Wednesday, April 29, 2009

New York, Spring 2009 -- Day 13 "Happiness"

There's a reason why you can only copyright a script and not an idea for a script: a good idea isn't enough. This was made crystal clear to me on my last night in New York during the performance of "Happiness," the new musical by the same team that brought us the brilliant "Contact." The new show director/choreographer Susan Stroman and writer John Weidman (with help from the musical team behind "Grey Gardens") have staged at the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater at Lincoln Center takes a clever concept and cripples it with cliches and rampant two-dimensionality.

The set-up of "Happiness" is this: a group of people find themselves on a New York subway car that stops suddenly, leaving them all trapped below ground. We first meet the characters (nine of them) as they rush to get wherever it is they're headed and are bludgeoned with the fact that they are either all so self-absorbed, depressed or out of touch that they aren't appreciating the joy of life.

As it turns out, they've lost their last chance to do so. They're all actually dead and the subway car is the waystation to the afterlife where Stanley the Train Man (Hunter Foster, doing his best to rescue this bit of treacle) informs them that they are each to choose one "perfect moment." Each of the moments is remembered via song and dance. In the first vignette the music and dance are organic -- an old woman chooses a WWII USO dance when a young private asked her to be his girl -- but in most of the other situations the music is stapled in place.

Once each has chosen their moment, the car doors will open and they will be able to live in that moment for eternity.

Unfortunately, virtually all the moments are ridiculous cliches and all the characters cardboard cutouts of real people. Joanna Gleason as a right-wing radio host (a more senior version of Ann Coulter it seems) gets off some good lines (of the senior citizen member of the group she says: "She'd make a great book -- the greatest generation remembers. But not much."), but she never feels real. Especially when her perfect moment turns out to be a night in the 60s when she was celebrating an election win by Eugene McCarthy, dropped acid and gave Mick Jagger a hummer. Apparently it represented the last night she held on to the liberal ideals she once loved. Yeah, didn't make sense to me, either. There's the doorman who remembers going to a World Series game with his dad; they were supposed to get the best seats in the house as a gift, but that didn't work out so dad buys the worst seats -- that turn out to be the best. There's the cruel lawyer, the clueless bike messenger/deadbeat dad who finally comes through, the harried (married) medical interns who choose the same perfect moment (everyone now..."awwww!"), the gay interior decorator with the sassy comebacks, etc.

This could be an interesting show if it had some of the tension and honesty that "Contact" did. As it is, it begins weakly, sputters with signs of life from time to time (e.g. one of the deceased remembering the embarrassing web page he left on his computer screen), but finally circles the drain before slipping off into its own afterlife. I can't imagine anyone in the audience choosing that night at the theater as their perfect moment.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

New York, Spring 2009 -- Day 12 "Irena's Vow"

It's always difficult to criticize a play (or movie or book or mini-series) about the Holocaust. (It's even harder to applaud at the end of the play for an actor in a Nazi uniform; it just feels odd.) I don't really intend to criticize "Irena's Vow" too deeply. But I don't intend to praise it, either.

The show, by Dan Gordon, now playing at the Walter Kerr Theater, competently and simply tells the story of Irena Gut Opdyk, a pious Polish Catholic woman who was pressed into working for the Germans during their occupation of Poland. At the same time that she learns of plans to exterminate the Jews of the region, she is also offered the position of housekeeper for the German commandant. Irena decides -- in a brilliant bit of strategic thinking -- that the best place for the 11 Jewish men and women who had been working under her would be in the cellar of the commandant's new villa.

It's an amazing story by any measure (and became even more amazing when the daughter of Irena Gut Opdyk walked onstage at the conclusion of the play to answer questions and share some additional aspects of the story), but for a Broadway offering, "Irena's Vow" never really finds its feet. It's workmanlike, and if the story interests you, it's worth seeing, but it lacks the oomph required for me to wholeheartedly recommend it.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

New York, Spring 2009 -- Day 11 "Blithe Spirit" "Why Torture is Wrong and the People Who Love Them"

"Blithe Spirit"
To be honest with you, I'm a lot more excited about "Why Torture is Wrong and the People Who Love Them," so I'm going to cut to the chase on "Blithe Spirit": Angela Lansbury is wonderful, and it's exciting to see her doing such good work at 84. Rupert Everett is not aging well, and he's still not quite 50. Christine Ebersole is elegant and ethereal. My favorite cast member was Susan Louise O'Connor as Edith, the maid. The play itself is witty at times, but a bit clunky. Production rather lackluster overall.

Now, on to...

"Why Torture is Wrong and the People Who Love Them"
Without spoiling your evening, "Why Torture..." is not really about torture. It's about reconciliation. It's about the desire to take back your bad decisions and make things right again. But since it's written by Christopher Durang, it goes at these serious issues in a relatively absurd, outlandish, biting, and frequently brilliant fashion.

The story is simple: Felicity (Laura Benanti) awakes after a night of drinking to find herself married to Zamir (Amir Arison), a man of vague Middle Eastern descent -- but who claims he is Irish. When Zamir turns out to have an extremely volatile temper, no job and no prospects, plus a mysterious past, Felicity decides to annul the marriage. Since Zamir threatens violence at this suggestion, Felicity turns to her parents for help -- especially her arch-conservative father, Leonard (Richard Poe).

Leonard obsessively toes all the Conservative lines: hates immigrants, loves guns, thinks the gays ruined marriage, won't have the U.N. spoken of in a positive way in his home and thinks shouting "Don't you remember 9/11?" atones for any statement of xenophobia, paranoia or incitement to violence. He's like one of the suits in a Tom Tomorrow cartoon: spouting the justifications of the Limbaugh dittoheads with such unashamed fervor that it lays bare the ridiculousness of their positions.

When Dad meets Zamir, you can imagine where his mind leads him. Actually, given the whacked nature of the world Durang has created, you probably can't. Which is exactly why you should see "Why Torture is Wrong and the People Who Love Them" as soon as you can, especially since it is scheduled to close May 10. Go if for no other reason than to see the brilliant comic actress Kristine Nielsen as Felicity's mother, Luella, who has built a wall of denial that would put the Chinese to shame. Go to see John Pankow's Reverend Mike (he married Felicity and Zamir), a Christian who actually champions the true principles of Christ (love, forgiveness, kindness, gentleness), while at the same time being a pornographer. ("God created sex. He watches it, why shouldn't we?") Go for the amazing turntable set that is able to create so many different settings that it is almost like a magic trick.

If I were being critical, I'd say the play is a bit loose in its timing, and starts a little slowly -- but I was laughing too hard and thinking too much to really be critical. This is satire that cuts so cleanly that it takes a while to realize you're up to your ankles in blood.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

New York, Spring 2009 -- Day Ten "Offices" "Sleepwalk With Me" "9 to 5"

Move along, nothing to see here. An interesting, talented cast, with taut direction from Neil Pepe, on a great set by Riccardo Hernandez... performing what feels like a set of sketches or notes for a larger work. I love the Coen Brothers (Ethan [that's him in the picture] wrote this collection of three short plays that all take place in bland offices), but despite some good lines and some funny physical business, this isn't a play, it's a workshop.

"Sleepwalk With Me"
Since Mike Birbiglia, the writer and performer of this monologue/stand-up act confesses in the show that he subscribes to a Google alert that lets him know when he's mentioned in a blog, I'm going to assume he's reading this, so I'll address the rest of this post to him:


At one time I had some sleep disturbance issues, and before I saw the show I had this fantasy of hanging out afterward to meet you and share what-I-did-while-I-thought-I-was-asleep stories. But dude, I got nothin' on you. Sure, our stories have some similar aspects -- raised Catholic, ADD, insomnia, spending time in a relationship that we weren't being totally honest about, working as stand-ups...there may be a few more. But there were important differences, too. First, you took the sleepwalking shit to a whole new level. Second, you're actually a good standup -- I sucked. Not so much I didn't get paid, but enough that choosing a different career was a wise choice. So I didn't stay after. (But if you want to hear my semi-hilarious stories about sleep issues that I once considered doing a monologue on, send me a mail. We'll talk. I also want to hear your theory on bisexuality to which you referred but never expanded on.)

In the meantime, rest assured that I think your show is terrific. Funny, insightful, great timing, brilliant call-backs. I even became a Facebook fan. And if I took the effort to do that, well...

Anyway, I'll tell my New York friends -- and all eight readers of this blog -- that "Sleepwalk With Me" represents the best laugh-per-dollar ratio of any show we've seen in New York this trip."

Now, so I'm not lying to Mike: "Sleepwalk With Me" represents the best laugh-per-dollar ratio of any show we've seen in New York this trip. Go see it.

"9 to 5"
If you have fond memories of the 1980 film and are looking for a mostly faithful staged recreation of the film, you'll love the new show opening this week at the Marquis Theater. On the other hand, if you're hoping for a reinvention of the Dolly Parton-Lily Tomlin-Jane Fonda reeler, look elsewhere, as there is very little that is fresh about this effort. Oh, a few new lines have been added and the Lily Tomlin character gets a love interest (which I don't believe happened in the movie -- it was so long ago), but that's about it.

Not that that's so awful. "9 to 5" is a highly-entertaining -- if ridiculously implausible -- story, filled with outsize characters and farcical action. In fact, it's the elements of farce that give "9 to 5" the musical its biggest boost. The physical action -- especially the kidnapping of villain CEO Franklin Hart -- is perfect for the stage. All this -- the solid foundation of a good story and lovable (and hateable) characters -- combined with top-notch work in staging and lighting, plus a first-rate troupe of choristers make "9 to 5" a crowd-pleaser.

Unfortunately, for this member of the crowd, the production never really found its feet. Allison Janney (in the Lily Tomlin role), much as I love her acting, doesn't seem comfortable in the part yet. Her voice, while pleasing and in pitch, simply isn't powerful enough for a Broadway house. There's no Susan Boyle moment here. The other key roles are strong, but the cast doesn't feel like a true ensemble yet.

That said, the audience loved the show (and I loved being able to say "hello" to John Cleese, one of my heroes, who was sitting behind me), and it should have a decent run, especially with female audiences, who will no doubt appreciate the "womyn-power" theme. I'm guessing the mostly male crowd of critics will be a tad less kind.

New York, Spring 2009 -- Day Nine "33 Variations"

The big news about "33 Variations," the new Moises Kaufman play at the Eugene O'Neill Theatre, was the return to the Broadway stage (after a three decade absence) of Jane Fonda. Broadway seems to love it when big Hollywood stars return to the boards. They bring in new audiences and call attention to the world of legitimate theater, which mostly flies under the entertainment world radar.

Unfortunately, critics are rarely kind to the stars of the silver screen when they are there for the viewing night after night, in ordinary life-size proportion. Perhaps it's a case of familiarity breeding contempt. Once stars are there before our eyes in flesh and blood form, instead of gigantic representations in dancing light, perhaps something is lost in the minds of critics.

But this time around, Jane Fonda has bucked the trend and received mostly positive notices for her performance. Unfortunately, the play itself is coming under fire. I say unfortunate because I had a delightful evening. Not only was Jane terrific -- sincere, honest, displaying a wonderful, graceful physicality -- the play was compelling and entertaining, if occasionally a tad facile and predictable.

Fonda plays Dr. Catherine Brandt, a musicologist who has fallen ill but is obsessed with completing a final monograph before she dies. The subject of the paper is Beethoven's "33 Variations on a waltz by Anton Diabelli." Brandt has, after months of pleading, been given access to the Beethoven archives in Bonn, where she hopes to discover why Beethoven, in the last years of his life, spent so much time composing so many variations on such a simple, almost amateurish piece of dance music.

The scene shifts between the present day (incorporating the conflict between Brandt and her daughter, plus a budding relationship between the daughter and Brandt's nurse, Mike, and a friendship between Brandt and the scholar who oversees the archive and works closely with Brandt), and the early 19th century, where we see the imagined interaction between Beethoven, his assistant Shindler, and Anton Diabelli, Beethoven's publisher and -- for this project only -- collaborator/inspiration.

There's an intellectual mystery being solved here -- and like all mysteries, it takes a little attention. Dr. Brandt pores over the maestro's sketchbooks, even searching the "conversation books" used late in his life when he had gone completely deaf and visitors had to write their comments and questions to him. There's something compelling about watching a powerful mind attempt to solve a puzzle using only limited and ultimately inadequate evidence.

The bigger story, however, is not the search for the reason Beethoven chose to spend so much time on variations of what has been deemed an inconsequential piece of music, but the search for meaning in any life. Almost everyone in this play is obsessed: Catherine with solving the mystery, Beethoven with plumbing the depths of Diabelli's waltz, Diabelli with getting the variations published, Catherine's daughter with helping her mother deal with her illness, Mike with winning the daughter's love. Everyone, it seems, it caught up in the unsatisfying business of trying to explain the unexplainable or grasp the incomprehensible.

The mystery Catherine has taken on is really the ultimate mystery. As she says in the second act, "Beethoven exists in the silences." There is triple meaning to this, as she is referring first to the conversation books where only Beethoven's visitor's questions and comments were written out -- the maestro's replies were spoken and therefore lost to history. The second silence is the silence between notes; without it, music would not be music, but continuous noise, lacking rhythm, melody or dynamic range. But it's the third silence that is most important -- the silence of the void looming over both Beethoven and Catherine, both facing a too-imminent death.

Kaufman does a fascinating parallel to highlight the journey to silence: Beethoven is losing his hearing, Catherine her ability to speak. Too soon, both of these brilliant minds will be forced into a quiet neither desires -- but which may deliver unanticipated blessings. As they travel this hard, narrow path, Kaufman allows we in the audience to focus on our own search for the ineffable.

"33 Variations" is beautifully staged, well-acted, elegantly and efficiently directed, and well worth your time -- though you'll have to hurry, as Jane Fonda will be returning to the life of a movie star all too soon.

Friday, April 24, 2009

New York, Spring 2009 -- Day Eight "Shrek: The Musical"

In the transition from animated film to ginormous Broadway production (and I love that "ginormous" has become an actual word, in that my spell checker doesn't highlight it), some projects become casualties of the process ("Tarzan" "The Little Mermaid"), while others go on to find a way to reinvent the film and let audiences experience the story in new, powerful ways, as happened with "The Lion King" and "Beauty and the Beast."

Then there are the films that recycle their stories, losing some of the magic of the movie, but compensate with some new, stage magic, so the whole thing is a wash. You get a production that is better than the movie in some ways, worse in others, so that in the end the entertainment value kind of balances out. "Mary Poppins" is an example of this. The film is one of the most beloved of all time. The musical, still playing on Broadway, is a tour de force of stagecraft, but lacks the subversive heart of the movie.

"Shrek: The Musical" is another example of this film:Broadway show equivalence. I found much to love in the production: great performances by Sutton Foster, Brian D'Arcy James, Daniel Breaker, Christopher Sieber and John Tartaglia; a funny, ironic, smart book by David Lindsay-Abaire (one of my favorite contemporary playwrights); tons of witty pop culture references (including one to Siamese twins Chang and Eng, that I'm certain went over the heads of 99% of the audience); great costumes and plenty of new lines to make the experience fresh, even for those who have seen the film several times.

Yet there is an undercurrent to "Shrek: The Musical" that caused the show to lose traction and miss out on some of the vigor and vibrancy of the original. Hence, the equivalence. "Shrek: The Musical" is about as good as "Shrek" the film. Which, fortunately, is pretty good.

The basic story remains in place: Shrek, the ogre, is surprised to find "his" swamp overrun by fairy tale characters who have been expelled from the kingdom of Lord Farquaad. Except Lord Farquaad can't have a "kingdom" unless he's a king, which he can't be unless he marries a princess. So when Shrek comes to complain about his swamp being invaded, Farquaad sends him off to rescue Princess Fiona for him.

The underlying tone that beauty is in the eye of the beholder remains in place, as well, but it's brought even more to the surface here. The song "Let Your Freak Flag Fly" is a celebration of diversity, and Shrek cuts to the heart of the matter when he says, near the end of the show, "beautiful ain't always pretty." (In fact, "Shrek: The Musical" might make an interesting double bill with Neil LaBute's "Reasons To Be Pretty.") Or, as Pinocchio says, "I'm wood, I'm good -- get used to it!"

There is also a sub-theme of despotism, control and torture (Farquaad breaks the legs off the Gingerbread Man) that resonate with our recent political past and our current attempts to deal with it.

Ultimately, though, "Shrek: The Musical" isn't about anything more important than having a good time. And on that level, it mostly delivers.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

New York, Spring 2009 -- Day Seven "Chasing Manet" and "Desire Under the Elms"

"Chasing Manet"
Early in this show (and several times during the first act), Catherine Sargent (Jane Alexander), a once-celebrated artist now shunted to a nursing home, shouts "Out! Out! I want out!"

I knew exactly how she felt -- and left at intermission. Absolutely one of the worst plays I've seen in New York. Or anywhere else, for that matter. Simplistic script, pitiful performances (Lynn Cohen, however, did show a few sparks) and clumsy direction. Add to all this the fact that one of the actors had a family emergency just before curtain, so one of the theater staff stepped in and performed that actor's roles -- but not in costume and carrying a script in her hand.


"Desire Under the Elms"
From the very first moments of this production of one of O'Neill's earlier plays (a transplant from Chicago's Goodman Theatre), it's clear that one is in for an experience of raw, elemental power. First, it's a tremendously loud bang that precedes the raising of the scrim/curtain that shocks you to attention. Then, once that scrim flies away, it reveals a set composed mostly of large granite boulders -- into which come Simeon and Peter Cabot (Daniel Stewart Sherman and Boris McGiver), dragging a sled filled with more boulders. Sweating and straining, but saying not a word, they manage to offload the sled and move to their next task -- gutting the whole pig hanging by its feet above the stage, dripping blood into a bucket. As they haul guts and organs from the animal's belly, it becomes obvious that life is hard, unforgiving and relentless and the audience had best be prepared for an evening of the same. No happy endings expected. None received.

However, if you like your theater intense, laying bare deep human emotions, then you won't be disappointed by the story of the Cabot family. Ephraim, the patriarch (played by Brian Dennehy), has spent his entire life at such toil, and expects no less from his three sons: the aforementioned Simeon and Peter, plus Eben, their half-brother. Eben (Pablo Schreiber) has taken on the duties of his long-dead mother: cooking and housework. But he is, ultimately, the flintiest member of this New England clan. When dad brings home a new wife, Abbie (Carla Gugino), Eben is either smitten by lust or compelled by hatred of his father to have Abbie for his own.

Everything about this production is outsized: the rocks, the emotions, the performances. Even the house, though of modest size, seems massive in scale. I could imagine someone hating this version of "Desire"; it is, after all, quite a rough 100 intermission-less minutes. But I ate it up. It's tragedy on a brobdingnagian scale, performed by a uniformly terrific cast, under the obviously sure hand of director Robert Falls.

Though the Cabots comment regularly on how "pretty" the sky or the landscape (or the new baby) is, nothing is pretty about their lives or their outlook on life. But if you can see past the raw ugliness and tragedy, there's a shiny, pretty gem of a play waiting for you at the St. James Theater.

New York, Spring 2009 -- Day Six "The Marvelous Wonderettes"

Not quite. More like "The Perfectly Adequate Wonderettes." This cute, but ultimately insubstantial, offering at the Westside Theater is perfect for your aunt or grandmother looking to relive high school days in the 50s or 60s. Or, for young teens and tweens who will love the pop music, colorful costumes and silly humor.

"The Marvelous Wonderettes" is split into two acts. In the first, these four high school girls (Betty Jean, Missy, Cindy Lou and Suzy) are performing at their senior prom, singing the hits of the day -- "Sincerely," "Lollipop," "It's My Party" etc. Then, after the intermission, the show fast forwards to their 10-year reunion -- of both the group and their class. The songbook also shifts to the 60s -- "Respect," "Wedding Bell Blues," "Rescue Me," etc. The show is 90% singing -- which is great, because these four women have terrific voices -- and 10% the story of the girls' ups and downs in love.

It's the story that brings "The Marvelous Wonderettes" down. I liked the performers, but it's not much of a story, the characters aren't terribly well-developed and there are very few good lines.

As I said, not marvelous, but adequate.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

New York, Spring 2009 -- Day Five "Rock of Ages"

According a review excerpted on an ad for the new Broadway musical "Rock of Ages," the show "does for 80s rock what 'Mamma Mia!' did for Abba." Thing is, I'm not sure that's something that needed doing. Don't get me wrong, I liked "Mamma Mia!" I thought it was silly, saccharine fun. To a certain extent, "Rock of Ages" follows the same model: a collection of existing songs that tell an all-new story. Well, maybe not "all" new: it is, after all, the oldest of stories -- boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl. Along the way, other boys get other girls (and one boy gets another boy), the bad guys are thwarted and Rock rocks on.

I was hesitant to go to "Rock of Ages," since the music (from Bon Jovi, Whitesnake, Poison, Twisted Sister, Pat Benatar, Journey, REO Speedwagon, etc.) was never my cup of tea, even in the 80s. But when the show got mostly positive reviews, I decided to give it a shot.

Though "Rock of Ages" has much to recommend it -- a terrific performance by Mitchell Jarvis as Lonny the sound man/narrator, a great backing band and the overall raucous experience in the Brooks Atkinson Theater (where you can buy drinks at your seat during the show) -- I still don't recommend it unless you are a huge fan of that genre of music. There are some good lines, and fun is poked at mullet-coiffed metalheads, but the show never really connects on an emotional level, and it never delivers (for me) the pure fun that "Mamma Mia!" or "Xanadu" did.

Monday, April 20, 2009

New York, Spring 2009 -- Day Four "The Singing Forest" and "Next to Normal"

The Singing Forest
Save yourself. It's too late for me, but you still have time to avoid this stinker at the Public.

As we are told several times during this three-act, two-intermission debacle, "there are no coincidences." Thing is, there are coincidences...'s just that most of them aren't worth talking about. And even though the coincidences are cresting well above flood level here, there's still no reason to focus on them. Act two is exceptionally awful, with some of the worst farcical, physical comedy I've seen in New York.

I've liked other Craig Lucas shows (especially my first, "Reckless" at Berkeley Rep), but this one should quietly fade away.

"Next to Normal"
When art works, it works because it has layers of appeal. "Hamlet" isn't just a story about revenge, or an indecisive prince. It's also about the beauty of language and the ephemeral nature of consciousness and the bonds we share with others...and a thousand other things. Jasper Johns' paintings aren't great just because they show us ordinary things in new ways, they're great because they cause a reaction within us, and because they force us to examine our world in ways we might not have if we hadn't seen his work. And because they are amazing technical creations.

Although "Next to Normal," the new musical that just opened at the Booth Theater is ostensibly about how a family copes with a mother who suffers from bipolar disorder with delusions, it's also about the condition of being human. It's about how we connect -- or not -- with our fellow beings. It's about what we give up in order to grow, and how we grow up by giving. It's about the fragility of love, the tenacity of biology, the frustration of not getting what you want -- and the perils inherent in getting it.

"Next to Normal" took hold of me from the moment I walked into the theater and saw Mark Wendland's amazing tri-level set and never really let go. I was drawn into the story of Diana (Alice Ripley), a wife and mother struggling to balance the meds that keep her on anything close to an even keel. Her husband, Dan (J. Robert Spencer) does what he can, but the strain is showing. Their daughter Natalie (Jennifer Damiano) has compensated for her mother's madness by excelling at school and music -- until the stress of mom's relapse (due to failing meds) finally send her off the adolescent deep end, as well.

But the real troublemaking teen is brother Gabe, who haunts and torments mom in ways the rest of the family can't truly comprehend. (Though you will, about mid-way through the first act.)

"Next to Normal" put me in mind of one of my favorite works of art, Dennis Potter's "The Singing Detective." Like that brilliant little mini-series, "N2N" is partly about the thin line between madness and sanity, fantasy and reality, selfless love and love of self. Things that seem to be there but aren't really -- or are they?

The music by Tom Kitt, combined with book and lyrics by Brian Yorkey, deliver a powerful punch of jangling sweetness and tough-minded emotion. Nothing is really hummable in the standard musical sense, but that's not really what "Next to Normal" is about.

In fact, what may be most brilliant about this show may be that it's about whatever is most important to you right now. And isn't that what makes art, art?

Sunday, April 19, 2009

New York, Spring 2009 -- Day Three "God of Carnage" and "Mary Stuart"

"God of Carnage"
"Bravado is a kind of courage, isn't it?" This statement, uttered by Veronica, the character played by Marcia Gay Harden, seems to sum up the conflict at the heart of this excellent new play by Yasmina Reza, best-known for her Tony award-winning "Art." (Which didn't really move me, to tell you the truth.)

"God of Carnage" is one of those shows where you rather despise the characters as people, but love them as characters because they entertain. I'd never want to actually be in a room with Veronica, her husband Michael (James Gandolfini), or the couple they have invited into their home, Alan (Jeff Daniels) and Annette (Hope Davis). Michael is a self-confessed "total fucking Neanderthal" and Alan is wedded to his cell phone in the most impolite, self-centered way imaginable. (He's an attorney doing emergency damage control for his client, a drug maker who has been covering up some dangerous side effects of one of their meds.) Annette and Veronica display a tad more humanity, at least in the early going. But by the time the play reaches its exhausting conclusion (in which the characters are completely spent, as though they'd just completed an exceptionally draining four-way), the two wives have displayed quite a bit of false bravado themselves.

The two couples have come together because Annette and Alan's child had attacked Michael and Veronica's son with a stick, knocking out two of the boy's teeth. So yeah, there's some tension in the room.

What's great about the play -- besides four terrific performances from four seasoned pros -- is how the constrictions of the theater help lay bare the insecurities of the characters. How it puts their bravado on display, revealing a terrible lack of courage.

Although it sounds grim, "God of Carnage" is actually quite funny. Hard to imagine how you can milk laughs out of lines like "Every word that comes out of your mouth is destroying me!", but Reza's text (with exceptionally able direction from Matthew Warchus) manages it.

Terrific fun.

"Mary Stuart"
Intrigue never seems to lose its appeal. Subterfuge, double-dealing, mendacity -- all are staples of drama. And all are in full display at this British import that is a revival of Friedrich Schiller's classic play, first performed in 1800. This version is a new translation by Peter Oswald that opened in 2005 at the Donmar Warehouse in London.

The story of Mary, Queen of Scots has been told in many forms (none more to the point than the Monty Python version). Mary Stuart is cousin to Elizabeth I, and pretender to the throne -- though I suppose pretension is in the eye of the beholder. Ostensibly arrested for her role in the murder of her husband, she is held in custody primarily because of her ambition.

Although the rampant duplicity is fun to watch -- and reminds us that lying in the service of blatant self-interest is far older than the Bush administration -- the real draw here are the performances by Janet McTeer at Mary and Harriet Walter as Elizabeth. These are bravura performances, the sort of thing young stage actors ought to study if they want to learn how to hold a large audience in a Broadway theater.

Not many laughs here, but lots to learn.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

New York, Spring 2009 -- Day Two "Billy Elliott"

"Billy Elliott," the London import that was a huge hit there and has accomplished a similar feat here has almost everything you'd expect from a big, crowd-pleasing musical: down on their luck (but plucky) kids, their beaten-down (but still hopeful) parents fighting the Man (or in this case, the Woman -- Maggie Thatcher), big sets, top-notch staging and lighting effects, heart-tugging ballads, funny uptempo numbers, tap dancing, men in tutus, brassy, trash-talking women. It's all here.

Except it never really connected with me. Remember, though, that I've never been one to connect with the more overblown examples of the musical theater form. I hated "Les Miserables" and "Phantom of the Opera" -- and we all know I was clearly in the minority there.

If you've seen the movie, you know the story: Billy Elliott is an 11-year old boy living in a coal mining town in northern England when Margaret Thatcher steps in to bust the unions. Billy's father and older brother -- both miners -- go out on strike at the same time Billy discovers ballet. ("Bally" in the argot of the region.) He's talented, but will dance be his way out of a life in the mines? (It's a musical, not an opera, so you can probably guess.)

"Billy Elliott" has a lot going for it, primarily a great cast of young performers, plus a few good songs by Elton John ("Solidarity" "Merry Christmas, Maggie Thatcher") and some good dance numbers. The choreography was occasionally imaginative, but mostly pretty straightforward and exactly what one might expect.

In fact, I think that's my biggest problem with the show -- it seemed completely predictable, delivering nothing truly groundbreaking or exceptionally imaginative in terms of music, book or dance. I was, however, mostly alone in my opinion. My three companions all loved the show and the audience gave it a standing ovation.

I stood too, primarily for the technical expertise of the show (even though it was stopped for three minutes in the first act due to a technical difficulty), but mostly for the bravura performance of young David Alvarez as Billy. The kid can dance, he can act, he can even sing -- and he's onstage for most of this three-hour show.

If this is your kind of thing, then "Billy Elliott" will be the thing for you.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

New York, Spring 2009 -- Day One "reasons to be pretty"

One day, I'd like to see Neil LaBute and David Mamet go after each other for the title of Alpha Male Playwright. The Bard of Testosterone. Let's get 'em in the same room, liquor 'em up and let them really go at it. My money's on LaBute, if for no other reason than he seems to be trying harder at representing for the penis-owners, while Mamet is softening up, putting out sweeter, creamier work like the farce "Romance" or 2007's terrific satire, "November". LaBute, on the other hand, seems to keep his foot firmly planted on the accelerator, driving his audiences as quickly as possible into territory where hard, painful things happen. Things men cause, then move on from because that's what men do. His plays have a well-deserved reputation for stripping away niceties and laying bare the bad things that bad people (men and women) do.

"reasons to be pretty" is LaBute's latest, but his first foray onto Broadway. He's spared little of the emotional cruelty and misanthropy that have marked his work over the years. Here his focus is the fragility of human connection. What is the nature of love? On what is it predicated? More important, even if we can answer those two questions -- even if only for ourselves, can we find our way through all the obstacles that prevent deep connection between humans? You know, jealousy, envy, low self-esteem (why would anyone love someone like me?) and inflated self-image (how could anyone not love me?)?

At curtain, Steph (Marin Ireland) is fighting with Greg (Thomas Sadoski), her boyfriend of three years. He's apparently said something to his friend Kent (Steven Pasquale) about Steph's looks, within earshot of her friend (and Greg and Kent's co-worker, and Greg's girlfriend) Carly (Piper Perabo). What he said wasn't awful, and could be defended, but it wasn't a great comment, either.

But what he said isn't as important as what Steph hears -- and feels. Over the course of the next two hours (including intermission), these two couples go through a fair bit of emotional hell -- which LaBute sometimes manages to make funny, even when the cruelty reaches its height. (The best scene in the play is when Steph reads aloud her notes about all Greg's physical shortcomings -- not just to Greg, but to everyone else at the mall food court, as well.)

LaBute has written a great play, I think. He gets to some very deep places with some pretty elegant, efficient writing. And though the cast does a mostly first-class job, I regularly felt there was emotional depth that was present in the text that the actors (or director Terry Kinney) failed to plumb. There were times, especially in the first act, where there just didn't seem to be enough veracity in the interaction between Steph and Greg.

But given the rawness of emotion that would be exposed if the actors went as deep as LaBute's text, I'm not sure audiences are ready for that. At least not enough to keep a Broadway play going long enough to recoup anything close to its investment.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Departure Day

It's been a while since I posted here. Haven't had much to say, and what I did say I said on Facebook.

However, after nearly a year, it's time to head back to New York for another infusion of theater and culture. (Along with visits to friends we haven't seen in some time.)

As I write this, I am sitting in the waiting area in the Continental terminal at SFO, waiting to board the flight to Newark. (Hooray frequent flier miles!) Over the course of the next two weeks, we will see 18 shows. 10 Broadway, eight off-Broadway. Six musicals, 12 plays. Of the 12, one is comedy, one a monologue. The others all look to be relatively heavy. I mean, "God of Carnage"? Can't be too lightweight. (Of course, the one comedy is called "Why Torture is Wrong and the People Who Love Them" so what does a title really say.

Anyway, watch this space for what should be daily (or almost daily) updates and mini-reviews.