Wednesday, April 27, 2011

New York, April 2011 - Day Thirteen, "The School for Lies"

“The School for Lies”
Hamish Linklater probably thinks I’m stalking him. On my last trip to New York, he was in the same audience as I was at two different shows – something we both noticed. Earlier on this trip he was in the audience at “TIHGTOCASWAKTTS.” This time, however, no coincidences were required – he’s starring in David Ives’ brilliant, biting, hilarious adaptation of Moliere’s “The Misanthrope.”

Ives has translated the classic into mostly contemporary language – but he’s kept it in verse, which sounds like it could be clumsy – but it rarely is. And since Ives has his characters using words and phrases that wouldn’t sound out of place on any street corner or college dorm – “What’s yours or mine or any man’s friendship worth, if you give it to any douche on Earth?” – it still feels incredibly current and relevant. Which, of course, adds to the bite when Moliere’s timeless satire is aimed not just as mendacity (as the title implies), but politics, society and culture. (“Sycophants who are brown well past their noses,” was another favorite of mine.)

You’d have to really hate verse not to find something to like about “The School for Lies.” Linklater (who you might know from his TV work on "The New Adventures of Old Christine") is deadpan funny, and his supporting cast mostly just as sure-footed. Ives’ script delivers zinger after zinger and one inventive rhyme after another. And if that doesn’t sell you, it’s worth the ticket price just to see William Ivey Long’s costumes. (John Lee Beatty’s set is lovely, too.)

If you love language, don’t miss this one.

New York, April 2011 - Day Twelve, "Carson McCullers Talks About Love"

“Carson McCullers Talks About Love”
I went to this show not because I’m a huge Carson McCullers fan (I’ve never even seen the movie version of “The Heart is a Lonely Hunter,” let alone read it or any of her other books), but because of the two composers, singers/songwriters Duncan Sheik and Suzanne Vega. I owned (and enjoyed) Vega’s crossover album, “Solitude Standing,” and loved both Sheik’s one radio hit (“Barely Breathing”) and his score for “Spring Awakening.” And since Vega was singing the title role of McCullers, I went to one of the first previews.

I think they may have something here, even though the book needs a fair bit of work (it’s too soft and mundane right now) and Vega is a much better actress when she is singing.

First, the material is incredibly rich. McCullers is a tragic figure, successful and famous before she was 25, her left side paralyzed by a series of strokes before she was 31, and was dead at 50. In those few years, though, she lived and loved and wrote and hung out with the cream of the New York intellectual scene: Truman Capote, Paul Bowles, Tennessee Williams, W. H. Auden, et al.

Second – and more important to the show’s future – the songs are lovely. Some haunting, some sprightly, all delivered tenderly by Vega. I’d buy the album today if they had one. When she stands, near the end of the show, her left arm pinned to her side (the effects of the stroke) and intones “Do you know how love should be begun? A tree. A rock. A cloud,” it simultaneously broke my heart and filled me with hope.

Part of that hope is that the producers find a way to reach an audience larger than the 95 who can fit inside the village’s Rattlestick Theater.

(Odd synchronicity: just as I finished this review, “Solitude Standing” began to play in iTunes, after the instrumental music I had chosen to write to – the soundtrack from “The Social Network” - had finished.)

New York, April 2011 - Day Eleven, "The Importance of Being Earnest" & "The Intelligent Homosexual's Guide..."

The Importance of Being Earnest
Yes, you’ve probably seen it before, most likely at a local high school. “Earnest” has been a staple of youth theater for decades. The problem is, kids miss the satire present in the farce. Brian Bedford, the director and star of this wonderful new production, most assuredly does not. Beneath the veneer of the very correct manners on display, the blood is flowing freely. And not just from the characters – Wilde himself is skewering the aristocracy for their idleness. His references to “The Society for the Prevention of Discontent in the Upper Classes” and an article titled “The Influence of a Permanent Income on Thought” are just two of my favorite examples.

All the Wilde wit is on display, the costumes – especially the gowns created for Bedford’s portrayal of Lady Bracknell – are stunning, and the cast is terrific.

Even if you’ve seen “Earnest” many times, I doubt you’ve seen a production as top-notch as this one.

“The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures”
Gus thinks he’s losing his mind. Though none of his children or his sister can sense the change – he’s the same card-carrying communist worker’s organizer homophobic curmudgeon he always was – Gus can sense things slipping away from him. Out of his grasp. Out of his control. He’s decided it’s Alzheimer’s.

So he’s decided to kill himself. For real this time. His first attempt came on the anniversary of his wife’s death. Which also happened to be their son Pill’s birthday. Now it’s a few days past that anniversary and Dad is laying out a new set of final plans. “You were going to give him a matched set?” his brother Vito asks.

Think of this show as a complement to “August: Osage County.” That story begins with a father missing (soon revealed to be suicide) and a family coming together to deal with each other. Here the family assembles to deal with the father. To decide – in a collective, consensual fashion, true to their communist roots – whether or not he ought to be allowed to exercise this option. And, like “August: Osage County,” it takes more than three and a half hours to determine what is to be done about dad – and it absolutely flies by.

“TIHGTOCASWAKTTS” is the latest by Tony Kushner, who won the Tony and the Pulitzer for “Angels in America,” and I have to admit it’s the sort of thing I tend to like: lots of talking, lots of ideas, wit, banter, intimate secrets revealed… With that caveat, I’ll tell you that I was enraptured by it.

Some of the performances got a little out of tune now and then, but they’re still in previews, so I’ll assume they can iron those out. And while they’re at it, I bet Tony will make some cuts to help the show move just a touch faster.

Even as it is, “TIHGTOCASWAKTTS” is deeply compelling. Every character has something at stake, each revelation has echoes and overtones. When Gus explains why he wants to check himself out, he tells the story of a friend of his, a typesetter, whom he watched slip away into dementia, his hands reflexively making the motions of his work even as he lay slowly dying in a hospital bed.

Typesetting. Communism. Homophobia. What do these three have in common? They are all dead concepts – save for a dwindling minority who still cling to them. In the case of homophobia, it’s a significant minority – at least in the U.S. While steady progress is made (the lifting of DADT, the President’s refusal to defend DOMA, marriage equality in five states and DC), the beast of hatred can, in its death throes, still claims victims: those bullied to death, partners forced apart by immigration laws, homes torched by arson. The list is long.

So is “TIHGTOCASWAKTTS.” But Kushner uses the time wisely to explore the consequences of hanging on to dead ideas. Highly recommended. (At least, if it sounds like your kind of thing, too.)

Saturday, April 23, 2011

New York, April 2011 - Day Ten, "By The Way, Meet Vera Stark" & "Good People"

"By The Way, Meet Vera Stark"
In my review of “Kin,” I proffered the notion that just because life doesn’t always give you what you want, you better learn how to be happy getting what you get. But after seeing “By The Way, Meet Vera Stark,” at the Second Stage Theater today, I realized that’s a statement that’s much easier to make when you’re a somewhat privileged white male. If you’re a black woman, especially a black woman in 1933, even when you get what you want it can turn out to be sorely lacking.

“By The Way, Meet Vera Stark” is the latest work from playwright Lynn Nottage, who penned the wonderful “Intimate Apparel” and the Pulitzer-winning “Ruined.” The lady of the title is maid to a Hollywood starlet -- but with big screen dreams of her own. For Vera Stark, though, the big dream isn’t to be a star, it’s simply to be cast as the maid to "The Belle of New Orleans" – who has a significant number of lines, not the usual “yes’ms ” and “yassirs” of the slaves and lackeys that made up the majority of roles for negro actors in the depression.

Without giving too much away, the first half of the show is set in 1933, and shows how Vera uses the stereotypes inflicted on her by the culture in power to make the first steps toward achieving her goals.

But it’s the second half of the show where Nottage’s brilliance (and passion) come pouring through. It’s 70 years later and a panel of black intellectuals are now dissecting and deconstructing the career of the great African-America artist Vera Stark – in part by looking back to the very end of Stark’s career, an appearance on a Mike Douglas-style TV talk show. The point of view shifts from the 2003 commentators/intellectuals in a panel discussion, to the set of “The Brad Donovan Show” in 1973.

Vera is past her prime, overdressed and just the tiniest bit drunk – but is still relatively restrained in her indictment of 1930s Hollywood. Rage is left to the radical intellectual onstage, Afua Assata Ejobo (Karen Olivo), supported (somewhat) by the less radicalized Carmen Levy-Green (Kimberly Hebert Gregory). Herb Forrester (the very funny Daniel Breaker) moderates their discussion and grounds us in space and time.

Nottage does a wonderful job of showing how much easier it is to talk about struggle than to actually live it, and the 1973 talk show appearance serves as a fulcrum between those two experiences.

The show still has two weeks in previews, so they can work on timings and tighten things a bit, but it’s already a wonderful play, well worth your time.

"Good People"
There are choices we make – and choices that we never get a chance to make. How much of what we become is due to our own virtue (or lack thereof) and how much should be ascribed to fate or the accidents of birth and situation? This question of control over your destiny is at the heart of David Lindsay-Abaire’s newest (and terrific) play, “Good People,” now playing at MTC’s Samuel J. Friedman Theater.

As the play opens, Margaret – played with a delicious dishevelment by the ever-amazing Frances McDormand – is being fired from her job at the dollar store for being late one too many times. It’s not that Marge (as her name tag reads) is a shirker, it’s just that she has a lot going on in her life that is beyond her control, most of it related to her adult daughter who is developmentally disabled. Working a $9.40/hour job doesn’t give Marge the leeway to hire someone to care for her daughter while she’s at work, so she has to rely on her unreliable landlady, Dottie (Estelle Parsons). When Dottie is late (which is often), Marge is late.

Mike (Tate Donovan), on the other hand, found a way to escape the hardscrabble background he and Marge shared as children growing up in Boston’s south end. He got into college and medical school and now works as a reproductive endocrinologist and lives in tony Chestnut Hill. When Marge reaches out to Mike in the hope of securing new employment, their lives get entangled in ways that neither of them could imagine – or desire.

Lindsay-Abaire, one of my favorite contemporary playwrights, somehow finds a way to keep Marge a mostly sympathetic character, even when she is a source of chaos in Mike’s life. The cast surrounding McDormand are excellent, especially Patrick Carroll as Stevie, the dollar store manager who fires her.

Ultimately, once we reach the tender conclusion, the choices Marge and Mike have made over their lives define them still, for good and ill.

New York, April 2011 - Day Nine, "Baby, It's You"

It’s a wonder the story of Florence Greenberg wasn’t the first jukebox musical. A housewife from Passaic, New Jersey, Greenberg discovered a group of girls at her daughter's high school and took them to the top of the charts, founding a record company and partnering – both professionally and romantically -- with songwriter and producer Luther Dixon, during a time when interracial relationships were illegal in many states. Drama, politics, love, great songs – it’s perfect material.

I can hear the pitch now. “It’s ‘Jersey Girls’ go to ‘Memphis’! That’s two Tony winners in one! How can it miss?”

As it turns out, whether it hits or misses depends on the target. Are you aiming for a somewhat sophisticated theater crowd that likes intelligence and wit and imagination – and doesn’t mind being entertained along the way? Or are you after the family from a corn-exporting state who are in New York for the first time, can’t get into “Wicked” but have already seen “The Lion King”?

The producers of “Baby It’s You” are likely praying for a success similar to that of “Jersey Boys.” They’re not going to get it. “Baby It’s You” is too didactic and simple-minded. “Jersey Boys” is simple, almost a comic book on stage (and I mean that in a good way), but it’s not simple-minded. Its book is a wonderful example of efficiency in storytelling. “Baby It’s You,” on the other hand, is constantly grabbing you by the hand, forcing its story on you. Too much gets told to the audience that we could be shown instead. And showing is a lot more powerful than telling.

“Baby It’s You” is also bubbly and shiny and colorful. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Some of my favorite shows are bubbly and shiny and colorful. But Florence Greenberg’s story isn’t always a bubbly one. (Florence is played by the wonderful Beth Leavel, who is the main thing that’s right about this show.) She neglected her family, was a hard-nosed businesswoman and was involved in a very controversial relationship. The show might match the story better if it was a smidge darker, a lumen or so less bright.

But I understand why the producers chose not to go down that road. Going at this material in a less conventional way involves a tremendous amount of risk. Pull it off, maybe you make something great and you win the Tony and everything’s peachy. If you don’t, there goes your money.

If, on the other hand, you focus on what makes the tourists at the TKTS booth in Times Square choose your show over “Jerusalem” or “Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo” or “Priscilla, Queen of the Desert,” you might just see some return on your investment.

After all, it is show business.

Friday, April 22, 2011

New York, April 2011 - Day Eight, "The Divine Sister"

Here’s today’s reason for keeping my review brief: you’re never going to be able to see this show. It closes May 1, won’t likely move anywhere, and even if it does, the experience wouldn’t be the same without writer/star Charles Busch.

Charles Busch, if you don’t already know, is one of New York’s top playwrights/performers. I started to write “he’s best known for his drag shows, such as “Vampire Lesbians of Sodom,” “Die, Mommie, Die!” and “Shanghai Moon.” But he’s also well-known as the author of “The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife,” which ran for over a year on Broadway and was nominated for a Tony for best play. Either way, he’s a talent.

“The Divine Sister” is one of the drag shows. It’s Busch’s send-up of any movie or play ever made about (or including) nuns, from "Song of Bernadette" to “The Trouble With Angels” to “Agnes of God” to “Doubt.” Busch plays the Mother Superior of St. Veronica’s School and Convent, which is on the verge of having to close. Will she be able to persuade the local rich “jewess” to sign over her mansion as a new school building? Does the new postulant really have the power to heal? Will Mother Superior’s life before entering the convent come back to haunt her? And what’s going on with the severe nun visiting from Berlin?

All is revealed, of course, in a very plot heavy, slightly absurd comedy. It’s not a great production, but it’s way off-Broadway and it’s not trying to be something it’s not, so I’ll cut it a lot of slack. It’s a good time, life lessons/politics only intrude once or twice in the show (“We live in a world that’s changing.” Pause. “We’ll have to see what we can do about that!”) the performers are great (so damn much talent in New York!) and Busch put in some terrific lines – and not just for his character. The one that is sticking with me, though, plays to my inner sixth-grader: Mother Superior is counseling Sister Acacius and says, “What is it you can’t face?” But she pronounces “can’t” with a very British accent and Sister Acacius thinks…well, you can guess what she thinks. “Did you just call me…?” Then it becomes a callback throughout the show and gets a laugh every time.

Campy fun, and if it came to a community theater near you, you’d probably have a good time.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

New York, April 2011 - Day Seven, "A Minister's Wife" and "The Motherf**ker with the Hat"

It would be hard to find two shows more different than this pair. "A Minister's Wife" is a musical based on George Bernard Shaw's "Candida" and is set in the study of a proper English minister in 1898. "The Motherf**ker with the Hat" is a play set in present day New York, in three different apartments, none of which is particularly appealing. In "A Minister's Wife" the action -- such as it is -- revolves around whether a young poet can steal the heart of the minister's wife. But, as with the standard British drawing room drama, very little is spoken of directly. In "The Motherf**ker with the Hat," there is very little that isn't spoken of directly. Infidelity (and there's plenty of it), backsliding addicts, violence of all's all there.

But there are a few things the two shows have in common. Both have great sets. Both have solid acting. Both left me entirely cold.

New York, April 2011 - Day Six, "The Book of Mormon"

When “The Last Temptation of Christ” was released, many mainstream churches were in an uproar over a scene near the end of the film that depicts Christ living a life as husband to Mary Magdalene and father to their children. Blasphemy to even suggest that the Lord God was getting a little! That He could have a human side. There were protests outside theaters and the movie studio; people carried signs and promoted boycotts.

To my mind, Christian churches were missing a huge opportunity. Because when I watched the film, it nearly converted me. That scene of Jesus as a family man was the last temptation of the title. Satan’s final ploy to get Christ to give up all this “redeeming mankind” bullshit was to show him the happiness of an ordinary life: someone who loves you. Children to carry part of you on into the future. It could all be yours, Satan says. But Jesus lets himself be crucified anyway. For us! To give miserable losers like we humans a shot at eternal life. That’s the sort of guy people could accept as their personal savior.

There hasn’t been much protest over the massively profane “The Book of Mormon,” currently playing at the Eugene O’Neill Theater (the LDS Church released a one-sentence statement*, then wisely refrained from contributing to the publicity machine), but I can’t imagine it’s going to be on the itinerary for any church field trips, Mormon or otherwise.

Which is a shame. Not just because “The Book of Mormon” is the funniest thing on Broadway in a long, long time, maybe ever, but because it’s also maybe the most faith-promoting thing on Broadway ever. Or at least since the cancellation of “Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark.”

Don’t get me wrong – it’s also the most blasphemous thing I’ve ever seen in my life, and I’ve been witness to some serious blasphemy. It’s profane, but not in the near-constant manner of David Mamet or “Deadwood." But when it is profane, it’s so over the top that it makes profane look like amateurfane. And as far as pushing the limits of taste and probity, I have seven words for you: Hitler. Gets. A. Blow. Job. In. Hell.

And though it skewers Mormonism (with the sharpest kebab on the block) its underlying message is this: it doesn’t matter if it’s made up. Faith – even in a fiction – has value if it brings people together in a community and helps them be nicer to each other. As one of the songs says, “a Mormon just believes.” So does every pious Catholic, Lutheran, Muslim, Buddhist, Jain…and ultimately even every physicist. We all must, because nothing adequately explains why we’re here. And why we have the capacity to ask that question in the first place. Sure, it would be easier if there were some physical evidence of a supreme being, but as one of the characters says, the requirement for faith is “sort of what God was going for.”

But if you’re not in the mood for a faith-promoting musical, feel free to enjoy “The Book of Mormon” for any (or all) of its other compelling aspects. I think I’ve already mentioned that it’s funny. Silly funny, smart funny, gross funny…funny funny. The songs are bouncy and engaging, the cast is terrific…it works on all levels.

It just won’t work for all people. If you can’t see past the profanity and blasphemy to the soft, creamy center, if you’d rather be offended than entertained, try one of Broadway’s other options. “Anything Goes” for example. It’s also an A+ production, has better songs, and pretty much zero chance of offending.

*"The production may attempt to entertain audiences for an evening, but the Book of Mormon as a volume of scripture will change people's lives forever by bringing them closer to Christ."

Monday, April 18, 2011

New York, April 2011 - Day Five, "House of Blue Leaves"

Two things conspire to make this a brief entry. First, I have deadlines to meet. Paying deadlines. Second, I really need to see this again before I can pretend to make sense of it in a reasoned fashion.

So let's keep this as concise as possible.

The stars -- Edie Falco, Ben Stiller and Jennifer Jason Leigh -- are excellent. Especially Edie as the delusional paranoid agoraphobic (second agoraphobe of the trip!) Bananas.

The set -- stunning.

The play -- a revival of a brilliant, whacked-up maelstrom of desire and broken dreams and insane humor and celebrity-mad nuns-- is hysterical. In several senses of the word. I think it may be a metaphor of humanity coming into self-awareness, but as I said, I need to see it again.

David Cromer -- who helmed my last favorite play in New York, an amazing revival of "Our Town" -- is just as sure-handed here.

Bottom line? Go, if you think you can handle it.

New York, April 2011 - Day Four, "Peter & The Starcatcher" & "Priscilla, Queen of the Desert"

“Peter and the Starcatcher”
It’s very easy to go astray when you’re attempting to appeal to adults and children with the same entertainment. Sometimes, as with the recent “Toy Story 3,” it turns out brilliantly. The adults get the sophisticated themes and understand the landscape of the underlying emotional territory, and the kids love the silliness and colorful action. “Princess Bride,” “Shrek” and “Wicked” have walked that same delicate line with a fair bit of grace.

“Peter and the Starcatcher” – despite its terrific cast, tight direction and gag-packed script (thanks in part to Dave Barry, one of America’s greatest humorists) – weaves like a drunken sailor from the port (silly fun for the kids!) to starboard (sophisticated themes, witty wordplay and double entendre for the adults).

The nautical reference here is apropos, as almost the entirety of the show takes place at sea, on two different ships: the Wasp and the Neverland, both bound for a mystical land. One is laden with a trunk full of “star stuff,” and the dread pirate Black Stache wants to deliver it to an evil king who will use it to wicked ends. Thwarting him are 13-year old genius Molly Aster, who will grow up to be the mother of Wendy, Michael and John (this show is to “Peter Pan” as “Wicked” is to “The Wizard of Oz.”) and three orphan boys, one of whom will never grow up.

There is a lot of smart, funny stuff here. Christian Borle as Black Stache is absolutely wonderful. Without him, I think the show might wither and die entirely. He gets off some brilliant lines:

Touting the pirate life, he says, “A little swash, a little buckle…it’s just like bread, you’ll love it!”

Referring to the hard to track crocodile that ends up eating his hand he says “He’s as elusive as the melody in a Philip Glass opera.” (That's one that takes a pretty culturally savvy audience to pick up on.)

And when Molly touts her strengths (in a confident but not cocky way), he sidles up to her and says, “And I bet your milk shake brings all the boys to the yard, too.”

They’re all funny, but they require a sophistication and cultural literacy that children (and many adults, too) may not possess.

Entertaining and fun, but not entirely successful.

“Priscilla, Queen of the Desert”
Not smart enough for New Yorkers, and too gay for the bridge & tunnel crowd, this mashup of “Mamma Mia!” and “La Cage Aux Folles” (but based on the excellent Australian film) is going to have a hard time finding an audience to fill the 1740-seat Palace Theater eight times a week. The audience at the Sunday evening show I attended was quite appreciative, but there’s really very little to recommend here.

At the end, it’s all just about the costume changes. And that’s not enough.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

New York, April 2011 - Day Three, "The Other Place" & "Catch Me If You Can"

“The Other Place”
Dr. Juliana Smithdon has a brilliant mind. Perhaps even a beautiful one. But that’s where the beauty ends, because Juliana (played by the sort-of adorable Laurie Metcalfe), a world-class medical researcher, is not necessarily fun to be around. She’s short-tempered, angry, mean even. But above all, she is deeply, deeply wounded. But her pain can’t kill her brilliance and wit. “Are you flirting with suicidal thoughts?” her husband asks her. “I’m dating them, actually,” she responds. “But they won’t put out.”

When you finally discover the source of the wound – or wounds, I should say, for she was hit from two directions – you’re willing to forgive her acid tongue. For with her brain under attack from within, Juliana believes she may not be able to count on her wits for long. Her brilliance may slip from her control and she wants to use it for as long as she has it.

Metcalfe gives a stunning performance, falling apart right before our eyes in the tragic climax. And she does it against a set that echoes the fragmentation going on onstage – of minds and families and dreams.

“Mamma Mia!” it’s not. But “The Other Place” is well-constructed, funny, tragic, sharply-directed and worth your time – if you don’t mind a few tears.

“Catch Me If You Can”
“Catch Me If You Can” is as much a con as its anti-hero, Frank Abagnale, Jr. is. It has most of the trappings of a musical -- but ultimately it can’t pull them together into anything authentic. Thank god for Norbert Leo Butz – his Carl Hanratty (the role played by Tom Hanks in the movie) – is alone worth the price of admission. Without him, I don’t think I would have stayed engaged long enough to notice that Aaron Tveit still has a terrific voice and charming stage presence, or that some of the songs were funny enough, or that the show broke the fourth wall in some interesting ways.

I think one reason I felt conned by the show was that the show took too long to get rolling. My suggestion to the producers? Put “Don’t Break the Rules” earlier in the show. It’s a great number. And if you put it right after we meet Frank, it sets up the motivations behind the epic battle of wits between the two, which is the most fascinating part of the story, but often gets lost among the side plots.

“Catch Me If You Can” is not a bad show, it’s just not very good. As I said, it’s a con, but an entertaining enough con that a fair number of showgoers will fall for it and never be the wiser.

Friday, April 15, 2011

New York, April 2011 - Day Two, "Kin"

As the Rolling Stones said, "you can't always get what you want." And even though you try, sometimes you can't always get what you need. Truth is, you get what you get.

This is the truth at the heart of "Kin," a sharp, intelligent new play at Playwrights Horizons. Actually, the real truth is this: you get what you get, and if you can't learn to deal with that, you're in for a rough life. Isn't there a Buddhist maxim that happiness lies not in getting what you want, but wanting what you get?

Though they strive mightily for what they want and need, the characters in "Kin" are thwarted at almost every turn. And it's not like they're even reaching for the stars -- all they want is a little genuine human connection. A father wants to connect with his daughter. A young couple, both wounded by past loves, want to know if they're really right for each other. A woman wants to move beyond a trauma from her past enough to leave her house for the first time in more than two decades.

The play begins with an uncomfortable break-up (the exact opposite of human connection), and in the few scenes after, it isn't always clear how the characters are all connected. They seem to drift in lonely bubbles of their own. But as Bathsheba Doran's compelling, naturalistic (but still quite theatrical) scenes unfold, one by one, the intricacies of their connections become clearer and clearer and by the time the play ends, everyone has come to a place where they seem comfortable -- happy, even -- with what life has given them. As one character says to another who has asked her advice on what to do about a woman he loved who spurned him, "For god's sake man, give chase!"

The characters in "Kin" start out passive and resigned, but ultimately give chase to their happiness.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

New York, April 2011 - Day One, "Anything Goes"

In 1934, when Cole Porter's "Anything Goes" was first produced, the world was in the midst of a depression and people looked to Broadway as a place where they could forget their troubles for a couple of hours. In 2011, we have Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, pirates, tsunamis, nuclear meltdowns, a still-shaky economy, a crazed climate, billionaires becoming birthers, John Kyl telling bald-faced lies on the floor of the Senate and then having a spokesperson say his comments were "not intended to be a factual statement"...I think we could use a little getaway, too.

And the new production of the show, now playing at the Stephen Sondheim Theater is the perfect escape. There are some who confuse humor with wit. No matter, "Anything Goes" has plenty of both and dispenses them liberally. The sets are big and bright and wonderfully deco, the costumes elegant and flashy and fun and the cast -- from Broadway superstar Sutton Foster and veterans Joel Grey, John McMartin and Jessica Walter, all the way down to the excellent chorus -- is brilliant. Adam Godley has all kinds of comic chops and Jessica Stone does an adorable moll.

Then there are the songs: "I Get a Kick Out Of You," "Anything Goes," "You're The Top," "It's De-Lovely" and "Blow, Gabriel, Blow" are all standards for a reason.

But every aspect of this production is first-rate, and for this, credit must go to director/choreographer Kathleen Marshall and musical director Rob Fisher.

Set on an ocean liner crossing from New York to London, the show is like a Shakespearean comedy, with lovers kept apart but finally reunited, ridiculous disguises and mind-boggling misapprehensions. Like Shakespeare, "Anything Goes" can feel very old-fashioned -- guests mingle on board until it's time to sail, and passport control is a little different in the TSA era -- yet despite how clunky the story can be (be prepared to forgive a lot of silliness and throw plausibility overboard) like Shakespeare, the underlying artistry reveals itself in a timeless contemporaneity. Book writers P.G. Wodehouse, et al. had a lot of fun poking at the sanctimonious nature of the clergy and celebrity culture. The same targets are just as vulnerable today. A clerical collar here is always a disguise -- either a way to hide from authorities or fool the faithful. And like some of today's urban culture, the gangster is the biggest celebrity of all.

There are too many ways to praise this production, but only one way to see it -- set sail for 43rd Street and a 2.5 hour voyage of escape. It's OK. You've earned it. We all have.