Thursday, May 10, 2012


I'd like to say that "Cock" is the story of a headstrong rooster who takes charge in the barnyard in order to thwart the efforts of the farmer to do away with the rooster's best friend, a lovable lamb named Blossom or some such.  But even though the cover of the Playbill for this play currently running at The Duke on 42nd Street is a drawing of a rooster, the cock in question is exactly the kind that probably sprang to mind when you first read the word.

To tell you the truth, I don't actually want "Cock" to be the story of a headstrong rooster - or anything else - because it's an absolutely riveting play.

The story is relatively simple and straightforward: a gay couple has relationship difficulties when one of the pair meets a woman, has a fling with her and can't decide which one he ought to be with.  It's not the story that makes "Cock" such a wonderful play - it's the characters and the acting and the staging that lift "Cock" to greatness.

I won't go on about the characters, because that would be revealing too much.  What I will say is that every actor (there are four) gives a powerful, nuanced performance.  However, I must call out the work of Jason Butler Harner in the role of M.  (No, this is not a Bond film.)  M is half the gay couple - the cuckolded half, the one who learns that his partner has fallen/is falling (perhaps) for a woman.  His performance is both subtle and and outsized - in exactly the right proportion.  This allows him to be both forceful and vulnerable when he delivers lines like, "You said we would be together no matter what.  And this is what."

The staging is so simple that it's almost not there.  The theater has been set up as an amphitheater, with a 12-foot (or so) circle in the center.  (NOTE:  there are five rows in the amphitheater, but only the top row has a back you can lean against.)  There are no props, no set and no costume changes - although some are referred to.

From a thematic standpoint, there is a strong undercurrent of sexuality as a choice.  Is John (the character torn between two people) gay?  Straight?  Bi?  How much choice does he really have in the matter?  Does choice matter in terms of sexuality?  In other words, even if it were a choice, why should that make any difference in the way we treat each other as individuals or as members of a community?

These are questions you will have to answer for yourself - and I strongly recommend you see "Cock" in order to get the conversation started.

Monday, May 07, 2012

"4000 Miles"

Sweet, lovely, touching, but mostly forgettable.  A simple story of a young man, a self-described hippie, who drops in on his aging grandmother, a card-carrying communist living in Greenwich Village, after he has ridden from Seattle to New York, with at least one major tragedy along the way.  The set is terrific -- perfect for Grandma's rent-controlled apartment, right down to the rotary phone and case of cassette tapes on the bookshelf, even though it's set in the present day.  All the actors do excellent work, though Greta Lee really steals all the attention when she's on stage.  Mary Louise Wilson does a terrific stooped older woman, and it all feels honest - but it just never engaged me quite as deeply as I'd like.

"The Common Pursuit"

A better soporific than Ambien.

"Venus in Fur"

Where to begin?  This is the question every writer faces.  Every other professional in the world of entertainment gets to start their task with something - a script, character sketch, director's instructions, whatever.  But it is we poor writers who must summon a something out of sheer nothingness.

Fortunately, this writing task is a little easier.  I get to start with another writer's work - specifically, David Ives' staggeringly-brilliant play, based in part on the 19th century novel, "Venus in Fur" by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, one of the books that introduced the world to S&M.  (The "M," of course, being inspired by Sacher-Masoch's name.)

But that sense of terror writers face is present at every moment of this 90-minute two-hander.  It begins with playwright and director Thomas (Hugh Dancy), who has written an adaptation of "Venus in Fur" and is conducting auditions for an actress to play the part of Vanda, the lead character.  Finding no one suitable, he's ready to give up until a young actress - conveniently also named Vanda - steps through the door and proceeds to turn his world upside down.  Which makes sense, because that's what sadists do.  Sadism isn't really about inflicting pain, it's about engendering terror.  Creating chaos so the masochist can experience the terror of not knowing what's coming next.

Thomas is already living in terror, and Vanda only ups the ante.  Here he is, the writer, the director, the man in control.  The person who has created a whole world and thinks he's in charge of it.  At least until Vanda arrives and throws all his expectations out the window.

Both Hugh Dancy and Nina Arianda are wonderful, and it will be a travesty of justice if Nina does not walk away with the Tony.

There is so much richness, so many layers of meaning and plot and character, that I can't really do this justice without giving too much away.  "Venus in Fur" is like one of those Russian nesting dolls - you keep unpacking it and it keeps revealing something new.  This isn't a show about sadism or masochism, necessarily.  It's also about art and theater and the masks we wear - and ask others to wear.

Wear whatever you like - but go.  As soon as you can.

Sunday, May 06, 2012

"The End of the Rainbow"

If you've read anything about this show - playing at the absolutely gorgeous Belasco Theatre - you've probably read about Tracie Bennett's powerful performance, which many are saying could win her this year's Tony.  True, her portrayal of Judy Garland during her last series of concerts is thrilling, but it's not enough to overcome the fact that the play itself is rather insubstantial.

With all the drama surrounding Judy's last months - the pills, the booze ("Whenever I drink water, I always feel I'm missing something."), the gold-digging younger fiance, more pills - you'd think it would be hard to make a play as uni-dimensional as this.  But they managed somehow.

Some of the fault lies with writer Peter Quilter, though I place far more of the blame at the feet of director Terry Johnson, who has created some abrupt transitions in the performances, so that his actors suddenly blow up in rage with no truly adequate motivation for doing so.  Garland was an addict, but she wasn't stupid or crazy.  Bennett has the Garland poses down, as well as the vocal tics, but ultimately she can't transcend the plodding clumsiness of the production.

"Other Desert Cities"

One of the primary requirements of great drama is to have something at stake.  Something real, important and true.  Something that the characters care about - and, by extension, something we care about.  In "Other Desert Cities," now playing at the Booth Theater after a highly-successful off-Broadway run, there's plenty at stake: primarily, the survival of a family (the Wyeths), but also the survival of each character's image of themselves.  As a good parent, as an artist, or as a free and happy "half-boy hipster."

The play takes place mostly in 2004, as the Iraq War was starting to ramp up, and the tension between Polly and Lyman Wyeth (the very Republican parents, played by Stockard Channing and Stacy Keach) and their two children, Brooke (Elizabeth Marvel) and Trip (Matthew Risch) is palpable from the first scene.  The stakes (and the tension) only go up when it turns out that Brooke, whose first novel was a big success but who has suffered from writer's block in the years since, has written a memoir of the family, focusing on her long-dead brother, about whom no one has been allowed to speak.

The family (including alcoholic Aunt Silda, played by Judith Light) has gathered in their Palm Springs home (a brilliant set by the virtually-always brilliant John Lee Beatty) for Christmas.  Even though they're Jewish.  Brooke has flown in from Sag Harbor ("Living on the East Coast has led you to believe sarcasm is both charming and alluring," her mother says), bringing with her the manuscript for her unpublished (but already sold) book.  The family assumes it's another novel, but like so many assumptions people make, this is wrong.  When the family learns her real plan, everything starts falling apart.  But in a good way. At least for the audience.

Telling the truth can be an expensive proposition, and it certainly is for the Wyeth family, at least in terms of their emotions.  Stockard Channing is stunning as the matriarch who watches what she feels she's built over decades fall apart in the course of a day or so.  Stacy Keach gives a performance that is a great match for Channing.  (I loved the bit when his character - a movie star turned politician - shows just how easy it is for him to die convincingly.)  Marvel, Light and Risch all do great jobs, as well.  In fact, I can't find much to criticize about "Other Desert Cities," other than wishing it had gone on a bit longer.  I'd love to see how this family is changed by the revelations made in the shadow of their gold-flocked Christmas tree.

Thursday, May 03, 2012

Gore Vidal's "The Best Man"

I so wanted to like "The Best Man," I really did.  Ultimately, I enjoyed the evening (2 hours, 40 minutes, two intermissions), but probably because I was in a generous mood and willing to forgive its clunkiness -- which was enough to make Click and Clack, the Tappet Brothers squirm in agony.

It's true, as many reviewers have pointed out, that much of the play still resonates in today's political climate -- the venality, the sucking up to power (with the non-stop nature of a Dyson vacuum), the sham marriages, the chattering class always at the door...  Plus, the cast is as star-packed as anything I've seen on Broadway:  James Earl Jones, Angela Lansbury, Candice Bergen, John Laroquette, Eric McCormack and Michael McKean.  The problem is, only Laroquette really found a true character.  Which is fitting, since he plays William Russell, the only truly principled character in the drama.  Laroquette stands as a solid pole supporting a very big tent.

Unfortunately, the other major players don't seem to really be engaged with their roles.  Candice Bergen is too casually chilly in her role as the good candidate's wife, and Eric McCormack's southern accent wanders in and out to the point that you can't tell whether he's supposed to be from Mississippi or South Carolina or just auditioning for every role in "Steel Magnolias."  Angela Lansbury, lovable and adored as she is, simply doesn't have the power to seize the stage the way she once did.  (The fact that she is the only cast member who had to be mic'd is one good sign of that.)

"The West Wing" this is not.  Today's politics is about speed and volume and continuous news cycles.  "The Best Man" is much more linear and old-fashioned.  It's of the day when there were three networks and a handful of major papers.  Which is delightful if you're in a nostalgic mood.  But given the stakes in our current political battles, we don't need a creaky, stuffy period piece.  Battling intolerance and ignorance requires a much sharper saber than Vidal's 1960 play.  As one character says "I'd like to think intelligence is contagious -- but I'm afraid it isn't."  As the kids say, true that.

"The Lyons"

There is often a moment in a play when a character delivers a line that perfectly encapsulates the mood or the message of the work.  In "The Lyons," playwright Nicky Silver's first foray onto Broadway, the line goes something like, "You're all horrible people and I hope never to see any of you again!"

This line is spoken by Curtis Lyons, the youngest child of Rita and Ben Lyons.  Ben doesn't much care for his son.  Or his daughter, Lisa.  They're both huge disappointments, and now that dad is dying (the first act takes place in a hospital room), he feels liberated to say exactly what he thinks.  For instance, he thinks his son is "a creep."  His wife, Rita, is "a bitch."  To be honest with you, I'm inclined to agree.  Apart from the nurse (played with a gentle strength by Brenda Pressley), no one is likeable.  They're all family, but they certainly don't seem to love each other -- or themselves, for that matter.

They do have one thing going for them -- they're fictional.  They're often funny, but they're also often pitiful and cruel and self-absorbed and standoffish and, yes, creepy.  But they're on the other side of the proscenium where they belong.  And where we can enjoy how marvelously they are played by a terrific cast led by Linda Lavin, who is on pretty much everyone's short list to win the Tony for this role.

The acidic nature of their characters seem to have eaten through any familial connections that might once have existed.  The "icy, glacial blue" Rita imagines for the living room she wants to redecorate as soon as her husband hurries up and dies already loses its luster from the moment the curtain rises and ends up -- in Rita's words -- the "washed-out shade of dashed hopes."  This family doesn't talk with each other, or even to each other, if they ever did.  They only ever seem to talk at and through each other.  But that's the way they like it.  As Rita says, "no one feels comfortable with they're intimate."