Apologies for this capsule round-up containing several post-mortems and late reviews. The noble press reps who grant us critics access sometimes have to juggle various lists, and when a show has only a limited engagement and/or berths in a small house, we can find ourselves attending late in the run; and then, practically speaking, that attendance is primarily in the capacity of award voters, if we’re among those who get to weigh in for any of the various significant honors, and I’m privileged to be so charged. But I mention some bygone offerings because they’re too significant to go in these pages without notice.
said, let’s quickly check into that which is running:
At the Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn, NJ producer Cameron Mackintosh has kicked off the first leg of his 25th Anniversary tour of Les Misérables. It’s a new production directed by Lawrence Connor and James Powell. What’s new about it? Well, its sensibility is a little more hi-tech, as the design (Matt Kinely) includes highly animated CGI projections along with more traditional mechanical stage devices, to create some of the signature effect-moments: in particular, the chase through the tunnels and Javert’s suicide (I assume by now that’s not a spoiler) are extremely effective. (Not incidentally, the design takes its inspiration from Victor Hugo’s own paintings.) As notably, its sensibility is also younger: from stem to stern, this is a cast with a much younger average age than any mainstream performance I’ve ever seen, to the point where I found myself feeling as if I were watching an extremely talented group of grad students, which in many cases is not far from the truth. For me it took a little of the gravitas away from the show, but the audience didn’t seem to mind.
interesting casting touch was having Jean Valjean played by a black actor, Laurence
Clayton. The production is built to
accommodate the traditional approach, yet seems also subtly intended to
make rainbow casting part of the narrative, as when we first see Valjean as a
prisoner, he’s not on a landlocked chain gang, but one at sea, pumping the oars
on a prison ship (which of course evokes a slave ship). It’s hard to be wholly
objective about the choice—obviously it involves an additional suspension
of disbelief on a historical level—because Mr. Clayton, though an able
performer, only just manages to carry the role; he doesn’t own it, nor is he quite
as inspiring and nuanced a vocalist as
you’d hope him to be. And if you’re aware of that as you watch, you’re aware of
the creative artifice being attempted, and there goes complete verisimilitude.
Anyway, that’s what I felt.
Again, the audience didn’t seem to mind.
John Guare’s A
Free Man of Color is
founded upon a great premise: It’s set in New Orleans before the Louisiana
Purchase. And at the center of a great deal of panoramic, historical action is
fixer, wheeler-dealer, bon-vivant and playboy Jacques Cornet (Jeffrey Wright), who controls and manipulates more than the whites in charge
imagine…but whose days as a force are numbered, owing to the coming redrawn
political-geographical lines. Unfortunately the premise gets buried under so
much intricate history (often presented with the speed and style of Restoration
farce) that you spend time just trying to keep track of what’s going on and who’s
who, rather than enjoying the hero’s “reign” while feeling the loss of his
freedom closing in. And the bombardment of data, in contrast to what the play really
seems to be about, thematically and emotionally, lends an
inconsistency and confusion of tone. Is Cornet such a rake that his loss of
freedom would be just desserts? What does that say for him as a symbol of the
larger issue? Why don’t we care more about him and what he wants (indeed, why
doesn’t he want anything specific enough to make him worth the emotional
investment. It seems that what he wants to do mostly is just cause mischief behind the scenes.)
Additionally, director George C. Wolfe has encouraged a playing
style that is pushed rather than fleet
(casting figures into this as well) with the
result that you never really enter the world, because its frenetic people are
too off-putting. (The one notable exception is an almost sanguine John
McMartin as Thomas Jefferson.) The Lincoln Center production at the Vivian
Beaumont is a large and opulent one, but
by the end of the evening it’s more exhausting than exhilarating.
If three young guys who seem like overaged grad students riffing, drinking and (seemingly but not really) improvising historical/musicological commentary in and around Franz Schubert’s song cycle Die Winterreise, while playing both translated and untranslated selections and excerpts from it, and occasionally taking on the personae of Schubert and his colleagues, as they and you keep drinking (real wine bottles are passed around and plastic cups are provided), then the odd performance event called Three Pianos (currently at the New York Theatre Workshop following engagements at several regional theatres) may be for you. If, that is, you’re not looking for a comprehensible thematic agenda, a well-shaped or judiciously edited script. Because the evening’s progression seems almost as aimless as that of the depressed town “wanderer” who is the character represented by the songs (when performed straight ahead in a concert setting, Die Winterreise is a cycle for a single soloist). Writer-arranger-performers Rick Burkhardt, Alec Duffy and Dave Malloy offer some interesting moments (under the direction of Rachel Chavkin), as well as a sense of tone, ambiance and playing style…and they’re often quite amusing company (as well as expert musicians)…but they don’t seem to offer a raison d’être other than their passion for the piece, which is both not enough and, informing a script that can withstand a 30 minute trimming easily, too much as well.
Imagine an evening of apocalyptic mythology, science-fantasy, an ecological moral—and puppets borne of techniques pioneered by Jim Henson, though put to a much darker sensibility—and you have some idea of what awaits you at Baby Universe: A Puppet Odyssey. As the title may suggest, it takes a certain amount of inspiration from Arthur C. Clarke and Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey: it posits that when a universe is dying, its community of advanced scientists can oversee the birth and nurture of new, baby universes; and by baby I mean not merely small, but sentient infant. Seeds (eggs?) are given to prospective human mothers, and when they hatch (with an explosion, and why not, if the universe starts with a big bang) the mothers raise the babies, neither of them truly suspecting the larger purpose in store. A creation of Wakka Wakka, written and directed by Kir Jan Waage & Gwendolyn Warnock, this 65 minute piece is unique and haunting and can make you feel in the presence of a creative imprimatur soon to have larger impact; think of the first time you saw an early cartoon by Nick Park (Wallace and Gromit), or those rough Simpson shorts on the Tracy Ullman show, or (if you’re old enough) one of those pre-Sesame Street Jim Henson sketches on the old Ed Sullivan Show and you’ll have a little clue as to what I mean. It has that kind of vibe about it. (The show is at the Baruch Center for the Performing Arts and more info is at wakka-wakka.org).
Speaking of science fiction, I’ve always been a big fan of H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine and a number of the stories since derived from it, so the notion of Radiotheatre’s (apparently) new adaptation was an appealing one. They’re (currently) housed in a theatre called The Red Room, in turn housed in a theatre complex whose street face is so nondescript that if you’re not alert enough to spot the few poster cards pasted haphazardly onto a none-too clean office window off the elevated vestibule that passes for a lobby, you might swear it was a tenement building and move on—which my disoriented companion of the afternoon damn near did. Once within, though, you’re treated to a set up that is all about voice performance, underscoring and sound effects, with just enough minimal visual presentation to theatricalize the event. There are two actors faces tightly spotlit, otherwise in the dark, in front of music stands, to remain that way for the duration of the show: Frank Zilinyi as The Time Traveler (TTT) and Kate Siepert as his narrator wife. Now, since the Traveler of the books has no wife (in the book and in many of its adaptations, the narrator who sets and often maintains the framework is an unusually tolerant and perhaps best friend), this is a clue that writer-director-composer Dan Bianchi is himself meddling in the time stream, and indeed he provides a fairly clichéd and melodramatic motivation for TTT to investigate time travel, regret over the accidental death of his eight year old daughter. Putting this at the core of our enigmatic hero makes him desperate and anguished instead of zealously curious, and Mr. Zilinyi, who seems a very able and skilled performer, dives into the mire with over-the-top abandon (yes, yes, it’s radio acting but there’s a difference between picture painting with words and histrionics). Ms. Siepert is left to provide all the (relatively) calm anchoring as she frames and footnotes TTT’s recollections, but her very status as wife causes further imbalance, since TTT’s reported relationship with futuregirl Weema would normally be cause for jealousy (it has always been an implied, if chaste romance). Weema’s not symbolically convincing as a daughter surrogate and thus it seems TTT’s recounting is accepted by the wife with extraordinary equanimity.
all right, make this about the production company more than the single entry in
their season. Whatever else is true, the effects, the music and the sound
engineering (Wes Shippee) are expertly
rendered; and the delivery, whatever the script’s shortfalls, paced and
energized to a fare-the-well. In that respect, The Time Machine at
least passes the test of making you want to go back and
see—hear?—more of what Radiotheatre has to offer.
As one of those light, interactive comedies, Miss
Abigail’s Guide to Dating, Mating and Marriage isn’t really my thing, but it is exactly what the
title labels it, a date night with a middle brow sensibility and it seems to
work perfectly well for its target audience. Eve Plumb in the title role is completely credible as an
expert in social intercourse (with the other intercourses implied) and Manuel
Herrera, as her smitten assistant, manages
the hard balance of being very funny while playing a character who genuinely
seems to be completely untalented. Ken Davenport directs ably and unobtrusively from a script by him
and Sarah Saltzberg, based on a
book by the real Miss Abigail, who doubtless has a healthy sense of humor about
And now for the bygones:
Though I haven’t been thus far among those who swoons at the
mere notion of a new Neil LaBute play,
let alone the plays themselves, I have to admit that The Break of Noon at least had me admiring the way he
handled the Pirandello-style enigma of his main character. That character is
the aptly named John Smith (David Duchovny)
the sole survivor of an office shoot out, in which an enraged employee took
down everyone else. But God, John claims, spoke to him and told him if he’d
hold tight in his hiding place, he’d be all right. He carries his newly
expressed faith to his relationships and encounters, his version of the story
taking on new details that may or may not be alterations as he goes, and he may
or may not be a scam artist as he becomes a celebrity and slowly a religious
icon. In a series of one-on-one encounters, LaBute manages to give the role enough
meat to be compellingly playable while keeping us from drawing any definitive
conclusion as to what’s real and what isn’t. (And for the atheists out there,
the existence of God is less important here than the genuineness of Smith’s belief
in God.) Directed by Jo Bonney with
a supporting ensemble featuring Amanda Peet, Tracee Chimno and John Earl Jelks, this 90 minute question mark was an intriguing
examination of how evangelical icons may or may not be “created.”
The Great Game: Afghanistan, which originated in the UK and subsequently made several regional stops in the US ,offered three evenings of one acts by twelve playwrights, helmed by two directors. The aim, of course, was to offer a comprehensive look, both historical and political, at one of the most volatile hotbeds of extremist activity in the world. For all the project’s pedigree, though (for example, the playwrights included David Edgar, Lee Blessing and Ben Elton), TGG:A only sporadically caught fire (no pun intended), and was mostly a just-okay exercise with a perfectly competent cast delivering tales and characterizations that were informative to a point, but not viscerally very rich (notwithstanding their ability to sustain the feeling that no matter where you were, gunfire could break out at almost any time.). I think the experiment is a noble one, but I’m not so sure there was clear overriding vision in place. Indeed, in “Isaac and Ishmael’, a 40 minute out-of-continuity teleplay Aaron Sorkin wrote for The West Wing in response to 9/11, there’s a much better dissection of the middle east and in general a much more impact-leaving drama…and it’s naught but a talking heads piece, taking place in the White House during a security lockdown.