Tuesday, May 23, 2006

NYC Theater Report - Spring 2006

I’m hard pressed to think of an enterprise more fraught with peril than commercial art. Oh sure, there’s salvage diving and halibut fishing and CIA “wet work,” but those are perilous primarily for the workers; the investors generally do fine, thanks for asking. In commercial art, especially the peculiar sub-specialty we call Broadway theatre, the inverse is true. The workers – the actors and musicians and set designers and house managers and lighting techs – toil in relative safety and enjoy a weekly check that will almost always clear, even if you wait until Monday to deposit it. The angels of Broadway, the investors, on the other hand, part with their checks with absolutely no expectation of any return. Why should they? Broadway productions cost millions to mount, millions to promote and the vast majority never return a dime of profit.

Part of the reason for this ongoing avalanche of failure is that Broadway shows, like any form of commercial art, are still art. And good art, art that – even through all the layers of artifice – touches you in a human way, that manages somehow to reach into your soul (or your spirit or your mind or whatever name you give the intangible, ineffable part of yourself) to scratch your particular itch – and at the same time manages to scratch someone else’s completely different itch – is maddeningly difficult to create.

To achieve its goal – even if the goal is only to provide pleasant diversion – a theatrical production must cast a sort of spell over the audience, drawing us in to a new world. Although this is not the most of original of thoughts, I find the theater I like best is that which transports me. Not only in the sense of taking me to another world, but in occasionally bringing me into a different consciousness, so that I feel almost as if I am sitting with the characters. That I am part of their experience.

For this to happen, though, almost everything about a production has to be done well. It’s like Donald Rumsfeld says about terrorists attempting to breach our borders: we have to be right every minute of every day, they only have to be right once. Anyone putting a show up on Broadway faces a similar sort of daunting challenge. There are so many ways a production can go wrong. Not even necessarily wrong, just…not right. Or at least, not right enough. A production can begin with a terrific script, like “Defiance,” and then falter because of a directorial misfire or two. Or it can feature a brilliant actress like Lili Taylor in “Landscape of the Body” (by the even more brilliant John Guare), and still have me glancing at my watch. Or the whole thing can be cocked up completely, as the people behind “Clocks and Whistles” managed to do. Occasionally, however, everything comes together almost perfectly and you get a splendid evening of theater that entrances you.

I had high expectations for our most recent trip to New York. Given the word of mouth and positive reviews of many of the shows we planned to see, I thought perhaps four or even five had the chance of transporting me the way “Doubt” or “I Am My Own Wife” or “Urinetown” did. In the end however, only two productions – “The Drowsy Chaperone” and “The History Boys” – broke through the barriers of artifice and encompassed me completely within their worlds. If at all possible, you must see both of them.

“The History Boys”
Alan Bennett’s most recent work was a critical and box-office smash in London. Thanks to an apparently rare détente between British Equity and Actor’s Equity (the British and American stage actor’s unions), the original National Theatre production has been imported to Broadway intact. This means American theatergoers can see one of the most amazing ensemble casts ever, performing a play that both entertains and enlightens. Though it can be intellectually demanding, with dozens of literary and cultural references ranging from Auden to Hardy to Shakespeare, and one scene conducted entirely in French (which also happens to be perhaps the funniest scene in the play), it’s amazing accessible.

The story takes place at a private boy’s school somewhere in England. Hector is the sort of teacher I wish I could have had in my youth: passionate, demanding, a force to be reckoned with…but with a touch of rebellion with which a teenage boy can identify. Hector’s students are seniors, preparing their applications for Oxford and Cambridge. To help them achieve this goal, the school hires Irwin, a young teacher whose job is to coach the boys as to what the admissions boards at the Oxbridge colleges are looking for.

When they are with Hector, the boys are encouraged to gain knowledge simply for the sake of knowledge, to think critically and to enjoy the ineffable mysteries of life. His classroom is a sort of sanctuary of learning, a place where real-world practicality has no place. Challenging as it is, Hector’s class is about joy, about embracing all that life throws at you.

Their work with Irwin, on the other hand, is all about conformity. Not that he’s teaching them to conform; in fact, he’s doing just the opposite – encouraging them to look at every question that might come up on an essay or in an entrance interview from an alternative angle. He wants them to take contrary points of view – not to encourage freedom of thought, but to help them stand out from the crowd. Truth, honor, morality – these things don’t matter. Only the ultimate goal – admission to Oxbridge – matters. He teaches them that “lying works.”

We know where this leads for Irwin: in the very first scene of the play, we see him in his later life, working in government, spinning an increase in police powers and a reduction of civil rights as actually increasing personal liberty. We know where it leads for Hector, too – as he has a few secrets he’d like to remain hidden. The big question is where this will lead the boys. But that’s a question Bennett leaves us to work out on our own.

If you can’t get to the Broadhurst Theater before “The History Boys” closes in September, you can see the movie that will be released this fall. Same cast, same writer, same director – so I’m hopeful.

“The Drowsy Chaperone”
Like the creation of the universe, “The Drowsy Chaperone” begins in darkness. But instead of “let there be light,” the voice we hear says, “I hate theatre.” In truth, the owner of this voice loves theatre – but the theatre of another time. He longs for a time when people sat in the darkness as a show was about to begin and thought, “What do George and Ira have for us tonight? Can Cole Porter pull it off again? Now we say ‘Please, Elton John, must we continue this charade?”

When the lights come up we discover the voice belongs to a character identified only as “Man in Chair,” sitting next to his phonograph in a drab bed-sitter apartment, feeling blue. (Perhaps fueling the pessimism behind his rant about the state of musical theatre.) But when he’s blue, he likes the cheer himself up by playing his favorite scores of years past. Today he’s turning to his favorite musical of all time, Gable and Stein’s 1928 classic, “The Drowsy Chaperone.” “Remember?” he says, looking to us expectantly. Of course we don’t, because “The Drowsy Chaperone” is an entirely fictional construct, a musical-within-a-musical, intended to pay homage to and send up the sorts of shows one might have found on the Great White Way pre-Depression.

When he drops the needle on the record (and is enraptured by the scratching and hissing of its contact with vinyl), the show comes to life in his apartment. As it unfolds, he comments on the action, almost like a DVD commentary track – but with far more wit and grace. He stops the action from time to time to join in the dancing or give us background on the “real life” romances of the actors in this fictional show, or to explain a bit of the action.

My initial notes about “The Drowsy Chaperone” say this: “It’s almost entirely frivolous. There’s not an important thing about it. The show within the show might be about true love and living one’s dreams, but the show itself is just about a man in a chair feeling blue and seeking diversion. It doesn’t hope for a better future – it yearns for a time long past.” Now I think the opposite might be true: that the show within the show is the frivolous bit, and the show itself actually does have something important to say – about loneliness, or how we distract ourselves from the hard truths of life in order to make it through the day.

Fortunately, “The Drowsy Chaperone” achieves its escapist goals, and does indeed transport us to a lighter, more frivolous place. All in 100 minutes. Bravo for Drowsy.

“Awake & Sing”
This is a Clifford Odets classic from 1935, a bit of a polemic about the workers’ need to rise up and shed their chains, told through the struggles of a working-class Jewish family in the Bronx. The cast, which included Ben Gazzara, Mark Ruffalo and Lauren Ambrose (“Six Feet Under”), was excellent (especially Gazzara and Ruffalo) and the staging and direction first-rate. What I found perhaps most fascinating about this revival is that it was staged in the same theater in which the show had its premiere, the Belasco. Though I had never before been inside the space, it may now be my favorite Broadway theater, with its beautifully detailed interior, featuring murals by Everett Shinn and lighting by Tiffany.

The thematic and emotional resonance of this play from 1935 to now may be found in the character of the grandfather, who rails most against the establishment, and inspires his grandson to “Wake up, boychick!” In the original, he was likely the heart of the play, but in this restaging, his character comes off as a metaphor for an ideal that has failed history’s test.

John Patrick Shanley’s follow-up to his Tony and Pulitzer Prize-winning “Doubt.” Like “Doubt,” it takes place in the somewhat recent past (1971, as opposed to 1964 for “Doubt”), and like “Doubt,” the setting is an environment where strict discipline and deference to authority are the order of the day. For “Doubt” it was a Bronx Catholic school. In “Defiance,” the setting is the Marine base at Camp LeJeune, North Carolina. Although the story is ostensibly about race relations at the camp, the play is not really about race at all, but duty, honor, idealism – and the human frailties that make those qualities so hard to maintain.

The play itself is excellent, nearly the equal of “Doubt.” Unfortunately though, director Doug Hughes (who also helmed “Doubt”) seems to have missed the rhythms of the piece. Shanley has important things to say, but Hughes dulls the points he is making by letting lines – or even whole scenes – gallop off into the distance in a misguided attempt to maintain momentum. I’d be interested to see someone else take it up again and give it a slightly more relaxed pace.

“Faith Healer”
This is one of those shows that I think is well-acted, well-written, well-staged, well-directed – but that never hooked me. Ralph Fiennes plays a man with – apparently – a true gift for healing, but one that is subject to inconsistency; he never knows when he steps onto the stage and begins bringing the halt and lame to him whether or not he can deliver a cure. Cherry Jones (one of the stage’s greatest talents, but oddly off in this performance) is his long-suffering wife, and Ian McDiarmid is stunning as his manager.

The story is told, Rashomon-like, from the viewpoint of each of these characters, in four separate monologues, book-ended by Fiennes, with one appearance each by Jones and McDiarmid. Because of this, the play takes a great deal of concentration and intellectual effort in order to assemble a sense of what really happened, of what is really true. Not that I don’t mind an intellectual challenge, but with such a dark and brooding subject matter, I’m perhaps not as motivated to stay tuned.

Still, the critics have loved it, and you may, too.

Can the leopard change its spots? This seems to be the question at the very dark heart of a new play by British playwright Karoline Leach. “Tryst” is the story of Adelaide Pinchin, a milliner with very low self-esteem, who is content to work in the back of the hat shop, where she has no contact with customers who might be disturbed by what she perceives as plainness and clumsiness of manner. One day she is chosen by a con man to be his next mark. George Love finds women with a little bit of money, gets them to fall in love with him and marry. Then, after a single night of wedded bliss (George is always careful to satisfy them sexually – it’s a point of honor with him. Perhaps his only point of honor.), George absconds with whatever assets they have.

Adelaide, it turns out, has hidden depths, a reserve of confidence and self-esteem – and insight – that George hadn’t expected and proves to be more than he seems capable of handling. In the second act, when she turns the tables on him, the plot begins to charge forward: will Adelaide be able to change this man for whom she has unexpectedly fallen? At one point, she says “I’ve seen time going backwards,” and milk is spilled. I’ll leave it to you to discover the result of her rescue efforts, and whether or not the milk is successfully put back in the bottle.

“Based on a Totally True Story”
The territory here – Hollywood corruption of young talent – was handled far better earlier in the year by “The Little Dog Laughed.” But the story of a playwright whose work is solicited by the sharks on the left coast certainly has its laughs, and an appealing nature, but why not wait for “Little Dog” to transfer to Broadway? Especially since the magnificent Julie White will reprise her role in that play as the Hollywood player with the sharpest of fangs.

“Landscape of the Body”
John Guare wrote one of my favorite plays (though I’ve seen only the movie version, unfortunately), “Six Degrees of Separation.” Described once as “the Jackson Pollack of playwrights,” Guare splatters the canvas with multiple ideas and multiple points of view that come at you from many different angles. Lili Taylor, who was a revelation in “Aunt Dan and Lemon” a few seasons ago, seemed oddly disconnected from the role of a mother accused of murdering her son. However, Stephen Scott Scarpullo, who plays the teenage son in question, showed a great deal of power and presence for such a young actor.

Ultimately, “Landscape” never came fully into view for me.

“Red Light Winter”
In this three-hander by writer/director Adam Rapp, two college friends share a hostel room in Amsterdam. One is a slick, fast-talking editor at a publishing house who discovered the “next big thing.” His friend is a struggling novelist, at work on a book – though at the beginning of the play, he’s given up on the book and is attempting to hang himself, but is interrupted by the entry of his editor friend, who brings along a little something to cheer him up: one of the girls from the windows in the red light district. Of course, Christina is not all she seems. Not even close.

There are no glaring problems with “Red Light Winter,” other than a plot that moves rather languidly and ultimately never finds a path worth treading. It simply fails to truly engage. So, no green light for “Red Light Winter.”

Christopher Denham, who played the troubled writer in “Red Light Winter” turns playwright here. (Adam Rapp, writer/director of “Red Light Winter” also pulls directorial duties for “cagelove.”) His concept is an interesting one: how does a couple on the verge of a new life together cope with a brutal rape by an ex-boyfriend? The answer is, not well.

“cagelove” is not recommended, though there was one very funny line: “Katy cares about you – in the same way a heroin addict cares about methadone.”

This short run of a dance performance was actually quite engaging. The dance troupe Momix is a fascinating group of physical artists, creating forms that range from organic to architectural. This time the music was one of my favorites recordings, “Passion,” Peter Gabriel’s soundtrack for “The Last Temptation of Christ.”

What I found most fascinating about the evening was after the performance, when I was drawn into a conversation on the street with a pair of Australians who had also attended. In California, no one starts conversations with strangers, but in New York, interesting conversation is happening all the time. One of the reasons I’ve grown to love the city so much.

“The Wedding Singer”
The word of mouth had actually been good on this musical adaptation of the Adam Sandler/Drew Barrymore film – funny, cute, entertaining. I need to pay closer attention to whom I listen: this was about as entertaining as trimming the hedge. The Jersey girls behind us seemed to like it, though: “Oh my god – that was AWESOME!” I wonder if they realize they were the demographic that was actually being mocked?

“Clocks and Whistles”
A tiny, off-off-Broadway production, imported from England. I have no idea why it was produced there in the first place, let alone being plucked from across the pond. One of the very first rules of drama is that something should be at stake. The only thing at stake in this soggy mess was how fast I could get out of the theater once the torture was over.

Although not everything we saw was successful, I applaud the bravery of those who take the risk of creating art, even when it fails.

Here’s hoping you are all well and happy, and that many of you get the chance to see some of the great work being staged in New York, both on and off Broadway.

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