AISLE SAY New York

2009's APRIL "SHOWER"

BLITHE SPIRIT
by NoĎl Coward
ACCENT ON YOUTH
by Samson Raphaelson
JOE TURNER'S COME AND GONE
by August Wilson
WAITING FOR GODOT
by Samuel Beckett
OFFICES
by Ethan Coen
ROCK OF AGES
by Various
MARY STUART
by Freidrich Schiller
THE NORMAN CONQUESTS
by Alan Ayckbourn
WHY TORTURE IS WRONG
AND THE PEOPLE WHO LOVE THEM

by Christopher Durang
THE SINGING FOREST
by Craig Lucas
THE PHILANTHROPIST
by Christopher Hampton
1776
by Peter Stone & Sherman Edwards

April is, as William Goldman called it in his largely-still-relevant 1969 book The Season, “the hardest month.” And critics are hit as hard as anybody; suddenly the parade of productions opening becomes a dense thicket: you rarely get a night off; and being selective becomes something of an art and a gamble because, unlike most other times of the year (when you weed out all but exceptional off-off Broadway invitations and only minor off-Broadway ones), April is the month in which, no matter how judicious you are, no matter how you manage your time, you are guaranteed to miss at least a few things of note and value. And when you’re like me, a reviewer on the side, it’s also the month in which your writing time (and in my case ‘zine-maintaining time) gets commensurately crunched.

                  So in order to keep up and stay current, I have to review somewhat more briefly here a fairly large number of major productions, to the like of which I’d usually devote individual notices. (Usually I try to keep round-ups limited to select off- and off-off-Broadway fare with very limited runs.) So with apologies to regular readers, the noble friendly press reps who generously keep me active, perhaps a number of production personnel and anyone else who looks forward to my in-depth essays, I beg your indulgence as I bend to necessity. But I’ll do my best to have these compact notices be meaningful to how you spend your theatre dollar, and/or consider your theatre experience nonetheless. (And as I proofread this paragraph and look over what I’ve written thus far below, very few of the reviews are capsule-brief; maybe I just needed the psychological aid of knowing I had but one file to prepare!) Anyway, that’s the deal. So here we go:

 

I didn’t get to the revival of NoĎl Coward’s supernatural comedy Blithe Spirit until late, as the Drama Desk voter invite was held in abeyance until a week or two after the official opening, and alas, it’s not worth an overabundance of anticipation. It’s respectably enough mounted, and Michael Blakemore’s direction typically keen to the nuances of such material, but this confection—about poor, beleaguered Charles (Rupert Everett) who, due to an unfortunate séance conducted by an eccentric clairvoyant (Angela Lansbury), agreed to by him only as an amusement, finds himself haunted by the spirit of his late and highly capricious first wife (Christine Ebersole), much to the consternation of his more restrained and living second wife (Jayne Atkinson)—is simply not a very good play, and has become even more quaint with time, along with so many other light comedy ghost stories from the first half of the 20th century. Supernatural tales, even the giddily comedic ones like Ghostbusters, have become so much more sophisticated in the treatment of manifestation, that certain glib romantic farces seem to fight the suspension of disbelief. It doesn’t help that in Coward’s storytelling universe, marriage seems more about affection and convenience than genuine love (“social contract” at its driest), and the notions of dead spouses, having been or being widowed/widowered & etc. have little more emotional consequence than discovering you’ve run out of your favorite biscuit for tea. I’m not saying the cast doesn’t get their appreciative laughs—Ms. Lansbury especially, as she goes through an arcane dance of invocation which, like everything else, is too daffy to pass the test of even comic verisimilitude—but there’s nobody to care about, and the plot points are variously unresolved or mechanical, with two supporting characters—a neighboring doctor and his wife (Simon Jones and Deborah Rush) having no structural function save to be the facilitators of the psychic’s appearance, making them, as characters, even more transparent than the ghost they unwittingly encourage. I will, however, give the production this much: it is a far defter and funnier incarnation than the revival which hit Broadway about 20 years ago, starring a desperately unfunny Richard Chamberlain. (And I like Richard Chamberlain. But oh did he not know how to deliver a joke…)

*******

By contrast, the revival of Samson Raphaelson’s Accent on Youth at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, under the banner of the Manhattan Theatre Club, is delightful. Where the Coward play, to my taste, is a piss-elegant creaker, Accent on Youth, having its first Broadway production since its 1934 debut, is just short of a little gem. The comedy—about a playwright (David Hyde Pierce) whose exploration of an Older Man/Younger Woman affair in his latest play unexpectedly presages a similar affair in his life, and the various requisite joys, headaches and heartaches that would naturally attend it—is too modest to be great, but is nonetheless possessed of style, wit, unexpected character and story turns…and a sensibility that seems very sophisticated and psychologically insightful for a 1934 light diversion. Though I’d certainly known of Raphaelson’s career (among other things, he wrote The Jazz Singer, which was adapted into the first “talking” feature film, starring Al Jolson), this was my first exposure to any of his plays, and it was rather like discovering one of those brilliant, forgotten novelists who toiled in the obscurity of the pulps and suddenly has a posthumous resurgence. He writes with a unique, confident voice and displays the technique of an impeccable professional.

                  The play is given a suitably charming production, under the direction of Daniel Sullivan, and his cast gives it exactly the right twinkle, striking the delicate balance between modern acting values and the verisimilitude of the play’s era. Among those who share the stage and shine with Mr. Pierce are Mary Catherine Garrison (as the young woman), Charles Kimbrough (as his butler), plus, as a variety of actors employed by the playwright, Byron Jennings, David Furr, Rosie Benton and Lisa Banes.

********

A likewise excellent revival of Joe Turner’s Come and Gone comes by way of the Lincoln Center Theatre and director Bartlet Sher at the Belasco. I seem to recall that this second play in August Wilson’s Pittsburgh Cycle, a decade-by-decade examination of the African-American experience in the 20th Century, got one of the more modest critical receptions of any Wilson play up to that time, but also remember thinking it ironically among his strongest, for its mix of gentle comedy, human drama plus both lyric and magic realism. Set in the 1910s, this one represents a generational transition between black folks old enough to remember slavery and a new generation carving out its own identity—and what better place to examine “passing on” cultural lore and “passing through” states of being and identity than a boarding house? With Ernie Hudson as the house-owner and steadying hub of the piece (I can’t help it, ever since Hill Street Blues, I always think of the lynchpin in an ensemble drama like this as the guy in the Captail Furillo position; idiosyncratic and nobody’s cipher to be sure, yet the glue and the standard bearer who holds a disparate lot together), an excellent ensemble including Roger Robinson, Anjanue Ellis, Arliss Howard and LaTanya Richardson Jackson, among others, make the play seem as fresh and vital as if it were just off the page; and create an inspiring reminder of what infusing dialogue with a sense of poetry, even music and rhythm is all about.

********

Speaking of inspiration…

                  IMNSHO, as the ‘net-breviation goes, there simply aren’t that many avant garde and/or absurdist plays necessary to perform—academic study and reading for enlightenment/edification is enough—but there are a very few worth a periodic look, because they represent the anarchic, symbolic genre at the zenith of its artistry, and perhaps none more so than Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett

                  —and may it always get the superior treatment it receives courtesy of the Roundabout’s new production, directed by Anthony Page (an old hand at this play) at Studio 54.

                  One of the play’s best conceits is that, despite exploring themes of hopeless hope, desolation, and the fragility of mortal existence (in both the physical and spiritual senses), it’s meant to be performed by genuine clowns—hobo clowns, to be precise—the funnier, the better. Humor, of course, finds its power in truth, and when you combine brilliant technique with heartfelt delivery, the result is something so sad it must evoke belly-laughs or it would be too horrible. Waiting for Godot comes by its Theatre of the Absurd label honestly, being such a stunning essay on the eteral absurdities of life.

                  And who better for the hobos at the center, Estragon and Vladimir, ever waiting for Godot (here given the Brit pronunciation, GOD-oh) than, respectively, Nathan Lane and Bill Irwin. Mr. Lane, perhaps never more inspired and in control as here, fashions his clown as an oddly buoyant pessimist; and Mr. Irwin lends a kind of bumbling sobriety as the counterpart: a fatalistic optimist. Representing the intruders on their barren landscape are John Goodman, his enormous size and booming voice making him iconic in the role of wandering aristocrat Pozzo; and John Glover as his abused, ancient manservant, the ironically dubbed Lucky. (Best bit—those of you who know the play will know the moment I mean, those of you who don’t, I envy you the discovery—Mr. Glover’s “Happy” rant becoming madder, more incomprehensible and more threatening; as Mr. Lane’s Estragon, backing away from it step for step, tries to placate him with illustrative gestures, hopelessly improvised in a desperate attempt at creating a calming communion. Almost impossible to describe, utterly impossible to forget.)

                  A glimpse of a sort of hell, this play, but truly, in this production, the purest possible heaven…

*******

Very nearly as funny, and exploring more linearly narrative absurdities, are the trio of short plays that make up Ethan Coen’s Offices, at the Atlantic Theater. The premises of the plays are so slight (they’re extended sketches, really, comprised of numerous short, punchy scenes each, with bizarre twists, turns and shifts of perspective) that I celebrate the necessity of reviewing in brief, because a great deal of the fun is in discovering Mr. Coen’s eccentric—yet recognizably accurate—spins on office politics and protocols freshly and without predisposition.

                  As with Mr. Coen’s previous Almost an Evening, Neil Pepe has directed with a sure comic hand, and F. Murray Abraham is along to lend his own brand of fearless lunacy to the proceedings. Other notables in the nine-member cast include John Bedford-Lloyd and Mary McCann.

********

A different kind of absurdity goes hand in hand with the jukebox musical Rock of Ages, which weaves classic rock of the 70s and 80s against a suitably silly boy-gets/boy-loses/boy-gets girl story, but without virginal artifice. Rock stars, wannabe rockers, a club owner, his sidekick-slash-our narrator, a venal German industrialist, and his effeminate-but-straight son are among those belting out very respectably (if that’s the word) infectious cover versions of the tunes that informed a lot of youth and coming-of-age rituals in more generations, it seems, than just its own.

                  For those who would be into such a thing, it’s grand silliness. For those who wouldn’t (I, for example, don’t have many of my nostalgia roots or sentimental predilections there), the chances are decent that you’ll at least find it tolerable fun. The key may be in attending with someone who’ll embrace it with shameless abandon. And there seem to be plenty of those; it’s inspiring a flabbergasting amount of repeat business. (My own companion expressed an enthusiastic intention to re-attend.)

                  For me, the most interesting thing to note was how tightly put together and snazzily delivered the production was, under the direction of Kristin Hanggi. If she’s anywhere near as good with new original book musicals as she is with the jukebox thing, Rock of Ages may well mark the emergence of a prominent force.

********

Good as I can be at plot summary, I’m happy to avoid it when classics are involved, as so many public domain ones abound, so here’s a somewhat doctored (by me) partial of the Wikipedia one (big spoilers removed) for Friedrich Schiller’s Mary Stuart, currently in a new production from London’s Donmar Warehouse, directed by Phyllida Lloyd in a new translation by Peter Oswald:

                  Mary Stuart (Janet McTeer) is nominally imprisoned in England for the murder of her husband, but the real reason is her claim to the throne of England as rightful heir. While Mary’s cousin, Queen Elizabeth I (Harriet Walter), is hesitant about signing her death sentence, Mary is hoping for a reprieve. After she finds out that Mortimer, the nephew (Chandler Williams) of her custodian Paulet (Michael Countryman) is on her side, she entrusts her life to him. Mortimer, a non-historical character invented by Schiller, is supposed to give the Earl of Leicester (John Benjamin Hickey) a letter from Mary in which she asks him for help. This is a delicate situation because Leicester seems to be a supporter of Queen Elizabeth, though he’s a practiced, sly and opportunistic political chameleon. After numerous requests, Mary is finally granted the opportunity to meet Queen Elizabeth (something that, in reality, also never happened). The outcome of this meeting…well, those of you who know history know the ultimate verdict, but Schiller is more interested in political intrigues and the game of diplomacy.

                  For all that this production arrived with sold-out-in-the-UK hoopla, it seems an oddly subdued affair here. Both the imported stars, Ms. McTeer (operatically struggling with herself to keep her sense of regal birthright in check) and Ms. Walter (the epitome of the superstar whose every whim needs coddling, lest disaster ensue), are suitably impressive as befits their status and the hype, and the ensemble of American actors surrounding them provide admirable support, but the production itself—a variant on the barren-stage/black box paradigm—seems too matter-of-fact for controversy, and the text too long-winded and repetitive for maximum effectiveness. As with Exit the King, it’s one of those classic plays whose indulgence in long-windedness is an artifact of a bygone sensibility, and one that need not be revered or regarded as sacrosanct. By all means, preserve it all in print forever, but on stage let’s trim away the fat, to better highlight the themes and the elegance. (Postscript for TV aficionados motivated enough to download "unofficially": Harriet Walter is also currently the Police Chief to whom the cop half of the drama reports in Law and Order UK, the new Brit-accented flavor of the famous franchise. Seven 'net-available episodes so far.)

*****

When Alan Ayckbourn is on the money, as he is in what’s arguably his masterwork, the The Norman Conquests trilogy, I think he’s the literary heir of Chekhov, and of fully equal power: It’s rare that Chekhov’s plays are performed in a way that represents them as the comedies he intended them to be and formally labeled them, but when they are—as with Austin Pendleton’s thrilling Uncle Vanya earlier this season—you can be awed by the balance of human misery with human irony. You realize, when the laughs hit, that Chekhov did not mean “comedy” as in everything turns out for the best, a somewhat classic definition, but merely as in our foibles, flaws and endless capacity for projection, self-delusion and self-destruction in pursuit of the things we can never obtain are funny. Ayckbourn’s best comedies dramatize much the same thing and in the Norman trilogy, he does it to near perfection. The focus is a family weekend at the house of unglamorous yet not-unattractive Annie (Jessica Hynes—best known here as the leading lady in the signature Doctor Who episode Human Nature) and her offstage mother. Annie is often visited by the smitten, yet impossibly reserved and shy veterinarian Tom (Ben Miles) who tends her cat as an excuse to drop by. Also on hand are her brother Reg (Paul Ritter) who likes to invent board games, and his control-freak wife Sarah (Amanda Root) who is too literal-minded a to enjoy them. And finally there’s Annie’s vivacious, cynical sister Ruth (Amelia Bulmore) and her determinedly disheveled husband, dedicated layabout and social iconoclast Norman (Stephen Mangan). Norman is something of a heat-seeking missile with the ladies, and he has the uncanny knack for knowing how to feed off their neuroses, frustrations and desires while satisfying and exacerbating his own. And the trick of the trilogy is that each of its three components, Table Manners, Round and Round the Garden and Living Together is set in another locale about the house, respectively the kitchen, the back yard and the living room. Each tells its own self-contained story, but viewed collectively, they become an über-tale of connections made, connections missed and that old favorite, quiet desperation.

                  This production in the round, directed by Matthew Warchus at the Circle in the Square Theatre, with its original British cast exported is as well done and as individualistic as the other two iterations I’ve seen (the BBC-TV version [1977] and the previous, debut Broadway production [1975], which featured an all-star American cast). If I have any reservation at all, it’s that I personally found Stephen Mangan to be an oddly charmless Norman, especially in the wake of Tom Conti on television and Richard Benjamin onstage. But I’ve mentioned this reaction to a number of other colleagues and only one was in agreement, the others thinking that charm was his strong suit. So there you are. In these days of absurd ticket markup, the price for each play is relatively reasonable ($49), so it will be possible for some to avail themselves of the trilogy entire without stretching their budget too much…

*****

Why Torture is Wrong and The People Who Love Them may well be the Christopher Durang play for people who usually dislike Christopher Durang plays, a group in which I tend to find myself. Most of his signature universe-gone-mad extremes and ultra-Left biases are featured, in this story about Felicity (Laura Benanti) a young woman who wakes up after a drunken one-night stand, to discover she’s married to Zamir (Amir Arison) who is very likely a terrorist; and her subsequent introduction of Zamir to her parents, Luella (Kristine Nielsen), abstracted, obsessed with NY theatre minutiae and loopy after too many years under the thumb of her domineering husband; and aforementioned husband-and-father Leonard (Richard Poe) a radical right-wing lunatic with a top secret “butterfly collection” in his attic. (Various other eccentric roles are played by John Pankow, David Aaron Baker and Audrie Neenan.)

                  The one thing that hasn’t come along for the ride in this Durang-fest, even though he threatens to bring it along, is misanthropic hopelessness. It’s almost as if, in knowing what it is that has so continually thwarted the success of all but his earliest plays, in having tired of the complaints of his preaching-to-the-converted, cruel-humor proclivities, he wrote just this one to get past the nay-sayers. And it’s not that he’s conceded much; indeed the device with which he squeaks by is such an open contrivance as to seem a conscious and pointed response to his recent work’s worst reputation—but the play, especially with this rousingly game, perfectly toned and appropriate cast (Ms. Benanti, always a revelation, even more so as a brilliant comedienne) under the direction of Nicholas Martin, gets him so many laughs and earns him so much good will that—I’m sorry, I have to put it this way—he’d have been an utter asshole to deny the audience the catharsis of positive resolution and hope.

                  Though I’ll add, as I write this, it occurs to me that maybe Mr. Durang himself is feeling hopeful, along with the rest of America, for the first time in a long while, and this play, which does address the current state of the country, is his typically skewed way of saying so. The play won’t necessarily convert anyone who isn’t already disposed toward his sensibility, and it’s too chatty and dishy to survive long in the literature, despite what may be the length of its current run—but it comes by its audience favor honestly and cleverly, and not even the most reasonably cynical Durang-watcher (among which I count myself) will feel violated or numbed for having spent the time.

*****

The Singing Forest, by Craig Lucas, is an unusually misfire for this playwright, and an one of an epic nature (three acts and almost as many hours), as if inspired by the more complex constructions of Caryl Churchill and/or Tom Stoppard, as he uneasily tries to blend elements of farce, social commentary comedy and Holocaust tragedy. (Perhaps it's no coincidence that direction of the piece fell to Mark Wing-Davey) But the elements stubbornly refuse to blend, with the result that the farce is labored and unfunny, the social commentary contrived and the Holocaust tragedy (which provides a third act flashback to the character at the hub) almost shockingly unmoving. (“Almost,” because it’s hard to be genuinely shocked by something that doesn’t actually stir you.) All this despite a game cast, headed by Olympia Dukakis, doing their best to rescue what probably seemed much more engaging on paper.

                  To describe the plot would be an exercise in “spoilerism” without really illuminating the play. Suffice it to say that Mr. Lucas posits a small circle of people in NYC who are all connected by random coincidence, and yet unable to really connect, in that manner of people too trapped by their own isolating michegoss. The play ultimately means to be—or so it would seem, based on the outcome—a metaphor for a virtual society of missed connections and ultimately a plea for better communication. And in the end the experience is rather like being in the moderate middle of the community swimming pool: it’s just that deep and just that shallow.

                  Interestingly, there’s a program note from Public Theatre artistic director Oskar Eustis mentioning that Lucas has been working on this play for about a decade and—as my companion of the evening pointed out—it seems like it; there’s that mix of sensibilities, a disjunct in the physical set and properties (i.e. an elaborate gag involving two landline phones in different locales crossing wires, used by characters who by now would employ handsets or cell phones) that suggests the authors’ desire for the play to be set in the present day fighting with the era—a pre 9/11 era, come to think of it—in which he conceived it.

 *****

You wonder why certain contemporary plays find their way into the literature, and why others don’t. Why has Jason Miller’s multi-award-winning That Championship Season all but vanished? What happened to the oevre of Ronald Ribman? Why do we never see revivals of Herb Gardner’s Thieves or Conversations With My Father? And what is it that makes British obscuranta like Christopher Hampton’s The Philanthropist worthy of not merely its Broadway debut in 1971, but two NYC revivals, one in 1983 (at the Manhattan Theatre Club’s original mid-upper East Side venue) and the current one by way of the Roundabout company, on Broadway at the American Airlines Theatre.

                  It seems it isn’t just social mores, subject matter and presentation styles that can be judged harshly by the test of time, but sometimes even generic storytelling tropes. The Philanthropist, written when Hampton was 24, gained a good deal of praise in its time for being a clever inversion of Moliére’s The Misanthrope; where the French classic is the study of a man who finds something to loathe in everyone, Hampton’s play is about the flipside, Philip (Matthew Broderick) who tries to take people at face value and see the good in everything—which renders him weirdly as isolated. The British seem to have—or at least have had—this vogue for academic, university-employed characters who are passive or passive-aggressive observers who are ultimately the architects of their own misery (the works of Simon Grey abound with them) and I must admit, when I first made the acquaintance of a few, as a young man in the ‘70s, I was as taken as anyone by the wit, wordplay and performances that infused them. (Even including Philip; I saw the ’83 production, in which he was much more cleverly played by David McCallum.)

                  But time has not been kind to the likes of Butley, Quartermaine or The Ginger Man (an Irish one, that), and though I can’t tell you why for sure, I think it’s that the beat and hippie generations, which were concurrent with the creation of these characters, embraced a free-spiritedness that sometimes encouraged being  a layabout as well (witness the revival of Hair), and I think that, somehow, certain of the concepts leeched into mainstream storytelling, morphed to fit different venues and locales, and indirectly gave rise to the storytelling paradigm of the anomaly within the establishment system, exploiting its protocols to deflect responsibility, camouflage ineptitude and/or wield petty power.

                  And while Philip is a kinder, more responsible soul than all the others in this Brit-misfit canon, he’s still too oblivious to evoke much empathy, and a cipher as well. It doesn’t help that Matthew Broderick, at far too young an age, has finally become such a parody of himself that his patented, mannered, milquetoast characterization can be appreciated just as much before you’ve seen the play as after. That quite aside, the personal stakes of the play, despite a cheekily shocking opening scene, are never very high, nor are any passions that would matter, so the rest of the cast, giving far more credible performances—most notably Steven Weber, Jonathan Cake, Anna Madeley and Jennifer Mudge—are only giving blood and voice to characters you’d find insufferably supercilious in real life. And the literary conceit—the spin on MoliŹre—is just that, an academic accomplishment. Yay and so what?

                  The production, directed by David Grindley, would seem to have been inspired by one he directed at London’s Donmar Warehouse in 2005, starring Simon Russell Beale.

*****

Finally, there’s a just-dandy revival of 1776 at the Paper Mill Playhouse in Milburn, NJ. Helmed by Gordon Greenberg, it’s perhaps the best production of the show I’ve seen since (though not including) the original Broadway production.  As I've said before, 1776 is my favorite musical  by far, along wih Sweeney Todd it possesses the best libretto in the canon, and if you've never seen it, especially if you're on a budget, forget the franchise tuners and the new age hoo-hah, this is where to spend your musical theatre dollar this season.

                  The cast is an unusually “star studded” one (in NY terms) for a regional mounting, featuring the likes of Robert Cuccioli (Dickinson), James Barbour (Rutledge), Conrad John Shuck (Franklin), Nick Wyman (Hancock), Kerry O’Malley (Abigail Adams) and Lauren Kennedy (Martha Jefferson) among others, each turning in a stirling and memorable performance.

                  My carp is with Don Stephenson in the central role of John Adams. I think it’s very possible he has a great Adams in him—he’s charismatic and gifted enough—but he has spent waaaaayyy too long serving the Musical Comedy Shticklach Gods, and has forgotten (if he every really knew) how to simply have a conversation without overwrought affectation. (Speaking in terms of a certain personal energy and appearance, I was not alone among those I knew attending the opening night who thought that watching Stephenson’s interp was weirdly like watching the role as if played by Maury Yeston.) If it’s in director Greenberg to sit Stephenson down, give him cogent notes and slap the excesses away, the performance could be quite powerful. (It would be better Adams and better Yeston.)

               The good news is, Stephenson lands all the dramatic points and doesn’t kill any but a scant few of the jokes (his nor the ones others make at Adams’s expense)—and both production and musical are so sturdy that no real damage is done.

               I have a lot more to say about this musical, but I’ve already said it here, in a review of the 1998 Broadway revival, along with a history of the reconstructed film, which features most of the original Broadway cast. Though the history refers to the laser disk release of the mid-90s, there has been a subsequent release—not just a reconstruction, but director Peter Hunt’s own subsequent director’s cut—on DVD, and it’s still very inexpensively in print.

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