‘Theater’ Posts

Theater Review: Clybourne Park

Tuesday, February 9th, 2010

Note: See the end of this review for a discount code for tickets to Clybourne Park.

At nearly 40, Playwrights Horizons is such an established part of New York's not-for-profit Off-Broadway pantheon that it's easy to take it for granted and forget that it has a special mission, as indicated in its very name: to foster and develop excellent new plays and playwrights. The current production of Bruce Norris's poetically written and smartly plotted Clybourne Park bodes well for the new decade – for Playwrights Horizons, at least, if not for the chances of fundamental change in race relations in America.

Two clever ideas root the play. First, Mr. Norris looks back half a century to Lorraine Hansberry's iconic A Raisin in the Sun, about an upwardly mobile black family – and depicts the other side. A white family in a lily-white, primly racist middle class neighborhood have sold their house to a black family, eliciting resistance, first euphemistic and then raw, from the community embodied by the deliciously sleazy Karl (the effective Jeremy Shamos, seen recently as the cautious priest in Creature).

Badly damaged by the death of their war-veteran son, angry and repressed Russ (Frank Wood, who won a Tony for Side Man) and Bev (the superb Christina Kirk, who did fine work in the excellent Telethon last year) are packing up and leaving the neighborhood behind, along with, they hope, their sorrows. Bev is a quintessential 1959 period piece, a liberal-minded woman who believes intellectually in the equality of the races and takes pride in her "friendship" with her black housekeeper Francine (the quietly explosive Crystal A. Dickinson), but still talks down to Francine and her husband Albert (the smoldering Damon Gupton) without being aware of it.

The play's second original conceit is setting the second act 50 years later, in the present time, with the same actors playing different roles. Now they are a batch of youngish people haggling over what initially seem like trivial details of the design of a new house. The couple who want to tear down and rebuild are white, the couple who object are black, and the ties to the story of 50 years earlier slowly materialize as this much faster paced, funnier, but ultimately equally powerful second half progresses. By the time a contractor (played by an utterly transmogrified Mr. Wood) digs up the old trunk Russ had buried in the yard and plops the baggage of the ages literally on center stage, we've seen just how the ugliness of America's never-ending racial "conversation" has transformed over the decades – transformed, but hardly died down. Aided by Pam MacKinnon's commendably transparent direction and fine performances all around, Mr. Norris has dramatized his perceptive view of these changes (and lack thereof) with wit, skill, and heart.

It would seem a little dull of me not to put Clybourne Park in a bit of contemporary perspective, given that I've recently covered two other major plays on the subject of race. David Mamet's Race is minor Mamet, effective as far as it goes, and with some very worthwhile performances; yet after chewing over its provocations, one comes away feeling that one hasn't heard anything much really new. More satisfying all-around is The Good Negro, which I saw this winter in a very good Boston production. That play, however, is constructed (and was directed) in a consciously artful manner. Clybourne Park never feels self-conscious; it deals with larger-than-life issues with compelling life-sized characters and naturalistic dialogue – the hardest kind to write.  It's a marvelous accomplishment.

Clybourne Park runs at Playwrights Horizons through March 7. See below for a discount code.

Photos by Joan Marcus. 1) L to R: Damon Gupton, Crystal A. Dickinson, Annie Parisse, Jeremy Shamos. 2) L to R: Christina Kirk, Frank Wood.


Blogcritics reader discount: Use code "CPGR"
Limit 4 tickets per order. Subject to availability.

Order by February 21 with code CPGR and tickets are only:
$40 (reg. $65) for all performances Jan 29-Feb 14
$50 (reg. $65) for all performances Feb 16-March 7
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Or:
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Theater Review (Boston): [title of show]

Saturday, January 23rd, 2010

[title of show], the little musical that referenced itself all the way to a 2008 Broadway run, is enjoying a solid New England premiere in a SpeakEasy Stage production at the Boston Center for the Arts.

Originally, Jeff Bowen (music and lyrics) and Hunter Bell (book) played themselves in the process of creating, revising, expanding, and taking to ever-greater heights the show itself, with the help of two actress friends. The self-referentiality is constant and provides much of the meat of the show: ("Susan, you're quiet." "Well, I didn't have a line until now"…"It's OK, Larry, we worked it out with the union so you can talk.") Cute, clever, and different, the show also boasted some of the best theatrical lyric writing that's come along in a while, along with much comedy, many (perhaps a couple too many) in-jokes, and, mercifully, almost no schmaltz.

Does the show work outside the city of its birth? This production proves that it can. The struggle to create something new, to express oneself, and to touch people is universal; New York just happens to be a place with an unusually large concentration of people with an inexplicable desire to do so through theater.

Happily, the Boston version has two gifted musical comedy performers at its center. Jordan Ahnquist and Joe Lanza furrow and shimmy their way through a lighthearted yet soulful dramatization of friendship and the creative process, with agility, panache, and musicality. Both have the ability to command the stage without hamming (though Mr. Lanza is a more than credible ham when he wants to be).

Val Sullivan and Amy Barker as Susan and Heidi give the boys a run for their money in grace and charm (and acting chops). Their voices, though, especially Ms. Barker's, were on the weak side; perhaps it was an amplification or monitoring issue, but there were also some intonation problems during four-part harmony sections. These flaws marred a few of the musical numbers a bit. However, Ms. Sullivan milked the wackiness of her role to very funny effect, and Ms. Barker sparkled in her more straightforward part. And the sterling, deadpan work of music director Will McGarragan, behind the piano as Larry, shouldn't go unmentioned either.

It's not an especially long show, but it feels a little pudgy around the middle to me. I found myself growing a little impatient with how quotidian it gets at times. The whole concept is that it's a show about the trials, tribulations, and details of producing a show, right down to the filling out of forms; but these bouts of musicalized realism now and then interrupted the dramatic arc of the story, such as it is, and grew a tiny bit tiresome.

Nonetheless, overall it's a delightful evening of theater, with loads of energy, sprightly staging by director Paul Daigneault, smart and boisterous choreography by David Connolly, and very well-executed technicals, including impressive sound (Aaron Mack) and lighting (Jeff Adelberg) and Seághan McKay's perfectly timed projections. Most of all, the whole cast, and especially the two brilliant leads, take us on a joyful, funny, and refreshing ride.

[title of show] runs through Feb. 13 at the Boston Center for the Arts. Ticket prices vary; visit the website or call 617-933-8600.

Photo: Todd H. Page

Theater Review (Boston): The Good Negro by Tracey Scott Wilson

Monday, January 18th, 2010

That’s right: Boston. I’m here for three months, four days a week or so, working as an editor at Book of Odds. So of course I’m taking the opportunity to check out some Boston theater. And I can't think of too many better ways to celebrate the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., whose birthday we observed this past weekend, than to attend a performance of Tracey Scott Wilson's critically acclaimed The Good Negro. This also happened to be the opening weekend of the play's Boston premiere. It's the first play I've seen in Boston since my time here in the dimly remembered 1980s, but if it's characteristic of the quality of Boston's homegrown theater, I have a lot to look forward to during my stay in 2010.

After its critically acclaimed run at the Public Theater in New York last year, this award-winning exploration of the Civil Rights movement focused well-deserved attention on its author. The new, debut production in this even more northern city, with its own racially charged history, bodes well for the 2010 season of Company One, a resident troupe at the Boston Center for the Arts, where a full house greeted the play on Saturday night with whoops and cheers even before the performance had begun.

The audience's high hopes were not misplaced. This is a solid production of a very good play, brought to life by an excellent cast. It succeeds in humanizing the civil rights leaders who too often appear in history books as pure angels of perseverance and moral clarity. For example, it's fairly well known today that Martin Luther King, Jr. was a philanderer, but here we witness Rev. James Lawrence (the charismatic Jonathan L. Dent) – roughly based on Dr. King – struggling in a very human way with this major character flaw even as he doggedly pursues his vision of equality and freedom for his people.

It's 1962, and after unsuccessful attempts to galvanize the Movement in several other cities, Rev. Lawrence has arrived in Birmingham, Alabama, "the most segregated city in America," with his lieutenant, the emotional minister Henry Evans (the impressive Cliff Odle). They're joined by a newcomer, Bill Rutherford (Cedric Lilly), just arrived from Europe and something of a dandy. Though out of touch with the daily struggles and religious zeal of blacks in the American South, Rutherford brings badly needed organizational skills, so the three do their best to get along, with volatile and often humorous results. Concisely handled in the script, this interplay provides an important strand of the drama, focusing attention on the highly imperfect natures of the civil rights leaders who became legends.

One thing the leaders must find is a "good Negro" – a figurehead victim of racial injustice with a spotless character as well as a moving story. In Birmingham they encounter Claudette Sullivan, beaten and arrested for allowing her four-year-old daughter to use a whites-only bathroom. Not only is Claudette tossed in jail, the little girl too spends hours in lockup. Educated, well-spoken, living a quiet life without troublesome associations or activities, Claudette (the quietly dignified Marvelyn McFarlane) seems perfect. Unfortunately her husband Pelzie (the superbly smoldering James Milord) isn't at all keen on subjecting himself and his family to the murderous dangers of the spotlight, and with very good reason.

All this takes place under the watchful eyes (actually the electronic ears) of two FBI agents, who bug the Movement's offices and enlist the prejudiced but not entirely unreasonable Tommy Rowe (the excellent Greg Maraio) to infiltrate the local KKK, hoping to head off any violence. They also do everything they can to impugn the characters of the civil rights leaders, leading to a powerful confrontation between the philandering Lawrence and his sturdy wife, Corinne (the very fine Kris Sidberry) – but also, ironically, to shocking violence. It comes in a masterly stroke of surprise, and we spend the play's last few scenes aquiver.

Boston area theatergoers have a great way to start their year and this well-acted, well-directed production deserves attention beyond the Martin Luther King Day celebration. If you're in the area, don't miss it.

The Good Negro runs through Feb. 6 at the Boston Center for the Arts.

Cabaret Review: The Truth About Love…and the Usual Lies with Jessica Medoff and Michael Bunchman

Tuesday, January 12th, 2010

Like the prose poem, the art song can seem a neglected foster child. A song but not a pop song, it typically has the musical sophistication and seriousness we associate with the great traditions of classical and romantic music, but its subject matter can be frothy as well as fiery, humorous as easily as heavy. But American composers like Aaron Copland and Charles Ives are generally better known for instrumental or choral works than for their art songs, while even many classical music lovers may not know Franz Schubert's stunning song cycle Winterreisse, an important progenitor of the genre.

Soprano Jessica Medoff, the fabulous Sorceress in Purcell's opera Dido and Aeneas a year ago, showcased another side of her ability in The Truth About Love…and the Usual Lies. Weaving art songs and show tunes together, she and her husband, the very talented pianist Michael Bunchman, presented a song cycle of their own on the inexhaustible subject of love. While I know a bit about art songs, something about musical theater, and even some Schubert, I cheerfully admit I didn't recognize many of the selections. Cheerfully because it made the show edifying as well as enjoyable. I wasn't familiar with Copland's settings of poems by Emily Dickinson, and here was the lovely "Heart we will forget him." I didn't know the American composer William Bolcom's witty ditty "Toothbrush Time" – here it was. Another revelation: Jason Robert Brown's "Stars and the Moon."

A highlight for me was Kurt Weill's "Surabaya Johnny," a hyper-passionate wail that can really take the measure of a singer; Ms. Medoff was all over that thing like a hungry lioness. "I Don't Care Much" from Cabaret was equally intense in a quieter way. To lighten the mood we had the very funny "Taylor the Latte Boy" together with its answer, "Taylor's Response" (sung artfully by Mr. Bunchman from the piano). The overrated Avenue Q has given us one lasting tune, the plaintively sweet "There's a Fine, Fine Line," sung by Ms. Medoff with understated sensitivity.

One remarkable thing about the show is the two performers' seamless connection; it's as if they can read each others' minds, piano and voice flowing together in perfect sympathy. This makes just about any song they perform something more than the sum of its parts. It reminded me of seeing a longstanding piano trio or string quartet, or a singing group consisting of siblings – a conductorless ensemble breathing together as if one creature. During the quietest passages the piano occasionally drowned out the voice, but this was not the performers' fault. The operatically-trained Ms. Medoff has a finely calibrated control, equally steady from pianissimo to fortissimo, and the program showed off her range without going overboard. The purpose wasn't to impress (or didn't come across that way), but to amuse and delight, and maybe introduce us to some unfamiliar but very worthwhile material. And that it did.

The duo has put together a few such cabaret cycles. If you have an opportunity to see this one, or anything else they do, grab it!

Opera Review: The Barber of Seville at the Bleecker Street Opera

Monday, December 28th, 2009

New York music fans loudly lamented the passing of the long-running Amato Opera earlier this year. Despite a reputation for uneven quality, the little family-run "opera house that could" had been an East Village institution since 1948, presenting stripped-down productions of operatic standards and charging low ticket prices while giving rising singers an opportunity to hone their craft.

Amato veterans have wasted no time rising from the ashes. Not one but two companies have emerged to wear the Amato's mantle. One, the Bleecker Street Opera, has found a home at the relatively spacious downstairs theater at 45 Bleecker Street, and I attended the second performance of its second production, Rossini's Barber of Seville, last night. The staff seemed unprepared for the full house. Everything was a little disorganized, and the show started late. The Rosina (Malena Dayen) was recovering from bronchitis. The Bartolo was a last-minute substitute who needed line cues from conductor/music director David Rosenmeyer. Mr. Rosenmeyer himself had been a late addition to the team after the unexpected departure of Paul Haas. And with all that, what did we get? Not technical perfection, it's true, but a thoroughly enjoyable and in some respects exceptional production, thanks to the cast of superb singers, the hardworking Mr. Rosenmeyer and his mini-orchestra, and a talented production team led by stage director Teresa K. Pond.

William Browning was a simply glorious Figaro, with a suave and powerful baritone, a solid yet agile stage presence, and a constant twinkle in his eye; his tremendous, antic "Largo al factotum" set a high bar. Anthony Daino brought a droll, Depardieu-esque assurance to Count Almaviva, with a sweet, sunny tenor. And Ms. Dayen, who like Mr. Rosenmeyer hails from Argentina, imbued Rosina with a fluid, coquettish energy, making her more than an equal to the scheming but good-hearted Count and the brash barber. No delicate flower was this Rosina, and I could detect little if any evidence of any lingering illness in Ms. Dayen's wonderful singing; if anything she seemed to strengthen as the evening wore on.

In a larger setting, the quality of acting in an opera like this – while important – can take a back seat. Not so in an intimate space, but the acting in this production was exceptional, as was the singers' diction. Whatever few words of Italian you may know – even if they don't go beyond "presto" and "piano" and "stanza" – you'll hear every one of them clearly.

The orchestra, though only about fifteen pieces, is a considerable step up from the tiny combos that accompanied Amato productions, and the musicians acquitted themselves very well, playing with verve and skill; the winds sparkled, and even the strings sounded generally in tune despite being so few in number.

Best of all, with a small house like this, there are virtually no bad seats, and everyone gets to feel up close and personal. It's quite different from somewhere like the Met, where everything is so fancy and grand. This is gritty opera, just the basics, but what crowd-pleasing basics they are.

The Barber of Seville plays Saturdays at 3 PM and Sundays at 7 PM through January 17. Click here for ticket information or call Telecharge at 212-239-6200.

Opera Review: Hansel and Gretel at the Metropolitan Opera

Thursday, December 17th, 2009

From Seven in One Blow to Snow White and now Hansel and Gretel, the Brothers Grimm have defined my December. Grandest and "Grimmest" of all is the last, presented by the Metropolitan Opera in a gorgeous English-language production by Richard Jones that originated at the Welsh National Opera and first ran at the Met in 2007.

With glorious voices, delightful acting, and Fabio Luisi conducting a fired-up Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, the production boasts John Macfarlane's beautiful if somewhat modest (for the Met) sets, which carry through the central motif (food!) – from the family's humble kitchen, all in off-white, to the dark green dreamlike woods, and finally to the Witch's gingerbread house, looking like a fantasyland test kitchen.

As the title characters, Angelika Kirchschlager and Miah Persson sing in lovely colors, leading a strong cast all of whom seem to be having a wonderful time. Tenor Philip Langridge made a splash as the Witch two years ago and has clearly lost none of his enthusiasm, giving her a depth of character that easily survives the table-dancing, the funny and slightly campy costume, and the clouds of cocoa powder and face full of cake. Dwayne Croft's sturdy voice and capacity for boisterous humor make him ideal for the role of the father, and Rosalind Plowright does wonderfully sympathetic work in Act I as the harried mother, who gets impatient with her children only because she can't feed them.

Engelbert Humperdinck's score has been justly celebrated for over a century,  and Mr. Luisi strikes just the right balance of Wagnerian sublimity (Humperdinck was a Wagner protégé) and the warm angelic brilliance the tale inspired in the composer. That warmth is most pronounced in the gorgeous "Fourteen Angels" song with which the lost Hansel and Gretel sing themselves to sleep in the dark woods. The chef-angels dream sequence that follows is a scene of exquisite, wordless beauty.

Once the Witch has been roasted, the family reunited, and the Witch's gingerbread victims restored to humanity, the opera concludes with a lovely chorale proclaiming "When in need or dark despair, God will surely hear our prayer." But the religious patina is purely a matter of faith; the children have survived their ordeal solely because of their own quick thinking, Gretel's in particular. It's a fairy story, after all, a crusty old folk tale gathered by the Grimms from ancient sources, and the Christian God is a latecomer to this musical feast; perhaps he'll be seated during intermission, but only at the discretion of the management. There's much more primal business to attend to, summed up in the final image: as all celebrate their safety and momentary bounty, a leering Hansel raises a roasted Witch-limb to his mouth as the house goes dark.

Rounding out the cast, Jennifer Johnson is the Sandman and Erin Morley his sunrise counterpart the Dew Fairy.  These two fine singers in cameo roles prove that the Met can summon an embarrassment of riches even for its smallest and most family-friendly offerings. Not that anything at the Metropolitan Opera can really be called small, though; this Hansel and Gretel is serious opera, if by "serious" we mean a story with depth, world-class performances, and glorious music. A joy for all ages, it would make a fine introduction for any opera neophyte, child or adult. Hansel and Gretel runs in repertory through Jan. 2 at the Met.

Theater Review: Fault Lines by Rebecca Louise Miller

Tuesday, December 15th, 2009

It's nice, for a change, to go to a cramped little New York City theater and see a play that's not about cramped little twenty-somethings living in a cramped little New York City apartment. Not that our grungy behemoth of a hive-town isn't a cauldron of fuel for creativity – it sure as hell is. But, loath as we can be to admit it, there's life outside the city, a lot of it. And that life can be very similar to our own – indeed recognizably human in surprisingly many ways!

Fault Lines, inspired by the true story of the Polly Klaas kidnapping, takes us to the Northern California home of Bethany, a 32-year-old mother of twins receiving a visit from two childhood friends. Though nervous and hyper, chatty Bethany is also a distinctly West Coast type: new-agey without being self-consciously fashionable about it. Over a compact and fast-paced hour, what seems at first an innocent get-together of old girlfriends is revealed, bit by bit, to be something far more significant. As girls, the three – along with a now-absent fourth – shared a trauma that has bonded them for life.

Homey Bethany, played with acute sensitivity by the excellent Jenna Doolittle, is joined first by bitter, angry Kat (Anaïs Alexandra, who is a skilled actress but could stand to tone her performance down a tad to suit the tiny size of the theater). Then Jessica (the playwright Rebecca Louise Miller) arrives, a jet-setting activist the course of whose life and work has been set by the nationally famous crime the girls witnessed twenty years earlier. She's tailed by a dogged but sensitive TV reporter (Tobin Ludwig) seeking interviews with the women.

Layers of story lurking beneath the obvious methodically come to light: Jessica's political activism has had an unwanted effect on Kat's family; Bethany, in a kind of religious fervor, has been seeing ghosts and consorting with the enemy. It all cascades towards a satisfying, thought-provoking finish.

The pleasures of this production are several. The enjoyable performances and David Epstein's moody, appropriately ambient direction solidly support Ms. Miller's skillful storytelling and realistic, witty, and pointed dialog. The set, sound, and lighting create suitably sombre moods, though the vivid personalities of the characters and the sparkling dialogue never let the seriousness of the story sink to the maudlin.

Fault Lines runs through Dec. 19 at the Dorothy Strelsin Theatre in the Abingdon Theatre Complex (312 West 36 St.). Tickets are $20 and can be reserved by calling TheaterMania at 212-352-3101 or online.

Theater Review: Race by David Mamet

Monday, December 14th, 2009

The proximity of the recent Oleanna revival just two blocks away makes David Mamet's new play feel just a smidgen formulaic. In both, an angry young woman betrays her mentor because of a grievance for which he is culpable only in an abstract, class-informed way. The thing is, Mamet is so good at provocative audience-baiting dialogue, and Race's major characters so acutely finessed by his cast (he also directed), that it doesn't much matter that we've pretty much heard this story before.

Susan, a pretty young black law associate, spends a chunk of the first act hovering silently over the action as the two partners at her firm, white Jack and black Hank, discuss whether to take a racially charged case that another law firm has just given up on. Charles Strickland, a well-known, wealthy burgher, stands accused of raping a young black woman. He claims the sex was consensual and eventually convinces Jack and Hank of his innocence, but otherwise he's the client from hell, poetically guilt-wracked over societal and psychological injustices.

 


Richard Thomas is excellent in the role, though I found myself wishing he had a bit more to do. The main action is in the play of ideas, where James Spader's Jack and David Alan Grier's Hank own the show. These two intellectual heavyweights on the cynical circuit thrust and parry using Susan (a slightly wooden Kerry Washington) as their shiny sabre. Perhaps not surprisingly, given the playwright's famous contrariness, it's Jack, the white partner, who eventually displays the soft underbelly, trusting where he shouldn't have.

On the other hand, it's hard to blame Jack for not knowing he's in a David Mamet play. Hank, for his part, is a little more clear-headed; both black characters, in fact, have a more complete sense of the human predilection for playing every card in one's hand, however charged with danger it may be, and however deep-rooted Jack's own lawyerly cynicism seems at first.

It's nice to know we don't live in Mamet's world. Prejudice and even hate may indeed, as the play suggests, remain endemic in our culture, even in each one of us. But these ills do not entirely define us. Showing compassion, whether guardedly like Jack or openly, doesn't always bring punishment on the sympathizer.

The superb Spader's character gets the fullest development (and many of the best lines) but Grier's Hank is a small, hard marvel, thoughtful yet morally weightless.

I wonder what Thomas, who in my experience seems incapable of turning in a poor performance, might have done with the larger role of Jack. But Spader, whose entire career has till now essentially been on the screen, displays such stageworthy solidity that one imagines he could have been treading the boards for the past 20 years instead. Projecting for a live crowd does take away his trademark basso, but there's plenty of depth in the rough grey matter of Mamet's ever-treacherous landscapes to satisfy most eggheads.

Backstage at the Metropolitan Opera

Sunday, December 13th, 2009

The Metropolitan Opera, founded in 1883, moved into its snazzy Lincoln Center quarters in 1966. The Met opera facility is one of the largest in the world, seating nearly 4,000.

Designed by architect Wallace Harrison, who was also responsible for Rockefeller Center and the United Nations complex, the Met's Lincoln Center theater is one of New York City's grandest spaces, with 32 Swarovski crystal chandeliers; beautiful wood paneling, all from one titanic rosewood tree; a gold-leaf ceiling; maroon, maroon everywhere; and, for the best acoustics, no right angles anywhere. The proscenium stage measures 54 feet by 54 feet and is fully 110 feet high, allowing for larger sets than nearly anywhere else.

Not only that, multiple sets can be slid onto and off the stage for quick changes between acts and productions, while the huge space belowdecks has room to store five or six other complete productions. (Additional productions are stashed in New Jersey warehouses, ready to be called back into action when the company wishes to restage an old favorite.)

That quick-change ability makes the Met's long and busy season possible. The 2009-2010 campaign features an amazing 28 productions, including eight new ones. Unlike in regular theater, the big opera companies keep successful productions in repertory for years, sometimes decades. This year's La Bohème is the Franco Zeffirelli staging that dates back to 1981, for example. On the other hand, the much-discussed production of Janá?ek's From the House of the Dead is brand new at the Met this year. It's the new productions that make news, naturally. But it's often the old ones that bring the biggest crowds for the longest periods of time.

Like Broadway and museums, opera is recognizing the importance of the blogosphere in promoting culture and the arts. The Met took a group of web writers on a backstage tour last night, giving us a rare chance to see the nuts and bolts of the opera house, including the workshop, where sets are built and repaired. The crispy person and the chefs pictured, who are in the shop for some touch-ups, come from Hansel and Gretel, while parts and relics of productions past are everywhere, such as the Nixon in China portal leg and the unidentified heads, also pictured.

The Met, like other opera companies, knows that it must not only present operas but help create the next generation of opera fans through education and outreach if the art is to survive the 21st century. To this end they are going far beyond merely inviting bloggers backstage and mounting family-friendly productions like Hansel. The Met's HD Live in Schools programs transmits live performances directly to schools all across the country, while its Live in HD simulcasts have been drawing crowds (close to a million people in 2007) to movie theaters, where you can now also see live performances from the Gran Teatre del Liceu from Barcelona and La Scala from Milan.

Theater/Cabaret Review: ‘Tis the Season with Vickie and Nickie

Wednesday, December 9th, 2009

I don't know about you-all, but I started my holiday season off just right with a trip to Don't Tell Mama for Vickie and Nickie's holiday show.

I hadn't been to the legendary cabaret spot for years and was glad to find the place still going strong. A full house turned up for real-life sisters Lisa and Lori Brigantino, who play Vickie and Nickie, two busy Midwestern moms who take to the stage to delight and entertain with humorous banter (abundant), multi-instrumental musical talents (considerable), and big ol' personalities (wickedly twisted, if all in good family-friendly fun).

Straight from "the prison circuit" and the land of lutefisk – Garrison Keillor fans will know what that is – the pair poke good-natured fun at middle-of-the-road American culture while revving up the crowd with perfectly executed vocal harmonies and musicianship (keyboards, guitar, uke, sax…). In this edition they got the balance between spoof and sincerity just right, heavy on the former, belting out Christmas favorites ranging from straight-up takes on "Feliz Navidad" and "Blue Christmas" to Springsteen and Streisand versions of classic carols, supplemented by a couple of punchy original Vickie and Nickie numbers. Amidst the holiday cheer they also worked in hilariously non-jokey versions of "Under Pressure" and that new camp classic, Beyonce's "Single Ladies," which got the audience shouting along in delight. They've discovered, and nailed, the big secret: playing things more or less straight can get more laughs than a lot of horsing around.

Undercurrents of anger and competitiveness make Vickie and Nickie both campier and realer than they'd otherwise seem, while the Brigantino sisters' high-end musical skills allow them to make the act, with its unflagging energy and common-denominator humor, look easy.

'Tis the Season with Vickie and Nickie had two performances last week at Don't Tell Mama. Visit their website for news of upcoming shows, or just hang around the local women's prison till they show up, bewigged and besparkled, spreading good old-fashioned cheer whatever the time of year.

Theater Review: Seven in One Blow, or The Brave Little Kid

Tuesday, December 8th, 2009

Based on the Grimm fairy tale, this colorful kids' show with music is a decent hour-long holiday amusement for the little ones.

It could have been more. Like much children's theater, it suffers from over-sweetification rooted in an assumption that anything potentially disturbing or even strange must be excised, like a suspicious freckle, from entertainment designed for children. In this case, though, the result is not so much simplification as scattering; the production is all over the place.

Some of this is for the good, from a theatrical standpoint. The story has been changed in a number of ways, including the addition of a framing device, and given some modern cultural twists having to do with identity.  There's no slaying of monsters or beasties in this version, which is nice, especially for the holiday season. And a number of new characters provide amusing scenery-chewing opportunities for some good actors.

The most random-seeming addition is the Scarlet Pimpernel, shoehorned in from a completely different story but played with pleasingly foppish vanity by Brian Barnhart. A threatening Ogre turns out to be more Shrek-like than dangerous, a witch proves far less scary than that Wicked One of the West, and another feared monster turns out to be something quite smaller and meeker.

In the Grimm (and grimmer) original, a little tailor kills seven flies with one strike, and as a result comes to fancy himself a great hero. Stitching himself a belt bearing the motto "Seven in One Blow," he goes off to seek his fortune. It's a great kids' story because it's all about imagination. Folks all around, including the royal family and some mean giants, believing the motto refers to seven men, honor and elevate the tailor for his battle prowess, but still betray him at every possible opportunity. Like any good kids' hero, he's both brave and clever, defeating powerful enemies by outwitting them. (He also gets the girl.)

In this play the tailor is, reasonably enough, turned into an actual kid, and rather than killing the baddies, as in a traditional quest saga like the Twelve Labors of Hercules or The Wizard of Oz, this hero wins their respect and turns them into allies. It's a questionable plot change, as a) the real world does contain real baddies, and b) sometimes one does have to live by one's wits. But it's a nice excuse for songs, bright costumes, and amusing mugging.

All in all this is a diverting show for kids up to about eight years old. (The nine-year-old I brought gave it the equivalent of one thumb up.)

Seven in One Blow, or The Brave Little Kid runs weekends through Dec. 13 at the Axis Theatre, 1 Sheridan Square, just off Seventh Avenue in Greenwich Village, New York City. The Dec. 11 performance is a benefit for St. Jude Children's Hospital.

Theater Review: She Like Girls by Chisa Hutchinson

Sunday, December 6th, 2009

This smartly observed play about inner-city kids focuses on the sexual awakening of one in particular. Unlike some "ghetto kid" dramatizations, it avoids the sin of trying too hard. In language that's spicy and realistic, playwright Chisa Hutchinson crafts believable characters who are vividly realized by an excellent cast of mostly newbies. The one thing Ms. Hutchinson can't seem to do is think of an ending. But until that disconcerting, disappointing five seconds, the neatly plotted She Like Girls is an entertaining and affecting journey through the troubled life and psyche of Kia (Karen Eilbacher).


Karen Eilbacher as "Kia" and Karen Sours as "Marisol" in the Working Man's Clothes production of She Like Girls. Photo credit: Julie Rossman

A sullen, sensitive teen, Kia befriends an ebullient, outgoing cheerleader, Marisol (Karen Sours), who has discovered a lump in her breast. The relationship develops through a series of concise, well-played scenes. With the help of a kindly teacher (Adam Belvo) and no help at all from her macho old friend Andre (Paul Notice II), Kia finds some ground to stand on. Though plagued by nightmares – including one brilliant scene in which Marisol brings her in for a show-and-tell session that turns into a gay-bashing horror show – Kia discovers first ideals (it shouldn't matter what you're called, just who you are) and then the insane cruelty of the real world when Marisol is beaten and and thrown out of her house by her homophobic mother.

Wisely, Ms. Hutchinson keeps things earthy, leaving the poetic language to the poet Adrienne Rich, who is quoted and invoked as a lesbian icon and guiding spirit – and who actually materializes, because why not?

This isn't a "gay play." It's more or less a traditional (and often quite funny) story about growing up, finding first love, and experiencing the pain and despair of young adulthood. That there's no ultimate redemption isn't what's wrong with the ending; redemption is only one possible conclusion for the human condition.  What's wrong is that the play just stops abruptly, with a violent act that feels neither shocking nor truly sad, just baffling, which snaps off the till-now well-crafted story arc.

Ms. Eilbacher and Ms. Sours give fine, heartbreaking performances, backed by a strong supporting cast. Lavita Shaurice is brilliant as Alia, an alienated straight friend with awesome comic timing. Amelia Fowler scores as Kia's sarcastic but generous mother, bathed in her own complexities, and Mr. Notice is sympathetic and solid in the tough role of Andre. With no weak links in the cast, efficient direction by Jared Culverhouse, an effectively garish graffiti-drenched set (by Kelly Syring and a cast of artists), well-chosen music and sound (Ryan Dorin), and a bit of energetic choreography (Sabrina Jacob), there is, as I said, only one thing missing:

She Like Girls plays through Dec. 30 at the Ohio Theatre, 66 Wooster St., New York. Tickets at Theatermania.

Theater Review: A Streetcar Named Desire at BAM Starring Cate Blanchett, Directed by Liv Ullman

Friday, December 4th, 2009

No one does women like Tennessee Williams. It's widely accepted that some of his flamboyantly faded female characters stand in for the playwright himself; perhaps that has something to do with their vividness. Whatever the case, any of these roles provide a field day for a fearless actress.

Few present-day movie stars show such consistent bravery in their performances and their choice of roles as Cate Blanchett. Unlike some transformational actors, Ms. Blanchett has the option, when in a role in which she doesn't have to do much (such as Galadriel in the Lord of the Rings cycle), of seeming to relax and taking over the screen by simply glowing. But there's little call for mere radiance on the stage; there wasn't in the 2006 Hedda Gabler, another Sydney Theatre Company production starring Ms. Blanchett that played at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, nor is their any holding back in the company's current production of A Streetcar Named Desire.


Ms. Blanchett's Blanche DuBois is certainly a lovely creature – sparkly-eyed, regally erect, monster-sexy – but thoroughly convincing as the insecure, childish, flirtatious, ungracefully aging southern belle who, having "lost" her family's country estate under mysterious circumstances, comes to live with her pregnant sister Stella (a superb Robin McLeavy) and her husband Stanley Kowalski (a seismic Joel Edgerton) in their humble New Orleans apartment.

Its two rooms separated only by a flimsy curtain, the apartment stands before us in its entirety. Ralph Myers' set, evocatively lit by Nick Schlieper in garish electric yellows and spooky Cajun blues, snugly suggests the Kowalskis' limited working-class horizons. At first startled by the humble surroundings, Blanche adapts handily, if passive-aggressively, and soon takes up with Stanley's friend, the highly moral Mitch (an excellent Tim Richards), who, charmed by Blanche's nighttime glamour, has a rude awakening in store when details of her past emerge.

Streetcar is a somewhat schizophrenic work. The first half plays as an expertly constructed ensemble piece. Unlike most of his zillions of imitators, Williams can do a prodigal-relation-arrives-to-shake-things-up plot without any sense of strain or cliche. His magical ability to fuse consummate craft with utter sincerity reached an apex in a handful of plays, Streetcar being one of them.

But the second half turns into Blanche's show, and while Blanche may be a faded flower, Ms. Blanchett is no shrinking violet, giving us a spectacular, galvanic Blanche. During scene changes, her silhouette can be made out prancing across the stage fully in character. Coming out with the cast for the five curtain calls the audience demanded last night, she looked like a sailing ship that's been dashed against the rocks a few times and is still bobbling upright only through some sort of miracle.

Mr. Edgerton as Stanley, another great Williams role, matches Blanche note for harsh note in their scenes together, trying his damnedest to take her down, using his magnetic masculinity as fervently as she wields her feminine charms. Equally strong is Ms. McLeavy as Stella, embodying sexiness and earth-motherhood in equal measure, holding down the emotional and moral center, often tearful but never weak. Despite no physical resemblance, the two actresses convince as sisters, long-separated but knowing each other all too well.

Is Cate Blanchett's a Blanche for the ages? Hard to say, this soon, but it's powerful and memorable, and this triumphant production is a highlight of the season. From all the way on the other side of the world, the Sydney Theatre Company, run by Ms. Blanchett and her husband Andrew Upton, bravely brings this most American of plays back to America in its full faded glory. The New Orleans accents may be a touch touch-and-go, with lines occasionally hard to make out and Ms. Blanchett's southern drawl marked by a curious semi-lisp (not that these accents are much easier for American actors to master). But the three-plus hours of this nearly flawless production – helmed in inspired, fluid fashion by Liv Ullman (firmly established in a second career as a director) – dash by, leaving us both shaken and stirred.

A Streetcar Named Desire runs through Dec. 20 at BAM.

Met Opera Ticket Giveaway

Monday, November 30th, 2009

Through Blogcritics I’m conducting a ticket giveaway to see Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel at the Metropolitan Opera. Click here for info.

Theater Review: In the Next Room or the Vibrator Play by Sarah Ruhl

Monday, November 30th, 2009

To imagine a time before humans understood that there was a connection between sexual intercourse and pregnancy, you have to go back pretty far through the mists of time. The relationship between sexuality and the female orgasm, however, which seems just as obvious to us today, a mere century ago hadn't been made – at least not in uptight Victorian culture. Unhappy upper- and middle-class women, women who today would be simply described as dissatisfied with their lives and/or sexually frustrated, were "diagnosed" as "hysterics" and "treated" – sometimes with vibrations that led to a release, or "paroxysm" as it is so cutely called in Sarah Ruhl's engrossing but not thoroughly baked new play.

In the Next Room or the Vibrator Play takes us back to the late 18th-century home office of a fictionalized doctor-inventor (Michael Cerveris) who uses the new miracle of electricity to create vibrating machines capable of stimulating women – and the occasional man – to orgasm. The doctor's wife (Laura Benanti), a frustrated free spirit, craves romantic love, sensuality, and excitement but gets at most deference from her buttoned-up husband, who has more passion for science than for, well, passion. To make matters worse, poor Mrs. Givings can't provide adequate milk for their new baby and feels she's a bad mother, yet has little to distract her from her unhappy state except the taking of long walks in all kinds of weather.

Dr. Givings' new patient (the fabulous Maria Dizzia) and her gruff husband (Thomas Jay Ryan) arrive to put a little kick into the proceedings, and a race/class issue is raised with the possibility of hiring a black wet nurse (Quincy Tyler Bernstine). But stilted dialogue and caricatured personalities (especially the doctor's, his character being the least colorful) prevent Act I from registering as more than an amusing trifle powered by easy laughs derived from the various characters' excited reactions to the machine. It isn't that the script makes light of their ignorance; it's simply that it seems to be coasting on a cloud of the obvious.

Act II is immediately livened up by the presence of Leo Irving (a delightful Chandler Williams), a rare male patient suffering from melancholy after a romantic disappointment. With his sweeping gestures, fascinating conversation, and sexy artistic temperament, he's an almost too-easy foil for the preoccupied doctor. But the characters deepen as the plot thickens over the course of the long second act, which culminates in a beautiful set change as the perfectly appointed but stuffy rooms flip into a magical snowy garden.

By the time this snow-globe ending rolls around, the play itself has transformed from a mildly clever comedy of manners into an old-fashioned comic romance, with sad partings preceding something resembling a wedding (or a wedding night, anyway). In spite of the thoroughly charming performances, including a sprightly and touching turn from the always effervescent Ms. Benanti and dignified, graceful work from Mr. Cerveris and Ms. Bernstine, I found the plot turns, the character development, and (in the first act) the dialogue formulaic.

Yet after a while as the play deepened it won me over, like a hit pop song with a predictable hook and a fancy arrangement, a song which proves, after several listens, to contain depth charges of honest feeling beneath its shiny surface. It wasn't merely the funny moments, the nifty set and the absolutely stunning costumes. Sexual content aside, there's a heartwarming fairy-tale sparkle to the story, and at the same time it provokes us to think about how malleable is the human nature that we tend to think is so fundamental. When society straitens us into particular, narrow channels, we become creatures almost alien to ourselves – yet still comically (and often, though not here, tragically) recognizable.

In the Next Room or the Vibrator Play, presented by Lincoln Center Theater, plays on Broadway at the Lyceum Theatre.

Photo by Joan Marcus.

Theater Review: THIS by Melissa James Gibson at Playwrights Horizons

Thursday, November 19th, 2009

Human interaction is a complex, intuitional, frequently absurd jumble of conversation, innuendo, and the unspoken. At the same time, it's broadly predictable: people we know well will seldom surprise us, so that it's memorable when they do.

Dealing with this dual nature of communication is a major challenge for a playwright who wishes to craft realistic dialogue. Generally such a writer wants to dramatize important events in the lives of her characters, while at the same time making the minutiae of their interactions convincingly real. She must accomplish all this with characters known only to her, since we the audience have just met them; without the benefit of the elevated, concentrated language of poetry; and yet in a short period of time. Melissa James Gibson, author of the award-winning [sic], meets this essential challenge of tone, pace, and content nearly perfectly in her new play THIS.

The story skeleton is pretty standard: four friends in their late 30s, three straight and one gay, deal with major life events, catalyzed by infidelity and an exotic new acquaintance. The glory is in the details. Jane's (Julianne Nicholson) husband died a year ago, leaving her with a school-age daughter. Her friend Marrell (Eisa Davis), a brand-new mom herself, has in mind to break Jane out of her widowy slump by introducing her to handsome Jean-Pierre (Louis Cancelmi), a French "Doctor Without Borders."

Meanwhile Marrell's marriage to Tom (Darren Pettie), already troubled, has grown shakier and sexless with the arrival of their new baby. After a party in which a parlor game goes hilariously, frightfully wrong, Tom reveals longstanding feelings for Jane in a brilliantly composed and delivered speech. The "real" game is afoot.

Gibson plays games with our expectations throughout. The rules of the parlor game – so the friends tell Jane, who doesn't like games – are simple, but she objects: "You make them sound simple, which means they're not." That seems a suitable watchword for life, and certainly for this realistically messy tale. Alan (Glenn Fitzgerald) is the gay, single friend whose sexual orientation is the one aspect of his character that isn't "otherizing." (The "annoying" gay friend is hardly the sitcom stereotype.) Alan (with his "dormant Judaism"), Tom, and Jane are white, while Marrell is black, but race comes up only in unexpected yet biting bits.

Everyone has some otherness to submerge or nurse. The four friends met in college, but Tom, the one who works with his hands, was an employee there, not a student. When Marrell confesses to Jane her marital unhappiness, she mentions the lack of sex, but also that "Tom stopped voting… I don't know him anymore." That sort of loose bit of information, like Jean-Pierre's funny phone call scene, doesn't really go anywhere or even make perfect sense, but reveals character while touching on the layer of absurdity that's a part of everything we do to and with one another.

Thanks to Alan's gift of perfect recall, we have a mechanism for seeing through the veils of interpretation different characters pull over the same events. One small imperfection is the self-consciousness of the scene in which we see Alan performing his mnemonic act, introducing us to this important plot point. But creating a character with this ability was an inspired twist.

A sixth character is Louisa Thompson's vast, jumbled set, which in its fullness represents Tom and Marrell's homey loft apartment. Overhung with a huge skylight panel, its large size, lived-in clutter, and two levels echo the complexity of the lives Gibson splatters before us. It's telling that the whole thing fades away (Matt Frey's lighting is very effective) for a sparkling closing scene in which Jane, having at last shaken off some of her burden of grief, addresses her sleeping child in the latter's bedroom. Despite its broad canvas the play is full of such moments: the lonely rattling sound emanating from a wooden bowl cum baptismal font after Marrell learns she's been cheated on; Tom placing the baby monitor on Marrell's piano and returning grimly to his cabinetmaking; Alan helping Jane on with the coat whose broken zipper she hasn't bothered to fix; Jane's sad, broken metaphor, "the wolf is never away from the door, the wolf is the door."

Daniel Aukin, who also directed [sic], does beautiful work here with his superb cast. I'm a firm believer that if you don't notice the direction, the director has done a good job, and just about every scene here feels natural, though powerfully staged at appropriate moments.

THIS continues at Playwrights Horizons through Dec. 13. Order by Nov. 25 with the code THGR to get tickets for only $50 (reg. $65). To order, visit www.playwrightshorizons.org or call Ticket Central at (212) 279-4200, open daily noon-8:00 pm.

Photo by Joan Marcus.

Theater Review: Cyrano de Bergerac

Wednesday, November 18th, 2009

The story is as familiar as that of the sword in the stone or the vacillating Danish prince. Swashbuckling solider-poet Cyrano loves his winsome cousin Roxane, but despite his valor and popularity among his comrades his huge nose prevents him (or so he is convinced) from being taken seriously in matters of the heart. Learning that his beloved has taken a shine to another soldier, and that the handsome but tongue-tied Christian loves her back, Cyrano swallows his pride and settles for wooing Roxane indirectly by feeding Christian the high-flying, romantic poetry and wit Roxane demands.

The ruse is working, but Colonel DeGuiche, a jealous suitor, sends Cyrano and Christian's unit on a dangerous mission to the front lines just after Christian and Roxane have, with Cyrano's anguished help, hurriedly wed. Misunderstanding and tragedy carry the day, until the truth comes out years later when it's too late.

Though the story is familiar, we don't often get the chance to see it up close on a small stage, and certainly not with as fine an actor as Daniel Wolfe in the lead role. Mr. Wolfe's commanding performance in this Queens Players production – passionate, witty, antic, elastic, full-throated – is nearly enough all by itself to carry the weight of this very long (even though somewhat cut) production of Edmond Rostand's century-old classic. And fortunately, Mr. Wolfe is not alone, getting able backup from Anthony Martinez – who was a spirited Orlando in the company's recent As You Like It – as a suitably comical yet sympathetic Christian, and from a charming if slightly less sure-footed Sarah Bonner as Roxane. Ms. Bonner seemed to warm up as the long evening rolled on, perhaps inspired by Mr. Wolfe's blistering presence.

Of the supporting cast, some are quite good, while others turn in merely adequate performances, and there are one or two glaring failures. A more general problem mars the production as well. It's very difficult to understand what's going on during the lengthy opening scene, which is supposed to give us a cross-section of Parisian society before Cyrano's entrance; though the scene is briskly paced, some dialogue is lost through a combination of poor diction and the echoey sound of the Queens Players' new, larger space in the Long Island City Art Center (you can still smell the paint). Overall the ensemble scenes are prone to weakness. Rostand's picture of the society in which his heroes move, which ought to be sharp as tacks, comes through hazily at best.

But this production is well worth seeing, first for Mr. Wolfe's galvanizing performance, and second for the vision of Queens Players artistic director Richard Mazda, which is penetrating where it counts.  Mr. Mazda directs the production himself, and gives proper stress to a supremely important facet of the play: besides love and society, it's about art itself.

The dual meanings of that little three-letter word merge in Cyrano. The hero is a true artist in both senses. He is a wizard with words, a poet, a playwright, even a kind of "artist" with his sword. At the same time, he is supremely "artful" – a kind of trickster, a deceiver, though one with only the noblest of intentions. The pain that motivates him produces many of the play's comical elements as well as its ultimate tragedy.

Cyrano is among other things a piece of meta-theater. It asks us to believe the unbelievable – that Roxane won't recognize when a literally different voice has takes over beneath her window; that Cyrano can spin fresh, clever rhymes while engaged in a swordfight, and then hack his way through 100 attackers. And it doesn't apologize for asking these things of us; it knows it is a piece of artifice. Rostand's triumph, and here Mr. Wolfe's as well, is to pull us along the whole way, going gladly.

I have a feeling Mr. Mazda wanted to have it both ways: to present the play in as much of its broad, spread-out glory as possible, while bringing the central characters into sharp focus. Perhaps that was too much to ask of a low-budget, Off Off Broadway production and an unevenly skilled company. But the sharp realization of the central story, with an unforgettable performance in the title role, is more than enough to make this a very worthwhile evening of theater. 

Cyrano de Bergerac runs through Dec. 5 at the Secret Theatre in Long Island City, Queens (one stop from Manhattan on the E or V train).

Photos: Cameron Hughes

Theater Review: Wolves at the Window by Toby Davies (after Saki)

Saturday, November 14th, 2009

What stayed with me from my childhood reading of Saki was the sense of eerie irony, along with the threatening feeling of something wild lurking just beneath the veneer of civilization. What actually happened in the stories mattered less. But Toby Davies' stage adaptation of a selection of the stories has brought back both the mood and the materials, and made it clear to your humble reviewer, though he must shamefacedly admit to not having re-read Saki as an adult, that the tales retain their punch.

Mr. Davies has woven a number of Saki's short stories into a web of darkly funny, skit-like scenes, populated by an assortment of broadly drawn and eloquently written characters all played by four fabulously droll actors. The cast, like Mr. Davies, director Thomas Hescott, and, sadly, H. H. Munro (alias Saki) himself, won't be too familiar to American audiences – not, at any rate, as familiar as playwright Alan Ayckbourn, who is also represented at this year's "Brits Off Broadway" series at 59E59 Theaters. But do catch this production if you have a chance – it's a delight, and a fine introduction for those unfamiliar with Saki, who was born in 1870 and died fighting in World War One.

Dark and sometimes macabre materials, laid out with a humorous touch – that's Saki, and this play is faithful to the writer's tone. Animals star in many of the selected tales (Mr. Davies has drawn from ten). An ancient tiger is goaded via his own predatory instincts into becoming prey for two absurd British huntresses. A woman uses a tiny, tyrannical dog to lord it over her household. A cat learns to talk, but with disastrous consequences for his elegant self when the family that once adored him realizes with horror that "He's heard…everything…" And always there are the wolves of the title, baying and howling in the background (just one element of Tim Saward's effective sound design), advancing in literal fashion into more than one story, turning the haughty, hunting homo sapiens into the hunted.

Even when there's no animal per se there are predator and prey. In the very first story, a grifter tries to gull a smart-ass, who ends up betrayed not by actual gullibility but by an unexpected twist of fate. In the last, a violent end awaits two feuding neighbors, who have buried the hatchet only to fall victim to a literal manifestation of the old "if a tree falls in the forest" question. A malevolent core hums at the center of everything, taking on various guises: petty human deceit, real wild animals – or a vengeful Pan, jealously guarding the tribute left for him. Pan's appeaser is a gentleman who has taken a holiday in the country reluctantly, but adjusted rather more successfully to pagan ways than his jittery wife.

Cleverly constructed and gracefully directed – and superbly lit by Richard Howell – this devilish evening of theater is as enchanting as it is eerie, with many laughs, brilliant acting, and a number of effective goosebump moments. It, just like its source material, could have come from nowhere but Britain. "I suppose," says the con artist in the opening skit, "you think I've spun you quite the impossible yarn." But Saki isn't pulling the wool over our eyes. He's exposing bloody nature. "I've heard it said," declares the city gentleman, "that the Wood Gods are rather horrible to those who molest them." Indeed. Saki meant to skewer Edwardian manners and mores. But when it comes to the human animal, things change very little, whatever century you're in or continent you're on. See this show, then go forth from the theater into the wilds of Midtown, and watch your back.

Wolves at the Window runs through Dec. 6 at 59E59 Theaters, NYC.

Theater Review: The Lesser Seductions of History

Tuesday, November 10th, 2009

I usually find it disconcerting when a play's skeleton is patently visible, especially a play that aspires to realism. Maybe it's just me, but I remember, even as a child, having to overcome the embarrassed chill the Stage Manager in Our Town gave me with his narration, and only gradually settle into enjoying the show. "The name of our town is Grover's Corners…" I want to be immersed in the world of the play, not given a set of water wings and steered by Mom and Dad.

Another thing that bugs me is when a playwright (or a musician or artist, for that matter) pounds a message too hard. I hate being preached to. Even by someone with whom I agree.

Impressively, then, August Schulenburg's The Lesser Seductions of History narrated, steered, and preached its way into my heart. With an agile cast, and under Heather Cohn's crisp direction, there is no stopping this beautifully written juggernaut, even as it wears its structure on its sleeve.

Schulenburg has bitten off a lot here. In terms of story, he aims to present no less than the entire decade of the 1960s – Camelot, the counterculture, drugs, the sexual revolution, Apollo, Vietnam, the Civil Rights movement (nonviolent and otherwise) – in one evening of theater. And damned if he doesn't do it.

The Flux Theatre Ensemble is known for ambitious productions. Their superb Pretty Theft, for example, was big and sprawling too, though not to this extent. As in Pretty Theft, multiple storylines play out simultaneously on one stage. Eleven precisely drawn characters dance through the decade, illustrating through a quick succession of mostly short scenes their own messy dreams and devastations, while shouldering the zeitgeist they are also asked to embody. They become real to us while representing movements and ideas as well. It's a heavy load but Schulenburg's writing is pointed enough, and the players deft enough, to carry it with seeming ease, and they rivet our attention for two-plus hours.

The ensemble is talented, game, and for the most part well cast. Especially affecting are Ingrid Nordstrom and Christina Shipp as estranged sisters Anisa and Lizzie, one cerebral, the other a troubled free spirit. Both struggle and ultimately fail to live to see their respective triumphs – for scientist Anisa, the moon landing; for flower-child Lizzie, a genuinely valid reason for being. As precisely as the play is structured, the lives it depicts are anything but neat. Therein lies the real accomplishment.

A few times the structuring feels like too much. The stories are told well enough through the characters that I wasn't sure we needed the year-by-year "chapter" divisions – it's quite clear that years are passing, even if we don't know or recall exactly what years Ranger 3 missed the Moon and the Doors broke on through. (A helpful timeline in the program informs us of these and many other facts referenced in the play.)

The narrator/chorus (Candice Holdorf), called "One" in the program, is the genius (in the original sense) of the age, representing ideals like Progress as well as their flip side – the pain and uncertainty that afflict real people seeking their place in the world. An omniscient spirit, "One" mostly watches but, like Athena guiding Odysseus, she comes down to earth to steer when needed, and can get frustrated with her charges' obtuseness. Unlike Athena, she's always high-minded, never petty – and occasionally grating.

"One" sets in motion one of the production's especially impressive sequences, a backward-spinning of time in which the characters nail, rapid-fire, the moments of fateful chance or decision that led them to the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago, where the play's violent, climactic scene occurs. "If I hadn't seen that girl swimming in the waves…" Schulenburg has very cleverly swirled his characters together and apart and together again in different ways, so that their fates coalesce here.

In another remarkable scene the characters sequentially recite Martin Luther King, Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech while continuing through their own separate scenes, in character, somehow making those titanic lines resonate with these little people's moments. It's one of several sparkling moments in the play when you hold your breath, thinking, Are they actually going to get away with this?, and happily they do.

Except for a slightly disappointing drag near the end, where the final year is more told than shown, the energy never flags, and even that one slowdown is rescued by a beautiful ending. We forgive "One" for being so demanding; in the end she's made a damn good case for activism. Extra kudos go to the moody sound design by Asa Wember, Becky Kelly's understated but right-on costumes, and the rest of the production staff for helping the director make this thick stew flow like clear water.

The Lesser Seductions of History continues through Nov. 22 at the Cherry Pit, 155 Bank St., New York. Tickets ($18) are available online or by calling TheaterMania at 212-352-3101.

Photo by Tyler Griffin Hicks-Wright.

All-Star Cast of David Mamet’s New Play Race: Dishing the Broadway Dirt

Saturday, November 7th, 2009

With the decline of the newspapers, mainstream coverage of Broadway and other New York theater has dwindled. The flip side is that there are fewer bigshot reviewers with inflated influence. In response, producers have become hip to the importance of bloggers to getting out advance word about new shows (and then reviewing them).

Today I had the opportunity to meet the all-star cast of the upcoming premiere of David Mamet's new play, Race. David Alan Grier, Kerry Washington, the seemingly ageless Richard Thomas, and James Spader, who confessed that he hasn't done a play in decades, met us upstairs at Red-Eye Grill near Columbus Circle and answered questions about the play, the process, and their own backgrounds.


Understandably, they couldn't tell us anything about the plot. But as the new production of Oleanna reminds us, Mamet's work has a way of generating heat, and the very title of the new play seems to promise a controversial or at least highly thought-provoking evening. Besides, said Thomas, it's "so complex, so many perspectives – to talk about the plot would be reductive. A quick summation would make it seem much simpler than it is. It's about things that no one says. It's strong stuff. Provocative, but not shocking for the sake of being shocking."

“I play,” he was willing to squeeze out, "a man in a suit who's in a lot of trouble." And muttered something about lawyers.

Mamet is directing too, which has the benefit that "we don't have that struggle [to understand the writer's intention] because the man is in the room," as Washington put it. "The playwright and director aren't arguing," added Thomas.

About Mamet's famously exacting language, Spader noted that "you can't stumble your way through this material or be off by a syllable." Mamet loves patterns, and they can get ruined if anything like improvisation occurs. At the same time, the play is still being rewritten as the cast works through it in rehearsal, including tiny things like adding an "and," then changing the "and" to a "but" – those little patterns and sounds that mean so much in a Mamet script. And yes, if you're wondering, there's cursing, though Thomas complained, "I have only one 'fuck.'" ("Richard, you're married," Grier interjected.) "And I'm afraid if I don't say it right I might lose it."

While Grier and Thomas have done a good deal of theater in recent years, having left (respectively) In Living Color and The Waltons behind long ago. (For example, I saw Thomas in Michael Frayn's Democracy on Broadway a few years back.) Nearly all of Spader's career, however, has been in film (Sex, Lies, and Videotape, Crash) and TV (Boston Legal, The Practice), and "I'm really glad to be doing a play again after so many years," he said. Washington is best known for screen work as well (Ray, Fantastic Four), but told us that she "fell in love with acting doing theater. This is where I learned to be an actor."

About Race and David Mamet, she says, "The process is delightful and fun and challenging and creative, he's fantastic." Of course, actors have to say things like that. But this cast seemed genuinely enthusiastic about the play, and Thomas predicted that "there'll be a lot of talking about it after it's been seen."

Previews begin Nov. 16. Tickets are available at Telecharge.