The Accomplices by Bernard Weinraub
All the Wrong Reasons by John Fugelsang
Our Leading Lady by Charles Busch
The Dark at the Top of the Stairs by William Inge
Some Men by Terrence McNally
Jack Goes Boating by Bob Glaudini
Reviewed by David Spencer
Again, apologies for condensed reviews in a busy time. These are all limited runs, though, so at least they are somewhat fairly grouped together.
I could barely believe The Accomplices was a production of The New Group. For while Bernard Weinraub's play (in the Theatre Row complex on 42nd Street) certainly deals with dark subject matter, it's not the darkness of despair, depravity or nihilism which so often marks their debut plays—but rather the darkness that seeks light. It dramatizes the fight waged by American Jewish activists during WWII to get President Roosevelt's (Jon DeVries) administration to openly and publicly acknowledge the slaughter of Jews under the Nazi regime, and to extend its immigration policy to accept all escaping refugees. While the Holocaust was in full swing, a number of high ranking politicos dragged their heels about passing legislation, sort of obliviously, if not quite consciously maliciously, adding to the atrocities in Europe the tacit anti-Semitism that dared not speak its name infusing the United States. More infuriatingly frustrating still, activist leader Hilel Kook—whose American identity was Peter Bergson (Daniel Sauli)—even found reluctance among the well-placed Jewish establishment—here personified by Rabbi Stephen Wise (David Margulies), known at the time as the Pope of the Jews"—who were so used to gently cajoling the gentile power brokers so as never to cause an offended backlash that their fear of making noise overpowered the urgency of the cause.
Act One of the play is always interesting but never quite transcends the cool efficiency of a well focused agit-prop docu-drama; however, Act Two, in which we leave the pure cause just a little bit to see its effect on the lives of the players, is ironically, and inevitably, when the power of the dilemma is most viscerally communicated and felt. It is also when parallels to similar atrocities in our contemporary world, similarly back-burnered by world powers, are made most powerfully, and the present-day resonance of the play truly hits home.
An excellently cast ensemble is sharply directed by Ian Morgan.
The difference between a monologue play and 90 minutes of standup is almost but not quite in the eye of the beholder. What distinguishes John Fugelsang's All the Wrong Reasons (subtitled: A True Story of Neo-Nazis, Drug Smuggling and Undying Love) from being a "set" is a modicum of formality—despite an easy and natural delivery, there's no attempt at camouflaging that the piece is, stem to stern, written—and a dramatic arc that provides an overall structure. The good-looking, deceptively whitebread Mr. Fugelsang tells a likewise deceptively rambling anecdotal history about his relationship with his parents, who are fundamentalist and conservative (he is, to put it mildly, not) as balanced against his relationship with his longtime girlfriend and show business. And politics. And poverty. But what he's really all about is a tale of how sometimes things just balance themselves out, if you allow yourself to learn from crisis.
Mr. Fugelsang is not a go-for-the-jugular comedian, and for the most part, even when tackling controversy (which he does unflinchingly, such as his encounter with ex-Klan poobah David Duke—the neo-Nazi of the subtitle—on Bill Maher's Politically Incorrect), he works relatively "clean," his professional vocabulary no bluer nor more frequently profane than that of Bob Sagat or David Brenner. However, All The Wrong Reasons is about as deep as standup gets, which is to say, not very, but more than usual, and Mr. Fugelsang is an engaging and endearing fellow to spend an hour and a half with.
At The Manhattan Theatre Club, Charles Busch's new play, Our Leading Lady, attempts to explore the narcissism of the artist when confronted with the realities of the world—in this case centering on Laura Keene (Kate Mulgrew) who happened to be playing the lead in Our American Cousin at Ford's Theatre in Washington DC on the night Lincoln was shot.
Busch's notion seems to be to start with a backstage comedy of high theatrical manners, full of extreme personalities; then to show how tragedy can obliterate the fragile constructs of facade, revealing the exposed, frightened, insecure people behind such constructs; and then to show how the return to facade is in fact a return to strength—for indeed why else does a person reinvent herself as an artist if not to draw upon the strengths that make dealing with real life bearable?
It's not a bad premise, and in Laura Keene he has created a memorably and deliciously over-the-top character—played to match by a fearlessly grand, and later shatteringly exposed, Kate Mulgrew. Other members of the troupe are likewise written played to the hilt (under the direction of Lynne Meadow) by Maxwell Caulfield, Reed Birney, Kristine Neilsen and others; with a special nod to Ann Duquesnay as Miss Keene's devoted assistant, Madame Wu-Chan, who turns out to be better than anyone at negotiating the gap between reality and fantasy.
It all almost works brilliantly, in fact, for me it was brilliant right up until the denouement scene, in which Laura and the others are interrogated by army investigator Major Hopwood (J.R. Horne) about what transpired on the fatal night. At which point Mr. Busch's resources of invention seemed to abandon him, Laura's resurrection and recovery seeming insufficient and glib, and not really up to the promise of what came before.
I'm willing, though, to think of Our Leading Lady as a work still in progress; because the rest of it is so good, I have to believe Mr. Busch has another draft in him, and the capacity to dig just that little bit deeper...
At the Connelly Theatre on East 4th Street, the Transport Group is offering a revival of William Inge's The Dark at the Top of the Stairs. It's easy to see why some people think it a neglected masterpiece (this is its first significant NY appearance since the Broadway run 50 years ago; and the much heralded 1963 film—quite different in some respects than the play—has yet to be released on video); it's also easy to see why some find it hard to take. Inge was a closeted homosexual writing about the socio-sexual-familial mores and attitudes of his day, and regarded in that light, the plays dated themselves, not much more than ten or fifteen years after they debuted. But looked at with the hindsight of even more time passing, and a much more comprehensive general-public understanding of psychology, one can see the themes Inge was both dramatizing in his plays and struggling with in his life. So how you feel about this play—written naturalistically, but given a staging and physical production by director Jack Cummings III that is unnecessarily artsy, but at least not distortive—will really depend upon your outlook. Personally, I think Inge belongs in the time capsule: his ideas were daring for their day, and one can make a very convincing case for the view that he paved the way for other writers to break out on controversial themes...but as I watched The Dark at the Top of the Stairs, I was always aware of what I call the "case history" approach, in which an issue—in this case "common" family dysfunction—is dramatized via characters representative of a recognizeable pathology: the repressed husband who can't/won't share his worries; the struggling young wife; the emasculated other husband and the bossy wife who behaves like a wanton but isn't; the young boy fascinated with movie star pictures who "isn't like other young boys", etc. For me a little of that goes a long way, and at over three hours, The Dark at the Top of the Stairs overplays its hand and overstays its welcome.
But the cast is truly, even shockingly A-list for off-off Broadway, with Donna-Lynne Champlin and Michelle Pawk in the leads—so no one can say the play isn't in great hands. Indeed they, and their colleagues in the ensemble, attack the material with fearless sincerity.
A much bolder and more openly a case history play is Some Men, which has alas concluded its run at 2nd Stage (actually, this review will have been uploaded on its final day; though I have to say, in this case my tardy notice has not to do with my responsibilities everywhere, but rather simple logistics; it was a hot press ticket at an off-Broadway theatre and the press rep couldn't get me in until what would have been the last performance but for a week's extension). By Terrence McNally, it's a series of vignettes dealing with the development of male homosexual life in urban society, flashing back from the present (a gay marriage ceremony) to the days when living a closeted existence was mandatory, moving forward through the burgeoning of gay rights and up to the mainstreaming of gay life as a (more or less) universally accepted subculture. The ensemble cast plays many roles (with a few that recur, seeming to track social progress from a personal perspective) and the play is a pithy, even a little touching, jaunt through history. It's a shame that the run is so short...it deserves a transfer; at the very least a long life in the regionals. The 2nd Stage production was sensitively directed by Trip Cullman.
Finally, there's Jack Goes Boating, by Bob Glaudini, a production of the LAByrinth Theatre making its home in the Public Theatre complex. It's a gentle play about two young couples, one married, one exploring the stirrings of new romance, all of them quirky, all of them a little potheady, all of them social misfits; and the best way I can describe it is as a romantic comedy about freakazoids. (And at that, one that’s a little dated. The constant drug use, which in this play extends to cocaine, seems inauthentic; the notion that it can be a matter-of-fact part of the characters’ casual lives without long range and profound consequences feels like something left over from the 70s.) However, the audience I was among was very into the play, despite my being less taken with its downtown charms. (I may not be alone. The fellow next to me booked at intermission.) But liking this one, too, may be a question of taste and sensibility rather than how well the artists have done their job. Glaudini's script is not that of a real comedy writer, but he's funny enough, and under the skilled direction of Peter Dubois, a fine quartet of actors—Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Beth Cole, John Ortiz and, in a very healthy comeback after her painful turn in Les Miserables, Daphne Rubin-Vega—take his material (and you, if you're willing) over the finish line.