Book by Rachel Shenkin
Music and Lyrics by William Finn
at Paper Mill

by Tommy Nohilly
Directed by Scott Elliott
Featuring Gordon Clapp
The New Group at Theatre Row

by Thomas Dekker, John Ford, William Rowley & Etc.
Directed by Jesse Berger
Red Bull Theater
at St. Clement's

by Matthew Lopez
Directed by Doug Hughes
Starring André Braugher
The Manhattan Theatre Club
at City Center

by Anton Chekhov
Directed by Austin Pendleton
Featuring Maggie Gyllenhall
Classic Stage Company (CSC)
at 136 East 13th Street

Reviewed by David Spencer

I was not an energetic supporter of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee (though I wasn’t exactly a detractor) for a number of reasons you can  read in my review of the original Broadway production. And while I feel much the same about the maqterial, I have to say, I thought director Marc Bruni’s delivery (a co-production of the Philadelpia Theatre Company and the Paper Mill Playhouse) to be notably superior and more emotionally engaging than James Lapine’s original on Broadway. Where the redoubtable Mr. Lapine favored having clearly adult (if young-ish) actors playing high school kids with a certain amount of exaggeration dipping into caricature (a perfectly legitimate device, and for the several years of its run, the NYC audience was happily complicit with the illusion), Mr. Bruni opted for younger actors who are not conspicuously adult, and very quickly after they’re introduced seem convincingly adolescent. Lapine is a brilliant professional and knows well the value of playing comedy for real stakes, but Bruni’s approach—combined with a superbly cast ensemble—made the stakes realer and hotter. (It didn’t hurt that among his casting “finds” was Ali Stroker, a charismatic and beautiful actress-singer with a generous-hearted belt, who happens to be wheelchair bound. While skillfully incorporating her disability into the staging and choreography—and make no mistake, Ms. Stroker was as fully active and dexterous as anyone standing—Bruni otherwise let the handicap go without comment. There was such naturalness to this that for fully half the show I forgot that the role was not written to portray a handicapped character; and I think from here on it may be hard to imagine it otherwise.) I hope the production resurfaces elsewhere. Speaking of my London trip, Spelling Bee is about to open at the Donmar Warehouse, where I hope to see it, if I can. Here’s hoping they do it as well. It’s hard to imagine it better.

Blood from a Stone by Tommy Nohilly is yet another of New Group director (and artistic director) Scott Elliott’s forays into deep, depressing family dysfunction cross-bred with nihilism (which Elliot always labels “dark comedy”), and the only thing that sets this play apart from some of the even more distasteful offenders (like the New Group’s all-time champeen, Dmity Lipkin’s spirit-draining Cranes) is that it doesn’t wade into dramatizing purposeless depravity as well. As the press blurb describes, it’s about a “troubled working-class family in New Britain, CT. Travis (Ethan Hawke) visits his parents (Ann Dowd, Gordon Clapp) home to check on his brother Matt (Thomas Guiry) and his mother, only to find himself sucked into intractable conflicts, and a whole household on the verge of implosion.” The problem here (as with so many of the plays that have come before) is that there seems no purpose to the exercise; it’s merely a slice-of-life glimpse of hell; and at that, a hell whose torments seem to pop and accumulate at random, without a discernible theme to, at the very least, let us know why we’re there. As always, Elliott does the verité directing thing very well, with a fine cast. And as always, when he indulges this fascination, which is far too often, the only profundity to the onstage tragedy is how many people are working so hard and so well for naught.

The Witch of Edmonton is a Jacobean tragedy by at least three dramatists of the period that gets little exposure these days, and it is currently on offer from The Red Bull Theatre company at St. Clement’s on 46th Street.  Given that it’s a very convoluted story of several intertwining threads—principally one concerning a young man marrying twice (and murdering) for money; and one concerning the town hag, accused of witchery, who makes a pact with the Devil (disguised as a dog) for her revenge—it moves at a very slow pace.  And while director Jesse Berger’s production is well designed and attractive, most of its performances are randomly overwrought, with the result that following the (ultimately unsurprising) trajectory becomes exhausting, and at times tedious. This said, I must add for full disclosure: the engagement has been extended there and some of the reviews are far more positive than mine. All I can tell you is that my evening’s companion responded as I did; and a patron behind me greeted intermission with the following paradoxical, yet entirely telling, remark: “The problem with this play is that nothing happens.”

The Whipping Man, making its NY debut at The Manhattan Theatre Club following several regional engagements (in different productions)—and even that second act has a grand centerpiece, said centerpiece being a Passover seder. But, to quote a succinct summary by New York Times critic Charles Isherwood, “the year is 1865, the location is a half-destroyed house in Richmond, Va, the wine is stolen and in place of the traditional motzo is a small square of hardtack, the dense breadstuff given out in soldiers’ rations.” The three celebrants are two newly freed slaves and a Confederate soldier—all Jews. This is the family house of the soldier, Caleb (Jay Wilkinson); the ex-slaves, father-figure Simon (André Braugher) and mischievous brother figure John (André Holland) received their faith here in this house, as servants to Caleb’s family. Caleb has returned to the house, wounded in the aftermath of battle, to find it half-destroyed and abandoned, save for Simon. John’s return comes coincidentally on the heels of Caleb’s because he’s been using the opportunity of post-Civil war devastation to loot empty houses; and home base is a good place to store the goods and hide out. They make for an interesting trio, and their story reveals a little known corner of southern and Civil War history. As well as a dark secret one of them doesn’t know. Those surprises, and the way playwright Matthew Lopez doles them out, make for a riveting and exciting Act One. What weakens Act Two is that Lopez damn near runs out of story—Act Two is all about delaying the moment when the secret is revealed, and were it not for the fantastic oddity of the seder to fuel and add irony to the subtext (and it is fantastic), the delay would seem attenuated. Indeed, there’s not much play left when the seder’s done, but to the author’s credit, he knows it, and gets on with the finishing business briskly. Under Doug Wright’s careful direction, the performances are excellent, and Braugher’s to the point where he pretty much “owns” the role.

Though there is an undeniable unevenness to the quality of the cast, it is likewise undeniable that in terms of an overall vision, director Austin Pendleton's rendering of The Three Sisters at CSC is about as good as Chekhov gets; put next to Pendleton's stunning Uncle Vanya, two seasons ago also at CSC, it makes a strong case for him being among the foremost interpreters of Chekhov in the English speaking theatre. What's always striking about his work is how easily and believably naturalistic it is, and how interestingly he and his actors play with the tics, takes and tells of interpersonal behavior. There does seem less ready comedy to be mined here than in Vanya, but Pendleton is quite sensitive to that which there is and how to bring it to the fore. If that sounds odd, it pays to remember that Chekhov did indeed label most of his family-in-the-country-manor dramas, which end sadly if not downright tragically, as comedies; I think perhaps because he viewed all human foibles, especially the ironies of misdirected passions, as essentially comical for being intrinsically doomed. Coupling Pendleton's own work as a playwright with his view as a director in Chekhov-land, one might be safe to assume that Pendleton is fully in sync, and perhaps even shares, the Russian Bard's sense of bemusement. Among the strongest cast members are Maggie Gyllenhall, Jessica Hecht, Marin Ireland, Juliet Rylance and the ever-staunch old pro Louis Zorich. If the list seems particularly female-heavy, alas, the younger male cast suffers from a mild insufficiency of—I almost glibly typed “testosterone,” which is more loaded and “hinty” a term than I quite mean—but let’s call it theatrical muscle: they serve the evening well enough, but they don’t add vividly to its chemistry.

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