Thursday, January 26, 2006

NYC Theater Report - Winter 2005-2006

Existence happens at the edge of things. Where two concepts or people or circumstances or species come into contact with each other – whether conflicting or complementary –we can more fully experience the sense of both otherness and connection that becomes apparent when we find our consciousness at the edges of things. This is where we find fear and guilt, joy and ecstasy. This is where the fragility of life, and its preciousness, become clear.

One of the purposes of art is to make this landscape more visible to us, to call to our attention to the collisions and mergings taking place all around us. In Manhattan, itself at the edge of the continent, it’s almost impossible not to be overwhelmed by existence. That’s why so many creators (and devotees) of art have brought themselves to New York – to labor where life is brought closer to the surface. The city roils with the constant confluence of ideas and money and personalities and cultures.

This thought – of the edgy nature of life, of how it can hang by a thread – came to me as I spent the last week of 2005 and the first week of 2006 (on the edges of the years, coincidentally) in New York City, experiencing the handiwork of New York’s theater artists as they made their attempts to illuminate life’s deeper messages through drama: the edge of life and death in “Miss Witherspoon” and the edge of celebrity and ordinariness in “The Little Dog Laughed.” The edge that defines the social filter between the things we say and the things we don’t say, in Pinter’s “Celebration” and “The Room,” two one-acts at the Atlantic Theater Company. The edge between sanity and delusion in “Souvenir,” and between one rung and another on the evolutionary ladder in Edward Albee’s “Seascape.”

Unfortunately, only a handful of what I saw has any chance to still be running even three months from now. Some of it deserves to go, but some that have closed or will close soon merit better fates. In some instances, audience interest might support a longer run, but new shows have booked the space, so a good show must either close or make the leap to a new theater. In other instances, shows I rather enjoyed probably won’t have what it takes to extend their runs.

In order to increase the utility – and brevity – of this report, I will focus most on shows you might have a chance to see if you’re going to New York in the next six months. Then I’ll turn attention (but a little less of it) to those shows that have closed or are closing soon. For shows that deserve to close, a smattering of attention will have to do.

“Abigail’s Party”
Film director Mike Leigh’s early work takes place in a suburban London subdivision that shares some aspects with TV’s Wisteria Lane. Beverly, a housewife played by Jennifer Jason Leigh, is certainly desperate enough. This evening she is hosting a small neighborhood gathering that isn’t so much a party as it is a ruse to assemble a combination audience/collection of victims. Beverly bosses and cajoles and whines and ignores and bullies and yammers at everyone who comes within earshot – all the while pushing drinks and unappetizing snacks on her guests: new residents Tony and Angela, and recently-divorced Sue, whose daughter Abigail is having the only real party happening that night. The title deliberately misleads us – all the fun is offstage.

And in the audience – because even though none of the characters appear to really enjoy themselves (especially Beverly’s real estate agent husband, Laurence), the play delivers a lot of laughs. Many of the funniest bits are tinged with schadenfreude, as we watch characters’ baser natures rise to the surface when Beverly stretches out her harpy’s wings.

Beverly pushes the liquor hard, and the inhibitions start dropping. Of course, these are British inhibitions we’re talking about, so it takes a lot of drinks to get them to drop any appreciable distance. I was put in mind of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolff,” with the older couple hosting a younger couple, drinks being consumed in rapid succession, old resentments rising to the surface…

Although there are only a few minor references in the text that tie the show to any specific era and my guess is that on the first page of the play it says “Time: The Present,” director Scott Elliott has taken “present” to mean the 1977 of the play’s first production. The set is a spot-on rendition of what one might find in a 70s issue of “Better Homes & Gardens.” Kudos to Derek McLane for an elegant use of space, with a unified view of the home – giving Elliott the ability to stage action in the living room, the kitchen just upstage of it and the interior hallway and entry left and right.

The performances are quite good, especially the wonderful Lisa Emery. Jennifer Jason Leigh was entertaining, but I always saw an actress playing a role, not a character experiencing life. That’s too bad, because Beverly is the shriveled little heart of this play.

The edge explored here is the one between self-esteem and self-loathing. Beverly is proud that she has caught herself a successful man, and can afford to spend her days drinking and smoking and putting cheese cubes on toothpicks and sticking them into grapefruit halves turned upside down on a plate as a serving technique. But she’s so deeply insecure that she needs to show off her possessions to remind herself how worthy she must be, and bully her guests to prove to herself that her way is the right way. She ends up vacillating between preening and pouncing and her guests never get to feel comfortable. Fortunately, Leigh’s text and Elliott’s direction succeed in making Beverly a character who, while pathetically self-centered, is actually quite entertaining.

“Almost, Maine”
Ah, love. Mysterious. Magical. Confounding. Frustrating. Transforming.

In this recently-opened production consisting of nearly a dozen vignettes which all take place on the same long, cold, night in the far, far north of Maine, we get to see love and its effects from many different points to view.

(Warning: “Almost, Maine” is not meant for a hip, New York intellectual crowd. Though author John Cariani certainly gives his audience a fair amount to think about, the show is designed to please a mass market audience who want to walk out of a show feeling warm and uplifted and entertained. It’s a “date play.”)

Each of the vignettes plays with reality, setting up odd circumstances – but which the characters deal with in a very straightforward manner. At the local bar, The Moose Paddy, the special on this night is free drinks if you’re sad. When a woman tells a man that what she’s holding in a paper sack are the pieces of her heart, he isn’t shocked. Instead, in true Maine, capable-guy fashion, he offers to see if he can fix it for her. When the other shoe drops – it literally drops.

One of the best vignettes involves a woman who shows up at the doorstep of her long-time boyfriend’s house in order to bring back all the love he had given her, since he’s obviously not going to propose. “It’s in the car,” she says. It’s a lot. She hauls in a huge pile of sacks, ostensibly brimming over with the love he gave her. Of course, in true breakup form, she wants hers back. After much delay, he finally relents. When she sees the amount of love she’d given him, she’s flabbergasted. But her shock turns to surprise and delight in a sweet, Hallmark moment.

There are many such sweet moments, and many funny lines. The show could stand to move along a bit faster, perhaps by removing one or two of the less successful bits early on. But I found it charming. It will likely be on the board at TKTS regularly early in its run, but I think it has the possibility to build terrific word of mouth among tourists. The people in the two-fer line don’t want to see family heartbreak or hyper-intellectual plays of ideas. They don’t generally want their thoughts provoked. They go to TKTS because they couldn’t get into “Wicked” or “Spamalot” and want an alternative. They ask the barkers handing out flyers about different shows. If they hear “It’s an amazing play about two brothers, one of whom is developmentally disabled and was sexually abused by his junkie father, who later ends up killing…” vs. “It’s pretty good. It’s about this small town in Maine where people are falling in love with each other and learning about love and it’s very funny…” I can tell you where the bridge and tunnel crowd is going to end up.

“Bush is Bad”
The title says it all. If you religiously watch Fox News, think John McCain is a leftist or cling to the hope that our current President is more richly endowed in the top story than he’s letting on, stay away. After all, when the reminder at the top of the show to turn off cell phones and unwrap candies also includes a warning that “anyone who thinks they might take offense as we ridicule that smirking chimp who currently occupies the White House should probably leave right now,” you know something’s up.

This small review (three singers and their piano accompaniment) attempts to skewer not just the President, but Dick Cheney, members of the Cabinet, Republican members of Congress – in fact, every person who voted for George Bush. Witness their opening number, “How can 59 million people be so dumb?” (Which was the headline in a London tabloid the day after the 2004 election.) There were several very funny numbers, especially a trio of tunes that paid tribute to “great” composers of the past: Robert Schumann, Kurt Weill…and my favorite, Andrew Lloyd Webber, via their rendition of “Scooter Libby Superstar.” Brilliant. (But unfortunately, NOT on the CD I purchased at the show.)

The final number uses Bush quotes as the lyrics for “In His Own Words.” The chorus goes: “Families is where our nation finds hope, where our wings take dream. If we don’t succeed, we run the risk of failure. It is a time of sorrow and sadness when we lose the loss of a life. Put food on your family. Make the pie higher.”

A nice enough evening, but you can get better (and more balanced) political humor out of “The Daily Show.”

According to the cast, in the villages of South Africa, “when one person sings, everybody sings. When one person drums, everybody drums.” That explains the fact that when you enter the theater for “Drumstruck,” there is a two-foot tall African drum on every seat. Over the course of the next 90 minutes, you are treated to a performance by 10-12 energetic drummers and singers and given the opportunity to play along with them.

Although I was looking forward to more of a lesson on the basics of African rhythms, the cast handled the interactive segments quite well. Very few words were needed for the cast to explain when we were supposed to hit our drums. His drum lessons were practically a dance, as he mimed the moves we were to follow. Different halves of the audience would occasionally play different parts, and we always played along with the cast, which kept the beat even and driving forward.

If that sounds like fun to you, it probably will be. If it doesn’t, don’t take the chance that “Drumstruck” will be able to win you over.

“In The Continuum”
This show is getting wonderful reviews, but I hated it. Not because it was necessarily bad, it just happened to be the opposite of what I was in the mood for. I enjoy going to a show knowing little about what it’s about; I like to see how a production goes about communicating to someone who has minimal prior knowledge of the nature of the show. I don’t know what I thought “In The Continuum” would be, but I know I wasn’t interested in watching two women -- one an African-American teenager living in South Central, the other a middle-aged African woman living in Zimbabwe – deal with a positive HIV diagnosis. With lots of screaming. It’s clearly a valuable story, it just didn’t hit me that day. (To be honest, though, even if I had been in the perfect mood, I don’t think I would have liked it. It was a little disjointed and strident, and I think the disjointed nature of the text makes it hard for audiences to connect with the characters.)

“Slava’s Snowshow”
This has been running in New York for several years, and will probably run for several more. (It begins its San Francisco run in March.) Slava Polunin is a legendary Russian clown, but this show has more in common with Cirque du Soleil than it does with Bozo or Krusty. Almost entirely wordless, “Snowshow” relies deeply on archetypes -- and therefore an assumption that we can understand the sort of motives and desires archetypal characters may exhibit. Much is exaggerated here: the joy is rapturous and the struggles are monumental – the first scene begins with a clown walking on stage, a noose around his neck.

That should be your first clue that this is not necessarily a nice clown show. It’s loud – extremely loud at times – and you may be buffeted by winds, squirted with water, trod upon and toyed with emotionally. So be warned. (Don’t worry, it’s nothing you can’t handle.) But there’s a definite dark streak to the clown’s interactions with front row patrons.

That said, “Slava’s Snowshow” is quite a spectacle: celebratory and communal and even a bit awe-inspiring.

“Beauty of the Father”
The new play by 2003 Pulitzer Prize winner Nilo Cruz deals with the uproar that takes place when a daughter comes to live with her artist father after more than a decade of estrangement. The reason given is that the mother was so upset at her husband’s sexual betrayals that she ran him off and forbade any contact with his daughter. Mom has died and the daughter, now in her late teens or early 20s, has come to Spain to meet Dad, who at the moment is living with a woman who takes care of him emotionally and intellectually, and an Arab immigrant with whom he dallies sexually and who is able to remain in the country because the female housemate has consented to marry him.

Unfortunately, none of it felt very true, and not just because the Spanish artistic polymath and martyr Federico Garcia Lorca appears and converses with Dad. I never bought the relationship between father and daughter, or between dad and his housemate. (Dad and the Arab boy I get, but that was primarily sexual, and sexual heat is easier to write and portray than emotional intimacy.)

Through February 19th at Manhattan Theater Club.

“Celebration” and “The Room”
When I saw my first Pinter play (“The Caretaker” at The Roundabout), I was unimpressed. When I saw his first play, “The Room” at the Atlantic Theater Company, I began to see why he won the Nobel Prize for Literature.

On the surface, “The Room” is the sort of play I don’t usually like, since it’s not a terribly intricate plot and nothing terribly funny or thrilling happens: a woman (Rose) sits in a room fixing breakfast for her husband, who is completely silent for the first 20 minutes, then leaves. When he’s gone, a handful of strange visitors – her landlord, a blind black man and an odd couple (not Nathan and Matthew) who seem to have been told the room is for rent. Their interactions are disturbing to the woman, and unsatisfying for the visitors, and underneath the very ordinary language lurk strange motivations and otherworldly rules seem to apply. The edge Rose’s experiences embodies could be the one between life and death – is the room a sort of purgatory? A place where everyone else gets to come and go, but which she never steps foot out of?

As impressed as I was by “The Room,” “Celebration,” the second of these two one-acts, just knocked me out. Two groups of people are seated in banquettes at a fancy restaurant; one couple is celebrating the husband’s promotion, while two other couples are marking the birthday of one of their party. Not much happens, but so much does, at least under the surface. It’s been said that Pinter can take subtext and make it text. Here, it feels as if he has reversed that: you don’t have to look behind the words to find the barbed edges. All the cruelty is out in the open. What’s hidden is the characters’ awareness of it. Things that would precipitate slapped faces or storming out of the room -- or at the very least red-faced shock – are here taken as everyday utterances. The result is hysterically funny. In lesser hands, “Celebration” could come across as pretentious claptrap, but with the amazing cast and the able direction of Neil Pepe, it’s a production you ought not to miss – if you can make it to the Atlantic before Saturday.

“Five Course Love”
This one you can miss. Unpalatable.

“The Little Dog Laughed”
See it if you can. It might be extended past its scheduled February 26 closing date, but I wouldn’t risk it. Go now.

The heart of the story is Diane, a very powerful, very capable Hollywood agent, played with delicious expertise by Julie White. Nothing gets past Diane. She knows every twist and turn of the road. Which is a good thing, considering the speed she travels it and the unsavory motives of her fellow motorists. Diane is pragmatic, no-nonsense and incredibly blunt. At one point, another character asks her to give her word on something. With only the slightest touch of sarcasm she consents: “I give you my word as an entertainment industry professional.”

Diane’s client of the moment is Mitchell, a movie star to be; that is, if he can keep his homosexuality under wraps. Problem is, Mitchell hasn’t even accepted his sexuality himself – but the fact that he’s falling in love with the rent boy he hired just might bring it to his attention. Problem is, it might also bring it to the attention of the movie-going public, who like their stars straight or deeply in the closet, at least if the star hopes to ever have a franchise to call his own.

The show is sharp and biting from start to finish. Playwright Douglas Carter Beane has obviously spent some time around the Hollywood crowd – how else can one explain his acid description (through Diane) of players using the ordering of salads as a power game? There are dozens of laugh out loud lines. One of my favorites was when Mitchell and his boy toy are discussing first times and find out it happened for Mitchell in the Boy Scouts. “I hear that a lot,” the rent boy says. “Yes,” Mitchell replies, “the merit badge that dare not speak its name.”

The story moves forward rapidly, continues to surprise well into the second act, and supports a theme that once again addresses the concept of interesting stuff happening at the edges of things. In this case, it’s the border between celebrity and ordinariness. What is Mitchell willing to give up to be ordinary, to be able to love whomever he chooses? What will he give up to be a star? What morals must Diane compromise to continue working in the upper echelons of the Hollywood power pyramid? What lies do we have to tell our ids so our egos can get what they want? It’s rich territory, and “The Little Dog Laughed” explores it quite ably.

I’d quibble with the casting (neither of the men were entirely believable, either as movie star or rent boy), but other than that, my favorite show of the trip.

“Miss Witherspoon”
Closed, unfortunately. Christopher Durang (“Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All For You”) has written a charming and diverting play about a woman who is trapped in the endless cycle of birth and rebirth – only she doesn’t want to be. She just wants to rest. Unfortunately, she keeps finding herself in the afterlife. Or rather, the between-lives. There she learns that people are basically allowed to have the kind of afterlife they’ve come to expect. Jewish people, who don’t believe in a heaven or hell, get an afterlife that’s rather like being under general anesthetic. “Ooh, I want that!” she says.

Cute, but as I said, closed.

Wrap the fish in it. John Tartaglia (“Avenue Q”) leads a cast of eager and capable singers in a review that raised the curtain before they had a decent script.

“The Trip to Bountiful”
Closing soon (February 19), but a lovely production. A woman nearing the end of her life wants nothing more than to see the old homestead one more time. Unfortunately, her daughter-in-law will have none of it, and her son is so spineless, he won’t step in. So she makes an escape. I didn’t want to like it at first, but it won me over. Lois Smith is amazing and Hallie Foote (daughter of playwright Horton Foote) was a revelation. No nepotism here – daddy’s little girl can act.

An Edward Albee play I’d never heard of. Its original run in 1975 was only 63 performances. This revival never caught on either, but I had a wonderful time at the theater that evening.

All the action takes place on a tiny bit of dunes at the shore. The couple who have spread their beach blanket on the sand are Nancy and Charlie, a husband and wife on the verge of retirement, discussing what to do with the rest of their lives. Nancy wants to see as many beaches as she can; Charlie wants to “settle in.” They bicker with each other, but always with an undercurrent not of resentment, but affection. Their interactions are funny and real and touching, and marvelously performed by Frances Sternhagen and George Grizzard.

Things take a very interesting turn when Nancy and Charlie are joined on the beach by Sarah and Leslie. Sarah and Leslie also speak in a distinctive Albee-esque manner, snipping at each other in the way married couples often do. But Sarah and Leslie aren’t human. They are some sort of amphibious lizard that have grown uncomfortable living in the sea and are contemplating a move to dry land. Which makes it incredibly funny. An exasperated “Yes, Sarah” is hysterical when it comes out of the mouth of an amphibian. The creatures’ ability to communicate the clash of cultures between earth-dwellers and sea-dwellers makes the second act even funnier than the first – and the first act was pretty funny.

Some reviewers feel the play is timely because it addresses the issue of evolution. I don’t think it’s necessarily about biological evolution. If it’s about the evolution of anything, it’s the evolution of intellect. Or even consciousness. I think it’s likely that Albee would rather talk about how we improve ourselves than he would about human origins. It’s not a play about where we came from, it’s a play about where we’re going.

Florence Foster Jenkins loved to sing. She believed herself to be “that most rara of avis – the pure coloratura.” She claimed to have perfect pitch. Problem is, she couldn’t carry a tune in a supertanker.

Still, she didn’t have trouble getting people to look past her delusion and flock to her concerts for the privilege of being in on one of the greatest “in” jokes of Manhattan in the 30s. Jenkins was a bit of an heiress, and held a recital each year at the Four Seasons Hotel in benefit of her favorite charities. They invariably sold out. At the very pinnacle of her career, she was the star of a concert at Carnegie Hall, which sold out in two hours.

We meet Miss Jenkins through the eyes of her accompanist, a man who needed a steady gig more than he needed his integrity as a musician. He leads us through the years of the collaboration, interspersed with Miss Jenkins’s yowling renditions of some of opera’s most taxing arias. Recordings were made of Miss Jenkins, and I have read that Judy Kaye does quite an accurate imitation. If that’s true, it’s no wonder audiences were said to have stopped their mouths with handkerchiefs and even left the room in order to prevent inappropriate laughter. (Miss Jenkins attributed this sort of behavior to the emotion, which overcomes the audience upon hearing her angelic warblings.)

Judy Kaye (a Tony winner for “The Phantom of the Opera,” all those thousands of performances ago) must have found it a tremendous challenge to sing that badly. I would imagine that years of vocal training have ingrained in her the need to follow the music, to listen to the orchestra or accompanist and follow their pitch. So working through an entire aria with at least 60-70% wrong notes while a pianist is right next to you playing the right music at the right tempo must be incredibly difficult. Really quite an amazing performance. Let’s hope she’s nominated for a Tony and gets to do a number at the Awards.

No comments: