In weirdly close proximity, the season has brought the city a number of offerings that, even though they’re of course stage pieces, are oft being referred to “on the street” as “chick flicks” anyway, as the phrase seems to have acquired a more generic colloquial application, and so well sums up what’s in store.
Love, Loss and What I Wore is the most successful of these theatrical chick flicks by far—as well as being the one least friendly to a male audience. A collection of stories, reminiscences and philosophical ruminations by Nora Ephron and her daughter Delia, based on the book by Ilene Beckerman, this is one of those script-on-music-stand dealies in which a rotating cast of (mostly) celebrities lend their interpretive skills to a live recitation of the text. You might see Tyne Daly or Rhea Perlman or Rosie O’Donnell in the matriarch seat, Kate Finneran or Kristen Chenoweth in the character comedienne seat, Lucy DiVito or Natasha Lyonne in the daughter seat (all among others, the various rotations also including the likes of Michelle Lee, Rita Wilson, Debra Monk and more).
LLAWIW goes deeply, deeply into how clothing connects to memory, mother connects to daughter and pocketbook fashion & organization connects to a woman's state of mind. The theatre (the Westside Arts) fairly rocks with the laughter of shameless self-recognition, and if you look around, you see that almost all of it comes from women, who vastly outnumber the men, said men in general seeming a little lost. But then, this show is not for that tribe This evening celebrates the special language of its club’s charter members, under the direction of Karen Carpenter, it does so with verve and style, and when my companion of the evening gave it her “Really, really good” stamp of approval, I decided that was that.
Sarah Ruehl’s In the Next Room or: The Vibrator Play is a comedy of manners and mores, of the sexual kind, set at the dawn of the age of electricity—and it is, pardon the pun, far less satisfying—on both sides of the gender line.
In it, a Doctor with the Dickensian name of Givings (Michael Cerveris) treats patients for "hysteria" by relieving their "tensions" with a newfangled electronic stimulator—all with proper, clinical deportment and—perhaps most meaningfully—detachment. The play asks us to accept that he's not a secret abuser, but rather a dedicated yet fantastically naive scientist. While he's curiously unaware of administering sexual therapy for those unable to express themselves marriage or other romantic unions, his wife (Laura Benanti), nursing their baby and attending to guests on the adjoining living room, progresses toward slow but certain revelation. Now if only the wife can enlighten the doctor about his own practice, in the office and at home…
The play has its funny sequences, especially in the first act as things are getting underway, sort of like a hipper, female, new millennium take on Joe Orton, but once it becomes earnest, it goes, with Lifetime chick-flick inevitability, through predictable, wearying motions until the breakthrough confrontation between husband and wife. My female companion for this one felt it “ended” four times before it was actually over (as did I) and yearned for it to stop prolonging the obvious.
Though very well acted, under the direction of Les Walters, especially by Ms. Benanti who is fast becoming as preeminent a comedienne as she is a preeminent everything else, In the Next Room seems ultimately a Two Act ramble in need of One Act compression.
Redgrave, always a magnificent actress,
fares less well as a writer in her dramatic monologue Nightengale, which seems to be a hybrid between
an autobiographical muse and a sexual manifesto. She parallels the history of
her own romantic life with that of her grandmother—though it’s a little
weird because she tells us she never really knew her grandmother, so the story of repressed desires and male dominance must
be, on some level, an autobiographical projection. a memoir in disguise (Orson Bean's recent book, M@il for Mikey, presumably chronicling his
conversion to born-again Christianity, does something rather similar,
never acknowledging itself as the short novel it actually is.) But at
least that story, as written, has
enough well-drawn detail to come off as a real narrative. Ms. Redgrave
more circumspect about her own actual story, whose undramatized details are actually a lot more interesting
and arguably scandalous, if you know anything about the 2000 breakup of her 32
year marriage to actor-writer-director John Clark (alluded to but never present
here, even in essence). I’m not saying she’s wrong to exercise tasteful
discretion, but the ambiguity makes one wonder at the point of the exercise.
Additionally, it’s not immediately clear when she’s time-shifting (my companion
of the evening had as much trouble making the distinction as I) so for some
listeners at least, it isn’t until after some thorough confusion that you’re
hip to the game. And for all the passion in her delivery, the elliptical text
keeps you from fully sharing her epiphany of sensuality.
We now leave the land of Chick Flicks but stay in the world of one actor evenings.
Welsh actor Geraint Wyn Davies (best known in the States for his continuous work in Canadian TV series such as Forever Knight, Slings & Arrows and ReGenesis) plays poet Dylan Thomas in Leon Powell’s stage adaptation of his CBC Radio play Do Not Go Gentle in the Theatre Row complex. Though Davies is a thoroughly brilliant actor, and doing his considerable best here, Thomas is not a thoroughly brilliant role, despite his literary cache, as his short life ended at 39 due to, ho-hum, alcoholism, with rampant debt, self-pity and womanizing to enhance the effect of the booze. In the play, Thomas speaks to us posthumously, gets progressively drunk anyway (nice to know you can still get sozzled on The Other Side), which is tedious; and increasingly jealous of Shakespeare, which is not only futile, but doesn’t make the case for Dylan’s work when recited side-by-side with the Bard’s. Why this needed to go on for two acts is the second question. The first is: why (in the play) is Thomas compelled to talk to us from beyond the grave to begin with? There seems no clear motivation, which is why the enterprise comes off as a depressive’s indulgent wallow, no matter how nuanced and charismatic Davies may be.
Monologist-social parodist Mike Daisey fares much better with The Last Cargo Cult at the Public Theatre, directed by his longtime collaborator, wife Jean-Michele Gregory. It’s his metaphorical examination of the world financial crisis, expressed via his observations during a visit to a remote South Pacific island, whose inhabitants worship Americas at the base of a constantly erupting volcano. Something of a volcano himself, the heavyset, tenor-voiced Mr. Daisey is a sharp writer and a funny man, evoking such masters of the game as Spaulding Gray and Jean Shepard. My one criticism of the show, which is serious and becomes more significant in its final third, is that he simply doesn’t know how to edit himself, to trim things that are overwritten, condense points that are overstated. The piece could lose 20 minutes, losing no significant content, while gaining significant punch.
there’s yet another biographical portrait, Zero Hour, in which performer Jim Brochu, also the evening’s author, attempts to channel the
legendary performer (and unsung painter) Zero Mostel. Which, as a performer, under Piper
Laurie’s unobtrusive direction, he both
does and doesn’t quite,
in alternate patches. What he does have
nailed is Mostel’s physical appearance, his locution and the essence of
his volatile thought
process. What he doesn’t viscerally enough tap into is that spectacular
volatility itself. There was a big, wild, dangerousness to Mostel—you
see it in his film work, his “golden age” TV appearances, archived TV
interviews—indeed, you can see it in his eyes—and Brochu indicates,
approximates, orbits, honors it, while
never similarly erupting with the same cathyartic, spontaneous fire. In
those moments where he's near the zone but not in it, it’s
a little like watching a Mostel’s understudy: i.e. "At this performance
you'll be seeing the matinee Tevye." That said, in the intelligent
writing, framed as if an interview for a New York Times journalist, Brochu delivers a comprehensive,
interesting survey of Mostel’s life and career, with a fair rendering of
Mostel’s diction. And the mostly older, mostly Jewish crowd who attended the
night I was at the Theatre at St. Clement’s—the
rememberes—seemed well-pleased. More than once I heard the comment, “He was
Zero!” So perhaps the memory Brochu evokes
is as potent, in some ways, as the volcanic temperament itself. And maybe, in a weird
way, it’s fitting after all that Brochu isn’t exactly Zero. For indeed…who but Mostel could be…?
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