murray Abraham is miscast but game as a snide theater critic. Newcomer Micah Stock is drolly deadpan as a fresh-off-the-bus coat-check boy.
   Scott Pask’s elegant Upper East Side set and Ann Roth’s fashionable tuxes and frocks provide glamor to look at when even the magnificent Lane can’t sustain the recycled jokes and celebrity name-dropping.

October 10, 2014

You Can’t Take It With You
Longacre Theatre

Reviewed by David Sheward

Though it’s nearly 80 years old and the leading man is even older than that, the new Broadway revival of that favorite of high-schools and community theaters, You Can’t Take It With You, packs quite a kick. The comic template is familiar through variations from The Munsters TV series to La Cage Aux Folles. When the “normal” offspring of an outrageously eccentric family brings home the conventional parents of his/her beloved, all hell breaks loose. But the Pulitzer winning 1936 script by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart holds up admirably while director Scott Ellis and a delightful cast of Broadway vets runs the mad antics like comic clockwork.
   Written during the Depression, You Can’t fulfills a fantasy of pursuing your passion, however frivolous, in spite of economic necessity and government interference. The Sycamore clan practices its outlandish hobbies including playwriting, snake collecting, ballet dancing, manufacturing fireworks, xylophone playing, and throwing darts in David Rockwell’s wonderful knickknack-stuffed set. The family’s only visible means of substantial support are provided by property income from retired Grandpa (a jovial James Earl Jones) and the salary earned by the practical daughter Alice (a sparkling Rose Byrne) as a Wall Street secretary who sets the comedy in motion when she falls in love with the boss’s son, Tony Kirby Jr. (a dashing Fran Kranz). The inevitable clash between the fun-loving Sycamores and the stuffy Kirbys provides the plot, but main action is watching an enormous—by contemporary Broadway standards—company expertly cut up.

Best known for his dramatic turns, Jones displays a bubbly humor as the warmhearted Grandpa, particularly when convincing the ulcer-ridden broker Kirby Senior (the expert Byron Jennings) to relax a little and stop obsessing over wealth. In what could have been a drab ingénue role, Byrne gives Alice her own slight madness, showing she is truly a part of the same family as her nuttier relations. As Alice’s mother, Penny, Kristine Nielsen—who has made a career of playing daffy mothers, sisters, and aunts—gives her expected brilliant turn, adding just the right inflection or gesture to accentuate Penny’s goofy observations. She even manages to make uttering the word “potato” hilarious. Reg Rogers draws guffaws as the Russian ballet master Kalenkhov, stretching out his lines and loping around the stage like a Slavic Snagglepuss. Even the tiniest cameos shine brightly here with Johanna Day adding subtext to the snobbish Mrs. Kirby, Elizabeth Ashley imperially imposing as an exiled Russian duchess working as a waitress, and Julie Halston drunkenly lurching up the stairs as an alcoholic visitor.
   But even in this glittering company, there are two standouts: Annaleigh Ashford and Will Brill as Alice’s kooky sister and brother-in-law, Essie and Ed. Essie studies ballet with Kalenkhov while Ed accompanies them on the xylophone, and usually that’s all we see them do. But Ashford and Brill give this crazy pair such a full, zany life, you can’t take your eyes off them even they are standing to their and watching the main action. Ashford invents wild dance moves for Essie, creating a brilliantly funny portrait of a woman with two left feet who thinks she’s Pavlova. Likewise Brill endows Ed with a pretended sophistication manifesting itself in riotously weird gestures and behavior. They are a perfect pair of lovable loons, happy in their own world, just like all the Sycamores and theatergoers lucky enough to catch them.

September 28, 2014
This Is Our Youth
Cort Theatre

Reviewed by David Sheward

Kenneth Lonergan first burst onto the theatrical scene in 1994 with an Off-Broadway production of This Is Our Youth, a scathing but ultimately touching update of Rebel Without a Cause. Like the 1955 James Dean movie classic, Youth focuses on a trio of teenagers struggling to find home and connection when the adults in their lives have let them fend for themselves. But unlike the leather-jacketed delinquents of Rebel, the youngsters here don’t even have a motorcycle gang or other misfits with whom to form a makeshift family. Given tons of cash and no guidance by their parents, these kids run wild on the Upper West Side of the early ’80s, sniffing coke, indulging in anonymous sex, and bouncing off the walls in Reagan’s heartless America.
   Nearly 20 years after its premiere, director Anna D. Shapiro has given the play a shot of adrenaline and a warm beating heart with Kieran Culkin and Michael Cera contributing mightily to both. The play opens in the squalid studio apartment of Dennis Ziegler (the electric Culkin), an arrogant alpha male who supplements his earnings as a bike messenger by dealing drugs to his fellow slackers. (The apartment is paid for by his parents—a famous painter and a strident social worker—to get him out of their hair.) Dennis’ quiet is disrupted by the feverish buzzing of his best friend Warren Straub (a deceptively glassy-eyed Cera), a pathetic sycophant who hero-worships him. Warren has been thrown out by his abusive father, a lingerie tycoon with crime connections. But before Warren left, he boosted $15,000 from Pop. How that money gets spent and the duo’s whacko plans to return it over a desultory 48 hours make up the action of the play.

But the loose plot is not really the driving force of this insightful character study. It’s the push-pull, love-hate bond between Dennis and Warren. The two are like battling siblings with Dennis bullying and berating the younger, attention-hungry Warren who accepts his taunts and begs for more. They act like unruly, squabbling children, but there is a sort of love between them born of their rejection by self-centered parents. (The unseen adults are a subtle metaphor for the ego-driven larger society that has continued to be just as narcissistic.) The third character is Jessica Goldman, an equally alienated fashion student and Warren’s not-so-secret crush. Lonergan does give Jessica depth and her own objectives, but she’s secondary to the two main characters. Unfortunately, website whiz kid Tavi Gevinson, in her stage debut, plays her on a limited scale of notes from jittery insecurity to petulant anger.
   Culkin and Cera are the main attraction here. Culkin manages to make the arrogant Dennis charming, even likable. It’s easy to see why he attracts a ring of followers like Warren even as he berates them. (His scalding monologue over the phone to an overweight fellow dealer is a riot.) Cera’s Warren is an amazingly multilayered portrait of a lost kid who’s been beaten up psychologically and physically. At first, Warren seems like a laughable, infantile loser, tossing a football around and lovingly caring for the vintage toys he drags around in a cumbersome suitcase. But gradually, Cera reveals the guy’s piercing intelligence that gives him insights into his dysfunctional world. The play ends with Dennis and Warren surrounded by the wreckage of their aimless weekend, commiserating over their broken homes. Hysterically funny and heartbreakingly sad, this is anything but a wasted Youth.

September 18, 2014
Henry IV, Parts I and II
Shakespeare & Company at Tina Packer Playhouse

Reviewed by David Sheward

In one of the riotous interludes of Shakespeare’s Henry IV plays, the rascally, rotund knight Sir John Falstaff calls the innkeeper Mistress Quickly an otter because she is neither “fish nor flesh, a man knows not where to have her.” So it is with Jonathan Epstein’s one-evening adaptation of the two parts of Henry for Shakespeare and Company in Lenox, Mass. There are scenes of genuine passion, intensity, and humor in the staging by Epstein, who also plays the title role, but there are almost as many forced moments where the director’s hand is more evident than the connection between the characters or the Bard’s themes of father-son bonds and balancing humanity with the demands of leadership.
   Epstein has also mixed modern elements with the Elizabethan milieu. Arthur Oliver’s costumes are a weird hybrid of contemporary fashion and period clothes, and Prince Hal and his Eastcheap pals are arrayed in circus-like outfits as if they were in a road company of Pippin. Vital information is conveyed by iPhones and laptops, while battles are fought with swords and modern revolvers. The director notes in the program that in Shakespeare’s day technologies and costumes from different eras were blended (Roman plays such as Titus Andronicus featured doublets and togas), but the bizarre melding of epochs leads to confusion. If the battling armies have guns, why not just use them instead of inefficiently hacking each other up? I would have preferred going all the way into today’s world and the production making a strong statement about the devious, manipulative nature of power being just as true in our corporate, social-media driven times as it was centuries ago.
   This mismatching leads to one of too many sore-thumb moments: the fiery Hotspur shooting his computer at the conclusion of the scene with his equally hot-tempered lady. The action made no sense. Apparently he does so in frustration at the machine’s constant interruptions, but that was not conveyed by the actor (an otherwise fine Timothy Adam Venable) or the direction.

On the plus side, Epstein establishes a strong link with Henry Clarke’s complex Prince Hal, the king’s rebellious son. Their final deathbed confrontation is truly moving as the dying monarch passes on words of affection along with advice on ruling England by distraction in foreign wars—talk about relevance to today’s political scene. The athletic Clarke spiritedly puts across Hal’s youthful exuberance as well as his calculating machinations to use Falstaff and his cronies to advance his reputation once he has shunned them. Malcolm Ingram makes for a jolly and entertaining Falstaff, particularly when leading the audience in a “catechism” on the foolishness of honor on the battlefield.
   There are also valuable contributions from Robert Lohbauer’s precise Lord Chief Justice and Ariel Block’s boisterous Mistress Quickly. The most affecting sequence in the production involves Ingram, Block as Justice Silence, and Kevin G. Coleman as Justice Shallow. All three as elderly compatriots attempt a merry dance from their youth. As they clumsily and comically execute the steps, we see a trio attempt to briefly recapture the joy of their earlier revels and note the cruelty of passing time. The reigns of both Henrys (father and son), Hotspur’s meteoric rise and fall, Falstaff’s mad carousing—all will pass in a blink, and this short dance encapsulates this speed of that passing. It’s a moving, funny, and sad moment. If only there had been more like it in this uneven production.

August 11, 2014
Ariadne in Naxos
Glimmerglass Festival

Reviewed by David Sheward

Setting Richard Strauss’s delightful dual-personality opera Ariadne in Naxos in 2014 doesn’t sound like it would work, but the Glimmerglass Festival’s sparkling modern take, staged by artistic director Francesca Zambello, somehow does. The original takes places in the 18th-century home of the richest man in Vienna, where an opera composer and his diva are forced to share the stage with a troupe of low-comedy dancers. The two factions clash during a prologue, and, in the second act, high art and popular entertainment blend as the composer’s piece combines with the comic group’s improvisations, led by the enchanting Zerbinetta.
   With the aid of set designer Troy Hourie and costume designer Erik Teague, Zambello has transported the proceedings to a barn on an estate in upstate New York, somewhere in the vicinity of the real festival’s location, Cooperstown. There’s even a live goat and chicken to enhance the rural atmosphere. The composer, a trouser role written for a soprano voice, is played as a woman, which leads to a lesbian connection between the musician and Zerbinetta. The “modern” portions of the libretto (the prologue and the dancers’ lines) are sung in English (the witty adaptation is by Kelly Rourke), and the opera-within-in-an-opera is sung in the original German.
   Just as the diverse elements of Strauss’s conceit complement one another, the contemporary setting accentuates the theme of grand music integrated with burlesque guffaws without distracting from it. Zambello skillfully puts across both the ridiculous and the sublime.

In the first category, the comedians led by Rachele Gilmore’s raucously divine Zerbinetta, provide plenty of diversion. Gilmore lends sparkle and panache to Zerbinetta’s extended aria that celebrates the character’s joie de vivre. Wielding a pair of black ostrich fans like a Follies Bergère headliner, Gilmore is a dazzling charmer. Carlton Ford offers sturdy and sexy support as her chief sidekick Harlequin. Representing the sublime, Christine Goerke displays a masterful, rich dramatic soprano in her Ariadne moments of despair and yearning and is ticklishly amusing as the temperamental diva in the prologue. She definitely has a future playing Wagner’s large-voiced heroines.
   Corey Bix admirably fills the tenor role opposite Ariadne, and Catherine Martin expertly limns the composer’s neurotic fussiness and her infatuation with Zerbinetta. Offering valuable contributions are Adam Cioffari as a savvy agent; Wynn Harmon as the officious manager of the estate; John Kapusta as a snippy choreographer; and Jeni Houser, Beth Lytwynec, and Jacqueline Echols as a trio of nymphs.
   All opera directors should look at this production to learn how to successfully transpose classic works to modern settings.

July 25, 2014
Holler If Ya Hear Me
Palace Theatre

Reviewed by David Sheward

The advertising copy for Holler If Ya Hear Me proclaims the show as a groundbreaking new musical in the tradition of Show Boat, West Side Story, Hair, and Rent. There is some truth in this hype. This is the first Broadway show to fully employ the rap sound that has been dominating the music industry for two decades. ( In the Heights contains rap elements, but its score is mostly in the conventional Main Stem vein.) Holler uses the music and lyrics of the late Tupac Shakur with very little traditional singing. Almost all of the songs are delivered in the talk-rap style; and Daryl Waters, credited with music supervision, orchestration and arrangements, has done an exemplary job of molding Shakur’s dynamic, gritty anthems of love, rage, and frustration to a theatrical setting.
   Though the form is indeed new—for Broadway that is—Todd Kriedler’s book is as clichéd as a 1930s Warner Bros. flick. The central story of an ex-con attempting to go straight but being drawn back into his criminal past is as old as James Cagney, Humphrey Bogart, and the Dead End Kids. Instead of a biographical approach, à la Jersey Boys and Beautiful: The Carole King Musical, Kriedler uses Shakur’s oeuvre to tell a fictional, familiar story. John, an aspiring poet and artist, has just been released from prison and wants only to earn enough at the local garage to pay his rent and be left in peace. But his friend Benny has been killed in a drive-by shooting, and Benny’s brother Vertus, an enterprising drug dealer, is being shaken down by a rival gang of young upstarts. (Just like Tony being dragged back into the Jets in West Side Story.) Will John scrap his future and go back to those mean streets? Three guesses as to make happens. It’s hard to care about these characters because the structure is so shopworn and undeveloped. Even the time and setting are vague. The program proclaims them as “Now” and “on My Block, a Midwestern industrial city.”
   Fortunately, director Kenny Leon (who won a Tony for his revival of A Raisin in the Sun) infuses the staging with vitality, and Wayne Cilento provides fresh, explosive choreography. Mike Baldassari’s lighting and Zachary Borovay’s projections provide exciting, concert-like effects and shift the scenes from realism to the fantasy world of John’s lyrics and drawings. John Shivers and David Patridge’s sound design is high in volume but too often gets blurry so the words are incomprehensible, a major drawback in a show celebrating words as a means of expression.
   The cast also adds dimension to Kreidler’s thin creations. Rap artist Saul Williams captures John’s edgy fury, and his musical performances of Shakur’s bombastic lyrics are like volcanic eruptions. Tonya Pinkins gives a new variation on the supportive mother role, and John Earl Jelks is infinitely moving as a brain-damaged street preacher. Saycon Sengbloh finds depth in the long-suffering girlfriend role and gives a lovely rendition of Shakur’s hit “Unconditional Love” with Williams.
   Shakur was a victim of the senseless violence depicted here, and it’s refreshing to see that reality and a segment of America not usually reflected on Broadway. Too bad this Holler is more like a shout we’ve heard before.

June 30, 2014
Arrivals and Departures
Brits Off Broadway at 59E59 Theaters

Reviewed by Jerry Beal

or anyone who has ever sat in a theater and been transported to a place where words cannot express his or her feelings, the spell Alan Ayckbourn has woven here will be quite recognizable. At age 75, after nearly four decades of writing plays, with 78 now having been produced, he has managed to create yet another masterpiece.
   An elaborate scheme to trap a supposed terrorist at a railway station is being rehearsed, as two unexpected parties to the event arrive. One is Esme, an expelled army officer (a brilliant Elizabeth Boag), who is there to guard the soon-to-arrive witness Barry (an equally brilliant Kim Wall) who, because of a prior unseen event, is in the best position to identify the suspect. Esme is clearly bearing heavy emotional baggage and does not want to be here; Barry is a wildly idiosyncratic blend of pixie, eccentric, child, and the person at any social gathering from whom everyone will do anything to get away. As Barry continually and unsuccessfully tries to make contact with her, scenes from Esme’s past keep appearing, so we gradually learn what has brought her to her current state. By the close of the first act, she reveals the life-changing secret she has been carrying.
   Then Act 2 begins, and the remarkable Ayckbourn pulls another rabbit out of his seemingly bottomless hat. At first, it appears we’re going to watch Act 1 all over again, word for word, except for one change: Barry and Esme are on opposite sides of the stage from where we last saw them. And then we see why: Just as Esme’s past life seems ready to unfold once again, this time it isn’t Esme’s past but Barry’s that comes out, shifting the entire tenor of the action. The show becomes a balancing act between two hurt and searching souls. And as we move toward a climax, trying to imagine how all this will end, Ayckbourn once again removes the rug from under us, leaving a measure of shatter and uplift at the same time.
   Supporting the two dazzling principals is a peerless Ayckbourn ensemble, seven of whom are also in The Time of My Life, in repertory here with a third evening of two shorter pieces. The author again directs, abetted by flawless set, lighting, and costume design. For those of us who can’t survive without another Ayckbourn to see, A Small Family Business is currently at London’s National Theatre, and a film of Life of Riley recently won a Silver Bear at the Berlin Film Festival. What more can this man do?

June 18, 2014

Just Jim Dale
Roundabout Theatre Company at the Laura Pels Theatre at the Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre

Reviewed by David Sheward

At the end of his sleek and entertaining one-man show at Roundabout Theatre Company’s intimate Laura Pels space, Jim Dale sings “I’ve done it all,” and indeed he has. In 90 dazzling minutes, the Tony-winning British performer recounts his unique career from music-hall comic to teen pop crooner to Oscar-nominated songwriter (the lyrics for “Georgy Girl”) to stage star of Broadway and the West End to the voice of the Harry Potter audio books. Directed with verve by Richard Maltby Jr. and accompanied with style by Mark York, Just Jim Dale is a fizzy, funny, and fine recap of a versatile life in this business we call show.
   Still spry at 78, Dale articulates his limbs like rubber bands and manipulates his features into any number of comic masks. He can convincingly transform into a younger version of himself delivering the pratfall that got him cast in a touring revue featuring kid comedians, as well as merrily leading the audience in a nonsensical hit tune he wrote called “Dick-A-Dum-Dum.” There are the expected excerpts from his Broadway shows, including numbers from Me and My Girl (he was taken to see the original version when he was a child and the show convinced him to become a performer) and Barnum. In the latter, after delivering them at full speed, he slows down the rapid-fire patter songs so that Mike Stewart’s intricate lyrics can be understood.
   Dale also displays his nonmusical talents with a fiery performance of the climactic monologue from Noël Coward’s Fumed Oak in which the henpecked hero raises up against the tyrannous, respectable females in his family to declare his independence. We also get the opening speech from Peter Nichols’s Joe Egg, featuring Dale as a besieged high-school teacher, the audience cast as his unruly class.
   But the real highlights of the show take place between the numbers. These are Dale’s sparkling backstage anecdotes, ancient but still-funny music-hall gags, and stories from friends in the biz. My favorites include a re-creation of his first day recording the Harry Potter books, the saga of getting the title song for “Georgy Girl” approved by two mysterious gangster-types associated with the film’s director, and a joke set in a hospital provided by Dale’s pal, actor Frank Langella. Oh, and did I mention the star is magnificent at impressions? He slips into Michael Caine and Laurence Olivier with ease. There’s also an unexpected set piece listing all the words and phrases Shakespeare invented, which is almost as long and varied as Dale’s life on the stage. We’re so lucky he’s sharing it with us.

June 8, 2014
2014 Tony Predictions and Preferences
Who will win and who should win (and why should you care)?

by David Sheward

For this year’s Tonys, many of my preferences match my predictions. The biggest possible major upset could be Beautiful: The Carole King Musical snatching the Best Musical prize from A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder. The awards for Broadway’s best will be handed out on Sunday, June 8, in a star-studded ceremony at Radio City Music Hall. Here are my choices for who will win and who should.

Best Play
Prediction: All the Way

Preference: All the Way
Robert Schenkkan’s epic historical drama detailing the first year of Lyndon Baines Johnson’s presidency has already won the Drama Desk, Outer Critics Circle, Drama League, and New York Drama Critics Circle awards. There really is no competition. Act One and Casa Valentina are non-profit productions at Lincoln Center Theater and Manhattan Theatre Club, so All the Way will go all the way.

Best Musical
Prediction: A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder
Preference: A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder
   Gentleman’s Guide has won the Drama Desk, Drama League, and Outer Critics Circle awards. But there is strong support for Beautiful: The Carole King Musical, which is a favorite of the road producers, a powerful block of Tony voters. Beautiful has a score of familiar songs from a pop-music icon and tells an uplifting story of female empowerment. Gentleman’s Guide is a dark comedy about death and features intricate Gilbert-and-Sullivan lyrics. Which is more appealing to Mr. and Mrs. Middle-of-the-Road Theatergoer? The voters may award Guide Best Book and Score and even Director, and still give Best Musical to Beautiful. A similar split occurred with Urinetown and Thoroughly Modern Millie, and years later with Jersey Boys and The Drowsy Chaperone. I’m hoping Guide, the far superior show, wins over the feel-good pop fest of Beautiful.

Best Revival of a Play
Prediction: Twelfth Night
Preference: Twelfth Night
   Even though it’s no longer running, the Shakespeare’s Globe production captivated audiences, and there are promises of a return engagement.

Best Revival of a Musical
Prediction: Hedwig and the Angry Inch
Preference: Hedwig and the Angry Inch
   There are only two other nominees: Les Misérables and Violet. Neil Patrick Harris’s dynamite performance and Michael Mayer’s spectacular production will push Hedwig over the top.

Best Actor in a Play
Prediction: Bryan Cranston, All the Way
Preference: Bryan Cranston, All the Way
   The Emmy-winning lead of Breaking Bad is so much more than a TV star making his Broadway debut here. It’s a brilliant physical transformation, as well as a stunning portrayal of the larger-than-life LBJ.

Best Actress in a Play
Prediction: Audra McDonald, Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill Preference: Audra McDonald, Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill
   There are those who quibble that McDonald should be in the musical category because her performance as Billie Holiday features 15 renditions of classic tunes. But that will not prevent voters from honoring her with a record-shattering sixth Tony.

Best Actor in a Musical
Prediction: Neil Patrick Harris, Hedwig and the Angry Inch Preference: Jefferson Mays, A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder
   These two tied for the Drama Desk Award and it could happen at the Tonys, but the voting body for the DDs is much smaller than that of the Tonys, so a tie is not very likely. NPH will likely triumph: He is onstage constantly and is a big TV star. Mays already has a Tony (for I Am My Own Wife), and no one’s ever heard of him outside of NYC. But his incredibly versatile turn as all eight members of an aristocratic family was truly dazzling.

Best Actress in a Musical
Prediction: Jessie Mueller, Beautiful: The Carole King Musical Preference: Sutton Foster, Violet
   Audra McDonald is in the play category, so the musical leading-lady race is truly wide open. Mueller won the Drama Desk and will probably grab the Tony because road producers will want to give the show as much love as possible. But I preferred Foster’s intense disfigured girl even though Foster already has two Tonys.

Best Featured Actor in a Play
Prediction: Brian J. Smith, The Glass Menagerie
Preference: Mark Rylance, Twelfth Night
   Mark Rylance is a two-time Tony winner, so the voters will probably go for newcomer Brian J. Smith’s endearing Gentleman Caller. But Rylance’s Olivia was convincingly womanly. Possible spoiler: Drama Desk winner Reed Birney as the devious cross-dresser Charlotte in Casa Valentina.

Best Featured Actress in a Play
Prediction: Celia Keenan-Bolger, The Glass Menagerie
Preference: Sophie Okonedo, A Raisin in the Sun
   Both are worthy, but I preferred Okonedo’s searing Ruth in Raisin.

Best Featured Actor in a Musical
Prediction: James Monroe Inglehart, Aladdin
Preference: Nick Cordero, Bullets Over Broadway
   Inglehart’s tour-de-force turn as the Genie in Aladdin will overwhelm Cordero’s deliciously vicious gangster with the soul of a playwright.

Best Featured Actress in a Musical
Prediction: Laura Worsham, A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder
Preference: Linda Emond, Cabaret
   Worsham has a lovely soprano voice, but I preferred her co-star Lisa O’Hare as the waspish temptress in Gentleman’s Guide, but the latter did not even receive a nomination. Of those in the running, Emond was the beating heart of her production. Her Fräulein Schneider was a real woman dealing with impossible choices.

Best Director of a Play
Prediction/Preference: Tim Carroll, Twelfth Night

Best Director of a Musical
Prediction/Preference: Darko Tresnjak, A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder

Best Book and Score of a Musical
Prediction/Preference: A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder

Best Choreography
Prediction/Preference: Warren Carlyle, After Midnight

For the remaining categories, my predictions and preferences are the same.

Best Orchestrations: The Bridges of Madison County

Best Scenic Design:

Play: Act One
Musical: Rocky

Best Costume Design:

Play: Twelfth Night
Musical: Bullets Over Broadway

Best Lighting Design:

Play: Machinal
Musical: Hedwig and the Angry Inch

Best Sound Design:

Play: Machinal
Musical: Beautiful: The Carole King Musical

Check back after the ceremony and see how we did.

June 6, 2014

Roundabout Theatre Company at Studio 54

Reviewed by David Sheward

During “Wilkommen,” the opening number of Roundabout Theatre Company’s revival of its 1998 revival of Cabaret at Studio 54, Alan Cumming as the lascivious Emcee points to one of the sluttish chorus girls and tells the audience they danced together in the show in “the last century.” This reference to Cumming’s appearance in the previous production gets a laugh, but it yanks us out of the show’s setting, a sleazy nightclub in pre-Hitler Berlin, and into the realm of commerce and showbiz. Instead being drawn into the world of the show, we’re celebrating Cumming’s ascension to American stardom and the status of this return engagement as a cash cow for Roundabout.
   It takes awhile, but we’re gradually pulled back into a Germany on a giddy, amoral spree just before the thugs take over. The 1998 staging by Rob Marshall and Sam Mendes rethought Harold Prince’s 1966 original, which slowly seduced us into loving the fun and grime of the Kit Kat Klub, a microcosm for the country, and then bringing us up short with Nazi imagery. Marshall and Mendes brought the Third Reich front and center and made us confront it while enjoying the raucousness of the cabaret. This remounting is essentially that same show, which ran for almost six years.

Cumming is as deliciously decadent as ever, but there’s a bit too much of the celebrity winking at the audience here. We can see the actor peeking at us underneath the makeup of white foundation and heavy eye shadow. Michelle Williams makes a delightfully gamine but ultimately narcissistic Sally Bowles. She received a slamming bya a majority of the press for a weak interpretation and less than stellar musical skills. Perhaps she settled into the role by the time I saw it, but she captures Sally’s glittering attraction and insecurity. Also, her lack of song-and-dance polish works for the character, who is supposed to be a rank amateur, unlike Liza Minnelli whose performance in the film version was bafflingly razzle-dazzle. Why would this star be stuck in such a rinky-dink dive? Williams’s Sally belongs there.
   The supporting performances add depth as well. Linda Emond’s Fräulein Schneider is a sage and weary survivor. Her “What Would You Do?” becomes a Brechtian accusation, as her character rationalizes her choice to abandon a marriage to the Jewish fruit seller Herr Schultz (an equally sensitive Danny Burstein). She seems to be directly asking the audience if it could possibly follow another path? Gayle Rankin transforms the usually throwaway role of prostitute Fräulein Kost, from a punch line to a complex woman desperately eking out a living with the only means she has. Bill Heck does much with the thankless role of Cliff Bradshaw, the American writer at the center of the narrative. His is the least flashy role; this version eliminates his solo number “Why Should I Wake Up?” but adds the character’s bisexuality, inspired by the original Christopher Isherwood stories, and Heck gives full force to the inherent conflict.
   So, yes, this production inspires déjà vu, but there’s enough new blood to make this Cabaret a “wilkommen” choice.
May 26, 2014


The Cripple of Inishmaan
Michael Grandage Company at the Cort Theatre

Reviewed by David Sheward

Three is a lucky number for The Cripple of Inishmaan. Not only is this the third production of Martin McDonagh’s dark comedy in New York (seen here in 1998 and 2008) and the first on Broadway, but it’s also Daniel Radcliffe’s third Main Stem appearance following Equus and How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. Radcliffe has been impressively growing as an actor since his Harry Potter film days, and McDonagh’s farcical tragedy provides the perfect means for Radcliffe’s most intensely felt performance yet.
   He plays Billy, the titular fellow, a deformed outcast stuck on a lonely Irish island whose only means of escaping the cruelty of his fellow citizens—oddballs themselves—is to get to a nearby isle where a Hollywood film crew is shooting a documentary (the plot is inspired by the real-life making of Man of Aran in 1934). As McDonagh slowly reveals, all the residents are a strange combination of vulgarity and kindness. Radcliffe gives Billy a detailed physical and psychological life by contorting his body to convey infirmities and subtly limning the lad’s hidden yearnings beneath a deceptively simple exterior. As it turns out, Billy is just as much a mixture of savagery and compassion as his tormentors are.
   Even more impressive, Billy is not really the star of the play but just one member of McDonagh’s crazy Gaelic crew. The other residents of Inishmaan have equal time and prominence, and the cast, imported from Michael Grandage’s London production, paints in all their varying shades of grey. Sarah Greene is fiery and fierce as the egg-tossing Helen, the red-headed object of Billy’s desire; and Conor MacNeill gets maximum comic mileage out of Helen’s simplistic, telescope-obsessed brother. Pat Shortt hilariously embodies the town gossip. Gillian Hanna and Ingrid Craigie are endearingly daffy as the aunts who care for Billy.
   With the aid of his designers Christopher Oram (sets and costumes) and Paule Constable (lighting), Grandage creates a small, craggy, harsh, but wildly funny world for the Inishmaaners to inhabit.

May 18, 2014
Hedwig and the Angry Inch
Belasco Theatre

Reviewed by David Sheward

Neil Patrick Harris is the new king, queen, or whatever royal personage you choose, of Broadway thanks to his electrifying performance in the title role of this revival of the 1998 cult rock musical. Descending from the upper reaches of the Belasco Theatre, looking resplendently decadent in Arianne Phillips’s trashy-chic duds, Harris starts the evening off with a sleazy bang. As the 95-minute evening progresses, he banishes all thoughts of Doogie and Barney from How I Met Your Mother, the TV roles that made him famous, as he takes on the flamboyant Hedwig, a German transgender wannabe rock star. Combining standup comedy, dramatic intensity, and a hard-rock voice, Harris alternately dazzles and convulses us.
   As in the original staging of this mock concert, the title character is performing a one-night stand while her ex-lover Tommy Gnosis is blasting out a sold-out gig next door. Only now instead of a little club, Hedwig is in a Broadway theater, conveniently available after a musical version of The Hurt Locker closed during intermission—Julian Crouch’s brilliantly funny set incorporates elements of the fictional flop—while Tommy has taken over Times Square. In between Stephen Trask’s blistering songs, Hedwig delivers her bizarre life story of enduring political upheaval in her native country as a “girly boy,” falling in love with an African-American GI, and being mutilated in a botched sex change operation. The second half of the title refers to what is left of Hedwig’s genitals and is the name of her band, lead by her Estonian-Jewish husband Yitzhak (a powerful Lena Hall in another example of cross-gender casting.) The book, by John Cameron Mitchell, who also originated the title role, still stings and has been tweaked with contemporary theater references.

The only problem here is the sheer wattage of Harris’s luminosity and director Michael Mayer’s colossal production. Filling the demands of a Broadway house and the expectations of a Broadway audience, Mayer has transformed the intimate original into a spectacle with explosive lighting effects by Kevin Adams and imaginative projections by Benjamin Pearcy for 59 Productions. Likewise, Harris is giving a magnificent star turn. But Hedwig is not a star, and her one-night concert is not a triumph. She is degraded by her former lover’s abandonment, but she pulls herself together after stripping off her wig and feathers and staggers into the street almost naked. In the original production, Mitchell was heartbreakingly shattered at his final exit. But Harris’s unstoppable Hedwig will no doubt go on to a magnificent career and the cover of Rolling Stone. Though this Hedwig is a rocking good time, it’s as not as effective nor moving as the original.

May 5, 2014
Of Mice and Men
Longacre Theater

Reviewed by David Sheward

Okay, we all know that James Franco can do just about anything well—star and direct movies, write novels, act on a soap opera, study Romantic literature in grad school, host the Oscars (well, maybe not that last one so well). Franco can now add Broadway debut to this eclectic list of accomplishments, and he wisely chose not to make it in a flashy star vehicle like, say, Hamlet. Instead, he’s a part of a nearly seamless ensemble in a sterling production of Of Mice and Men, John Steinbeck’s American classic of loneliness during the Great Depression.
   Derived from Steinbeck’s novella, Mice premiered on Broadway in 1937 and its misfit migrant-worker heroes—the clever and compassionate George and his mentally challenged but colossally strong companion Lennie—entered the mythos of popular culture. Not only is the book a staple of middle-school English classes, but the images of the mismatched pair spinning tales of owning their own place and tending to the soft rabbits Lennie loves has permeated into our mindhive thanks to innumerable parodies in comedy sketches and Warner Bros. cartoons. Director Anna D. Shapiro returns this tale of friendship amid economic deprivation to its roots, emphasizing that this is a story of disconnected people seeking a home.

George and Lennie have been cast adrift by the country’s financial ruin but seek to save up enough to buy their own place together. As they settle into a new ranch, it appears they may realize their dream with the cooperation of the elderly Candy, who has saved up a few hundred dollars of compensation money thanks to a disfiguring accident. But when the foreman Curley’s flirtatious wife, who isn’t even named, starts making trouble, their ambitions are dashed.
   All of the other characters are mystified by George and Lennie’s connection—the nasty Curley even hints it may be a gay relationship. What they are is envious of the unlikely pair’s bond. Each of the others is alone. Candy’s only friend is his old dog, who is put down by the other workers for smelling bad. The black stable hand Crooks is ostracized because of his race. Even Curley’s desperate spouse longs for company and is accused of being a tramp because the only people she can talk to at the ranch are men. As Shapiro did with August: Osage County, she mines the misunderstood striving for connection between volatile characters to create theatrical fireworks. She is aided by Todd Rosenthal’s poetic set, which blends specific details with a vast depiction of the empty spaces of California farmland.

Franco gives an understated but convincing account of George and allows the spotlight to shine on his fellow players. Irish actor Chris O’Dowd captures Lennie’s sweet, childlike nature and the savage rage that occasionally emerges; he’s sort of like a cute baby with the strength of the Incredible Hulk. Jim Norton is tragically intense as the forlorn Candy. The blank look on his face as his dog is being executed is shattering. As the resentful Crooks, Ron Cephas Jones is equally adept at conveying his character’s isolation. Leighton Meester of TV’s Gossip Girl as Curley’s wife gives the only shallow performance in this otherwise top-notch cast.

April 20, 2014

Bullets Over Broadway
St. James Theatre

Reviewed by David Sheward

It seemed like such a terrific idea: a musical version of Woody Allen’s hilarious 1994 Jazz Age film comedy Bullets Over Broadway, directed and choreographed by the ever-imaginative Susan Stroman, with flavorful songs from the period for the score. But there have been a couple of slips between conception and execution. Rather than an enjoyably zany cartoon along the lines of the original movie or Stroman’s delightfully oofy theatricalization of Mel Brooks’s The Producers—another cinematic gem with a showbiz story—the stage
Bullets is closer to Allen’s disappointing 1996 patchwork musical movie Everyone Says I Love You. In both Woody misfires, individual pieces succeed in tickling the funny bone but fail to fit together into an integrated whole.
   The basic plot, derived from the screenplay by Allen and Douglas McGrath, is still ingenious: the only way struggling dramatist David Shayne can get his play on Broadway is to cast Olive Neal, the talent-free moll of Nick Valenti, the show’s mobster backer, as a brainy psychiatrist. During rehearsals, David discovers Olive’s brutish bodyguard Cheech is a masterful instinctive playwright and allows him to surreptitiously improve the script.

The big problem with this musical is that score of standards from the 1920s. Rather than commission original songs that would have flowed into Allen’s libretto, melodies such as “I’m Sitting on Top of the World” and “A New Day Dawning” are shoehorned in, stopping the action cold and offering generic expressions of character such as “I’m happy now” or “Things seem to be improving.” There are a few additional new, situation-specific lyrics by music supervisor Glen Kelly, but they go don’t far enough to redress this near-fatal flaw.
   To compound the musical oddness, the song choices don’t always fit the characters. It just sounds weird rather than funny to have the upper-crust leading lady Helen Sinclair break into a Bessie Smith number, “I Ain’t Gonna Play No Second Fiddle,” or Nick the gangster-moneyman wrap up the whole crazy proceedings with the novelty number “Yes We Have No Bananas.” (Strangely, even Allen’s way with a one-liner fails him, and half the spoken gags fall flat.) One of the few numbers that works is Cole Porter’s deliciously risqué “Let’s Misbehave,” delivered by the screechy-voiced Olive and the play’s overweight leading man Warner Purcell, thanks to Stroman’s clever choreography and performer Brooks Ashmanskas who manages to make a three-dimensional person out of a walking sight joke with his droll performance.

Another spot-on sequence is a dynamite tap number danced by a blistering Nick Cordero as Cheech and a chorus of pinstriped thugs. Like Ashmanskas, Cordero is solid in his characterization, as is Zach Braff as the put-upon playwright, exhibiting an attractive singing voice (which he sometimes demonstrated on his TV series Scrubs) and a light comic touch. He wisely avoids imitating Allen in this obvious Woody-surrogate role.
   The rest of the ensemble is wildly uneven. Marin Mazzie’s Helen is over-the-top even for this outrageous alcoholic and sex addict. Helene York’s Olive is one-note. As David’s fiancée Ellen, Betsy Wolfe puts over her two big numbers with punch, but the character is lifeless when she isn’t singing. Likewise, the sparkling Karen Ziemba is wasted in the throwaway role of the dog-loving ingénue. Vincent Pastore is asked only to repeat Sopranos shtick as Nick, and Lenny Wolpe does what he can with the stereotypic producer.
   At least we have William Ivey Long’s dazzling costumes and Santo Loquasto’s intricate sets to distract us from the jumbled script, which even the inventive Stroman can’t salvage.

April 18, 2014

A Raisin in the Sun
Ethel Barrymore Theatre

Reviewed by David Sheward

When it was first announced that Denzel Washington would be headlining a revival of A Raisin in the Sun, I was skeptical. The classic 1959 Lorraine Hansberry drama of a Chicago family fighting poverty and racism had been revived not too long ago with rap musician-actor Sean Combs in the lead under the same director, Kenny Leon. In addition, Washington, at 59, was 20 years older than the role of Walter Lee Younger as written, and the glamorous Diahann Carroll was set to play Lena, Walter’s no-nonsense mother. It appeared the producers were more interested in star casting than in finding the most appropriate actors for the leads. Then Carroll dropped out to be replaced by the lesser-known but more down-to-earth LaTanya Richardson Jackson.
   Not only does Jackson deliver a warm, glowing performance as the loving, sometimes domineering matriarch of the Younger family, and Washington prove that he can surmount the age gap between himself and his character, but Leon conveys startling new insights more than justifying another look at Raisin. In Leon’s previous production, Combs was not equal to his co-stars Phylicia Rashad and Audra McDonald; here all the performers are at the same high level.
   It’s clear this a new, vital take on a classic even before the show starts. We hear the voice of Hansberry in a radio interview with Studs Terkel, stating that the American stage shouldn’t be confined to six blocks in Manhattan and calling for a national theater. (Fifty-five years later, her plea is still largely unheeded.) The lights come up on Sophie Okonedo as Ruth, Walter’s exhausted wife, standing behind a scrim center stage in designer Mark Thompson’s enclosed box of a set. An alarm clock pierces the silence, the scrim rises, and another day of drudgery has begun. The household slowly wakes, and Hansberry brilliantly depicts the tension among them through gritty monetary details. The couple’s young son needs 50 cents for school. Walter Lee needs a dollar for carfare. By emphasizing these details and placing the Youngers in such a small, dark space as their home, Leon creates a heartbreaking picture of the family trapped by economic pressure and driven to despair, a condition not unfamiliar to Americans of all races in 2014.
   At the performance attended, Washington’s entrance was greeted with whoops of approval, but this is no movie star turn. Thwarted by prejudice, Walter longs to escape his menial job as a chauffeur and invest the family’s anticipated insurance funds in a liquor store. When he starred in August Wilson’s Fences, Washington lacked the dramatic weight to convince as the bitter ex-baseball player Troy Maxson, and his charm worked against him. Here his boyish energy is used to convey Walter’s gnawing frustration and immaturity. He paces the cramped apartment like a young tiger trapped in a cage. The character’s age has been raised to 40, and he is totally convincing as a man forced to play a boy’s role not only by white society but also by his steel-willed mother.
   As mentioned, Jackson is perfect as the iron-fisted-velvet-gloved Lena, sweetly maternal, yet authoritative. You can see it’s hard for her to relinquish control of the family. In the play’s final moments, she cedes power to her son and lets him confront the bigoted representative of the white community the Youngers plan to move to, and a mix of emotions and memories plays across her face.
   The rest of the ensemble is expertly balanced so that Washington and Jackson do not dominate. Okonedo captures Ruth’s weary striving and yearning for a home where she doesn’t have to brave roaches or share the bathroom with the rest of the building. Anika Noni Rose is an electric wire as the impulsive, idealistic, college-age sister Beneatha. Sean Patrick Thomas and Jason Dirden are equally intense are her two very different suitors, a Nigerian exchange student and a nouveau riche snob. Stephen McKinley Henderson has a blazing cameo as Walter’s business partner, eloquently recounting how both have been scammed. David Cromer handily avoids stereotype as the white visitor, creating a frightening real, dangerously banal portrait of American racism. But Hansberry’s play goes far beyond this one issue and is not a simple political tract. Leon’s new production illuminates all the aspects of this complex work, giving us a blazing Sun.

April 12, 2014

Richard Rodgers Theatre

Reviewed by David Sheward

Heaven knows Idina Menzel is talented enough to play two different roles in a massive Broadway musical, but even she cannot save the bifurcated and bipolar If/Then. The show is an artistic failure, but it will probably be a financial success; it’s selling out thanks to Menzel’s Wicked and Frozen fans. (It’s also too long by a good 20 minutes.)
   Borrowing heavily from the 1998 Gwyneth Paltrow film Sliding Doors, this well-intentioned but ultimately befuddling and clichéd tuner follows two different possible life-paths for Elizabeth, a 40-ish city planner just moved to New York after 12 years of marriage in Arizona ended in divorce. The action starts in Madison Park as the heroine must chose between hanging out with impulsive and spunky new lesbian neighbor Kate (the sparkling LaChanze) or attending a protest meeting with her politically driven, bisexual college chum Lucas (the endearing Anthony Rapp). The premise: Seemingly insignificant choices like this one can alter your life. The script splits in two from there.
   In one scenario, the protagonist goes off with Kate, who rechristens her Lizzie, and she finds the man of her dreams, a gorgeous doctor named Josh (the robust but bland James Snyder). In the other she joins Lucas, who says she should be known by the more serious moniker Beth—so we can tell them apart, get it?—and is rewarded with a fulfilling government job but must pay for it with unhappy love affairs. Oh, and she wears glasses as Lizzie, to further help us differentiate between parallel plotlines.

Despite slick, clever staging by the always imaginative Michael Grief (Menzel and Rapp’s helmer on Rent) and fun, quirky choreography by Larry Keigwin, it’s often hard to tell what’s going on and even harder to care. There are some memorable songs by the Next to Normal team of composer Tom Kitt and lyricist Brian Yorkey, as well as witty spoken dialogue from Yorkey, but the musical seems to be saying you can either have love or career, ladies, not both.
   And then there is Menzel. She is seldom offstage, and her powerful voice fills the Richard Rodgers. Her dramatic skills go far to add dimension to Lizzie and Beth, half characters not even adding up to a single whole one. She runs the gamut from comically flummoxed after sleeping with the wrong man (“What the Fuck”) to coping with an avalanche of mixed emotions as her spouse must leave her for a tour of duty in Iraq (“I Hate You”). It’s a colossal performance that just might win her a second Tony and push the confused and confusing If/Then into the profit zone.

April 9, 2014

I Remember Mama
Transport Group Theatre Company at the Gym at Judson

Reviewed by David Sheward

Entering the Gym at Judson for Transport Group’s revival of I Remember Mama, John Van Druten’s nostalgic 1944 play about a Norwegian immigrant family in turn-of-the-century San Francisco, feels like walking into a church rummage sale. Set designer Dane Laffrey has arranged 10 antique tables, each covered with separate collections of items from a bygone era—such as paperback classics, typewriters, handkerchiefs, silverware, and black-and-white photographs. Then Barbara Barrie, a veteran actor in her 80s, enters, sits down at the table full of typewriters, and, as the narrator Katrin, summons up the figures from the play, enacted by nine other women, each with decades of experience on the stage.
   Previous Transport Group productions have made equally ingenious uses of space. The Boys in the Band placed the audience in an actual apartment for a raucous birthday party. Hello Again was set in a mysterious nightclub. See Rock City had everyone in folding beach chairs in a vast open environment for its examination of tourist spots. Here, director Jack Cummings III’s concept is just as imaginative and stunning in its simplicity. The setting is like an attic full of memory-evoking curios where the actors seemingly conjure up the fragments of the Andersons’s past.
   The episodic nature of Van Druten’s script, based on Kathryn Forbes’s fictionalized memoir and later made into a hit movie and TV series and a short-lived musical, lends itself to this scrapbook-style approach. Starting with the family’s Saturday night ritual of counting out Papa’s meager wages, we go from incident to incident, led by Barrie, a writer composing a story not unlike Forbes’s. Barrie delivers her monologues as if she were searching her character’s mind to find the threads of the past and weave them into her novel.

The all-female cast effortlessly shrugs off its years and becomes teenagers, children, boys, men, and meddling aunts. Barrie miraculously shifts between the mature writer and the self-dramatizing adolescent version of Katrin. Barbara Andres exudes maternal warmth and wisdom as the resourceful and loving Mama of the title. Despite her diminutive stature, Lynn Cohen convincingly transforms herself into the domineering Uncle Chris of whom the entire family is frightened. She also makes for an elegantly shabby Mr. Hyde, a grandiose but lovable con-man boarder.
   I also loved Phyllis Somerville’s cuddly little sister, Rita Gardner’s jittery Aunt Trina, Heather MacRae’s placid Mr. Thorkelson, and Dale Soules’s steady Papa. Along with Susan Lehman, Louise Sorel, and Alice Canon, they create a memorable memory play.

April 9, 2014
Tales From Red Vienna
Manhattan Theatre Club at NY City Center Stage I

Reviewed by David Sheward

Manhattan Theatre Club’s production of David Grimm’s Tales From Red Vienna, a so-so drama set in the early 20th century with heavy references to previous plays, gave me a touch of déjà vu. Earlier this season, MTC presented Sharr White’s The Snow Geese, a so-so drama set in the early 20th century with heavy references to previous plays. Snow Geese took place in upstate New York during World War I and contained echoes of O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night and Ibsen’s The Wild Duck—with some of Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard thrown in. Tales takes place in Vienna not long after World War I and contains echoes of O’Neill’s Anna Christie and Ibsen’s A Doll’s House. Fortunately, Tales contains three stellar performances by the leading actresses; rhythmic, dance-like direction by Kate Whoriskey; and gorgeous period sets by John Lee Beatty and costumes by Anita Yavich.
   In addition to the previously mentioned references are influences of Arthur Schnitzler’s sly sexual comedies such as La Ronde. Helena Altman, a war widow, is forced to sell her body to pay the rent. One of her clients, Hungarian journalist Bela Hoyos, is also the lover of her best friend, the ditzy, deposed countess Mutzi von Fessendorf. When Mutzi asks Helena to pretend to court Bela to cover up her own affair with him, naturally the fake tryst becomes a real one. The political climate of post-Empire Austria is evoked through the crumbling status of these former elites, as well as through acidic commentary by Helena’s sage housekeeper Edda and the anti-Semitic taunts suffered by Jewish delivery boy Rudy. Through a bizarre plot twist, Helena’s secret is exposed and she must defend her scandalous life choices, not unlike Ibsen’s Nora or O’Neill’s Anna. But these heavily imposed incidents seem like the playwright talking to us rather than the characters living their lives.
   Nina Arianda, whose sexual intensity in Venus in Fur won her a Tony Award, is equally blazing here. But now she is a real woman rather than the embodiment of sensuality in the former play, which also had an MTC production. The reliable Kathleen Chalfant offers a sharp Edda, and Tina Benko is delightfully featherheaded as the shallow Mutzi. These ladies go far to make this Viennese waltz passably entertaining, but they do not make up for the familiarity of the tune.

April 4, 2014

Les Misérables
Imperial Theatre

Reviewed by David Sheward

When I mentioned to my partner I was reviewing Les Misérables, he asked, “Why? Did it ever close?” He was under the impression the popular blockbuster based on Victor Hugo’s gargantuan novel of redemption in 19th-century France had been on Broadway continuously since it first opened there in 1987. That’s easy to understand. Only three years after that initial production closed down in 2003, another opened and ran for more than a year. Then Tim Hooper’s 2012 movie version was released and, thanks to endless renditions of several of the songs on such TV shows as Glee, The Voice, and American Idol, the show has never long been out of public consciousness.
   Now yet another version, a touring one originating in 2010, has found its way onto Broadway, and the undeniable strength of Hugo’s story and the rich score by Claude-Michel Schönberg, Alain Boublil, Jean-Marc Natel, and Herbert Kretzmer still have the power to hold and move an audience for three hours. Recast with Broadway and London A-listers, this Les Miz is definitely worth a look, whether you’re a newcomer to the show or a veteran. Directed like a locomotive by Laurence Connor and James Powell, it lacks the massive feel of the original with its huge turntable, but it achieves a grittier intimacy via Matt Kinley’s lived-in set and atmospheric projection design (the latter “realized” by Fifty-Nine Productions), inspired by Hugo’s paintings. Paule Constable’s lighting manages to convey the gloom of the downtrodden denizens without becoming too shadowy.

The two male leads provide the emotional and vocal engine to this enterprise, giving the familiar cat-and-mouse conflict between the virtuous ex-convict Jean Valjean and his relentless pursuer Inspector Javert a fresh supply of adrenaline and testosterone. Ramin Karimloo, an Iranian-born Canadian who has played the Phantom of the Opera and several Les Miz roles in London, endows Valjean with blood, sweat, tears, and a soaring voice. He starts off strong with his wronged hero snarling and biting like a feral dog and then, after the character is shown kindness by a priest, transforming into an angelic savior in movement and tone. Will Swenson as Javert reveals a steely spine unseen in his previous Broadway outings as the feckless heroes of Hair and Priscilla, Queen of the Desert.
   Caissie Levy and Nikki M. James are heartbreaking as the equally tragic Fantine and Eponine, while Cliff Saunders and Keala Settle provide much-needed comic relief as the avaricious Thenardiers. (Settle’s stunned reaction to a luscious wedding cake is one of the highlights of the show.) Andy Mientus and Samantha Hill are somewhat colorless as the lovers Marius and Cosette, as is Kyle Scatliffe as the student revolutionary Enjorlas. But Gaten Matarazzo makes the street urchin Gavroche a believable rascally kid as opposed to the obnoxious showoff we usually get.

The only major problem with this tough, intense revival is the tendency to American Idol-ize the solos with loud, prolonged “money notes.” The classic tale of faith triumphing over injustice does not require this pandering to the crowd. It’s not a competition.

March 24, 2014

A Doll’s House
Brooklyn Academy of Music

Reviewed by Jerry Beal

Before a German duke from the small town of Saxe Meiningen established his own acting company in the mid-19th century, the importance of the role of the director was barely recognized. But with the current New York theater season graced by the dazzling rethinking of The Glass Menagerie and Twelfth Night, and now by the arrival of the London Young Vic’s gift of A Doll’s House, even a theater neophyte can appreciate how a directorial imagination—in this case that of Carrie Cracknell—can thoroughly transform a classic into something fresh, invigorating, and altogether new.
   The moment one enters the Harvey Theater at Brooklyn Academy of Music, it is clear we are about to experience that Doll’s House in a different light. A living room sits diagonally across the front of the stage, leaving space behind and on either side. As the lights dim, a mix of classical and melodramatic music accompanies the revolving of the set to reveal, first, husband Torvald (Dominic Rowan) working in his office, then wife Nora (Hattie Morahan) and her two children and a deliveryman carrying a selection of Christmas presents.
   In a pantomimed sequence, Nora tips the man and instructs the children to hide any indication of the booty from their father. Thus, before an audible word has been spoken, we have seen Nora’s childlike and spendthrift ways, and the sense of isolation and secretiveness that will play a major role in the unfolding of the play’s central relationship. The other two areas of the set reveal the parents’ bedroom, usually never seen, where two key scenes later occur, and the living room, which is usually the only room we do see. The revolving stage is a steady motif of the production, which not only puts us on edge from beginning to end, but also keeps reinforcing the tension and loneliness that have permeated the house for the eight years of the marriage, unrealized by either Nora or Torvald.

What adds to the sense of watching the play as if for the first time is that the cast is English. While we have certainly heard and experienced rough-hewn Britishers, the sound and feel here are not that. The biggest effect of this element is on our perception of Krogstad, traditionally the villain of the piece. As played by Nick Fletcher, he is articulate, clear, and almost upper-class in physical and vocal manner, which humanizes him and makes him a much more sympathetic character than is customary. Especially next to Rowan’s patronizing and aggressive Torvald, Fletcher’s Krogstad is a man whose plight becomes quite understandable.
   The production is filled with images, silences, and genuine pain. Even within the naturalistic confines that Ibsen brought to the theater, this version recalls Harold Pinter. Indeed, at times it feels like a stage production of his screenplay for The Servant. The work also feels noir, with Torvald as the femme fatale predator and Nora as the victim.
   Morahan’s turn here is star-making. From her first appearance, we see the strength and determination that allowed Nora to forge her father’s signature years ago to get the money to save Torvald’s life. Her Nora may have been treated and been behaving like a child throughout her marriage, but this woman has a core and power beyond what we are accustomed to seeing. Together with a stellar group of actors, and that haunting combination of music, set design, and staging, this House, while definitely not a home, is worth a visit.

March 17, 2014


The Queen’s Company Is No Drag
Artistic director Rebecca Patterson helms distaff production of Aphra Behn’s ‘Sir Patient Fancy.’  

by Simi Horwitz

Virginia Baeta and Elisabeth Preston of The Queen’s Company, in costume for Sir Patient Fancy
Photo by Bob Pileggi

Rebecca Patterson is not saying her all-female productions shed new light on classical texts, but rather that they reveal what’s already there in a way that most current co-ed productions do not. Patterson is the founder and artistic director of The Queen’s Company, the 14-year-old New York based distaff operation that has mounted such classics as The Taming of the Shrew, School for Scandal, The Duchess of Malfi, and now Aphra Behn’s Restoration comedy Sir Patient Fancy, which will bow March 15, Off-Broadway at the Wild Project.
   “Theatergoers have told me that after seeing one of our plays, they understood it for the first time,” she says. “That’s the best compliment I can get.”
   Exquisite male actors are alive and well—most notably Ian McKellen—she says, but generally, “A female actor has the added edge in evoking the humanity of the classical male character who has a strong and accessible inner life.
   Contemporary women have a lot more in common with the renaissance man than does the contemporary man, who is discouraged from expressing an inner life,” she adds.

Passing and Tackling
   Patterson directs her female actors to “pass” as men if, indeed, they’re tackling male characters. Camp is usually discouraged. The women spend time mastering a man’s body language—posture, gait, and stride—while liberating themselves from a woman’s fear of taking up too much space.
   “Instead of bouncing on their toes and tucking in their elbows, the women allow their arms to swing freely and they learn to walk heel down, heel down,” she explains. “Vocally, there isn’t that much for the women to do in terms of preparation. If they’re playing their characters truthfully and know how to project, they will suggest men vocally as well.”
   Patterson is every bit the feminist—“unapologetically so,” she insists—and happy to give female actors the chance to play more roles, suggesting that relatively few major parts exist for women in the classics. She also acknowledges the impact drag performers have had in stretching gender boundaries and helping to inform her esthetic. Dubbing the troupe “The Queen’s Company” is at least in part a nod to the female impersonator, she admits.

Motherly Reinvention
   Patterson didn’t always have her sights set on a theater career. Indeed, the Vancouver-bred director thought she’d be a marine biologist, before launching a short-lived acting and finally directing career, earning her MFA in directing from UCLA. From the outset, she was drawn to the classics, thanks to the scale and range of the characters’ emotions revealed through intelligent and beautiful language. Not that she planned to forge a classical—let alone all-female classical—theater. But following her distaff production of Macbeth, conceived as an experiment and very well-received, creating The Queen’s Company was the logical next step. It has shared national attention with New York’s The Judith Shakespeare Company, as well as the Los Angeles Women’s Shakespeare Company.

   With the help of local and state grant money, Patterson workshops two productions per year and stages one production every two years, featuring a racially and ethnically diverse cast of approximately 10 actors, who play multiple roles. She picks works that speak to her artistic sensibilities and subtly resonate with contemporary concerns. Sir Patient Fancy, for example, explores, among other issues, how money—or the lack thereof—defines family and romantic relationships. That’s a theme that never goes out of date, she points out. “It’s raw, vital, and it’s about people following their hearts, surrounded by people attempting to control them,” she of the play. “I feel that I’m almost stepping into the world of the 1960s when people were reinventing themselves.”

Fancy Pants
   Sir Patient Fancy marks Patterson’s sixth Restoration and fourth Behn play and, like the others, it has added appeal in light of Behn’s striking biography. She was a spy, ended up in debtors prison where she started to write plays, and is acknowledged as the first woman playwright to make her living at it. She was a 17th-century high-powered career gal and, on top of that, her plays are a lot of fun to do. Still, the multiple storylines and, at times, daunting language are challenging. “Unlike Shakespeare that has a definite rhythm and structure, this does not,” Patterson says. “It’s harder for actors to memorize.”
   Down the road, she hopes to revisit The Taming of the Shrew, this time focusing on how Petruchio has evolved and, in the process, made his relationship with Kate more egalitarian. “Nobody should control anybody,” Patterson insists. “They love each other as equals as opposed to swapping roles.”
   Without changing a word of dialogue, Patterson knows she has her work cut out for her. But she welcomes the challenge. She also looks forward to the time when a distaff theater is no longer necessary because gender-blind casting will exist across the board. But that won’t happen anytime soon, she notes with regret.

March 9, 2014

All photographs by Bob Pileggi

Rebecca Patterson

Tiffany Abercrombie and Elisabeth Preston in Sir Patient Fancy

Amy Dreisler and Julia Campanelli in Sir Patient Fancy

The Bridges of Madison County
Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre

Reviewed by David Sheward

Robert James Waller’s novella The Bridges of Madison County is an icon of low culture, a trashy romance, and a smashing popular success. A bestseller in 1994 and a hit movie starring Meryl Streep and Clint Eastwood in 1996, the property was reviled by most critics as sentimental claptrap but gobbled up by the masses. The story is thin and trite, but does it work as a Broadway musical? Book-writer Marsha Norman has fleshed out what is essentially a two-character piece, and songwriter Jason Robert Brown has composed a lush and memorable score, yet, as written, this is still a Bridge too far. Fortunately, director Barlett Sher has created a fluid and moving production, and Kelli O’Hara brings quivering life and a soaring voice to the cliché-ridden leading role.
   Italian-born Iowa housewife Francesca is bored with her decent but dreary husband, Bud, who rescued her from poverty-stricken Palermo during World War II. While Bud and their two teenagers are off to the state fair for four days, Francesca meets and falls in love with National Geographic photographer Robert not long after he asks her for directions to one of the bridges of the title. After a candlelit dinner, dancing to the radio, jumping in bed, and a clandestine daytrip to Des Moines, they vow to run away together. But Francesca forgoes happiness and sexual ecstasy to stay on the farm and keep her kids on the right path. Isn’t she noble and tragic? Robert keeps a torch for her for decades until his death and he sends her a teary final letter, which she reads as the curtain falls. Isn’t he just as noble and tragic?

To alleviate the ridiculousness of Waller’s story, Norman has created an extended community for Francesca to inhabit. Now instead of just the two lovers canoodling in the kitchen, the entire town and figures from their pasts are hanging around amid the vegetables and silverware. With the aid of Michael Yeargan’s breakaway set and Donald Holder’s shifting lighting, Sher places figures from the couple’s imagination to horn in on their liaison. The effect varies the action but doesn’t contribute much otherwise. We learn that Francesca’s neighbors are a helpful lot when the crops fail, but not much else. Same for Robert’s ex-wife, who shows up to sing a Joni Mitchell–style ballad (beautifully delivered by Whitney Bashor), which doesn’t reveal much information about their relationship.
   O’Hara, a Broadway headliner who has reinvented established roles in South Pacific and The Pajama Game, pours passion, regret, and intensity into Francesca. Her opening number “To Build a Home,” in which she describes the character’s odyssey from war-torn Italy to safe but flat Iowa, becomes a complex and moving aria, supported by Brown’s beautiful violin-rich orchestrations. Steven Pasquale has the necessary silver tenor and hunky physique to portray Richard as her love-object, but he lacks dramatic weight and comes across as a boyish drifter rather than the serious lover for whom Francesca would abandon everything. Cass Morgan does quite a bit with the nosy but caring neighbor Marge, giving a whole life to a throwaway role. She, O’Hara, and Brown make this a Bridge worth crossing, but there’s a toll of excess sentiment you’ll have to pay.

February 28, 2014
Dinner With Friends
Roundabout Theatre Company at the Laura Pels Theatre at the Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre

Reviewed by David Sheward

How ironic that this revival of Donald Margulies’s Dinner With Friends opened the day before Valentine’s Day, since it pulls back the veneer of romantic love to reveal the sometimes twisted true nature of marriage. Friendship comes in for a harsh examination, as well, when two couples are forced to re-evaluate their unions and their relationships with each other. Director Pam McKinnon has gone down this path in somewhat more explicit terms with her staging of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? There, Edward Albee’s George and Martha conducted their living-room war with live ammunition. The two pairs in Margulies’s play are subtler in their exchanges—less explosive combat but just as moving.
   While visiting with her best friends Gabe and Karen, Beth reveals that her husband Tom is leaving her for another woman. The hosts automatically side with Karen as the victim, but all is not as it seems. Tom makes his case that Karen has been cold and withholding and their marriage was suffocating him. Then, in a flashback to their first meeting when Gabe and Karen introduced them during a weekend on Martha’s Vineyard, we learn Tom and Beth were incompatible from the beginning. As Beth and Tom seem to be blossoming after their divorce, Gabe and Karen question their own marriage and slowly drift apart from their formerly close friends.
   Nothing as dramatic as the deadly one-upmanship games of Virginia Woolf occurs here. Dinner With Friends chronicles the everyday changes people go through and the disappointments and compromises entailed in most friendships and marriages. McKinnon keeps the temperature low, making the small cracks in the unions all the more heartbreaking.
   The four-person cast perfectly balances Margulies’s funnier and heavier moments. Heather Burns captures Beth’s neediness, and Darren Pettie has Tom’s frustration down pat. Marin Hinkle comically limns Karen’s self-righteousness without turning her into a shrew. As Gabe, Jeremy Shamos has the most difficult assignment. This suppressed guy is able to articulate his emotions about food and cooking, but when it comes to feelings about his wife, he clams up. So the actor has to convey a lot between the lines. Shamos delivers Gabe’s repressed reactions to the chaos around him with underplayed skill and spot-on comic timing.
   With Allen Moyer’s tasteful, suggestive sets, Jane Cox’s evocative lighting, and Ilona Somogyi’s character-defining costumes, this Dinner is a complex meal worth sampling.

February 17, 2014

Billy Budd
Glyndebourne Festival Opera at the BAM Howard Gilman Opera House

Reviewed by David Sheward

Too many opera productions emphasize the beauty of the music and the voices, not the truth of the story that contains them. Michael Grandage’s magnificent staging of Benjamin Britten’s 1951 Billy Budd for the Glyndebourne Festival, now at the Brooklyn Academy of Music for a too brief stay, certainly delivers a lush performance by the London Philharmonic Orchestra under the sensitive hand of Sir Mark Elder. But it also places the audience right in the belly of Herman Melville’s heartrending drama of men at sea torn between duty and justice.
   The opera opens with the brilliant Mark Padmore standing in a single spotlight amid darkness, as the tormented Captain Vere recalling the events of 1797 aboard his ship the Indomitable. Then Paule Constable’s painterly lighting reveals Christopher Oram’s massive set re-creating the oppressive atmosphere of the vessel. There is no sky or sea visible, and an ominous wooden ceiling is lowered during the scenes taking place below decks, creating an even more claustrophobic atmosphere. Oram’s prison-like design and Grandage’s muscular direction perfectly convey the hothouse setting, which produces the opera’s tragic events.   Handsome, kindhearted new recruit Billy Budd is beloved by all his shipmates and the officers, but not by the sadistic Master-at-Arms Claggart, who makes it his mission to destroy the angelic Billy. Many scholars have found a homoerotic subtext in Claggart’s fixation on Billy. Grandage wisely hints at it, but does not overplay this explosive connection. When Billy accidentally kills the twisted Claggart, Capt. Vere must chose between his strict maritime code and compassion.
   Grandage’s thrilling staging puts us right in the hold with the struggling sailors and above decks with their conflicted officers. The exciting battle sequence featuring the entire crew, a huge cast including several small boys playing “powder monkeys” bringing up the fuel for a brace of canons, is as blood-quickening as any shoot-’em-up Hollywood action movie.
   Jacques Imbrailo delivers an intense, layered performance as the title character, dramatically and vocally. His light, soaring baritone channels Billy’s innate sweetness and joy for life in his earlier arias as well as the soft, sad acceptance of the young sailor’s execution for murdering Claggart. Brindley Sherratt’s dark-as-Darth-Vader bass is the ideal instrument to give life to the obsessive Master-at-Arms. His delivery of Claggart’s solo explaining why Claggart hates Billy is truly frightening. But the real heart of the production is Padmore’s Vere. The tenor pours the warring emotions of the tormented commander into the demanding role. What could easily have been melodrama becomes a painful journey of an intelligent, moral man seeking the correct path in a dangerous, cruel world (the libretto by E.M. Forster and Eric Crozier often describes the ship as a microcosm of the entire universe).
   There is also admirable work by Jeremy White as the wise old salt Dansker, Peter Gijsbertsen as the spineless Novice, and Stephen Gad and Darren Jeffrey as two of Vere’s gung-ho officers.
   This stunning production is an example of the power of opera, but unfortunately it is playing BAM for only a few more performances. So, hurry before this ship sails.

February 9, 2014
Little Me
City Center

Reviewed by Jerry Beal

Neil Simon. Cy Coleman. Carolyn Leigh. Bob Fosse. Sid Caesar. Put them all together and the result is this 1962 piece of musical theater insanity, which, 52 years later, with a glorious cast working under John Rando’s inspired direction, still produces nearly three hours of audience hysteria.
   The faux memoir by Patrick Dennis (Auntie Mame) on which this show is based consists of the retelling of the life and loves of Belle Poitrine (dust off your French dictionary). From a shack in Venezuela, Ill., to fame in vaudeville after the shooting of her 88-year-old paramour (Chicago, anyone?), to a transatlantic voyage on which her amnesiac French husband drowns while forgetting how to swim, to Hollywood stardom as an actress then director when her washed-up German director–turned–delicatessen delivery man inadvertently stabs himself with a real knife because the prop man couldn’t find a fake one anywhere in Hollywood, Belle manages to survive and prosper. And within all of this breathless craziness is a sharp satire of fame and tell-all confessional writing, abetted by a score that matches the tone with an exquisite array of jazz-inflected numbers.
   Book-writer Simon and his fellow creators had little doubt that the incomparable actor-comedian Caesar was the only choice for the seven lovers. But while there may never again be anyone who can match the energy, rhythms, versatility, and just plain brilliance of Caesar, Christian Borle brings his own vast array of skills to the roles. The burlesque humor that defines the show may have a very Jewish feel, but Borle, with occasional lapses while essaying two much older characters, is more than up to the task. Without having to fill shoes nearly as large, Rachel York as Young Belle is a wonder. Her singling, timing, and stage presence make the show about Belle. Judy Kaye brings her shine to Older Belle, and the support of Broadway stalwarts Tony Yazbeck (“I’ve Got Your Number”), Lewis J. Stadlen and Lee Wilkof (“Be a Performer”), Harriet Harris, David Garrison, and a remarkable group of dancers makes this an ensemble of the first order.
   Little Me came as the oft-named Golden Age of Musicals was coming to a close; it lost steam from arriving in the midst of a newspaper strike, and its competition was another of the great farces, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. As Encores artistic director Jack Viertel, in addressing an audience filled with school groups, said, “I have no idea what educational value you’ll get from this show. But it will show you the value of laughter at any time.”

February 6, 2014

King Lear
Chichester Festival Theatre at BAM Harvey Theater

Reviewed by David Sheward

The final scene in the Chichester Festival Theater’s production of King Lear is a bold variation on one of the most familiar endings in all of Shakespeare. Instead of carrying on his dead daughter Cordelia as most Lears do, Frank Langella drags her lifeless body in from the wings. The first sight of them together is shocking, sad, and perfectly logical. The formerly mad monarch is in his 80s and has just slain his daughter’s assassin, so it makes sense that he would not have the strength to pick her up. Most Lears take this climactic moment to draw attention to themselves with a curtain-falling histrionic display, but Langella focuses on the character’s weakness as he futilely shakes Cordelia’s nonresponsive form, desperately attempting to bring her back to life. It’s a truly heartbreaking finale.
   But, this innovative climax is the one of the few startlingly intense sequences in an otherwise by-the-numbers production from director Angus Jackson. The American Langella is supported by a competent British cast, but they fail to elicit the passion and purpose to make an oft-produced classic come to new life. There is a spark of bad-boy humor in Max Bennett’s evil Edmund and a nasty, oft-center quirk to Lauren O’Neil’s crafty Regan, but these are not enough to lift the production to above-average status.
     Luckily, Langella is fascinating to watch in the aforementioned ending and in a frightening mad scene. After having been driven insane by his thankless daughters Goneril and Regan, Lear encounters the blind Gloucester on a desolate beach. The two men, abandoned by their offspring, counsel each other with seeming gibberish that is strangely wise. Langella effortlessly switches from pitiful old fool to psychotic madman. One minute he is tenderly cradling the pathetic Gloucester, and the next he is strangling him while laughing maniacally. Langella also conveys the king’s strength hobbled by the infirmities of age as he stoops and shuffles slowly.
   Jackson’s is a perfectly valid production, it’s just not very exciting or involving. Robert Innes Hopkins’s wooden set resembles a lodge in a mountain resort. Late in the action, a series of dark beams lowers a few inches to convey the desolation of the realm. Oooo, scary! There is also full-blown storm with tons of real water as Lear rages at his fate, but all that rain doesn’t make a convincing tragedy blossom.

January 23, 2014

David Sheward’s Best of 2013
Our critic names his top ten New York productions

Twelfth Night/Richard III
Shakespeare’s Globe at the Belasco Theatre
   Mark Rylance tackled a pair of diverse roles in repertory at the Belasco Theater after a smash hit run at Shakespeare’s Globe in London. In keeping with Elizabethan tradition, all the female roles are played by men, and Rylance makes a convincingly icy Olivia who melts into a giddy lovestruck gal in Twelfth Night and a tyrannical usurper with an evil sense of humor in Richard III. In both roles, Rylance creates the illusion that these immortal lines are being spoken for the first time, a feat worth the price of two admissions.

Here Lies Love
Public Theater
   Pop, rock, disco, politics, and stunning theatrical imagination combine in this innovative bracingly original event—one hesitates to call it something as ordinary as a show—which stretches the musical genre in form and content. Conceived by David Bryne of Talking Heads fame and employing a richly evocative score by Byrne, Fatboy Slim, Tom Gandey, and J Pardo, Love tells the story of Imelda Marcos’s relentless rise to power as First Lady of the Philippines. The audience mixed and mingled with the actors, becoming part of the story.

Fun Home
Public Theater
   We’ve had many musicals about gay men finding their identities, but this moving and insightful tuner puts the spotlight on a lesbian’s coming-out story. The score features warm, sweet music by Jeanine Tesori and clever, character-defining lyrics by Lisa Kron. Michael Ceveris, Judy Kuhn, Beth Malone, Alexandra Socha, and Sydney Lucas give powerful performances in one of the best musicals on or Off-Broadway in recent years.

Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812
   An electro-pop musical based on a section of War and Peace? Sounds like a recipe for disaster, but Dave Malloy’s eclectic score strikingly tells the 19th-century story in 21st-century terms. The action, staged with dexterity by Rachel Chavkin, unfolds all around you in a dinner-theater setting. Passion, Napoleonic battles, and vodka shots, what more could you want?

Photo by Chad Batka


Shubert Theater
   Based on Roald Dahl’s beloved children’s book, this hit from London offers a nasty, twisted, and totally joyful view of youngsters and the adjustments they face on the path to adulthood. Bertie Carvel in drag as the hideous Miss Trunchbull nearly stole the show. Resembling the living gargoyle from a famous episode of Jonny Quest, Carvel created a grotesque monster who still retains a touch of femininity. It’s a brilliantly funny performance in a brilliant family musical that doesn’t talk down to kids.

The Glass Menagerie
Booth Theater
   This beloved Tennessee Williams classic has been produced so many times, it’s hard to imagine anyone breathing new life into it. But director John Tiffany has stripped the play of its externals and delivered it to us, fresh, alive, and powerful. Cherry Jones, Zachary Quinto, Celia Keenan-Bolger, and Brian J. Smith offer career-defining performances.

Mr. Burns, a Post-Electric Play
Playwrights Horizons
   In this bizarre, brilliant play, playwright Anne Washburn shows that by telling and retelling the same stories—in this case, episodes of The Simpsons in a post-apocalyptic future—art in general and theater in particular rejuvenates the human spirit. That’s a bit weighty and belies the seemingly trivial nature of much of the action. Yet, thanks to Steve Cosson’s simultaneously dark and hilarious staging and the unself-conscious performances of a tight ensemble, it somehow works.

A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder
Walter Kerr Theatre
   The dazzling Jefferson Mays playing eight murder victims is not the only highlight of this witty musical derived from the novel that also inspired the classic film comedy Kind Hearts and Coronets. There’s also the dashing and charismatic Bryce Pinkham, the gorgeous and razor-sharp Lisa O’Hare, the sweet and charming Lauren Worsham, the delightfully droll Jane Carr, a hardworking and fun-loving six-person ensemble, plus the cleverest staging and the most enjoyable score in quite some time.

The Night Alive
Donmar Warehouse at Atlantic Theater Company
   Many of his previous plays have supernatural elements, but there are no ghosts, vampires, or devils in Conor McPherson’s new play about downtrodden Dublin folk. But this tale of a lonely drifter and a pathetic prostitute is haunting nonetheless.

Macbeth (Alan Cumming version)
Barrymore Theatre
   Not to be confused with the middling Ethan Hawke production now at Lincoln Center. Set in a bleak isolation ward of a mental facility, this bold staging casts Cumming as a patient acting out Shakespeare’s tale under the watchful eyes of several surveillance cameras and two attendants. Through the harrowing tales of both the driven Thane and the tormented mental case enacting the story, Cummings unsparingly leads us into dark and frightening corridors of the human mind.
December 31, 2013

Lincoln Center Theater at the Vivian Beaumont Theatre

Reviewed by David Sheward

he real balance of power in Jack O’Brien’s gimmicky but flabby staging of Macbeth at Lincoln Center’s Vivian Beaumont Theatre is revealed during the famous Act IV confrontation between the thane and the weird sisters. Macbeth demands to know his complete future; and, when the witches demur, he threatens them with an eternal curse. In most productions, the ghastly women are frightened of this powerful mortal and give in to him. Here, they scornfully laugh at the Scottish tyrant as if to say, “Back off, bitch, we’re in charge here!” Similarly, Ethan Hawke’s puny Macbeth is no match for seasoned pros Byron Jennings, John Glover, and Malcolm Gets cross-dressing and camping it up as the three witches. In addition, these hags are backed by Hecate, their satanic leader, a character who is usually cut, and a coterie of acrobatic demons crawling all over Scott Pask’s elaborate set.
   O’Brien, who has given us a magnificent combination of the two parts of
Henry IV, also at the Beaumont, stumbles here. He piles on numerous pieces of spooky stage business as if the Shakespearean classic were a Steven King novel, diminishing the impact of the Bard’s theme of hubris and human destiny. For example, as Macbeth is offstage dispatching King Duncan, a bouquet of roses artfully sheds scarlet petals (blood, get it?). The rain of petals continues as the thane and his fiend-like spouse deliberate on their gruesome actions, totally distracting us from their conflict.
  But even the most overblown production can be saved by a strong leading man. Unfortunately, Hawke is not that savior. Though impressive physically and still strikingly handsome, the film star has a limited vocal and emotional range. He has only two levels on his actor’s barometer: mumbling incoherence and child-like temper tantrums. So we don’t get Macbeth’s slow transformation from decent, loyal solider to conniving plotter to doomed madman. British actor Anne-Marie Duff, making her American debut as Lady Macduff, has strong moments, but she’s mostly overwhelmed by O’Brien’s devices. In the sleepwalking scene, he has Hecate double as the handmaiden, and Francesca Faridany as the wicked spirit steals it.
   Likewise, Jennings, Glover, and Gets as the witches appear in many other guises—including the bloody soldier, the porter, and various messengers. This is a perfectly valid choice, displaying the otherworldly influences on the action. But these stage vets have such a ball whooping it up and acting all “witchy,” they and Faridany take over the whole show. In the large supporting cast, only Brian d’Arcy James emerges with an intense, believable characterization for his Banquo, but then O’Brien overdoes that too by having about a dozen knives sticking into his ghost’s throat.
Macbeth is a fun Halloween scarefest, but for a searing insight into the complex mind of a man ruined by ambition, I’ll take Alan Cumming’s near-solo version from last season or wait for Kenneth Branagh’s production due next spring.
December 20, 2013
And Away We Go
The Pearl Theatre Company

Reviewed by David Sheward

Terrence McNally has written about his love of opera in such valentines to the genre as The Golden Age, Master Class, and The Lisbon Traviata. Now he waxes rhapsodic on his native form, the theater, in a pastiche history lesson called And Away We Go, written especially for the Pearl Theatre Company, one of the few Off-Broadway companies to employ a roster of resident actors. The play opens with the six-member ensemble kissing the stage, revealing their favorite and least favorite roles and a cute anecdote about themselves. Then we launch into a zigzag History of Performance from ancient Greece to a modern financially strapped regional company with both groups staging the Oresteia. There are stops along the way in Elizabethan England, pre-Revolutionary France and Russia, and at the Coconut Grove Playhouse in Coral Gables, Fla., for the pre-Broadway tryout of Beckett’s Waiting for Godot.
   The set, by Sandra Goldmark, is a gigantic backstage workshop–rehearsal area–green room where the lives of the theater folk overlap and intersect. The concept is cute, sweet, and charming, but Away fails to convey the passion of the plays it references. McNally’s figures are pale shadows of the House of Atreus, King Lear, Treplev and Arkadina, and Estragon and Vladimir. Perhaps that was McNally’s intention: a light, loving tribute to the great theater practitioners without taxing the audience’s emotional muscles.
   Despite the zippy direction of Jack Cummings III, even at an intermissionless hour and 45 minutes, the play feels stretched out with the sketchy vignettes of behind-the-scenes drama unable to bear the heavy weight McNally imposes on them. The cast, most of whom are members of the Pearl Resident Acting Company, have great fun playing multiple roles and occasionally achieve a tangible reality beyond the amusing accents. Carol Schultz imparts the devastation of dashed dreams as the head of the contemporary company facing bankruptcy. Rachel Botchan is fiery and fierce as a female enthusiast forbidden from participating onstage during the Greek drama festival. Donna Lynne Champlin is tough as nails as the protective wife of an offstage Bert Lahr, hiding in his dressing room after the disastrous Godot.
   Sean McNall has a sleek elegance as a French actor as concerned with court and bedroom intrigue as his performance. Dominic Cuskern lends austere dignity to several roles, including an officious messenger of Louis XIV and the imposing patriarch of an Elizabethan acting clan. Micah Stock is a riot as a fussy playwright and a revolutionary delivery boy. They are clearly enamored of the theater, as is McNally, but the script is a paper-thin valentine rather than a searing love letter.

December 3, 2013
No Man’s Land and
Waiting for Godot

Cort Theatre

Reviewed by David Sheward

At the curtain call for Sean Mathias’s production of Waiting for Godot, Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen perform a soft-shoe in which the headliners seem to be saying “Isn’t it wonderful that we two stars are here on Broadway, entertaining you lovely people with this cute and funny play?” The same crowd-pandering antics infuse the entire preceding production of Samuel Beckett’s bleak, existentialist classic. Yes, there is comedy in Godot, and the author envisaged clowns like Laurel and Hardy to play his woebegone tramps Estragon and Vladimir who are eternally waiting for the never-arriving title character. But the harrowing despair they experience is totally missing here. The greatness of Godot comes from its ambiguous view of life as shatteringly sad and screamingly funny. Mathias and company give us plenty of funny, but no sorrow.
   There are brief moments when we see the two viewpoints. At the opening of the second act, Stewart as Vladimir executes a brief, desperate vaudeville song and dance, but keeps breaking down as his character struggles to maintain a jolly façade masking his recognition of the futility of existence. Stewart and McKellen deliver impressive vaudevillian turns as the drifters wrestling entertainment from nothing to fill the endless void left by the mysterious Godot, who represents the purpose they are seeking. But their underlying terror of the emptiness symbolized by Stephen Brimson Lewis’s post-apocalyptic set is missing.
   The choices made by Shuler Hensley as the pompous traveler, Pozzo, compound the comic emphasis. Hensley gives Pozzo a Foghorn Leghorn–like Southern accent and plays him as broadly as that cartoon rooster. Billy Crudup as Pozzo’s animal-like servant, Lucky, achieves a despairing intensity in a rambling monologue; but without an overall tragic subtext, Godot becomes a divertissement rather than an achingly profound statement of the human condition.
   Mathias may have chosen to lighten up this Godot because it’s playing in repertory with another dark tragicomedy featuring the same four-man cast: Harold Pinter’s No Man’s Land, and he and the producers may not have wanted audiences who are seeing both to get too gloomy. Unlike the Beckett, the Pinter piece comes off as a proper balance between hilarity and horror.
   Like Vladimir and Estragon, elderly poets Spooner (McKellen) and Hirst (Stewart) are trapped in an existential wasteland where identity and memory are fluid and unreliable. Hirst appears to be a prosperous literary figure attended by two young thuggish handlers, Foster (Crudup) and Briggs (Hensley). Spooner is a down-at-heels has-been who may or may not have known Hirst during their college days at Oxford. As Hirst drowns in an ocean of booze, Spooner strives to hold on to his dignity despite bullying attempts by the two attendants to push him out of the house.
   Here the four cast members are equally uproarious and heartbreaking. You can see Hirst’s brilliant mind underneath the alcoholic wreckage in Stewart’s sensitive performance. McKellen is shatteringly pathetic in depicting Spooner’s guarded attempts to get out of this baffling situation intact. He seems like a whipped dog, wincing at every movement of those around him. Crudup and Hensley keep Foster and Briggs from being mere menacing brutes, endowing them with goals and aspirations beyond frightening the two older characters. All render Pinter’s potent dialogue with devastating humor and scary power when appropriate.
   Final score: full marks for No Man’s Land, half for Waiting for Godot.

November 24, 2013
A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder
Walter Kerr Theatre

Reviewed by David Sheward

You would think one actor playing eight roles would be the highlight of any musical production, especially when the actor is Jefferson Mays, who took on 40 personages in the one-person I Am My Own Wife. Though Mays is amazingly dexterous as an entire eccentric upper-crust British family in A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder, now on Broadway after runs at Hartford Stage and San Diego’s Old Globe Theatre, he’s not the only reason to rush to see this highly polished comic gem. There’s also the dashing and charismatic Bryce Pinkham, the gorgeous and razor-sharp Lisa O’Hare, the sweet and charming Lauren Worsham, the delightfully droll Jane Carr, a hardworking and fun-loving six-person ensemble, plus the cleverest staging and the most enjoyable score in quite some time.
   All of these elegant elements are in service of an equally elegant and somewhat familiar story, derived from an obscure 1907 novel, Israel Rank, which also serves as the basis of the classic 1949 British film comedy Kind Hearts and Coronets. Impoverished artist Monty Navarro discovers he is ninth in line to the fabulous D’Ysquith fortune and earldom. To obtain the glittering prize, he murders all eight distant relations standing in his way. In the movie, this octet was played by Alec Guinness; here, Mays takes on the daunting task.
   Woven throughout the witty and well-structured book by Robert L. Freedman are the sparkling songs featuring Steven Lutvak’s wide-ranging music and intricate lyrics by Lutvak and Freedman that recall the driest and funniest of Gilbert and Sullivan and Noël Coward.
   Employing Alexander Dodge’s toy-theater set that resembles an Edwardian-era music hall, director Darko Tresnjak devises endlessly inventive stage business to accomplish each of the murders, involving rapid-fire changes of Linda Cho’s exquisite period costumes and mad backstage dashing by Mays. It’s a breathtaking tour de force for star and stager. Mays manages to draw laughs with raised eyebrow or an upward inflection, creating a gallery of hilarious grotesques.
   But, as stated above, this is far from a one-man show. As Monty, Pinkham never leaves the stage and carries the narrative along with unflappable style and virile charm. Though his role is considerably less flashy than Mays’s, Pinkham creates a believable and sympathetic serial killer, which is no mean feat. Complicating Monty’s schemes are the seductive Sibella Hallward, married but on the make, and the innocent Phoebe D’Ysquith, a distant cousin. Both are madly in love with the would-be earl. O’Hare makes a sinfully delicious Sibella and Worsham an irresistibly adorable naïf. The high-voiced Carr is the scene-stealing Miss Shingle, a sly and secretive family retainer out to aid Monty. The small, versatile chorus shines in multiple roles; Joanna Glushak gets a stand-out cameo as the shrewish wife of the last relative Monty knocks off. She delivers as full and wacky a performance as Mays. When a supporting player, and the entire cast, is on a par with your showstopping star, you know you’ve got a hit.
November 23, 2013
Twelfth Night/Richard III
Shakespeare’s Globe at the Belasco Theatre

Reviewed by David Sheward

In a dazzling tour de force, two-time Tony winner Mark Rylance tackles a pair of diverse roles in repertory at the Belasco Theater after a smash-hit run at Shakespeare’s Globe in London. In keeping with Elizabethan tradition, all the female roles are played by men, and Rylance makes a convincing Olivia in Twelfth Night. She’s an icy lady whose mournful exterior melts when she encounters a beautiful youth who happens to be a maiden in disguise. Rylance brilliantly conveys Olivia’s haughty reserve melting into schoolgirl giddiness worthy of a Justin Bieber fan as she falls in love. In Richard III, the actor endows the tyrannical usurper with a devilish sense of humor, all the more horrifying when contrasted with his evil machinations, including murdering half his family to get to the throne. In both roles, Rylance creates the illusion that these immortal lines are being spoken for the first time, a feat worth the price of two admissions.
   The star is delivering a pair of the most naturalistic performances I’ve ever witnessed, yet the impeccable staging by Tim Carroll, the faithful period set and costumes by Jenny Tiramani, the imperceptible lighting by Stan Pressner, and the gorgeous music by Claire van Kampen played on 16th-century-style instruments place us in a highly artificial world. The audience, many of whom are seated onstage, is even treated to a preshow ritual of watching the cast don their elaborate duds and makeup, reinforcing the theatrical construct. Yet somehow this oft-kilter combination of substance and make-believe works. Carroll has created a magnificent Elizabethean playground, and his intuitive headliner plays in it like a child totally convinced it’s the real world rather than a wooden O.
   Though the rest of the cast doesn’t even approach Rylance for daring and spontaneity, it is a solid, inventive ensemble. Samuel Barnett makes a lovely Viola, the gender-bending page, and a formidable Queen Elizabeth who is one of the few royals able to stand up to the ravenous Richard. Paul Chahidi nearly steals Twelfth Night as the saucy serving maid Maria and lends dignity to the double-crossed Hastings and sliminess to the murderer Tyrell. The leonine Angus Wright uses his height and noble bearing for comic effect as the buffoonish Sir Andrew Aguecheek and, for stark contrast, to the handsome but treacherous Buckingham. Colin Hurley is a riotously raucous Sir Toby Belch, and Stephen Fry is a dry and foppish Malvolio. But the center of both shows is Rylance, who is sure to win a third Tony Award; the only difficulty voters will have is to decide for which performance.

November 14, 2013
The Jacksonian
The New Group at the Acorn Theatre

Reviewed by David Sheward

Beth Henley has always had a dark side. Even her sunniest comedy, the breakthrough Pulitzer Prize winner Crimes of the Heart, is shadowed by death and destruction. Thirty years after the Broadway premiere of that kooky tale of three eccentric Southern sisters, Henley has a much gorier tale of a bipolar dentist and his equally wacko wife. Set in 1964 Mississippi, The Jacksonian, playing Off-Broadway in a New Group production after an earlier staging at Los Angeles’s Geffen Playhouse, has plenty of killing, pedophilia, racism, and blood to go around, but it all seems gratuitous.
   Tooth doctor Bill Perch resides at the titular motel during a trial separation from his depressed spouse, Susan, who blames him for consenting to a hysterectomy for her while she was under the ether. Their acne-scarred, teenage daughter Rosy is just as gloomy during her visits. The motel staff doesn’t prove any more cheerful. Fred, the bizarre barman, is attempting to escape a murder rap and the clutches of the bubble-headed, bigoted chambermaid Eva.
   The play opens with Rosy, wrapped in a blanket and sobbing to the audience about surviving a Christmastime accident. From there, we flashback to May when this dysfunctional family’s downhill slide started. As if we are in Rosy’s confused head, we move back and forth in time as Bill loses his practice, Susan loses her mind, and Rosy loses her innocence. Suffice it to say, it doesn’t end well.

Henley has gripping themes going concerning her Southern roots: The dentist’s offstage father appears to be a klansman, and there are many references to lynchings and African-American churches being fire-bombed. There are also heaping helpings of the playwright’s trademark black humor, but the characters aren’t sufficiently developed beyond their surface quirks.
   Director Robert Falls keeps the grotesqueries from overwhelming the story while the powerhouse five-person cast largely tries for a similar balance. Ed Harris is truly dangerous as the deranged dentist, particularly in a blowup scene where the doctor is down on himself while high on nitrous oxide. Bill Pullman takes a fascinating flight from his usual nice-guy roles as the tightly wound, perverted Fred. Even his hair is scary. Amy Madigan tries her best to make more of Susan than a shrill shrew, but she isn’t given enough with which to work. Glenne Headley has a few striking, off-kilter moments as the daffy Eva. Juliet Brett plays every Southern stereotype as the misfit Rosy, as if she were enacting literary images from Carson McCullers, Flannery O’Connor, and Eudora Welty, rather than being a real person. Unfortunately, that’s only as deep the play goes.

November 7, 2013

Ethel Barrymore Theatre

Reviewed by David Sheward

Trust Mike Nichols to find the laughs in adultery. After all, in collaboration with Elaine May, he created and performed one of the most hilarious sketches on the subject during the legendary comedy duo’s nightclub days. They played three different cheating couples—American, British, and French—exposing the national character of each as they negotiated their way to a hotel room. Now, Nichols, who became the most successful stage and film director of his generation after his standup stints, makes this painful subject painfully funny in a brilliant revival of Harold Pinter’s Betrayal. A previous Broadway production (the 2000 Roundabout staging, I didn’t see the first American production in 1980) was dark and sinister, full of the predictable Pinteresque pauses. Nichols’s staging is just as evocative of the menace the Nobel Prize–winning playwright found in everyday situations like meeting for lunch or visiting friends, but Nichols also mines the hilarity inherent in these occurrences. It doesn’t hurt that he has three sexy headliners—Daniel Craig, the current James Bond; Craig’s real-life wife, Rachel Weisz; and, best of all, Rafe Spall, making his Broadway debut—as the devious and conflicted sides of Pinter’s romantic triangle.
   The play opens with the melancholy meeting between Emma (Weisz) and Jerry (Spall), clandestine lovers whose adulterous affair ended two years earlier. With a few sideways detours, we then move backward in time to the beginning of the liaison. During the journey, we see how Emma, Jerry, and Robert (Craig), Emma’s husband, have betrayed each other in numerous ways, yet they almost never speak directly about this treachery. Seemingly insignificant incidents like Jerry’s tossing of Emma’s little daughter in the air and small props such as a lace tablecloth, take on deeper resonance as we find their original meaning in chronologically earlier, but later played, scenes.
   Each of these smart people is articulate about books, art, and society, but, as in many other Pinter works, they mask their feelings behind small talk. Here’s where Nichols cleverly uses comedy to display the difference between the surface calm and the inner turmoil. The characters’ passionate actions belie their dry dialogue. Watch the way Jerry nervously eats a melon as Robert sadistically hints he may know about the affair. The audience uproariously guffaws and then is startled into silence when Robert nearly screams in anguish.
   Craig and Weisz sharply play the contrast between their characters’ calculating manipulations and their civilized exteriors. Both these film stars show they have serious stage chops, but the real find here is Spall, a British actor new to the American stage. Though it initially appears his Jerry is the biggest deceiver of all, it turns out he’s the victim of Emma and Robert. Spall feelingly displays all of Jerry’s complex motivations—genuine love as well as lust for Emma, affection for Robert—and the agonizing ache when all is taken away from him and his emotions were spent on a pair even trickier than himself. Add the malicious wit Nichols provides, and this is a perfect Pinter.

October 30, 2013

Marie Antoinette
Soho Rep

Reviewed by David Sheward

At first, it seems as if David Adjmi’s Marie Antoinette will run out of steam after about 20 minutes. The basic premise is to have the 18th-century Queen of France and her court speak and act like contemporary Kardashians, entitled bubbleheads complaining about the burdens of wealth and fame and totally clueless as to why the peasants are revolting. (“They’re always angry,” whines Marie.)
   But as the distant cries of discontent turn into the screams of terror and Marie is gradually stripped of her luxuries, the downtrodden monarch becomes a pitiful lost figure, an uncomprehending victim of history. As she is about to be beheaded, she engages in a dream-like debate with a sheep on the topics of democracy, class, and politics, which is eerie and frightening in its unsparing depiction of the forces of destiny. Marie explains she had no choice but to become a thoughtless figurehead, that’s how she was brought up. The sheep rails back that she can’t even take care of herself so how can she take care of an entire country? The dizzy, obvious comedy of the early scenes gives way to dispassionate reality, revealed in a hallucination.
    Director Rebecca Taichman masterfully balances the disparate styles of satire, fantasy, and verisimilitude, as does a skillful cast. But the chief burden is placed on Marin Ireland in the title role, and she carries it off as magnificently as she wears costumer Anka Lupes’s lush ballgown and wig designer Amanda Miller’s towering headdress. From the moment Ireland’s Marie rushes onstage at the opening, whispering an apology for being late (totally in character), to Marie’s final epiphany just before she loses her head, Ireland finds seemingly infinite variations on narcissism. She becomes a screaming, spoiled child when thwarted, a charming coquette to achieve her aims, an imprisoned lioness when her son is taken from her, and a dozen other versions of the same fascinating woman.
   Steve Rattazzi is equally complex as her ineffectual, infantile husband, King Louis XVI, and David Greenspan manages to make the sheep an intriguing symbol of the forces uprooting Marie’s world.
   The play was previously presented in more elaborate productions at Yale Repertory Theatre and American Repertory Theatre. It’s now at the intimate Off-Broadway Soho Rep, where set designer Riccardo Hernandez has reconfigured the space as a long, shallow strip with a stark white backdrop featuring the title royal’s name in raised white letters. With the aid of Stephen Strawbridge’s lighting, the confining environment transforms from a gilded cage to a stark prison with ominous shadows stretching across the blank wall. Matt Hubbs’s sound design frighteningly re-creates the sounds of the bloodthirsty mob.

October 24, 2013

The Winslow Boy
Roundabout Theatre Company at the American Airlines Theatre

Reviewed by David Sheward

The Roundabout Theatre Company has a winner with this finely tuned revival of Terrence Rattigan’s The Winslow Boy in a production by Lindsay Posner previously presented by London’s Old Vic company and recast for New York. Premiered in 1946, the play is set in the veddy proper Kensington drawing room of the upper-middle-class Winslow family on the eve of World War I (the properly understated set and costumes are by Peter McKintosh). Youngest son Ronnie has been expelled from a prestigious naval academy for allegedly stealing a postal order worth a few shillings. His stubborn father, Arthur, risks the family’s financial stability and reputation to clear the boy’s name.
   The effects of the case are catastrophic: Placid mother Grace is driven to distraction, elder brother Dickie is forced to quit college and get a banking job, and sister Catherine’s engagement to a promising military officer is endangered. Even the beloved, slightly dizzy maid Violet may lose her position. All seems lost until the celebrated, icy advocate Sir Robert Morton swoops in just before the intermission and, after a brilliantly theatrical cross-examination of Ronnie, agrees to take the case. Guess which side wins?
    It may sound a bit like an old episode of Upstairs, Downstairs, but the battle of a wronged citizen fighting an oppressive bureaucracy has contemporary resonance. Posner does somewhat indulge in stiff-upper-lip clichés with some broad comic staging, but, for the most part, he has steered his sterling cast to taking the proceedings with the utmost seriousness. Though the crime Ronnie is charged with may seem petty, the principle of having his day in court is passionately defended as vital to a free society.
   Roger Rees displays the tender heart beneath Arthur’s blustering exterior and skillfully documents the stubborn father’s physical decline as the character’s infirmity increases with each act. Alessandro Nivola effectively captures Sir Robert’s cool demeanor and biting wit. Charlotte Parry as the politically radical sister is the anchor of the play, providing much of the motivation for action, and she does a splendid job steering the plot’s course. Michael Cumpsty is endearingly oafish as her clumsy suitor and Chandler Williams is dashing and determined as his rival, the military officer.
   Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio gets more than her fair share of comic and emotive moments as the mother. Spencer David Milford conveys Ronnie’s desperate protestations of innocence as well as his vignettes of being a typical youngster more interest in going to the pictures than in his trial. Zachary Booth has the difficult assignment of playing the feckless Dickie who is mostly inserted for comic relief, but the actor handles this task with aplomb. Henny Russell steals many of her scenes as the eccentric maid. Even the tiny walk-on roles such as superficial reporter (Meredith Forlenza) and her photographer (Stephen Pilkington) are perfectly cast in this top-drawer revival.

October 19, 2013
Bad Jews
Roundabout Theatre Company at the Laura Pels Theatre Company at the Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre

Reviewed by David Sheward

Religion and relatives clash in Joshua Harmon’s blistering comedy Bad Jews, now at the Roundabout Theatre Company’s Off-Broadway Laura Pels Theater after a limited run at the company’s Underground space last season. Set in a crowded but expensive Manhattan apartment, this politically incorrect power play pits ultra-observant Daphna Feygenbaum against her spoiled secular cousin Liam Haber. Even their names are at opposite poles—Daphna was born Diana but rechristened herself after a visit to Israel, while Liam bears an Irish moniker though his Hebrew name is Schlomo. These diametrically opposed antagonists are in a death match over their just-deceased grandfather’s chai necklace, which was carried through the Holocaust.
   Daphna feels she should have it because she’s unquestionably the most religious of the grandchildren, while Liam stakes his claim as the eldest male and he wants the keepsake to propose to his Gentile girlfriend, Melody. Liam’s quieter brother Jonah seems to only desire a good night’s sleep as all four including Melody must share quarters the night before shiva for grandpa.
   Harmon asks difficult questions about cultural conflicts, including how important it is to preserve Jewish tradition in an increasingly nondenominational, melting-pot world. He doesn’t provide answers, and the characters, endowed with Harmon’s pungent and pithy dialogue, are an intensely realistic mix of petty and pure. Daphna is insufferably self-righteous but fiercely intelligent and sincere in her push for preservation. Liam may be entitled and nasty, but he’s also open and loving toward Melody, who is more than a bit shallow yet kind toward Daphna—at first. Only Jonah’s emotions remain hidden, until a startlingly climactic revelation.
   Director Daniel Aukin uses Lauren Helpern’s elegantly confined space to its best advantage. The battling four must crawl over sofa beds and inflatable mattresses, constantly butting up against each other literally and figuratively.
   Tracee Chimo miraculously keeps the obnoxious Daphna from descending into caricature. She puts across the young woman’s anger and narcissism, but also her deep insecurities. Her physical choices are also fascinating. Watch as she channels Daphna’s rage through combing out her tangled hair, venting years of indignation at Liam and his side of the family with every brutal brushstroke. Michael Zegen skillfully displays Liam’s fiery temper but also presents the young man’s side of the struggle passionately. Molly Ranson gives us an interesting mix of ditziness and determination. Philip Ettinger has probably the most challenging assignment, since Jonah is mostly reactive throughout the play and his final statement of allegiance is a silent one, yet he conveys this internal struggle with mute eloquence. They’re a brilliant quartet of Bad Jews.

October 14, 2013

The Glass Menagerie
Booth Theatre

Reviewed by David Sheward

The Glass Menagerie is one of those American classics that has been staged so many times, it’s difficult to imagine a production breathing new life into it. But just as he did with Once, director John Tiffany has stripped Tennessee Williams’s 1944 career-maker of any extraneous elements and delivered it to us, fresh, alive, and powerful. This bracing production is now at the Booth Theatre after a run at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Mass.
   Tiffany takes his central concept from the opening moments of the play. The narrator Tom, a stand-in for the young Williams, explains he has “tricks in his pockets.” Through the magic of theater he then re-creates the miserable St. Louis flat where he lived with his overbearing mother, Amanda, and pathetic, crippled sister, Laura. Tiffany emphasizes the magical and illusionary nature of Williams’s script. Laura emerges like a phantom from the sofa. Amanda suddenly appears from behind a screen. As in a dream or memory, there is barely any furnishing and no props except for a single tiny unicorn as a representative of Laura’s titular collection. The characters move with unrealistic, ballet-like gestures as if dancing in a fantasy.
   In addition, Tiffany imagines Tom is recalling his painful past while standing on a dock gazing at a dark body of water. After all, Williams explains, the narrator has left his family to roam the world as a merchant seaman. Thus set designer Bob Crowley, with the immeasurable aid of Natasha Katz’s poetic lighting, creates a bare series of platforms surrounded by a moat of black liquid. This is the only exit route, apart from an M.C. Escher-esque fire escape leading nowhere. When Laura retreats into her imaginary world, she staggers downstage and almost plunges into the inky depths. That water is the unreal realm she and Tom long to inhabit, away from the harsh sphere of typing classes and shoe factories.

In this production, Amanda, usually portrayed as an unreasonable if comical harridan, is the realistic one. In a career-defining performance, Cherry Jones tempers Amanda’s every movement with love for her children and knowledge of what it takes to survive. This is no dreamer lost in revelry of her genteel Southern girlhood. Although those monologues of Amanda’s past are delivered with vivifying detail, taking up the dance theme she moves as if she were still leading a cotillion. When Amanda learns the long-awaited gentleman caller, intended as a beau for the pitiful Laura, is already engaged, Jones’s face is frozen in a mask of civility. But the emotional turmoil underneath is clearly visible in the way she straightens the caller’s lapel and holds onto it for a few extra seconds, as if grasping her last hope for her daughter’s happiness before it vanishes.
   As Tom, Zachary Quinto is wonderfully funny when exasperated with Amanda’s fussing. He also inhabits the character both in the moment and the future as he looks back and regrets deserting her and Laura. It’s a brilliant feat of acting. Celia Keenan-Bolger is equally dazzling as his forlorn sister, making her world of glass animals and sweet music a very real place. Brian J. Smith is compassionate and endearing as Jim, the gentleman caller.

September 29, 2013
New Worlds Theatre Project at HERE

Reviewed by Simi Horwitz

Even a groundbreaking play may die with good reason, and resurrecting it serves no purpose short of reminding the viewer why it died in the first place. Regrettably, that’s the problem with Peretz Hirshbein’s 1906 Carcass, produced by the 7-year-old New Worlds Theatre Project, whose laudable mission is to present lesser-known or rarely produced Yiddish dramas that have stood the test of time and can appeal to a diverse audience through an accessible English-language translation and contemporary staging.
   In this instance that includes a lack of specificity as to when and where the play is taking place; current vernacular scattered throughout the dialogue; and a racially mixed cast of actors playing members of the same family. None of that is bothersome. The objection is to the play itself: a relentlessly overwrought—at moments, violent—family drama heavy on symbolism. All the characters in this brutal and brutalized family are the walking dead. They are all carcasses.
   Born in Russia in 1880, Hirshbein was dubbed “the Yiddish Maeterlinck” because many of Hirshbein’s plays centered on mood rather than narrative, and he was a seminal figure in paving the way for the Yiddish theater art movement that began after the end of World War I. He made a name for himself in New York with Hidden Corner and later Green Fields, thanks to their low-keyed simplicity in an era that favored melodrama on stage. Clearly, Carcass is of the Sturm und Drang esthetic.

Directed by Paul Tackas and translated by Ellen Perecman, the story centers on the evolving relationships among Avrush, a drunken, tormented shell of a man (David Greenspan); his wretchedly disappointed son, Mend’l (Alvin Keith); his abusive, shrewish wife (Kathryn Rossetter), who beats her adult daughter Reyz’l (Rebekah Levin); Reyz’l’s hapless boyfriend (Thomas Preece); and Avrush’s dying ex-wife (also played by Rossetter).
   The acting is uneven. Though the three actors and Preece attempt to be believable, Greenspan and Keith emerge from another universe altogether. They rage and wail and howl but, oddly enough, may well be a whole lot closer to the true spirit of the play than the women struggling at plausibility.   The best moments center on Mend’l channeling Marlon Brando in On the Waterfront, plaintively recalling the major regret in his life, “I couldha been a tailor,” and later Nina in The Seagull, comparing himself to animal remains, “I am a carcass.”
   The unintentional comedy does not lighten the proceedings. The play is leaden and the production feels endless though it only runs 75 minutes. Still, it’s undoubtedly of cultural interest to Yiddish theater aficionados, and unlike so many productions this one is memorable.

September 18, 2013
The Old Friends
Signature Theatre at the Pershing Square Signature Center

Reviewed by David Sheward

The plays of the late Horton Foote (The Trip to Bountiful, The Orphans’ Home Cycle, dozens of others) are marked by the quiet desperation of small-town life, usually set in his fictional Harrison, Texas. But two of the leading females in The Old Friends, a posthumously premiered work now at Signature Theatre, are anything but quiet. (The play was first written in 1965, and Foote was revising it off and on until the time of death, in 2009.) Best frenemies Gertrude and Julia are rich, destructive, and loud. Gertrude throws her money around and manipulates her social circle to accommodate her whims, while Julia constantly quarrels with her crass husband, Albert, and her mother, the long-suffering Miss Mamie. Both these nasty ladies drink like fishes, drunkenly falling out with each other, usually over men, only to kiss and make up once they sober up.
   Into this den of vipers walks Sybil, who must piece her life back together after the death of her husband, Hugo, Miss Mamie’s wastrel son. The main conflict is between Sybil and Gertrude over the attractive Howard, the manager of the widowed Gertrude’s vast farming empire who wants to strike out on his own. But there are numerous other storylines involving property, jewelry, and multigenerational family squabbles. Though the action can sometimes resemble an episode of Dallas, Foote’s poetry of the everyday still shines through. It’s there in the small details—Sybil leafing through her beloved books shipped from South America where she followed Hugo as he sought his fortune in the oil business; Miss Mamie recalling the tragedies and joys of her long life in Harrison; Howard describing the liberating feeling of flying his own plane, sold long ago to pay off mounting debts.
   The histrionics of Gertrude and Julia verge on Tennessee Williams–esque excess. Like Blanche DuBois, Gertrude cannot keep her hands off younger men, is sensitive to bared lightbulbs, and is eventually forced to confront her wasted and drunken self in a mirror. Albert threatens to shoot the flirtatious Julia more than once and almost carries out his threat. Fortunately, longtime Foote director Michael Wilson keeps the proceedings on an honest footing—forgive the pun—and even the most melodramatic moments, such as Gertrude’s volcanic trashing of Sybil’s home, have a grounded reality.
   Though Gerturde and Julia are the flashier roles, the center of the play is Sybil and, as with most New York productions of Foote’s work, that core is beautifully enacted by the playwright’s daughter Hallie. Though we have seen variations on this performance in her work in her father’s other plays, she sensitively portrays Sybil’s journey from the sudden shock of losing her spouse to pulling herself together to reluctantly rekindling her romance with her former beau Howard. The quaver in her voice as she quotes a line from Sybil’s favorite poet, Pablo Neruda, fills volumes of subtext. Betty Buckley makes exquisite use of her golden voice as the narcissistic Gertrude, shifting from seductive would-be temptress to spoiled, screaming brat when thwarted. Veanne Cox is also deliciously vile as the mean-spirited Julia. Cotter Smith is valiantly virile as Howard, struggling to escape Gertrude’s clutches.
   The remaining roles are not as well developed. Miss Mamie is bit too much like Miss Carrie of The Trip to Bountiful. She even has a valise all packed to flee from rude in-laws, just like that homespun heroine. Even so, Lois Smith manages to suggest decades of Harrison history with her slightest inflection, while the reliable Adam LeFevre rescues the shadowy Albert from one-dimensionality. Likewise, the violent clashes of these characters could have been staged as faux Williams, Albee, or Inge, but in the capable hands of this Signature company, they are pure Foote.

September 13, 2013
Anna Christie
Berkshire Theatre Group at the Fitzgerald Main Stage

Reviewed by David Sheward

The massive dramatic works of Eugene O’Neill can be a challenge for modern theatermakers and audiences. While the undeniable tragic force of powerhouses like Long Day’s Journey Into Night, The Iceman Cometh, and A Moon for the Misbegotten compensates for somewhat creaky structure and dialogue, some of the more rarely performed plays can succumb to their melodramatic limitations if not handled properly. One such piece is Anna Christie, O’Neill’s 1922 Pulitzer Prize winner detailing the emotional triangle among the title character, a reformed prostitute; her Swedish seafaring father, Chris; and Matt, the brawling Irish stoker who, ignorant of her shady past, falls in love with her. Anna is probably best known from the 1931 MGM film version that provided Greta Garbo with her first speaking role. More-recent Broadway revivals starring Liv Ullman and Natasha Richardson have emphasized Anna’s proto-feminism. When she is forced to reveal her former profession, she defiantly castigates her father and suitor for their moral outrage. Haven’t they been guilty of the same “sin” by patronizing the type of establishments she was forced to work in?
   Unfortunately, the play is loaded with hokey stage devices, long talky scenes, and Chris’s repetitious ruminations on the evil influence of “dat ole devil sea,” which he believes has ruined the lives of all involved. In Berkshire Theatre Group’s production in Stockbridge, Mass., director David Auburn (playwright of Proof) nearly succeeds in overcoming these flaws to deliver a passionate, believable tale of three people struggling to make the best of the bad hand fate has dealt them. Auburn and the solid cast can’t quite compensate for cobwebbed plot machinations—Chris gets a delayed letter from Anna on the same day he is to meet her after 15 years apart, Matt declares his intention to marry Anna just minutes after he first lays eyes on her, etc. Yet the staging and limning are so simple and direct, we almost forget these old-fashioned tricks.

Rebecca Brooksher carries Anna’s damaged past around like a sack of dirty laundry. She wants to hide it but is clearly ready to swing it at anyone who challenges her. The weight and anguish of her father’s abandonment can be seen in her every gesture and inflection. Yet she forcefully conveys Anna’s objective: to discard that laundry bag and get on with her life despite her dad’s obsession with the sea. Jonathan Hogan makes for a lovable, rascally Chris; he even manages to make the character’s endless declamations against the ocean bearable. Derek Wilson finds the vulnerability beneath Matt’s muscular bluster, keeping him from turning into a bragging bully. Alison Fraser (The Secret Garden, Romance/Romance) is especially moving as Marthy, the veteran waterfront dame sharing digs with Chris. Beneath the tattered rags and whisky-soaked growl, you can see the enchanting young girl she once was.
   One quibble about the casting: Brooksher and Wilson are so good-looking and well-scrubbed even when they’re supposed to be covered with grime, it’s a little hard to believe them as working-class stiffs. Yet they illuminate the emotional truth of O’Neill’s downtrodden lovers.

August 28, 2013
First Date
Longacre Theatre

Reviewed by David Sheward

My blind date with the first new musical of the 2013–14 Broadway season did not sound promising: a 90-minute comedy about the pitfalls of romantic fix-ups, written by a TV scribe and a songwriting team whose major credits included Disney animated films and a Folgers commercial. From the press release and reports on an earlier production at Seattle’s 5th Avenue Theatre, I was dreading stale jokes about mismatches, swishy gay best friends, pushy Jewish mothers, and this newfangled web-thing called Google. But I was pleasantly surprised and actually enjoyed most of First Date.
   While the show is guilty of trotting out tired comic tropes, a game cast led by an assured Zachary Levi of TV’s Chuck in his Broadway debut, and the always delightful Krysta Rodriguez, who managed to outshine Katharine McPhee on Smash, gives the material a fresh bounce. Bill Berry, producing director of the 5th Avenue Theatre, stages the show with economy and wit, and, apart from a lapse or two, this short summer fling passes agreeably, if not memorably.
   The premise is simplicity itself: Nebbishy, conventional Aaron (Levi) is set up by a co-worker with edgy, artistic Casey (Rodriguez). Both have been burned in the dating wars and are wary of this new encounter. They meet in a restaurant-bar, and their waiter (of course he’s gay and has show-business aspirations) and four fellow diners play all the roles in Aaron’s and Casey’s heads. The book, by Austin Winsberg (Gossip Girl), is fairly predictable—awkward initial chit-chat, inevitable conflict, final lip lock—and the songs, by Alan Zachary and Michael Weiner, have more than a bit of pastiche to them. Almost all of the secondary characters are straight from Stereotype Central. In his mind, Aaron’s grandma rises from the grave like Fruma-Sarah in Fiddler on the Roof and threatens to break her grandson’s “matzo balls” if he marries the gentile Casey. Meanwhile, Casey’s extremely nelly BFF repeatedly and annoyingly calls her cellphone as a bail-out option.
   But Levi and Rodriguez are so refreshingly honest in their interplay, we wind up rooting for them to get together despite the hokey world they inhabit. Levi displays a self-deprecating charm, which he wisely underplays, and shows off a decent set of singing and dancing chops. He avoids treacle in a syrupy ballad about Aaron’s dead mother and really goes to town in a funny revenge number sung to his haughty ex. Rodriguez has the harder task of making the brittle and defensive Casey likable. She pulls it off brilliantly, slowly exposing Casey’s vulnerability while peeling off cynical wisecracks. This works especially well in her solo “Safer,” an interior monologue on the emotional walls her character builds.
   The versatile supporting company goes far to flesh out the comedy-sketch roles. Blake Hammond sparkles as the perky waiter, particularly in “I’d Order Love,” a kinda corny but sweet piano-bar tune. Only Sara Chase as Casey’s nagging sister leans too heavily on the kind of sitcom delivery that First Date mostly manages to sidestep.

August 13, 2013

The Flying Dutchman
Glimmerglass Festival at the Alice Busch Opera Theater

Reviewed by David Sheward

If you think opera is dry and boring, check out the opening production of the 2013 summer season of the Glimmerglass Festival in Cooperstown, N.Y. In an intense staging by artistic and general director Francesca Zambello, Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman has probably never been so sexy. During a fierce duet in the second act, the leads could barely keep their hands to themselves, and I marveled at how they were able to hit their high notes while practically ravaging each other. That kind of sensuality percolates beneath the action and finally explodes as the maiden Senta gives in to her obsession for the titular character, a ghostly sea captain doomed to roam the ocean until he can find a woman brave or crazy enough—depending on your point of view—to spend eternity with him.
   After a passionate performance of the surging overture from conductor John Keenan and a magnificent orchestra, Zambello starts off with libidinal Freudian imagery. As the curtain rises, we see Senta thrashing about, entwined with ropes on a barren bed in the midst of a sexual dream. The ropes are repeated in James Noone’s stark set as the scene seamlessly shifts to the ship of Daland, Senta’s father, bound for home after a long voyage. The crew continually pulls on the rigging and this barely concealed erotic action is repeated with less subtlety among the sailors’ sweethearts as they weave similar ropes dangling from the flies and sing of their long-awaited reunions. Zambello has them practically whip themselves into an orgiastic frenzy.
   But the main friction is between Senta and the Dutchman who strikes a bargain with the greedy Daland for his daughter’s hand in return for the rich cargo the Dutchman has amassed during his endless travels. But Daland is unaware that his prospective son-in-law is a damned spirit seeking redemption in the form of a girl’s mortal love. By lucky coincidence, Senta is enchanted by the Dutchman’s legend and falls eagerly into his arms. Zambello endows this ethereal alliance with musky earthiness by having bass-baritone Ryan McKinny got up by costume designer Erik Teague as if the wandering captain were ready to hit an S&M leather bar. It doesn’t hurt that McKinny’s rich and resonant voice is matched by a powerful physique and his bare chest is covered with a huge tattoo of the Dutchman’s mystical vessel. This is one earthy ghost.
   Soprano Melody Moore is equally riveting as the addictive Senta. Her soaring, clear tone conveys idealistic romanticism and physical yearning. When McKinny and Moore clash, vocal and sexual sparks fly. Jay Hunter Morris, who made a striking impact in the Met’s recent Ring Cycle, keeps Erik, Senta’s discarded fiancé, from paling beside the dark and rugged Dutchman. Peter Volpe makes for a sturdy and somewhat comical Daland; Deborah Nansteel lends strength to Mary, the village matriarch and weaving mistress; and Adam Bielamowicz makes the most of the small role of the steersman.

July 9, 2013
The Unavoidable Disappearance of Tom Durnin
Roundabout Theater Company at the Laura Pels Theatre at the Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre

Reviewed by David Sheward

The program describes the setting as “The American exurbs. Sam’s Clubs and SUVs and Caribou Coffee and the eerie, shuttered windows of foreclosed strip malls.” That’s a bit pretentious, but, fortunately, this Steven Levenson play avoids similar writerly clichés in its depiction of an America and a family ravaged by economic blight and emotional dishonesty. The titular character is a white-collar criminal, recently released from prison after a five-year sentence for a multimillion-dollar fraud. Through a series of deceptions that parallel his Madoff-like Ponzi scheme, Tom attempts to reconnect with his alienated family. “I just want my life back!” he roars in frustration as his family and colleagues reject his advances and ultimately tell him to just disappear again.
   That cry of pain is delivered by David Morse in the most intense moment of a searing performance. Equally piercing is the long-suppressed rage of Tom’s son James, given equal smoldering fire by Christopher Denham who takes on the difficult task of playing a burnt-out character barely able to express his buried desires and passions. James is the protagonist; he is the one who goes through a change. Stuck in a dead-end job selling medical equipment, scarcely keeping his head above water financially, and recovering from an ugly divorce, James seeks escape by enrolling in a writing class and creating an elaborate fiction about two men driving endlessly through Ukrainian mountains. Levenson’s craft is so subtle, we don’t realize until the play is almost over that this seemingly unrelated novel-in-progress is James’s idealized version of reuniting with his father. After Tom moves in with his son and basically wrecks James’s already fragile living situation, the young man seeks to reconcile his damaged past with his uncertain future and his father regretfully disappears again.
   Besides the heartbreaking father-son thread, several other relationships work their way through the script. Levenson fleshes out each with fascinating and convincing detail, executed with compassion and dimension by director Scott Ellis and a finely tuned cast. Sarah Goldberg gives Katie, James’s equally woebegone short-story writing classmate and potential new girlfriend, a dithery manner and a little-girl voice. She could have easily become a comedic, Goldie Hawn–like stereotype, but Goldberg plays her with honesty and warmth, avoiding the sitcom extremes.
   Likewise, Rich Sommer as Chris, Tom’s sad-sack son-in-law and former subordinate, is buffoonish and moving. In one hysterical scene, Chris explodes at Tom’s manipulative behavior and, a split scene later, complains about having to attend his tiny daughter’s ballet recital. It’s a brilliantly specific moment in which a seeming petty incident clashes with outsize emotion, and Sommer is achingly real in depicting it. Lisa Emery has only two scenes as Karen, Tom’s estranged wife, now married to a successful dentist, but Emery brings all of Karen’s rage, love, and sorrow to blazing life.
    Designer Beowulf Borritt’s set of disheveled living rooms and broken-down billboards completes the picture of a wrecked family desperately attempting to heal itself, but the members’ remedies push them further apart.

July 3, 2013
3 Kinds of Exile
Atlantic Theater Company at the Linda Gross Theater

Reviewed by David Sheward

The concept of 3 Kinds of Exile sounds intriguing, on paper anyway. Quirky and insightful playwright John Guare (The House of Blue Leaves, Six Degrees of Separation) employs three different examples—two based on reality and one totally fictional—to examine the effects of being forced to leave your homeland and reside permanently abroad. Each of these short vignettes contains fascinating ideas, but, onstage in this Atlantic Theatre Company production, they come across as untheatrical.
   The relatively brief evening begins with a monologue titled “Karel” in which Martin Moran relates the story of a man covered with a seemingly incurable Kafka-esque rash. After visiting a psychiatrist, he realizes the skin condition is a manifestation of his childhood fear when he left an unnamed Eastern European country for England during World War II. This curtain-raiser is short, direct, and simply delivered by an understated Moran.
   In “Elzbieta Erased,” the centerpiece of the program, the playwright Guare and Polish actor Omar Sangare narrate the volatile expatriate experience of real-life Polish actor Elzbieta Czyzewska, who came to New York after marrying American journalist David Halberstam, the Warsaw bureau chief for the New York Times during the 1960s. A star in her own land, Czyzewska (“My name is like a bad hand in Scrabble,” she once joked) struggled to find roles in American theater and films. She found work and acclaim at Yale Repertory Theater and even won an Obie for Mac Wellman’s Crowbar in an Off-Broadway production. But, ultimately, her attempts to achieve the kind of recognition she had in Poland were frustrated. Guare and Sangare knew and worked with the subject, yet the events are still told in the third person. The saga is full of conflict—political, personal, and artistic—but Neil Pepe’s flat direction and the second-hand nature of the piece render it static. Sangare’s thick accent and Guare’s unpolished performance add to the distancing.
   The program concludes with “Funiage,” inspired by the satiric autobiographical works of Witold Gombrowicz, who traveled from Poland to Argentina for a cultural exchange program in 1939 and decided to stay when Hitler invaded his homeland. This dark fantasy employs Brecht-Weill-like musical numbers and fantasy elements to convey Gombrowicz’s broiling dissatisfaction with his oppressive native country and the seductive allure of South America. The title refers to a combination funeral and marriage ceremony threatening to encase the protagonist in a symbolic union with Poland. He breaks free and joins in a joyous dance with the free-spirited Argentineans led by a Mephistopheles figure played by Sangare. There is vitality and wit here, especially in David Pittu’s snappy rendering of Witold, but the point of the piece is made early on—Poland is stuffy and mired in the past, Witold wants to get out—and much of the action is repetitive.
   The basic material and themes of these three pieces have potential, but they are not sufficiently developed to be compelling stage works. Perhaps a series of essays would have been more effective.

June 15, 2013

Tonys Predictions 2013
Our popular prognosticator prophesizes the prizes.

by David Sheward


This year’s Tony Awards, scheduled for Sunday, June 9, at Radio City Music Hall and broadcast by CBS, appears to be a horse race, unlike most years when the winners are fairly predictable. Here are my choices for who is likely to triumph and who I believe deserves to.

Best Play
Prediction: Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike
Preference: Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike
   For a while, I thought Lucky Guy would be the frontrunner because of double-Oscar winner Tom Hanks’s name on the marquee and the desire to pay tribute to its late author, Nora Ephron. But Vanya has won all the other awards (Drama Desk, Outer Critics, NY Drama Critics Circle, Drama League) and is the likely winner here.

Best Musical
Prediction: Kinky Boots
Preference: Matilda
   This category is a battle between Kinky Boots and Matilda. The other two nominees Bring It On and A Christmas Story had limited runs earlier in the season and have long since closed. There is an anti-Matilda backlash for some reason. I hear some Tony voters are complaining they can’t understand the thick British accents of the cast. Maybe the accents in Kinky Boots, which won the Outer Critics and Drama League awards, aren’t as heavy. But the tone of Boots is sentimental and conventional while Matilda celebrates edginess. When offered a choice, Tony voters go for the former over the latter.

Best Revival (Play)
Prediction: Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
Preference: Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

   The recent brouhaha over the brochure sent to voters by Woolf producers is a tempest in a teacup. If anything, it will gain sympathy for the Albee play because the Tony Administration Committee’s regulations over promotional material are so silly. It also makes producer Nelle Nugent (The Trip to Bountiful), who called for a special committee meeting on the matter, seem petty.

Best Revival (Musical)
Prediction: Pippin
Preference: Pippin
   A foregone conclusion.

Director (Play)
Prediction: George C. Wolfe, Lucky Guy
Preference: Pam MacKinnon, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
   Wolfe manages to turn Nora Ephron’s episodic, screenplay-like script into a theatrical event, but MacKinnon had the subtler task of staging Edward Albee’s classic in a whole new way.

Director (Musical)
Prediction: Diane Paulus, Pippin
Preference: Diane Paulus, Pippin

Prediction: Chet Walker, Pippin
Preference: Chet Walker, Pippin

Actor (Play)
Tom Hanks, Lucky Guy
Preference: Tracy Letts, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
   Letts won the Drama Desk and Nathan Lane the Outer Critics Circle, but I still think the majority of Tony voters who are producers want to see more big-name movie stars on Broadway, and a Tony for Hanks will encourage that trend.  

Actress (Play)
Cicely Tyson, The Trip to Bountiful
Preference: Laurie Metcalf, The Other Place
   Tyson was wonderful, but Metcalf had the more difficult role as the scientist suffering from brain disease. Unfortunately, The Other Place had a relatively short run as part of Manhattan Theater Club’s season. Kristine Nielsen miraculously combined satire with pathos as the lonely Sonia in Vanya and Sonia, but Tyson, already the winner of the Drama Desk and Outer Critics awards, will triumph.

Actor (Musical)
Prediction: Billy Porter, Kinky Boots
Preference: Bertie Carvel, Matilda

   Carvel should be in the featured category where he was placed by the Drama Desk and won. He would win a featured Tony in a walk for his hilariously menacing Miss Trunchbull.

Bertie Carvel in Matilda
Actress (Musical)
Patina Miller, Pippin
Preference: Patina Miller, Pippin
   Many of the best performances in this category weren’t eligible because they were Off-Broadway—Lindsay Mendez in Dogfight, Ruthie Ann Miles in Here Lies Love, Phillipa Soo in Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812—which only goes to show that the Tonys are not truly representative of all New York theater.

Featured Actor (Play)
Prediction: Richard Kind, The Big Knife
Preference: Tony Shalhoub, Golden Boy
   Courtney B. Vance is also a possibility to win just because he’s in Lucky Guy and industry Tony voters may want to give that show something extra. But I think it will be Kind, whose malevolent movie studio boss gets to rampage with gusto in The Big Knife. Tony Shalhoub’s more heartrending Italian-immigrant father was in Golden Boy, which closed months ago, and not all the voters may have seen it. If Tom Sturridge of Orphans were in this category instead of leading, he’d probably win as he did at the Outer Critics.

Featured Actress (Play)
Prediction: Judith Light, The Assembled Parties
Preference: Judith Ivey, The Heiress
   Light who won last year in the same category for Other Desert Cities, will win her second Tony thanks to the Richard Greenberg wisecracks she so skillfully delivers in The Assembled Parties. Judith Ivey showed more shading and complexity in what could have been a minor role: the interfering aunt in The Heiress. Ivey showed all the conflicting motivations behind the aunt’s questionable actions. If Kristine Nielsen of Vanya were in this category, she would have won it as she did at the Outer Critics, but she truly is a leading lady.

Featured Actor (Musical)
Prediction: Terrence Mann, Pippin
Preference: Will Chase, The Mystery of Edwin Drood
   Mann will probably win in recognition of his longevity, having been on Broadway for such a long time (Cats, the original Les Misérables, Beauty and the Beast) without a Tony, but I was more impressed by Chase’s devilishly funny turn in Drood.

Featured Actress (Musical)
Prediction: Andrea Martin, Pippin
Preference: Andrea Martin, Pippin
   Lesson No. 1: If you’re over 60, learn a trapeze act and the Tony is yours.

Book of a Musical
Prediction: Harvey Fierstein, Kinky Boots
Preference: Dennis Kelly, Matilda
I really want Dennis Kelly’s clever and sharp adaptation of Roald Dahl’s classic children’s story to win, and it might be the consolation prize Boots voters are willing to concede it. But I have a feeling Boots will kick Matilda to the curb and sweep the major awards.

Best Score
Prediction: Cyndi Lauper, Kinky Boots
Preference: Tim Minchin, Matilda
   Just as Tony industry voters want more movie stars like Tom Hanks to come to the New York stage, they also want more pop stars like Lauper to write Broadway scores so Top 40 fans who would never otherwise attend the theater will plunk down their $100 to hear the songs penned by their favorite rock icons.

The design categories just include predictions since they pretty much match my preferences:

Set Design
(Play): The Nance
(Musical): Matilda

Costume Design
(Play): The Nance
(Musical): Cinderella

Lighting Design
(Play): Lucky Guy
(Musical): Pippin  

Sound Design
(Play): The Nance
(Musical): Motown, the Musical


June 5, 2013

Check back after the ceremony and see how we did....

Nikolai and the Others
Lincoln Center Theatre at the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater

Reviewed by David Sheward

Russians are dominating the New York stage these days. First we had Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, Christopher Durang’s wild takeoff on Chekhov, which is the frontrunner for the Best Play Tony. Then Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812, Dave Malloy’s inventive, immersive pop-opera based on a section of Tolstoy’s War and Peace. Now with Nikolai and the Others, Richard Nelson, one of our finest playwrights, focuses on a group of artistic émigrés adjusting to life in post–World War II America. Nelson, whose work includes fresh takes on historic figures (The General From America, Two Shakespearean Actors), also echoes Chekhov in this thought-provoking examination of art, politics, sex, and the meaning of home.
   Like many of Chekhov’s theatrical works, Nikolai takes places at a country home during a gathering of friends and relations whose amorous and artistic ambitions come into conflict. It’s 1948, and Lucia Davidova is hosting a weekend at her Westport, Conn., home, just for her fellow Russian exiles. The most prominent of these are the choreographer George Balanchine and the composer Igor Stravinsky, who are collaborating on a new ballet based on the Orpheus myth. There’s also Stravinsky’s wife, Vera; her ex-husband Sudeikin, once a prominent artist, now a broken old man; Vladimir Sokoloff, an actor consigned to “exotic” roles; and the protagonist, Nikolai Nabokov, a composer working for the American government in its cultural Cold War against the former homeland of the guests. There are many other characters and dozens of plots and subplots, but the main one is provided by Nicky’s efforts to aid his fellow Russians in their various problems with passports and finding work, and Nicky’s passionate desire to return to his music and drop his diplomatic chores.
   These wishes are stymied by a surprise visitor, Charles “Chip” Bohlen, a state department official determined to keep Nicky in the employ of Uncle Sam. Nelson subtly weaves these threads together in a fascinating tapestry depicting the complex juxtaposition of the joy of art and the nitty-gritty of everyday life. All of these geniuses need the somewhat vulgar Chip to survive in their new home, and the push-pull of passion versus necessity is exemplified in Nicky’s dilemma. So they knuckle under to Chip’s pressures to become patriotic, anti-Communist Americans while creating beautiful dances, pictures, and music. Orpheus’s lyre becomes a symbol of their undying need to create art, but Nelson doesn’t hit us over the head with it.
   There are an astonishing 18 actors on the intimate Newhouse stage, and director David Cromer moves them around Marsha Ginsberg’s cozy farmhouse set with the choreographic skill worthy of Balanchine. It’s exciting to see so many fine performers in a nonmusical play in these budget-strapped days. Each delivers a colorful and vital piece to this masterful mosaic. But special mention should be made of Stephen Kunken’s torn-up Nicky, Alvin Epstein’s feisty Sudeikin, John Glover’s egotistical Stravinsky, John Procaccino’s comic Vladimir, and Michael Rosen and Natalia Alonso as the graceful principal dancers in the ballet in development.

May 27, 2013
Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812

Reviewed by David Sheward

It sounds like a recipe for disaster: a sung-through musical adaptation of a section of War and Peace employing a contemporary pop-rock vocabulary and preceded by a dinner service in a nightclub atmosphere. But this challenging immersive experience manages to capture the raw universal emotions of Tolstoy’s sweeping classic in an intimate setting. It’s as if each audience member is in the opera box next to naïve Natasha Rostov when she first catches a glimpse of the devastatingly handsome Anatole Kuragin or in the sweaty, vibrant club where cerebral Pierre Bezukhov challenges the arrogant Dolokhov to a duel.
   After a limited run at Ars Nova, the production has transferred to a specially constructed tent site near the West Side Highway. Patrons are squeezed together at tables and receive a preshow traditional Russian meal complete with borscht and vodka shots. The action, staged with dexterity by Rachel Chavkin, unfolds all around the audience and focuses on a few chapters in the massive novel—specifically, those concerning Natasha’s aborted romance to the already-married scoundrel Anatole and the efforts of Pierre, Anatole’s brother-in-law, to save the young girl from ruin. Mimi Lein’s colorful set, Paloma Young’s period costumes, and especially Bradley King’s poetic lighting contribute to the authentic atmosphere.
   Dave Malloy’s score and orchestrations run the gamut from pop to rock to country and western, all in the modern vein. One might not think 21st century sounds would be effective in telling a 19th century story, but they succeed in delineating the passions and urges of Tolstoy’s characters, making them as real and immediate as any found in a hit HBO series or current box-office blockbuster. The harsh backbeat behind the tense first meeting of Natasha and Mary, her fiancé Andrey’s sister, perfectly conveys their animosity. Helene, Pierre’s sluttish wife, is given a Beyoncé-like anthem to the joys of Moscow nightlife; while Sonya, Natasha’s devoted cousin, delivers a soulful, country ballad that one can imagine Taylor Swift crooning.
   Malloy also plays Pierre; his sandpaper baritone and bearish demeanor are ideal for the awkward yet tenderhearted would-be philosopher. The magnificent Phillipa Soo passionately depicts Natasha’s conflicting desires, first sentimental attachment for Andrey who is off fighting Napoleon, then intoxication for the devilish Anatole, and finally crushing despair when both desert her. The final scene between Natasha and Pierre where the latter confesses his love for the former, is accompanied by a simple piano progression. Malloy and Soo give it an equally direct rendition and it left me sobbing. Kudos as well to Brittain Ashford’s moving Sonya, Amber Gray’s sassy Helene, Lucas Steele’s charismatic Anatole, Gelsey Bell’s appealing Mary, Blake Delong’s sensitive Andrey, and Grace McLean’s haughty Marya D., Natasha’s godmother.
   Along with Here Lies Love and Murder Ballad, Natasha and Pierre is charting new territory in musical staging, and adventurous theatergoers will want to make the journey.

May 19, 2013

Here Lies Love
The Public Theater

Reviewed by David Sheward

Pop, rock, disco, politics, and stunning theatrical imagination combine in this innovative musical now at the Public Theater. This bracingly original event—one hesitates to call it something as ordinary as a show—stretches the musical genre in form and content. Conceived by David Bryne of Talking Heads and employing a richly evocative score by Byrne, Fatboy Slim, Tom Gandey, and J Pardo, Here Lies Love tells the story of Imelda Marcos’s relentless rise to power as first lady of the Philippines. It’s significant that Byrne does not indulge in an obvious comedy number about his subject’s famous shoe collection. Neither he, his musical collaborators, nor the ingenious staging of Alex Timbers stoops to such clichés.
   Timbers, who has done similarly creative work with such productions as Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson and Peter and the Starcatcher, and set designer David Korins have reconfigured the Public’s LuEsther Hall into a disco floor. Moving platforms are taken apart and fit together like jigsaw puzzle pieces to provide multiple playing areas for the story of Imelda’s progression from small-town beauty queen to ruthless queen bee of her husband’s brutal administration. Peter Nigrini’s graphic projections and Justin Townsend’s flashy lighting augment Timbers’s ingenious staging and Annie-B Parson’s 1980s-flavored choreography. The small audience—the space only holds 160—remains standing throughout the piece’s 90 minutes and becomes a part of the action as the actors move through the crowd, involving them in dance patterns, political rallies, and finally, an unspeakably passionate and simple tribute to the slain opposition leader Aquino and a celebration of the eventual overthrow of the Marcos regime.
   The lead role is given complexity and depth by Ruthie Ann Miles, who manages to make this monster of privilege somewhat sympathetic. Her Imelda is not the usual Cruella De Vil stereotype with a shoe fetish but an entitled, attractive brat who believes what’s best for her is best for her country. The score’s catchy Top 40 sound makes ironic commentary on Imelda’s narcissistic relationship with her adoring public. Like a softer, gentler Evita, she seduces the population with tender, soothing melodies and caressing lyrics, while Ferdinand Marcos, her ruthless spouse, is made into an equally charismatic, deceptively romantic figure by the glitteringly handsome Jose Llana. Aquino (a dynamic Conrad Ricamora) is given more intense, forceful rallying cries, and Imelda’s childhood friend Estrella (a soulful Melody Butiu) delivers yearning ballads imploring her former pal to return to her modest roots.
   Along with a vibrant ensemble playing multiple roles, these principals create a shattering, highly stylized history of a national tragedy, which somehow leaves you singing and dancing as you exit the theater. That’s a rare feat and one that deserves to be experienced by as large as an audience as possible. Hopefully, Here Lies Love will rise and have a life beyond its limited run.

May 12, 2013

Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre

Reviewed by David Sheward

It’s easy to see why the 1985 Off-Broadway production of this Lyle Kessler play launched the reputation of Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre Company, had such a long run, and inspired so many productions across the US and around the world. It has both economy and excitement: three characters, one set, a running time of less than two hours, and lots of opportunities for the kind of pyrotechnic dramatic violence that Mamet and Pinter have made famous. In its Broadway premiere, we get to see some of those thespian fireworks, but the full impact of Kessler’s shattering tale of little boys lost is lost amid the craving for audience affection.
   The simple plot entails the kind of power plays and sketchy relationships seen in Mamet’s American Buffalo and Pinter’s The Homecoming. Siblings Treat and Philip, abandoned by their parents and having fallen through the cracks of the system, live a feral existence in a rundown North Philadelphia row house. Overprotective and sociopathic Treat steals to supply his animal-like kid brother with tuna fish and mayonnaise. Gentle Philip is terrified of leaving this hovel (designed with ramshackle artistry by John Lee Beatty) because Treat has convinced him he’s allergic to everything outside.
   The dynamics in this dysfunctional, makeshift family change when Treat kidnaps blustering businessman Harold, who turns out to be a gangster. The seemingly benevolent Harold is a cold, calculating killer who could eat these boys for breakfast. But, being an orphan himself, he longs to become a father figure to them and moves in. Gradually, Treat becomes jealous of Harold’s role as Philip’s mentor and protector and he rebels with catastrophic results.
   For this new production, director Daniel Sullivan strives to balance the potentially hilarious Tarantino-like antics of the characters with their heartbreaking yearning to connect with each other. But he’s thwarted by the real muscle of the venture, Alec Baldwin. As Harold, the popular sitcom star and Capitol One pitchman cravenly plays for our laughs and love. Baldwin seems to saying, “Look at this guy, isn’t he a kook?” with his obvious performance.
   Fortunately, Ben Foster and Tom Sturridge sink into their roles of Treat and Philip rather than standing aloofly outside of them as Baldwin does. Foster is truly frightening as the powder-keg elder brother, ready to go off at the slightest provocation. But he’ll rip your heart out when Treat’s fragile support system is pulled away and he has nothing to hold on to. Sturridge is equally moving, and he gives Philip a fascinating physical life, a combination of monkey and cat as he leaps from couch to chair to stairway. These two actors give rich life to Kessler’s work and almost make up for Baldwin’s mugging.

April 30, 2013
The Trip to Bountiful
Stephen Sondheim Theatre

Reviewed by David Sheward

“How did we get to this place?” Carrie Watts asks her son Ludie as they stand before the ruined house they used to live in. It’s a shattering question, as both have arrived at miserable stations in life through unlucky circumstances. Since her farming land played out, the elderly Carrie has turned into a quarrelsome crone, confined in a stuffy city, while Ludie is just now getting back on his feet after a long-term illness cost him his job. In the new revival of Horton Foote’s The Trip to Bountiful, the question has added resonance because the Watts family is cast with African-American actors. The weight of racism is subtly suggested in Michael Wilson’s moving staging of this 1953 drama, yet it’s definitely there. But the nontraditional casting is just one element in a splendid revival that provides a triumphant return to Broadway for Cicely Tyson, whose age has been reported as anywhere from 79 to 88. No matter what her true age is, Tyson gradually sheds years as Carrie rediscovers her dignity on her journey.
   The role has proved a showcase for such luminous stars as Lillian Gish (the 1953 original TV version and Broadway adaptation the same year), Geraldine Page (an Oscar winner for the 1985 film), and Lois Smith (an Obie and Drama Desk winner for the 2005 Signature Theatre revival, also helmed by Wilson). It’s no wonder. Carrie gets to comically spar with her disagreeable daughter-in-law, reveal her tragic girlhood romance in a long monologue, physically confront a sheriff, and undergo an epiphany of understanding as she accepts her situation and makes the best of it.
   Not much happens in Foote’s poetic evocation of ordinary lives. Carrie cannot stand sharing a two-room Houston apartment with Ludie and his self-absorbed wife, Jessie Mae. With her pension check safely secured in her bra, Carrie takes a bus ride to Bountiful, the now-deserted town of her youth on the Gulf of Mexico. Along the journey, she meets a lonely Army bride and that sheriff who turns out to be sympathetic, and finally confronts her past dreams. At the bus station, we encounter the signs of the segregated South where Carrie must wait in the “colored only” area and purchase her ticket from a separate counter from white passengers. Wilson and his set designer, Jeff Cowie, wisely downplay these elements and let them just be a natural part of the Watts’s world.
   Tyson overplays the comic aspects of Carrie early on—hiding her pension check with an elaborate flourish, for example. But she gradually abandons this tact (as Wilson does in his staging) and allows Foote’s simple eloquence to seep into her performance. When she directly delivers the soliloquy explaining why Carrie never married the man she really loved, you can feel her heart breaking, and yours will too. By the end of the trip, Tyson is truly luminous, radiating Carrie’s joy after redeeming her self-worth. Cuba Gooding Jr., in his Broadway debut, fully exposes Ludie’s sorrow at his perceived failures, but he also remembers this man really loves both his burdensome mother and his selfish wife. Vanessa Williams keeps the contentious Jessie Mae from becoming a villain. This is a woman in middle age who was a beauty queen and is still used to be treated like a princess because of her looks.
   Condola Rashad has many sweet and understated moments as Thelma, Carrie’s traveling companion, as does Tom Wopat as the sheriff with an unexpected love of birds. Veteran Arthur French makes the small role of a train station attendant memorable. Along with Cowie’s evocative setting and Rui Rita’s romantic lighting, the cast and director weave a tapestry of ordinary Americans, seeking home and making due when dreams are no longer sustainable.

April 24, 2013

The Assembled Parties
Manhattan Theatre Club at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre

Reviewed by David Sheward

“It’s like the sets of those plays you love with the breezy dialogue,” says Jeff, an earnest young man describing the elegant and cavernous Upper West Side apartment belonging to the parents of his school friend Scotty, in The Assembled Parties, Richard Greenberg’s sweet but ultimately uneven new play on the yearning for familial connection. Jeff, who is visiting for Christmas in 1980 and on the phone to his mother, is attempting to capture the enchantment the apartment and its inhabitants, the Boscovs, have for him. The playwright is also self-consciously referencing a style of theater—long gone even in 1980—where patrician characters exchange scintillating quips over martinis. Greenberg, like Jeff, longs for that kind of world and mourns its passing in this play, as he has in others such as The American Plan and The Violet Hour, which were also presented by Manhattan Theatre Club.
   The main source of Jeff’s idolization is Scotty’s graceful mother Julie, a former film star who seems to effortlessly glide through life, thanks in part to her wealthy husband, Ben. Her biggest disappointment is charismatic Scotty’s noncommittal attitude toward his future, but even that doesn’t upset her too much. Not so lucky is Ben’s sister Faye, saddled with an unhappy marriage to the brutish Mort and a terrible relationship with her intellectually challenged daughter Shelley. As the clan gathers for the yuletide feast while Scotty’s little brother Timmy is in bed with the flu, additional strands of plot involving blackmail, prostitution, and intrigue between Ben and Mort are revealed. After intermission, we jump ahead 20 years to Christmas 2000, and seeds planted in the first act bear fruit. Jeff, now a corporate lawyer, has assumed the role of family caretaker, Julie and Faye are widows, Scotty has died (apparently of AIDS from a tainted blood transfusion), and the grown-up Timmy has a pregnant girlfriend. Despite financial troubles, the survivors resolve to live together in the huge apartment as ends are tied up a bit too neatly.
   Greenberg delivers numerous dazzlingly funny bits of dialogue (“Republican Jews? What is that—It’s like skinny fat people,” complains Faye), but there are an equal number of stilted lines. The multiple plots, especially one involving a mysterious piece of jewelry, and the arched references come across as pretentious and contrived. The author touches on the characters’ conflicted sense of identity and their attitudes toward their Jewishness but fails to develop this theme. The question of their celebrating Christmas rather than Hanukah is never quite addressed. Jeff, the emotional core of the play, is underdeveloped. Other than the one phone call to his mother, we find out very little about him. Does he really have nothing else going on in his life other than the tribulations of a school chum’s family?
   Greenberg is primarily interested in his leading ladies, Julie and Faye, and fortunately, they are brought to warm, vital life by reliable veterans Jessica Hecht and Judith Light respectively. Hecht manages to make Julie’s obliviousness endearing, and Light expertly delivers Faye’s numerous wisecracks. Jeremy Shamos endows Jeff with reams of subtext the playwright fails to provide and almost succeeds in getting us to care about him. Lauren Blumenfeld gives the dim Shelley a welcome nasty bite. Jonathan Walker and the excellent Mark Blum are largely wasted in the roles of Ben and Mort. Jake Silberman does differentiate his dual roles of Scotty and Tim, and strongly peruses the latter’s objective—hiding his girlfriend from his family.
   The production, directed with a sure and loving hand by MTC’s artistic director Lynne Meadow, is gorgeously realized by set designer Santo Loquasto and costume designer Jane Greenwood. Meadow skillfully paces and blocks the family on Loquasto’s set, which revolves in Act 1 and remains stationary in Act 2. Sensitively lit by Peter Kaczorowski, the world of the play is indeed seductively beautiful, suggesting a society based on faded but alluring chic. But when a stage apartment is more interesting than the people in it, that’s a problem.

April 18, 2013
Motown the Musical
Lunt-Fontanne Theatre

Reviewed by David Sheward

Brandon Victor Dixon and Bryan Terrell Clark
Photo by Joan Marcus

The song list alone is staggering. More than 50 titles are crammed into Motown the Musical, the new retrospective jukebox musical celebrating the legendary R&B entertainment giant. If this were a revue, there would be no problem with the embarrassment of riches. But it’s a book musical purporting to tell the story of Motown’s founder Berry Gordy Jr., from his early days as a struggling songwriter to his final triumph as head of a multimillion-dollar brand. Gordy is not only the main character, he’s also the author of the book, which is based on his memoir To Be Loved: The Music, The Magic, The Memories of Motown. His libretto, dotted with dozens of hits from the label’s stunning history, comes across as an antidote to Dreamgirls, the fictional version of the label’s rise and that of its biggest stars Diana Ross and the Supremes. In that fabulous show, the Gordy character is conniving and manipulative. Here he’s a saint whose worst flaw is his tremendous work ethic.
   The story starts with the conventional choice of a TV special commemorating Motown’s 25th anniversary. An embattled Gordy, fighting to keep his company from being swallowed up by conglomerates, refuses to attend. As his numerous co-workers and artists including Smokey Robinson attempt to persuade Gordy to make an appearance, he naturally flashes back to his Detroit childhood in 1938 and we’re off on a memory tour. We race through the beginnings of Motown, tours through the segregated South, guest shots on The Ed Sullivan Show, Gordy’s stormy romance with Diana Ross, the turbulent ’60s, race riots, the discovery of the Jackson Five, movie production with Lady Sings the Blues, reinvention with funk, and on and dizzingly on.
   So much music and incident is stuffed into the show’s two hours and 45 minutes, it’s like one of those PBS fundraisers on which hot groups from the past alternate with testimonials on how wonderful the producing entity is. But Motown’s main audience probably will not be musical theater purists but fans of the catalogue who will want to relive their youth. That’s the appeal of still-running smashes that include Mamma Mia! and Jersey Boys, and Motown will probably be joining them on the hit list.
   Thanks to a spectacularly talented cast, efficient direction by Charles Randolph-Wright, Peter Hylenski’s superb sound design, and the flashy choreography by Patricia Wilcox and Warren Adams, even though the book falls short, Motown does not disappoint musically. The re-creation of gold-plated standards “Stop in the Name of Love,” “My Momma Told Me,” and “Do You Love Me” at least evoke the originals.    There are a few moments that are more than just “Greatest Hits” retreads, though. Bryan Terrell Clark channels the aching despair of Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Goin’ On,” while young Raymond Luke Jr. (who alternates with Jibreel Mawry) delivers an amazing Michael Jackson on “I’ll Be There.” Marva Hicks, Saycon Sengbloh, and Ariana DeBose also display impressive voices. The sequence depicting the Motortown Revue’s 1962 performance in a hostile Birmingham, Ala., imparts simmering racial tension and breaks out of the show’s breakneck, “Let’s hit all the high points” pattern.
   Valisia LeKae has Diana Ross’s vocals down pat, but in her extensive book scenes, LeKae is imitating Ross rather than playing her. As Gordy, Brandon Victor Dixon has the onerous task of carrying the heavy storyline while the rest of the company gets to cut loose and just sing their lungs out. An experienced professional, Dixon pulls his difficult assignment off with flair, endowing this cardboard version of a real-life showbiz icon with grit, passion, and some of the complexities Gordy left out of his book.

April 14, 2013

Tackling the Assassination of an International Icon

Anna Khaja tells the story of Benazir Bhutto and the Pakistani people’s complex struggles while exploring her own roots and culture ambivalence.

By Simi Horwitz

Anna Khaja moves seamlessly from character to character in her solo show, Shaheed: The Dream and Death of Benazir Bhutto. It’s set on Dec. 27, 2007 when the two-time prime minister of Pakistan was assassinated. Khaja evokes eight discrete figures—some fictional, others historical, including Bhutto—bringing to life a complex, contradictory, and corrupt society. Depending on viewpoint, Bhutto was a democratic savior, the victim of Muslim fundamentalism, an American puppet or, perhaps, a combination thereof.
   Shaheed, meaning martyr in Arabic, had a sold out run in Los Angeles in 2010 at the Stephanie Feury Studio Theatre and is now enjoying an extension at Off-Broadway’s Culture Project, a theater dedicated to addressing social and political issues. The intense and thoughtful Khaja acknowledges that Bhutto and, indeed, the evolution of Pakistan are open to interpretation. If nothing else, she hopes theatergoers want to explore the topic more fully. “I love it when people say to me after seeing the show, ‘I’m going home to Google Bhutto,’” Khaja says.
   Allan Buchman, founder and artistic director of the Culture Project, explains what drew him to Shaheed: "In the psyche of the American global awareness, Pakistan is perhaps the least understood of all the major powers. The more we become familiar with a culture other than our own, the greater the likelihood of our ability to build bridges of understanding.
   He notes Khaja, though half Pakistani, had no fundamental understanding of her culture as she grew up without the benefit of the presence of her Pakistani father. “Therefore,” he says, “the intensity and urgency of her quest to grasp her roots bring a unique and compelling insight to the subject."  

A League of Her Own
   The genesis of the piece was long in the making. A Castro Valley, Calif., native, Khaja was raised without any religion, despite her father’s Muslim background and her American mother’s Catholicism. Indeed, her parents were children of the ’70s and far more interested in native cultures than in their own traditions.
   “My dad was not forthcoming about his family or culture,” Khaja recalls. “He really embraced Western culture and raised me with little exposure to his culture. I was brought up with zero attention to gender identity and that was a good thing.”
   At the same time something was missing. Khaja recalls experiencing cultural ambivalence throughout much of her life, feeling connected to her Pakistani origins and simultaneously cut off. “I was the ‘other,’” she says. “I felt foreign to myself. I had a cousin who said I had the mind of a Westerner and the soul of an Easterner. The day after Bhutto’s assignation, I felt compelled to tell her story.”
   Initially, Khaja planned to play only Bhutto. But as her research and writing evolved, the other characters simply materialized and took on a life of their own. “It just felt right to include them,” she notes. “They emboldened the story I wanted to tell about the soul of the Pakistani people’s struggle for freedom and democracy. But, of course Bhutto, who was an iconic figure, was certainly the center of the struggle.”
   Taking on multiple characters in a solo show is daunting, most pointedly the internationally recognizable Condoleezza Rice who makes a none-too-attractive appearance. With a pleasant veneer, she is nonetheless brittle and conniving. Khaja says she hopes to capture the former secretary of State’s essence without impersonating her.
   “She’s friendly, but we have to sense her manipulation of Bhutto,” Khaja notes. “Part of my problem is that Rice is nebulous. I’ve tried to find her essence, her energy, and I still keep hitting walls.”
   Also doing a one-person piece “is incredibly lonely,” Khaja says. “What most prepared me was David Hare’s advice that when you’re doing a solo show, it’s all about the audience, and it’s my job to envelop that audience even if I’m not addressing the audience directly. It’s very different from the traditional actor’s approach.”
   Make no mistake, Khaja is well-versed in traditional acting, having appeared in a host of plays, including Hare’s Stuff Happens and an array of TV and film roles—including appearances on House M.D., Private Practice, Criminal Minds, The Closer, Weeds, and a recurring role last season on True Blood, among others. Khaja still defines herself mostly as an actor and dreams about playing Hedda Gabler on Broadway. But she also has her sights set on a screenwriting career and is currently working on a script about a female Arab-American drone pilot who is surveying a militant combatant in Pakistan and then ordered to assassinate him, eliciting  complicated emotions. Khaja dreams of playing the lead, she says.

Claiming Her Power
   Like most actors, Khaja’s journey has not been smooth sailing. After earning her B.A. in theater at UCLA, Khaja worked as a schoolteacher for a number of years—saving money and fortifying herself emotionally—before launching her acting career at age 27. The late start didn’t help, she admits.
   Despite limited opportunities, Khaja was not open to every role that came her way. Frequently cast as a Latina or Middle Eastern woman—“never a regular unidentified Caucasian”—she was keenly sensitive to ethnic typecasting and turned down roles she found stereotypically offensive.
   “I was cast as a Palestinian mother who sent her children off to be martyrs,” Khaja recalls. “Because she lacked depth and the explanations for her behavior were black-and-white and racist, I refused to play that part. I believe a character like that could be depicted in an interesting way, and I might play it if the message was acceptable.”
   An artistic turning point was learning to trust her own instincts and to “stop giving my power away to those who ‘knew better,’” she says. “I had to stop allowing teachers and directors to dictate how to play a role or what was valuable or not valuable in acting. I made a conscious decision to let my excitement and journey guide me.”
   Equally important, she says, was perceiving of herself as a business entity who makes contacts and creates work for herself. Recognizing the element of luck, Khaja nonetheless believes determination plays a role in one’s success. Either way, “I think about being on my deathbed and wondering, ‘Did I do everything I could? Did I give it my all or did I let fear stop me?’”
   At the moment her thoughts are centered on Shaheed and her hope that audiences “have their hearts opened up to the struggle of the Pakistani people and not just see them as ‘the other,’” she asserts. “That’s what I love about theater and story telling [as opposed to essays and works of non-fiction]. It travels through the brain, but its aim is the heart and triggers compassion.”

March 31, 2013

First photo by Maia Rosenfeld

Second and third photos by Hunter Canning

Vivian Beaumont Theatre

Reviewed by David Sheward

Texas governor Ann Richards is probably best-remembered for her powerhouse speech at the 1992 Democratic convention in which she attacked then-President George H.W. Bush for being “born with a silver foot in his mouth.” Her no-nonsense demeanor and down-home delivery helped fire up the Democratic base for Clinton, defeating the incumbent and earning the wrath of the Bush family. The son George W. trounced Richards in her bid for re-election and was in a prime position to reclaim his father’s position as chief executive. But Ann, the snappy, crackling solo play written by and starring Holland Taylor, does not even mention the Bushes or that famous speech. It’s as if that episode and her defeat were mere interludes in a life of public service and political excitement.
   Taylor, best-known as the sharp-tongued mother on Two and Half Men and the sexually aggressive judge on The Practice, is letter-perfect as Richards right down to the Texas twang and the jiffy-pop coiffure (designed by Paul Huntley) referred to as “her Republican hair.” The play begins rather conventionally with the former governor addressing graduates at an imaginary college. After a few wisecracks and anecdotes, she launches into a biography tracing the subject’s journey from Depression-era small town to the executive mansion in a state the size of France.
   Then the play breaks the mold and ventures into imaginative territory. The bulk of the evening is now given over to a typical day in Richards’s life. With the marvelously tart Julie White providing the offstage voice of a secretary, Taylor’s Richards deftly juggles a dozen phone lines. She switches from discussing the sentence of a death row convict for murdering and raping a nun to joking with President Clinton to corralling her difficult children for a weekend fishing trip and choosing up sides for charades, all without missing a beat.
    This whole sequence is directed with precision and attention to detail by Benjamin Endsley Klein and flawlessly executed by Taylor both as author and performer. The play could have ended right there and I would have been happy, but she adds an unnecessary epilogue on Richards’s post-political life and even throws in a memorial service wrap-up, delivered from beyond the grave presumably. That’s the only bit of fat on the otherwise lean and mean Ann.

March 26, 2013
Hands on a Hardbody
Brooks Atkinson Theatre

Reviewed by David Sheward

What a challenge for director Neil Pepe and choreographer Sergio Trujillo! The central action of Hands on a Hardbody—the twangy, gritty, and just-plain-wonderful new musical—consists of 10 people standing around. Originally produced at the La Jolla Playhouse, the show is based on a 1997 documentary focusing on an endurance competition at a Texas Nissan dealership to win a new pickup truck. The contestants must keep their hands on the prize with only brief bathroom breaks every six hours. The last one left standing wins the truck. How are you going make a Broadway musical with singing and dancing out of a static event like that?
   The great news is Pepe and Trujillo, who is credited with musical staging rather than choreography, pull it off, as do book-writer Doug Wright (Grey Gardens) and Amanda Green and Phish front man Trey Anastasio who are responsible for the eclectic and vibrant score. The stagers solve the problem by moving the truck all around Christine Jones’s spare but versatile set, as Trujilo invents infinitely variable movements around the four-wheeled focus of attention. Kevin Adams’s lighting also aids in creating multiple moods and states of mind from blazing noon to dreamy twilight to exotic fantasies. The writers address the problem by giving us three-dimensional, identifiable characters for whom to root. There’s nary a redneck stereotype in the bunch.
   Each has a believable stake in the contest, mostly motivated by the harsh realities of a souring economy. Hispanic veterinary student Jesus plans to sell the vehicle in order to pay his tuition. Churchgoing Norma needs transportation for her husband and kids. Scrappy seniors Janis and Don are barely scraping by. Even the dealers Mike and Cindy desperately require the publicity to generate sales for their failing lot or they’ll be out of work.
   Wright’s compassionate book and the lively score (lyrics by Green who collaborates on the music with Anastasio) paint a canvas of achingly real middle-class, everyday Americans, people rarely seen on Broadway. The score’s sounds of country, rock, and gospel are also welcome visitors to the Main Stem, tangily orchestrated by Anastasio and Don Hart.  

Almost every number is a show stopper, but particularly good is Norma’s a cappella “Joy of the Lord,” accompanied by the cast beating out rhythms on the cherry-red truck; “I’m Gone,” a sweetly yearning ballad of longing to escape the confines of a UPS job; and “Used to Be,” an ode to the long-gone uniqueness of small towns, now swallowed up by the national uniformity of Starbucks and Wal-Mart.
   The 15-member cast couldn’t be better. It’s difficult to single out any one of them, but Keala Settle (a gospel-shouting Norma), Hunter Foster (the obnoxious and rowdy past winner Benny Perkins), and Jacob Ming-Trent (a candy-loving contestant whose sweet tooth does him in) should be remembered at Tony time.

March 23, 2013
Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella
Broadway Theatre

Reviewed by David Sheward

Laura Osnes

You would think Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella on Broadway would be a slam-dunk. One of the most beloved television programs of all time with the iconic team’s loveliest score—in my humble opinion, anyway—on the Great White Way for the first time, what could possibly go wrong? Overthinking, that’s what. The creative team behind this elaborate fairy-tale couldn’t make up its collective mind as to how to treat the material, and the result is a beautiful-looking and beautiful-sounding mess.
   Rodgers and Hammerstein first adapted the traditional folk tale as a 1957 TV vehicle for Julie Andrews, then the hottest thing since sliced bread thanks to My Fair Lady. It was restaged for the small screen in full color in 1965 with Lesley Ann Warren and again in 1997 with teen idol Brandy. New York City Opera mounted stage versions in 1993, 1995, and 2004 with a script that hewed to the TV version.
   For this Broadway mounting, witty playwright Douglas Carter Beane has come up with a whole new book. Carter has proven himself adept at giving a campy fresh spin to overly familiar or unpromising material such as the grade-Z movie musical Xanadu and an updating of the Greek comedy Lysistrata. But he seems to have lost his way here. While there are some witty lines, the book erratically shifts gears among the satiric, the sentimental, and the political.

To flesh out the story, a pair of secondary lovers has been added. Cinderella’s gawky but basically good-hearted stepsister now has a suitor, the bumbling but lovable social activist named Jean-Michel. There’s also a silly plot thread involving the Prince’s chief advisor, the flamboyant Sebastian, acting like a Republican and stealing the peasants’ land, which clumsily introduces a sort of Afterschool Special lesson on democracy. Cute woodland creatures and a cartoon-ish chase scene are thrown in for good measure. Beane and the usually adept director Mark Brokaw fail to balance these kiddie-friendly Disney elements with the more adult Into the Woods themes and the satiric edge that keeps cutting in. We’re supposed to think these characters are cute caricatures; and then, all of a sudden, they get all real-world on us. For example, Harriet Harris is as campy as hell as the wicked stepmother (referred to here as “Madame”) for most of the evening. But, after the disappointment of both of her daughters losing the Prince’s hand, she instantly transforms into Joan Crawford from Mildred Pierce, without the irony.
   The humor doesn’t quite work either. Though in Brothers Grimm territory, the characters often spout contemporary jargon (“Thanks for the heads-up,” “Quit that, you!”). This is perfectly acceptable in small doses, but the gag soon wears thin after multiple uses. Beane and Carter should have chosen one tone and stuck with it.

On the plus side, Laura Osnes manages to be sturdy yet winsome as the plucky heroine, and Santino Fontana gives us a quirky, unconventional prince who is not a cardboard cut-out. Victoria Clark doubles as a daffy beggar and a glamorous fairy godmother with professionalism and sweetness. Peter Bartlett as Sebastian and Harriet Harris give it their best comic shtick but the mixed messages from the book and direction work against them. As the nicer stepsister, Marla Mindelle reprises her awkward nun bit from Sister Act, which Beane also worked on, and Greg Hildreth does a nice job with the schlubby but earnest Jean-Michel. Best of all is Ann Harada as the nastier of Cinderella’s siblings (not the one with the boyfriend). She steals the show with a hilarious delivery of the “Stepsister’s Lament,” which is now a solo number with chorus rather than a duet.
   So this is definitely a mixed bag, but man does the show look gorgeous. Tony-winning costume designer William Ivey Long would win hands down if this were a Project Runway challenge to create dresses that could switch from rags to riches in a blink of an eye. Plus, Cinderella’s wedding gown would fly off the racks at Vera Wang or David’s Bridal. Anna Louizos’s woodland set is charming and versatile, lit like a dream by Kenneth Posner. Kids will probably not have a problem with the confusing libretto, and all will love hearing these marvelous R&H songs again, but don’t expect a perfect Cinderella.

March 3, 2013
The Revisionist
Rattlestick Playwrights Theatre at the Cherry Lane Theatre

Reviewed by David Sheward

In her Playbill bio for The Revisionist, Vanessa Redgrave states she is “immensely excited by the script…which she accepted as soon as she read the play.” That’s perfectly understandable. Her role of Maria, a Polish Holocaust survivor, affords plenty of juicy theatrical opportunities. She gets to tells her harrowing story, crack jokes, mangle English a bit in a heavy accent, fuss over and then yell at her visiting young American cousin. But the play containing Maria is a predictable sketch that comes across as an exercise for a college playwriting course.
   This is actor-writer Jesse Eisenberg’s second play for Rattlestick Playwrights Theatre in which he is also starring. He’s essentially playing the same character as in his first effort, Asuncion: an intelligent, condescending young man, who harms a female relative through his insecurity. In that play, Eisenberg was a jittery college student assuming his new Filipino sister-in-law is a prostitute. This time he’s David, a blocked writer staying with his elderly cousin Maria in Poland. In a credulity-stretching plot point, he’s there in order to finish revising his science-fiction novel, a follow-up to his debut work that was published when he was in his early 20s. David fears he will never be able to repeat his previous success and ignores the doting Maria who idolizes her American relations. It’s as if the playwriting class assignment were to put two opposite characters in the same small space and see what happens (John McDemott designed the cramped, lived-in apartment set). Naturally, they come into conflict, get drunk on vodka, and reveal deep, dark secrets. At first, it appears the title refers to David, but during the drunk scene, we discover it really describes Maria. Without revealing too much, she has altered her history as a result of her harrowing childhood experiences.
   To mix things up a bit, Eisenberg brings in Zenon, a gruff taxi driver who likes to shave Maria’s legs. Yes, this stage business is as ridiculous as it sounds and feels like Eisenberg jammed it in to provide some comic relief.
   Eisenberg is a talented playwright and actor. He has a sharp sense of dialogue and basic structure. Plus he provides some fascinating, life-like details such as an endless series of phone calls from a charity for the blind. But there are too many plot holes to ignore. (Would David really not know the names and connections of his distant relations so that Maria has to explain them?) As a performer, he plays David as such a whining brat (“Poor me” is his whole subtext), it’s difficult to sympathize with him.
   Fortunately, Redgrave creates a living, breathing woman out of melodramatic clichés. As Maria retells her tragic story, Redgrave doesn’t go for the obvious weepy histrionics. Like a wound that has never healed, Maria’s past is painful to touch, and Redgrave skirts around the sore, coughing and pausing, then after knocking back several shots of vodka, she rips the scab off and relives the agony. Then she quickly covers it back up by asking David to recite a comedy routine. You can almost see Maria’s thoughts forming on Redgrave’s eloquent features as she caresses family photos, fights with David, scowls at a plate of tofu, or just watches CNN. Dan Oreskes creates a zesty and swaggering Zenon, though the role is small and almost entirely in Polish. Kudos also to Kip Fagan for staging the contrived action at a steady clip.
   The main fault here is Eisenberg’s underdeveloped and unbelievable script. Ironically, this Revisionist is in need of revising.

March 1, 2013

Luck of the Irish
LCT3/Lincoln Center Theater at the Claire Tow Theater

Reviewed by David Sheward

Kirsten Greenidge examines racial and class divisions across the decades in her intelligent but slightly flawed play Luck of the Irish, now at Lincoln Center’s intimate rooftop space, the Claire Tow Theater, after a run at the Huntington Theatre Company in Boston. Shifting back and forth from the 1950s to the early 2000s, the story centers on a familiar theme in theatrical literature: possession of a house and what it symbolizes. In the present, an African-American family has moved back to a home in a predominantly white suburb after the death of both grandparents. But as the family soon discovers, the house was “ghost” purchased by an Irish-American couple to avoid discrimination. The “real” buyers, now in their 70s, are claiming the property. The current tenants cannot find the deed and the ambiguous circumstances of the sale are played out in flashbacks.
   As the play switches time settings—smoothly handled by director Rebecca Taichman—we discover that despite all the apparent progress in race relations, there is still a lot of prejudice in America. Hannah, the owner in 2000, hates feeling like a token and anxiously worries about her young son who is constantly misbehaving at school. The uncertainty about the house parallels her feelings of not belonging as she deals with subtle forms of racism. Meanwhile, back in the ’50s, her grandparents the Taylors—Rex, a prosperous doctor, and the refined Lucy—are struggling with more blatant discrimination. They reach out to the working-class Donovans to act as a front for the purchase of their dream house in return for $1,500. Joe Donovan is content with the sum and sees the deception as a means of striking a blow for equality, but the angry wife, Patty Ann, refuses to give the Taylors the deed until the Donovans get more compensation.
   Much of the play is strong, particularly the scenes in the past in which the Donovans and Taylors clash over the ownership of the house. The most powerful vignette takes place in a restaurant where Patty Ann lets her economic resentment pour out in a barely contained explosion, which Lucy meets with icy disdain. There are some lapses in writing, mostly in the modern segments. Hannah’s husband, Rich, and her sister, Nessa, are barely developed and seem to be onstage mostly to feed Hannah cue lines. In addition, some of the sentiments come across as those of the author rather the characters.
   Despite these flaws, Irish is an insightful portrait of the changing American landscape through the experiences of one group of people who must work around the barriers of racism. There are many solid performances in the expert ensemble, particularly Marsha Stephanie Blake’s confused and conflicted Hannah and Amanda Quaid’s bitter and exhausted Patty Ann.

February 13, 2013
The Other Place
Manhattan Theatre Club at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre

Reviewed by David Sheward

When I saw Laurie Metcalf’s searing performance in Sharr White’s The Other Place presented Off-Broadway by MCC Theatre in 2011, I didn’t see how it could have been better. But in a Broadway transfer from Manhattan Theatre Club, Metcalfe has done the difficult feat of improving upon perfection. As Juliana, a brilliant, sharp-edged research scientist, she goes even deeper into the dark realm of dementia and loss. Although the MTC's Samuel Friedman Theatre is larger than the Lucille Lortel where it played two years ago for the MCC production, Joe Mantello’s staging is more intimate and immediate, allowing us to get closer to Juliana’s desperate plight.
   As you enter the Friedman, Metcalf is onstage, seated in the center of Eugene Lee and Edward Pierce’s jungle-gym set depicting the spooky labyrinth of the human mind, while Fitz Patton’s ominous music plays. Once the lights dim, she stands and takes us on Juliana’s torturous journey through darkness and confusion. It begins with a sales pitch for a drug to treat senility at an island resort. She sees a mysterious girl in a yellow bikini in the audience of doctors and then slips into a jangled world where nothing is as it seems. She recalls her daughter who ran away 10 years ago and now seems to be reappearing. She has paranoid visions of her loyal husband, Ian, cheating on her. And who is the woman in the bikini? What’s real and what’s a product of Juliana’s degenerative mental condition, which ironically could be treated with the very drug she has developed and is selling?
   Perhaps it’s because Metcalf’s real-life daughter Zoe Perry is now playing all the other female roles, but Metcalf now makes a makes a stronger connection with the material. She vividly portrays Juliana’s devastating wit, white-hot rage, formidable intellect, and dumbstruck confusion over what’s happening to her. In the space of 80 minutes when she never leaves the stage, she goes from a self-assured, take-no-prisoners captain of the pharmaceutical industry striding the stage in high heels to a shattered, blubbering child huddled on the floor.
   The rest of the cast is new to the play. Daniel Stern feelingly taps into Ian’s frustration, sensitively portraying his deep love for his wife and his overwhelming sense of powerlessness to help her. John Schiappa makes the most of his multiple male roles. Perry lends distinction and flavor to three separate roles, including a bitter divorcée. In a wrenching scene with Metcalf near the play’s end, Perry delivers a true supporting performance, giving full life and subtext to a seemingly minor character yet ceding the stage to the star. It’s a dazzling and moving mother-daughter act.

January 17, 2013

Golden Boy
Lincoln Center Theater at the Belasco Theatre

Reviewed by David Sheward

It’s a knockout, a kayo, a roundhouse right, an upper cut. Pick your ringside cliché. The Lincoln Center Theater revival of Clifford Odets’s 1937 boxing drama Golden Boy fits them all.
   There is a danger with this play and all of Odets’s work to lean on the stereotypes of noble progressive proletariat oppressed by Depression-era economics. As he did with his LCT production of Odets’s Awake and Sing, director Barlett Sher handily slugs these tired tropes to the mat in the first round. His production is a powerful portrait of three-dimensional citizens struggling against the temptations of gilt-edged success and its accompanying brutality.
   The story is a familiar one, popularized in the 1939 Hollywood version starring William Holden and Barbara Stanwyck, and dozens of ringside films since. Scrappy Joe Bonaparte is a rising young fighter, but he also has a magnificent gift for the violin. In the desperate 1930s, he must choose between making millions with his fists and starving for his art. If he pursues a fighting career, Joe will most likely damage his hands and never play his beloved fiddle again. Odets’s symbolism is more than a bit heavy handed (mob-fueled sports versus long-haired music), but Sher acknowledges it, staging the play as a Shakespearean epic. Played against set designer Michael Yeargan’s imposing backdrop of grim tenement edifices and poetically lit by Donald Holder, the play becomes a titanic battle for one man’s soul rather than a naturalistic kitchen-sink melodrama.

The cast couldn’t be better. From Seth Numirch’s white-hot comet of a Joe to Vayu O’Donnell’s no-nonsense fight official who only appears for a few minutes, each performer is at the top of his game, rattling off Odets’s somewhat dated but still-tough vernacular like a crack squadron of sharpshooters. Numrich is a ball of energy as the conflicted fighter, adeptly conveying Joe’s interior war while convincing he can knock out any opponent. Yvonne Strahovski is a perfect sparring partner as Lorna Moon, the girl who is just as impossible to possess as the satellite that bears her name. The actor endows Lorna with a keen set of street smarts and an even sharper sense of self-preservation. Strahovski also makes it clear that Lorna is truly in love with Joe and with his much older manager Tom Moody (a blunt and yet sympathetic Danny Mastrogiorgio), making her dilemma that much more intense.
   Tony Shalhoub is passionate and loving as Joe’s immigrant father, and Dan Burstein is flinty and feisty as a trainer. Ned Eisenberg is explosive as a club owner, while Anthony Crivello is full of dark menace as a gangster with more than a financial interest in the young fighter.
   Early in the play, Lorna describes Joe as being “full of fireworks.” She could be talking about this spectacular Golden Boy.

December 22, 2012
Glengarry Glen Ross
Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre

Reviewed by David Sheward

It’s the Al Pacino Show at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre. The attraction may be advertised as a revival of Glengarry Glen Ross, David Mamet’s 1983 Pulitzer Prize–winning ensemble piece about ruthless real estate salesmen, but the star and his director Daniel Sullivan have shifted the balance to Pacino and his character, Shelley Levine, a broken-down hustler desperate to remain on top of the sales board. The original Broadway production and a 2005 restaging evenly disturbed the playwright’s profanity-laced opportunities for dramatic pyrotechnics. Here, Sullivan has placed Pacino squarely center stage, figuratively and literally, and given the actor a free pass for his excesses—lengthy pauses, mugging, overreacting , etc.
   It’s a very uneven performance. Despite these self-indulgent stretches, there are also moments of shattering honesty. When Levine realizes his career is over, Pacino visibly deflates like a tire with a slow leak. You can see the light vanish from his eyes as he stumbles off.  Yet in the first act, Pacino throws away his opening scene, never making eye contact with office manager John Williamson, played with just the right amount of desperate jitteriness by David Harbour (Williamson is usually portrayed as a blank-slate idiot, so it’s refreshing to see him given some dramatic life).
   In previous incarnations, Joe Mantegna, Liev Schreiber, and Pacino in the film version stole the show as the shark-like Ricky Roma. Here Bobby Canavale opts for a smoother Roma, pouring on the charm in his Act 1 sales pitch to pigeon James Lingk (a suitably wimpish Jeremy Shamos). It’s an interesting choice but fails to reveal Roma’s gargantuan hunger for dominance and closing the sale. Canavale kicks up the volume in the second act, but he still cedes the spotlight to Pacino. Thus, Act 1 is taken over by John C. McGinley’s explosive Dave Moss, a nasty nefarious colleague of Levine and Roma. His scene with the Richard Schiff’s dyspeptic and frustrated George Aaronow is the only one to full capture the complexities of Mamet’s labyrinth of double talk and macho bravado.
   The second act captures some of the testosterone-fueled conflict, but too much focus is given over to Pacino’s mannerisms. With the author’s below-par The Anarchist shuttering just a few doors down at the Golden, it’s not been a merry holiday season for Mamet fans.

December 8, 2012
The Anarchist
John Golden Theatre

Reviewed by David Sheward

“I thought this meeting would go differently,” says Patti LuPone as Cathy, a former radical confronting Debra Winger’s Ann, a rigid prison official, in David Mamet’s The Anarchist. Audience members may have a similar reaction to this brief new play at the Golden Theatre. From American Buffalo to Glengarry Glen Ross to Oleanna to Race, Mamet’s previous works have always given off intense heat. It wasn’t just the profanity-laced dialogue; there was always a vital connection and conflict. You may not have liked the characters or agreed with the playwright’s point of view, but the plays were always engaging. While almost all the earlier Mamet plays are hot and juicy, The Anarchist is icy and dry. The author stages it with all the excitement of an Ethical Cultural Society lecture, and it feels far longer than its intermissionless 70 minutes.
   The basic premise has potential for dramatic fireworks. Cathy has been in prison for 35 years for shooting two guards when she was a young counterculture warrior and is now asking for parole based on her professed conversion to devout Christianity. Ann, her warden, has the power to grant Cathy’s freedom, but she remains unconvinced of the ex-anarchist’s sincerity unless the prisoner is willing to inform on a former conspirator who was also her lover. That’s the crux of the play, and it could have been a fiery mash-up between authority and nonconformism.
   But Mamet’s script is so stilted and heady, it’s totally passionless. Cathy and Ann could be chatting about the weather instead of a life-or-death decision. Religion, politics, homosexuality, philosophy, and redemption are all touched on, but since there is no personal connection made to any of these topics, the weighty words fall flat. In addition, the abrupt ending, which will not be revealed here, doesn’t make any sense given the characters’ behavior.

LuPone in a rare nonmusical role at least supplies a measure of devious guile to Cathy. You can see the wheels turning in this crafty woman’s head beneath her calm and well-coiffed exterior. But Cathy’s burning need is buried so far beneath the surface, it fails to light a spark under the play’s dry wood. Winger, making her Broadway debut after a long hiatus from her film career, is stiff and uncomfortable as the upright Ann. She occasionally stumbles over Mamet’s intricate sentences. In this play they sound as unnatural as those in his other works sound remarkable realistic, so the actor is not entirely to blame. Winger also fails to convincingly pursue Ann’s objective: to find out the truth behind Cathy’s motives. It seems like Ann doesn’t care what happens to Cathy, and therefore it’s not important to us.
   Mamet appears to be expressing rage here at the excesses of 1960s radicalism and killers who use religion to escape justice, just as he railed against political correctness in Race. That’s a worthy subject, but his arguments are dully expressed and unfeelingly played. He’s an important enough figure in the theater to merit a Broadway production for even a weak play, but don’t expect to see The Anarchist in many venues outside of acting classes.

December 2, 2012
Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike
Lincoln Center Theater at the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theatre

Reviewed by David Sheward

In a program essay, Christopher Durang describes his new play Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, now at the intimate Mitzi E. Newhouse at Lincoln Center, as Chekhov in a blender. That makes it sound as though this wacky yet touching work is a parody, but as the playwright goes on to explain in the essay, it’s not. The inventive author of such wildly funny pieces as Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All for You and Betty’s Summer Vacation employs numerous references to all four of Chekhov’s major plays, but these are only a starting point for an insightful and compassionate profile of a family coping with loss and confusion in the digital age. But, don’t worry, it’s hilarious too.
   Just like their Chekhovian namesakes, depressed siblings Vanya and Sonia may have their Bucks County home sold out from under them by an unfeeling well-off relative: their sister Masha, a glamorous movie star who has just arrived with her boy toy, Spike. Meanwhile, the cleaning lady Cassandra lives up to her moniker by foretelling disaster every five minutes, and a lovely visiting neighbor, Nina, much like the ingénue in The Seagull, forms an attachment with this troubled clan.
   There are wild and woolly take-offs on the Russian master’s tendency to feature sad protagonists, but Durang’s mixed-up characters are far from caricatures. The performances by a splendid cast and even-handed direction by Nicholas Martin wisely avoid overplaying the funhouse-mirror aspects of the script and keep the emotions honest.
   In two heartrending monologues, Vanya and Sonia expose their aching, unfulfilled souls. Set off by Spike texting during a reading of Vanya’s play (based on the abstract piece written by Treplev in The Seagull), the unhappy brother launches into a tour-de-force diatribe on the shallowness of the Facebook age and his longing for the simpler pleasures of his 1950s childhood. Middle-aged Sonia’s aria of despair comes during a one-sided phone conversation with her first potential boyfriend as she takes frightened, tentative steps out of her shell.

Both these shattering vignettes are delivered with just the right combination of subtlety and flash by David Hyde Pierce and Kristine Nielsen, respectively. Both create real people with wants and desires existing in a bizarre literary-reference universe. Nielsen, a frequent Durang collaborator, is especially proficient at conjuring up these dual realities, knowing just when to drop her voice an octave or raise an eyebrow for maximum effect. She makes Sonia both a giggle-inducing Debbie Downer and a complex, lonely woman.
   Sigourney Weaver, another Durang favorite, does a screamingly funny portrait of an exaggerated version of herself—a narcissistic film star battling aging and self-doubt as she clings to Spike and pushes away the admiring and much younger Nina. Billy Magnussen’s Spike is a gloriously clueless stud, intoxicated with his own beauty, and Genevieve Angelson makes for a charming and sweet Nina. Squeaky-voiced Shalita Grant cleverly keeps Cassandra from being a one-joke pony. Similarly, this show could have been an extended skit, skewering vodka-drenched depressives, but the inventive Durang hasn’t settled for easy comedy. Instead he has written a winking tribute to Chekhov and a piercingly moving family play.

November 25, 2012

Live and Learned
How Michael Learned rode the wave from The Waltons to The Outgoing Tide

By Simi Horwitz

NEW YORK—Michael Learned admits it took her time to find the complexity in the role of Peg, the wife of feisty Gunner (Peter Strauss), who is suffering from dementia and declining rapidly. Peg is seemingly unkind, but she’s also deeply in love with her husband, explains Learned. The actor initially wasn’t even sure she wanted to tackle Bruce Graham’s The Outgoing Tide, now playing Off-Broadway at 59E59. Ultimately the play’s power and resonance trumped any reservations she might have had.
   The three-character family drama (also starring Ian Lithgow as the son) centers on the crisis that emerges when mom can no longer care for dad and is determined to move with him to an assisted living facility, knowing the next step for him will be its nursing home. He makes it clear he’d rather be dead.
   Like many in the audience, Learned has been a caregiver and has thought about quality of life issues and the pain entailed in letting go of someone you love. “I relate to her anger, frustration, and what it’s like to dedicate your life to someone,” says Learned.” “I was a ’50s housewife, and, even after I was a working actress, I had ‘housewife’ on my passport. I modeled myself after Mrs. Cleaver.”
   Learned hasn’t been Mrs. Cleaver for a long time. Best known for her long-running stint as Olivia Walton on The Waltons, Learned boasts impressive credits—from starring in her own TV show, Nurse, to appearing in such Broadway productions as Gore Vidal’s The Best Man, The Sisters Rosensweig, and The Three Sisters, among many others. Learned has starred in national tours and guest-starred in a host of major television programs.

Listen and Learned

   Still, playing Peg is awash in acting challenges even for a veteran actor like Learned. “Peg is never explained, and, like many female characters, she’s there as a device for the male lead,” says Learned. “She’s a reactor and an active listener, which is what acting is all about. But I’ve had to struggle to flesh her out. I’ve thought about what I identify with in her and who she reminds me of. But I’m mostly tabula rasa and figure it out on stage in the moment. Also, I never did a play with flashbacks. It’s a challenge to step out of time and place.”
   Learned’s method has evolved with no one epiphany, though she speculates, “As I’ve become freer as a woman, I’ve become freer as an actress and more willing to take chances on stage. I was well-trained early on, but I was also very self-conscious. I guess a turning point was playing Miss Daisy in Driving Miss Daisy. For the first time, I didn’t need to be liked on stage.”
   A native of Washington, D.C., Learned grew up in Connecticut and later moved abroad. Her father, who worked with the State Department, was a spy, she admits matter-of-factly. Learned had her sights set on a dancing career, and her parents sent her to a performing arts boarding school in Hertfordshire, England, where she decided to focus on acting instead.
   Learned has worked steadily without the benefit of career strategies, she says. “I think my life was pre-ordained, but then I see that more and more in so many people’s lives. They end up doing what they were supposed to do.”

Learned the Hard Way

   Part of her life’s trajectory was her early marriage to actor Peter Donat at the age of 17 and setting up a home in Canada, where the young couple focused on his acting career, though Learned worked as well, occasionally on Canadian television, but mostly at the Stratford Festival in Ontario with such theater luminaries as Paul Scofield and Christopher Plummer. She and Donat spent a number of years performing in repertory with American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco, which also served as a wonderful training ground, she says.
   Not long thereafter, Learned was divorced and a single mom with three young sons. As she tells it she was in dire straits—“living in a motel and crying myself to sleep each night”—when the extraordinary occurred. Her agent sent her to audition for a new TV show, The Waltons. Television was never her ambition, but she reluctantly showed up, thinking even if she landed the part, the series wouldn’t last long anyway. The big virtue would be having an LA-based TV credit on her résumé, she recalls.
   Olivia Walton entered the public imagination and brought Learned high-profile recognition, ample income, as well as six Emmy nominations (three wins). It was also a learning experience. “TV teaches you how to be still and how to listen as an actor,” Learned says. “You cannot lie in front of the camera. After you get over the ego-deflating experience of seeing yourself on screen, you do learn.”
   She likens acting on television to “plowing a field,” as opposed to the experience of “running the race” in theater. A major regret is that at the height of her TV career, she didn’t have the opportunity to do more theater. “When I started out, you were either a film, television, or theater actor,” she notes. “You didn’t do all three. I think it’s great today for actors to move back and forth.”

Time and Tide

   Like many actors who’ve been on a long-running hit series, the experience was life-altering in the most wonderful ways. Yet, following the long run, Learned suffered from typecasting and did not work steadily, at least not on television. But happily, there was never any shortage of opportunities in theater for her and she has not found a diminishing of acting opportunities with age.
   Still, Learned wishes mature female characters were written with a little more complexity. “I dread the day I’m cast to play Anfisa in The Three Sisters,” she says, laughing. Plays she’d love to tackle include The Visit, Come Back Little Sheba, and anything by Edward Albee.
   Asked what she’d do differently if she could redo her career, she pauses a moment before commenting, “I was naive and success was thrust upon me. I was not into the ‘business’ aspect, the publicity, the diplomacy, or even knowing how to network. I think if I had been more responsible in those areas I’d be doing a lot more TV work now.”
   Learned is not complaining. After all, she’s performing in a three-dimensional play in New York as the city gears up for the holidays. “I love being here, especially at Christmas time,” she says. It can’t get better than that.

November 14, 2012

Top photo: Peter Strauss and Michael Learned in The Outgoing Tide, photo by Matt Urban

Middle photo: Ian LIthgow and Learned in The Outgoing Tide, photo by Matt Urban

The Heiress
Walter Kerr Theatre

Reviewed by David Sheward

Jessica Chastain is one of the most powerful and talented young actors in movies. In 2011, she appeared in an astonishing six films, playing vastly different women—from the tough-as-nails Israeli intelligence agent in Debt to the child-like mother in Tree of Life to the flighty and slightly trashy young bride in The Help. Her Broadway debut in a revival of The Heiress, a 1947 vehicle that brought a Tony Award to the magnificent Cherry Jones in a 1995 production, was anticipated as a major event of the season. Unfortunately, Chastain is not as polished a stage performer as she is a screen thespian, and Moisés Kaufman’s elegant production (gorgeous set by Derek McLane and costumes by Albert Wolsky) is a disappointment.
   Based on Henry James’s novel Washington Square and set in that fashionable NYC neighborhood in the 1850s, the plot focuses on painfully shy and physically plain Catherine Sloper, the heiress of the title. Dominated by her cruel father, an eminent doctor who has never forgiven her for causing his beloved wife to die in childbirth, Catherine believes she is unworthy of romantic love and hides behind her embroidery. That is until the dashing and penniless Morris Townsend sweeps her off her feet. But is he only after her money? When the couple’s whirlwind courtship ends in tragedy, Catherine transforms into a dignified and controlling woman unafraid of going after what she wants.
   The story is more than a tad melodramatic, but, with the right cast, Catherine’s crushing disappointment and subsequent devastating revenge can be rousingly theatrical. Kaufman fails to strike the right balance between Catherine and the forces assembled against her. Chastain, while luminous on screen, is as stilted as her character. It’s a difficult assignment to convey awkwardness without succumbing to it and then transitioning to a powerful self-possession. The star only manages to get across an indication of emotions by putting on exaggerated expressions of fear, passion, and anger, as if she were in her first acting class.

To further upset the play’s balance, the subtle David Strathairn is so multidimensional as Catherine’s unbending father that he winds up being the sympathetic one. Instead of the harsh brute as embodied by Ralph Richardson in the Hollywood film version, Strathairn delivers a complicated and imperious man torn by his love of his late wife and concern for his daughter. For the play to work, we have to believe Dr. Sloper does not care about Catherine, but Strathairn’s father obviously does.
   In addition, the luminous Judith Ivey takes the supporting role of Catherine’s silly aunt and makes her in a fascinating and rich conspirator with motives of vicarious romanticism. Dan Stevens, best known for his recurring role on Downton Abbey, adds to the off-kilter quality of this production by giving a so-so rendition of Morris. When the villain and the character woman are the most interesting people on stage, you know you’re in trouble.
   Despite the shortcomings, it’s refreshing to see a Broadway nonmusical show with a relatively large cast; and Virginia Kull, Dee Nelson, and Caitlin O’Connell lend shaded performances in smaller roles. Too bad the leads did not go as deep.

November 9, 2012
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
Steppenwolf Theatre Company at the Booth Theatre

Reviewed by David Sheward

It’s hard to believe that Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is exactly 50 years old. In Pam MacKinnon’s bracingly fresh production, now on Broadway after acclaimed runs at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre Company and Washington, D.C.,’s Arena Stage, the vicious battle between middle-aged marrieds George and Martha is as scary, intimate, and real as ever. Apart from a few references to the Cold War and the couple’s past from Prohibition to the 1940s, this cauldron of love, hate, alcohol, and recrimination could have been brewed this morning.
   Contemporary actors taking on this titanic pair inevitably come up against the memory of Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor in Mike Nichols’ jittery and intense 1966 film. (Arthur Hill’s and Uta Hagen’s original Broadway performances are preserved in an audio recording, but they haven’t seeped into the public consciousness the way Burton’s and Taylor’s have—thanks to cable TV, DVDs, and streaming video.)
   Fortunately, Tracy Letts and Amy Morton banish all thoughts of the Burtons as the current performers slash and tear at each other in a new way. In the film and most stage productions, the balance of power shifts to Martha for much of the late-night marathon booze-up with a younger couple. Martha gets to be obviously predatory as she strikes out at anything in her path and uses the two guests Nick and Honey as weapons to get at her husband, while George’s strategy is more subtle and therefore not as flashy. But here it’s an equal battle, Letts’s cunning George proving just as primed for the jugular as Morton’s sexy Martha.

Letts, best known as a playwright (August: Osage County), creates a deep and complex subtext for George’s sadomasochistic behavior. You can read the history of the characters’ crushing and codependent marriage on his features as every sting and barb hurled at George registers. Both actors remember that these two combatants need each other and hate themselves for this need. Morton stays away from the strident bossiness that marks most Marthas, retaining a hint of the girlish charm that must have attracted George in the first place. This Martha is can be a charmer and clearly is a hit at all those faculty parties. She’s fun and flirty, but there’s a soft center of self-pity and depression beneath her hard, bright shell.
   Madison Dirks gives the smirky Nick a relaxed charisma with only the slightest edge of the necessary arrogance, while Carrie Coon is hilarious as the simpering Honey, playing up how easily she gets drunk and how vulnerable she is to attack.
   Todd Rosenthal’s cluttered, book-crammed set, Nan Cibula-Jenkins’s understated costumes, and Allen Lee Hughes’s unobtrusive lighting provide the right slightly shabby, lived-in environment for this deathless deathmatch.
  This Virginia Woolf is indeed frightening as all great drama is, but it’s nothing to be afraid of.

October 19, 2012
Cyrano de Bergerac
Roundabout Theatre Company at the American Airlines Theatre

Reviewed by David Sheward

When Douglas Hodge in the title role of Roundabout Theatre Company’s revival of Cyrano de Bergerac bursts into the American Airlines Theatre from the street entrance, it’s a surprising and refreshing coup de theatre. However, instead moving his leading man right down the aisle and into battle with a pompous popinjay, director Jamie Lloyd has Hodge travel all around the back of the theatre and apparently into the balcony (it was difficult to tell from the audience), where we can hardly hear his lines, before charging onto the stage. It’s a missed opportunity, lessening the impact of a first appearance, and emblematic of Lloyd’s energetic but muddled production.
   Lloyd injects this beloved warhorse about the dazzling romantic hero encumbered by an enormous nose with a healthy dose of earthiness. In this version, Cyrano’s fellow guardsmen and poets would be more at home at a NASCAR rally than in 17th century Paris. Soutra Gilmour’s costumes are ragged and wearable, and her set resembles a deserted warehouse. Ranjit Bolt’s profanity-laced verse adaptation of the Edmond Rostand original is equally gritty. Gone are the stylized, staid poses of most Cyrano remountings. But also missing are vital elements: clarity of diction and intent. The actors rush through Bolt’s streetwise dialogue, and Lloyd’s helter-skelter staging often confuses the action. This kitchen-sink Cyrano is more naturalistic and rough than the usual, but it obscures Rostand’s glorious poetry and damps down the protagonist’s heroic stature.
   It’s clear that was partially the objective of star and director—to make the brilliant Cyrano a bit more human. Just as he did in his turn as the divine drag queen Alban in the 2010 revival of La Cage Aux Folles, Dodge brings a potential stereotypical stage icon down to earth. He makes Cyrano into a high-velocity standup comic, tossing quips and anecdotes as fast as he lunges with his epee. Dodge’s stamina and inventiveness are admirable and he also conveys the broken heart beneath the devil-may-care exterior. But with all that running around and muddy delivery, we lose too much of Cyrano’s shattering charade of hiding his love for his beauteous cousin Roxanne. By the play’s end, we’re just as exhausted as the hero, who collapses in a prolonged death scene.
   Clemence Poesy’s Roxanne and Kyle Soller’s Christian, the young cavalier who woos her with Cyrano’s words, are too bland to register either physically or emotionally. This is a fatal casting flaw, as both characters are supposed to be dazzlingly attractive.
   Oddly, the most interesting performance is given by the villain, Patrick Page as the lecherous Comte de Guiche. This veteran of numerous Broadway cad roles such as the Green Goblin in Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark, Scar in The Lion King, and Dr. Seuss’s The Grinch, takes this usually thrown-away part on a transformative journey from vain buffoon to tender, sympathetic friend. Maybe this production should have been called De Guiche instead of Cyrano.

October 11, 2012
An Enemy of the People
Manhattan Theatre Club at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre

Reviewed by David Sheward

Henrik Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People can be a bit preachy and heavy-handed. The play’s central premise of a Norwegian town’s toxic waters paralleling the citizens’ moral corruption is somewhat obvious symbolism; and its hero, Dr. Thomas Stockman, is so noble and enlightened, he comes across as more of a saint than a plausible hero. Perhaps that’s why the play is so infrequently revived. There have been only three major New York productions in the past 52 years. Frederic March headlined an adaptation by Arthur Miller in 1950, which drew parallels to the McCarthy witch hunts. Philip Bosco starred in a Lincoln Center Theater production in 1971, which echoed concerns of the newly popular environmentalist movement. Now Manhattan Theatre Club is mounting a new version by British playwright Rebecca Lenkiewicz (presented in London in 2008), and with Doug Hughes’ muscular direction and Boyd Gaines’s unflinching lead performance, Enemy becomes a complex, pulse-pounding examination of political pressure and courageous action.
   When Stockmann discovers the town’s spa, the source of its new prosperity, is polluted and causing illness among the guests, he believes he will be hailed for bringing a menace to light. But the forces of complacency, led by his brother Peter the mayor, chose to ignore his warnings and label him as a crank, a revolutionary, and finally, the epitaph of the title. Ibsen then turns Stockmann into a slogan-spouting spokesman for progressive thought in a provincial society and the character loses his human dimension.
   Fortunately, in Lenkiewicz’s version, Stockmann’s flaws are emphasized, and Gaines gives shadings to the doctor’s pomposity and narcissism, as well as his nobility. This guy’s no angel. He drinks excessively, loves to hear the sound of his own voice, and bears grudges, especially against his more conventional sibling, played with oily smoothness by Richard Thomas. You can believe these two are brothers; both have huge egos. It’s easy to imagine them as children fighting over toys. Gaines and Thomas remember that there is love between them, and their confrontational scenes are charged with twisted affection, as well as rage.
   Two more reasons for few Enemy productions are the expense of its relatively large cast and the fact that the supporting characters can be seen as one-sided representatives of community segments: the working class, the press, the intellectuals, the bureaucratic elites, etc. Lenkiewicz solves the first problem by slimming down the cast, banishing Stockmann’s two little boys offstage and reducing the crowd at the town meeting. Director Hughes and some skilled actors take care of the second by infusing the roles with reams of subtext. As Aslaksen, an opportunistic printer, Gerry Bamman is particularly adept at creating a realistic sniveling cravenness, as well as a convincing drive to protect Aslaksen’s most highly prized possession: his personal property. Michael Siberry makes an intense impression in two brief scenes as Morten Kiil, a grasping miser who runs the tannery causing the water poisoning. Kathleen McNenny goes beyond the cliché of the doting wife as Mrs. Stockmann to build a strong figure in her own right.
   John Lee Beatty’s ominous revolving set, Ben Stanton’s sculptural lighting, and David Van Tieghem’s bone-chilling original music and sound design create just the right repressive world for this unexpected and powerful production. With all the talk of haves and have-nots in today’s news, Enemy is as startlingly relevant as ever.

September 27, 2012
In Living Black-and-White
Rain Pryor is developing her own voice as storyteller and performer in her solo show at the Actors Temple Theatre.  

by Simi Horwitz

NEW YORK—Rain Pryor knows how complex and fluid racial/ethnic identity may be. She defines herself as an African-American and a Jew, “though because of my physicality—my big hair and olive skin, I suppose I define myself more as an African-American, unless I’m in Israel where I look like everyone else,” she says. “Some people call it ‘code-switching,’ meaning I become like the people I’m with. I’m one thing with Bubbee and something else with my friends in Bed-Stuy. I don’t plan that. It just happens.”
   Her dual identity is the lens through which she views the world, and nowhere is that more evident than in her solo show, Fried Chicken and Latkes Off-Broadway at the Actors Temple Theatre. Interspersed with a few songs and spot-on mimicry, the piece focuses on Pryor’s experience of growing up emotionally dislocated in Beverly Hills. She is the biracial child of a Jewish activist mother (a go-go dancer–turned-scientist) and the iconic comic Richard Pryor. Despite the humor, in the end Fried Chickens and Latkes is sad.
   Forging the play posed multiple challenges, not least maintaining honesty while playing with stereotypes and straddling the thin line between parody and celebration. Most daunting was not allowing the story to become sensationalized. “Many people wanted to hear about my life with Richard Pryor,” notes his affable daughter. “But that’s not what this is about. He had a unique presence in my life and is part of my story. But it was more interesting for me to talk about Mama [paternal grandma who was a prostitute], Bubbee, and my mom and how they related to me as a biracial child.”
   Pryor has been performing the piece in various incarnations for more than seven years, its evolution reflecting her growth as an artist and person. Before her father’s death, in 2005, the show was cabaret in style with comic banter and many more songs. When the act re-emerged following his death, it still had its comedic elements but was darker in tone. “I delved deeper into who the characters were and what they were saying,” she comments. “Now people have to think. The angle is different.”
   Among other developments Pryor grew increasingly accepting of her biracial identity and had the freedom, perhaps for the first time, to be who she was on stage and off. Further, she was able to address the issues head-on. “When I was young, I wanted to be anyone other than myself—either blond with blue eyes or very, very dark,” she recalls. “I’m no longer afraid to be who I am. And I now talk about race.”

Type Caste

   As a youngster, she wanted to act, and her parents fully supported her ambitions. Nonetheless, Pryor earned a certificate as a relapse-prevention therapist, and she ultimately worked in a drug rehab center.  Still, she felt divided, aspiring to middle-class respectability, while craving the less than stable life as an actor. In the end she had both. But it was by no means smooth sailing.
Like the children of many celebrities, Pryor was helped and hindered by her lineage. Her dad’s name opened doors but also placed her under great scrutiny. After spending a number of years on the sitcom Head of the Class, she found herself typecast as a comic. “People don’t understand that serious actors may not be able to do comedy, but if you’re comedic, you tap into the pain,” Pryor insists. “I can do drama, I can do Shakespeare, but everyone assumed that I was only a comic. As Richard Pryor’s daughter they believed I was really a standup comic. I never did standup comedy.”  
   As a bi-racial actor, Pryor faced further obstacles in the industry. “I was not white enough to play a white role or black enough to play an African-American,” she says. Contrary to received wisdom, she does not believe the “ethnically ambiguous,” actor is hot. Indeed, she suggests the term is dishonest. “Ethnically ambiguous means having straight hair, Anglo features, and olive-colored skin,” she says. “When they start casting actors who look like me, then we can talk about ‘ethnically’ or ‘racially ambiguous.’”
   Despite the challenges, Pryor boasted a number of gigs over the years, such as playing Sarah Palin’s makeup artist Angela in the TV movie Game Change and a principal role as the lipstick lesbian drug addict on the Showtime series Rude Awakening, opposite the late Lynn Redgrave. Pryor’s guest-starring stints included appearances on The Division and Chicago Hope. On stage she played the title role of Billie Holiday in the UK tour of The Billie Holiday Story and Ella Fitzgerald in the UK premiere of Ella, Meet Marilyn. Among other productions, she has performed in The Exonerated, The Vagina Monologues, and The Who’s Tommy at La Jolla Playhouse.
   But her most significant role is “being a mom,” to her 4-year-old daughter, Lotus. Pryor is married to a police officer and is based in the Baltimore area, where she currently serves as the artistic director of the Strand Theater, a woman-centric company.   Pryor has no regrets about wanting a family, but she is sorry she was not career-savvy enough e
arly on to have “followed through on some of the opportunities,” she muses. To this day, she does not have an agent. “Of course I want one,” Pryor emphasizes. “I’m Off-Broadway, getting great reviews. You’d think….” The sentence remains incomplete. “The game has changed so much since I did a sitcom 20 years ago. I could ask my celebrity friends what I should do, but I’m weird about that. They assume I have an agent. No, I don’t have a manger either. Everything I’ve done, I’ve done on my own.”
   She’s hopeful this time around her luck will change.  But whether or not she lands that elusive representation, performing Fried Chicken and Latkes is a transforming experience. “It’s made me more aware of how race is so on the surface today,” she says. “Six years ago, audiences didn’t react the way they do now. That’s because we have a black president. We can’t hide it. We can’t run from it. We can’t sweep it under the rug. And we’re not past it. And we won’t be until we see it and deal with it. And then we’ll be able to discard it.”

August 27, 2012

Production photos by Peter Zimmern

Keeping Dad’s Legacy Alive in Harrison, TX
Hallie Foote is thrilled to appear once again in the work of her late father, Horton Foote.

by Simi Horwitz

NEW YORK—Hallie Foote is keenly identified with the work of her late father, playwright Horton Foote, and proud of it. Indeed, most of her career, spanning more than 30 years, has been spent acting in his plays, including The Orphans’ Home Cycle, Dividing the Estate, The Trip to Bount
iful, and The Last of the Thorntons, among many others. Currently she’s tackling two roles in Harrison, TX: Three Plays by Horton Foote, at Primary Stage at 59E59 Theaters. [Show closed Sept. 10.]
   Set in the titular town, the three one-acts—Blind
Date, The One-Armed Man, and The Midnight Caller—explore the yearnings of ordinary townsfolk. The first two pieces take place in 1928, and the third unfolds in 1952. In Blind Date, Foote takes on a well-intentioned busybody aunt attempting to make her uninterested niece ready for a date, while in The Midnight Caller, she plays a world-weary boarding-house owner whose tenants are the lost and lonely. Jayne Houdyshell, making her Horton Foote debut, also stars in The Midnight Caller.
   Foote boasts other credits, but performing in her father’s work has
special resonance—and not simply because she has earned myriad honors, including a Tony nomination, for those roles. She loves his writing and the world he evokes, which is at once haunting, lyrical, dark, and comic. She finds inhabiting his characters deeply satisfying, and the challenges continue to excite her.
   “He’s not easy to do,” says the soft-spoken Foote during a phone conversation. “His style is deceptively simple, but the complexity reveals itself quickly.
You have to be an actor who enjoys investigating and peeling away the layers. His themes have universal resonance. They’re not regional.” The danger is over-simplification, playing these characters as quaint Southern relics, she adds.
   Since her father’s death in 2009, she is more determined than ever to keep his legacy alive. Not coincidentally, she and her siblings, including playwright Daisy Foote, have launched the Horton Foote Legacy Foundation, the mission of which is “to encourage other writers and educate people about my father’s work,” she says. “He is an important writer, and we want to make sure his work is produced and expand his visibility.”

A Child of the ’60s

   Born in New York City, Foote grew up in Nyack, NY, before moving with her family to New Hampshire when she was 16. Though she briefly toyed with the idea of being an opera singer—having studied voice at Juilliard—at the University of New Hampshire she majored in English literature with no particular goals in mind. “I liked to read, and it was the late ’60s, and we didn’t think in terms of plans,” she says.   Her decision to act came as an epiphany several years after she graduated from college. As she recalls, “I was sitting in the car with my father, and said ‘I want to try acting.’ There was a pause and then he said, ‘Start with a good acting teacher.’”
   At dad’s suggestion Foote studied with the Los Angeles–based Peggy Feury, a Lee Strasberg disciple. Foote trained with her intermittently for three years. In preparation for a class showcase, Feury urged Foote to do a scene from one of her father’s plays. When he saw his daughter perform, “He went back to my mother and said, ‘I’ve found my Elizabeth for The Orphans’ Home Cycle,” Foote remembers, enjoying the moment even in retrospect.   She launched her professional acting career in a production of Orphans at Herbert Berghof Studio in the late ’70s. In 2009–10, Foote took on several of the more mature roles—by turns quirky and prosaic—in a revival of the play staged at the Signature Theatre.
   Looking back, Foote concedes she has worked fairly steadily, thanks in large part to the roles her father afforded her. She emphasizes she has never been a career-driven strategist or had her sights set on film or television. Still, she’d like to have the chance to appear in a play by John Guare, Tony Kushner, Sam Shepard, or Will Eno.

A Family Affair
   Foote is slated to appear in Him, a drama centering on family relationships and the nature of legacy, written by her sister, Daisy. It is not unlike dad’s work in its unexpected depth, says Foote, who previously performed in Daisy’s God’s Pictures and the title role in When They Speak of Rita, the latter directed by their father. Him will bow at Primary Stages, Sept. 25.

oote clearly enjoys working with her family. Harrison, TX features, not coincidentally, her husband, actor Devon Abner, who also starred in Orphans and Diving the Estate. Pointing out that many actors love to perform in her dad’s plays, Foote is hopeful theatergoers appreciate Harrison as much as she and fellow cast members do.
   Asked what challenges she faces in performing her father’s plays precisely because she is his daughter, she says, “Not trying to control everything. It’s easy to feel I have to micromanage. I now realize I can get out of the way. I don’t have to appear in every one of his plays.”

August 14, 2012

Broadhurst Theatre

Longacre Theatre

First Daughter Suite
Public Theater

Before Your Very Eyes
Public Theater

Reviewed by David Sheward

Betsy Morgan, Barbara Walsh, and Caissie Levy as the Nixon women in First Daughter Suite
Photo by Joan Marcus

Misery and Allegiance dish up familiar thrills and emotions on Broadway, while First Daughter Suite and Before Your Very Eyes Off-Broadway at the Public Theater dare to be different. Even though the Off-Broadway ventures don’t entirely succeed, at least they provide fresh perspectives and innovative staging.
   Stephen King’s 1987 blockbuster novel Misery takes the unusual step—for a nonmusical—of coming to the stage after the movie has already been filmed. You’ll recall the 1990 thriller, tautly directed by Rob Reiner. It told the neatly constructed tale of bestselling romance novelist Paul Sheldon being held hostage by devoted fan Annie Wilkes in her snowbound Colorado cabin after he breaks both legs in an auto accident. Annie just happens to be a trained nurse and obsessed with Misery, the heroine of Paul’s series of books. But she goes ballistic on her patient when she discovers he has killed off her idol in the latest book. Kathy Bates dominated the film and won an Oscar for her terrifying performance as the deranged captor, while James Caan had to settle for second-fiddle status as Paul. Similarly Laurie Metcalf holds center stage in a creepier limning than Bates’s, while Bruce Willis rarely rouses himself above a stupor. Granted he is confided to bed and reacting to Metcalf for the majority of the 90-minute intermissionless suspenser, but he only occasionally connects with the character’s desperate plight.
   Metcalf, on the other hand, delves deeply into Annie’s complex motivations, slowly revealing her twisted psyche. At first she’s convincing as the admiring angel of mercy, girlishly excited that her favorite author is in her home. Then as her cherished romantic illusions are challenged, Metcalf gradually peels back the folksy veneer to expose the desperately lonely monster willing to maim and murder to maintain them.
   Scriptwriter William Goldman delivers a pared-down version of his 1990 screenplay, maintaining the basic plot but forgoing the character-defining details. Paul Frears hands in a routine staging. With Willis failing to deliver much subtext, the chills are mainly supplied by David Korins’s ingenious revolving set and Michael Friedman’s Hitchcockian music. The movie’s most infamous scene in which Annie smashes Paul’s ankles with a sledgehammer is re-created with agonizing detail thanks to the special effects of Gregory Meeh. Metcalf delivers the blows and the audiences screams, but then laughs at her next line: “Oh, my God, I love you!” The scene encapsulates the difference between the screen and stage version. The former was truly terrifying, but the latter is just campy.

While Misery is a retread of a successful property, Allegiance takes on an unexpected subject for a musical, attempting out-of-the-Broadway-box storytelling but finally succumbing to convention. The tuner’s inspiration comes from the childhood experiences of Star Trek icon George Takei, who was interned along with his family during World War II when thousands of Japanese-Americans were treated as enemy aliens merely because of their race. The melodramatic book—a collaborative effort by Marc Acito, Lorenzo Thione, and Jay Kuo who also wrote the music and lyrics—follows the Kimura family members’ travails as they are forced to abandon their California farm and move to a relocation camp. This seldom-explored dark side of American history is a worthy topic, but Allegiance employs it for soap operatics with a corny flashback framing device featuring Takei as Sam, the now-elderly Kimura son receiving a secret envelope from a mysterious stranger.
   Despite the hokey plot twists, Allegiance contains moving moments and original material. Kuo uses period musical idioms such as boogie-woogie and swing to interesting effect in clever pastiches, but too often he veers into generic Les Miz territory such as the obligatory power ballad for Lea Salonga as Kei, Sam’s determined sister. Stafford Arima’s staging is swift and proficient, with Donyale Werle’s sliding-screen sets and Darrel Maloney’s expressive projections aiding immensely. The cast works hard, with Salonga cementing her position as one of Broadway’s most powerful musical stars. Takei doubles as the older Sam and his own grandfather with compassion. Telly Leung is saddled with a one-dimensional hero role as the younger Sam but delivers a sturdy performance. Michael K. Lee and Katie Rose Clarke provide welcome comic spark in supporting roles.
is at its most captivating when it departs from the expected Broadway template. Michael John LaChiusa’s First Daughter Suite at the Public doesn’t follow any of the standard rules. This quartet of mini-musicals employs unexpected music, clever lyrics, and imaginative premises. Like his 1993 First Lady Suite, the work explores the women—mothers and wives as well as daughters—near the president and how they react to national crises. LaChiusa’s score is refreshingly intricate and complex throughout, but the storylines for two of the pieces are relatively static. The vignettes centered on the Reagans and the Bushes are more ruminative than plot-driven. A dream sequence featuring the Ford and Carter women goes on a bit too long. Only the opening Nixon sequence, set during a White House wedding, is entirely successful. Barbara Walsh’s repressed Pat Nixon and Rachel Bay Jones’s sweet but steely Rosalyn Carter and Laura Bush stand out in an estimable all-female ensemble, directed by Kirsten Sanderson.

Before Your Very Eyes, another unconventional theater piece at the Public, also has a promising premise but fall short of being totally captivating. This Gob Squad creation features alternating casts of seven kids playing the clichés of growing up from punk teenagers to middle-aged failures to geriatric zombies. The highlights are provided by video interviews between the performers’ younger selves (filmed a few years ago) and their older alter egos. There are striking images such an irony-laden sequence with the youngsters dressed as menopausal wrecks lip-synching “Je Ne Regrette Rien.” But these bits and the admittedly haunting video interactions are not enough to sustain even a 70-minute running time.

November 20, 2015
A View From the Bridge
The Young Vic at the Lyceum Theatre

Incident at Vichy
Signature Theatre Company

Reviewed by David Sheward

This year marks the centennial of Arthur Miller’s birth, and two of his dramas are receiving strikingly different productions on and Off-Broadway. A View From the Bridge, one of his more popular works, is being given a radical reinterpretation by Dutch director Ivo van Hove in a production transferred from London’s Young Vic to the Lyceum. The less frequently produced Incident at Vichy receives a more traditional staging from Michael Wilson at the Signature Theatre Company.
   This is the fourth Broadway revival of View since its 1955 debut as a one-act. Van Hove returns to the work’s origins by presenting it without an intermission and emphasizing its roots in Greek tragedy. As he has with his New York Theatre Workshop productions of other American classics such as A Streetcar Named Desire and The Little Foxes, the innovative director has stripped the play of any extraneous elements such as props, representative scenery, or detailed costumes, leaving only Miller’s raw themes of primeval passions and notions of justice predating modern society.
   Rather than a kitchen-sink re-creation of the play’s Red Hook, Brooklyn setting, designer Jan Versweyveld has created a bare space resembling a boxing ring with a huge cube hanging over it—a pit for a battle between alpha males over sex and respect. Longshoreman Eddie Carbone’s repressed incestuous longing for his niece Catherine sets off an explosion when she falls in love with an illegal Italian immigrant hiding in the Carbone apartment. In van Hove’s intimate staging, there is nothing between the combatants apart from a single chair that is briefly used as a symbol of power. The result of this minimalist interpretation is a gut-churning journey into the darkest heart of humanity, exploring the lengths the protagonist will go to in order to follow his hidden passion and protect his wounded pride. Like John Proctor, the farmer wrongfully labeled a witch in Miller’s The Crucible, Eddie values his honor above all else, and when it’s tarnished he will sacrifice everything—his family, his life—to get it back. “Give me back my name,” he screams when he is accused of betraying the illegals in his house.

As Eddie, Mark Strong makes this moment particularly harrowing. Even though we know Eddie has done wrong, Strong infuses him with such an unshakable power that we accept his collision with tragedy. He wants to do good, but his buried attraction for Catherine warps his sensibilities, and he goes outside all codes of morality but his own. Strong does not make Eddie sympathetic, but he does make him understandable. Like Strong, Nicola Walker, Phoebe Fox, Russell Tovey, Michael Zegen, and especially Michael Gould as the agonized attorney Alfieri who acts as a Greek chorus, are all marvelously and simultaneously restrained and intense.
   Van Hove does go somewhat over the top in his startlingly staged climax (no spoilers, but let’s just say the actors need lots of towels backstage when they’re finished), but he has created a primal theater experience. You can imagine that the emotions it evokes are similar to those felt by audiences in amphitheaters in Greece thousands of years ago.

Though its themes are just as visceral as View’s, Incident at Vichy is more cerebral. The 1964 one-act is set in an abandoned warehouse in the titular French city during World War II (Jeff Cowie’s grubby set is appropriately disheveled). As the play begins, a group of men representing a cross-section of society from socialist electrician to wealthy businessman silently wait. It’s gradually revealed they have been picked up by the German occupying forces, and they suspect their offense is being Jewish. The first whispers of death camps have begun to circulate, and the terror grows as each one is called into an offstage office for “racial examination.”
   With another refugee crisis brewing, Incident is especially relevant today, and though Michael Wilson’s traditional production is dramatically sound, it does not quite overcome Miller’s tendency to pontificate. The characters are just a tad too much like representatives of political and social points of view rather than people caught in a frightening historical moment. They debate each other in complete sentences that often descend into melodrama (“Your heart is conquered territory, mister!”).
   Yet the large company makes the waiting game unbearably real as the number of detainees slowly diminishes. Richard Thomas’s conscience-stricken nobleman, Darren Pettie’s vigorous psychiatrist, James Carpinello’s conflicted Nazi major, and Derek Smith’s self-deluding actor are just a few of the indelible portraits in this grim gallery.
   We’ll be getting one more Miller drama next spring when van Hove directs a new production of The Crucible on Broadway. It should be fascinating to see what he does with it.

November 19, 2015
Metropolitan Opera

Reviewed by David Sheward

The Metropolitan Opera’s warhorse production of Wagner’s Tannhäuser was given a magnificent recent rendition under the baton of maestro James Levine. South African tenor Johan Botha strongly captured the titular minstrel’s passionate struggle between the sensual and the spiritual. But the heart of the production was provided by the two female singers representing Tannhäuser’s opposite attractions. Soprano Eva-Marie Westbrook conveyed the angelic purity of the saintly noblewoman Elisabeth with rich, full tones. Mezzo Michelle DeYoung embodied the essence of physical love as the goddess Venus, whose alluring siren call to Tannhäuser to join her in the orgastic underworld, populated by a lithesome chorus of beautiful dancers, made the hero’s inner battle all the more believable. Peter Mattei’s Wolfram was also memorable, as was the inspiring choral work, particularly during the pilgrims’ procession.
   At over four hours, Tannhäuser can be too much for some audiences, but the right performers can make it into a sublime operatic experience, as was the case here.

November 10, 2015
Page 73 at the New Ohio Theatre

Reviewed by David Sheward

In Judy, Max Posner’s melancholy and moving new play from Page 73 at the New Ohio Theatre, the future is pretty much like the present, only more so. Relatives are friends in the Facebook sense—disembodied voices and comments, images on screens, disconnected, fragile and lonely. We’re in the year 2040 in the suburban basement of three adult siblings. One nondescript set (designed with eerie minimalist accuracy by Arnulfo Maldonado) serves as the single environment of this drifting trio. Technology has shattered the psyches of Timothy, Tara, and Kris, who sit alone at separate computer screens attempting to find comfort in cyberspace.
   Each has suffered a devastating loss. Timothy’s wife, the unseen Judy of the title, has left him. Tara is launching a new religion through the Internet to fill void of her sterile marriage to Saul (also offstage) and to avoid dealing with her troubled adopted son Kalvin. The eldest sibling, Kris, is still dealing with survivor guilt for living through a mass murder at a nationwide chain of yoga studios 14 years ago. (The event is referred to as “1-16” for the day it occurred in a pointed echo of 9/11.) She finds temporary relief with Markus, a much younger man who services the “System” that runs the web and power for the entire community (though having a human technician make house calls seems an inconsistent impossibility in Posner’s impersonal world).
   Posner combines a wicked satiric sense with compassionate observation. His characters are simultaneously ridiculous and pathetic. In one hilariously sad scene, Timothy covers himself in Judy’s clothes, sits a wheelchair used by his late parents, and attempts to communicate with his distant teenage daughter Eloise by pretending to be a long-lost twin brother, reasoning Eloise will open up to a stranger in a way she wouldn’t with her authority-figure dad. Timothy’s clumsy efforts at reaching out and Eloise’s confused but perceptive response are riotously funny and touching.

Director Ken Rus Schmoll skillfully combines these two strains in a subtle staging, and the cast plays its absurdist aims straight, reacting seriously in a crazed universe. Danny Wolohan is a desperately intense Timothy, Birgit Huppuch a cool but frazzled Tara, and the incomparable Deirdre O’Connell’s expressive features illuminate Kris’s pain. Marcel Spears is equally eloquent in his emotional reactions as the sensitive Markus. Frenie Acoba and Luka Kain display talent beyond their years as the struggling kids Eloise and Kalvin.
   At times Posner is too clever for his own good. He occasionally points out his futuristic devices and themes too obviously, as in the climactic seance scene where Eloise and Kalvin summon forth the spirits of their grandparents. All societal changes are explained to the ghosts (impersonated by Timothy and Kris) as if the author is saying, “See, here’s the point I want to make about today’s tech advances blighting human relationships.” Fortunately, Posner keeps a lid on this telling rather than showing, and Judy is mostly an absorbing and scary peek into our future and an unflinching comment on the present.

September 17, 2015
Love & Money
Signature Theatre Company

Reviewed by David Sheward

A. R. Gurney is one of our most prolific playwrights. From the 1970s until now, in more than 50 shows—including The Dining Room, Love Letters, The Perfect Party, and The Cocktail Hour—he has compassionately and humorously chronicled the diminishing fortunes, both financial and psychological, of the WASP upper class as the American population becomes a majority of minorities. This season alone will see several productions of his works—including the 1995 Sylvia opening on Broadway next month and the new Love & Money now at Signature Theatre Company. This slight piece incorporates several of his favorite themes: the corrupting influence of wealth, the encroachment of the lower class on the privileged, his love of Cole Porter—referred to as the poet of the upper crust—the disappearance of grace and class in our culture, and the theater as the last hope of saving these qualities. But he fails to say anything new about these elements or replay his familiar complaints in a fresh and arresting way.
   Not only is Gurney repeating himself, he’s borrowing from others. The main thrust of the plot is a direct lift from John Guare’s Six Degrees of Separation (Gurney even acknowledges this in the dialogue) with an African-American con man attempting to charm his way into the good graces and sizable purse of his white hostess. But the author gives that true-life based story a less cynical twist.
   Mega-rich dowager Cornelia Cunningham is about to donate all of her money and property to various charities. She feels guilty over the robber-baron tactics her late husband used to acquire their fortune and how said filthy lucre contributed to the early deaths of both her children. She is leaving just enough to live on in a retirement home and for her ne’er-do-well two grandchildren not to starve. Just as she is about to sign the papers finalizing her plans, an unknown third grandchild appears on the horizon and, guess what, he’s downstairs and—surprise—he’s black.

There’s very little tension or suspense since the interloper’s story is obviously fake and all is happily resolved very quickly. Gurney delivers a few pointed observations on class divisions, but he’s made them all before in the plays cited earlier. Even at 80 minutes, Love & Money feels padded with several Porter songs inserted for the flimsiest of excuses. (Cornelia has a player piano she wants to donate to the Juilliard School, allowing barely motivated renditions of lovely curios like “Make It Another Old Fashioned, Please” and “Get Out of Town.”)
   Director Mark Lamos and his cast deliver a pleasant enough diversion. Maureen Anderman adds spice to the too-saintly Cornelia. Joe Paulik provides much needed pushback as her contrary young lawyer. Gabriel Brown is attractive and energetic as the con man, but he fails to compensate for the character’s arrogance with the necessary charisma. It’s difficult to believe he would enchant the generous but intelligent Cornelia. As the Juilliard student, Kahyun Kim has a lovely voice, but there’s not much she can do with such a nothing role. She’s basically there to sing. As Agnes, the no-nonsense Irish housekeeper, Pamela Dunlap gives lessons on how to enliven a tiny part. She makes every one of her lines count with sharp delivery and pointed intention. A play by Gurney about Agnes might have been more interesting. At least it would have been different.

September 12, 2015
Signature Theatre Company

Reviewed by David Sheward

The everyday and the cosmic are addressed in John, Annie Baker’s wonderfully weird new play at the Signature Center. As in her previous works—including The Aliens, Circle Mirror Transformation and the Pulitzer Prize–winning The Flick—Baker uses an ordinary setting such as the back porch of a summer snack stand, a community-center acting class, or a rundown movie theater as a platform to examine such profound issues as faith, love, and the human condition. Through incomplete sentences inarticulately expressing longings, prolonged pregnant pauses, and real-time stage action of seemingly mundane tasks, she shows us what goes on underneath the familiar surface. Her probing plays are never pretentious or obvious, and they offer a rare glimpse into the souls and minds of amateur musicians, waiters, ushers, etc.—people like you and me.
   This time we’re in an aggressively cozy, knickknack-stuffed bed-and-breakfast in Gettysburg, Pa., designed within an inch of its kitschy life by Mimi Lien. The only guests are Elias and Jenny, a young couple working through a rough patch. The eccentric innkeeper Mertis—but you can call her Kitty—offers a sympathetic ear to each, inquires as to their spiritual beliefs, and records her impressions of the sunsets in a journal. There are also visits from Kitty’s mysterious blind friend Genevieve. Oh, and the whole place may or may not be haunted.

All four are groping blindly, either literally or figuratively, for a connection outside themselves. Elias and Jenny fumble toward each other despite the barriers each erects, then push each other away. Kitty seeks confirmation of someone watching out for her and cherishes the beauty in nature and in her many dolls and figurines. Like an ancient mystic, Genevieve recounts her frightening past of spending time in an asylum when she believed she was possessed by the spirit of her late husband, John. Significantly, Jenny is also haunted by a man with the same name. It doesn’t sound like enough material to fill more than three hours of playing time, but Baker and her frequent director Sam Gold find the fascinating poetry in these confused characters.
   The admirable cast documents their search with compassion. Christopher Abbott and Hong Chau are heartbreakingly real as the distraught couple. The bond between them is solidly conveyed (watch Chau’s enraptured face as Abbott tells her one of Elias’s improvised ghost stories) and so is the seemingly unbridgeable gulf. The baby-voiced Georgia Engel is the perfect embodiment of Kitty’s childlike awe and her sage wisdom. Lois Smith is a chilling Genevieve. Her shatteringly monologue describing the seven stages of madness delivered directly to the audience right after the lights come up for intermission will haunt me along with rest of this mesmerizing play.

August 16, 2015
Amazing Grace
Nederlander Theater

Reviewed by David Sheward

During a recent early morning subway ride, a street preacher loudly burst into the traditional hymn Amazing Grace. When she finished with the last verse, she told the entire car the story of the song’s writer, John Newton, a reprobate 18th-century English slave trader who had a religious conversion and became an advocate for abolition. This impromptu performance was more interesting and authentic than the new Broadway musical about Newton, which bears the name of his most famous work. The subway preacher’s tale contained messy and convincing details, while the melodramatic book by theater neophyte Christopher Smith, who also wrote the music and lyrics, and the more-experienced Arthur Giron is filled with enough clichés and neat plot resolutions to stock a 1970s TV miniseries.
   You have to admire Smith, a former Philadelphia police officer, for following his dream and getting the show, his first professional writing credit, onto the Main Stem. But his score is a generic retread of Les Miz and Lloyd Webber, featuring simplistic rhymes and familiar melodies. (There are a few African-influenced interpolations for the black characters.) The book is also a stew of reliable tropes following the rakish young Newton as he rebels against his imperious father, courts the gracious Mary Catlett, has numerous adventures at sea with his loyal retainer Thomas, and finally reconciles with dad—on the latter’s deathbed, marries Mary over the objections of her buffoonish Army suitor, frees all of his slaves, and leads the entire cast in the title song (the sole distinctive one in the entire score).

Director Gabriel Barre does a serviceable job of staging the action, supplying a thrilling first act finale with Thomas appearing to rescue John from drowning by means of flying harnesses. It’s an exciting effect, achieved with the aid of Ken Billington and Paul Miller’s evocative aquatic lighting, but it’s the only surprising moment in otherwise pedestrian production.
   Josh Young as Newton and Erin Mackey as Mary display impressive pipes, but the supporting cast steals center stage. As Thomas, Chuck Cooper serves as narrator and provides a steely spine for this limp spectacle. His rumbling bass injects real drama into “Nowhere Left to Run,” Thomas’s indictment of Newton as he sells his friend into servitude in Barbados. In a drippy reconciliation scene with the former slaver rescuing Thomas, Cooper’s eloquent eyes and physical life convey the inhuman cruelty the character has suffered far better than the treacly words of Smith and Giron. As he did in Doctor Zhivago, another Les Miz wannabe, Tom Hewitt lends a subtle gravity to the villain role, in this case Newton’s rigid father. Harriett D. Foy is deliciously evil as the treacherous Princess Peyai, an African royal selling her own people to the likes of Newton. She gives a refreshingly nasty bite to these overly earnest proceedings.

July 26, 2015
Shows for Days
Mitzi Newhouse Theatre at Lincoln Center

Of Good Stock
Manhattan Theater Club at City Center

Reviewed by David Sheward

Though we’ve encountered their plot templates many times before, two Off-Broadway shows—Shows for Days at Lincoln Center’s Mitzi Newhouse and Of Good Stock from MTC at City Center—provide vibrant evenings in the theater. Douglas Carter Beane’s Shows for Days employs the reliable, semi-autobiographical memory-play framework wherein the mature narrator recalls his youthful transition into maturity with a domineering older woman playing a major role. Beane recounts his induction into the world of stage make-believe at a Pennsylvania community theater and the bizarre, fabulous creatures that inhabit it.
   The charming Michael Urie is the author’s stand-in Car, a 14-year-old yearning to break free from the confines of small-town mentality who encounters a larger world thanks to Irene, a bigger-than-life artistic director of a storefront troupe attempting to bring Ionesco, Genet, and Noël Coward to her 1970s suburban milieu. Since Irene is played by none other than Patti LuPone, the reigning life force of Broadway, she dominates the proceedings (even to the extent of relieving a texting audience member of her cellphone at the performance attended). There are many (purposefully) melodramatic machinations revolving around backstage liaisons and keeping the tiny company alive as a wrecking ball may destroy John Lee Beatty’s ramshackle set at any moment.
   Young Car predictably becomes enchanted with the stage and gets his heart broken before growing up and leaving for Broadway. Jerry Zaks stages this theatrical lovefest with speed and zest, and Beane has a way with snappy dialogue, as he did in several previous works—including the musicals Xanadu and Lysistrata Jones , as well as And the Little Dog Laughed and The Nance . He also clearly adores his bombastic amateurs played with vigor by Urie, LuPone, Dale Soules, Lance Coadie Williams, and Zoe Winters, and that goes a long way toward overcoming an overly familiar story.

Melissa Ross’s Of Good Stock also uses shopworn setups, combining the trusted country-weekend setting and trio-of-female-siblings trope for a retread of the dysfunctional family play. Eldest sister Jess Stockton (hence the title, get it?) is struggling with the aftereffects of a mastectomy as she attempts to manage the lives of middle sister Amy and the youngest Celia while distancing herself from supportive husband Fred. All three women are still reeling from the destructive narcissism of their late father, a famous author, and the early death of their mother. Amy is resentful because of the perceived neglect of her parents and channels her anger by obsessing over her upcoming wedding to shallow Josh. Commitment-phobic Celia plans to move in with the simplistic, good-natured Hunter, but she fears she’ll screw it up.
   The women and their men gather for a summer weekend at their childhood Cape Cod home (gorgeous set by Santo Loquasto), now owned by Jess, and alcohol-fueled confrontations are the order of the day. How many times have we seen this storyline before—from Chekhov’s trio longing to go to Moscow to similar siblings depicted in Paul Zindel’s And Miss Reardon Drinks a Little, Beth Henley’s Crimes of the Heart , and Wendy Wasserstein’s The Sisters Rosensweig ?
   Though her basic story offers nothing new, Ross’s lines are sharp and well-observed, and the solid cast delivers strong performances under Lynne Meadow’s assured direction. The playwright mocks her own reliance on reliable formats. “I feel like I’m trapped in a bad chick flick,” moans Jess, but thanks to Jennifer Mudge’s clear-eyed liming of this tough-minded breast cancer patient, the line doesn’t come across as ironic. Both Amy and Celia could have been obnoxious whiners, but Alicia Silverstone and Heather Lind find their sweet centers. Kelly AuCoin, Nate Miller, and Greg Keller are perfect foils as the men in their lives.
   These two shows take the dictum that we all learned in high-school English—there are only about a dozen basic storylines in all of literature—and show that us inventive and hardworking playwrights can make them their own.

July 14, 2015
The Tempest
Shakespeare in the Park at the Delacorte Theatre

Reviewed by David Sheward

The importance of family and community is missing from the free Shakespeare in the Park’s first summer offering The Tempest. The usually incisive Michael Greif delivers an imaginative production with lots of flashing lights and crashing waves, but there is no firm connection between Sam Waterston’s stern, magisterial Prospero and his island community nor with the royal Milanese court from which the character was exiled.
   I didn’t believe the bland Cotter Smith as Antonio was a brother to Prospero or that Juilliard student Francesca Carpanini as Miranda was a precious daughter to him. They just seemed to be standing there as Waterston held forth amidst Greif’s special effects. Only Chris Perfetti’s ethereal Ariel establishes a son-like bond with this otherwise detached magician. Without a vital reason for Prospero to be restored to his dukedom or to see his daughter married to the prince Ferdinand, this Tempest loses any gale force power.

June 28, 2015
Doctor Faustus
Classic Stage Company

Guards at the Taj
Atlantic Theatre Company

Reviewed by David Sheward

The devils have all the fun and the angels are pretty dull in Andrei Belgrader’s production of Doctor Faustus, adapted by Belgrader and David Bridel from Christopher Marlowe’s play now at Classic Stage Company. Derived from a German legend, this late-16th-century morality tale concerns the bargain the titular scholar strikes with Mephistopheles, first lieutenant of Lucifer. Faustus gets infinite power and wisdom while he is alive, but after death Satan gets his soul and he’s condemned to eternal damnation. Chris Noth, star of TV’s Law & Order, Sex & the City, and The Good Wife, cuts a handsome figure as Faustus with a dark beard and somber Renaissance togs by costume designers Rita Ryack and Martin Schnellinger, but he fails to summon up the necessary dramatic intensity to make the hero’s inner conflict between faith and self-obsession absorbing. He’s so quite and subdued, it’s difficult to hear him even in the intimate CSC Off-Broadway theater as he rejects conventional knowledge and thirsts for supernatural learning.

Then Zach Grenier, Noth’s Good Wife castmate, enters as Mephistopheles, and things begin to pick up. His demon is a bored, seen-it-all snitch, ready to manipulate the emotions of others to gain his own ends—every workplace has one. He slyly seduces Faustus like a skilled conman, making the sins of the flesh and the godlike abilities at his command sound so tempting it’s no wonder his mark gives in. The imbalance continues with the appearance of Faustus’s clownish servants—Wagner, Robin, and Dick (goofy Walker Jones, Lucas Caleb Rooney, and Ken Cheeseman)—who get a hold of their master’s spell book and plan mischief of their own, usually involving audience participation. At the performance attended, a woman willingly was drawn from her front-row seat into the action. The bit stretched out uncomfortably when she didn’t know what was expected of her, but she gamely played along.
   These interludes are staged by Belgrader with Marx Brother–level zaniness and are quite funny at times, but they detract from Faustus’s central dilemma and turn the show into a 16th-century version of Saturday Night Live. It gets really weird when the Seven Deadly Sins break into a Bob Fosse–type dance routine and sing “Welcome to Hell.” This is my kind of party, but it’s not Marlowe’s examination of the human soul.

Rajiv Joseph’s new play Guards at the Taj at Atlantic Theatre Company takes place in roughly the same era as Faustus and also has similar anachronisms. But unlike Belgrader’s production, it offers a thoughtful and complex take on man’s relationship to power, art, and beauty. The only two characters are imperial guards stationed to protect the newly built Taj Mahal in 1648 Agra, India. Without giving away too much of the brief plot—the show runs only 80 fascinating minutes—they must carry out a brutal decree by the tyrannical emperor. How they react to their nightmarish orders forms the meat of this compelling two-hander. Dreamy Babur imagines futuristic inventions like airplanes complete with seat belts and is crushed by the acts he must commit in the name of duty. The more practical Humayun has pangs of conscience but still carries the royal dictates out.
   Like Indian versions of the tramps in Waiting for Godot, with humor and pathos the two debate their powerlessness and their place in an uncaring universe. Amy Morton delivers a tight, sparse staging with marvelously specific performances by Arian Moayed as Babur and Omar Metwally as Humayun.

June 22, 2015
Golden Theatre

Reviewed by David Sheward

When playgoers walk into the Golden for the new revival of David Hare’s intimate 1996 drama Skylight, they might think they’re walking into a squalid flat rather than a theater. Designer Bob Crowley’s set is so suggestively detailed and close to the audience, it feels as if we are eavesdropping on the characters: Kyra and Tom, a pair of mismatched lovers coming together after several years apart. The two are separated by age, class, and political leanings. Hare’s crackling dialogue feels at times as if the two are debating each other rather than talking, and Stephen Daldry’s staging occasionally places them in obvious adversarial positions at direct opposite sides of the stage. But the naturalistic performances of Carey Mulligan and Bill Nighy, both of whom starred in the hit London production, melts the script’s cold social ambitions and ignites this contentious reunion.
   Hare seeks to combine the romantic with the political here. As in most of his plays, he demonstrates that everyone’s personal lives are inextricably bound with how the country they live in is governed. Tom is a wildly successful restaurateur and hotel-owner. The much younger Kyra worked for him as a waitress and manager and was his mistress until Tom’s wife Ann found out about the affair. Kyra then abruptly left Tom’s “bubble of money and good taste” to become a teacher of underprivileged kids. Ann has since died of cancer and Tom has come to Kyra’s frigid, miserable apartment to rekindle the relationship. But she resists, claiming that she is no longer the young girl Tom knew and that her values have changed. Tom’s desperate attempts to get her back form the meat of the play, as the two wrangle over Britain’s social policies, particularly those of the anti-welfare Thatcher regime, and the eternal struggle between the haves and have-nots.

Apart from the occasional overly didactic moment when we can hear Hare’s voice haranguing us, Daldry and his company—which also includes an excellent Matthew Beard as Tom’s drifting son Edward—make the play into a believable and heartbreaking night spent with real people trying to find comfort in a cold, snowy world. Nighy prowls the set like a caged panther, actually leaping into the air at one point. Whereas Michael Gambon in the original New York–London production smashed his way through the setting like a tank, Nighy is a hyperanimated greyhound, sniffing his quarry’s lair for clues to her new existence. He explodes with anger, sexual passion, and energy. He exposes Tom’s pain as well as his egotism and charisma, so that it’s perfectly creditable Kyra would be, and still is, attracted to this blustering capitalist.
   While Nighy is a raging tornado, Mulligan is a soft rain shower, but hers is the more shaded performance. She gives subtle voice to Kyra’s firmly held beliefs and conflicted desires, building in intensity gradually and infrequently. But her most eloquent moments are silent. When she listens, her whole body is involved, and when Kyra must decide between Tom and her new life, the conflict is visible on her expressive features. Plus, she cooks a mean spaghetti meal live on stage. Dinner and a show, what more could you ask for?

April 16, 2015

The Mystery of Love & Sex
Lincoln Center Theater at Mitzi E. Newhouse Theatre

Reviewed by David Sheward

Bathesheba Doran attempts to re-create the messiness of modern life and relations with her awkwardly titled, sometimes maddening, sometimes endearing play The Mystery of Love & Sex at Lincoln Center’s Off-Broadway Mitzi E. Newhouse Theatre. At times it feels as if she’s created a cross-section of American society with four characters representing our divergent strains of race, class, religion, and sexuality and then mixing them up just to see what happens. She also indulges in over-the-top melodrama and plotting here and there with more than a little gratuitous nudity. But her work has its poignant observations and heartbreaking moments.
   The arc of the play follows the up-and-down relationship of Caucasian Charlotte and African-American Jonny, childhood friends who may or may not become lovers when they live together in college. We open with the roommates hosting a bohemian dinner for Charlotte’s parents: Howard, who is a former New Yorker and secular Jew, and Lucinda, a modern Southern belle and lapsed Catholic. There are the predictable jokes about vegetarian vs. meat-inclusive diets, regional prejudices, youthful idealism, and middle-aged cynicism, but there are also unexpected and complex connections among this quartet. From this tense meal to an unconventional wedding, the swerving and overlapping paths the characters take are charted with humor and fascinating detail over five years. Each pair falls in and out of love and friendship, the younger generation clashes with the elder, and rifts are torn open and later healed.

Fortunately, the quirks and twists outweigh the clichés. A tearful confession of a gay affair could have morphed into a scene from an Afterschool Special, but Doran adds the humanizing, hilarious fact that one of the lovers is obsessed with vintage Aquaman comic books. There are similarly endearing vignettes involving a wedding dress sold and found on eBay, a tire swing, and the lack of dancing ability. It’s that kind of outlandish yet incredibly specific grace note that draws us in.
   In addition, Sam Gold’s precise direction and the weighty performances give the potentially soapy clashes heft and zaniness. Tony Shalhoub artfully modulates the prickliness he employed as the multiphobic TV sleuth Monk to create a lovable but grouchy Howard (ironically, Howard is the author of a successful series of detective novels). Diane Lane combines just the right amounts of mint julep and salt for a vibrant Lucinda. Gayle Rankin, who was a tenderly forlorn Fraulein Kost in the most recent Cabaret revival, brings that waifish yet street-smart quality to her Charlotte. Mamoudou Athie expresses Jonny’s conflicts about his race, sexuality, and religion without resorting to overheated emoting—a quality the playwright indulges in only occasionally in this largely satisfying work.

April 16, 2015
The Heidi Chronicles
Music Box Theatre

Reviewed by David Sheward

When The Heidi Chronicles opened Off-Broadway in 1988 and then transferred to Broadway a year later, it perfectly captured its historical moment. Wendy Wassterstein’s bittersweet survey of one woman’s journey through social upheavals, female empowerment, sexual revolutions, and the morning after evaluated the impact of the feminist movement with equal measures of humanity, humor, and sorrow. Heidi Holland, the heroine not unlike Wasserstein, is in the generation between housewives and “have-it-all” superwomen. Born at the end of the Baby Boom, she comes of age just as doors are being broken down and women are forced to choose between family and careers rather than opting for both. An art historian specializing in neglected female painters, Heidi pursues her work passions, but the men in her life are either emotionally unavailable or gay. Her women friends go on different tracks, some forsaking ideals for money, others giving up their dreams for husbands and kids. Heidi feels abandoned but ultimately relies on herself for fulfillment, adopting a baby and looking to the future with hope. Wasserstein, who died at 55 in 2006, detailed Heidi’s trek with wit and compassion.
   The issues still resonate, but the first Broadway revival of this Pulitzer Prize winner feels somehow diminished. Perhaps it’s the direction, by Pam MacKinnon, which tends toward the sitcom in some of the more satiric scenes such as a 1970s consciousness-raising vignette and is strangely muted in the big moments between Heidi and her on-again, off-again romantic partner Scoop Rosenbaum, an obnoxious but attractive magazine editor. Perhaps it’s the low-key lead performance by Elisabeth Moss of Mad Men fame. Moss overdoes Heidi’s fragile vulnerability and doesn’t endow her with much of a backbone. She displays welcome rough edges during Heidi’s quirky art lectures and totally nails her long monologue summarizing the character’s sense of loss as she details the differences between an idealized perfect woman and Heidi’s real, lonely life. But other than these solo moments, the actor seems to vanish into the background, allowing flashier supporting characters to dominate.
These include Bryce Pinkham’s vibrant Peter Patrone, Heidi’s pediatrician gay best friend; Ali Ahn’s mercurcial Susan who morphs from committed women’s legal advocate to shallow TV exec; and Tracee Chimo’s quartet of cultural stereotypes including a vapid talk-show hostess and a foul-mouthed radical lesbian. Jason Biggs’s Scoop lacks the necessary charisma to explain why Heidi would keep coming back to this creep who treats her pretty shabbily. He looks too much like the kid from American Pie in an ill-fitting suit trying to appear grown up.
   John Lee Beatty’s versatile sets and Jessica Pabst’s costumes accurately place us in the right decades and locations, but these Chronicles just miss completely conveying the feel and impact of their times.

March 22, 2015

 The World of Extreme Happiness
Manhattan Theatre Club at City Center Stage I and

Big Love
Signature Theatre Company

Reviewed by David Sheward

The devastating effects of sexism are examined in two fascinating Off-Broadway productions. The playwrights’ styles vary, but each offers clear-eyed observations on how treating women as inferior can warp society. Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig’s The World of Extreme Happiness at Manhattan Theatre Club takes place in contemporary China, and Charles Mee’s Big Love is set in an amalgam of the ancient and modern worlds. In the former a factory worker attempts to overcome her country’s crushing oppression of rural people in general and women specifically, while the latter updates a classic Greek play about captive brides rebelling against a patriarchal world. Though one depicts harsh reality and the other is based in myths, both resonate powerfully.
   Cowhig’s vision of a brutal system is unsparingly honest. The play opens with an impoverished couple throwing their just-born child into the trash because she is female. But her survival is taken as a good omen, and she is named Sunny. Flash forward 20 years, and Sunny has joined a legion of country workers living in the big city to send money back home. With the new wave of capitalism and the absence of religion, self-help gurus promising wealth through repeated aphorisms flourish. With the aid of such a huckster named Mr. Destiny, Sunny attempts to rise above her degrading janitorial position by entering a contest to become a representative of her factory, introducing a flattering documentary film. The playwright inserts a secondary plot about the factory’s autocratic owner and his high-powered female vice-president, but this storyline is confusing and detracts from rather than enforces Sunny’s tale.
   Despite this digression, the main thread is intense and harrowing, with inestimable aid from Jennifer Lim’s fierce performance in the lead role and Eric Ting’s tight direction. There is also essential support from Jo Mei as Sunny’s gullible co-worker Ming-Ming, who swallows Mr. Destiny’s silly formulas whole, and Telly Leung as Sunny’s brother Pete, who would rather perform the legend of the Monkey King in tea houses than tend his father’s prize pigeons. In one particularly incisive scene, Cowhig sums up the siblings’ limited options as they play a video game. Zombies ate their video avatars’ brains as they scheme to find a way out of their dead-end existence. The brief, powerful sequence encapsulates the lack of choices for Chinese workers, male and female.

While Charles Mee’s heroines in Big Love face a dilemma derived from an ancient Greek text, it’s no less desperate and immediate. Fifty sisters have fled from unwanted contracted marriages to their chauvinist cousins and seek refuge at the Italian villa of prominent businessman Piero. The runaway brides (represented by three onstage siblings) become like political refugees in the modern world as their prospective husbands (also a trio) show up and demand their expected nuptials. Amid the negotiations, all the characters—including Bella, Piero’s wise mother; Giuliano, his gay nephew; and Eleanor and Leo, a pair of fun-loving houseguests—ruminate on the nature of love, war, sex, and power. In between monologues and debates, there are appropriate musical numbers such as Lesley Gore’s “You Don’t Own Me” and Michael Jackson’s “Thriller.”
   It seems like an extravagant mess, but somehow it all works. Tina Landau’s masterfully paced and imaginative direction, along with Scott Zielinski’s cinematic lighting and Austin Switser’s art installation–like projections, manage to combine the bizarre with the real so that even the wild-party finale is anchored in solid ground. There is mayhem, but we know what’s happening and why, and most important we care about the outcome.
   The company skillfully creates specific personages rather than archetypes with special kudos to Rebecca Naomi Jones as the main sister Lydia, Stacey Sargeant as the Amazonian Thyona, Libby Winters as Barbie doll-ish Olympia, Lynn Cohen as the sage Bella, and Preston Sadler as the lonely Giuliano.

March 1, 2015
Rasheeda Speaking 
The New Group at the Pershing Square Signature Center

Between Riverside and Crazy
Second Stage Theatre

The Events
New York Theatre Workshop

Reviewed by David Sheward

Race matters, as US Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor recently wrote. Some thought with the election of a black president in 2008, all our prejudices would magically disappear and America would become a post-racial utopia. A trio of current Off-Broadway plays painfully and incisively documents the real state of relations between majority and minority groups in our polarized land and the world at large.
   The most blatantly allegorical of the three is Chicago playwright Joel Drake Johnson’s Rasheeda Speaking, presented by The New Group at the Signature Center. The seemingly placid reception area of a Windy City medical office becomes a battlefield of wills as the white surgeon Dr. Williams attempts to manipulate his easygoing Caucasian office manager Ilene into helping him get rid of her African-American co-worker Jaclyn. At first it seems as if the doctor is perfectly justified in wanting to terminate Jaclyn. She’s difficult to work with, rude to patients and a hypochondriac, claiming the workplace is filled with toxins shooting out of her computer screen.
   But as we get to know the three combatants, our initial impressions are confounded. Ilene is not entirely the good-natured, friendly type she seemed, and the poisonous fumes Jaclyn feared—and we laugh about—are actually the odors of subtle racism. Jaclyn is not an innocent victim; she is guilty of some of the charges leveled against her, but in a devastating monologue (which explains the title) about the new forms of prejudice she encounters on her daily bus ride, her case for fighting to keep her job is made abundantly clear.
   Though Dr. Williams sets the action in motion, the fight is mainly between Jaclyn and Ilene. Johnson draws both characters with skill and detail, making them symbols and flesh and blood. They come to blazing life in the powerhouse performances of multiple award-winners Tonya Pinkins and Dianne Wiest. Cynthia Nixon makes a smashing directorial debut, keeping the staging tight and fast.

Stephen Adly Guirgis’s Between Riverside and Crazy, now at Second Stage after a previous run at the Atlantic Theater Company, is a lot messier than Johnson’s tidy piece, but then so is reality. Unlike Johnson, Guirgis leaves plenty of loose ends, as he did in previous vivid portraits of colorful New Yorkers who live on the edge such as The Motherfucker With the Hat, Our Lady of 121st Street, and Jesus Hopped the “A” Train. Walter Washington, known to everyone as Pops or Dad, is one of the author’s most compelling creations. A retired African-American cop, Walter presides over a makeshift family in his rent-controlled Riverside Drive apartment (kudos to Walt Spangler for designing the lived-in, revolving set). He’s alcoholic, demanding, selfish, and not above stretching the truth to get what he wants. But he’s also kind and compassionate. Crises are piled one on top of another as the city pressures him to settle a lawsuit, his health is in jeopardy, he may be evicted, and his wayward son must face crucial life decisions.
   Riverside is sprawling, intense, funny, and harrowing, directed with equal helpings of broad antics, sentiment, and sharp focused interaction between characters by Austin Pendleton. It deals with race but a lot more, specifically Walter’s journey from self-imposed exile in his cushy apartment to coming to terms with his history. Veteran character actor Stephen McKinley Henderson, whose last major New York turn was a brief cameo in the Denzel Washington–starring revival of A Raisin in the Sun, is dazzlingly defiant as Walter. At once lovable and prickly, Henderson can turn from teddy bear to grizzly on a dime. It’s an amazing lead performance in a journeyman career of fine supporting roles.

Though playwright David Greig and composer John Browne’s The Events, now at New York Theater Workshop after a world tour, is set in Britain, it addresses many of the issues raised by the two American plays considered here. Claire is a lesbian minister desperately trying to understand the senseless slaughter of members of her multicultural church choir by a racist gunman. This innovative staging by Ramin Gray employs a different local choir every night—The Village Light Opera Group was the group at the performance attended—and the play is enacted mostly by two actors: Neve McIntosh as Claire and Clifford Samuel as all the other characters including Claire’s partner Katrina and the assassin. Greig offers no clear answers as to the assailant’s motives but re-creates the barrage of media images and ideas hitting Claire as she searches for reasons behind an irrational act. “If he’s mad, then I can blame nature,” she declares. But there are no such easy solutions as Claire interviews politicians, journalists, and psychologists.
   The principal players along with the guest choir, accompanied by pianist Magnus Gilljam, make a beautifully complicated symphony of conflicting emotions and ideas on our racially divided modern society—as do the works of Johnson and Guirgis.

February 12, 2015
Lady Be Good
Encores! at City Center

Reviewed by Jerry Beal

It’s 1924. Flappers are doing the Charleston, gin is flowing like water, and a piano that was once lifted by rope through a second story window of Morris Gershwin has led to the creation of the music that now defines the era. The instrument was intended for son Ira, but it was George on whom it took, and thanks to Encores’s unearthing of heretofore lost musical arrangements, we have the most complete rendition of the brothers’ first complete musical presented here, the first production of the beloved series’ 22nd season.
   The content here, as Artistic Director Jack Viertel told the audience at this performance, is definitely not the thing. He quoted from Mark Twain’s introduction to Huckleberry Finn that anyone looking for a plot in it should be shot. But while the quote applies, the elements used by the musical’s book writers, Guy Bolton and Fred Thompson, very much represent the period. Couples we know will end up together are put through contrived roadblocks; society highbrows throw impossibly lavish soirees; and subtly crafted laugh lines that should induce moans generate mirth. Lawyer J. Watterson Watkins (a delicious Douglas Sills), when called a quack by another character, indignantly answers, “Quacks are fake doctors. I’m a lawyer—I’m a shyster.”

But Encores is, was, and always will be about the music, and here it has the mother lode. The impossible-to-stop-humming title song, “Fascinating Rhythm,” “The Half of It, Dearie, Blues” (progenitor of Sondheim’s “Buddy’s Blues” from Follies), “I’d Rather Charleston” (and who wouldn’t while listening to it), “Hang On to Me,” which sets the tone right from the start, and the sublime “So Am I” are indispensable.
   Even without the stellar cast of musical stalwarts assembled here, this score would resonate in all its glory. With these players, we’re in musical comedy heaven. Danny Gardner and Patti Murin are the siblings originated by Fred and Adele Astaire, and Erin Mackey and Colin Donnell play their respective eventual mates. And in keeping with the perennial star turns that virtually every show of the period inserted, we get one of the greats: Tommy Tune, tapping with the ensemble in a first-act number that explodes, then doing his own in the second (“Here’s my second-act specialty number,” he generously informs us).
   This is the oldest show that Encores has brought back, but its spirit is as youthful as it was in its time.

February 5, 2015
Into the Woods
Roundabout Theatre Company/Fiasco Theater at the Laura Pels Theatre/Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre

Nevermore: The Imaginary Life and Mysterious Death of Edgar Allan Poe
New World Stages Theatre

Reviewed by David Sheward

Into the Woods has probably become the musical for which Stephen Sondheim is best known. In addition to the current Disney film version and innumerable high school, college, and community theater productions, there have been four NYC productions including the 1987 Broadway original (which should have won the Tony Award for Best Musical over Phantom of the Opera). You would think with all these Woods growing in Gotham (the latest was just two and a half years ago in Central Park’s Delacorte Theatre), another iteration of the fairy-tale mashup concocted by Sondheim and book-writer James Lapine would be repetitive. Not so.
   The current incarnation is a barebones staging from Fiasco Theatre presented Off-Broadway by Roundabout Theater Company after a successful run at the McCarter Theatre in Princeton, N.J. It features 10 actors and the musical director playing all the roles and the instruments, in the style of John Doyle, whose productions of Sondheim’s Company, Sweeney Todd, and Passion used a similar multitasking technique. Though the singing is not quite up to NYC standards, the enchanting direction by Noah Brody and Ben Steinfeld, who also appear in the cast, cleverly exploits its limited means and ingeniously illuminates the show’s themes of the connections between folk tales and family, community and growing up.
   The small cast is like a group of enthusiastic kids gathered to relate the complicated multiple storylines on set designer Derek McLane’s simple yet evocative set. Ropes resembling piano wire suggest the ominous forest all the characters venture into to make their wishes comes true. Simple props become magical objects. A painting serves as Cinderella’s distant father, a crocheted skein of yellow yarn is transformed into Rapunzel’s luxurious locks, a ladder is Jack’s beanstalk. Stripped of elaborate trappings, the relationships became more intimate and believable. Even the orchestrations by Frank Galgano and music director Matt Castle, employing such wonderful instruments as a toy piano and a hotel-desk bell, are more elemental and denote character.
   I especially enjoyed Patrick Mulryan’s boyishly naïve Jack, Emily Young’s doubling as the boisterous Red Ridinghood and the neurotic Rapunzel, and Jennifer Mudge’s tough-as-nails Witch. Mudge also shows the tender side of this frightening enchantress. These three also possess the best voices in the company. Andy Grotelueschen steals a few scenes as the cow Milky White. His “moos” speak volumes. He and co-director Brody, two beefy guys, are a riot as Cinderella’s simpering stepsisters.

Another Off-Broadway story-theater production is less successful. Nevermore: The Imaginary Life and Mysterious Death of Edgar Allan Poe, from Canada’s Catalyst Theatre and previously presented at Off-Broadway’s New Victory Theatre in a brief run, also uses a small cast and scant scenery to tell its fanciful tale. Whereas Fiasco’s Woods is endlessly inventive, writer-director-composer Jonathan Christenson’s nightmarish biography of the macabre American author strikes the same melancholy note over and over.
   The conceit places Poe on a riverboat amid a troupe of actors who play out the sad story of his life. He’s orphaned as a child, abandoned by his adoptive parents, and drunken and broke as an adult. But there’s very little about Poe’s works. We get an atmospheric rendering of “The Raven,” complete with eerie papier-mâché re-creations of the titular bird, but not much more. Almost all of the lengthy show is narrated by ensemble members in verse that has the same rhythm. Not only are we removed from the action, but it’s repetitive. Plus the creepy music is recorded and relies too heavily on percussion. Only Bretta Gerecke’s black-and-white picture-book costumes capture the imagination.

January 31, 2015
Les Contes d’Hoffman
Metropolitan Opera

Swan Lake

Mariinsky Theatre at BAM

Reviewed by David Sheward

Erin Morley as Olympia in Les Contes d’Hoffmann
Photo by Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera

High culture is currently plentiful in New York with magnificent examples of opera and ballet. One takes a nonconventional approach, while the other adheres to the staging from the 19th century, but both quicken the pulse and stimulate the mind. The Metropolitan Opera presents a revival of Tony winner Bartlett Sher’s opulent interpretation of Offenbach’s Les Contes d’Hoffman (Tales of Hoffman), while BAM hosts St. Petersburg’s Mariinsky Ballet in a familiar yet brilliant rendering of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake.
   Hoffman is usually thought of as a lighter-than-air exercise when compared with weightier works such as Aida or Carmen, but Sher’s imaginative staging brings out the passion beneath the fluffy comedy and adds depth to Offenbach’s charming music. Based on a trio of stories by Hoffman, the opera depicts the author’s adventures in romance in respectively farcical, melodramatic, and tragic terms. With the aid of Michael Yeargen’s stunning sets, Catherine Zuber’s sumptuous costumes, and James F. Ingalls’s shimmering lighting, Sher creates three separate and fascinating worlds for each of the acts. First, Hoffman enters the sideshow of Dr. Spalanzani where the writer falls in love with the robot Olympia. Then he ventures into the autumnal mansion of Crespel to fall for the singer Antonia, and finally he glides through the decadent salon of the Venetian courtesan Giulietta, a luxurious den of iniquity resembling the milieu of Fellini’s Casanova.
   Hoffman’s three loves are usually played by the same singer and tend to overshadow the male lead. Here they are sung by separate divas and the focus is on the connection between Vittorio Grigolo’s Hoffman and Kate Lindsey’s Nicklausse, his muse in the guise of a male companion. The amorous incidents now chart the development of a writer rather than just serve as attractive vocal set pieces. Yet they are still the latter: Grigolo employs his rich tenor to depict Hoffman’s anguish, and Lindsay’s mellow and warm mezzo soprano imparts Nicklausse’s compassion and wisdom. Of the three female leads, Erin Morley’s Olympia is the showiest, her lovely trills and scales speeding up and slowing as the mechanical doll’s engine alternately accelerates and stalls, but Hibla Gerzmava’s Antonia and Christine Rice’s Giulietta are equally captivating. Bass Thomas Hampson admirably fills the multiple roles of Hoffman’s nemesis in each episode.

While the Met’s Hoffman varies from the original staging, the Mariinsky Ballet’s presentation of Swan Lake is performed in its traditional version, employing the 1895 choreography by Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov from its first performance at the Mariinsky, with 1950 revisions by Konstantin Sergeyev. The beauty and majesty of this classic work are exquisitely rendered, maestro Valery Gergiev masterfully conducting at the performance attended. (There were a few protestors outside the BAM Howard Gilman Opera demonstrating against Gergiev’s support of Putin’s government.) Viktoria Tereshkina was demure elegance itself as Odette, the swan princess, but I preferred her as the seductive black swan Odile. She totally commanded the stage and made her bewitchment of the prince Siegfried (the charismatic Vladimir Shlyarov) a dance of gleeful manipulation. Andrei Yermakov made a dark and powerful Rothbart, the evil conjurer, and Vladislav Shumakov nearly stole the show as an athletic, joyful Joker.

January 19, 2015
Honeymoon in Vegas
Nederlander Theatre

Reviewed by David Sheward

The first 30 minutes of Honeymoon in Vegas, based on the 1992 film comedy, are among the best in any musical now on Broadway. The amazing Rob McClure, who dazzled us a few seasons back with his title performance in the uneven Chaplin, opens the show with “I Love Betsy,” a peppy, funny number with zestful music and lyrics by Jason Robert Brown. With the aid of Gary Griffin’s sharp direction and Denis Jones’s engaging choreography, McClure establishes his character Jack, a schlubby but amiable guy about to buy an engagement ring for his girlfriend of five years. Then we meet the lady in question (the sparkling Brynn O’Malley), and, in a clever flashback sequence, Jack’s late mother (the hilarious Nancy Opel), who extracted a deathbed promise from the hero never to marry. Despite his mom’s pull from the grave, Jack impulsively flies to Vegas with Betsy for a quickie wedding. (I guess they can both get time off from work without a problem.)
   So far, so good. Conflict is introduced, comedy expectations are high, all’s right with the show. But then Tony Danza enters as high-stakes gambler Tommy Korman, and everything grinds to a halt. The slick Korman immediately falls in love with Betsy—she resembles his late wife—and schemes to steal her from the nebbishy Jack. Danza is not right for this important role, and it’s not just his quavering tenor, though that doesn’t help much. For the show to work, Korman must be an attractive shark. We’ve got to believe this charming, ruthless con artist will stop at nothing to get what he wants, and we’ve got to love him while he’s doing it. Danza is not that guy. Despite some gray hairs, he’s still that lovable lug from Taxi and Who’s the Boss, and he doesn’t possess the musical or dramatic skills to convince us otherwise.
Luckily we have McClure, who combines the zany timing of Nathan Lane and the boyish charm of Matthew Broderick. His Jack is one of the highlights of the season, and, if there is any justice, this performance will propel him to the front ranks of Broadway stars. His pliable features are like a roadmap of riotous reactions. From deadpan responses to expressions of pure joy when things are going Jack’s way to those of terror when they’re not, McClure’s mug runs the proverbial gamut. (He even gets laughs just by saying “Please don’t do that” to a spy sent by Tommy to seduce him.) Plus he dances with style and sings with feeling and power; there is nothing he can’t do.
   It’s too bad Danza throws this Honeymoon off balance. There is so much to like here. The book by Andrew Bergman (who wrote the original screenplay) has genuine guffaws and is well-structured, while Brown’s score is among his best with memorable melodies and intricate lyrics (my favorites involved comparing the hookers in Vegas to those in Jersey City). David Josefberg is delightfully sleazy doubling as a smarmy singer and an Elvis impersonator. George Merrick, Catherine Ricafont, Matthew Saldivar, and Raymond J. Lee bring juice to smaller parts. Griffin’s direction, Anna Louizos’s sets, Brian Hemesath’s costumes, and Howell Binkley’s lighting are full of surprises. Amidst his high-caliber colleagues, Danza is strictly a lounge act and doesn’t belong in the big room.
January 15, 2015
Dying for It
Atlantic Theatre Company at the Linda Gross Theater

Reviewed by David Sheward

Political satire is a rare commodity on American stages, so the Atlantic Theatre Company shows bravery and imagination in presenting Dying for It, British playwright Moria Buffini’s “free adaptation” of Nikolai Erdman’s 1928 Russian comedy The Suicide. Too bad director Neil Pepe’s pacing is slow and choppy when it should move with the speed of a Marx Brothers farce. Buffini has made slimming alterations to the original, such as reducing the number of characters and confining the action to a single setting (designer Walt Spangler’s depressing but atmospheric apartment house), yet the show feels bloated.
   Set in the early days of the Soviet Union when Stalin had recently seized power, Erdman’s dark play criticizes the new government for its oppression of the very masses it claims to have liberated. (The play was banned and the author exiled to Siberia. It was not performed in Russia until 1990, 20 years after Erdman’s death. A short-lived production starring Derek Jacobi played Broadway in 1978.)
   Unemployed everyman Semyon Semyonovich finds no one will listen to his pleas for a decent life, until he threatens to kill himself. Representatives of every sector of society then pounce on him to espouse their cause in his suicide note. Intellectual Grand-Skubik demands Semyon declare his demise as a protest for academic freedom. Father Yelpidy wants to use the death as a call back to the church. Pretentious poet Victor Viktorovich aims to exploit Semyon for literary fame, while Kleopatra Maximovna fashions him into a martyr to romantic love. Of course the hero doesn’t do the deed, and supposed comic chaos ensues when the mob shows up expecting a noble corpse.

The central conceit is wickedly sharp, and there are many pointed and ironic observations about oppression and censorship—made even more relevant since the heinous terrorist acts against creative freedom just carried out in Paris—but the jabs are nestled between forced bits and clichéd shtick. The action picks up in the second act when Semyon is given a final blowout by the glamorous bar-owner Margarita Ivanovna, complete with original spirited music by Josh Schmidt, played by Nathan Dame and Andrew Mayer.
   On the plus side, it’s always heartening to see an Off-Broadway show with a relatively large cast (there are 12 here), and each member has at least one funny bit. Joey Slotnick is an engaging schlemiel as Semyon, and Jeanine Serralles keeps his shrieking wife Masha from being too much of a shrew. Clea Lewis is delightfully daffy as the cloying Kleopatra, and Peter Maloney is appropriately devious and duplicitous as the drunken Father Yelpidy. I hope they all find work, unlike the unhappy Semyon, once the mildly amusing Dying for It expires at the end of its limited run.

January 11, 2015
Tamburlaine, Parts I and II
Theater for a New Audience at the Polonsky Shakespeare Center

The Invisible Hand
New York Theatre Workshop

Reviewed by David Sheward

Though the methods of warfare have changed over the centuries, the motives behind it have not. Power and theology have pushed mankind to bloodthirsty conquest from the dawn of time to the digital age. So it shouldn’t be too surprising that two works on the nature of bloody conflict and terrorism, written 400 years apart and now in Off-Broadway productions, are strikingly similar. Christopher Marlowe’s Tamburlaine (1587) and Ayad Akhtar’s The Invisible Hand (2013) chart the destructive course of international mayhem in separate eras. Both benefit from tight, well-oiled productions, though the modern play offers more insight into its combatants.
   Tamburlaine is a brutish warlord rampaging through 14th century Europe and Asia, cutting through borders as if they were butter. His only goal is to triumph, savagely murdering the citizens of the countries he vanquishes and humiliating their monarchs. Unlike the tyrants created by Marlowe’s contemporary, Shakespeare, Tamburlaine has no Macbeth-like complexity; he is all bloodlust. Thus spending three and a half hours in his company might tend to be a bit repetitive: slash, burn, torture, repeat. Luckily, director Michael Boyd’s muscular and light-footed production for Theater for a New Audience, the first Tamburlaine in New York in more than 50 years, is so swift and ingenious, you hardly notice the lack of depth or the redundancy of the massacres.
   John Douglas Thompson, one of the few New York–based stage actors to tackle the major roles in the classical repertoire, is irresistibly powerful in the title role. He is supported by a sturdy company of 19 actors vivifying more than 60 roles. Merritt Janson is Thompson’s equal in intensity as his paramour and then doubling as his male rival on the battlefield. Paul Lazar provides welcome comic relief as two feckless rulers and a jailer. Chukwudi Iwuji brings fire to a competing king, while Patrice Johnson Chevannes is full of blazing fury as his defeated empress. The entire company is like a well-drilled regiment expertly executing Boyd’s commands, but the play provides little insight into its bloodthirsty protagonist.

Akhtar’s contemporary play, now at New York Theatre Workshop, affords more-shaded views. The Invisible Hand chronicles extreme Islamic warriors who conquer cyberspace rather than battlefields. The plot is even more relevant now, given the recent computer barrage reportedly waged on behalf of North Korea to punish Sony Pictures for making a comic movie depicting a bungled assassination attempt on its ruler. An American banker is kidnapped by Pakistani extremists. He offers to pay off his ransom by earning a fortune on the stock market via the Internet. Thus begins a delicate dance of manipulation and maneuvering among the investor, his single-minded captor, and the Imam whose motives are not quite what they seem.
   Akhatr’s Pulitzer-winning Disgraced, now on Broadway, exposes the religious and political intricacies that keep our modern international community from peaceful co-existence. He does the same here, examining the humanity behind the fanaticism. Not only is his banker a multidimensional creation but so is the complex Bashir, his jailer, to whom he teaches the tricks of the financial trade. Justin Kirk, Usman Ally, and Dariush Kashani give layered performances as the three ends of the power triangle, and Ken Rus Schmoll directs with precision. Special kudos to Riccardo Hernandez’s grim set and Tyler Micoleau’s stark lighting, which create the atmosphere of captivity with alarming specificity.

December 21, 2014

The Illusionists: Witness the Impossible
Marquis Theatre

Reviewed by David Sheward

Yes, The Illusionists: Witness the Impossible is a big cheesy, glitzy, overproduced spectacle, more suitable for a Vegas casino than for a Broadway theater. But it’s still a load of fun. Seven international purveyors of legerdemain, each with a superhero-ish moniker such as The Trickster, The Inventor, and The Anti-Conjurer (whatever that is), offer two hours of family-friendly wonder. There are a few unnecessary elements such as a gigantic video screen offering close-ups of the acts, which are helpful in observing certain sleight-of-hand maneuvers, but the device serves more to distance the audience than to invite it closer. I also could have done without the goth chorus, costumed by Angela Aaron as if it was on its way to an after-hours club. But other than these minor quibbles, The Illusionists is an enchanting show.
   The flamboyantly funny Jeff Hobson acts as a sort of emcee, introducing some of the acts and performing his own tricks, making eggs and cards disappear while stealing watches and carrying on like an uncloseted Liberace. (“I wrestled RuPaul to ground for these shoes,” he quips. “We both won.”) South Korean Yu Ho-Jin elegantly manipulates dozens of decks of cards, making them change their shapes and color and even turning them into a scarf. Adam Trent, billed as The Futurist, combines music, dance, and high-tech video. He opens the show with an amazing body switch I’m still baffled by. Equally stunning is Kevin James’s variation on the old saw-a-woman-in-half routine wherein James plays a mad scientist who accidentally splits an assistant in two and then moves the separate parts around the stage.

an Sperry seems to have set out to create a stage persona exactly the opposite of a traditional magician. Instead of a mature, mustachioed gent in top hat and tails, Sperry is a Marilyn Manson look-alike with white makeup, all-black garb, and long, stringy, pig-tailed hair. He sets a bizarre tone with a delightfully creepy bit of conjuring by seeming to pull a just-swallowed lifesaver out of his neck on a piece of dental floss, all to the lilting strains of “Clair de Lune.” He follows this gross-out with a mad version of Russian roulette involving a cowering audience member and a dazzling display involving doves.
   Aaron Crow, a martial arts and weapons expert, is relegated to only one stunt involving two members of the audience, an engagement ring, and a laser beam arrow. It would have been fun to see more. Likewise, escapologist Andrew Basso has a sole major appearance, but it’s a doozy. He re-creates Houdini’s break-out from a full tank of water while handcuffed and suspended upside down. A digital clock counts off the seconds as we watch Basso struggle with his chains.

December 10, 2014

Mike Nichols

by Jerry Beal

n a shocking day in 1937, novelist John O’Hara is reputed to have said, “George Gershwin died today, but I don’t have to believe it if I don’t want to.” A large part of the shock came from the composer’s age, 37. When Mike Nichols left us last week, he was 83. But the loss of this giant creates a similarly great chasm for a different reason: For the last half-century, the man and his work were not only omnipresent but his stamp was everywhere even when he was not. A Mike Nichols Production, regardless of the material, was a guarantee of quality, and as spoken by Linda Loman in his final theater production of Death of a Salesman, one always knew going in that “attention must be paid.”
   In summer 1963, a comedy by a fledgling playwright, then-titled Nobody Loves Me, was in pre-Broadway tryout mode at the Bucks County Playhouse. Neil Simon was sure his play was a failure, but like everyone else, he hadn’t yet realized that his novice director had found his calling. “This is what I was meant to do,” thought Nichols. Indeed it was. The now-titled Barefoot in the Park not only brought Simon stardom and Nichols his first of nine Tony awards, it launched a relationship that brought the director four Tonys from Simon work alone. But what was also not yet obvious was that Nichols’s astonishing comic mind would also be able to bring to life the works of Anton Chekhov, Lillian Hellman, Harold Pinter, Trevor Griffiths, David Rabe, Tom Stoppard, and Tony Kushner, not to mention the more obvious Jules Feiffer and Eric Idle.
   And in the process, that talent would help nurture indelible performances from among the greatest stage actors of our time. The cast of his 1973 production of Uncle Vanya alone reads like a who’s who of the profession: George C. Scott, Nicol Williamson, Lillian Gish, Julie Christie, Barnard Hughes. And who can forget the lines that formed hours and even the night before to get free tickets for his Central Park production of The Seagull with Meryl Streep, Kevin Kline, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Natalie Portman—Oscar winners all, and each a veteran of Nichols productions.

The cast of the 1973 Uncle Vanya

   After being lauded by a stream of actors over many episodes of Inside the Actors Studio, the master himself finally got to speak. And one of the nuggets he shared that night is perhaps the key to his greatness: What is this really about? That, he said, is the question he always asked himself, whether about a single scene or the entirety of the piece at hand. In looking at his complete oeuvre—film, television, and theater—the application of that question explains its consistent excellence. If one accepts that things come in threes, it is hard to argue against the trio of Hal Prince, Stephen Sondheim, and Mike Nichols as the defining artists that have given American theater of the last 50 years its shape, its energy, and its value.

November 30, 2014
Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk
Metropolitan Opera

Reviewed by David Sheward

Dmitri Shostakovich’s rarely performed 1934 opera, Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, is probably best known as the object of censorship in the former Soviet Union. After an unsigned Pravda review denounced it as elitist—some allege that Joseph Stalin turned music critic and wrote the scathing article—the work was banned in Russia for 30 years. But the daring piece is much more than an historical curiosity. Shostakovich’s modernist score offers intense wit and passion, as well as dynamic opportunities for the right cast. Graham Vick’s electric production for the Metropolitan Opera has such a stellar ensemble and doles out equal portions of sex, humor, and pathos. It also incorporates elements of Soviet-era imagery in the broad staging and Paul Brown’s cartoonish sets, which include huge propaganda-like images.
   Vick transports the love-triangle story from the Tsarist 19th century to the 1950s, switching capitalist overlords for tyrannical bureaucrats. The central character, Katerina Ismailova, is now a bored housewife, staring at the TV and pulling snacks from a refrigerator with a glaring lightbulb, as her vapid husband, Zinovy, and his brutish father, Boris, run what appears to be an arms factory. Like many opera heroines, Katerina turns to a young lover, the laborer Sergei, and together they murder Boris and Zinovy. The killers are caught—on their wedding day—and sent off to Siberia to meet an unhappy fate (to put it mildly).
   Shostakovich’s intense music full of trombone slides and crashing percussions conveys the seething turmoil the characters barely conceal. Vick further complements their sexual frenzy with a wild chorus acting out their inner torments and lustful yearnings. As Katarina complains of her domestic oppression, a crazed mob of women enters dressed by Brown (who also designed the costumes) in stylish wedding gowns, maniacally pushing vacuum cleaners and then mounting them like dogs in heat. After the killings, the same chorus enters—only, this time, their ranks are augmented by males in drag, and all are splattered with blood. Each frantically attempts to wash out the offending stains, much like the Shakespearean character of the title.
   Eva-Marie Westbroek’s soaring soprano perfectly imparts Katerina’s desperate hunger for love and excitement as well as her crushing guilt for her crimes. Westbroek makes us feel sorry for this murderess or at least understand her actions. Even in Siberia, Katerina is betrayed, and her final act of vengeance is bloodcurdling. Frank van Aken is a dashing Sergei with a solid tenor. The rumbling bass of Anatoli Kotscherga, as the thuggish Boris, dominates the first act, as he mercilessly browbeats Katerina. Following his poisoning and a spectacular funeral scene with ascending angels and an endless parade of mourners, the stage is littered with bags of garbage, presumably to indicate the growing mountain of deceit and sin caused by Katerina and, by extension, the male-dominated society that warps her morality. Another stunning coup de théâtre in Vick’s intriguing production.

November 28, 2014
Side Show
St. James Theatre

Reviewed by David Sheward

The current revival of Side Show is a big improvement over the 1997 original. In that version, as directed by Robert Longbottom, this true-life musical bio of the conjoined Hilton sisters, circus curiosities who rose to fame in vaudeville and brief film stardom, was a bare-bones affair. The set consisted of a set of bleachers, and there were no elaborate costumes to reproduce the Hiltons’s condition and that of their fellow “freaks” in the carny show where they started. Bill Condon, the director and screenwriter of the film version of Dreamgirls and the scripter for the movie Chicago, uses his cinematic know-how with this totally revamped resurrection. Now with the aid of David Rockwell’s midway-from-hell set, Paul Tazewell’s lavish and evocative costumes, and the spooky lighting of Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer, the world of the Hiltons is frighteningly real—1930s glamour cheek by jowl with the gritty sawdust-and-tinsel surroundings of the side show. Condon has substantially rewritten Bill Russell’s book and lyricist Russell and composer Henry Krieger have come up with several new tunes.
   Condon’s staging is slick and inventive, giving the story a film-like flow. The musical numbers, snappily choreographed by Anthony Van Laast, evoke classic such shows as Chicago (a razzle-dazzle courtroom scene) and Follies (a satiric “Loveland” pastiche complete with hearts, flowers, and cupids). The story is more strongly told than in the original, and Russell and Krieger’s soaring ballads are now complemented with sturdier comedy and narrative pieces. But slow stretches remain, and the overall tone is still too syrupy when it could have been vinegar sharp (as in the HBO series Carnivàle).
   Erin Davie and Emily Padgett meld together almost as one being as the linked siblings, yet retain their individuality with Davie sweet and demure as the shy Violet and Padgett brash and outgoing as the flirtatious Daisy. When they harmonize on the gut-wrenching “Who Will Love Me As I Am,” they melt even the hardest hearts. (This is one instance when the sugar content is just right.) The male leads, Ryan Silverman and Matthew Hydzik, are proficient but weaker than the ladies, while David St. Louis gives a powerful accounting of Jake, the girls’ loyal African-American protector who has more than friendly affection for Violet. Robert Joy is a hissable villain as the sideshow owner, and Blair Ross and Don Richard make the most of ensemble roles.

November 23, 2014
The River
Circle in the Square

Lost Lake
Manhattan Theatre Club at City Center

Reviewed by David Sheward

On the surface, The River and Lost Lake have a great deal in common. Both are named for bodies of water; are set in rustic, remote cabins; sport small casts; and run about 90 minutes with no intermission. In addition, neither is a masterwork. But, on closer examination, they couldn’t be more different from each other. River is a Broadway commercial vehicle with London snob-appeal license plates driven by a Tony-winning star. Lake is a new play with a somewhat clichéd plot in a small Off-Broadway theater with two respected but not ballyhooed actors—despite one being an Oscar nominee—yet it’s the more satisfying evening of theater. River is pretentious and overblown, while Lake is truthful if flawed.
   The River, the first play by Jez Butterworth after his triumphant transcontinental sensation Jerusalem, comes to us after a smash British production starring Dominic West, now with the charismatic Hugh Jackman as The Man—unnamed capitalized characters are always a sign of trouble—an outdoor enthusiast bringing his new girlfriend to his cabin for a weekend of fishing and lovemaking. After much poetic speechifying on the thrill of landing a trout (The Man compares his first catch to “the tongue of God”), rehashing of sex and swimming (they were both present so why retell everything?), The Woman discovers she’s only one in a chain of conquests. In a confusing, Pinteresque choice, The Other Woman, a previous or perhaps a future amour, also puts in several appearances, sometimes simultaneously with The Woman (got that?).

Butterworth layers on the polysyllabic blather with each of the three characters waxing all romantic about nature and relationships, but there’s very little substance here. Director Ian Rickson attempts to inject tension—Charles Balfour’s lighting helps out somewhat—but the playwright gives him little to work with. The Woman mentions seeing what seems to be a ghost. The Other Woman encounters another fisherman and The Man shows signs of jealousy, flashing a dangerous-looking fish-gutting knife. But that’s about it. All we’re left with at the end of this wisp of a play is a philanderer who likes to fish and fool around.
   Jackman is in terrific shape, and his bulging biceps as well as his filleting skills are on display. Those qualities may be enough for a Cooking Channel show, but they don’t sustain an evening of theater. The magnetic Tony winner fails to dive deeply into this guy’s psyche, so all the attention is grabbed by Cush Jumbo, a sparkplug of dramatic energy, as The Woman. Laura Donnelly imbues The Other Woman with a quiet dignity. Both women manage to send a jolt of life into this otherwise moribund mackerel of a play.

Lost Lake at Manhattan Theatre Club is riddled with clichés, but at least it’s got more sizzle and juice than the pretentious River. We’re in a cabin again, but instead of allegory and poetry, playwright David Auburn (a Pulitzer winner for Proof), gives us gritty details and believable characters. The plot is your basic Total Strangers Become Unlikely Friends pattern, but Auburn’s frequent directing collaborator Daniel Sullivan and a cast of two—Tracie Thoms and Oscar nominee John Hawkes (Winter’s Bone)—give it the necessary verisimilitude to make us care about what happens.
   Single mom Veronica rents a lakeside cottage from sketchy-looking Hogan for a week’s vacation away from the city with her two kids. At first it seems Hogan is a scummy perv, lurking around the property and living out of his truck. But it turns out he’s a well-meaning loser and Veronica, a recently-unemployed nurse, has many self-inflicted problems of her own. Of course, after revelations and a crisis, they become tentative pals over a couple of bottles of beer. Yes, it’s predictable but Thoms and Hawkes don’t condescend to the material, giving it an honesty that belies the familiar machinations. Hawkes is especially moving as the unlucky Hogan. His total breakdown after a series of bad turns is frighteningly raw in its nakedness. There’s a lot more going on at the Lake than in the River.

November 22, 2014
Sticks and Bones
The New Group

Lips Together, Teeth Apart

Second Stage

Reviewed by David Sheward

A pair of Off-Broadway revivals offers American theater’s response to two of the most difficult moments in our recent history: the Vietnam War and the AIDS crisis. Both cataclysmic events forced average Americans to confront the “other.” In the early 1970s, a brutal foreign war was being fought in our living rooms, and veterans were bringing home its traumas. Twenty years later, a ravaging plague decimated a largely ignored segment of the population, and gay activists were demanding attention be paid. David Rabe’s Sticks and Bones (1971), from the New Group, and Terrence McNally’s Lips Together, Teeth Apart (1991), at Second Stage, detail the mainstream reactions to these harrowing watershed moments in vastly different ways. Both deal with attempts to avoid unpleasant truths, but only one still resonates with the disturbing discord of its original setting.

Rabe’s play is a merciless cartoon of a typical stateside family—named for the characters on the ridiculously wholesome sitcom The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet —torn apart by the return of their eldest son, David, who is scarred psychologically and physically by his experiences in Nam. He is blind and accompanied by the specter of Zung, the Vietnamese girl he left behind, whom no one else can see. As his parents attempt to gloss over his damaged psyche with TV, snacks, and commercial-style chatter, David viciously attacks them verbally and with his walking stick. As this living-room war rages, Derek McLane’s Brady Bunch-style set is slowly transformed into an eerie battlefield by Peter Kaczorowski’s ghoulish lighting and Olivia Sebeksy’s grainy projections. It’s a nightmarish version of reality, directed with unflinching swagger by Scott Eliot. Bill Pullman delivers a frighteningly intense Ozzie. You can almost feel his jittery energy as he rapidly retreats into a fantasy vision of his youth to escape the intruder in his home. Holly Hunter’s Harriet is like a perky puppet performing a domestic dance of housekeeping to distract herself from David’s demons. Ben Schnetzer has the difficult task of humanizing the agonized David and he manages to ground the character’s dark poetry. Raviiv Ullman is hilariously oblivious as the guitar-strumming younger brother Rick, and Richard Chamblerlain, a veteran of the play’s era as TV’s Dr. Kildare, is like a stern figure from the past as a clueless priest.
   It’s hard to believe now, but Sticks made it to Broadway after a run at the Public Theater and won the Tony Award for Best Play. It would have no place on today’s Disneyfied Broadway, where even most dramas have a warm and fuzzy side. This production has a slightly dated feel, and the play could stand cutting, but it still provides a frightening caricature of an America in upheaval.

McNally’s Lips Together, Teeth Apart takes a more realistic route, apart from pretentious and extraneous Strange Interlude -ish interior monologues. The play follows two straight couples struggling through an awkward Fourth of July weekend at the Fire Island beach house one of them has inherited from her gay brother who has died of AIDS. As they attempt to ignore the reality of AIDS and the gay men surrounding them, the four deal—or fail to deal—with infidelity, illness, miscarriages, and despair. Two decades ago, this play seemed like a startlingly accurate snapshot of the way we lived then—anxious and horrified at the issues of mortality the health crisis raised—but now it seems melodramatic and forced. What a difference the right ensemble makes.
   The original production at Manhattan Theatre Club boasted a powerhouse cast (Swoosie Kurtz, Nathan Lane, Christine Baranski, Anthony Heald) who made the characters’ soapy troubles seem like the quintessence of the American and, by extension, human experience. Unfortunately, of the current company, only Tracee Chimo connects with the existential despair of the chatterbox Chloe who natters on about anything that comes into her head to keep the emptiness at bay. Peter Dubois’s direction overemphasizes the laughs instead of quietly playing up the couples’ desperation. As a result, the jokes aren’t funny, and the quarreling quartet come across as petty and bickering rather than misguided and lonely. Alexander Dodger designed a gorgeous beachfront set; too bad you won’t want to spend time with the occupants.

November 10, 2014
Classic Stage Company

Reviewed by Jerry Beal

The first perhaps 20 minutes of this Classic Stage Company revival of Allegro distances its audiences from what is happening on the stage. It’s difficult to separate content from production, just as it apparently was when the show first appeared in 1947. Oscar Hammerstein, in his only work not based on existing material, created a highly personal, allegorical musical about the eternal pull between ideals and material drives. The entire cast serves as a Greek chorus throughout, commenting on and participating in the competing impulses in Joseph Taylor (Claybourne Elder), a small-town doctor who marries a girl (lovely Elizabeth A. Davis) who, though raised in the same place, is under the sway of her ambitious father for whom money, prominence, and position are the very values that Joe doesn’t share. In feel, the piece is almost a musicalized Our Town and establishes itself in a slow, low-keyed manner.
   Here, director John Doyle uses his now-signature device of actors accompanying themselves, an intriguing approach. But unlike in Doyle’s marvelous Company, in which the music came mostly from those not singing, here the singers simultaneously play and sing, and for those initial moments, the method becomes a distraction, giving focus to the idea rather than the characters. As the story unfolds, however, as so often happens in the theater, magic arrives and the show takes flight. Magic arrives here when Joe sings “You Are Never Away” as he thinks of his imminent return home from medical school to his soon-to-be wife. From that point, the fluidity of the staging, and the strength of the story, music, and performances register, negating any issues with the simultaneity of singing and playing the music.
   And lilting music it is. From the rousing title song and the bittersweet “The Gentleman Is a Dope” (a captivating Jane Pfitsch as Emily, whom Joe realizes is his true soul mate) to the haunting “Come Home Joe” finale, the score is indeed worthy of its revered creators. The virtues of the whole are given their due by a wonderful ensemble, including Doyle and Broadway veterans Malcom Gets as Joe Sr. and Alma Cuervo as Grandma Taylor. Making the show an intermissionless 90 minutes adds immeasurably to its effect.

November 10, 2014
The Real Thing
Roundabout Theatre Company at the American Airlines Theatre

Reviewed by David Sheward

Sometimes a brilliant playwright and a brilliant director just aren’t the right combination. With the Roundabout Theater Company’s revival of The Real Thing, the literary pyrotechnics of dramatist Tom Stoppard and the naturalistic flair of helmer Sam Gold (Circle Mirror Transformation) don’t quiet go together. Stoppard’s 1982 hit examines the fine line between on and offstage love when Henry, a cerebral Stoppard-like author, finds his personal life paralleling his theatrical creations. The original Broadway production in 1984 (I didn’t see the premiere London version) by Mike Nichols was very clear in its delineation between “reality” and plays within plays. (There was a subsequent 2000 London-to-Broadway revival that struck a pleasing balance between the poles of truth and illusion.) But under Gold’s hand, that distinction is made blurry by the low-key performances, the single-unit set by David Zinn, and the company singing pop tunes of the 1960s between scenes. This may have been Gold’s intention—to show the messiness of love and how art and reality spill into each other. But it lessens the impact of Stoppard’s ironic theme of the sharp divide between Henry’s idealized world of witty repartee and the untidy nature of everyday life.
   Despite the somewhat off-kilter staging, Stoppard’s dazzling wit and compassion shine through. He wrote the work as a rebuke to critics categorizing him as a playwright with a mind and no heart because of his focus on the intellectual in such works as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, Jumpers, and Travesties. In The Real Thing, Henry embarks on an adulterous affair with Annie, an actor; ironically, his wife, Charlotte, is appearing in his play about infidelity opposite Max, Annie’s husband. In the second act, the tables are turned. Henry and Annie are now married. Now Annie cheats on Henry, and he is forced to deal with the same shattering betrayal about which he blithely joked. There are also brilliant observations on writing, theater, politics, and music.

Ewan McGregor captures Henry’s rapier-like intelligence, which he uses as a weapon when life gets too painful. The most stunning moment of the original production featured Jeremy Irons as a solitary Henry bereft of witticisms, breaking down and sobbing, “Please… don’t,” as he attempts to cope with Annie’s affair. Unfortunately, McGregor fails to elicit the same depth of despair, and the moment passes without much effect.
   Maggie Gyllenhaal makes for an attractive, witty, Annie but she misses the warmth of the Broadway original Glenn Close, so when this charming creature steps out on two different husbands, she seems like a narcissist rather than a woman following her heart. Cynthia Nixon was in the original Broadway production as Debbie, the sexually precocious teenage daughter of Henry and Charlotte. Here she plays Charlotte and endows her with a wry cynicism, perhaps a trifle too arch though. Josh Hamilton convincingly conveys Max’s earnestness and sorrow, particularly in the brief scene when he loses Annie. Perhaps if there had been more such honest emotion, this would have been a “realer” Real Thing.

November 2, 2014
The Last Ship
Neil Simon Theatre

Reviewed by David Sheward

The title of the new musical featuring a score by pop star Sting offers plenty of satirical opportunities: The Last Ship sinks, hits a reef, scuttles, etc. Fortunately, this vessel isn’t entirely unseaworthy. The score is catchy and moving, the staging by two-time Tony winner Joe Mantello is imaginative and gritty, and Steven Hoggett’s choreography expresses character with quirky and unexpected movement, except when the actors are called upon to stomp their feet, which happens about every 10 minutes.
   The main problem is the surprisingly soapy book by two pros—John Logan (Red) and Brian Yorkey (Next to Normal). Perhaps their British (Logan) and American (Yorkey) sensibilities clashed, because this collaboration just doesn’t work. Derived from Sting’s concept album, the plot follows the “Oppressed Laborers Fight Back” template with a nod to the “Torn Between Two Lovers” trope. Just like the coal miners in Billy Elliot and the shoemakers in Kinky Boots, the inhabitants of Wallsend, a town in the north of England not unlike the one where Sting grew up, are in danger of losing their jobs. In this case, the town’s means of financial support, the shipyard, cannot compete with foreign rivals in Korea and Japan. Rather than find positions with the new salvaging company, the workers band together to illegally build one last ship and plan to sail it to the North Sea. What they will do there and how they will make this mad venture pay off is never made clear. Are they going to haul cargo, go fishing, or just take a pleasure cruise? Sting, Logan, and Yorkey forgot to include that little detail.
   On the romantic end, prodigal son Gideon Fletcher picks this moment of crisis to return home after 15 years at sea after his dad dies and to reunite with his former sweetheart, barmaid Meg Dawson. Though Meg now is engaged to the reliable Arthur Millburn, who works for the salvage company, she still has feelings for Gideon. Who will Meg chose? Will the ship be built before dying Father Jim succumbs to cancer? And what about Meg’s 15-year-old son, Tom? Any guesses as to his paternity? There are so many tired twists and holes in the plot—Gideon couldn’t have written Meg a letter?—it’s hard to care for this beleaguered lot.
   With the aid of Christopher Akerlind’s versatile lighting, Mantello and Hoggett stage this drivel with verve and punch. Even as we groan at each contrivance, we sigh in admiration at the ingenuity with which it’s executed in stage terms. There’s plenty to savor in Sting’s flavorful score, even though the context is overly familiar. Yes, we get the missed-opportunity ballad (“It’s Not the Same Moon”), the live-life-to-the-fullest rousing group number (“Show Some Respect”) and the father-son bonding moment (“The Night the Pugilist Learned How to Dance”). But they intoxicate with their direct charm.
   Michael Esper makes for an unlikely Gideon, not especially charismatic or convincing as the object of a burning passion, but he intensely imparts the character’s anger at an abusive father and delivers the songs with a lovely, Sting-like smoky tenor. Rachel Tucker shows more fire as the conflicted Meg, while Aaron Lazar is stiff as Arthur, but he makes the most of the quiet love song “What Say You, Meg?” Jimmy Nail lends sturdy support as the shipyard foreman. Veteran musical character actor Fred Applegate wisely underplays the alcoholic, foul-mouthed Irish priest, but Sally Ann Triplett overdoes the foreman’s raucous wife.
   Perhaps Sting’s name alone will be enough to keep this Ship sailing until Tony time, but with its poorly built hull and masthead, I predict rough seas ahead.

October 26, 2014
Off-Broadway Roundup I

Reviewed by David Sheward

While the fall is one of Broadway’s busiest times, Off-Broadway is equally crowded with openings. The current roster includes daring reinterpretations of familiar works, New York premieres of British and American plays from veteran and promising playwrights, and a musical featuring bedbugs and a Celine Dion impersonator (no kidding!).
   The Dutch director Ivo Van Hove has delivered weird deconstructions in his productions for New York Theater Workshop. I’m still recovering from his derailing of A Streetcar Named Desire. But with his current staging of Ingmar Bergman’s Scenes From a Marriage, he takes the source material and skillfully reimagines it for the stage, delivering something new and exciting while respecting the original. First a six-hour TV mini-series and then a three-hour film, Scenes is a harrowing examination of the dysfunctional union between a professor and a divorce lawyer.
   When the audience enters the NYTW, it is ushered into one of three small playing spaces. Three separate couples enact the marriage and breakup of Johan and Marianne at different stages, the playgoers moving from location to location until they’ve watched all of them. The dialogue from each leaks into the others, replicating how buried resentments and events from the past influence present actions. Then after a 30-minute intermission, the playing area is stripped bare and all six performers play the post-divorce sequences in a symphony of passion and anger.

Meanwhile at Roundabout Theatre’s Laura Pels venue, Tom Stoppard’s Indian Ink gets a long-delayed New York premiere. In Carey Perloff’s sumptuous and elegant production, love and literature are given equal weight as an English poetess’s Indian sojourn is recounted by her loving sister decades later. As in Stoppard’s Arcadia, the events are played out in the past and through the lens of academic evaluation and memory for a fascinating double-vision. The regal Rosemary Harris is enchanting as always as the elderly sister, but the play belongs to Romola Garai and Firdous Bamji as the young writer and the Indian painter to whom she is attracted. There are slight resemblances to E.M. Forster’s A Passage to India, but the work is much more than a tribute to that classic. Stoppard constructs an intriguing puzzle on the nature of poetry, colonialism, and mortality well worth your concentration and time.
   At Playwrights Horizons, Robert O’Hara tackles equally sensitive issues of race, gender, and sexuality and how theater deals with all of them in his autobiographical collage Bootycandy. At first it seems he’s stringing together a collection of SNL-type sketches on being African-American and LGBT. Some work hilariously well and some don’t—a one-joke scene about a lesbian couple divorcing wears out its welcome quickly—but in the second act, they all come together to tell the difficult coming-of-age story of Sutter, who as a child is molested by an older man and as an adult vents his anger on a stranger. The comedy and tragedy overlap in an intense staging by O’Hara. The five-member ensemble plays many roles with savage wit and compassion. Lance Coadie Williams is particularly funny as a cross-dressing minister and (in drag) as Sutter’s sassy grandma who fakes senility to collect cash and sympathy from her grandson.

Billy Porter, the Tony-winning star of Kinky Boots, tackles similar material in his first play, While I Yet Live, at Primary Stages at the Duke Theatre. As in Bootycandy, the main character survives sexual assault from a trusted older man and faces rejection from his African-American family and community for his gay identity. But while O’Hara explores this complex theme in unconventional and startling ways, Porter goes for soap opera with melodrama and ghosts everywhere and the characters spouting Oprah-ish adages (“If you believe in nothing, you’ll fall for anything”) instead of talking to each other. Fortunately, S. Epatha Merkerson delivers a fiery and heartfelt performance as the protagonist’s disabled mother.
   On the musical side, we have an enchanting charmer and an overblown dud. The former is Found at Atlantic Theatre Company and the latter is Bedbugs!!! at the ArcLight. Found is based on the books and magazines created by Davy Rothbart, which collect discarded or lost notes, lists, fliers, and letters. The material is bizarre, moving, and funny, offering brief, intriguing glimpses into people’s lives. Book-writers Hunter Bell and Lee Overtree (who also directs) frame the ephemera in the reality-based story of Davy’s creation of the magazines and his attempts to turn them into a TV show. There’s the conventional losing-your-soul-in-Hollywood spiel and romantic triangle nonsense, but the authors cleverly punctuate the action with relevant found notes (realized by Darrel Maloney’s marvelous projections) and Eli Bolin’s warmhearted score.

Bedbugs!!! could have been a lot funnier. It’s the kind of outrageous satire that can sometimes work, as in Little Shop of Horrors, Urinetown, and The Toxic Avenger, if there are characters with whom we can sympathize, even if they are caricatures. But conceivers Fred Sauter (book and lyrics) and Paul Leschen (music) and director Deborah Hurwitz opt for total exaggeration with no hint of verisimilitude. That’s fine for a 10-minute sketch but cannot sustain a two-hour musical. The flimsy plot centers on an invasion of NYC by mutant bedbugs with a Canadian singer not unlike Celine Dion serving as Gotham’s unlucky savior. Brian Charles Rooney in drag and fine voice as the Celine stand-in and Philip Heckman’s ingenious insect costumes are the high points of this otherwise forgettable frolic. Get out the Raid!

October 18, 2014

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time
Barrymore Theatre

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time shouldn’t work. Its protagonist, Christopher Boone, is a difficult young man to like. Incredibly brilliant at math and logic, yet suffering from a form of autism, the 15-year-old cannot comprehend human emotion and hates being touched. He screams and becomes violent whenever anyone does so. He’s also arrogant and selfish. Plus, the titular mystery—the canine of the title is killed and the falsely accused Christopher sets out to find the culprit—is solved at the end of the first act. As if that weren’t enough, there are a lot of math problems—which are not exactly the stuff of high drama. And let’s not forget the original Mark Haddon novel is all told in the first person from Christopher’s skewed perspective.
   But just as she did with War Horse, director Marianne Elliott makes brilliant use of stagecraft to bring a seemingly untranslatable literary work to breathing, vital life in this stunning production from Britain’s National Theatre. Playwright Simon Stephens has surmounted the challenge of the source material by having Christopher adapt his journal as a play narrated by his teacher Siobhan, while Elliott employs Bunny Christie’s vast graph-paper-lined box of a set as if it were a blank sheet for Christopher to work out his emotional and mathematical dilemmas. With the invaluable aid of Paule Constable’s lighting, Finn Ross’s video design, and the soundscape created by Ian Dickinson for Autograph and Adrian Sutton’s original music, we journey into the complex world of a suburb seething with subtext and then to the urban madhouse known as London. And it’s all from Christopher’s point of view, so that his trip on the train and subway become a harrowing bombardment of sensations. The ingenious movement by Scott Graham and Steven Hoggett for Frantic Assembly perfectly augments the intricate staging.
   All this technical wizardry might overshadow the performances, but a powerful American cast proves equal to the efforts of the helmer and her design team. As Christopher, recent Juilliard graduate Alex Sharp does a magnificent job of carrying the show on his boyish shoulders. He masterfully conveys the teenager’s incisive intelligence, childlike neediness, and raging incomprehension at the bad behavior displayed by the grownups. We actually get to like this impossible adolescent. Ian Barford finds the deep love at the center of Christopher’s undemonstrative father, and Enid Graham makes for a sympathetic mother despite the character’s questionable actions. Francesca Faridany as Siobhan provides an anchor for the action, and Mercedes Herrero adds spice, doubling as a nasty neighbor and a vinegary headmistress.
   As for the math problems, Elliott uses all the means at her disposal to create a spectacular post-curtain call coda about triangles. If you never thought you’d be cheering about equations, check out this curious and marvelous Incident.

Reviewed by David Sheward
October 14, 2014
The Country House
Manhattan Theatre Club at Samuel J. Friedman Theatre

Reviewed by David Sheward

You would think with all the insider theatrical references flying around in Donald Margulies’s The Country House, at least one of the show-folk characters would say, “You know, this is just like being in a Chekhov play.” Clearly, Margulies, one of our finest playwrights, is deliberately citing the Russian master of middle-class ennui, but he doesn’t get far beyond the footnotes. Christopher Durang did a much more imaginative job of updating and Americanizing Chekhov by wildly satirizing him in the Tony-winning Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike. Margulies—who has more sharply observed the complexities of human relations in plays like Dinner With Friends, Time Stands Still, and Sight Unseen—settles for tired jokes about contemporary entertainment trends and wheezy melodramatic conflicts in this Manhattan Theatre Club production.
   The plot is basically a mash-up of The Seagull and Uncle Vanya. Glamorous leading lady Anna Patterson (a luminous Blythe Danner) is playing hostess to a mob of overheated egos in her Berkshires country house during the summertime Williamstown Theatre Festival. Her daughter, also an actor, has recently died of cancer, and Anna’s grief is shared by her screw-up son Elliot (an intense Eric Lange); her smart-aleck granddaughter Susie (a refreshingly low-key Sarah Steele); and the dead woman’s husband and Susie’s father, Walter (a comic David Rasche), a wildly successful movie director. Just like in Vanya, the recently widowed Walter brings along a beautiful new girlfriend Nell (Kate Jennings Grant doing her best with a thankless role), also an actor, and the depressive Elliott is in love with her. Oh, did I mention Elliott, a failed actor, has decided to become a playwright and he wants everyone to participate in a reading of his first work which, of course, is self-indulgent dreck. Just like in The Seagull. After the disastrous reading, the dialogue for Elliott and Anna is almost verbatim from Constantine and Arkadina’s in the Chekhov original.

But it’s not totally a Russian rip-off. Margulies throws in a little Midwestern sex sizzle with a nod to William Inge’s Picnic in the form of hot TV actor Michael Astor (the dazzlingly attractive Daniel Sunjata) who just happens to need a place to sleep because his sublet is being fumigated. None of the women in Anna’s crowded home can keep their hands off Michael, including Anna.
   Margulies attempts to add depth to these shallow whiners whose biggest problems seem to be not getting cast in a pilot. Much of his dialogue is snappy with lots of zingers aimed at the MTC subscription audiences. The crowd at the performance attended dutifully tittered over digs at matinee ladies, the state of Broadway, and guilty actors getting a shot of culture at the WTF and then returning to movies and TV for a fat paycheck. But it’s hard to care about these carbon-copy Chekhovites. Their every action is inspired by other plays rather than organic emotions.

Yet there are pleasures of a kind here. Director Daniel Sullivan provides his usual polished production. Danner’s silk-and-sandpaper alto is always welcome, and she finds a core of humanity in a thin character, just as she did in The Commons of Pensacola, another MTC production from last season. Steele wisely underplays Susie’s gloom, and Rasche garners some honest laughs as the brutally frank helmer defending his choice to abandon the stage for the more profitable world of screen-action franchises (though it is a bit hard to take when his character bitches about having to audition actors all day). Sunjata and Grant are at least pleasant to look at and struggle mightily to give dimension to their roles, as does Lange who is saddled with the irredeemably needy Elliot. John Lee Beatty’s cozy set makes you want to move right in, but only after the current tenants have vacated for the summer.

October 7, 2014
Love Letters
Brooks Atkinson Theatre

Reviewed by David Sheward

There has been a certain amount of carping about the revival of A.R. Gurney’s Love Letters, the charming 1988 Pulitzer finalist, which requires only two actors, little rehearsal time, and minimal design elements. (The only setting here is John Lee Beatty’s elegant wooden table, lit warmly by Peter Kaczorowski.) Gurney specifies that the performers read from scripts, so no memorization is involved and most productions including this one employ revolving casts so the stars have a relatively brief commitment of time. The complainers—and there aren’t many of them—are up in arms that such a minimalist show is still charging top Broadway prices. Yes, they have a point, but given the economics of the American commercial theater, the only question about a show should be is it worth the price of admission and your time? I can only answer based on the first company—Brian Dennehy and Mia Farrow—and the response is an unqualified yes.
   The premise is simplicity itself. The nearly five-decade relationship between two patricians, Melissa Gardner and Andrew Makepeace III, is detailed through their letters, postcards, and notes. From grade school to Ivy League universities to varying adult paths, Melissa and Andrew just miss their opportunity for fulfilling mutual love. Either through adolescent stubbornness, inconvenient circumstances, or rigid convention, a satisfying union is continually thwarted. Straight-arrow Andrew buys into the suburban dream and eventually becomes a respectable politician, while the wealthier and more troubled Melissa leads a more uninhibited life as an artist. But she is beset by martial problems and alcoholism. It may sound like a high-toned romance novel, but Gurney offers incisive social observations and deep character development, making his pair of mismatched lovers much more than stereotypical cocktail socialites.

As with all memorable drama, the most revealing details are little ones, like the offhand acknowledgement that Melissa’s stepfather sexually abused her (“He bothered me in bed if you must know” is her only mention of this shocking fact, which speaks volumes about her need to cover up unpleasantness.) Or take Andrew’s anger over the arbitrariness of his school’s crew team rotation without regard to ability. When he complains about it, his coach replies, “That’s life, Andy.” The small phrase encapsulates all the injustices and unfairness both characters encounter.
   It’s no surprise that Dennehy, a double Tony winner for meaty performances in such heavyweight classics as Death of a Salesman and Long Day’s Journey Into Night, would bring dimension to Andrew’s struggle and final capitulation to conformism. Farrow is the real revelation here. Apart from benefits and readings, her last New York stage appearance was a limited Off-Broadway run of Fran’s Bed in 2005 and before that the slight Romantic Comedy on Broadway in 1980. Only in Woody Allen’s Broadway Danny Rose did we see the full possibility of her talent. That is until now. She takes us through Melissa’s painful journey from spoiled rich girl to disillusioned woman desperately clinging to Andy, the one person who loves her. With the smallest gesture, vocal inflection, or merely by sitting silently, she can convey a lifetime of disappointment and longing.
   It’s difficult to tell where director Gregory Mosher’s contribution begins and the cast’s ends, but it’s clear he helped modulate and balance these two sterling performances. Dennehy will play opposite Carol Burnett when Farrow leaves, then Alan Alda, Candice Bergen, Stacy Keach, Diana Rigg, Martin Sheen, and Anjelica Huston will take over. Each will put his or her own unique stamp on Love Letters, but it’s hard to imagine they will better the opening company.

September 26, 2014
The Wayside Motor Inn
Signature Theatre at the Pershing Square Signature Center

Reviewed by David Sheward

A lonely salesman phones in his orders to a computer, longing to speak to a human being. A grandmother complains about the decline of personal service. A waitress advises a customer not to eat her employer’s food because it is filled with chemicals. Occupants of an anonymous motel attempt to reach out to each other as they go through painful life transitions but the speed of modern life prevents their connections. These may seem like contemporary figures voicing 2014 concerns, but they are characters from A.R. Gurney’s rarely seen 1977 play The Wayside Motor Inn, now in a precise and biting revival at Signature Theatre Company. As he has done with many of his other plays, the prolific Gurney examines the WASP upper middle class’s sense of displacement and alienation as they find themselves cast adrift in a society where they are no longer the top dogs. That’s just one concern of the nine guests and one employee of the Wayside. Each is facing a major life change and finds no comfort in each other or their bland surroundings.
   Like Gurney’s long-running Off-Broadway hit The Dining Room, this play features multiple, unrelated plotlines playing out in a single setting. The generic motel room outside of Boston is designed with proper period blandness by Andrew Lieberman, lit with sensitivity by Tyler Micoleau. There are 10 characters enacting five stories. Each set of two characters—elderly husband and wife, father and son, estranged couple, amorous college kids, salesman and waitress possibly hooking up—act as if the others weren’t in the same room. If this sounds a bit confusing, it can be at first. As the play starts, a seemingly endless stream of guests enter the suite as if they were in an updated version of the famous stateroom scene from the Marx Brothers’s classic A Night at the Opera. But Gurney and director Lila Neugebauer pace the action at just the right clip so that things don’t get too blurry.

The superb specificity in the acting also keeps the varying plot threads untangled. The most riveting moments are provided by Rebecca Henderson as Ruth, the divorced wife engaged in a pitched battle with Andy (a properly subtle Kelly AuCoin), her former husband, over who gets to keep the family stereo and the snapshots (remember this takes place in the pre-digital era.) As Ruth enters the room and confronts her ex-spouse, Henderson conveys volumes of anger, love, and longing in the stiff, sharp way she moves and talks. You can tell what’s going on underneath her veneer of civility, and when her emotions boil over as she snatches photos from her equally enraged ex-partner, it’s devastating.
   There’s also much to admire in Jon DeVries’s crotchety old codger on the brink of heart failure, Lizbeth Mackay’s overly solicitous spouse, Marc Kudisch’s bullying yet loving father, Will Pullen’s quietly rebellious son, David McElwee and Ismenia Mendes’s ambivalent young lovers, Jenn Lyon’s argumentative waitress, and Quincy Dunn-Baker’s lusty and isolated salesman. The variety and richness they and the playwright bring to these seemingly ordinary people belie the dullness of the motel-world setting.

September 7, 2014

Glimmerglass Festiva

Reviewed by David Sheward

Carousel was Rodgers and Hammerstein’s follow-up to Oklahoma!, their first big hit as a team, and many regard the sophomore effort as the legendary duo’s finest work. Rodgers’s gorgeous melodies and Hammerstein’s intricate yet folksy lyrics combine to tell of the tragic marriage of Billy Bigelow, a bullying but attractive carnie, and Julie Jordan, a simple but strong-willed mill worker. The sentiment of unconditional love even if your husband is an abusive lout may be politically incorrect today, but the power of redemption as expressed by Billy’s transformation as a spirit and the sheer beauty of the evergreen score places the show in the pantheon of Broadway classics. The Glimmerglass Festival in Cooperstown, N.Y., which began presenting musicals along with its usual fare of operas a few seasons back, delivers a technically proficient production of the 1945 work, but Charles Newell’s direction lacks the necessary passion.
   The musical component of the evening is richly fulfilled by conductor Doug Peck and the vocal performances of the company. Handsome Ryan McKinny (who made for a smolderingly sexy Flying Dutchman at Glimmerglass last season), is a solid Billy with a smoky, dark baritone. His performance of the iconic soliloquy is a towering achievement of control and nuance. Andrea Carroll’s Julie has the right sweet soprano without being syrupy. Their duet of the memorable “If I Loved You” is enchanting to hear, but there is no chemical reaction between the two leads. So when Billy kills himself after a thwarted robbery attempt, there is no emotional wallop.
   Almost immediately afterwards, Julie’s practical and compassionate cousin Nettie sings the always-uplifting “You’ll Never Walk Alone” to inspire the new widow to keep on “caring about what happens.” While Deborah Nansteel lends a musician-like purity to the standard, she doesn’t build to a moving climax. The song just finishes rather than soaring to a tear-inducing ending.

Newell adds to the lack of drama by double-casting Rebecca Finnegan as Mrs. Mullins, Billy’s hard-edged employer on the carousel, and the Heavenly Friend who guides Billy to the spirit world. While Finnegan is marvelous in both roles, creating totally separate characters, one appears right after the other, and costume designer Jessica Jahn has dressed them similarly, causing some confusion. The strongest presence is provided by Carolina M. Villaraos as Louise, Julie and Billy’s unhappy daughter. Performing Daniel Pelzig’s choreography (which appears strongly influenced by Agnes de Mille’s original steps), she conveys the teenager’s longing for love and guidance. In a moving duet with Andrew Harper as a heartless roustabout much like her father, she intensely expresses the frustrations of adolescence through movement. You can tell this Louise wants something, but she can’t name it yet.
   Sharin Apostolou and Joe Shadday provide laughs as the secondary couple—the giddy Carrie Pipperidge and her beau, the righteous fisherman Enoch Snow—while Ben Edquist is a dark yet funny Jigger, Billy’s no-good sailor colleague, and Wynn Harmon brings a wry, dry wit to the Starkeeper.
   This Carousel is a satisfying night for your ears, but the heart wants more.

July 25, 2014
When We Were Young and Unafraid
Manhattan Theatre Club at NY City Center Stage I

Reviewed by David Sheward

The title of Sarah Treem’s new play is ironic. The young characters are the most fearful, while the oldest one tempers her actions with caution based on scary previous experiences. Set at the height of the Women’s Liberation Movement in the early 1970s, Treem’s insightful work examines the damaging effect of gender stereotyping on different generations and how those assigned roles force everyone, but especially women, to hide their true identities.
   Even the setting serves a hidden agenda. We’re in the homey kitchen of a bed and breakfast on an island off the coast of Seattle (designed with attention to domestic detail by Scott Pask). The owner, no-nonsense former nurse Agnes (the magnificent Cherry Jones), does not allow guests here. That’s not just for reasons of privacy or professionalism. The inn also serves as a safe house for women escaping spousal abuse in an era before such establishments were commonplace or respectable, and the kitchen is the refugees’ entry point. One particular runaway, Mary Anne, a young Army bride (the subtle Zoe Kazan), and Hannah, a traveling African-American would-be revolutionary (the fiery Cherise Boothe) throw the house into disorder and upset Agnes’s delicate relationship with her 16-year-old daughter Penny (a brittle Morgan Saylor), a brainy girl who wants to attract boys and fit in with her classmates. There’s also Paul (a complex and pathetic Patch Darragh), a wimpy tourist licking his wounds from a recent divorce and seeking to escape the confusing sexual revolution taking over his home city of San Francisco.
   Treem, whose small-screen credits include In Treatment and House of Cards, tends to indulge in TV-style melodramatics, such as having Hannah break in through the window when she has no reason to do so and endowing too many characters with deep, dark secrets revealed at exactly the right moment. But her observations are strong and her portraiture is honest. Under the sensitive direction of Pam MacKinnon, the cast paints in all the various shades of grey these people whose attitudes are anything but black-and-white.
   As she did in the recent revival of The Glass Menagerie, Jones handily avoids the trap of making a protective mother a smothering monster. Nor is her Agnes a plaster saint. She can be flinty and harsh as well as compassionate. A closeted lesbian and abortion provider, Agnes has been through the sexual wars. Jones doesn’t display her battle scars, but you know they are there. Saylor (Homeland) makes an impressive stage debut, charting Penny’s rocky road through adolescence. Kazan again proves she’s one of our most intense performers, endowing Mary Anne with both street smarts and dangerous naïveté. Like Stella Kowalski in Streetcar, Mary Anne has spirit and intelligence, but she is still drawn to an abusive husband. Darragh and Boothe also find the conflicting emotions in their multidimensional roles in this finely tuned work displaying how the roles of women and men have changed and stayed the same.
   At one point Hannah informs Agnes the Supreme Court has decided in favor of abortion rights in Roe vs. Wade, and that things are changing. “Yes, but they’ll change back,” Agnes replies. It’s a chilling moment in an evening full of them.

June 30, 2014
Much Ado About Nothing
The Public Theater at the Delacorte Theater

Reviewed by David Sheward

Though at it times it seems as though they are playing The Taming of the Shrew rather than Much Ado About Nothing, Hamish Linklater and Lily Rabe make a perfect pair of battling would-be lovers in the Public Theater’s first production of the 52nd season of free Shakespeare in Central Park. Linklater is particularly intense as the confirmed bachelor Benedick, tricked into believing Rabe’s waspish Beatrice is smitten with him. Sporting a full beard which he later only partially shaves off, Linklater makes Benedick an easily provoked hothead, and he perfectly times his rants for maximum comic effect. Rabe calls to mind a young Katharine Hepburn or Jean Arthur in one of those dazzlingly witty 1940s movies, as she willfully rejects the manifestations of romantic love but then gradually warms to them. When the two get together the wit flashes, and at times director Jack O’Brien allows the decibel level to get slightly higher than it should, but the sparks of mutual attraction are real and glittering.
   O’Brien has decided to take Shakespeare’s original setting as a cue for concept. Set designer John Lee Beatty has created a gorgeous Sicilian villa, complete with a vegetable garden, which serves as the single location, and costume designer Jane Greenwood dresses the cast in elegant early-20th-century clothes. The play opens with Italian dialogue, gradually seguing into the Bard’s immortal speeches. The director adds a hokey gimmick of moving a huge garden wall with the magic of music, but that’s the only sour note in an otherwise lyrical, enchanting production.
   The supporting company is full of able comedians, both experienced and new to the scene. Brian Stokes Mitchell lends his hearty baritone to the virile captain Don Pedro, while Pedro Pascal is a devilishly attractive villain as his bastard brother Don John. As Beatrice’s distinguished uncle Leonato, John Glover gives equal weigh to the merry fooling in the plot to deceive his niece and Benedick and to the heartrending sorrow required when he must sham mourning for his daughter, Hero (a lovely Ismenia Mendes). Jack Cutmore-Scott endows Hero’s suitor Claudio with the appropriate dash and impetuosity.
   The only segment of this zestful production that doesn’t quite work is the so-called comic relief. Perhaps because O’Brien has given the lead lovers a free hand to be as broad as they wish, the clownish types come across as exaggerated. John Pankow as the buffoonish constable Dogberry and Zoe Winters as the shrewish waiting gentlewoman Margaret are the worst offenders. But much of this Ado makes up for any deficiencies.

June 27, 2014
Park Avenue Armory

Reviewed by David Sheward

Part jousting tournament, part religious rite, Rob Ashford and Kenneth Branagh’s mammoth production of Macbeth, imported from England and now at the Park Avenue Armory for a brief run, is an overwhelming spectacle drawing the theatergoer into the ghoulish world of the play as few stagings can. It starts with the way you are brought to your seat: Patrons are divided into Scottish clans and marched into the cavernous space through set designer Christopher’s Oram’s blasted heath to one of two steep, stadium stands facing a narrow strip of playing space. At one end is a Stonehenge arrangement of rocks: the domain of the three witches. At the other is a massive altar adorned by hundreds of candles and early Christian mosaics. Lit like a nightmarish vision by Neil Austin, this is a setting for the battle between the otherworldly and the humane for the soul of Macbeth and all Scotland.
   Battle is the operative word here. Ashford and Branagh do not shy away from the bloodier aspects of Shakespeare’s dark tale of ambition and immorality. Fight director Terry King’s skirmishes and clashes are so realistic, audience members in the first four rows are warned they may be splattered with mud and other base matter. I was convinced one combatant was literally getting his brains bashed in right in front of me by the ferocious Branagh as the titular Thane.

In addition to his martial and co-directing skills, Branagh delivers one of the most incisive and detailed portrayals of the role in recent memory. His Macbeth is a thoughtful leader, genuinely troubled by the grandiose predictions of the weird sisters. His transformation to murderous tyrant is a slow and deliberate one. He wisely plays down the theatrics because there are enough of them in his staging with Ashford. As Macbeth’s fiend-like queen, Alex Kingston (known in the US as Dr. River Song on Doctor Who) is almost as subtle, though she overemphasizes the lady’s two-faced protestations of innocence. Kingston demonstrates too much that Lady M. is acting when she feigns shock at the death of Duncan (spoiler alert if you did not take high school English). But her sleepwalking scene atop the rough-hewn altar is truly disturbing, as is her relentless needling of the character’s spouse when he pulls back from their plan to slaughter their monarch.
   It’s also refreshing to have a huge cast so that the procession of Banquo’s successors to the throne and the movement of Birnam Wood to Dunsinane are truly massive. Richard Coyle is a passionate Macduff, Alexander Vlahos a noble Malcolm, and Charlie Cameron, Laura Elsworthy, and Anjana Vasan seem to actually fly as the witches in this supernatural Macbeth.

June 15, 2014
Time of My Life
Brits Off Broadway at 59E59 Theaters

Reviewed by Jerry Beal

The wonder of a magic act is in our not understanding how it’s done. Alan Ayckbourn’s wonders far exceed his seemingly inexhaustible conjuring skills. But, after 77 plays, his work, for all its subtlety, insight, humor, and humanity, continues to amaze in its sheer craftsmanship. No playwright does what he does in constantly finding new theatrical ways to show us our foibles and follies.
   The setting this time is a birthday dinner at a restaurant. The attendees are the birthday lady (Sarah Parks), her husband (Russell Dixon), their two sons (James Powell and Richard Stacey), daughter-in-law (Emily Pithon), and prospective daughter-in-law (Rachel Caffrey). The service is provided by an array of waiters, each played by ben porter. As happens in Ayckbourn’s world, the chosen event is the jumping-off point for past revelations and future developments.
   Mother disapproves of Maureen as a match for her favored son Adam. Glyn, the son whom mother has never really loved, has a history of cheating on newly pregnant Stephanie. As parents Laura and Gerry try to sort out their different feelings about those respective situations, a long-past infidelity of Laura’s comes out, which leads to the denouement that in turn has ultimate cascading effects. As the evening proceeds, we are brought back to how each of the siblings’ relationships developed over time, including a hilarious and touching scene showing Adam and Maureen’s accidental first meeting. And at the center of everything is Laura and Gerry, who never leave the stage and whom we always see in the present. Time is very much an issue, both practically and metaphorically, for these people.
   As unique as each Ayckbourn play is, some elements remain constant. Within seconds, sometimes all at once, we are brought from mirth to pathos, then back again. When Stephanie learns that Glyn is leaving her for another woman, the waiter gives her dessert choices, to all of which she nods yes amidst uncontrollable sighing, leading to a mound of pastry no one could possibly eat.
   Ayckbourn’s verbal humor is effortless and character-driven, and this production is perfection in every way. The cast is universally brilliant, especially Caffrey, who earns prodigious laughs and sympathy. As director, Ayckbourn finds the rhythms of his writing to a fault, and he is served marvelously by a set and costumes that speak volumes about the world of these characters. The time of my life is an apt title for the play and description of the viewing experience.

June 10, 2014
The Killer
Theatre for a New Audience at the Polonsky Shakespeare Center

Reviewed by David Sheward

Though it was written in 1957 and is seldom performed, Eugene Ionesco’s bizarre and absurdist comedy The Killer is a shockingly accurate portrayal of our media-crazed, technology-obsessed society in 2014. Darko Tresnjak’s almost-slapstick production—featuring a sleek and idiomatic translation by critic-adapator Michael Feingold, now at Theater for a New Audience’s elegant Polonsky Shakespeare Center in Brooklyn—at times has the zany and satiric feel of the best of Woody Allen’s movies. Indeed, Allen may have been influenced by the play in his 1991 feature Shadows and Fog, one of his unfairly ignored pieces.
   The plotlines are somewhat similar. In both, a strange, Kafka-esque community is terrorized by an unidentified serial killer whom the hapless hero attempts to capture, only to find himself at the mercy of the fiend. In both works, the protagonist’s lame sleuthing and vain struggles against the irresistible forces of fate, represented by the faceless maniac, result in hilarious comedy.
   Berenger, the schlubby everyman who also appears in Ionesco’s Rhinoceros, A Stroll in the Air, and Exit the King, has found an idyllic neighborhood not far from the depressing slum where he resides. He’s all ready to move in, but a murderer is slashing his way through this paradise, and the police and government officials have given up trying to stop him. Berenger vows to bring this Jack the Ripper to justice, but he is frustrated by endless obstacles, until he finally confronts the villain and finds there is no stopping him. After trying to placate the monster in a lengthy monologue, pleading for decency and reason, our nebbishy hero shrugs his shoulders, accepts his death, and says “What can you do?”

Michael Shannon, who has enacted his fair share of brutal thugs in movies, plays the victim this time and makes Berenger a lovable but hopeless schlemiel. He’s particularly brilliant in the climactic monologue, which runs close to 10 minutes. Any actor who can hold an audience’s attention for that long with a speech full of repetitive appeals to a figure covered in shadows deserves a standing ovation. The eccentric Kristine Nielsen is screamingly funny as Berenger’s nosy concierge and a brainless political leader who resembles a cross between Sarah Palin and Korea’s leader Kim Jong-un. Evoking a creepy Charles Addams cartoon and Peter Lorre at his most sniveling, the riotous Paul Sparks plays Edward, a sickly friend of the hero who might be the killer.
   At points, the action has an almost uncanny resemblance to our insane times. In the second of three acts, Berenger finds the murderer’s diary, and its depraved ravings could be those of any of the psychopathic shooters who have blasted their way through movie theaters and college campuses. An eerie chill went up my spine as I was laughing hysterically. That dual sensation is the mark of challenging theater.

June 7, 2014
The City of Conversation
Lincoln Center Theater at the Mitzi Newhouse Theatre

Reviewed by David Sheward

The title of Anthony Giardina’s witty and moving new play, at Lincoln Center’s Mitzi Newhouse, is how Henry James described Washington, D.C., in a time of civility as opposing parties would break bread at elegant dinner parties to hammer out their differences. Giardina skillfully documents how the conversation between friendly rivals has descended into partisan stalemate. Chronicling the ugly divide in one prominent family from the Carter to the Obama administrations with style and irony, the playwright traces our national decline into polarized camps armed with talking points and demographics. Staged with precision by Doug Hughes and acted by a sturdy company of vets and newcomers, The City of Conversation is well-worth talking about and seeing.
   The action revolves around liberal hostess Hester Ferris, the consort of a married senator. She deftly manipulates legislation between cocktails at her fashionable Georgetown mansion (tastefully designed by John Lee Beatty). But she seems to have met her match in Anna Fitzgerald, an ambitious, Reaganite graduate of London School of Economics who has set her cap on running D.C. and snagging Hester’s somewhat mediocre son Colin, also just matriculated from the same school and ready to rebel against mom. After Anna and Colin marry and as Anna’s star ascends, Hester continues work against her daughter-in-law’s policies, leading to a devastating family crisis that is resolved in the final act, set on the evening of Obama’s first inauguration.
   Giardina skews his argument to the progressive side and reduces his conservative characters to bitter malcontents, but his theme of people and positions coming into conflict still registers strongly. When an elderly Hester is confronted with her estranged grandson Ethan, she doesn’t pull any punches in letting him know that political actions have personal consequences. But, she firmly avers, you should be able to connect with family and friends without sacrificing your principles.

It seems every time she draws a breath, Jan Maxwell gets nominated for an award, but she really is outstanding here. Hester could easily have become a domineering schemer in the mold of a Joan Crawford heroine, but Maxwell fully and believably delineates both her noble fortitude and her down-and-dirty calculating side. Watch as she sweet-talks a Kentucky senator and his wife after having slammed their state as backward in an earlier scene. She’s equally convincing playing up to and mocking them. Then she transforms into a still-vital but physically diminished old woman in the last scene, documenting the arc of this fascinating character’s life.
   Kristen Bush provides the perfect counterweight as the equally driven Anna, while Michael Simpson gives life to the milquetoast Colin. He doubles as Colin’s gay son Ethan, and has been directed to play up the swishy stereotype more than a little. Beth Dixon endows the small role of Jean, Hester’s secretary-like sister, with a life’s worth of history, as does Maxwell and the author for all the personages in this meaty drama. It’s exciting to have a well-written play about ideas on or Off-Broadway, and no matter what your political persuasion, you’ll find much to relish in this one.
May 27, 2014
Casa Valentina
Manhattan Theatre Club at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre

Reviewed by David Sheward

Broadway has given us plenty of musicals exploring the fluid nature of gender and the role of clothes in that sexual puzzle—from La Cage Aux Folles to Kinky Boots to the current revival of Hedwig and the Angry Inch. But there hasn’t been a serious Main Stem play about cross-dressing until Harvey Fierstein’s Casa Valentina. The difference between this work and the tuners (the first two are also by Fierstein) is that the musical heroes are gay and the characters in Casa are heterosexual males who long to dress as women. The play is set in a pre-Stonewall Catskill vacation bungalow, based on an actual place, where the guests can indulge their sex switch in comfort and safety.
   Fierstein, a pioneer in depicting gays onstage with his autobiographical Torch Song Trilogy, structures his script much like another landmark gay work: Mart Crowley’s The Boys in the Band. As in Boys, a diverse crew is gathered for a party-like event and the characters are a cross-sectional representation of their world. There’s the older generation reminiscing about corsets and petticoats, the pretty boy who is quite the ladies’ man in the traditional sense, the heavyset good-time “gal” hiding behind jokes, and the frightened novice who serves as a means for the hosts, Jonathon and his sympathetic wife, Rita (a “g.g.” or “genuine girl”), to explain the codes and by-laws of the cross-gendered society. Also like the Crawley work, a crisis is precipitated when the newcomer violently assaults one of the established patrons.

There is some rich characterization and even insight here, but Casa is too much like a social and political debate rather than an honest depiction of stigmatized people attempting to find solace and comfort with each other. The main talking point is provided by Charlotte, a manipulative crusader out to make transvestitism as acceptable as apple pie by means of declaring the group’s unquestionable straightness and scapegoating gays. When Fierstein has Charlotte declare, “In fifty years, cross-dressing will be as common as cigarette smoking while the homosexuals will be as reviled as they are now,” the author’s heavy irony practically drips. After the confab, the aforementioned physical dust-up, and a forced marital crack-up between Jonathon and Rita, the drama ends with a notable lack of resolution.
   Fortunately, director Joe Mantello and a sterling cast bring out the humanity in these delegates to Fierstein’s debate club. Most brilliant is veteran character actor Reed Birney as the devious Charlotte. Decked out in costume designer Rita Ryack’s fashion-forward Channel suit, he is the most ladylike of the company because he’s the most comfortable in his/her own skin. Gabriel Ebert is touchingly awkward as the virgin cross-dresser, and Patrick Page (a notable villain in Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark and The Grinch Who Stole Christmas) is his usual commanding self as Jonathon the hotel owner, but he fails to find the woman in Valentina, his alter ego. Mare Winningham endows Rita with oodles of sympathy and almost leads her out of confusing forest of words the author has placed her in.

May 23, 2014
Act One
Lincoln Center Theater at Vivian Beaumont Theater

Reviewed by David Sheward

The bulk of James Lapine’s stage version of Act One, Moss Hart’s beloved memoir of his early life in the theater, concerns the arduous trek of Once in a Lifetime, Hart’s first collaboration with George S. Kaufman and his first hit, on its way to Broadway in 1930. During much of the action, the partners are whittling down the bulky script to make their satiric story of Hollywood’s frantic adapting to the new-fangled talkies more focused. Ironically, Lapine, who also directs, could have used some of his characters’ advice. While it does capture Hart’s passion for the theater and offers many pleasures, the play is more than a tad long and rambling. It’s almost intermission by the time we get to the Lifetime saga. Plus, Lapine has installed two narrators—Hart as an older man (Tony Shalhoub), and a young man (Santino Fontana) who also partakes in the action—when one would have sufficed.
   Much background is covered, including Hart’s impoverished childhood, early jobs at entertainment camps in the Catskills and offices of second-rate touring companies, acting with a legendary alcoholic, and his first stab at playwriting—a ridiculous melodrama called The Beloved Bandit. It’s all rich, funny, and enjoyable, especially as staged with verve by Lapine on Beowulf Boritt’s amazing, three-level, revolving set. But the script lacks the necessary tightness to get us to cheer for Moss’s big triumph when Lifetime finally turns into a smash after nearly closing out-of-town.

Despite the paunchiness of the plot, there is much to savor here—chiefly Shalhoub’s delightfully eccentric portrayal of Kaufman, which he plays in addition to the narrator and Hart’s brutish Cockney father. Reminiscent of Shalhoub’s turn as the defective detective Monk, Kaufman has an obsessive-compulsive aversion to being touched or any physical expressions of affection. The actor perfectly times these tics, as well as the odd playmaker’s sudden explosions of temper as when he barks at a pair of chattering matrons to take their seats before the curtain of his show goes up. He also subtly reveals his paternal affection for Hart, both as Kaufman and the gruff senior Hart.
   Fontana has the less showy role as the younger version of Moss, but once he takes over from an even younger iteration (Matthew Schechter), he is almost never offstage and becomes the play’s central support. He delivers on this difficult assignment with aplomb, expressing the intense desire to succeed as well as the fear of failure.
   Andrea Martin plays three key roles in Hart’s life: his narcissistic Aunt Kate who introduces him to theater, his first agent Frieda Fishbein, and Kaufman’s supportive wife Beatrice. Her Aunt Kate is the most memorable of this trio, a delusional woman capable of petty rudeness but also inspiring in her love of the stage.

The large cast features numerous tasty treats—including Chuck Cooper’s bitter, broken former star; Will LeBow’s fast-talking producer; Bob Stillman’s grand director; Mimi Lieber’s sympathetic mother; and Deborah Offner’s gossipy neighbor. If there were just a few less dishes, Act One would be the perfect feast.

May 18, 2014

Satchmo at the Waldorf
Westside Theatre

Reviewed by Jerry Beal

John Douglas Thompson. Remember the name. Or better yet, get yourself to the Westside Theatre so you can witness one of the great performances in a lifetime. Satchmo at the Waldorf, adapted by Terry Teachout from his biography of Louis Armstrong, takes place in the musician’s dressing room during his performances at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, four months before his death in July 1971. Establishing the event of a one-person show is always tricky; here, Armstrong simply addresses the audience as if we were there with him. As health fails him, he reviews his life and work, particularly and most important his relationship with Joe Glaser, an outsized character and mob-connected businessman who ultimately became his manager for 35 years. And as Thompson’s Armstrong recounts and describes, he becomes Glaser, then switches back to himself.
   The actor’s Satchmo is not only spot-on vocally and physically, it is filled with both the publicly seen joy and the private anger and pain. When he is presented with the song “Hello Dolly” to record, for example, his reaction to the song would not be printable in a family magazine. He talks of the disdain he experienced from his fellow black musicians, especially Miles Davis, whom Thompson’s Armstrong also “becomes,” for what they perceived as Armstrong’s Uncle Tom–like clownish persona meant to appease the white world that adopted him. He also harps on his unending discontent with Glaser as one who, despite enabling him to become an icon, used him as a vehicle for his own unsavory monetary needs.
   As remarkable and fulfilling as Thompson’s Armstrong is, his Glaser makes the performance monumental, thanks to the actor’s ability to inhabit someone so radically different not only from Armstrong but probably from himself as well. This Glaser is a fast-talking, volatile, street-smart conniver whose whole existence is predicated on making the deal and always being in control. Occasionally, the play seems a bit repetitive, and rather than have it end with Satchmo talking about how “What a Wonderful World” expressed much of his own attitude toward life despite his ever-present anguish, perhaps he should have switched-on his tape recorder, a central prop throughout, and walked offstage with the song playing as the embodiment of what made him special to us. But the show here is Thompson, and the man is something special indeed.

May 8, 2014

Irma La Douce
Encores! at NY City Center

Reviewed by Jerry Beal

As presented by Encores!, this musical is a totally unique creation and the epitome of old-style, late– Golden Age show-making. The original Irma La Douce premiered in Paris in 1956 and ran for four years. It then appeared in London with an English translation, directed by Peter Brook. David Merrick then acquired it for a New York production where its stars were again English. The cast here numbers 13; that of its Encores! predecessor, The Most Happy Fella, numbered 37. Of the 13, one is a female: the eponymous Irma. There is no subplot, only the central love affair, which is a mix of great warmth and mistaken-identity Marx Brothers–type farce. The orchestra, always sizable in keeping with the Encores mission of focusing on the music, here numbers 10 musicians, including an accordionist.
   And yet, in describing the essence and feel of the show, one has to conclude that it is very much a product of its time. In it, boy meets, loses, then gets girl. Its music includes lilting ballads, including the inevitable eventual standard (“Our Language of Love”), rousing up-tempo numbers, highlighted by the showstopping “Dis-Donc.” Its chorus assumes various roles. Storytelling is straightforward, with a happy ending. The score is richly melodic but still within the tradition of letting the songs move the story along. The tone is simplicity, but all the elements of standard Broadway fare circa 1960 are there.
   Elizabeth Seal won the Tony Award in 1961 for her Irma, despite competition from Julie Andrews, Carol Channing, and Nancy Walker. Jennifer Bowles does the job here and is more than up to the challenge; her singing, dancing, and acting capture the proverbial whore with the heart of gold. Rob McClure is a delight as her smitten suitor who soon becomes rabidly jealous—of himself. As our host, narrator, and quick-change artist, Malcolm Gets is solid. The remaining 10 gentlemen (Sam Bolen, Ben Crawford, Stephen DeRosa, Zachary James, Ken Krugman, Joseph Medeiros, Joseph Simeone, Manuel Stark, Chris Sullivan, and Caleb Teicher.) cavort wonderfully in doing the work usually handled by a much larger group of both genders. Despite the success of 2011’s Once, a show of this nature in today’s musical theater is not likely to receive future revivals. Thanks, therefore, to Encores! for allowing us a look back at this heralded but somewhat forgotten pleasure.

May 8, 2014

Roundabout Theatre Company at the American Airlines Theatre

Reviewed by David Sheward

Sutton Foster proves she can do anything with her brilliantly grounded yet soaring performance in Violet, the 1997 musical that had a brief run Off-Broadway at Playwrights Horizons and is making its Broadway debut in a Roundabout Theatre Company production. (This staging by Leigh Silverman is an expansion of her concert version at Encores! last year.) Foster has previously done perky ingénues in Thoroughly Modern Millie and The Drowsy Chaperone, spunky heroines in Shrek and Little Women, and a tough but soft-hearted hustler-showgirl in Anything Goes. But her Violet is a combination of all these women. She’s a determined yet vulnerable believer, traveling on a series of Greyhounds from her rural home in 1965 North Carolina to Tulsa, Okla., in search of the televangelist she believes will heal the scar on her face and make her beautiful. Along the way she meets a pair of GIs—the cocky Monty and the sensitive Flick—both of whom fall for her.
   Foster captures Violet’s desperate yearning to be normal and her steely determination to stay in control. Her strong voice is the perfect instrument for the eclectic score by composer Jeanine Tesori and lyricist Brian Crawley, which offers a smorgasbord of sounds not usually heard on Broadway—rock, rhythm and blues, country and western, and gospel, energetically played by the onstage band.
   Colin Donnell skillfully conveys Monty’s smug confidence as well as his insecurities, particularly in “Last Time I Came to Memphis.” In Flick’s solo number, “Let It Sing,” Joshua Henry creates an inspiring message of hope and compassion delivered to Violet. There are solid characterization and vibrant vocals from Emerson Steele as young Violet, Alexander Gemignani as Violet’s loving but stern father, Annie Golden as an eccentric fellow passenger, Rema Webb as a gospel singer, and Ben Davis as the flashy TV preacher.
   Leigh Silverman’s staging re-creates the intimacy of the small-scale Encores! version with the large-scale excitement of a Broadway show. With the aid of Mark Barton’s versatile lighting, David Zinn’s atmospheric bus-station set allows us to be travelling one minute and in a juke joint the next. I loved the specific details such as the snack-food stand in the background, complete with a magazine rack. It’s the little touches that make this such a moving show about everyday people.

May 10, 2014
The Velocity of Autumn
Booth Theatre

Reviewed by David Sheward

There’s potential for a moving and realistic examination of old age and family dynamics in Eric Coble’s slender one-act The Velocity of Autumn, but the playwright opts for sitcom laughs and gimmicks instead. In this predictable two-hander, 79-year-old Alexandra (a reliable Estelle Parsons) has barricaded herself in her Brooklyn brownstone, threatening to blow herself and the whole block up with improvised Molotov cocktails if her interfering children don’t stop hounding her to move into a nursing home or at least get some live-in help. (Not an unreasonable request.) Her estranged, middle-aged gay son, Chris (Stephen Spinella doing the best he can), scales the family tree, sneaks in a conveniently unlocked window, and negotiates on behalf of his siblings who are all for calling the cops on Mom.
   Over the next 90 minutes, the two of them joke, rake over past hurts, reveal their darkest fears, and, of course, reconnect. Molly Smith’s direction is perfunctory. But, with a pair of pros like these, there are pleasures offered, including Parsons’s laser-like timing and delivery of senior-moment gags. “You know you’re old when you start making sound effects for your body” is a typical zinger. Even though most are right out of The Golden Girls, she makes them sound like sparkling gems. Spinella exudes compassion and handily avoids oversentimentalizing Chris’s depression. Too bad their vehicle is so rickety. Due to a lack of Tony noms (though Parsons is up for Best Actress in a Play), the show has posted it closing notice for May 4.

April 29, 2014
Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill
Circle in the Square

Reviewed by David Sheward

When attending a press preview of this production, I didn’t know that Audra McDonald would be attempting a re-creation of Billie Holiday’s distinctively scratchy and emotive voice. I had assumed she would be doing an interpretation, channeling her own smooth soprano into a jazz configuration. So when McDonald stepped onto set designer James Noone’s re-creation of a small nightclub stage in 1959 South Philadelphia and opened her mouth, I was shocked. The sounds that came out were not an approximation. There was that unique combination of honey and vinegar poured over barbed wire. There was the caress and the clawing. It was the voice I had heard on innumerable recordings plaintively crooning about love, betrayal, and loneliness. For the 90 minutes of this play with music, McDonald is Holiday.
   Lanie Robertson’s 1986 script, previously presented Off-Broadway with Lonette McKee, is more than a bit unimaginative. In this script, based on a real-life club engagement three months before her death at age 43, the legendary singer pours out her entire life story as if she were narrating a film biography in between performing a dozen or so numbers, downing vodka shots, and shooting heroin offstage. McDonald interacts a bit with conductor-pianist Shelton Becton as accompanist Jimmy Powers, and a cute little dog makes a cameo, but this is largely a one-woman show. Director Lonny Price uses photos and props, gorgeously illuminated by lighting designer Robert Wierzel behind a scrim, to illustrate various incidents and characters in Holiday’s past.
   Despite the predictable nature of the monologues, McDonald gives them as much blood and life as she gives her amazing musical performances. Both are staged with fluidity by Price. The actor moves around Noone’s set, creating the illusion of intimacy in the vast Circle in the Square. In her nonsinging moments, McDonald expertly captures Holiday’s unquenchable humor despite abusive treatment by racist whites and abusive boyfriends. Her casual mention of Holiday’s being raped at 10 and then joking about working in a bordello at 14 are devastating in their ease. Later, Holiday’s suppressed rage is triggered by certain songs, and McDonald unleashes it to heartbreaking effect in the harrowing “Strange Fruit,” a wail in protest of the too-common practice of lynching. She’s also yearningly bittersweet with “God Bless the Child,” raucously playful in “Gimme a Pigfoot (and a Bottle of Beer),” and romantically pensive on “When a Woman Loves a Man.”
   The elegant white gown, complete with long sleeves to conceal needle marks, designed by Esosa, completes this indelible portrait of one great artist by another.

April 18, 2014
The Realistic Joneses
Lyceum Theatre

Reviewed by David Sheward

“Words don’t do it for me anymore,” says John, one of four characters with the same last name in Will Eno’s absurdist comedy-drama The Realistic Joneses. Unfortunately, he could be describing this audience member as well as himself. Eno has a unique way with dialogue. Non-sequiturs pop out, interspersed with oddball observations and hilarious quips. But here, as with his earlier works such as Middletown and Oh, the Humanity, the people speaking them aren’t especially compelling and the action doesn’t add up to much.
   The play, which marks Eno’s Broadway debut following its production at Yale Repertory Theatre, begins promisingly. In set designer’s David Zinn’s generic backyard setting, unhappy suburban couple Jennifer and Bob Jones meet equally miserable John and Pony Jones who have just moved in down the street. The playwright supplies them with sharp banter, expertly delivered by the all-star cast consisting of Toni Collette, Tracy Letts, Marisa Tomei, and Michael C. Hall. (Letts is the only holdover from the Yale engagement; the other three star names were brought in presumably to boost the box office for this show, which, under normal circumstances, would be playing a limited run in an Off-Broadway company’s season.) “We moved here for the schools,” the newcomer Pony states. When asked if they have kids, she responds, “No. John just hates stupid children.” That’s the kind of off-kilter, quirky humor that punctuates the initial scene, directed with precision by Sam Gold. As the newbies are about to leave, a dead squirrel is found atop a garbage can. Perhaps a symbol of social decay or maybe just a sight gag.
   But nothing develops from there. We learn that both husbands suffer from the same rare neurological disease and it’s tearing the marriages apart. Jennifer and John flirt in the supermarket while, in parallel sequence, Bob and Pony stumble into a brief affair. This theme of dualism is rampant. The couples share a surname, a medical condition, and even furniture as the new guys acquire a cast-off lamp from their counterparts. The pairs are clearly meant to be mirror images of each other, but it’s not clear which are the “realistic” ones. Through all this confusion, the quirky quips keep coming, but they fail to illuminate the characters or their relations. “We’re just throwing words at each,” Jennifer complains at one point, and I couldn’t agree more.
   Eno offers a vague glimpse of how people react to catastrophic illness in different ways—Bob with resignation, John with confusion—and the playwright seems to want to say something cosmic about the human condition. Too bad it doesn’t get anymore specific than that. The all-star quartet makes the rambling bearable—especially Tomei, who infuses the bewildered Pony with a caffeinated energy, turning on a dime from despair to hysterics. It’s one of the few highlights in this meandering muddle.

April 14, 2014
Richard Rodgers Theatre

Reviewed by David Sheward

Idina Menzel and Anthony Rapp
Photo by Joan Marcus

Heaven knows Idina Menzel is talented enough to play two different roles in a massive Broadway musical, but even she cannot save the bifurcated and bipolar If/Then. The show is an artistic failure, but it will probably be a financial success; it’s selling out thanks to Menzel’s Wicked and Frozen fans. (It’s also too long by a good 20 minutes.)
   Borrowing heavily from the 1998 Gwyneth Paltrow film Sliding Doors, this well-intentioned but ultimately befuddling and clichéd tuner follows two different possible life-paths for Elizabeth, a 40-ish city planner just moved to New York after 12 years of marriage in Arizona ended in divorce. The action starts in Madison Park as the heroine must chose between hanging out with impulsive and spunky new lesbian neighbor Kate (the sparkling LaChanze) or attending a protest meeting with her politically driven, bisexual college chum Lucas (the endearing Anthony Rapp). The premise: Seemingly insignificant choices like this one can alter your life. The script splits in two from there.
   In one scenario, the protagonist goes off with Kate, who rechristens her Lizzie, and she finds the man of her dreams, a gorgeous doctor named Josh (the robust but bland James Snyder). In the other she joins Lucas, who says she should be known by the more serious moniker Beth—so we can tell them apart, get it?—and is rewarded with a fulfilling government job but must pay for it with unhappy love affairs. Oh, and she wears glasses as Lizzie, to further help us differentiate between parallel plotlines.

Despite slick, clever staging by the always imaginative Michael Grief (Menzel and Rapp’s helmer on Rent) and fun, quirky choreography by Larry Keigwin, it’s often hard to tell what’s going on and even harder to care. There are some memorable songs by the Next to Normal team of composer Tom Kitt and lyricist Brian Yorkey, as well as witty spoken dialogue from Yorkey, but the musical seems to be saying you can either have love or career, ladies, not both.
   And then there is Menzel. She is seldom offstage, and her powerful voice fills the Richard Rodgers. Her dramatic skills go far to add dimension to Lizzie and Beth, half characters not even adding up to a single whole one. She runs the gamut from comically flummoxed after sleeping with the wrong man (“What the Fuck”) to coping with an avalanche of mixed emotions as her spouse must leave her for a tour of duty in Iraq (“I Hate You”). It’s a colossal performance that just might win her a second Tony and push the confused and confusing If/Then into the profit zone.

April 9, 2014

The Most Happy Fella
New York City Center Encores! Off-Center

Reviewed by Jerry Beal

Laura Benanti and Shuler Hensley
Photo by Joan Marcus

From his work in Hollywood (the songs “Baby It’s Cold Outside” and “Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition,”) through his journey to Broadway (the musicals Where’s Charley and Guys and Dolls), few could have foreseen Frank Loesser’s impulse to create his own musical-theater opera. At the preshow seminar for this Encores production of The Most Happy Fella, Jo Sullivan, aka Mrs. Loesser, aka Rosabella in the original production, quoted him as calling the show “a musical with music.”
   He certainly was not casting aspersions on existing or previous works in the canon, but he was merely expressing his goal of telling the story through an almost nonstop stream of music. Here, the songs are plentiful, the spoken dialogue minimal, and the sung dialogue frequent. The range of the music is almost impossible to comprehend. From some of the most breathtaking ballads ever written to two flat-out showstoppers, the inventiveness and the mix of Broadway and opera dazzles. All of this music is in the service of a story of unrequited love that transforms into a union that leaves not a dry eye in the theater.
   The work on the stage at City Center is astonishing. As Tony Esposito, the aging vintner who seeks a mail-order bride, Shuler Hensley possesses a magnificent baritone and acting craft to create a luminous and heartbreaking man. Playing his much younger romantic object Amy, to whom he gives the name Rosabella, Laura Benanti is vulnerable and filled with the same longing as Tony. Cheyenne Jackson is Tony’s handsome foreman, whose photograph Tony sends in lieu of his own, and whose song expressing his own longing (“Joey, Joey, Joey”) is among the evening’s parade of highlights.
   Heidi Blickenstaff (Cleo) and Jay Armstrong Johnson (Herman), the traditional and always necessary comic pair, create pandemonium in the audience with the roof-lifting “Big D.” The classic “Standing on the Corner” is executed to perfection by Johnson, Ryan Bauer-Walsh, Ward Billeisen, and Arlo Hill. All 37 performers filling the stage bring individual and collective voices to the production beyond anything else in the many years of Encores’s work. Given the size of the cast, the likelihood of a Broadway transfer would seem small. But, for those lucky enough to experience this masterpiece as presented in this production, the memories will remain.

April 2, 2014
Kung Fu
Signature Theatre Company

Reviewed by David Sheward

Kung Fu, David Henry Hwang’s new play about the late martial arts expert and actor Bruce Lee, is fairly standard bio-play fodder. There are father-son mash-ups and shattering of stereotypes. The main action follows Lee’s efforts to break out of Asian cliche casting, such as his submissive sidekick to TV’s The Green Hornet, to become a Hollywood action hero. But the real action stars of this production at Signature Theater Company are director Leigh Silverman and choreographer Sonya Tayeh. Employing the athletic talents of Cole Horibe in the title role and a cast of superb dancers, actors, and acrobats, this boilerplate drama becomes a dazzling circus of kicks, leaps, chops, and punches. It’s like a Quentin Tarantino film mixed with the Chinese Opera. Kudos also to Ben Stanton’s atmospheric lighting.
March 31, 2014
Mothers and Sons
John Golden Theatre

Reviewed by David Sheward

The most affecting moments in Terrence McNally’s Mothers and Sons are silent. These take place when Tyne Daly as Katharine, a Dallas widow, is left alone in the gorgeous Upper West Side apartment of Cal, the lover of her late son Andre who died of AIDS 20 years earlier. Informing every movement and glance with volumes of subtext, Daly reveals Katharine’s gut-wrenching discomfort and yearning for some connection with her lost offspring. As she goes through old photographs, you can see the memories each one evokes on her subtly shifting features. But then she must speak one of McNally’s forced one-liners and the spell is broken.
   That’s the trouble with this underdeveloped 90-minute piece: Daly’s acting is superb, but the dialogue and basic premise are arch and contrived. McNally deserves credit for addressing a relevant new issue: the impact of the rapidly changing attitudes toward gays. Katharine and Cal were characters in McNally’s brief sketch Andre’s Mother, part of a 1988 Off-Broadway revue called Urban Blight. The author later expanded it to a television play for which he won an Emmy. In the TV version, the two confront each other over the course of the men’s relationship. Katharine is unable to let go of her anger, blaming Cal for turning her son gay and later causing him to contract the disease associated with the “lifestyle.” In the short play, Katharine is silent and Cal rails at her for rejecting her dead son because of his sexuality. In this sequel, Cal is financially prosperous and happily married—make that perfectly married—to the much younger Will, a writer with a New Yorker short story to his credit. They have an aggressively cute 6-year-old son named Bud. Katharine makes an unexpected visit on the pretext of returning Andre’s diary to Cal, but her motives are never fully explained.

McNally gives us a lot of pointed social observation and a fair amount of sharp dialogue, but the four characters come across as representatives of political positions rather than fleshed-out human beings. In addition, their psychological backgrounds are too easily brought to the surface. Each adult is able to eloquently articulate his or her diagnosis, as if attending a therapy conference. Even little Bud is annoyingly adept at deciphering everyone’s agenda. It’s ironic that Katharine rejects the possibility of therapy since she seems intelligent enough to figure out the reasons for her rage.
   By having his combatants blatantly state their positions, McNally condescends to his audience. He obviously broadcasts the conflicts rather than letting us figure them out for ourselves. Playwrights such as Donald Margulies (Dinner With Friends) and Annie Baker (Circle Mirror Transformation) more accurately depict most human interactions by creating characters who attack their problems indirectly.

Director Sheryl Kaller moves the four actors around John Lee Beatty’s elegant setting with professional aplomb, but they still feel like participants in a debate. Fortunately, Daly convincingly conveys Katharine’s lifetime of hurt and yearning through telling, incomplete gestures such as the way she picks up a glass of scotch, decides not to drink it, and puts it down again. Frederick Weller’s Cal doesn’t reach this level of breathtaking verisimilitude, but he chronicles the man’s shattering sense of guilt over surviving the AIDS crisis and finding happiness. Bobby Steggert has a difficult time getting past Will’s politically correct smugness, but offers humor and bite. As Bud, Grayson Taylor makes for a startlingly self-possessed 6-year-old, but he seems too much like a poster child for gay families. And that’s what Mothers and Sons boils down to: a position paper rather than a realistic glimpse at how we live now.

March 29, 2014
Winter Garden Theatre

Reviewed by David Sheward

Rocky was never one of my favorite movies. When it came out in 1976, I found Sylvester Stallone’s story of a hard-luck Philadelphia boxer given a shot at the heavyweight title predictable and trite (and I’m from Philly). I was furious it won the Best Picture Oscar over All the President’s Men, and I never bothered to see any of the endless sequels. So imagine my shock when the musical version of the film, now on Broadway after premiering in Hamburg, Germany, had me cheering for the titular underdog to go the distance and kayo the bombastic champ.
   This metamorphosis from schmaltzy to spectacular is largely due to director Alex Timbers, whose theatrical imagination has ignited such innovative productions as Peter and the Starcatcher, Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, and Here Lies Love. Employing Christopher Barreca’s gritty sets, Dan Scully and Pablo N. Molina’s grimy video projections, and Christopher Akerlind’s versatile lighting, Timbers creates a fast-paced, heart-pounding, grown-up fairy tale.
   The real charge arrives during the last 20 minutes of the show, when audience members in the first 20 rows are swiftly ushered on stage and Barreca’s massive boxing ring flies into the middle of the cavernous Winter Garden for the climactic bout. Unfortunately, patrons on the side sections must stand to view the match, expertly choreographed with ballet-like precision by Steven Hoggett and Kelly Devine. A Jumbotron with multiple TV screens descends, and all of a sudden we’re in a real match with video images and color commentary from two sportscasters high above the stage.

The score, by Ragtime veterans Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens, has just the right amount of vinegar to keep it from getting too sugary. Likewise, the trim book by Stallone and Thomas Meehan wisely downplays sentiment and gets the story in fighting shape. But, on the negative side, the co-authors have spiffed up the schlubby characters. The dumb but full-of-heart Rocky, his mousy girlfriend Adrian, her self-destructive brother Paulie, the craggy manager Mickey—all become well-adjusted, likable winners too quickly. Even Terence Archie’s narcissistic champ, Apollo Creed, comes across as a generous guy.
   In the title role, Andy Karl is handsomer in a glamour-boy way than the rough-edged Stallone, making him slightly unconvincing as a washed-up club fighter, but Karl overcomes his good looks and endows Rocky with streetwise charm and intense determination to claw his way out of Palookaville. This is probably one of the most demanding roles on Broadway: The actor must sing, dance, run (along with a chorus of Spider-Man-like doubles), and go 15 rounds. Karl gets a vigorous workout and emerges triumphant.
   As Adrian, Margo Seibert transforms to a confident beauty a bit too easily, but she possesses a powerful, evocative voice. Dakin Matthews is appropriately crusty as Mickey, and Danny Mastrogiorgio gives Paulie needed acid, even though the script doesn’t allow him to pour on enough to make the character sting.
   While this Rocky is an improvement over the film, I would have preferred just a pinch more spice. But then that final boxing scene makes up for any quibbles.

March 16, 2014

All the Way
Neil Simon Theatre

Reviewed by David Sheward

The last time Robert Schenkkan had a play on Broadway, it was 20 years ago and covered two centuries of history. The Kentucky Cycle won the Tony, Pulitzer and just about every other major award, but similar, large-cast efforts are extremely rare for the Main Stem—that is unless they’re musicals. Now, Schenkkan is back, painting on a canvas almost as broad with an ambitious history lesson about the first year in office of President Lyndon Johnson. Kentucky was a critical, but not a commercial hit, but All the Way may land in the black, thanks largely to a dynamic Broadway debut from Bryan Cranston in the lead.
   Fresh from his multiseason run on Breaking Bad, Cranston transforms himself into the arm-twisting, profanity-spouting chief executive who managed to ram a civil rights bill through a reluctant Congress and win re-election despite challenges from racist elements in his own party and the reactionary Republican candidate, Barry Goldwater. Thrusting his abdomen forward and twisting his features into an almost perpetual scowl, Cranston conveys Johnson’s relentless domination over allies and enemies alike. But he’s not all push and prod: The actor clearly relishes Johnson’s love of a good dirty story. Like a foul-mouthed Abe Lincoln, Cranston’s president dispenses outrageous, illustrative anecdotes with maximum effect, garnering audience guffaws and landing his point with precision.

Though Johnson is the engine of the play, this is not a solo effort. In addition to the ugly behind-the-scenes legislative machinations, Schenkkan gives us detailed tours of Martin Luther King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference and its offshoots; J. Edgar Hoover’s shadowy FBI; and both sides of the aisle in both houses of Congress. It may seem like Schenkkan has taken on too much material to fit into a single evening (The Kentucky Cycle ran six hours over two nights), but the thread is never lost and our attention never wavers.
   Bill Rauch, artistic director of Oregon Shakespeare Festival where the play premiered, deftly manipulates a cast of 20 around Christopher Acebo’s courtroom-like set. Shawn Sagady’s projections and Jane Cox’s lighting immeasurably aid in creating the numerous settings—from inside the White House to a crowded convention hotel room in Atlantic City to a lonely field where three civil rights workers were brutally murdered.
   In addition to Cranston’s volcanic Johnson, the most memorable impressions are created by Brandon J. Dirden’s sonorous Martin Luther King, Betsy Aidem’s long-suffering first lady, John McMartin’s genteel but stubborn Southern senator, William Jackson Harper’s passionate Stokely Carmichael, and Eric Lenox Abrams’s fiery protestor.

Schenkkan is developing The Great Society, a sequel covering the early years of Johnson’s administration and the deepening Vietnam War, and scheduled for production at OSF this summer. If it’s anything like this robust, fascinating look at our recent politics, I can hardly wait to see it.

March 9, 2014
Love and Information
New York Theatre Workshop at the Minetta Lane Theatre

Reviewed by David Sheward

Every time there’s a new play from Caryl Churchill, you can expect something different. From the gender-bending antics of Cloud 9 to the political and fantasy mash-ups of Mad Forest to the madness-in-verse of Serious Money, the works of this inventive British dramatist stretch our expectations of what a play can be and challenge our ideas about culture and social interaction. Her latest piece, Love and Information, now at the Minetta Lane Theatre in a production from New York Theatre Workshop, is no less daring and is perhaps the perfect play for these scattered, attention-deficit times.
   Set in Miriam Buether’s narrow, graph paper-lined box of a set, the two-hour play consists of 50-odd unrelated vignettes, each running no more than a few minutes. The 15-member cast plays all manner of distracted modern citizens attempting to gain information, love, or some combination thereof. Two squealing teenagers battle over their idol’s favorite smell. A runaway wife returns to her unforgiving husband. A woman cannot cope with being in the country without Internet access. A wealthy couple quarrel over getting together with friends they each dislike for different reasons. A downsized executive angrily confronts his supervisor. One segment about a man having an affair with a virtual woman is a little too similar to Her (though the play premiered in London in 2012 before Her’s release).
   The segments are grouped by numbers; a final extended segment is introduced with a mysterious plus sign. The groupings seem to reflect general themes such as secrets, language, memory, and emotions. In the final, plus-sign segment, a woman is quizzed by her boyfriend on arcane trivia. When he interrupts the cram session to tell her he loves her, she angrily demurs, “Don’t do that.” But she soon returns his affection in the middle of the questioning.

It’s difficult to grasp Churchill’s overall intention, as each of the mini-dramas is separate and unique. She appears to be saying that despite the 21st-century overload of data, the hunger for tenderness is the same as in the days of the telegraph and print newspaper. But the point is made early on, and, despite a marvelous cast and ingenious direction by James Macdonald, the rapid relay of scenes grows tedious after about 90 minutes. The effect is like binging on YouTube clips. Churchill could have cut 15 to 20 of the segments and gotten a tighter transmission of her point.
   Macdonald surmounts the script’s challenges with amazing dexterity. Interspersed with Christopher Shutt’s eclectic sound score, the scenes are fluidly and quickly staged. The setting and actors appear and disappear like tricks in a magic act. The versatile company—which includes veterans Maria Tucci, Randy Danson, Karen Kandel, and John Procaccino, as well as newcomers Noah Galvin and Zoe Winters—conveys the complex emotions in a matter of seconds, sometimes with only a line or two of dialogue. Susannah Flood is particularly moving as the returning wife, pouring a lifetime of sorrow into a few moments. Too bad she gets lost in the onslaught of images.

February 20, 2014

The Tribute Artist
Primary Stages at 59E59 Theaters

Reviewed by David Sheward

Any play that features the divine gender-bender Charles Busch quoting Mary Astor in The Maltese Falcon, Rosalind Russell in Picnic, and Bette Davis in Now Voyager starts out way ahead in my book. Yes, The Tribute Artist, the latest work from playwright-performer-diva Busch, has a few flaws, but it contains enough laughs, crazy plot twists, and gorgeous gowns worn by Busch to merit a visit.
   Unlike many of his previous works such as The Divine Sister, Die Mommy Die, Psycho Beach Party, and the long-running Vampire Lesbians of Sodom, The Tribute Artist is set in a relatively realistic world rather than the bizarre Hollywood dreamscape Busch adores. Busch stars as Jimmy, an unemployed female impersonator, living in the Greenwich Village townhouse of Adriana, an elderly eccentric fashion designer. When Adriana dies, Jimmy disguises himself as her and, with the aid of his best friend and former fellow performer Rita, plots to sell the highly desirable property. But as Rita points out, whenever there’s a perfect scheme in the movies, there’s always one little detail the conspirators overlook that destroys their plan and sends them to the hoosegow.
   That little detail arrives the form of Adriana’s alienated niece Christina (a subtle reference to Joan Crawford’s tattling daughter?) who claims the house as her own and moves in with her transgendered offspring Oliver, formerly Rachel. Matters get even more complicated when Oliver contacts Adriana’s old flame, the handsome and dangerous Rodney, and invites him over to get reacquainted. Madness naturally ensues as we discover that Jimmy is not the only one in the crazed household hiding a secret. Busch makes pointed insights about the masks people wear and changing identities amid the gags and movie references, while director Carl Andress keeps the action running smoothly without veering into slapstick. The plot gets too convoluted at times, and Mary Bacon allows Christina’s whining to become too one-note for too much of her screeching self-pitying speeches.

But as with any play written by and starring Busch, he is the center of attention and this time delivers a wildly funny turn. It’s not as exaggerated as his more over-the-top divas, but he admirably switches between the “real” Jimmy and his kooky version of Adriana. As Rita, Busch’s longtime co-star Julie Halston makes for a sharp-witted sidekick not unlike Eve Arden or Thelma Ritter. Cynthia Harris is martini-dry as the actual Adriana, Jonathan Walker gives Rodney the necessary rough edge, Keira Keeley is properly boyish as the transgendered Oliver, and, once she settles down, Mary Bacon is a sympathetic Christina.
   Set designer Anna Louizos has created the perfect elegant townhouse, and Gregory Gale’s costumes are suitably chic and satiric, just like this fizzy, funny cocktail from one of our most beloved entertainers.

February 11, 2014
Bill W. and Dr. Bob
SoHo Playhouse

Reviewed by Simi Horwitz

Bill W. and Dr. Bob is strong theater for a broad-based audience, though a drama about the two men who founded Alcoholics Anonymous in 1935 will hit a special nerve with recovering alcoholics (or recovering drug abusers) who are well-versed in the movement’s history, tenets, and rituals. Indeed, the play opens with Bill Wilson (Patrick Boll) facing the audience to introduce himself, saying, “My name is Bill W. and I am an alcoholic,” and many theatergoers responding, “Hi Bill,” as if they’re attending an AA meeting. Dr. Bob Smith (Steve Brady) then greets the gathering and confesses, “Dr Bob, alcoholic, good to be here sober.” He, too, receives a collective salutation, “Hi, Bob.”
   Co-written by husband and wife—doctor and psychologist—Sam Shem and Janet Surrey, the play recounts how the two long-term alcoholics met one night in Ohio and inadvertently launched the self-help movement. The high-functioning, high-IQ drunks discovered they were Vermont natives, admired William James, and had attended endless Temperance meetings in an effort to combat their alcoholism, and none of it worked. During that initial all-nighter, they shared their experiences and soon began to suspect that no one could help an alcoholic like another alcoholic who had been down the same road. They also concluded that, contrary to received wisdom, alcoholism was not a moral failing but a physical ailment, and the way to control it was through total sobriety that could be achieved only “one day at a time.” The two men forged an intense friendship as they attempted to spread the word, while battling their own demons and family crises. Each had hurt a loyal and loving wife (Denise Cormier, Anne Hedwall).

The script is earnest, but, given the topic and the goals of the creative team, perhaps that’s inevitable. Consider the authors’ stated mission: to “service the recovery community,” and to do “outreach to those who still suffer from substance abuse…and to educate about the myths of AA and other 12-step programs,” most notably the fact that AA is not a religious program but instead “spiritual.” The play has had an interesting journey during its seven-year existence. First mounted in New York at the New World Stages in 2007, it has been produced worldwide and has moved from functioning as a commercial venture to being funded entirely by tax-exempt donations made to a nonprofit, The Hazelden Foundation, a treatment center for alcoholics and drug abusers. The new business model is clearly working. Bill W. and Dr. Bob has been running at the SoHo Playhouse since July and is now slated to continue through the end of March.
   Seth Gordon’s tight direction and the high level acting throughout, especially the performances of Boll and Brady, bring to life an evolving friendship between two strong-willed, complex human beings who without each other might literally have died on the street well before their time. Boll is every bit the swaggering stockbroker who celebrates success with booze and turns to the bottle with even greater ferocity in the face of failure. Brady’s Dr. Bob is an anguished secret drinker, hiding full, half-full, and empty bottles all over the house as he continues to treat patients and perform surgery, plastered. One of the most powerful moments occurs when he gets on his knees and begs his wife’s forgiveness. As part of the treatment, recovering alcoholics must “make amends” to those they have harmed.
   In lesser hands the two women who play the wives could easily become shrewish caricatures. Instead, they are layered human beings who love their husbands. Cormier’s affection for Dr. Bob and her sense of helplessness are palpable. So too is Hedwall’s feeling that she is totally alone. Sarah Nealis and Michael Frederic are also impressive in multiple smaller roles, especially Frederic as a hospitalized boozer struggling with the idea of allowing Bill and Bob to help him. He is both funny and sad.

Though there are a few sluggish moments, for the most part the pacing is fast and the minimal set—designed to suggest a bar—is imaginative. The back wall is flanked with bottles, while the bar serves a dual function, flipping over to become a bed for scenes in which one is needed. This play tells an inspiring story that goes well beyond a tale of personal triumph to become a narrative about two lost souls who met almost accidentally, joined forces to experiment with an idea that had no precedent, and ultimately saved millions of lives.

February 4, 2014
Bronx Bombers
Circle in the Square

Reviewed by David Sheward

After covering football with Lombardi and basketball in Magic/Bird, playwright-director Eric Simonson steps up to the plate for baseball in his new work Bronx Bombers, now at Circle in the Square after an Off-Broadway run at Primary Stages earlier in the season. He hits a solid single, but gets caught off base while trying to steal home. If you’re a fan of the New York Yankees, this show is definitely for you, but if you’re not an aficionado of the national pastime, the second word of the title may be a bit too apt.
   The play begins promisingly. In June 1977, coach Yogi Berra, the Yankees’ malaprop-spouting former catcher, is desperately attempting to heal a potentially fatal rift in his beloved ball club. During a game with their arch rivals, the Boston Red Sox, Yankee manager Billy Martin and star hitter Reggie Jackson have just had a dugout brawl in front of millions of fans. Berra has called the antagonists along with team captain Thurman Munson to his Beantown hotel suite to settle the matter calmly before it gets to the suits in the front office. Jackson is a phenomenally talented player, but he refuses to mold his personality and attitude to be a part of Martin’s team. He’s the reason the fans are showing up, so why should he conform to Martin’s restrictive playing schedule?
   This is a meaty, fascinating set-up: a single room, fiery conflict, everybody with their own agenda. Somebody’s gotta win, somebody’s gotta lose. Even if you’re not obsessed with baseball history, you want to know who’s gonna come out on top. But this is just the first scene of the first act. Immediately afterwards, Simonson takes a turn into The Twilight Zone. After the Boston sequence, we find ourselves in Berra’s bedroom in New Jersey where he and his wife, Carmen, are coping with a lawn full of potatoes (don’t ask) and worries over the team’s declining morale. Their dialogue is interrupted by the ghost of Babe Ruth. Then after intermission, Simonson springs a jock version of Caryl Churchill’s Top Girls where, instead of feminist icons sharing a lunch with the heroine, Yogi and Carmen are hosting a dinner party with Yankee greats of the past and present.

Simonson briskly and evenly stages the action in the oval-shaped Circle in the Square, while the cast brings much energy and wit to the exercise. Peter Scolari wisely doesn’t condescend to Berra, honestly portraying his rough wisdom and delivering his mangled aphorisms with a straight face (“I may be nostalgic, but I don’t like to live in the past” is a prime example). C.J. Wilson has a bear-like charm as Babe Ruth, while Chris Henry Coffey is suavely cool as Joe DiMaggio. Francois Battiste skillfully captures Reggie Jackson’s swagger and the humble pride of Elston Howard, the Yankees’ first African-American player. Similarly Bill Dawes gets two totally different portrayals—the tired but reasonable Munson and the cocky Mickey Mantle.
   There are plenty of anecdotes and much sports trivia, but the Martin-Jackson contretemps, the driving action of the first act, is never fully resolved. The play ends with a coda in 2008 as Berra attends the final ceremony before Yankee Stadium is torn down and we learn in passing that the antagonists patched up their differences. It’s an unsatisfying ending to a loose love letter to a New York institution. Maybe fervent Yankee fans will provide enough of an audience to keep the show running the bases for a few months, but don’t expect Bronx Bombers to last beyond the Tony Award playoffs.

February 6, 2014

Outside Mullingar
Manhattan Theatre Club at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre

Reviewed by David Sheward

Romance is making a comeback on Broadway this season with a plethora of plays and musicals putting love matches at the forefront (First Date, The Bridges of Madison County, etc.). Perhaps the most Cupid-conscious work of all is John Patrick Shanley’s Outside Mullingar, now at the Friedman Theater as part of Manhattan Theater Club’s 2013–14 season. Set in the rural Ireland of his ancestors and beautifully realized by John Lee Beatty’s sets and Mark McCullough’s lighting, it’s a tenderhearted, sharp-tongued comedy that combines the author’s trademark acidic edge with his softer, lyrical side as seen in his screenplay for Moonstruck. In that film, Nicholas Cage and Cher as a pair of mismatched loners stumble toward love, battling each other all the way. Here, Shanley creates two similar outcasts, both fast approaching middle age, reaching out toward each other but wary of the stings love can bring. It’s a heartbreaking and heartwarming valentine featuring some of the most moving acting and directing to be seen on Broadway in years.
   Brian F. O’Byrne, the portrayer of isolated Irishmen in such plays as Shanley’s Doubt, Martin McDonagh’s The Beauty Queen of Leenane and The Lonesome West, and Conor McPherson’s Shining City, stars as Anthony Reilly, a dreamy chap who feels at home only in the fields of his family farm. Debra Messing (TV’s Will & Grace) is his neighbor Rosemary Muldoon. She has had a crush on Anthony ever since he pushed her when they were kids. Ostensibly, the plot device keeping them apart is a dispute over a strip of land overlapping their two properties, but the real sticking point is their own fears and stubbornness. There’s also Anthony’s crusty old dad (veteran character actor Peter Maloney), who’s thinking of leaving the farm to an American cousin, and Rosemary’s sage mother (Irish actor Dearbhla Molloy), who has just buried her husband at the start of the play and fears for her daughter’s future.
   Shanley’s script is full of rich, Gaelic-flavored dialogue, mixing just the right amount of vinegary wit with the honey of poetic love talk. Director Doug Hughes perfectly balances the two elements. This is the kind of play where the characters can argue in colorful terms about seemingly trivial matters, such as Ireland’s boxing medals at the Bejing Olympics and the inconvenience of having to open two gates to get to one’s road home, yet they still discourse passionately on the nature of love, life, and mortality. “The middle is the best part,” says Aoife, Rosemary’s mother, of life. “The middle of anything is the heart of the thing.”
   The four-person cast couldn’t be better. O’Byrne expertly limns the suppressed emotions of Anthony, a man unable to express or even identify his inner aches. Messing employs her expert comic timing to land Shanley’s devastatingly funny lines and wisely underplays Rosemary’s longing for her neighbor. Molloy is a warm and loving presence as Aoife. Maloney is wonderfully nasty as Anthony’s stone-hearted father. It’s all the more sob-inducing when his rough exterior cracks in a deathbed scene, which could easily have become overly sudsy. Maloney has been turning in consistently first-rate work on and Off-Broadway for decades, and it’s thrilling to see him in such a magnificent performance in this sweet Irish love letter.

January 26, 2014
Roundabout Theatre Company at the American Airlines Theatre

Reviewed by David Sheward

A crowded subway car is the striking opening image of the Roundabout Theatre Company’s searing revival of Sophie Treadwell’s relatively obscure 1928 drama Machinal. (This is its first Broadway production in over 80 years, but there have been notable Off-Broadway and London stagings in the 1990s.) As Matthew Herbert’s jarring original score and Matt Tierney’s harsh sound design fills the audience’s ears, the curtain rises on a dark stage, and we gradually make out a mass of bodies costumed by Michael Krass in shades of grey. Jane Cox’s poetic lighting picks out the face of Rebecca Hall as the Young Girl, horrified by the relentless pace of modern city life. Suddenly she pushes her way out and Es Devlin’s box-like set revolves to an even more confining space—the stuffy office where the Young Girl works, filled with wage slaves who move and speak like automatons. This unforgettable beginning lasts only a few minutes, yet in Lyndsey Turner’s imaginative staging, it sets the tone for a frightening and riveting portrait of a woman trapped by social convention and economic necessity.
   Inspired by the true story of Ruth Snyder, the first woman to be electrocuted for murder, Machinal follows the Young Woman, also identified as Helen Jones. Employed as a stenographer, she marries her dull boss because she has no other choices in the pre-feminist 1920s. Her husband, her doctor, even her own mother push her into a blank, meaningless existence, until she meets a virile drifter (played originally by Clark Gable in his Broadway debut) and they embark on a brief affair. After her lover lights out for Mexico, Helen can no longer stand her loveless marriage and murders her banal spouse by bashing him on the head while he sleeps.
   Treadwell, a journalist as well as playwright, wrote the script in the sharp rat-a-tat staccato of tabloid news stories, including Helen’s stream-of-consciousness monologues. The bizarre style echoes the Expressionist style employed in Buchner’s Woyzeck, O’Neill’s The Hairy Ape, and Elmer Rice’s The Adding Machine. Turner creates the perfect staging for this nightmarish urban jungle with the large-for-Broadway cast playing the massive, faceless crowds crushing Helen. Even dancing couples and passers-by become menacing mobs as Devlin’s set revolves and Cox’s noirish lighting flashes by as if we were constantly looking in on that packed subway car of the first scene.
   The Young Woman is something of a cipher, like Mr. Zero of The Adding Machine, caught in the merciless machinery of a changing America. But Hall, in her Broadway debut, brings her to intense life. From the initial panic-stricken dash to her slow walk toward the electric chair, Hall charts Helen’s futile struggle to escape male domination with passion and pathos. Michael Cumpsty, cast as a boring clod as he was in Roundabout’s The Winslow Boy earlier this season, properly makes the Husband into a collection of corporate clichés. Morgan Spector makes a muscular irresistible lover. Turner brilliantly has him be the only character who steps outside of the confining box representing the dark, mechanical world the Young Woman cannot escape.

January 19, 2014

The Night Alive
Donmar Warehouse at the Atlantic Theater Company

Reviewed by David Sheward

Many of Irish playwright Conor McPherson’s works such as The Weir, Shining City, St. Nicholas, and The Seafarer feature ghosts, vampires, and devils as metaphors for the forces of loneliness and bad luck that oppress his misbegotten characters. In his The Night Alive, now at the Atlantic Theater Company—in a spare and shattering production directed by the author from London’s Donmar Warehouse—there are no supernatural forces at play, only the demons of alienation and desolation besetting a group of downtrodden Dublin folk. There are no histrionics, tears, or melodrama here, just five believable people trying to cope with the bad hand life has dealt them.
   The action revolves around Tommy, a middle-aged drifter, divorced from his wife, and estranged from his two children. His only asset is a van, which allows him to perform odd jobs with his loopy mate Doc, who is even more unsettled, having just been thrown out of his sister’s house. Tommy lives in a disheveled room in the house of his uncle Maurice, a gruff old man drowning himself in booze over his wife’s recent death. This dysfunctional, makeshift family is thrown into a chaotic whirlwind when Tommy rescues Aimee, a pathetic sometime prostitute, from her psychotic boyfriend Brian.
   The Irish cast gives decidedly unflashy performances. Ciarán Hinds, who has been virile and commanding as Julius Caesar on the HBO series Rome and as Big Daddy in the last Broadway revival of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, is almost unrecognizable as the unshaven, rootless Tommy. This is a guy you might pass on the street in any city and not give him a second thought. Hinds doesn’t wear Tommy’s sorrow on his sleeve, he covers it up with jokes and brash bravado. So when he bears his heart to Aimee in a brief plea for her to stay with him, it’s devastating. Likewise, Caoilfhionn Dunne doesn’t give us actress-y tears or screaming fits to demonstrate Aimee’s dodgy mental condition. She seems to be moving through a fog, which breaks only occasionally. It’s a frighteningly real depiction of a woman unable to connect and struggling to overcome her lack of affect.
   Jim Norton makes Maurice’s grief over his wife and disappointment over Tommy part of the man’s skin. He has accepted his sorry lot and only bemoans it when he has got a snootful. Michael McElhatton’s puppy-ish Doc is simultaneously lovable and infuriating. The guy is endearingly naïve, yet so clueless as to drive Tommy up the wall. Brian Gleeson is appropriately menacing as the dangerous Brian. He doesn’t telegraph the character’s psychosis, which makes it all the more scary.
   Kudos to Soutra Gilmour’s grubby and gritty setting and costumes, Neil Austin’s moody lighting, and J. David Brimmer who has the unique program credit of “violence consultant.” The violence, like every other element of the production, is subdued and admirably lifelike.

December 21, 2013
The Commons of Pensacola
Manhattan Theatre Club at City Center Stage I

Reviewed by David Sheward

The characters in Amanda Peet’s The Commons of Pensacola are pretty careless. They forget their cellphones and leave condom wrappers and stacks of cash lying around where anyone could find them and advance the plot. That unconvincing looseness is just one of the problems with this featherweight little number from Manhattan Theatre Club, now at the Off-Broadway City Center Stage I. Fortunately, Blythe Danner as a down-on-her-luck matron and Sarah Jessica Parker as her devastated daughter lend their considerable skills to packing meat on the bones of this flimsy carcass.
   The paper-thin story takes places in the tiny Florida condo (set designer Santo Loquasto renders the tackiness to perfection) of Judith, the wife of a convicted Bernie Madoff–like financial swindler. It’s Thanksgiving, and she’s being visited by her elder daughter Becca, a failed actor, and Becca’s much-younger boyfriend, Gabe, an investigative journalist. That job description should tell you all you need to know about the oncoming conflict. Becca is hoping to jumpstart her career by co-starring in a reality TV show with her mother, to be produced by Gabe. The gimmick would be to go around begging forgiveness from the victims of Judith’s husband. Also on hand are Ali, Becca’s estranged sister, and Lizzy, Ali’s 16-year-old daughter whose sexual precociousness causes even more complications.
   An esteemed actor, Peet gives the cast plenty of histrionic opportunities, particularly Parker as Becca, and the playwright has a few intriguing themes here, such as the conflict between the entitled wealthy and those they take advantage of. But Peet barely scratches the surface, settling for predictable soap opera. We don’t even know if Judith’s husband is in jail or dead, because his fate is never discussed. Plus, Peet has a tendency to go for clichéd dialogue and low-grade humor (she has a fondness for fart jokes). Unfortunately, the comparisons to Blue Jasmine, Woody Allen’s much richer film on the same subject, are inevitable and unflattering.
   MTC artistic director Lynne Meadow gives the material the sharpest staging she can muster, avoiding the broadness that hampers the script. Danner’s patrician manner is slightly wrong for the ballsy Judith, but she makes it work. As noted, Parker has the juiciest role; Becca gets to go to pieces at least three times during the play’s mercifully swift 90 minutes. The Sex & the City star takes these moments and runs with them, creating a complex, shattered woman out of the scraps of Peet’s meager play. Ali Marsh has a satisfying ferocity as the furious Ali, determined to find hidden funds in Judith’s apartment. Michael Stahl-David is an attractive Gabe. The actor doesn’t minimize this taker’s greedy nature hidden behind platitudes about morality and being a vegan. Zoe Levin delivers a conflicted Lizzy, and Nilaja Sun gets a few good licks in as Judith’s feisty caregiver and housekeeper. Too bad Commons is all too common.

December 11, 2013

Little Miss Sunshine
Second Stage

Reviewed by David Sheward

It seemed like a perfect match: the edgy, off-center humor and compassion of songwriter William Finn and director–book author James Lapine (the Falsettos musicals, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, A New Brain) and the dark underdog losers of the 2006 hit indie film comedy Little Miss Sunshine. But the adaptors and the source material for this new Off-Broadway musical at Second Stage Theatre never quite get in synch.
   In Michael Arndt’s original screenplay, the woebegone family of misfits on its way to a toddlers-and-tiaras beauty pageant in a wrecked minivan was made up of lovable, heartbroken losers. In this adaptation, the characters are just whiny. That’s probably because Lapine’s limp book truncates the story to fit in Finn’s lengthy generic songs about how bad they all feel about their empty lives. It’s like a CliffsNotes (with notes) edition of the movie. Even the famous hilarious scene where the family gets the grandfather’s corpse past a traffic cop is missing. One of the few new elements is an unfunny running gag about a dictatorial GPS device nicknamed Map Bitch (get it?) Lapine has a few clever staging tricks employing Beowulf Boritt’s ingenious set and projection design, but they can’t overcome the shortcomings of the book and score.
   The cast has the unfortunate task of filling the shoes of the film’s Toni Collette, Greg Kinnear, Steve Carell, and Alan Arkin who won a Supporting Actor Oscar as the randy grandpa. Stephanie J. Block, Will Swenson, and Rory O’Malley are among our brightest musical comedy stars, but even they have a tough time with the comparisons. David Rasche relies on sitcom clichés in the grandfather role. In two smaller parts, Jennifer Sanchez has no memories to compete with, so she emerges unscathed and riotously funny as a nasty grief counselor and bubble-headed beauty queen. She’s one of the few bright spots in an otherwise failed screen-to-stage transfer.

December 3, 2013
All That Fall

Reviewed by David Sheward

Sound and visuals combine to create a unique fused portrait of a desolate yet comic world in the current revival of Samuel Beckett’s rarely performed All That Fall. The playwright conceived it as a radio play for the BBC’s Third Programme in 1957 and resisted many entreaties, including one from Laurence Olivier, to see it performed on stage. In a recent production from Dublin’s Pan Pan Theatre Company, performed a year ago at BAM, director Gavin Quinn had the audience seated in rocking chairs while recorded voices read the script. It was a fascinating and new way to experience radio and theater. In this current staging, previously presented in London, director Trevor Nunn has the intimate, Off-Broadway 59E59 space fitted out by designer Cherry Truluck like an old-fashioned recording studio with microphones dangling overhead and at the actors’ feet. The cast holds the scripts as if performing for the radio while Paul Groothuis’s soundscape creates their movements and that of their rural community, approaching trains and a torrential downpour.
   The combination illuminates Beckett’s bleak vision of an isolated Irish town where the inhabitants soldier on with the business of life despite a lack of comprehension and purpose. Not much happens during the play’s 75 minutes. Arthritic, obese Maddie Rooney must trudge to the train station to meet her blind husband, Dan. Along the way, she meets various neighbors, each with his or her own tale of woe. When she finally arrives, the train is 15 minutes late and her husband refuses to tell Maddie why. On the long slog home, the couple is beset by rain and tormenting children. A little boy runs after them to return an item Dan left on the train. Maddie asks if he knows the reason for the delay. The boy reveals a small child fell from the train—a heartbreaking echo of an earlier revelation that the Rooneys had a child who died long ago—lightning crashes, the train roars, and the play is over.
   The tragic circumstances are overlaid with comic moments, such as Maddie’s almost slapstick attempts to get in and out of automobiles and bicycles on her way to the station, and Dan’s deadpan dark pronouncements on the uselessness of existence. At one point, Dan quotes their minister praising God for his mercy, and the couple bursts into wild, sardonic laughter.
   Eileen Atkins and Michael Gambon, two of Britain’s finest actors, perfectly capture Beckett’s comic-tragic take on the universe, as the clownishly sad Rooneys. Both balance the raucous humor with the rending ache of man’s isolation. Atkins’s flute-like tones are beautifully balanced with Gambon’s deep bassoon as Maddie and Dan slowly trudge along on the dirt path home and through life.

November 24, 2013

Fun Home
Public Theater

Reviewed by David Sheward

There have been numerous major musicals about gay men and their families—from La Cage Aux Folles to Falsettoes to the current Kinky Boots—but none with a lesbian at its center. That is until now. Fun Home, based on Alison Bechdel’s autobiographical graphic novel, puts the spotlight on a gay woman and her coming-out story. This moving and insightful tuner deserves to be seen beyond its current limited Off-Broadway run at the Public Theater.
   The compassionate book by Lisa Kron zigzags between the present and the past. An adult Alison looks back at her dysfunctional family, while two other actors play her as a child and a college student. The main thread of the narrative is Alison’s attempt to understand her secretive father, Bruce, a closeted English teacher who indulges in furtive affairs with men and boys while married to the long-suffering Helen, a former actor burying her ambitions in community theater. Bruce also runs a funeral home—the play’s title refers to the family’s nickname for the establishment—and he has a passion for restoring old houses. Not long after Alison comes to terms with her sexuality and comes out to her parents, Bruce commits suicide by stepping in front of an oncoming truck. The narrator-Alison is wracked with guilt, believing her openness about being gay forced her dad to confront his true nature. which he would have rather kept in the shadows.
   The score features warm, sweet music by Jeanine Tesori and clever, character-defining lyrics by Kron—who has previously addressed gay identity and family connections in such plays as Well, In the Wake, and her memoir solo show 2.5 Minute Ride. The songs range from riotously funny (a 1970s rock-disco takeoff in which young Alison and her brothers rehearse a TV commercial for the funeral home) to achingly tender (Alison as a little girl and a young woman joyously making self-discoveries), and sometimes are both simultaneously (a parody of The Partridge Family in which everyone ironically warbles, “Everything’s gonna be all right”).
   Sam Gold fluidly stages the action on David Zinn’s elegant revolving set with the grace and ease of memory, and the exquisite cast delivers all the heartbreaking layers of this conflicted clan. As the adult Alison, Beth Malone observes and lives the action with pain and depth. Alexandra Socha is delightfully awkward as the college-age Alison, charmingly fumbling as she makes her way to self-realization. As the child-stage version of the heroine, Sydney Lucas displays remarkable poise and insight for one so young.
   The neglected mother Helen has only one solo number, but Judy Kuhn pours so much sorrow and subtext into it, the song becomes a three-minute play all by itself. The father’s inner struggle between conformism and personal happiness is etched on Michael Cerveris’s eloquent features and comes through in his masterful singing voice—a powerful performance in one of the best musicals, small-scale or Broadway-sized blockbuster, in recent years.

November 18, 2013

Lincoln Center Theater at the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater

Reviewed by David Sheward

In his Pulitzer Prize–winning Clybourne Park—a satiric rethinking of A Raisin in the Sun—Bruce Norris turned liberal assumptions about race relations inside out. Now in Domesticated, he takes the same explosive approach to feminist and sexual issues. It’s a darkly funny, dangerous comedy, staged with a firecracker wit by Anna D. Shapiro that matches Norris’s and is sure to inspire plenty of after-theater arguments.
   At first, the playwright appears to be covering familiar territory. We open on a common sight in our 24/7 news-cycle world: a male politician making a public apology for sexual indiscretion, his tight-lipped spouse by his side. It looks like we’re in for another Good Wife. But the caustic playwright leads us on a labyrinthine journey through this individual couple’s hellish marriage and the minefield that heterosexual connections in contemporary America have become.
   Yes, disgraced office-holder Bill is something of a pig. Not only has he been caught consorting with prostitutes, but the latest one is in a coma—possibly because of his actions. The resultant negative publicity sends his entire life into a downward spiral. His wife, Judy; daughters Cassidy and Casey; and all the women in his life (almost all of the characters are female) berate him for the entire first act. In the second act, Bill gets to have his say, and his raw, blunt defense of his actions rips apart cherished beliefs and displays the human side of a political bogeyman. Norris adds another layer of irony by making Bill a gynecologist who returns to his former profession after resigning from public life, raising even more issues of male-female conflict.

Jeff Goldblum manages to make this lout understandable, if not sympathetic. In the first act, his silent reactions to the chaos surrounding him are timed with precision for maximum comic impact, and his outbursts in the second act are equally truthful and hilarious. Laurie Metcalf gives us a dozen gripping variations on the wronged wife, ranging from outraged defender of the home front to guilty accomplice in the wreck of her marriage. A cast of veterans skillfully juggles multiple roles. Especially memorable are Mia Barron as hypocritical lawyer, Karen Pittman as an Oprah-ish talk show host, and Mary Beth Peil as Bill’s imperious mother.
    The title comes from a science project by the younger daughter. Between scenes, the girl (a marvelously deadpan Misha Seo) dryly delivers a series of nasty lectures on female domination in the natural world, males of certain species becoming thoroughly submissive. It’s a riotous commentary on the wrangling between men and women in the play. Domesticated totally lacks the tameness this title suggests. It’s fierce and wild, qualities sadly lacking in too many of the mild, safe shows now on our stages.

November 12, 2013
After Midnight
Brooks Atkinson Theatre

Reviewed by David Sheward

Three decades ago, there was a seemingly endless parade on Broadway and off of plotless revues celebrating the magnificent heritage of African-American song and dance from the first half of the 20th century. One hit followed another—Ain’t Misbehavin’, Sophisticated Ladies, Bubbling Brown Sugar, Eubie, and Black and Blue, just to name a few. Now After Midnight, a new show for a new generation, evokes the music of Duke Ellington during his tenure at the Cotton Club, matching and even out-dazzling its predecessors.
   Derived from a series of concerts presented by Encores! and Jazz at Lincoln Center, this production re-creates a typical lightning-paced floor show at the legendary Harlem nightspot where Ellington and his contemporaries would make jazz history nightly. Fluidly staged and choreographed in 90 breathless minutes by Warren Carlyle, the revue is packed with showstoppers—including flawless tap numbers, sassy blues, sensuous solo and group songs, thrilling orchestral breaks, and much more.

As mentioned, there is no story. The only element holding the material together is a “host” character, who occasionally joins in the merriment and recites Langston Hughes’s poetry to provide context. Dulé Hill, best known for his TV work but with numerous Broadway credits, fulfills his narrator chores with style and is a superb showman in his musical numbers such as a sprightly “I’ve Got the World on a String.” American Idol winner Fantasia Barrino, billed as a “special guest star,” gives her unique silky spin to such classics as “I Can’t Give You Anything but Love” and “Stormy Weather.” Adriane Lenox channels blues divas Bessie Smith and Ethel Waters in two sizzling and sardonic solos. Everett Bradley recalls Cab Calloway in several humorous specialty spots. Carmen Ruby Floyd, Rosena M. Hill Jackson, and Bryonha Marie Parham impress as a vocal trio and in individual turns.
   On the dance side, Daniel J. Watts, Phillip Atmore, Dormeshia Sumbry-Edwards, and Jared Grimes are tops in taps, Julius “iGlide” Chisolm and Virgil “Lil’ O” Gadson elegantly contort their bodies like figures in a Max Fleischer cartoon, and Karine Plantadit moves like a flirtatious gazelle as a good-time seductress tempting various males, then playing the girl’s spirit in a mock-solemn funeral sequence. That latter is just one of Carlyle’s inspired dance vignettes. Others include “Peckin,” wherein the guys in the chorus are decked out in top hats, white tie and tails and move close together like cards in a deck, and “East St. Louis Toodleloo,” a naughty and fun depiction of a love triangle.
    Indeed, After Midnight is such an embarrassment of riches, crammed into such a fast running time, you won’t want to leave after the Jazz at Lincoln Center All-Stars orchestra finishes “Rockin’ in Rhythm,” the socko curtain-call number.

November 3, 2013

Two Boys
Metropolitan Opera

Reviewed by David Sheward  

The Metropolitan Opera enters the digital age with Nico Muhly’s Two Boys, a somber and sad study of loneliness in cyberspace. Ironically, this piece revolving around Internet chat rooms is already somewhat of a period piece. The young woman sitting next to me giggled aloud and said “Remember that?” as the characters anonymously hooked up in the pre-Facebook-and-Twitter world of 2001. This was after I had to ask her to stop texting on her I-phone, BTW. Despite the antiquated technology, Two Boys resonates with a melancholy beauty as it depicts the universal yearning for a match in an isolated environment.
   Derived from actual events, the plot begins like an episode of Prime Suspect. In a bleak industrial English city, Jake, a nerdy 13-year-old boy, has been stabbed by 16-year-old Brian. Detective Anne Strawson has been assigned the case, but she doesn’t want it. “No juveniles,” she sings. It’s revealed she gave up a baby for adoption and he would be the same age as Brian. During the investigation, the computer-illiterate Anne discovers  that Brian is almost constantly online, “chatting” with a bizarre cast of characters—including Jake, who claims to have hacked into government files; Jake’s worldly teenage sister; the family’s menacing gardener, Peter; and a mysterious aunt Fiona, who might be a professional spy. As Anne is drawn into this seductive, shadowy world, we discover she is just as needy and alienated as Brian and Jake. She lives with an invalid mother, drinks too much, and never dates. Anyone with the slightest degree of familiarity with computers should be able to guess the outcome, but the work is still gripping in its compassionate portrayal of desperate souls seeking love—a staple of opera for centuries.
   Muhly’s lyrical score parallels the drab world of harsh reality and the fantasy atmosphere of the Net, as does Bartlett Sher’s imaginative staging. When Brian enters the chat rooms, he’s in his bedroom, illuminated only by his laptop, while Michael Yeargan’s set opens up and dozens of chorus members appear, representing the other users seeking companionship. Dancers perform Hofesh Shechter’s intricate choreography, contorting their bodies in a desperate grasping for connection through the ether, while the singers vocalize cyberspeak pleas such as “Are u there?” and “What are u doin?” Playwright Craig Lucas’s libretto seamlessly combines these abbreviated messages, along with the incomplete sentences of everyday dialogue and poetic musings on the wispy nature of computer-inspired bonds. “Ghosts in the machine,” sings Detective Strawson as she contemplates the empty world of the two boys and the one she gave up.
   In one particularly haunting sequence, reality and its computer equivalent overlap as the stabbing is played out with live actors and the video of the incident is simultaneously projected over them. The boys seem overwhelmed by their huge screen images, as if the digital world had consumed them.
   Mezzo-soprano Alice Coote captures the sad ache of Alice’s isolation with her lovely tones. As Brian, Paul Appleby is a bit too mature to be entirely believable as a teenager, yet his soaring tenor conveys the insecure yearnings of this confused kid. Boy soprano Andrew Pulver is perfectly cast as the mysterious Jake, his sweet voice hiding the complex passions within.
   This eerie and stunning new work, now in its American premiere after a previous production at the English National Opera, addresses gay adolescents, voyeurism, and the void of modern life. Hopefully, it will inspire more operas on contemporary themes.

October 31, 2013

The Snow Geese
Manhattan Theatre Club and MCC Theater at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre

Reviewed by David Sheward

You could play a great game of Spot the Literary Reference at Sharr White’s new play, now in a joint Broadway production from Manhattan Theatre Club and MCC Theater. Of course, there’s the most obvious one: Ibsen’s The Wild Duck, not only for the similarity in titular water fowl imagery, but also for the theme of comforting delusions provided by conventional society and a loaded pistol waved around in Act One which must go off in Act Two. Then there’s a load of Chekhovian points. The family refusing to face their desperate financial situation and inevitably giving up their beloved estate recalls The Cherry Orchard. They all sit around talking about how bored they are and how everyone talks and never takes any action which echoes all of the Russian master’s other stage classics. The dreamy mother has more than a touch of Blanche DuBois and Mary Tyrone in her as she indulges in drug-induced fantasies of a cherished past featuring her recently deceased husband. The feckless elder son is like the heroes of Fitzgerald, full of charm and swagger, but empty inside. Take your pick for the younger son, straining to escape the nonrealistic confines of his upbringing: either Look Homeward, Angel or The Glass Menagerie.
   This second-hand plotting is surprising coming from White, whose The Other Place, also presented by MTC and MCC in separate productions in previous seasons, was such an incisive and harrowing portrait of a woman losing her grip. Here the playwright has nothing new to say; the world is changing and the play’s family is ill equipped to cope with it. How many times have we heard that one? But at least he says it in an entertaining and compelling way. The dialogue is tangy and the plotting is involving, even if more than a trifle shopworn.
   The setting is the Gaesling clan’s hunting lodge outside of Syracuse, N.Y., in 1917 as America enters World War I. The family is holding a final shooting party before eldest sibling Duncan is about to ship off to France. But, younger brother Arnold is struggling with the financial disaster left behind by the late profligate father Teddy. In addition to the main conflict between the distracted mother Elizabeth and the more pragmatic Arnold over money worries, there is Elizabeth’s ultra religious sister Clarissa and her doctor-husband, Max, whose practice has dried up in xenophobic reaction to his German background and accent. There’s also the new maid Viktorya, a formerly rich Ukrainian refugee fleeing the horrors of her homeland.
   Director Daniel Sullivan delivers his usual tight, professional production with elegant period sets by John Lee Beatty and costumes by Jane Greenwood. Mary-Louise Parker seems lost as Elizabeth and finds a solid through-line only in a powerful confrontation with Arnold in which this overwhelmed widow defends her seemingly floundering attitude. Danny Burstein and Victoria Clark are impressive as Clarissa and Max. Brian Cross as Arnold carries the majority of the dramatic weight with admirable skill for his Broadway debut. Evan Jonigkeit is appropriately dashing and clueless as the shining but empty Duncan. Jessica Love adds texture to the displaced housemaid, and Christopher Innvar makes the most of his single scene as Teddy in a nostalgic flashback. With such talented cooks, too bad this goose is such an unimaginative meal.

October 25, 2013
A Time to Kill
Golden Theatre

Reviewed by David Sheward

Turning A Time to Kill, the John Grisham page-turner and star-stuffed 1996 film, into a theatrical version was probably a sound financial decision. The box office may flourish based on the original author’s reputation as a bestselling tale spinner, but the results onstage are as shallow and showy as a below-average episode of a TV procedural.
   The story is manipulative and melodramatic. In early-1980s Mississippi where racism stubbornly lingers, Carl Lee Hailey, an African-American, is on trial for deliberately gunning down the two white men who brutally raped his 10-year-old daughter. Small-time street lawyer Jake Brigance takes on Carl Lee’s case against ambitious district attorney Rufus R. Buckley who plans to use the resultant publicity to fuel a campaign for governor. Grisham and Rupert Holmes, the author of this adaptation, attempt to maneuver the audience into commiserating with Carl Lee, even though it’s clear he planned the crime and was not legally out of his mind as he carried it out, despite the insanity plea Jake enters. Grisham’s hook is placing his defendant in a seemingly impossible fix and then having the idealistic defense lawyer get him out of it through a clever legal technicality. There are also themes of racial injustice, but they’re given an easy once-over by Holmes, whose script resembles a screenplay with numerous short scenes and multiple locations facilitated by James Noone’s constantly revolving set.
   Director Ethan McSweeny keeps the action moving, but, despite the obvious efforts of the authors and a large cast, the characters fail to generate any sympathy. All are calculating, with the possible exception of Jake, who seems to be a pawn of just about everyone else including Carl Lee. It doesn’t help that Sebastian Arcelus lacks charisma and that the strongest reason for casting him as Jake appears to be that he has a strong resemblance to Matthew McConaughey, who played the role in the movie. John Douglas Thompson, who has given impressive performances Off-Broadway as Macbeth, Othello, and O’Neill’s Emperor Jones, has searing dramatic moments as Carl Lee, while the magnificent Tonya Pinkins is reduced to standing to the side and looking stricken as Lee’s long-suffering wife.
    Former senator Fred Dalton Thompson and Tom Skerritt, actors with mostly film and TV credits, are tentative in their respective roles of a folksy judge and Jake’s rascally alcoholic mentor, while reliable stage vets Patrick Page, John Procaccino, and Lee Sellars bring solidity and conviction to their supporting turns. Ashley Williams, in her Broadway debut as Jake’s Ivy League intern, comes across as an entitled brat.
   If you’re bored with watching courtroom drama on TV and can afford to blow a couple hundred bucks, you might want to take in A Time to Kill, but, for anyone with higher standards, this show would more appropriately be called Killing Time.

October 22, 2013
Romeo and Juliet (CSC)
Classic Stage Company

Reviewed by David Sheward

This is a rare New York theatre season for Shakespeare lovers. There are so many productions of Willy the Shake’s canon, you’d think we were in London. But the first two major offerings in this Bardathon have proved disappointing. Not only one, but two stagings of Romeo and Juliet are, to quote another beloved classic, stale, flat, and unprofitable. The Classic Stage Company’s mounting of the star-crossed lovers’ tale is even more butchered and bland than its star-stuffed Broadway counterpart. Like the Main Stem version featuring movie heartthrob Orlando Bloom and Tony nominee Condola Rashad, director Tea Alagic’s Off-Broadway CSC version is given the contemporary treatment, and she borrows heavily from Baz Luhrmann’s 1996 film retelling, the houses of Montague and Capulet recast as warring crime families.
   Alagic layers on the Mafioso theme with such a heavy hand, and she adds on so many director’s concepts and gimmicks, the title teenagers’ central love story is totally lost. In the most glaringly inappropriate choice, she adds an incestuous affair between Lady Capulet and her nephew, a hot Tybalt, which distracts from the main pair. The script is cut with a machete, so we lose several beautiful passages of prose and plot, and Marsha Ginsberg’s set is so stripped down, Juliet has no balcony. Swords are eliminated, replaced with tiny, almost invisible switchblades. During the dueling scenes, antagonists smear each other with blobs of gooey stage blood rather than believably stabbing their opponents. In the ball sequence, costume designer Clint Ramos decks everyone out as if they were backup dancers for Miley Cyrus’s twerking number at the VMAs, and, for his first encounter with Juliet, Romeo wears a giant Winnie-the-Pooh head.
   This last wardrobe malfunction could have worked with the teeny-boppers kidding around with the cartoon masks and then removing them to assume grownup roles as mature lovers. But Julian Cihi and Elizabeth Olsen remain giggling or wailing kiddies throughout the evening until their characters’ tragic end, staged with limp impact by Alagic. That’s unfortunate, because both young actors display promise, exhibiting strong diction and fine basic technique, but they just don’t have the chops to fully convey the journey from childish puppy affection to consuming passion.
   Most of the cast is equally lost. At first T.R. Knight makes an intriguing Mercutio, but soon Knight becomes too jittery and manic. As the nurse, Daphne Rubin-Vega plays it too much for laughs and fails to make a vital connection with Olsen’s Juliet. David Garrison and Kathryn Meisle competently portray Alagic’s subtext for Lord and Lady Capulet (anger and jealousy over the mother’s affair with Tybalt). They were probably directed to play it that way, but it steals focus from the title lovers.
   Only Daniel Davis as Friar Laurence imparts the devastation of young amour destroyed by blind hatred. The first moving moment in the entire production doesn’t arrive until nearly the end. As the friar is informed his letters to Romeo about Juliet’s faked death have not been delivered, the forthcoming tragedy is written all over Davis’s eloquent and tear-stained features. When Friar Laurence is the most compelling person on stage, you know something is terribly wrong.

October 16, 2013
A Night With Janis Joplin
Lyceum Theatre

Reviewed by David Sheward

Gee, that Janis Joplin was a nice kid. That bland and incongruous statement about the troubled, sandpaper-voiced vocalist seems to be the subtext of A Night With Janis Joplin, the latest jukebox tribute to a rock icon to reach Broadway. Sanctioned by the late singer’s estate, Joplin concentrates on her intense performances and downplays her troubled, booze-and-drug-fueled offstage life, which ended with an overdose at age 27. A hybrid of concert re-creation and half-hearted bio, the book by Randy Johnson—who also perfunctorily directed—has Joplin belt out all of her signature tunes, reveal scraps of childhood and early adult memories, and make a few vague aphorisms about music in general and the blues in particular (“Music is everything, man.” “People, whether they know it or not, like their blues singers to be alone.”) The most we learn about her nonsinging life is that she loved her mother and siblings; painted a lot; sang Broadway show tunes while cleaning her home in Port Arthur, Texas; and left there for San Francisco to pursue her rock and blues dreams as soon as she could. The demons that drove her to an early death are not even touched upon.
   Fortunately, the title character is played by the amazing Mary Bridget Davies, who sounds remarkably like her subject and recaptures the volcanic emotional power of such classics as “Me and Bobby McGee” and “A Piece of My Heart.” In between Davies’s solos and monologues, a quartet of supremely talented singers who play a backup group, the Joplinaires, double as iconic warblers who served as Joplin’s inspiration and influences. Taprena Michelle Augustine is a gritty Bessie Smith, De’Adre Aziza channels the smooth tones of Odetta and Nina Simone, Allison Blackwell makes for a dynamic Aretha Franklin, and Nikki Kimbrough is a sassy Etta James. (One weird choice: Playing “Good King Wenceslas” as an intro to Rodgers and Hart’s “Little Girl Blue” left me baffled. Is it supposed to be Christmas?)
   To be fair, Joplin does not purport to be full-fledged portrait. It only seeks to provide Joplin fans with a reasonable facsimile of her oceanic talent; and thanks to the dynamic Davies, a supercharged band, and music director Ross Seligman, it delivers. At the performance attended, baby boomers and youngsters alike rocked, screamed, and pumped their fists as it we were all in a marvelously seedy club in the late ’60s. If that’s your vibe, groove to it, baby.

October 15, 2013
Big Fish
Neil Simon Theatre

Reviewed by David Sheward

Big Fish is an example of what I like to call benefit-of-the-doubt shows. These contain problems with the structure and storyline, but often have enough pizzazz and heart to merit a critical pass. In Big Fish’s case, the episodic, underdeveloped book by John August (based on Daniel Wallace’s novel and August’s screenplay for the 2003 Tim Burton–directed film version) is more than compensated for by the reliable Susan Stroman’s joyful and inventive staging and an amazing lead performance by Norbert Leo Butz. Along with a handful of others like Nathan Lane, Butz is fast becoming the kind of Broadway star who is little known outside the theater but who can transform an iffy proposition into a fun evening.
   He first burst into the ranks of musical leading men in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels as a charming con man, and he’s playing the same kind of lovable narcissist here. Edward Bloom is a Southern good-ol’-boy traveling salesman—though what he sells is never specified—who constantly grabs the spotlight by spinning fantastic tales populated with witches, mermaids, giants, and werewolves. He’s enchanting and entertaining, but Edward’s loose relationship with the truth causes a rift with his straitlaced son Will, a just-the-facts journalist about to become a father.
   The arc of August’s book is Will’s quest to find the truth behind Edward’s fanciful stories when Edward is diagnosed with cancer. August fails to provide a strong enough reason for Will’s motivation; there’s a mysterious deed found among the family papers, but it’s not a powerful enough McGuffin to get us to care about it. Besides, Will must be a pretty poor reporter if he can’t ferret out the basic biographical facts about his own dad. Perhaps the show is set in the era before the Internet. As a result of the flimsy central plot, the evening becomes a series of loosely connected set pieces illustrating Edward’s exaggerated exploits. Fortunately, Stroman, one of Broadway’s most imaginative director-choreographers, executes them with her trademark flair. She’s backed up by Julian Crouch’s delightfully cartoonish sets, William Ivey Long’s spiffy costumes, and poetic projections by Benjamin Pearcy for 59 Productions. The most startling bit of staging is the simplest: a dancer with a flame-colored skirt in one of Edward’s fantasies becomes the campfire for a Boy Scout sleepover. The show is full of smart, gasp-inducing moments like that.
   Andrew Lippa’s tuneful score is another asset. Though his lyrics are a bit simplistic, the music is rich and sweet, staying with the audience long after the curtain falls. “Time Stops,” a ravishingly beautiful duet between the young Edward and Sandra, his future wife, is particularly memorable.
   But the biggest fish in this pond is Butz, who splashes and swims with grace, confidence, and charisma. Even when Edward is being a jerk, as when he steals attention at his son’s wedding, Butz manages to show this man’s joy for life and generous spirit. Bobby Steggert as Will and Kate Baldwin as Sandra have exquisite voices and do what they can with their underdrawn roles, as does the rest of the cast, but all are minnows in comparisons to Butz’s smiling, lovable catfish.

October 9, 2013
Mr. Burns, A Post-Electric Play
Playwrights Horizons

Reviewed by David Sheward

If American civilization disintegrates in a nuclear holocaust, what will remain? According to playwright Anne Washburn, scraps of pop culture will survive and be reformed into kitschy entertainment, the underlying theme of humanity triumphing over its own destruction. That’s the basic premise of Mr. Burns, A Post-Electric Play, now at Playwrights Horizons after a run at the Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company of Washington, D.C. Yet there’s much more here than this TV Guide-style summation. Washburn explores the capacity for art—whether low or high—to keep us going and reflect where we’ve been.
   The play takes places after an unspecified disaster has wiped out most of the world’s population along with the electrical grid. The program lists the setting as “Near. Soon.” A group of drifters are sitting around a campfire trying to reconstruct the “Cape Feare” episode of The Simpsons. That’s the one that satirizes Cape Fear, Martin Scorsese’s 1991 thriller with Sideshow Bob, bad boy Bart’s erudite nemesis standing in for the demonic Robert De Niro. The Scorsese film in turn is a remake of a 1962 feature, and the episode also contains references to Gilbert and Sullivan and another cult cinema classic, The Night of the Hunter. In the second act, set seven years later, this collection of strangers has formed a theatrical troupe performing Simpsons episodes along with recollected commercials and Top 40 medleys for a TV-deprived, increasingly lawless society.
   The third act shoots ahead 75 more years and consists of a musical performance by a descendent of the second-act company in a weird, operetta-style mashup of all the Simpsons segments. The titular character, Homer’s craven boss at the nuclear power plant (played with hand-wringing relish by Sam Breslin Wright), becomes a radioactive supervillain representing all the terror that has poisoned the earth. Bart (a spunky Quincy Tyler Bernstine) is now a stand-in for beleaguered humanity bravely overcoming this grinning menace. In this bizarre, brilliant play, Washburn shows that by telling and retelling the same stories, distorted and reformed over time, art in general and theater in particular rejuvenates the human spirit. That’s a bit weighty and belies the seemingly trivial nature of much of the action. Yet, thanks to Steve Cosson’s simultaneously dark and hilarious staging and the unself-conscious performances of a tight ensemble, it somehow works.
   The ridiculous importance the characters place on throwaway details—such as finding the exact shade of grease to put on Sideshow Bob’s face—is perfectly balanced with a horrifying realistic depiction of their desperate situation. One minute they are arguing over the correct reading of a punch line, and the next their lives are threatened by unseen marauders breaking into their makeshift theater.
   Neil Patel’s ingenious set, Emily Rebholz’s time-tripping costumes, and Sam Hill’s mask and wig design create a scary, cobbled-together world like a cartoon-addict’s vision of the future.

September 28, 2013

Romeo and Juliet
Richard Rodgers Theatre

Reviewed by David Sheward

Fire is a repeated theme in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, and director David Leveaux uses it in his contemporary Broadway staging of the timeless classic of star-crossed lovers, starring Orlando Bloom and Condola Rashad. But that fire is employed sparingly and tamely. A few flames leap out of long poles at the opening and closing of each act, yet there’s no real danger. Sadly, the same can be said for the production. There are a few stray sparks—literally and metaphorically—but not the conflagration necessary to evoke the burning passion that consumes the doomed pair and overpowers the hatred of their respective houses.
   Leveaux attempts to rev up that passion with superficial means. Romeo make his first entrance riding a motorcycle, and Leveaux casts the rival families with actors of different races: white for Romeo’s and African-American for Juliet’s. There are also balloons, a live dove, a giant bell, a cellist in one balcony and a percussionist in the other, and Shark-and-Jet knife fights. But these gimmicky touches can’t substitute for the missing ardor of the title lovers or the flatness of the staging. The chemistry between the leads and the racial tension is missing.
   Bloom certainly looks the part of Romeo—curly black hair, eyes to die for, slim athletic build—but his performance is tepid. He doesn’t seem to be that excited about Juliet, and if the hero doesn’t care, why should we? Leveaux further undermines his Romeo’s opportunity for displaying vigor by cutting the climactic duel with Paris at Juliet’s tomb. A few minutes of stage time and some billable work time for the crew may have been saved, but this sequence is essential to demonstrate the protagonist’s transformation from a callow, rash youth to full-blooded adult ready to stop at nothing to be reunited with his (supposed) dead love.
  Fortunately, Rashad redresses the balance with an intense, if rough interpretation of Juliet. She has trouble clearly delivering the Bard’s verse, but her intentions are there and strongly conveyed. The supporting cast is uneven. Brent Carver races through his lines as Friar Laurence. Christian Camargo is a mercurial Mercutio, setting off sizzling eruptions of fantasy during the Queen Mab speech and making us believe something is at stake during his dueling scenes (I would like to see what he would have done as Romeo). Jayne Houdyshell is a tart Nurse, while Chuck Cooper and Roslyn Ruff overemote as Juliet’s parents.
   On the plus side, the original music by David Van Tieghem, who also serves as percussionist, is quite lovely. Too bad the production it accompanies is so muted.

September 20, 2013

Fetch Clay, Make Man
New York Theatre Workshop

Reviewed by David Sheward

Can you imagine two more unlikely historical figures to form a friendship than Muhammad Ali and Stepin Fetchit? One was the unconquerable heavyweight boxing champion who kayoed African-American stereotypes with brash aggressiveness, while the other perpetuated the clichés of servility and laziness in dozens of Hollywood movies. But playwright Will Power found a photo of the two men in a bookstore, did copious research, and has constructed a powerful examination of race, manhood, and identity in Fetch Clay, Make Man, now at the New York Theatre Workshop after a previous production at the McCarter Theatre.
   The time is May 1965 on the weekend leading up to Ali’s big match-up with Sonny Liston to defend his title, with occasional flashbacks surveying Fetchit’s rise and fall in Hollywood. Power imagines that the cocky young boxer has summoned the older actor because the latter was close friends with Jack Johnson, the legendary African-American champ fictionally depicted in the boxing drama The Great White Hope. Ali wants the secret of Johnson’s legendary, almost mystical “anchor punch,” and he’s sure Fetchit has it locked inside his head. The actor has an agenda as well: If he can publicize his connection to Ali, his moribund film career could be resurrected. He might even convince the hot star of the ring to make a movie with him.
   Other players have games of their own. Brother Rashid, the bellicose representative of the Nation of Islam, to which the former Cassius Clay has recently converted, is intent on keeping their shining new athletic icon on the straight and very narrow path, while Ali’s wife Sonji wrestles with the restrictive Muslim entourage for access to her husband. She also battles internally between the oppressive role placed upon her by her new religion and her former free-spirited lifestyle. Even the brash studio mogul William Fox, who appears only in Fetchit’s flashbacks, has manipulations and machinations aplenty.
   The sleek and energetic staging by Des McAnuff on Riccardo Hernandez’s minimalist, boxing-ring set does much to alleviate the obviousness of some of Power’s construction. Ali’s conflict with his wife is wrapped up, and then the champ immediately demands Fetchit give him the secret of Johnson’s irresistible punch. All of this takes places just minutes before the big fight. It’s all bit too neat and tidy to fully deal with the messy and complicated issues Power raises. Yet the playwright throws a searing light on the nature of American celebrity and identity. Each of the characters wears a mask in order to get what he or she wants, and each actor powerfully conveys the assumed persona and the real person beneath it.
    K. Todd Freeman is a brilliantly sly Fetchit, whose real name was Lincoln Perry and who was able to play the white man’s game and become the first black millionaire in the movie business. You can see the wheels turning in his head as he plays the clown when it suits him and then almost imperceptibly becomes a lighting-fast hustler when necessary. Ray Fisher has the physical attributes of the young Ali and imparts his ferocious ego equally convincingly. The exciting new actor also captures the little-boy insecurities inside the hulking boxer. Nikki M. James delivers a fierce Sonji, John Earl Jelks a shark-like Rashid, and Richard Masur a crafty Fox. The play is not quite a knockout, but thanks to its director and cast, it’s a TKO.

September 13, 2013
Around the World in 80 Days
New Theater at 45th Street

Reviewed by David Sheward

Economics are forcing commercial Off-Broadway runs into near extinction. These days you need a gimmick like percussion (Stomp!), New Age hijinks (Blue Man Group), acrobatics (Fuerza Bruta), or parody (satires of Fifty Shades of Gray, Harry Potter, etc.) to sustain a show in New York’s smaller theaters. So you have to admire the producers of Around the World in 80 Days, a slick adaptation of Jules Verne’s classic 1872 adventure novel, for their pluck. Previously presented in a limited engagement at the Irish Repertory Theater in 2008, this stage version by Mark Brown shrinks Phileas Fogg’s epic attempt to girdle the globe and win a £20,000 bet into two and a half hours. The entire planet is contained in one set, and five actors play 39 characters.
   Director Rachel Klein has given the proceedings a more circus-like atmosphere than that of the Irish Rep staging, with broader acting and clown-like costumes by Klein and Kae Burke. Some of the edge and wit of that previous edition is missing. Nevertheless, it’s a fun and fast-paced evening. Scenic designer Robert Andrew Kovach has created a Victorian funhouse extending into the small theater, the walls painted to resemble period scenes of exotic locations and bizarre modes of transportation. A huge clock suspended upstage left becomes a screen for projected images created by Kate Freer to accompany the story.
   With a few simple props, the action shifts from Fogg’s stuffy club to the wilds of India to the snowbound Wild West. Josh Segarra makes for a properly poised Fogg; John Gregorio is a riotous Passepartout, Fogg’s enthusiastic French manservant; Vanessa Morosco (understudy for Shirine Rabb at the performance attended) is an attractive Aouda, the Indian princess the duo rescues; and Jimmy Ray Bennett and Stephen Guarino display versatility in multiple roles.

August 14, 2013

Richard B. Fisher Center for the Performing Arts at Bard College

Reviewed By David Sheward

Sergey Taneyev’s Oresteia is unfamiliar territory for the average operagoer. Rarely performed in its entirety since its 1895 premiere in Russia, the mammoth work is in its North American premiere, at Bard College’s SummerScape Festival. Unlike many other Russian works of the same period, this opera’s source material is Aeschylus’s Greek trilogy on the doomed House of Atreus rather than traditional Slavic tales. (Stravinsky and Strauss tackled the same legend several years later.) But given the stunning and invigorating staging by Thaddeus Strassberger, it’s surprising that no other company has taken up the challenge in more than a century.
   Strassberger sets the action at the time of the opera’s composition and in the composer’s native land, drawing parallels between the interfamily murders of King Agamemnon’s bloodthirsty clan and the oppressive reign of the tsars. You’ll recall the basic plot from Classic 101: Agamemnon returns from the Trojan War, only to be slaughtered by his wife, Clytemnestra, and her lover, Aegisthus. Then her son, Orestes, goaded by his sister Electra, murders his mother and her cohort in revenge. Orestes is hounded by the demonic Furies for this matricide and seeks aid from Apollo. The opera ends with a trial presided over by the goddess of wisdom, Pallas Athena.
   Madeleine Boyd’s nightmarish set is crowded with a huge chorus of heavily babushkaed serfs, some of whom later morph into the zombie-like Furies. An ornately bejeweled Queen Clytemnestra (dazzling costumes by Mattie Ullrich) rules over them with an iron fist. When her son, Orestes, returns from exile to kill her, the servants rise up on his side—one of them even spits on her. Though the Communist revolution took place several decades after the opera’s completion, the production references to that cataclysmic event. In the climactic third act, Athena emerges like a beacon of socialist justice to declare an end to the cycle of violence and calls for an administration devoted to compassion as the Furies untwist themselves and become human comrades.
   There are dozens of memorable touches, such as the maid constantly sleeping the corner and occasionally sipping from a flask, later to be shot as collateral damage in Orestes’s fury; Agamemnon’s ghost appearing in a mirror that his guilt-wracked wife smashes with a brick; and servants calmly serving breakfast to the doomed Clytemnestra as she chain smokes nervously.
   All but one of the principal singers are native Russians; their facility with the language and powerful voices gives vibrant passion to the weighty material. Especially moving is Liuba Sokolova’s imperious Clytemnestra. Her dark, Slavic mezzo and detailed acting conveys this fiend-like queen’s journey from volcanic rage to hysterical psychosis. Mikhail Vekua displays an impressive tenor in the demanding role of Orestes. The silver-voiced Olga Tolkmit makes Electra into an impulsive teenager who quickly descends into madness. Maria Litke memorably doubles as the desperate Cassandra, Agamemnon’s trophy mistress, and Athena, the regal goddess who resolves all the loose ends of this enormous opera.

July 29, 2013
The World Goes ’Round
Bucks County Playhouse

Reviewed by Jerry Beal

Six plaintive notes from a clarinet. The same six again. Then the vamp, and the first words are sung: “Sometimes you’re happy, and sometimes you’re sad, but the world goes ’round.” And if you’re expecting to read a rational, thoughtful, and reasoned response to what follows on the stage of the legendary Bucks County Playhouse, you might want to stop right here. What follows those lyrics is an unconscionably joyous hour and 45 minutes that leaves you laughing, crying, dazzled, breathless, and thankful beyond words for the collaboration between these special performers and the songwriting team of John Kander and Fred Ebb.
   This show, first produced in New York in 1991, is a compilation of songs from these two musical theater titans, who gave us, among other shows, Cabaret and Chicago, as well as a certain local anthem, “New York, New York.” The numbers alternate between rhythms and moods, and placement is astutely made based on story and theme, however different their original shows and contexts were. Thus, a young man’s plea to his girl, “Marry Me” (David Josefsberg), is followed by her expression of wondrous surprise at how it feels, “A Quiet Thing” (Michelle Aravena). “The Happy Time” (Tom Hewitt), in which the singer fondly recalls his true love recalling moments of shared happiness, prompts Emily Skinner’s take on the inadequacies of her own memory, “Colored Lights.”
   The level of imagination in director Don Stephenson’s and choreographer Lorin Latarro’s staging is astounding. “Me and My Baby,” traditionally a vaudeville-style romantic duet, has the entire cast pushing toy strollers with their supposed unseen little ones and singing proudly for the first verse, then showing us the contents—the latest in hand-held technology—as they sing the second verse. “Sara Lee,” a paean to the goddess of boxed pastries, has the lovesick swain being stuffed with cake as he reaches the song’s climax. And, in “Arthur in the Afternoon,” the object of the lady’s affections is represented first by a black-shirted muscle-bound male, then by a second, and then by a female.

July 24, 2013
Williamstown Theatre Festival

Reviewed by David Sheward

Anyone who has ever seen the film My Fair Lady with Rex Harrison and Audrey Hepburn—or a high-school or community theater production—is familiar with Henry Higgins, the arrogant phonetics expert, and Eliza Doolittle, the Cockney flower girl he transforms into a refined lady by improving her speech. Fewer are aware of the original play Pygmalion, George Bernard Shaw’s scathing 1912 comedy that emphasizes class conflict over romantic endings. In Pygmalion, after acquiring a newfound independence thanks to her superior elocution, Eliza strikes out on her own; in the musical, she returns to the domineering, immature Higgins.
   In this smooth production at the Williamstown Theatre Festival in Massachusetts (also presented at San Diego’s Old Globe earlier this year with many of the same actors), director Nicolas Martin emphasizes the cultural divide between Higgins and Eliza and downplays their possible romantic connection because that was what Shaw wanted. The director makes it quite clear that Eliza winds up marrying the poor but socially superior wastrel Freddy Enysford Hill (he sings “On the Street Where You Live” in the tuner) by adding a short wedding scene at the play’s finish. But Martin leaves a trace of amorous regret, Eliza casting a forlorn glance at her former teacher as the lights dim.
   The tension is beautifully played by Robert Sean Leonard and Heather Lind as Higgins and Eliza, but the still-youthful-at-44 Leonard fails to relish Higgins’s narcissistic nastiness. The actor delivers a dry, witty professor but not a truly memorable one. Lind, on the other hand, clearly enjoys Eliza’s guttersnipe-ish ways and frolics in her depiction of the girl’s fiery spirit. This makes her transformation to faux upper crust credible, though her Cockney is so thick and muddy at times as to be indecipherable.
   This is a thoughtful staging, letting you chew on Shaw’s radical ideas about language, feminism, and social strata. The big laughs don’t arrive until the entrance of Don Lee Sparks as Eliza’s philosophically inclined, dust collector father. The actor is well-named as he lights comic fires, using Shaw’s brilliant witticisms, blasting middle-class morality and upper-class hypocrisy. Paxton Whitehead is a delightfully befuddled Colonel Pickering, and Maureen Anderman is an elegant Mrs. Higgins. Caitlin O’Connell is properly authoritarian as Higgins’s motherly housekeeper Mrs. Pearce. Leonard’s boyishness and the strictness of the maternal figures in Higgins’s life (Mrs. Higgins and Mrs. Pearce) further enforce the teacher’s immaturity and inability to form an adult relationship with Eliza, a fascinating strain from director Martin, one not brought out in most productions.
   Alexander Dodge created a gorgeous revolving set, and the costumes by Gabriel Berry and Andrea Hood evoke the general period, but some of the hemlines on the ladies’ gowns are a bit short for 1912.

July 21, 2013

The Explorers Club
Manhattan Theatre Club at NY City Center Stage I

Reviewed by David Sheward

Mix a dash of Oscar Wilde with a generous serving of the Marx Brothers, stir in pratfalls and slamming doors, and you get The Explorers Club, Nell Benjamin’s perfectly intoxicating summertime cocktail, now available for imbibing courtesy of the talented theatrical bartenders at Manhattan Theatre Club. Benjamin (Legally Blonde: The Musical) combines myriad cultural stereotypes to create a wild comedy of clashing manners and mores, yet all the cartoonish characters retain their humanity. Yes, the zany goings-on are farcical and outlandish, but Benjamin keeps them honest within a bizarre framework.
   The setting is the titular Victorian establishment, impeccably designed by Donyale Werle to conjure up visions of New Yorker cartoons and those Jules Verne–inspired adventure movies like Journey to the Center of the Earth. You can imagine it being the kind of place from which intrepid Britons set out on thrilling expeditions to lost cities. But the most dangerous element to cross into the stuffy lounge is not the blue-skinned native from such a godforsaken location, but the person who found him and brought him back to the club—Phyllida Spotte-Hume. As a female scientist being proposed for membership, she represents a devastating challenge to male-dominated British society.
   Phyllida is not the only agent of change. Her aboriginal charge, nicknamed Luigi, slaps the queen in the face—his tribe’s form of greeting—and sets off an international incident. Meanwhile, one of the club’s more conservative members proposes that the 10 lost tribes of Israel wandered to Ireland and ignites another firestorm, this one involving the Irish furious at the suggestion that they migrate to Palestine. Meanwhile, clumsy but sincere botanist Lucius Fretway and dashingly handsome yet blindingly stupid adventurer Sir Harry Percy vie for Phyllida’s hand.
   There is a hysterical piece of business where Luigi, disguised as the incompetent club barman, violently and rapidly throws full glasses at the scientists and not a drop of liquor is spilled. Director Marc Bruni executes a similarly amazing juggling act by keeping all the comic bits in the air. Benjamin’s razor-sharp satiric barbs are skillfully balanced with kooky observations on the chauvinistic attitudes of the members and a complex, inventive storyline.   The cast couldn’t be better. As Lucius, the acrobatically gifted Lorenzo Pisoni evokes such cinematic scientific klutzes as Cary Grant in Bringing Up Baby and Henry Fonda in The Lady Eve. It takes a really agile performer to appear clumsy while executing such intricate maneuvers as Pisoni does. He also gets across Lucius’s desperate insecurity and longing for Phyllida, a poised and sparkling Jennifer Westfeldt, who also appears in another surprise role. David Furr is rugged and oblivious as the blustery Harry, while John McMartin, Brian Avers, and Steven Boyer are amusingly dotty as the remaining members. Max Baker is properly pompous as a representative of Her Majesty’s government, Carson Elrod creates a completely credible savage Luigi, and Arnie Burton does much with two small roles: an Irish assassin and an aggrieved explorer returning to the club after surviving a hideous ordeal in Tibet. His re-enactment of the incident is just one of dozens of hilarious moments in this delightfully daffy show.

July 19, 2013
The Cradle Will Rock
New York City Center Encores! Off-Center

Reviewed by Jerry Beal

According to Steven Suskin’s invaluable book Opening Nights on Broadway, critical responses to the 1947 revival of this 1937 Marc Blitzstein work consisted of two raves, two favorables, two mixed, one unfavorable, and two pans. Brooks Atkinson in The Times called it “a blistering revival of the most vivid proletarian drama ever written in this country.” Robert Garland in the Journal-American wrote that all monied characters are portrayed as venal and vindictive, while the downtrodden are bright, honest, and forgiving. The form, the content, and the backdrop of this Depression-era piece help to explain the contradictory responses to it.
   This politically charged allegory about unionization, labor, and management in the fictional Steeltown, U.S.A., populated by characters named Mr. Mister, Larry Foreman, Reverend Salvation, and Editor Daily, was shut down on its opening night by its creator, the Works Progress Administration, such was the fever pervading the country. Among other events, the Republic Steel plant outside of Chicago had been struck two weeks earlier, during which police gunfire killed four and injured 84. On opening night, after the WPA closed down the show, the show’s actors, musicians, and audience walked 20 blocks to another theater, where the performers, prohibited by their own union from appearing on stage, presented the show from the audience. Now, 76 years later, in a far different climate, composer Jeanine Tesori (Thoroughly Modern Millie), in her first venture as producer of Encores! Off-Center, gives us this concert version.
   First, the unquestionable plusses. Raul Esparza is one of the treasures of our theater; his entrance two-thirds of the way into the show as labor organizer Larry Foreman lifts the proceedings in a way that only a great stage actor can. He is amply assisted by another giant, Danny Burstein, as industrialist Mr. Mister; by the wonderful Judy Kuhn as Editor Daily, and Anika Noni Rose as Mrs. Mister and hooker Moll; and by a roof-raising eleven o’clock number, “Joe Worker,” courtesy of the aptly named Da’Vine Joy Randolph. The voices are exceptional, the energy is strong, and the writing comes from a place of deep commitment and integrity.
   However, the book is very much a product of a very distinct time, which inevitably causes it to lose power today. It is deliberately constructed in broad, symbolic strokes, told unnaturalistically, in an uneasy mixture of burlesque and passion. And at least partly because of this form, Blitzstein seems intent on distancing us from feeling much for these archetypes.
   Musically, the work is largely sung, and there is a sameness to it that adds to the distancing effect. These issues are exacerbated by director Sam Gold’s choices. This is clearly a concert; the cast sits in a row of chairs across the stage, dressed in tuxedos and elegant dresses. This allows the words and music to be heard, but at the expense of dramatic progression and storytelling through staging. And when Gold throws in physical choices, they tend to cloud the action and call attention to him. Two men portray the Mister children (brother and sister), then switch clothes for no apparent reason other than to attempt a moment of levity. A child actor plays three adult roles, likewise for no apparent reason.   The use of hand mikes by the performers each time they speak further detracts from the production’s momentum. Perhaps budgetary constraints prevented general miking, but the standing downstage microphones would surely have sufficed, as they did when the actors used them.
   Should The Cradle Will Rock be seen in modern times? With a chance to see performers of this caliber, presenting material of this nature and boldness, most certainly it should. However, be advised that this piece is very much an intriguing enigma, at once worthy and troubling.

July 10, 2013

Animal Crackers
Williamstown Theatre Festival

Reviewed by Jerry Beal

Can a 1928 musical farce with the slimmest of plots, held together by little but verbal and physical gymnastics, and first brought to life by the maniacal genius of the Marx Brothers, create any fireworks for an audience in 2013? If this first production of the summer from this venerable institution is any indication, the answer is an unmistakable yes.
   With a cast of unfamiliar names other than the luminous Renee Elise Goldsberry, and directed by Henry Wishcamper, who also adapted the original, this company hits every right note and keeps all the comedic balls juggling in the air (book by George Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind, music and lyrics by Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby).
   The difficulties in activating a piece like this are enormous: The audience must be carried along by the inventiveness of the physical life, by the charm of the romantic interests, and by the timing and personalities of the designated clowns. Happily, those difficulties are surmounted here. Wishcamper, choreographer John Carrafa, and physical comedy director Paul Kalina bring a rich imagination to the proceedings. Goldsberry, playing art swindler Grace and onstage partner Adam Chanler-Berat as artist John supply the charm, along with the dancing romantic duo of Joey Sorge and Mara Davi. And in the Herculean task of essentially channeling Groucho, Chico, and Harpo, Joey Slotnick, Joanathan Brody, and Brad Aldous respectively all rise gloriously to the occasion.
   The story, such as it is, rests on the substitution of a fake painting for a real one, followed by a mistaken replacement of the fake by another fake. All of course is happily resolved in the end, helped by a tuneful score. Integrated with the iconic “Hooray for Captain Spaulding” is the pearl “Why Am I So Romantic?” But the wit is everything here. From a Eugene O’Neill Strange Interlude moment, in which Groucho steps out of the scene to deliver an inner monologue, to a call for a flash (flashlight) that gets answered with a fish, a flask, a flute, and a frisk, to the immortal “I shot an elephant in my pajamas. How he got in my pajamas, I’ll never know,” this is comic writing of the highest order.
   I saw the show with my two children, ages 8 and 10, and my niece, 16. Each time the physical craziness kicked in, they erupted in laughter, and even when the verbal humor escaped them—e.g. Strange Interlude—the rhythm alone was enough to engage them. Timeless is timeless, and Animal Crackers remains a fixture under that heading.

July 3, 2013

The Comedy of Errors
The Public Theater at the Delacorte Theater

Reviewed by David Sheward

Shakespeare in 90 minutes? Yes, director Daniel Sullivan and a company of madcap actors and dancers manages to cram The Comedy of Errors, the Bard’s early adaptation of a Roman farce, into a madcap hour and a half for the first offering of the Public Theater’s free season at the Delacorte Theatre in Central Park. No intermission and judicious cutting leads to the brief running time and even allows for snazzy jitterbugging choreographed by Mimi Lieber.
   This classic tale of two sets of identical twins causing confusion has seen a revival of interest in the last few years with productions set in contemporary London and a Caribbean playland, and adapted as a rap musical (The Bomb-Itty of Errors). Taking a reference from the Greek homeland of one set of twins (Syracuse), this production is set in 1940s upstate New York where Greyhound buses are substituted for ships and the Duke is replaced by a mafia boss. To add to the fun, the same actor plays a burly kitchen wench in drag.
   The trick of this production and the challenge for Sullivan is having the lookalikes, twin masters and servants with same names separated at birth by a wreck at sea, played by the same actors. Lanky Hamish Linklater (the masters) is the timid, retiring Antipholus of Syracuse and the tough, roughnecked Antipholus of Ephesus, while an almost manic Jesse Tyler Ferguson (the servants) doubles as the goofy Dromio of Syracuse and his crude brother from Ephesus. Both these comic actors, who’ve achieved a degree of fame through TV sitcoms, demonstrate their theatrical chops by creating strongly distinctive personalities for their dual identities.
   Sullivan skillfully creates the illusion they can be practically two places at the same time with his split-second staging. Toward the play’s end, the audience is just as dazzled as the characters when Linklater and Ferguson disappear into a convent onstage and then, moments later, emerge in the aisles of the Delacorte. Sullivan solves the final problem of having both sets of twins onstage simultaneously with an ingeniously simple device. He also offers a generous heaping of slapdash tomfoolery with pasta and pratfalls flying everywhere.
   Emily Bergl channels tough dames like Jean Harlow as the shrewish wife of one of the masters, and Heidi Schreck finds the backbone in her shyer sister. Skipp Sudduth conveys both the avuncular, slightly threatening authority of the Duke and the ribald lustiness of the kitchen maid. Jonathan Hadary hilariously doubles as the woebegone father of the Antipholuses and a Freudian Doctor Pinch. De’Adre Aziza is a vampy Courtesan, and Becky Ann Baker makes the most of the brief but vital role of the Abbess who wraps up all the loose plot strings in this frothy, fizzy summertime treat.

June 26, 2013
Far From Heaven
Playwrights Horizons

Reviewed by David Sheward

For a few decades now, the biggest musical theater trend is transferring hit movies to the stage. It usually works with uplifting comedies, quite often when drag is involved (La Cage Aux Folles, Hairspray, this season’s Tony Best Musical Kinky Boots). But serious film dramas getting the musical treatment don’t always work. Far From Heaven, the 2002 indie weepie directed and written by Todd Haynes, has been made over by composer Scott Frankel, lyricist Michael Korie, and book-writer Richard Greenberg. After a run at Williamstown Theatre Festival, the musical is now in an Off-Broadway run at Playwrights Horizons. The results are competent but fail to convey the shattering emotions of the original.
   Caucasian housewife Cathy Whitaker finds herself dealing with sexual and racial repression in 1957 suburban Connecticut when her husband, Frank, reveals his long-hidden gay yearnings and she is attracted to Raymond, her African-American gardener. The film relied on Haynes’s highly stylized direction to convey the Technicolor idealization of Cathy’s supposed blissful domestic milieu and the turmoil underneath it. Greenberg has basically lifted Haynes’s screenplay and added a few names from the period (Joe McCarthy, NY Times film critic Bosley Crowther) to provide unneeded context. Likewise, Frankel’s music is too often on the nose, giving Frank jarring jazz and Raymond slow blues and soul as their leitmotifs. Korie’s lyrics are equally obvious. This is something of a surprise because Frankel and Korie did such a brilliant job of translating another film laden with subtext (Grey Gardens) to the stage. But the source material for that show, a documentary, allowed more leeway for adaptation of which the book-writer (Doug Wright) took full advantage.
   Here we are given the surface of the story without the broiling inner conflicts. In the film, the final scene finds a tragically bereft Cathy about to divorce Frank and bidding Raymond goodbye at the Hartford train station as he must leave the city because of their suspected but never consummated interracial romance. Julianne Moore as the movie Cathy was able to impart her stunning loss with a simple gesture of touching Raymond’s arm. Kelli O’Hara the stage Cathy has been given a soupy climactic aria that ends with her smiling, determined to overcome her woes and embracing her children with love and optimism. It’s not the same impact.
   Director Michael Grief delivers a slick production, aided by Allen Moyer’s flexible set and Peter Nigrini’s projections (kudos also to Catherine Zuber’s period costumes and Kenneth Posner’s picture-postcard lighting). But like the book and score, the staging fails to delve beneath the glossy exterior. The silver-voiced O’Hara doesn’t fully convey Cathy’s interior war. The only moments when she connects with the material on a deeper level are the brief moments when Cathy practices happy expressions in the mirror before answering her door. Then we see the split between the artificial Betty Crocker image and the suffering real woman. Raymond has been made into a saint of intelligence and compassion, and Isiah Johnson cannot breathe life into him. Steve Pasquale delivers Frank’s anguish, but that’s all. We don’t see the façade of the loving father and husband, which would have given his story arc tension.
   There are hints of wit and fire in Nancy Anderson’s Eve Arden-ish best friend, Quincy Tyler Bernstine’s sympathetic maid, Alma Cuervo’s nasty gossip, and Mary Stout and J.B. Adams in multiple roles, but this uneven show is far from dramatic heaven.

June 16, 2013

The Caucasian Chalk Circle
Classic Stage Company

Reviewed by David Sheward

At first, Brian Kulick’s Classic Stage Company production of The Caucasian Chalk Circle, Bertolt Brecht’s classic of downtrodden peasants overcoming the upper classes, is just a bit too precious. The audience enters set designer Tony Straiges’s disheveled environment suggesting an abandoned theater in Russia during one of its many political upheavals. The program describes the setting as “Ancient Grusinia but also perhaps the fall of the Soviet Union, when the hammer and the sickle were replaced by the Coca-Cola bottle.” The cast, playing a band of wandering actors, shuffles in speaking Russian, has a few comic mishaps with the lighting and sound, and then explains to the audience in heavily-accented English that the actors are presenting a fable of Grusha, a servant girl who impulsively adopts the baby abandoned by her wealthy mistress during a revolution. This reality-versus-illusion gambit appears to approximate Brecht’s famous alienation effect, wherein the viewers are made aware they are watching a play and are forced to consider the issues raised without sentiment for the characters.
   Later in the play, audience members are recruited to play extras at a wedding scene and, in an embarrassing sing-along, moan the word oh in an exaggerated, “sad” Russian manner. Fortunately, these forced bits are kept to a minimum. When Grusha’s tale gets going, Kulick’s direction becomes engaging. After she has committed to adopting the baby and protecting it from marauding rebels, Grusha sacrifices everything for him, even her engagement to the soldier Simon. Following many adventures, she is forced to battle for her charge with the kid’s biological mother in a trial presided over by the peasant-made-magistrate Azdak. Even though the child is portrayed by a puppet, the emotions conveyed by the human cast create the Pinocchio-like illusion he is real.
   The idiomatic translation by James and Tania Stern, along with pithy lyrics by the poet W.H. Auden and soulful original music by Duncan Sheik (Spring Awakening), make the tale compelling. Things only slow down when Kulick interrupts with those audience-participation sequences.
   The action is largely propelled by Elizabeth A. Davis, who lends Grusha a fierce intensity in spoken and sung scenes, as well as when she plays the violin. Christopher Lloyd endows the other main character, Azdak, with a rascally cunning, but the Taxi veteran appeared not to have mastered all the lines in this massive role, and his otherwise rich performance was marred by hesitancy. Mary Testa, Tom Riis Farrell, Jason Babinsky, Deb Radloff, and Alex Hurt have individual moments to shine in their multiple characterizations. This is an almost full and satisfying Circle, only broken when the director attempts to draw his own lines rather than allowing Brecht to complete it.

June 6, 2013
Murder Ballad
Union Square Theatre

Reviewed by David Sheward

Continuing the trend exemplified by Here Lies Love and Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812, Murder Ballad experiments with environmental staging. Now in a commercial Off-Broadway engagement after a limited Manhattan Theatre Club run, this 90-minute rock musical places the actors amid the audience. Set designer Mark Wendland transforms the Union Square Theatre into a downtown club where the title act might happen at any moment. Patrons are seated on either side of a central playing area where even more audience members are placed at cabaret tables. The four-person cast belts out a tale of passion and jealousy on top of those tables, in the aisles, and all around us.
   Julia Jordan—credited with conceived the show, authoring the book, and collaborating on the lyrics with composer Juliana Nash—has constructed an unremarkable story which would be better suited for an episode of Law & Order: SVU. Sara, a wild party girl, breaks up with her equally hedonistic boyfriend, club owner Tom. Drunkenly stumbling home, she bumps into NYU professor Michael who is as loving, steady, and unexciting as Tom was unpredictable, attractive, and dangerous. Flash forward a few years. Sara and Michael are married with a little girl, but Sara is getting bored and launches into a hot affair with old flame Tom. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to realize somebody’s gonna get bumped off. The gimmick is we don’t know who the perp or the vic will be. That’s perpetrator and victim to you non-L&O fans. There’s also a gorgeous, sexy female narrator commenting on the action. Without giving too much away, the ending is something of a gyp, relying on a device not introduced until the last minute.
   The score is sung-through and the pulsating hard-rock songs, arranged and orchestrated with muscularity by Justin Levine, provide an adrenaline rush. Sound designer Leon Rothenberg amps up the volume so it feels as if we are in a Lower East Side booze-and-heavy-bass hangout. The trouble is Nash and Jordan’s lyrics are barely discernible for the first half of the show. Maybe it’s my aged ears, but it took a while to get used to high decibels. As noted, Trip Cullman’s staging pushes the action right in our faces and the four-person cast generates plenty of vocal and physical energy. Fortunately, we never see their figurative or literal sweat.
   Will Swenson channels Tom’s egotistical, libidinal drive while Caissie Levy conveys Sara’s twisted battle between lust for Tom and affection for Michael. A robust John Ellison Conlee overcomes the challenge of keeping the decent Michael from being a wimp. Rebecca Naomi Jones infuses her utilitarian narrator role with strong purpose and delivers a shocking surprise at the end. Unfortunately, that surprise isn’t earned and shows what Murder Ballad is about—a gimmicky show. It’s a cool treat to pretend to be in a bar watching a passionate triangle unfold, but the emotions aren’t honest or conveyed in a new and revealing way, as they are in Here Lies Love and Natasha, Pierre.

May 30, 2013

Into the Woods
Berlind Theatre at the McCarter Theatre Center

Reviewed by Jerry Beal

“No One Is Alone” is the title of Stephen Sondheim’s glorious penultimate song in this show. But it is also the ideal description of the theatrical magic that is happening in Princeton between actors and audience, thanks to this reimagining by the Fiasco Theatre Company.
   It starts with the set. Stretching across the back wall is a latticework of jeweled strings, with skeletal re-creations of musical instruments lining the side walls. A piano sits center stage, balanced on each side by a music stand, and costume pieces are set on stands or in boxes. The pianist (Matt Castle of John Doyle’s 2007 Broadway Company) enters and begins tuning a guitar at the piano; he is soon followed by the 10 other cast members. One of them, co-director Ben Steinfeld who plays the Baker, warns two patrons in the front that they are in the spittle zone, then assures the whole, suddenly quiet audience that it can keep talking because nothing is happening yet. Playfulness, musicality, and storytelling are thus established as the evening’s motifs.
   What follows is a production of this most frequently performed Sondheim show influenced largely by the techniques of Story Theatre. Actors take turns narrating the story and play multiple roles, often changing in the blink of an eye with a mere vocal alteration or small costume piece. This method is particularly apt for a show like this, which deconstructs fairy tales as significantly darker than traditionally perceived. Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, Rapunzel, and Jack of beanstalk fame are intertwined, along with the original characters of a childless baker and his wife. In the first act, each person, including the inevitable Witch, heads into the woods in pursuit of his or her strongest desire: a child, financial security, love. The extended title song parallels the first act ending of A Little Night Music in which the characters all express their feelings about the upcoming “Weekend in the Country.” By the end of Into the Woodss first act, all these characters have achieved their goal—but not for long, because, in Act 2, life’s vagaries intervene, leading to fear, frustration, and death. The monster attacking all the characters is external and internal—echoes of The Fantasticks. The characters are left to ponder their paths, though Sondheim encourages them, and us, with the aforementioned “No One Is Alone” and the equally uplifting “Children Will Listen.”
   The cast is pitch perfect and the quintessence of ensemble playing. Each member shines individually and collectively; particularly good are Emily Young as Red and Rapunzel, and, among the men, Andy Grotelueschen’s cow, wicked stepsister, and Prince.
   At the New York premiere of Into the Woods, in 1987, reaction was divided, as it perhaps still is. But notwithstanding the musical’s faults, its power and richness are given full and even new life by this vigorous and sparkling effort.

May 27, 2013
I’ll Eat You Last: A Chat with Sue Mengers
Booth Theatre

Reviewed by David Sheward

Bette Midler is one of the few performers in the modern world who can hold an audience without moving from a sitting position for 80 minutes. In this one-woman play, her return to Broadway after more than 30 years, that’s exactly what she does. And the character is a perfect fit: Sue Mengers, loud, unstoppable superagent to the stars who shot to the top of the Hollywood hierarchy in the 1970s. Mengers’s ballsy, steamroller personality matches Midler’s Divine Miss M, the performer’s public persona we all fondly remember from her blockbuster concerts. Both are foulmouthed, unpretentious, and endowed with perfect comic timing. At the performance attended, the audience howled at her every line (except for the old lady sitting behind me who loudly declared, “Disgusting,” after Midler as Mengers called Barbra Streisand the “c” word).
   John Logan’s anecdote-laced script places the performer on a gorgeous sofa squarely in the middle of Scott Pask’s opulent Beverly Hills set. It’s hours before the high-powered guests arrive for yet another fabulous soiree, so Mengers kills time by telling the audience the story of her life. Through the magic of theater, we’ve managed to fit into her living room. One lucky patron is even invited onstage to play butler and bring the reclining star cigarettes and alcohol from a nearby breakfront. Midler sharply charts Mengers’s incredible journey from refugee from Hitler’s Germany to receptionist at William Morris to representative of such megastars as Gene Hackman, Ali MacGraw, Michael Caine, and Faye Dunaway.
   Along the way, we learn Mengers’s rules for success as an agent. Among the precepts are “Know the Spouse,” which she illustrates with the cautionary tale of Steve McQueen ruining the career of his wife MacGraw. “What happened to Ali MacGraw’s career?” quips Mengers. “I’ll tell you in four words: that c—t Steve McQueen.” The jokes and stories are juicy and rich, and Midler caresses every consonant; listening is like gobbling a boxful of expensive chocolates.
   Gradually, it’s revealed we’ve caught Mengers after her peak. She is not only waiting for her party guests but also anxiously watching the telephone for a call from her biggest client, Streisand, whom Mengers expects will join the growing list of those no longer in need of her representation. In a hubristic move, she placed two of her highest-flying clients, Streisand and Hackman, in a tremendous flop directed by Mengers’s husband. The defections started soon afterwards, and Mengers was no longer on the A-list. Not long after the action of the play, she retired from the biz and in 2011 died of cancer.
   Midler not only zestfully delivers Logan’s zingers but also imparts the broken woman underneath the brassy exterior. Listen as her voice catches when Mengers recalls having to tell client Julie Harris she’s considered too old to play Mary Todd Lincoln in a TV movie. It’s difficult to tell where director Joe Mantello’s contribution picks up and Midler’s leaves off. Although the actor leaves the sofa only at the play’s melancholy conclusion, it’s never static, so that’s a tribute to Mantello’s craft as much as Midler’s showmanship. They make this a sinfully delicious showbiz meal you’ll want to devour despite the high calorie count.

May 25, 2013
Music Box Theater

Reviewed by David Sheward

Andrea Martin and Matthew James Thomas
Photo by Joan Marcus

Pippin is the ultimate razzle-dazzle con job, but it’s a magnificently entertaining one. The story purports to advocate the joys of ordinary, workaday life, but only after stunning its audience with two and half hours of amazing theatricality. Bob Fosse, the director-choreographer of the original 1972 production, knew Roger O. Hirson’s wafer-thin book and Stephen Schwartz’s pleasant songs would not be enough to put over the slight story of a medieval prince seeking his identity. So he threw in every trick he knew to distract from the plot’s deficiencies. And it worked. Pippin ran for almost 2,000 performances, and Fosse won Tonys for his choreography and direction (the latter over Harold Prince for A Little Night Music).
   Diane Paulus has the same idea for this amazing revival, previously presented at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Mass., where she serves as artistic director. With the collaboration of Gypsy Snider of the Canadian troupe Les 7 doigts de la main and set designer Scott Pask’s big-top environment, Paulus transforms Schwartz’s simple story, first conceived as a college show when the songwriter was a student at Carnegie Tech, into a Cirque du Soleil–type spectacle. The band of players enacting Pippin’s Candide-like voyage, memorably led by Ben Vereen in the first staging, is now a tribe of circus performers who are capable of astonishing, gravity-defying feats.
   Vereen’s role of Leading Player is now taken by the slinky, sexy Patina Miller, who moves like a snake escaping from Eden and ready to take as many into hell as she can gather. Miller, who made a hit two seasons ago in Sister Act, commands the stage with her flexible limbs and electric eyes. Matthew James Thomas as the titular young hero has a devil of a time keeping up with her, but, with his sunny voice and adorable demeanor, he keeps the somewhat whiny character from falling into the trap of self-pity. Terrence Mann and Charlotte d’Amboise, married offstage, wrangle and grind deftly as Pippin’s overbearing father, the Emperor Charles, and sneaky, youthful stepmother, Fastrada. Rachel Bay Jones is charming and captivating as Catherine, the lonely widow who convinces Pippin to give up his idealistic quest for fulfillment and settle down on her farm. Jones manages to create a convincing character with clear goals (land her man) amid the slick staging.
   But the show is totally stolen by Andrea Martin in the cameo role of Berthe, Pippin’s spry grandmother. The part was originally played by Irene Ryan of The Beverly Hillbillies, and she stopped the show with a sing-along of Schwartz’s peppy “No Time At All.” Martin goes her one better with an acrobatic routine you won’t believe. With only a few minutes of stage time, Martin conveys an unquenchable zest for life and conquers the audience with her warmth and impeccable timing. It’s a standout piece of a standout show, but don’t try to figure out what, if anything, is behind the tricks and the showmanship. Just sit back and enjoy the razzle-dazzle.

May 15, 2013
On Your Toes
Encores! at New York City Center

Reviewed by Jerry Beal

Midway through the first act of this Encores! revival, a Russian dance troupe preparing to perform the climactic classic “Slaughter on Tenth Avenue” breaks into a tap-dance to the title tune. This number, followed soon by the aforementioned ballet, lifts the roof of the City Center and sends the show into the stratosphere of musical comedy heaven.
   This 1936 effort, Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart’s second after returning from an unrewarding sojourn in Hollywood, is a paean to and a sendup of classical ballet, in those days having come into vogue thanks to touring companies from Europe. The ostensible book attempts to mine the potential conflict between the traditional and the modern in dance, but it is really little more than an excuse for the feet to take over. Act One’s ballet finale “La Princese Zenobia,” the second act “Slaughter,” and the title number are the show here. And what a show these dancers put on! There are 25 of them plus two principals, Shonn Wiley and Irina Dvorovenko.
   However, as completely fulfilling as all the movement is, there is of course the Rodgers and Hart score, and typically sublime it is. Besides the rousing title song, we get the incomparable “There’s a Small Hotel” sung by the young lovers (Wiley and Kelli Barrett), the acerbic “Too Good for the Married Man” (Christine Baranski and Walter Bobbie), “Glad to Be Unhappy” (Hart’s de facto personal anthem), and the haunting “Quiet Night.” And again, we get the iconic melodies of the Slaughter ballet, producing what is doubtless one of the landmarks of musical theater.
   The great critic, teacher, and director Harold Clurman was known to believe that if you sat through a show patiently and long enough, something would eventually happen to reward your stay and your unflinching faith in theater. This On Your Toes is a validation of the master’s credo.

May 8, 2013
The Nance
Lincoln Center Theater at the Lyceum Theatre

Reviewed by David Sheward

The emotional high point of this Douglas Carter Beane play is the lowest for its title character, Chauncey Miles, a comic specializing in effeminate stereotypes who is gay offstage as well. Late in the play, Chauncey has fallen on hard times. A puritanical city official has clamped down on his act in burlesque, Chauncey has driven away his adoring lover, and he is reduced to playing drag because that’s considered “masquerade” rather than lewd comedy depicting “depravity” like homosexuality. As Chauncey, Nathan Lane, dressed by Ann Roth as a tawdry stage version of an over-the-hill hooker, stands on John Lee Beatty’s marvelously sleazy evocation of a run-down grindhouse in 1937 Greenwich Village, and delivers hoary—pardon the pun—wisecracks on straight sex. A few about a Romeo deserting his character cause the pitiful performer to break down, but he gathers himself up and goes on with the act. What’s amazing about this scene is Lane is hilariously funny while he breaks our hearts.
   It’s a stunning performance combining impeccable comic timing with intense pathos. Lane’s Chauncey believes the homophobic cant of the day. He sees himself as worthless and undeserving of love and the only way he can find it is to get the burlesque crowd, which includes gay patrons, to laugh at him. His much younger boyfriend, Ned, believes there’s nothing wrong with his sexuality, which sends Chauncey into the night seeking quick, anonymous tricks. The split eventually drives them apart, and Lane viscerally registers the loss, though Chauncey tries to hide it with gags and bravado.
   That the core of Beane’s script: Chauncey’s struggle to maintain his gay identity on his own terms, limited and twisted as they are. The playwright sometimes lays it on a bit thick with the political overlay, having his characters represent points of view rather than complex emotions. “In 80 years, who’s gonna ask about how we pay for Social Security?” says Sylvie, one of Chauncey’s stripper co-workers with Communist sympathies. Here, as in a few other points, the playwright seems to be speaking rather than one of his creations.
   But there are major compensations. Beane is brilliantly witty and knows how to write dialogue that’s simultaneously funny and moving. There’s also the fascinating device of employing burlesque sketches that comment on the real-life action. All these are smoothly and sensitively staged by Jack O’Brien on Beatty’s Edward Hopper-esque revolving set. Jonny Orsini is a sweet Ned, comfortable in his masculinity, yet eager to camp it up with a Tallulah Bankhead imitation. Lewis J. Stadlen as Efram, Chauncey’s straight stage partner, doesn’t shy away from his character’s repulsion to homosexuality and blends it with an appreciation for Chauncey as a talent and a person. Cady Huffman, Andrea Burns, and Jenni Barber earn laughs and admiration as they bump and strut as the strippers. But the engine that drives The Nance is Lane, and he guns it for all its worth.

May 6, 2013

The Big Knife
Roundabout Theatre Company at American Airlines Theatre

Reviewed by David Sheward
To cover a scene change during the Roundabout Theatre Company’s revival of The Big Knife, Clifford Odets’s 1948 cynical drama of Hollywood’s Golden Age, sound designer David Van Tieghem has created a marvelous audio parody of a typical period movie, headlined by the fictional protagonist, hot star Charlie Castle. It’s meant to be melodramatic, unlike the savagely realistic action of the play which chronicles Charlie’s struggle between his art and the soulless commerce of Tinseltown. This is a common theme in Odets, particularly in his earlier Golden Boy, revived earlier this season, in which the forces of refined classical music and brutal moneymaking battle within the compact frame of violinist-boxer Joe Bonaparte.
   The trouble is the play is as hokey as any assembly-line flick churned out by Marcus Hoff, the tyrannical studio head who is Charlie’s main nemesis. Odets has many valid points about the box-office-driven nature of America’s film industry and the country in general, which are even more pertinent in today’s multimillion-dollar movie biz. But he cheapens his purist views with a stale-even-for-1948 plot gimmick.
   Charlie is under pressure from Hoff to renew his contract for a hefty salary, but the actor, who yearns to make quality films, will be forced to perform Hoff’s dreck for 14 years. The star’s idealistic wife, Marian, threatens to leave him if he signs. That should be strong enough—the temptation of several millions versus starving for your art, with the love of a good woman thrown in. But Hoff blackmails Charlie with releasing the truth about a hit-and-run accident in which the actor caused the death of a child. When a gabby starlet with knowledge of the secret threatens to spill the beans, things get pretty ugly pretty quick. Charlie pompously compares himself to Macbeth and Hamlet, as Hoff and his minions involve their star and his wife in darker doings, finally ending with an over-the-top finish worthy of the schmaltzy Warner Bros. epic.
   Fortunately, Doug Hughes’s production is tight and honest, gorgeously realized by John Lee Beatty’s elegant set and Catherine Zuber’s stylish costumes, and the cast plays the hokey plot truthfully. Bobby Cannavale and Marin Ireland underplay Charlie and Marian’s earnest integrity, but they cannot overcome Odets’s soapy excesses and contrived dialogue. “Could you ever know I yearned for a world of people to bring out the best in me,” Charlie proclaims toward the end. Who talks like that?
   Given the delicious nastiness of Odets’s venom toward the movie industry, the villains get the choicest parts. Richard Kind dives into the Sam Goldwyn–like Hoff with relish. Reg Rogers is a slithering snake as Hoff’s henchman, the ironically named Smiley Coy. Brenda Wehle makes the gossip columnist Patty Benedict a fearsome force with a hatchet for a tongue. They do their best to sharpen this Knife, but it’s still got an old, dull blade.

April 28, 2013
Jekyll & Hyde
Marquis Theatre

Reviewed by David Sheward

Why revive Jekyll & Hyde, the hideous, overwrought 1997 musical based on the classic thriller? The only saving grace of the original production was the intense, sexy performance of Robert Cuccioli in the leading role. The music by Frank Wildhorn is generic, and the usually witty Leslie Bricusse’s book and lyrics are simplistic (Wildhorn and Steven Cuden also contributed to the lyrics). The show ran an astonishing 1,543 performances, mostly due to stunt replacement casting including David Hasselhoff, but it never turned a profit. So why bring it back if it was neither a financial nor an artistic success in the first place? 
   The new production does nothing to enhance the musical’s reputation. The raison d’être seems to be showing off the stars’ singing. It’s an example of the American Idol-ization of Broadway. Depth of story or characterization doesn’t mean a thing as long as the leads hit their money notes and hold them for at least 20 seconds. Idol finalist Constantine Maroulis as the titular split personality and Grammy nominee Deborah Cox as the luckless prostitute Lucy were obviously hired to draw undiscerning fans of their breathy pop-oriented voices. Maroulis screams his way through both characterizations, alternating between approximating Bricusse’s former writing partner Anthony Newley as Jekyll and a screechy Alice Cooper as Hyde. Cox at least has a decent sound, but her acting lacks dimension. And, if you thought the British accents in Kinky Boots were weak, they’re all over the map here. Maroulis sounds as if his dialect coach gave him a DVD of My Week With Marilyn and told the star to imitate Kenneth Branagh imitating Laurence Olivier, while Cox’s Cockney comes and goes.
   The supporting company fares somewhat better. Teal Wicks makes a convincingly devoted Emma, Jekyll’s long-suffering fiancée, and Richard White lends solid support as her father. Brian Gallagher earns a few welcome laughs as a foppish victim of Hyde’s murderous rage. But Laird Mackintosh mugs up a storm both vocally and dramatically as Jekyll’s best friend. Ironically, the most consistent and strongest limning is done by James Judy in the tiny role of Poole, Jekyll’s loyal butler.
   Director-choreographer Jeff Calhoun, who has done much more interesting work with Newsies and Grey Gardens, does a competent job, but no more. He tries too hard to inject scary thrills with Jeff Croiter’s nightmarish lighting and Daniel Brodie’s horror-film projections instead of trusting the story. You could watch American Idol and then American Horror Story for free on your DVR and get the same effect.

April 18, 2013

Matilda the Musical
Shubert Theatre

Reviewed by David Sheward

From the moment you enter the Shubert Theater and take in Rob Howell’s whimsical Scrabble tile–studded set, you know you’re in for a good time at Matilda the Musical. Based on Roald Dahl’s beloved children’s book, this hit from London offers a nasty, twisted, and totally joyful view of youngsters and the adjustments they face on the path to adulthood. You see, little Matilda is a genius, devouring dozens of books in a week, making up spellbinding stories, and learning Russian in her spare time. But her horrible parents are too absorbed in ballroom dancing and television to cherish or even recognize her intellectual gifts. So they bundle her off to a hideously oppressive school presided over by the terrifying headmistress Miss Trunchbull, a fiend who makes Miss Hannigan of Annie fame look like Mary Poppins. There, Matilda finds the ideal teacher in the shy Miss Honey, who encourages her and whom the brilliant child rescues from dire circumstances. 
   That’s the gist of this marvelously inventive musical, given a fun and fast-paced staging by director Matthew Warchus and choreographer Peter Darling. Book writer Dennis Kelly keeps Dahl’s cartoonish sensibility in developing the outlandish characters and the bizarre dimension they inhabit: a funhouse version of the real world where smart little girls must find ways to stick up for themselves.
   The score, by Australian comic-musician Tim Minchin, captures this wacky flavor when it needs to (most of the time), but also expresses the wistful sentiments of childhood games and friendship without getting treacly. This duality is best exhibited in the opening number, “Miracle” (as in “My mommy says I’m a miracle”), and the Act 2 paean to innocence, “When I Grow Up.” In the former, spoiled brats smash one another with cake and rampage in torn superhero costumes during a nightmarish birthday party. In the latter, the same kids glide over the audience on swings, sweetly warbling about a fantasized version of maturity where they can do whatever they want, including watching cartoons and eating candy all day. Warchus and Darling stage these opposing views of kids with appropriate details—manic energy and mayhem in “Miracle” and subtle simplicity in the “Grow Up.”

Four young actors alternate in the role of Matilda. Milly Shapiro (at the show reviewed) is a pint-sized Maggie Smith with the face of a Norwegian saga. This little dynamo skillfully imparts the character’s dazzling intelligence and taste for mischief, as well as her raging indignation at injustice. Her cry of “That’s not right!” seems to reach out of the theater onto 44th Street. Gabriel Ebert and Lesli Margherita are unabashedly and delightfully vulgar as the uncaring parents. Lauren Ward as Miss Honey and Karen Aldridge as Mrs. Phelps, a friendly librarian who craves Matilda’s cliffhanging tales, are sweetly supportive.
   But Bertie Carvel in drag as the grotesque Miss Trunchbull nearly steals the show. Resembling the living gargoyle from a famous episode of Jonny Quest (Howell also designed the clever costumes), Carvel creates a monster who still retains a touch of femininity. It’s a brilliantly funny performance in one of the best musicals Broadway has seen in years.

April 16, 2013
The Mound Builders
Signature Theatre

Reviewed by Jerry Beal

“Attention must be paid.” Linda Loman’s exhortation on her husband’s behalf in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman may come from a particular context, but it applies in support of another of America’s foremost playwrights, Lanford Wilson. Poet, humanist, consummate artist, Wilson, in his command of language, creation of imagery, and, most important, precision and depth of characterization, never ceases to draw us to him, even when, as in this 1975 play, flaws appear and threaten to derail the journey. Fear not: This man of the theater and of the world will never let that happen.
   In an odd sense, one can compare Wilson’s jumping-off point in this play—an archeological dig in Blue Shoals, Ill.—to Alfred Hitchcock’s MacGuffin. This was Hitchcock’s device for launching the plot; its contents and importance were never revealed. Similarly here, we never really discover what the searchers are looking for, or what particular historical significance it might have. We get suggestions and hints, but because of obstacles both natural and human, that’s all we get. What emerges, however, is a confluence of human needs, longings, joys, sorrows, and behavior, all brought forth by the event of the dig.
   Wilson, particularly here, was not a writer with a great penchant for plot. His strengths and interests were language and people. Lisa Joyce’s pregnant Jean, a gynecologist married to the archeologist (Zachary Booth) obsessed with learning the secrets of these mound builders—the eponymous tribe under excavation—carries not only her unborn child but also a history of depression and confusion. The other lead archeologist (David Conrad) and his wife (Janie Brookshire) are hanging together by the slenderest of threads; she in turn is clearly involved with the owner (Will Rogers) of the land on which the dig is occurring. He is an unfulfilled outsider, inheritor of the land from his father, with plans to build a Holiday Inn with attendant shopping and an interstate highway. When he learns that the diggers have thwarted those plans, his response brings the play to a searing and unexpected climax. Also present is the drug-addicted sister (Danielle Skraastad) of the cuckolded archeologist, a formerly prolific writer who sees much of what the others, except Jean, cannot. As a writer of acute theatrical sensibility, Wilson succeeds here in tying all of his strands together in a totally satisfying way.
   Flights of poetic moments interrupt the story’s flow, however, and often, particularly as voiced by the sister, those moments sound more author-generated than character-generated. Occasionally, one begins to wonder where the play is going. But again, in the hands of this craftsman and humanitarian, we are brought back to the world that Wilson strives to create. That world is aided immeasurably by Jo Bonny’s direction. The mise-en-scène moves seamlessly from scene to scene, with great theatricality. And the production is wonderfully abetted by the sound design of Darron West; with its original music and sound effects, a mood of strangeness and longing is continually evoked.
   The Signature Theatre is an invaluable New York institution that specializes in excavating American plays; this play about that very topic is a fitting and welcome choice.

April 4, 2013

Lucky Guy
Broadhurst Theatre

Reviewed by David Sheward

It’s chaotic, it’s grandiose, there’s too much drinking, smoking, swearing, sensationalism. Jeez, it’s just too much altogether. But, like the crazed tabloid journalism era of the 1980s and ’90s that it depicts, the late Nora Ephron’s Lucky Guy is a wild, satisfying ride full of danger and passion. It’s not a neat little package, attempting to get a point across about the state of modern media. There’s a throwaway line late in the second act about how print is dead, having been killed by TV, but it’s almost an afterthought.
   This sprawling, episodic biography of the gutsy, gritty columnist Mike McAlary is a tribute to the kind of bare-knuckled reporting and the flawed lucky guy himself. Ephron’s frequent movie collaborator Tom Hanks makes his Broadway debut in the title role. Eschewing his nice-guy film image, Hanks tears into the red meat of the part with relish. From his first entrance when he directly asks an audience member, “This is New York. Who’s relaxed? Are you relaxed?” to a tearful speech for newsroom colleagues when McAlary wins a Pulitzer Prize, Hanks grabs us and never lets go. He may as well start dusting his shelf for a Tony Award to go alongside his two Oscars.
   The play is a bit of a jumble, starting in a smoke-filled bar with a chorus of rough-edged reporters singing an Irish folk song and then telling McAlary’s story as he progresses from lowly reporter relegated to the wilds of Queens to the highest-paid columnist in the city. He grabs the front page but also gets into trouble on occasion. A false report about a rape victim results in a lawsuit, which nearly ruins his reputation. Characters frequently trade off narrator duties, interrupt each other to get their viewpoints in, and assume different personae (“You play Jimmy Breslin,” one editor shouts to a bartender).
   Ephron reportedly intended it as a film or TV script, and that certainly shows the rapid pace and short scenes. Fortunately, director George C. Wolfe knows a thing or two about staging unwieldy scripts in a cinematic fashion. Remember Angels in America and Bring in ’da Noise…? Aided by David Rockwell’s fluid, suggestive sets and the black-and-white, in-your-face video projections of Batwin + Robin Productions, Wolfe gives Guy the necessary freight-train intensity. He also knows when to hit the brakes—as in an uncomfortable, heart-wrenching moment when McAlary interviews a ravaged Abner Louima (an understated Stephen Tyrone Williams) about being sodomized by rogue cops.
   Despite Hanks’s megawatt movie-star status—he gets the only solo curtain call—this is not a one-man show. Rare for Broadway nonmusicals, the cast boasts 16 additional actors, many of whom are given moments to stand out. Courtney B. Vance is sandpaper and satin as an editor who loves McAlary but hates his excesses. Deirdre Lovejoy is foul-mouthed and funny as one of the few women in a man’s world. Danny Mastrogiorgio lends fire to a jealous colleague.
   Playing McAlary’s alcoholic mentor, Peter Gerety makes his scenes with Hanks have such a relaxed authenticity, the two seem like just a couple of guys vigorously debating journalism after quite a few drinks rather than a pair of experienced actors on a Broadway stage. The only one who really gets lost in the mayhem is Maura Tierney as McAlary’s long-suffering wife, Alice. She is relegated to the role of occasionally complaining, but ultimately supportive spouse, one of the few dull characters in an otherwise explosive production.

April 5, 2013
It’s a Bird… It’s a Plane… It’s Superman
Encores! at New York City Center

Reviewed by Jerry Beal

Encores! has done it again. This bastion of American musical theatre revivals in concert stagings—now in its 20th season of producing three to four pieces each year—flies high with this production. First staged in 1965, the show ran into the tongue-in-cheekiness of a new television upstart, Batman, and lasted just 129 performances. Thanks to a following that appreciated its wit and jaunty score, its cachet has never fully disappeared, and in this reincarnation its charms are clear and numerous.
   A delicate and astute blend of camp and sincerity, Superman revels in its affection for its source material (music by Charles Strouse, lyrics by Lee Adams, book by David Newman and Robert Benton based on the comic strip Superman). Clark Kent is still the unprepossessing and mild-mannered reporter with a yen for fellow reporter Lois Lane. She continues to pine for the unavailable “Man of Steel,” who wishes he could reveal his true self to her.
   Into this familiar mix comes Max Mencken, the in-house lothario whose charms pale next to Superman’s prowess, and Abner Sedgwick, the mad—as in angry—scientist whose neglect by the Nobel Prize Committee has set him on the path to destroy Superman and thereby, in his mind, raise his own status. Add to the brew a very decent co-worker pining for Lois, a love-struck siren whose unrequited longings for Max cause her to make a pass at Clark, and an ensemble of regular folk with an ever-present and very human need for a hero, all assembled by director John Rando in a visually and tonally arresting creation, and Encores! continues to demonstrate its ability to bring our native art form’s past to a generation rooted in falling chandeliers and feline junkyards.
   A cast of relatively unfamiliar Broadway performers glows under Rando’s staging and Rob Berman’s music direction. Edward Watts achieves a perfect blend of strength and loneliness as our hero. Jenny Powers brings out Lois’s similar ambivalence. David Pittu is the showstopping Sedgwick, Will Swensen does his best to channel the immortal Jack Cassidy as Max, and the two bring down the house as they share their villainous dreams in “You’ve Got What I Need.” Perhaps the show’s most known song, “You’ve Got Possibilities,” is given all its due by Alli Mauzey.
   Once in a very rare while, the series comes a cropper, either because the material is problematic—On a Clear Day You Can See Forever, Golden Boy—or because the production falters. But when, as in the past two years—Fiorello, Merrily We Roll Along, Pipe Dream, and now It’s a Bird… It’s a Plane… It’s Superman—the combination of material and production meshes in every way, the value of this institution remains indisputable and incomparable.

March 26, 2013
Breakfast at Tiffany’s
Cort Theatre

Reviewed by David Sheward

The new Broadway adaptation of Truman Capote’s beloved 1958 novella Breakfast at Tiffany’s breaks at least two cardinal rules of show business: 1) Never work with animals, and 2) Never try to re-create an iconic screen role on stage. It didn’t work for On the Waterfront or The Graduate. Here, the first maximum is only violated slightly. A feline named Vito Vincent is carried on during a party scene, pulls focus, and then leaps into the wings. He later reappears briefly and easily steals a climactic and tearful farewell sequence. The second infraction about icons is a bit more serious. All comparisons may be odious, but Audrey Hepburn owned the part of heartbreaking party girl Holly Golightly in Blake Edwards’s 1961 film version. Emilia Clarke of HBO’s Games of Thrones makes a game go of it, but fails to enchant or capture Holly’s vulnerability.
   Richard Greenberg’s script may adhere more closely to the source material than Edwards’s movie, but it lacks the joy, fizz, and fun of the film and the wistful sadness and sweet nostalgia of Capote’s original. The novella takes place in World War II Manhattan where the dazzlingly attractive and effervescent Holly pursues millionaires and cocktails as a semi-prostitute, cadging $50 bills for cab fare and powder-room expenses. She represents the glamour and excitement of unbridled youth and unapologetic nonconformism, and is observed by a narrator—a stand-in for Capote—an aspiring writer whom she names Fred after her adored brother.
   The story is a mood piece and character study, the shadowy Capote figure admiring Holly as a devilish friend or delightfully sinful sister. In the movie, the author becomes Paul, a definite heterosexual played by George Peppard, whose frustrating but finally successful romance with Holly gives the plot a much needed arc. In Greenberg’s version, the narrator is bisexual with leanings toward Holly and other young men. The connection between the two leads is unclear and unresolved, so we don’t really care what happens to them.
    Cory Michael Smith handles the thankless narrator role with aplomb, though his honeysuckle-Southern accent comes and goes. There are a few bright spots in the large cast of Broadway veterans—including Suzanne Bertish who doubles up as a prudish, eccentric neighbor and a stern magazine editor; Lee Wilkof as a fast-taking agent; Tony Torn as an idiotic playboy; Murphy Guyer as Holly’s much older husband from her native Texas; and reliable George Wendt of Cheers fame as a sympathetic bartender.  
   Sean Mathias, who staged an earlier, unsuccessful Breakfast in London with Anna Friel, does a competent enough job of traffic management, but there’s no sizzle, sex, or spark in his staging. The original music and sound design of Rob Milburn and Michael Bodeen are the only elements to succeed in re-creating a bygone era and weaving a spell of sophistication and charm so sadly lacking in the production as a whole.

March 23, 2013

Talley’s Folly
Roundabout Theatre Company at the Laura Pels Theatre at the Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre

Reviewed by David Sheward

A common thread among America’s greatest playwrights is a compassionate view of our dreamers and outcasts. Tennessee Williams, William Inge, and Lanford Wilson definitely belong in this class of poetic realists. In recent revivals, Broadway audiences have seen the sexual misfits of Williams’ Gothic Deep South (Cat on a Hot Tin Roof) and Inge’s repressed Midwest (Picnic) howl out their frustrations. Now the Roundabout Theatre Company gives us Wilson’s sunnier but no less complex portrait of a conflicted nation through a seemingly simple love story in a captivating production at the Off-Broadway Laura Pels Theater. His Talley’s Folly was a huge hit for his home-base theater company, the dearly missed Circle Repertory Theatre, winning a Pulitzer Prize and running on and Off-Broadway in 1979 and ’80. You could argue that a large measure of the play’s initial success was due to the lead performance of Judd Hirsch, the star of a popular TV show (Taxi), but Michael Wilson’s sterling staging proves there is more to this enchanting valentine than juicy acting opportunities.
   The setting is a ruined boathouse beautifully designed by Jeff Cowie and poetically lit by Rui Rita. It’s July 4, 1944, and Jewish-European immigrant Matt Friedman is preparing to propose to Sally Talley, the 30-ish daughter of a prominent family in a small Missouri town. (The Talleys are also featured in Lanford Wilson’s other exquisite plays Talley and Son and Fifth of July.) Both are lonely souls and don’t quite fit into the traditional American template of picket fences, apple pie, and nuclear families in a soon-to-be post-atomic age. Matt lost his entire family when he was a child, and Sally is the outcast of the Talleys—not only for her outspoken progressive views but also for an illness that has rendered her barren. These two reach out to each other in a gentle push-pull mating dance of attraction and fear. Matt tells us the play is a waltz, and that’s just how Michael Wilson directs it: slow, elegant, and lilting.
   Danny Burstein is marvelous as the talkative Matt Friedman, slyly gaining the audience’s confidence in direct address, charming us and Sally with self-deprecating wit and unabashed sentiment. Sarah Paulson has the less showy role of Sally and therefore the greater acting challenge. She does not speak directly to us and must display Sally’s insecurities through subtle furtive side glances and halting speech. But both are proficient at hiding their characters’ fearful, bruised interiors with funny rapid patter and bravura bluster. When their defenses are finally down, we see these actors expose the quivering loners with a compassion equal to that of the playwright.

March 12, 2012

Classic Stage Company

Reviewed by David Sheward

Originally conceived as half of a double-bill of one-act musicals, Stephen Sondheim’s Passion seemed more of a brief chamber opera rather than a full-blown Broadway musical when it premiered in 1994. Director John Doyle, who has staged innovative interpretations of the legendary composer-lyricist’s Company and Sweeney Todd, gives the piece a more appropriately intimate setting at the Off-Broadway Classic Stage Company for this revival. Doyle also designed the spare setting—a bare platform with a few furnishings and props—which perfectly serves this slight story. In the original staging, Donna Murphy’s volcanic performance and Sondheim’s gorgeous music made up for the frailness of the story, but here the production is just as wispy.
   Based on Ettore Scola’s film Passione D’Amore, James Lapine’s book follows the amorous trials of handsome Italian cavalryman Giorgio in a remote 19th century village. Separated from his lover, the married and beautiful Clara, he draws the borderline-obsessive attention of his commanding officer’s unattractive, invalid cousin Fosca. He initially rejects the manipulative, passive-aggressive Fosca, but gradually realizes her selfless affection is stronger than that of Clara who refuses to leave her husband and small son.
   In the original production, the stunning Murphy was made over to be truly ugly. Here Judy Kuhn is just plain, so the conflict within Giorgio between judging love by appearance or spirit is not as powerful. However, Kuhn delivers a moving performance, dramatically and vocally, but she fails to match Murphy’s depth of complexity. Similarly Ryan Silverman has the voice to put across Giorgio’s songs, but the actor lacks the necessary passion—pardon the pun—to make us care about him. Melissa Errico makes a lovely Clara, but the role is tangential to the main thread. Veterans Stephen Borgadus, Tom Nelis, Jeffrey Denman, and Ken Krugman do their best in support.
   Given Doyle’s previous productions of Sondheim shows in which all the characters played instruments, I expected Giorgio, Fosca and the whole regiment to be parading through the CSC space like a military band. He keeps the staging relatively free of such devices, with the exception of having the soldiers play all the roles—including female ones—in a flashback detailing Fosca’s disastrous marriage to a fake nobleman. Such ideas may have saved this Passion from the uninvolving staging. However, the score is beautifully played, so kudos to music director Rob Berman and orchestrator Jonathan Tunick who also worked on the original production.

March 3, 2013

The Madrid
Manhattan Theatre Club at NY City Center Stage I

Reviewed by David Sheward

Late in the second ac