June-July Selections in Brief:

The Summer York Theatre Muftis

The Best is Yet to Come
The Songs of Cy Coleman
Conceived and Directed by David Zippel
(closed, for the moment)

One Arm
an uproduced screenplay by Tennessee Williams
adapted and directed by Mosés Kaufman
The New Group at Theatre Row

by Victoria E. Calderon
Directed by Will Pomerantz
Cherry Lane Theatre on Commerce Street

Side Effects
by Michael Weller
Directed by David Auburn
Starring Cotter Smith and Joely Richardson
MCC at the Lucile Lortel

Reviewed by David Spencer

I'm constrained from reviewing anything in the York Theatre's Musicals in Mufti concert series for the simple reason that the offerings, Workshop-code readings of neglected, lost, dated and cult favorite musicals, are not offered for review. Nor should they be, in the sense of being analyzed or judged. But I am encouraged to say neutral things about their existence, and nice things if they encourage you to attend…and thus I shall. The current batch of Muftis kicked off with a noble experiment: Gretchen Cryer and Nancy Ford's late-70s feminist manifesto I'm Getting My Act Together and Taking It on the Road was presented as the first of a double feature whose second offering was a precedent setting world premiere: the sequel, reunited the characters (and a few others) 30 years later, called Still Getting My Act Together. It was a sleeper of an event, with the always exquisite Jenn Colella taking on the lead role of Heather in the revival and Gretchen Cryer recreating the role she introduced in the original, for the sequel. This summer the experiments continue, with the York presenting two forgotten revues that were quite popular in their day: the late Roderick Cook's tribute to Sir Noël, Oh, Coward! (July 15-17) and the spawn of Alfred E. Newman's favorite magazine, The Mad Show (July 29-31). I expect they'll be as much…I can't say "fun," that would be a review. But you might want to visit the York website for more info.

The Best is Yet to Come, a revue of songs by the late composer Cy Coleman, conceived and directed by one of his many lyricists, David Zippel, seemed like a limited-engagement off-Broadway tryout to test the waters for a larger venue, replete as it was with a small but full jazz orchestra (led by none other than Billy Stritch) and an all-star cast (David Burnham, Sally Mayes, Howard McGillin, Lilias White, Rachel York). As such it had promise. The first half of its intermissionless 90 minutes struck me as facile, the segues between songs  and their lightly situational revue contexts glibly “indicating” states of emotional being rather than evoking them; but once it settled down in the second half to letting the songs themselves do most of the heavy lifting without “clever interference” the potential heart and humor of the matter came beating through. Though Coleman’s signature musicality—the complex, rich harmonies and transitions beneath deceptively catchy tunes—rang out from start to finish.

One Arm, director-playwright Mosés Kaufman’s adaptation of an unproduced screenplay by Tennessee Williams at The New Group proved a mixed bag. As a staged adaptation of a screenplay presented almost black-box style, it was, as usual for Mr. Kaufman, bracingly taut, economical and effective. As to the source material itself—I’m not sure I was able to gauge it objectively. A lot of Williams’ bad and deservedly marginalized work features one variation or another on the sexy male drifter with the power to touch lives by the sheer power of his animal magnetism, and if you’ve seen enough bad Williams (Orpheus Descending, The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore) and even enough middling Williams (Sweet Bird of Youth, Night of the Iguana), I think it’s a trope of which one can weary and even become cynical. And in this story about a soldier who loses an arm in an accident that is no fault of his own, and turns to a life of male hustling to survive, on a path that will lead to murder, imprisonment and execution (not a spoiler; the story is told in flashbacks from his jail cell) I found myself emotionally bailing at the halfway point, when it all seemed to me a tired rehash. But my companion of the evening, who had not “been there before” stayed with the story right through the end, and found herself empathetic with the hero’s sense of isolation, which struck her as universally drawn enough to transcend having its roots in an “old refrain.” I will give it this much, though: due to Mr. Kaufman’s loving reconception of the piece as a play, One Arm may be the first “forgotten” Williams play to actually be worth staging—unlike most of the others, it avoids thematic muddle and follows a clear, clean trajectory.

Manipulation, by Mexican born playwright Victoria E. Calderon “marks her American debut” according to the Playbill, so the fact that its dialog lands on the ear like a stilted translation may be the by-product of the playwright working in an adopted language; but she seems to have brought with her a sensibility about sexual and real-world politics that likewise doesn’t translate well, nor make meaningful points about the subject. Taking place in an unidentified Latin Republic, the play has as its main character, the wife of its Presidente (Marina Sqerciati). Mostly she’s taken for granted by him, told to play the whore with men by her sexy mother (Saundra Santiago) and variously targeted, victimized and lusted after by other men as she bemoans her lack of independence and power. At first the play is real, then it is surreal and none of it seems terribly interesting—but there’s no question it may have fared better in other hands, given  the unnuanced and listless direction of Will Pomerantz, which includes some bewildering casting. To put it as delicately yet truthfully as possible: I have no idea what the sexual orientations of the male cast members are; for all I know any or all of them may be the champion chick magnets on the planet. But onstage, not one of them is convincing as a womanizer; and I daresay this is a serious lapse in a production where the sexual dynamic between men and hot Latin babes is at the core of your story.

In Michael Weller’s Side Effects, the marriage of a middle aged couple is tested by the tug between the wife’s manic-depression and the husband’s public ambition. The battle is compounded by the fact that after all these years, the sexual tug between them is profound. So no matter what kind of spectacle Melinda (Joely Richardson) makes of herself when she’s off her meds, no matter what extremes of relief Hugh (Cotter Smith) may seek, they always return to a base of strained forgiveness because of the need at the core. The play is about what happens when the need starts to burn out.
It was all less provocative than it may sound. In a two character play that is basically “plotless”, especially a play about characters such as these, all you can really do is chart the ups and downs, because that’s all there is. And all the playwright can do is describe a recurring pattern, just pushing the couple further apart each time forgiveness gives way to animosity. And then everything hangs on how much patience you have for the ritual and how much you believe the conclusion at which the playwright arrives. In Side Effects, the repetition leads to overwriting as similar points get repeated or re-stressed from different angles. And in the end one character seems to emerge as morally/ethically better than the other, in the author’s view, without having really earned it, from the audience’s.
                  The production at MCC was d
ecently directed by David Auburn, though, and astonishingly well acted, given the stamina required to keep such a dramatic structured infused with energy and conviction.

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