Sunday, June 02, 2013

New York Theater Report - Spring 2013

There are many things a distractable person might think about while experiencing temporary writer’s block.*

But such things do absolutely nothing to further your understanding of what’s happening on and off-Broadway in New York – as seen through my personal filter and for your future enjoyment.  After all, that’s why I overcome those blocks in order to write these annual reports – to guide you to the cream, and steer you from the crap.   (Even if the crap is well-intentioned and sincerely presented.) 

This does not imply a guarantee (either express or implicit) that you might not love what I deem dreck. I’m also certain some of what I praise most highly just isn’t right for some of you.  I know that for at least one of you, the show I loved most on this trip was one you loathed. 

But I don’t let that stop me.  Certainly not on this most recent trip, where I attended 16 different theatrical or musical presentations, not to mention several museums and galleries.  (I’d tell you how few days it took me to accomplish this, but I’m afraid it would freak you out.) 

Clearly I can’t see everything, but I have a pretty experienced booker (aka Broadway Bob) who sifts through the online resources to determine which new shows might be most worth the time, so there’s already been one level of filtration – which is how several dozen possibilities are whittled down to a mere baker’s dozen plus three.

Worry not – you don’t have to read about all 16.  I’ll cover only those you can see as of this writing, and focus on what I think you’d most enjoy.  For the less appealing offerings, I will attempt to use only enough words to convince you the show is one you’re likely to thank me for not having to see.  Or at least sufficient to reset your expectations.

Let’s begin at the top.  My number one recommendation is the new play from Christopher Durang (“Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All For You,” “Beyond Therapy,” “Miss Witherspoon” and “Why Torture Is Wrong and the People Who Love Them” among others), “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike,” running through July 28 at the Golden Theatre.

Durang has managed to strike a perfect balance of classic elements of theatre – from the Greeks to Chekov – with a very contemporary tone, full of irony and sardonic wit.  There’s a fair bit of silliness here, so if that throws you off (as I imagine it did the aforementioned loathers of this show), you might want to pass.  But if you can handle even a little absurdity, I think you’ll have a fantastic time.

The cast is nothing short of perfect.  Sigourney Weaver (among my all-time favorite actors) is one of the few women who could don a Snow White costume and turn that gentle princess into a perfect Evil Queen.  David Hyde Pierce and Kristine Nielsen are delightful as siblings living in the family home, which their sister (Sigourney’s character, Masha) has decided to sell, since her career as a Hollywood megastar has taken just the tiniest downward turn.

Despite this star power, the cast is incredibly well-balanced.  Billy Magnussen deserves his Tony nomination for his role as Spike, Masha’s much younger boyfriend.  He bounces across the stage with as much energy as a terrier.  (Perhaps Durang envisioned the character as a dog, given the canine nature of his name and his puppy-like persona.)  Shalita Grant is likewise nominated for a Tony, and she is hysterical as Cassandra, the part-time housekeeper.  Like her namesake, Cassandra can see the future, but no one believes her prophecies.

David Korin’s set is a perfect evocation of a well-worn but well-loved country home, and the action that takes place there zips along at a brisk comedic pace, thanks to director Nicholas Martin’s sure hand.

Too many hysterical moments to catalog, but I’ll mention three.  First, when David Hyde Pierce’s character is told someone “doesn’t believe in global warming” and replies, “Well, I hope he lives a long, long time – and suffers through it,” and his second-act rant, railing against the changes technologies such as Twitter and 500+ channel cable TV have wrought on the culture.  Finally, there is Kristine Nielsen’s impression of Maggie Smith, which alone is worth the price of admission. 

I could talk about the bigger themes here (loss of innocence, self-absorption), but I’m not sure that would persuade you to see the show.  And you should.

Next up, another star turn – “The Nance,” playing through August 11 at The Lyceum. 

Let me correct that – three­ star turns. 

The first is by Nathan Lane, who applies his considerable comedic (and dramatic) talents to the role of Chauncey Miles, a gay man employed in a burlesque theater as a “nance,” a stereotypically mincing gay character, played entirely for laughs.  This role was usually played by straight men, so Chauncey’s job, in his words, is akin to “a negro in black face.” 

Lane amazes.  His double takes, slow burns, and ability to reveal the wounded child behind his showman’s veneer of confidence bring Chauncey delightfully to life.  The charm and wit that often protected gay men of that era (New York in the 30s) are fully on display.

Those qualities were created by the owner of the second star turn, writer Douglas Carter Beane, whose script is a brilliant pastiche of dramatic elements and adorable (though quite bawdy) vaudeville skits featuring Chauncey in his onstage role.  Beane does a terrific job of balancing the two, and using the shows-within-the-show to help drive the broader story forward.

The third star turn belongs to set designer John Lee Beatty.  Every single environment – the automat where closeted men cruised, Chauncey’s apartment, the burlesque theater (especially its backstage) – are absolutely perfect.

This, however, is where the perfection ends.  Not in “The Nance,” but for the trip as a whole.  Apart from these two winners, nothing else rose to the level of “you have to go see this!”  There is no “Doubt,” no “The Book of Mormon,” no “I Am My Own Wife” or “Adding Machine” or “Venus in Fur” or “School for Lies” here. 

That’s not to say the rest of what I saw was bad, it’s just that none of it got my heart racing in the way every one of those shows I just named did.

“Here Lies Love” is the best of this second tier.  I’d wanted to see it from the moment I heard who the composers were: David Byrne and Fatboy Slim.  Not Rodgers and Hammerstein, by any means, but I thought the former Talking Heads frontman and one of the kings of dance/acid house would create a fascinating score – especially considering the show is staged (by Alex Timbers of Les Freres Corbusier, whose participation further motivated me to buy a ticket) in a nightclub setting at The Public Theater. 

The story is that of Imelda Marcos – from her childhood in Manila to her rise to power as the first lady of the Philippines to her ultimate exile.  Think of it as a disco “Evita.”  (The story, however, is not historically accurate.  Imelda is portrayed as a poor girl with no shoes, growing up in poverty in a jungle shack, when the truth is she was born in Manila to a prominent and wealthy family.)  While the music is much more traditional than I expected from this songwriting duo, what sets “Here Lies Love” apart from anything currently on the boards in New York is its staging.

Except for a couple of dozen seats in the gallery one floor above, the audience stands in the performance space, with a stage at each end, and raised platforms that move and transform throughout the course of the 90-minute performance.  (Ushers in pink jumpsuits make sure no one is injured by the rolling stages.)  Just when you think they’ve shown you all possible configurations, the finale comes rolling in and changes up everything one last time. 

Graphics and historical footage are projected throughout the space to help tell the story and provide additional context.  Actors playing TV reporters sometimes move among the crowd, using audience members as props, with video cameras capturing their images to be projected on the walls.  Unlike most shows that seek audience participation, this is the first I’ve ever seen where everyone danced and shouted the lines they were fed and generally got into the spirit of things.

Wear comfortable shoes, lose yourself to the nightclub atmosphere and enjoy this sad story with a happy ending.  Because – as one of the final songs says – “God draws straight - but with crooked lines.”  

Through July 28, though the run is mostly sold out.

If you’re looking for a big Broadway musical (and you’ve already seen “The Book of Mormon” and “Jersey Boys”), you could do a lot worse than the new production of “Pippin,” playing an open-ended run at The Music Box.

“Pippin” is the story of the son of Charlemagne, who is – as virtually all of us are –seeking meaning and a mission in life.  Helping him discover his purpose is a troupe of players, led by the Leading Player (the terrific Patina Miller). 

For this production, the troupe is a circus, and their performances are often acrobatic and aerial.  And thrilling.  Matthew James Thomas is perfect as the young prince.  Innocent, passionate, confused, committed – everything an adolescent seeking his life’s work ought to be.  The circus tent set by Scott Pask contains not just this performance, but the universe itself.  Andrea Martin brings a gentle, comedic touch to the proceedings – and doesn’t do a bad job on the trapeze, either.

“Kinky Boots” and “Matilda” are the top two contenders for Best Musical at this year’s Tony Awards.  (Tune in Sunday, June 7 on CBS.)  Though both have a lot going for them, neither is really worth any serious attention, because both fall prey to a trend that seems to be affecting more and more shows – a near-total lack of true heart.  In neither case is this the fault of the cast.  Both shows have a wealth of tremendous talent.  But both also feel manufactured.  Designed to appeal to a demographic – not an audience.

“Kinky Boots” was the better of the two.  If you remember the movie of the same name, you know the story: old-world English shoe manufacturer can’t compete against low-cost offshore competitors – until fate throws a drag queen into their path.  Miss Thing can’t find a thigh-high to support her weight, and suddenly the cobbler has found the niche market needed to save the company.

What follows is the usual fish out of water story – the employees are skeptical of the new plan, and especially skeptical of the flamboyant drag queen with the new corporate strategy.  But with time they realize a little change might do them good.

Billy Porter as Lola deserves the Tony he is likely to win on Sunday, but the nod for Best Musical will likely go to “Matilda,” because I think Broadway wants to reward the show with broader appeal.

Regardless, I wanted to like “Matilda” so much more than I ultimately did.  I adore Roald Dahl (especially the works he didn’t create for children – which some people might say is everything he wrote!), and have recently become a fan of Tim Minchin, the Australian comedy musician/comedian who wrote the score.

The staging is absolutely top-drawer, with brilliant sets, beautifully lit and imaginatively used.  The young performers are wonderful, especially Bailey Ryon, one of the four girls who plays Matilda.  She’s focused, with a voice that is strong yet still clearly a child’s.

The story – if you don’t know it from the book and subsequent movie – is that Matilda is the second child of Mr. and Mrs. Wormwood, who don’t merely ignore her – they verbally abuse her and undercut her worth in every way their tiny brains can imagine.  Mr. Wormwood is a vile, dishonest used car salesman and his wife is obsessed with beauty, of which she has none.  (Of either the inner or outer sort.) 

Matilda, however, is a five-year old genius who reads Dickens and Tolstoy and is looking forward to her first day of school.  Given the headmistress is universally-feared all-England hammer throw champion Miss Trunchbull, she shouldn’t be.

I will admit that I love the underlying theme of the show:  that some people are special.  And some people are shits.  That not everyone deserves a trophy.  And that genius – as we have seen throughout history – often goes unrecognized.

Fortunately in “Matilda,” genius finds a way to express itself and achieve its ends.  Genius also, however, shows its vulnerability, especially in a moment early in the show when Matilda hugs the only truly kind and gentle character, her teacher, Miss Honey.  In that single moment we see the eternal (yet often denied) yearning of the artist/genius: to be loved.

So why didn’t I love it as much as I’d hoped?  In addition to the lack of real heart mentioned previously, my guess is it’s partly high expectations (the show received mostly terrific reviews) and partly muddy sound in the theater that makes understanding some of the songs and dialogue rather challenging.  And despite many terrific moments – nine-year-olds pulling off perfect rock star moves, lots of inspired silliness – the whole thing lacks the elegance and bite of Dahl’s original work.  But the audience leapt to its feet at curtain, so I guess I’m in the minority on this. 

“Nikolai & the Others,” Richard Nelson’s new play, playing through June 16 at the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater at Lincoln Center, treads somewhat similar ground.  It asks, what is it about artists that makes them special?  Is it simply their ability to create beauty?  Or is it their knack for tapping into a yearning for the transcendent that exists deep within us all?  Almost every one of the 17 characters presented here is either an artist, is (or was) married to an artist, or wants to be an artist.  

The titular Nikolai is Nikolai Nabokov, a Russian émigré composer who has invited a group of friends – including choreographer George Balanchine and composer Igor Stravinksy – for a weekend in Connecticut to celebrate the name day of set designer Sergey Sudeikin.  While there, Stravinsky and Balanchine will work on and preview their new production of “Orpheus and Eurydice,” which will become the first-ever performance for the New York City Ballet, which Balanchine co-founded.  

The weekend (which never actually happened, though the characters are all based on real people) serves as a fulcrum upon which lives in transition are balanced – some will continue to rise into fame and glory or power, while others will discover that this shabby country house is where there dreams end.  The “true” artists – primarily Stravinsky and Balanchine – demonstrate their creative powers, essentially establishing a class structure within the group: those who can create beauty, those who could once and can no longer, and those who never could and never will.  And because, as one character says “The only thing any of us ever want is to see beauty,” all end up in thrall to the artistic titans, giving them a power they are more than willing to use to achieve their ends. 

Because if the artist can show us the transcendent, we will, it seems, do or pay almost anything for the privilege of that view.

The main thing that came to my mind when watching “Reasons To Be Happy,” Neil LaBute’s follow-up to his Tony-nominated “Reasons To Be Pretty,” was that the four characters needed a long sit-down with sex/relationship columnist Dan Savage.  Because none of them has any idea of how to behave in a partnership.

Steph and Greg broke up.  But that was three years ago.  And even though Steph is now married to someone else, and Greg has started a new relationship with Carly, Steph’s best friend – both seem open to this new possibility, despite the fact that Carly has a very jealous ex-husband. 

The action takes place mostly in the break room of some undefined industrial enterprise, and from time to time, a klaxon (presumably from the factory floor) sounds, and it’s hard not to interpret it as a metaphor, a symbolic warning bell, cautioning these young, stupid lovers to take note of the dangers they all face.  Do they listen? 

It’s a Neil LaBute play – what do you think?

“Reasons To Be Happy” is playing through June 23 at the Lucille Lortel.

Richard Greenberg’s latest, “The Assembled Parties,” at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre through July 7, is probably the most conventional of the shows I saw on this trip – despite the fact that it takes place during two different parties, 20 years apart, with a family of Upper West Side Jews celebrating Christmas.

It’s interesting enough, pleasant enough, and the story kept me engaged throughout, but as a work of art it felt somewhat incomplete and flat.

I was more excited about “Far From Heaven,” a new musical playing off-Broadway at Playwrights Horizons through July 7, from the composer and lyricist who created “Grey Gardens.”  I loved Kelli O’Hara in “South Pacific” and “Nice Work If You Can Get It,” and she’s terrific here, as well.

The show is based on the movie of the same name, written and directed by Todd Haynes and adapted by Richard Greenberg.  Haynes himself was paying homage to the melodramas of Douglas Sirk, which dealt with the sort of social issues Hollywood generally avoided.

O’Hara does her usual good work, and with some changes, I think the show could transfer.  In fact, I think it might even do better in a larger theater, as the themes of isolation, of living inside a bubble of social norms could be heightened in a more expansive space.

If you’re a big fan of former Texas Governor Ann Richards, you might enjoy Holland Taylor’s solo take on the democratic firebrand, “Ann,” at the Vivian Beaumont Theater at Lincoln Center, closing September 1.  It’s a bit like a one-person “West Wing,” though the script (penned by Taylor herself) could use a bit of Aaron Sorkin’s sharp wit and storytelling prowess.

Two final notes.  First, if you have the chance to see the annual “Broadway Beauty Pageant,” go.  It’s both a hoot and benefits a good cause.  Second, the remodel of the Public Theater has made Joe’s Pub an even better venue in which to see a variety of up-and-coming (and a few more established) performers.

That’s all for this year.  Tune in next spring for the 2014 edition!

*For example:  why is the dollar sign the shifted character above the numeral four on a keyboard, and the pound sign the character above the three?  The exclamation point is above the numeral one, creating a lean, tall alignment.  There’s a balance there.  Likewise, the @ sign echoes the round shape of the numeral two, which it sits above.  Again, balance. 

But the pound sign is composed of four lines, while the dollar sign is two curves plus one straight line.  Clearly, they need to be switched. 

While we’re at it, let’s put the ampersand with the eight (one circle on top of another? - duh), and the asterisk with the six, since the asterisk has six points.  The carat moves to the seven, which is much more logical, as it can easily be read as a seven if you tilt it a bit to the right.  The percent sign works above the five, as both have a similar balance of heft between their upper and lower halves.  The parentheses can stay where they are. 

I don’t know why they don’t talk to me about these things.

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