AISLE SAY New York

STOPGAP ROUNDUP #1

M. BUTTERFLY
THE PORTUGUESE KID
DESPERATE MEASURES
SHADOWLANDS
TORCH SONG
JESUS HOPPED THE A TRAIN
LATIN HISTORY FOR MORONS
JUNK
THE LAST MATCH

Reviewed by David Spencer

Hello all.

After a long absence, I’m filing this as the first of several ”stopgap review roundups” that I‘ll be doing at irregular intervals until the new Aisle Say site is up and running. Primarily these will contain capsule reviews, shorter and pithier than my usual approach to capsule reviews, because with the ‘zine renovation, as well as a pending two-performance staged reading presentation of Duddy Kravitz at the York Theatre on December 11 (I’m writing this on November 12-16)—plus what are now my routine parentcare obligations (both in their mid-90s)—my time is limited. So I think my objective for the moment is simply to advise you about as much as I can, as fast as I can, think bulk over nuance, and keep skin in the game as an active theater critic. 

With apologies to the noble press reps who have been graciously keeping me in critic comps during this transition period, I’m going to skip over things I attended that have closed or are closing very soon, and a few that I would not have reviewed well, whose short runs don’t need me throwing bricks at them. (Don’t assume the absence of anything is an automatic thumbs down, though. There are only so many things a single critic can see.) What’s important in these stopgap roundups, for the most part, is directing your attention to things of interest that may well deserve your attention. And here we go: 

The revival of David Henry Hwang’s M Butterfly at the Cort Theatre is not only a revival, but a fairly comprehensive revisal too, incorporating some new information about the historical figure upon whom it is based, that came to light in the years after the play was first produced. And while the new production, directed by Julie Taymor, is well-paced, visually streamlined and effective, and never for a moment dull, the changes, which also update the sensibility for the new millennium, have only made the play more explicit, not more resonant to the times. In fact, in removing the ambiguity about French diplomat Gallimard’s (Clive Owens) affair with a male Chinese opera star who poses as a woman (Jin Ha), and whom he claims to believe is a woman even after intimacy, Hwang and Taymor have diluted the drama's impact to a small yet significant degree; and I think that has to do, not with stagecraft, but with how the story insinuates itself into the viewer’s consciousness, and takes hold in the subconsciousness. The play still provides a worthy evening, just not one that’s notably near as haunting.

Let’s move a little uptown for The Portuguese Kid, the latest comedy by John Ptrick Shanley. Here’s the IOBDB boilerplate: “In Providence, Rhode Island, habitually widowed Atalanta (Sherie Rene Scott) pays a visit to her second-rate lawyer Barry Dragonetti (Jason Alexander). Intending to settle her latest husband’s affairs, this larger-than-life Greek tightwad quickly becomes a nightmare for her cheesy, self-aggrandizing attorney. Add Barry’s impossible Croatian mother (Mary Testa), a dash of current politics and a couple of opportunistic young lovers (Pico Alexander and Aimee Caruso), and you have in hand a recipe for comic combustion.”

All accurate. What it doesn’t tell you is this: I don’t know if Shanley did it consciously or not, but basically he’s delivered Noël Coward’s Private Lives for streetwise ethnic Americans in the 21st century. It’s sexually more explicit, it plays a slightly more intricate game, plot-wise, and while the maid in Private Lives is a minor facilitator, the mother character Shanley has swapped in for her is anything but, and at least as noisy as everyone else. But it’s a smart, sassy, uproarious evening, sharply written and as cleanly directed. As the cast list might suggest, the low-rent funny is delivered at a high octane level.

 

The musical Desperate Measures puts Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure through the filter of an 1890s-set Western musical comedy—oldschool, unabashed musical comedy at that—with a cast of characters reduced to six, but in this plot configuration, that’s all it needs.

My own reaction to the show is a mild one, to be honest, but being in the musicals game myself, and knowing what it takes to bring one of these suckers home, I had to observe something far more consequential than my caveats, and it’s something I don’t get to ignore: Desperate Measures works like gangbusters for the audience (my companion of the evening included). They love the cast and characters; the jokes land; and when the songs button, the applause is immediate, solid and unequivocal. That never happens at a show that’s a fluke, and I feel fairly confident that I was at a typical performance, for any number of reasons, including the creative team’s impeccable attention to traditional craft…and that the run keeps extending. And that doesn’t happen to a small show like this in a venue like the York without word-of-mouth to propel it.

And given the troubled times in which we live, maybe Desperate Measures is just the kind of light, frothy thing that people need to see once in a while. Not that I would rain on its parade much, but this time let’s deal without the precipitation altogether.

So kudos to lyricist-librettist Peter Kellogg, composer David Friedman, director Bill Castellino and a hugely talented cast (Emma Degerstedt, Gary Marachek, Lauren Molina, Conor Ryan, Peter Saide, Nick Wyman) for pulling it off. It ain’t easy to do, and in my book, if you do it without bumps in the road, if the audience keeps happily concentrating and gives you a standing O at the end…that’s the brass ring, and it far be it for me to tarnish it.

 

There are two exemplary revivals on offer, pretty much around the corner from each other, from opposite ends of the subject-matter spectrum (and yet not really).

First, at Theatre Row, is William Nicholson’s Shadowlands, about the real-life friendship that bloomed into marriage between British writer and Christian philosopher C.S. Lewis and American poet (and Jewish born Christian convert) Joy Davidman. Their time together was limited, owing to her being fatally ill, and the play is framed as an examination of how grief is built into God’s plan (according to Lewis). However—as with most of the offerings from Fellowship for the Performing Arts, the company behind this revival—the decidedly Christian agenda stops short of open proselytizing and allows general audiences room to enjoy and admire as well; and indeed, despite the framing device, the play, under the briskly focused and efficient direction of Christa Scott-Reed functions as a sweet, sad romance with universal appeal. Especially appealing are the leads; Daniel Gerroll is a fine Lewis, portraying a man whose rigidity and shyness is clearly at war with his passion—until they aren’t—and Robin Abramson manages the very neat trick of making Joy both alluring and gawkily candid, such that you understand both Lewis’ infatuation and his colleagues’ resistance.

And on 43rd Street at Second Stage is the revival of Harvey Fierstein’s breakthrough play Torch Song, formerly Torch Song Trilogy. It’s still a trilogy, but apparently trimmed for length from its original Broadway iteration—which was a compilation of three interlinked one-acts originally produced at the Glines, a venue devoted to gay art. The central figure, who might seem quite a stretch from C.S. Lewis, is Arnold Beckoff, a Jewish homosexual and night club drag queen. But Arnold, too, explores the throes of undying love, a lover who dies, and a family you acquire by choice and circumstance. Each of the three parts is in a different theatrical style, with the third being a straight ahead Broadway style comedy (or comedy-drama, if you like). The cast of six, under the likewise briskly efficient and focused direction of Moisés Kaufman, is exemplary, but Michael Urie as Arnold, long perceived, I think, as a rising star, knocks it out of the park with an interpretation so uniquely his, both broadly comic and deeply human, that stardom is now unequivocally his. (And a nod must be given to Mercedes Ruehl, who charges into the third part as his Mom.)

 

At the Signature Theatre there’s Jesus Hopped the A Train, by Stephen Adly Guirgis, which is a prison…dramedy? Tragi-comedy? It’s a conflation of things for sure, because aside from being about men in prison, it’s also about the insidious destructive power of fundamentalist dogma (in this case religious dogma) upon the vulnerable. It’s never dull, which may be a testament to Mark Brokaw’s direction, since it’s very overwritten, the same characters often making the same points multiple times, almost in the manner of O’Neill, but of course with a very different patois. It’s hard to make this kind of thing fresh these days—all through the first act, I felt that the play was about equivalent to the kind of competent prison drama you’d find on cable television, and didn’t seem to earn its bones as a uniquely theatrical experience…and in the second act, the proliferation of monologues, and the mix of comedy and sadness, prompted me to later describe the play to a friend as “a prison drama as might have been written by Herb Gardner.” And maybe add the word unsurprising. I can only speak for myself in this regard, but once the players were defined and in their go positions, the play didn’t take me anyplace I didn’t expect it to go.

 

At Studio 54, John Leguizamo’s latest autobiographical rumination, Latin History for Morons describes how he encountered the backstory of his own Mexican heritage via facing his tweenage son’s own feelings of disenfranchisement for not being properly represented in school history courses, And being made fun of by a privileged white bully. As a standup riff, with props and a blackboard, it’s unequivocally a hit with the audience; the laughter is loud, explosive and constant. Also, Leguizamo is fantastically talented, a master of voices and physical comedy, as well as the basics of delivery, timing and being impeccably “in the moment” as he relates to the audience.

As a piece of writing, though, I found that here, as in its earlier engagement late last season at the Public, the piece starts off strong, for the first, say, 30 of its 100 minutes, and then becomes discursive and often meanders. For most of the audience, this seems not to matter at all, they’re just happy to watch Leguizamo do his riffing. For me (and, as it happens, my companion of the evening as well, who was very impressed with him as a performer), this made it periodically hard to stay with it, and exactly as last time, I found myself briefly losing concentration whenever I lost the thread, or the urgency behind it.

 

Junk at the Vivian Beaumont in Lincoln Center, by Ayed Akhtar, is about corporate raiding and junk bond trading in the mid-80s. In a very offhand way its approach put me in mind of the historical potboiler novels written by the still-prolific Graham Masterton: he would basically recast a historical period with new characters of his own invention, to be able to present a story very kinda sorta much like what really happened, but not beholden to it. Junk tells a fairly complex story fairly entertainingly, with a large cast of well-portrayed characters, under the—I guess this is the encomium of the moment—briskly focused and efficient, but also high-tech-flavored direction of Doug Hughes; but the downside is, it’s not nearly as entertaining as Jerry Sterner’s 1989 off-Broadway hit (it ran for three seasons), Other People’s Money, set in the same approximate era, which happens on a much smaller scale—one corporate raider, one targeted company—and thus has the advantage of exploring both sides of the battle from multiple viewpoints and doling out a story in which you care about everybody and yet root for the “bad guy,” because not only is he an engaging rogue, in the end, he happens to be more right than the other guy. Who is also right.

And yes, sure, new generations, new authors, fresh looks…but in this case, the look isn’t that fresh. The difference, perhaps, is that OPM was a little more prescient about where the country was headed, while Junk is a little more a look back at the seeds of what has been fulfilled. Myself, I prefer personal and prescient. Maybe every time.

 

And personal, and inspired by real events and people, brings us finally to The Last Match by Anna Ziegler, from the Roundabout at the Laura Pels. Here’s the website boilerplate: It’s the semifinals of the US Open, and two tennis greats are facing off in the match of their lives. Tim Porter, the aging all-American favorite, wants to prove to the world, his wife and himself that he’s still a champion. Hot-headed rising star Sergei Sergeyev struggles to believe he truly deserves to beat his lifelong hero.”

The play seems, in spirit and tone, very like the actually biographical sports plays of Eric Simonson (Lombardi, Magic/Bird, Bronx Bombers), but pulls off the neat trick of creating a totally convincing documentary air about two fictional players, and the equally fictional, yet equally authentic-seeming, women giving them life-partner support. It’s directed by Gale Taylor Upchurch with an admirable sense of verisimilitude, and the cast of four (Wilson Bethel, Alex Micklewicz, Natalia Payne and Zoë Winters) are very agreeable company and always expertly maintaining the illusion of real lives captured in an oral history.


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