Archive for November, 2009

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.

Music Review: Indie Round-Up – Chris Schutz, Easter Monkeys, Putumayo’s Jazz, Tom White

Sunday, November 29th, 2009

Chris Schutz + Tourists, Gemini

There's a lot more to Chris Schutz's sound than the Radiohead-like thrumming bass and plaintive single-note guitar pinches of "White Lady," the opening track on his debut disc. Schutz's voice comes at you as if from a cave beneath your feet and somehow says "postmodern," but the simple fact that you're hearing a good song keeps you listening. Next comes "Spinning Wheel" with its fast pop pulse and organ-heavy wall of sound, clocking in at under 2 minutes 20 seconds, and the folky, vaguely tropical "Continental Drifter" which reads like a cross between the Drifters (title no accident?) and the Mamas and the Papas.

Other songwriting styles and beats drift through the rest of the disc: a swirl of reggae-soul, south of the border trumpets, country-western swagger, a Squeeze-like jauntiness. Slightly muted, echoey production sweeps through everything, reflecting Schutz's use of analog equipment and his 60s-influenced aesthetic. The latter is evident in titles like "Tripping the Bit" and "So High" with its not one but two deceptively simple two-chord hooks alternating with chunky, Kinks-like surprise changes and completely unexpected sax solo.

All tied together by Schutz's honeyed voice and the vintage sounds he and his band prefer, the disc closes with a contemplative acoustic number and a power ballad that sounds like Roy Orbison meeting the Beatles. Like many of the songs, they each bear an unexpected change or two. And that's what this excellent album – definitely one of the top pop debuts of the year – is all about: solid but dreamy pop that does much more than just float by.

Easter Monkeys, Splendor of Sorrow

Easter Monkeys ravaged Cleveland in the early 1980s with drug-addled, slightly psychedelic punk rock. Their album Splendor of Sorrow has been re-released, nicely remastered, and packaged with extras including live tracks and a concert DVD that will definitely please fans. Despite the bleary vocals and anything-goes sensibility, this foursome could play, and this is quite a fun listen if you're in the right mood: loose, goofy, unjaded. It may have helped, in my case, that I never heard of the band before and knew nothing about them except what's in the liner notes, which are themselves thirteen years old.

I have been to several Cleveland rock clubs, though. Even played in a few. I've seen American Splendor. And it does all make a stinky kind of sense. This rocking, jangling, funny music, of a type I don't normally listen to, has grown on me. Like mold in a damp underground club.

Various Artists, Jazz Around the World from Putumayo World Music

Ahhhh… everything's OK. Feels like it anyway.

Must be a Putumayo CD in the stereo.

This time around it's Jazz Around the World, featuring artists from all over (but especially Africa and Europe) performing or at least touching on America's classical music: jazz. Appropriately enough it starts out with Montreal's Chantal Chamberland singing "La Mer" in the original French, her husky alto preparing us for a journey through worlds of cool. Flecks of neo-soul dot the almost disturbingly unthreatening vocal and guitar stylings of Cameroon's Blick Bassy. Djelli Moussa Diawara, who hails from Guinea, applies his kora skills to a Cuban tune as part of the Kora Jazz Trio. Mexico-based group Sherele jazzes up traditional klezmer. Artists better known in the West are represented too: Hugh Masekela teams with singer Malaika and a South African chorus for "Open the Door," which crosses gospel with Afropop. (It's a bit of a stretch to call this particular number "jazz.") And fusion legend Billy Cobham appears with the Cuban group Asere.

Putumayo discs are always likable and almost always relaxing; but some of the choices on this one feel, if anything, excessively safe. Nonetheless it's certainly a pleasant listen and would make a fine stocking stuffer for most world music or jazz fans.

Tom White, Voices from Corn Mountain – Instrumental Music Featuring the Hammered Dulcimer

While Putumayo travels the world in search of music that's both exotic and pleasant to Western ears, your intrepid reviewer has to drive only a few hours north of New York City to work with producer, recording engineer, and multi-instrumentalist Tom White, who kindly gave me a copy of his recent CD. The disc is loaded with instrumental pieces featuring the hammered dulcimer, one of the many instruments of which he is a master. (Tom also plays guitar, fiddle, mandolin, tin whistle, flutes, two different banjos, concertina, and percussion, and that's just on this one CD.) The tunes are a mix of traditional Celtic dances and originals. Email Tom at wizmak at a-oh-ell dot com for information on ordering a copy of this beautiful and unusual recording.

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.

Music at the Morris-Jumel Mansion

Monday, November 9th, 2009

Well, blow me down. For ten years they’ve been putting on concerts at the Morris-Jumel Mansion, in upper Manhattan, and no one told me until now (thanks GEMS). Apparently the oldest still-standing residence in the city, the mansion was Washington’s headquarters in 1776 and is a museum now, with period furnishings from the 18th and 19th century including some things that belonged to the Jumels themselves. My grandmother wrote a historical novel about Madame Jumel (long since out of print) but I had never visited the mansion until this past Saturday, when Elisa and I took that long ride on the #1 train to check out the museum and see a concert, held in the room where they used to have concerts two centuries ago. nyc The concert featured the Brooklyn Baroque, a marvelous trio, who performed a program called “Bach and His Contemporaries.” Baroque flutist Andrew Bolotowsky (whom I’ve seen before, I think with Muse) and baroque cellist David Bakamjian were masterful. A special treat was hearing the harpsichord so clearly. Rebecca Pechefsky plays with feeling and a sure touch, but so often in early music concerts in larger halls the harpsichord is barely audible. Not here.

Another cool thing about early music concerts: we get to be among the youngest people there. That doesn’t happen too much anymore!

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.

Theater Review: The 39 Steps

Wednesday, November 4th, 2009

Scheduled to close January 10 after a two-year run on Broadway, this lark of a production remains funny and fresh. Maria Aitken directs a versatile, bustling cast of four who play dozens of characters in a frequently hilarious yet loving sendup of Hitchcock’s famous 1935 thriller, paced like an extended Monty Python skit and delivered in a series of not very serious accents and silly walks. The cast is small but the business is booming; the quick character and setting changes are a nonstop delight, the Tony Awards for lighting and sound well deserved. Jolly good show.

Theater Review: Creature by Heidi Schreck

Tuesday, November 3rd, 2009

Heidi Schreck's first full-length New York production peels the hardened hide of history off a corner of life in turn-of-the-century England – the turn of the 15th century, that is. It was a time when people with delusions and hallucinations were venerated as mystics and saints (rather like now), and when mobs, egged on by the priesthood, burned religious heretics at the stake – also pretty much just like some parts of the world today.

Ms. Schreck, a well-known downtown performer, has based her script very loosely on The Book of Margery Kempe, sometimes considered the first autobiography in English. Kempe was a middle class wife and mother who ran a brewery and had a vision of Jesus around the time of the birth of her first baby. The story focuses on her inner battle to keep herself spiritually "clean" despite being a married woman. She wanted to be a saint in the way a reality show participant wants to become a celebrity, but she lived under the scrutiny of an intolerant orthodoxy that forbade women from preaching, among other strictures.

Ms. Schreck's characters speak in a colloquial, mostly naturalistic American idiom, a good choice for two reasons. First, her 600-year-old story resounds powerfully into our own times. Second, the blunt language creates an immediacy which, juxtaposed with a whiff of the supernatural, forms a close, magnetic atmosphere.

At the same time, director Leigh Silverman and set designer Rachel Hauck make effective use of the Ohio Theatre's deep, decaying-church-like space. The baby spends most of the play in a cradle suspended high above stage right, rocked via a pulley operated by the Nurse (a funny and touching Tricia Rodley). Characters enter from unexpected angles. Solid-looking tables and benches and an overall brownness evoke the deadly inflexibility of the ruling religious authorities. Candlelight and Theresa Squire's rich, rough costumes create an effectively Medieval feeling.

A blustery Darren Goldstein plays Margery's longsuffering husband John with admirable balance, measuring an old-time male sense of privilege against a genuine love – both affectionate and carnal – for his sexy wife. Jeremy Shamos and Will Rogers are respectively sympathetic and darkly funny as the cautiously heretical Father Thomas and the earnest youth Jacob, two searchers who fall into Margery's charismatic orbit. Margery herself (Sofia Jean Gomez) has a charming late scene with the wonderful Marylouise Burke, who plays the elder mystic Juliana of Norwich with equal parts holy panache and down-home friendliness, a wise old spiritualist and a sweet old coot.

But the play belongs proudly to Margery, and we left the theater feeling that we personally knew this complex and fascinating woman. Ms. Gomez gives a suitably dangerous and sometimes screamingly funny performance. Put simply, she plays the hell out of her, and with a terrifying Hell (along with Purgatory and Heaven) ever-present in the anxieties of the age, this feels like exactly the Margery we ought to have. One can read a proto-feminist strand into this lusty and freethinking depiction of the character, but any sense of anachronism is made palatable – fun, in fact – by the script's unabashed honesty. The comic dialogue and the flow from scene to scene feel effortless.

The second star of the show, besides Ms. Gomez, is the language. Ms. Schreck cleverly fuses modern talk with old topics, and old phrasing creeps in at times like words from an ancestral tongue. In one of Margery's many manic moods, toying with her husband she mimes stabbing him with her keys, then bursts out,

"I'm teasing you! Don't look at me like that. I'm going to open the pantry with these and then I'll make us Fritters. Yum! I'll take yolks of eggs, add flour and ale and stir it together till it be thick. Then I'll take pared apples, cut them thin like wafers, lay them in the batter, fry them in butter and serve them forth!"

When, charmed in spite of himself, John embraces her, she grows suddenly serious: "John. We sin too much."

The urge to be and do good versus the lustiness of the human animal – it's the same basic struggle, whether couched in centuries-old religious doctrine or modern secular morality. With a firm hand steering her characters through their struggles, Ms. Schreck transports us to a distant but not so different world. Haunted House or Tunnel of Love? The creatures lurking within can be one and the same.

Creature runs through Nov. 21 at the Ohio Theatre. For tickets please visit Theatermania or call 866-811-4111. For more information and group rates call 646-336-8077.

Photos by Jim Baldassare.

Behind the Scenes at Law & Order

Sunday, November 1st, 2009

Blogcritics sent me on a bloggers’ press junket to interview the cast and go behind the scenes at Law & Order‘s Chelsea Piers studios. Check out all the action here.

tv,law & order,Anthony Anderson

In the photo, actor Anthony Anderson (in the red tie) shows us the interrogation room.

Theater/Magic Review: Creating Illusion

Sunday, November 1st, 2009

Having missed Jeff Grow's award-winning show during the soloNOVA Arts Festival earlier this year, I was glad to get a chance to catch it in its limited return engagement at D-Lounge last night. But I found it hard to figure out just what to make of the performance, which mixes magic, mind reading, and storytelling.

Mr. Grow quickly establishes his warm, witty personality along with his sleight-of-hand skills. The tricks are old ones, but when done well they still work, no matter that Houdini was performing and improving upon the same types of illusions a century ago. In any case this act isn't about a succession of magic tricks; it's more of a meta-magic show. Between Mr. Grow's impressive demonstrations of manual dexterity and mental skill, we're treated to stories about classic street scams, peppered with topical references and swayed (and slowed) by plenty of audience participation.

The ultimate payoff is a real showstopper. Along the way, though, things periodically bog down. For an audience with little knowledge of the arts of the magician- mentalist, the narrative parts of the show may be more edifying than they were to me (I had read a biography of Houdini recently and much of what Mr. Grow talked about was familiar to me from the book).

I found it hard to tell how much of his seeming distraction and his rather scattershot presentation was shtick, intended to charm and distract the audience. Magicians' stock in trade, after all, is to make us focus on one thing and thus completely miss something else. But some of the hemming and hawing occurred not in the context of an illusion or trick, but of a story. This, I found myself thinking at various points, is just going nowhere. Not having looked carefully at the promotional material, I wasn't aware that there was a director, Jessi D. Hill. The show didn't seem directed. It seemed haphazard.

In the end it all does go somewhere, and I'm glad I attended. With a show that requires so much audience involvement, there's always going to be some variation, and perhaps this was an unusually slow-paced night. But I couldn't help feeling that tautening the show up would have significantly improved it.

On the other hand, maybe it's an advanced form of performance art which only highly evolved beings can fully appreciate and which therefore went over my head. Wouldn't be the first time.

Creating Illusion has two more performances, Oct. 23 and 30, 10 PM at D-Lounge, 101 E. 15 St. (at Union Square). It's a small space and it was packed last night, so getting tickets in advance would be a good idea. Visit Smarttix or call 212-868-4444.

Photo by Zack Brown.