Thursday, December 18, 2014

Top 10 Theatrical Events of 2014

Lists such as these are as much a holiday staple as gingerbread, mistletoe and cable marathons of "It's a Wonderful Life."

The problem with them is that it's virtually impossible to see (or listen) to everything.  Even full-time critics don't see every play produced, every movie made or (especially) every album released.  So even though I see anywhere from 40-50 plays and musicals and cabaret shows every year, this is bound to be as incomplete as any other list out there.  But it is fun to go back through my calendar and relive the highlights of the past 12 months.

One caveat:  this list includes productions both in the Bay Area and New York.  Arguably, some of what I saw in New York that is not on this list might be "better" than some of the Bay Area shows that are on the list, in part because of the budgets and talent available to Manhattan producers.  But I firmly believe that when a company does something terrific despite the limitations they face, those barriers deserve to be taken into account.

Following then, in roughly ascending order, are the ten best things I saw on stage in 2014.   (Grey text indicates a link to my full review.)

"Hedwig & the Angry Inch"
One could argue that a big Broadway venue like the Belasco is a poor fit with the living-out-of-a-van milieu in which Hedwig and her band find themselves in this Tony Award winner, but the explanation (that "Hurt Locker: The Musical" had closed after only one night, leaving the theater and its apocalyptic set available for rent at a deep discount) is hysterical, and Neil Patrick Harris had a ball with the role.  The atmosphere in the theater was truly electric.

"Cat on a Hot Tin Roof"
Mostly because of a tour-de-force performance by Christian Phillips as Big Daddy.  Best acting I've seen on a Bay Area stage in years, maybe ever.

"Of Mice&Men"
Beautifully-staged by the North Bay's best theater company, Cinnabar Arts, with a wonderfully rustic and ramshackle set, and terrific performances by Samson Hood and Keith Baker.

"A Gentlemen's Guide to Love and Murder"
A musical farce in the style of an Edwardian music hall that was an absolute romp, made oh-so-pleasurable by stars Jefferson Mays and Bryce Pinkham.

Berkeley Rep did a brilliant job with this play about belonging and otherness - if someone brings you in to their circle, are you still an outsider?  Can we choose our tribes, or are they determined by forces larger than ourselves?

One of my favorite shows, brilliantly-staged at Studio 54.  Alan Cumming goes at the role of the Emcee like a cat to a saucer of cream.

"The Few"
 No matter how surrounded we are by our fellow travelers, no one else ever drives the exact same road.  No one else can ever know - completely - what anyone else's journey is like, as this three-hander about the travails of long-haul truckers lays so powerfully bare.

"Fiddler on the Roof"
Another winner from Cinnabar Arts.  Incredibly well-directed, and found its way right to the heart of this lovely story of longing and accepting.

"The Realistic Joneses"
Playwright Will Eno's Broadway debut was both brilliantly absurdist and strictly common-sensical.  Completely original and totally compelling.

"Red-Eye to Havre de Grace"
A tale of Edgar Allen Poe's last days on Earth that is thrilling and imaginative and heart-breaking and funny.  Not to mention honest and beautiful and strange.  It was an experience that happened on so many different levels – emotional, intellectual, artistic, conceptual – that it’s one of the rare shows I’d see again immediately

Monday, May 26, 2014

New York, Day 11 - "Too Much Sun," "The Realistic Joneses" and "Hedwig and the Angry Inch"

"Too Much Sun"

Too much whining.

"The Realistic Joneses"

There’s a point in this 90-minute, no intermission funfest by Will Eno where one of the characters says to another, “That’s a lot to respond to.”  Which is almost exactly the way I feel about this play.  There is so much going on here, it’s going so many stylistic directions, and there so much action within inaction and logic within chaos that it’s hard to explain why I liked it so much.

I suppose the best reason is because I was laughing almost the entire time.  The cast is absolutely top-drawer (Toni Collette, Marisa Tomei, Michael C. Hall and Tracy Letts), and Eno’s text is both brilliantly absurdist and strictly common-sensical.  Everyone pretty much says what’s on their minds, no one assumes that anyone else will understand what they're saying, even when it’s the most obvious thing in the world.  Questions are answered in ridiculous – but perfectly logical – ways, and the characters are all powered by genuine human emotions: love, lust, caring, affection, suspicion, envy, empathy.

Much of the dialogue is oddly off-kilter, yet somehow in perfect balance. 

“Moving is a pain.  Though staying still is no picnic, either.” 
“I saw you crying and eating a Powerbar and I thought, ‘wow-what a sad, busy person.’”
“What are the chances?  One in…something.  Which I guess is all you need.”

Briefly, the story concerns two couples, both named Jones.  Jennifer and Bob (Collette and Letts) live quietly in the country – until Pony and John (Tomei and Hall) rent the house just down the road and insert themselves into Jennifer and Bob’s lives.  Bob has a rare disease that explains some of his odd behavior.  (Though this raises other questions, such as “what explains everyone else’s odd behavior?” and “how come Bob is the least odd of the four?”)

There’s a very Albee-esqe feeling to this – two odd and intense married couples thrown together under great tension – but it’s still completely original.  And totally compelling.

"Hedwig and the Angry Inch"

There are a few tickets left in Neil Patrick Harris’ run as the titular “internationally ignored song stylist” Hedwig Robinson.  But very few.  And not very good ones.  I suppose it’s possible NPH may extend his time in the show (tickets are on sale until August 17).  Or that someone of similar talent (if such a creature exists) may come in and take up the mantle (wig, actually) of Hedwig and keep the show running for some months to come.  But my guess is if you want to see what is clearly the hottest show on Broadway, you’re going to have to make a significant spend.  And soon.

“Hedwig and the Angry Inch” got its start way off-Broadway, in 1998, at the Jane Street Theater in a sketchy block of the meatpacking district – which is where I first saw the show, which chronicles the life of an East German boy, Hansel, who is seen sunbathing near the Berlin Wall by an American soldier, who wants to marry him.  Of course, that can only happen if Hansel goes under the knife and becomes a girl - Hedwig.  The surgery doesn’t work out, neither does the marriage, and Hedwig ends up alone in a trailer park in Kansas, where she meets a general’s son and teaches him how to be a rock star.

Though Hedwig wrote the songs, it was her Kansas protégé, Tommy Speck the general’s son who became the star performing them – with the new name Hedwig gave him: Tommy Gnosis.  Hedwig, understandably, is a little miffed at her talent going unrecognized, while Tommy plays stadia around the world.

But that doesn’t stop her from giving her audience (those of us in the Belasco, which she claims she has rented for the night from the producers of a show - “Hurt Locker: The Musical - that closed not just after the first night, but after intermission) every bit of truth and anger and pain and envy and rage she can muster.  Which, as you can imagine given her story, is formidable.

14 years later, the show is still a bit outré.  And even though it’s playing in Broadway’s most beautiful venue, the Belasco, the grime of the Jane Street still peeks through.  Despite the big lights and huge stagecraft elements a Broadway production can offer, “Hedwig” hasn’t lost its punk aesthetic.  This is not the Broadway of “After Midnight” or “Bullets Over Broadway” with tapping chorines and coordinated costumes and dazzling backdrops.  It’s a full-on rock and roll show that tells its story through 11 songs, linked by Hedwig’s reminiscences of “this business we call ‘show.’” (Which she survived by doing “the jobs we call ‘blow.’”)

Neil Patrick Harris is amazing in this role.  His voice, comic timing and – above all – the incredible energy he displays are thrilling.  He is onstage for virtually every second of the show, and rarely stops moving.  If there’s a harder-working man (or woman) currently on Broadway, I can’t bring him/her to mind.  He’s a lock for the Tony.

“Hedwig and the Angry Inch” is a celebration of survival, love and art – and 100 of the most entertaining minutes on Broadway.

New York, Day Ten - "Mothers and Sons"

"Mothers and Sons"

If you want to see “Mothers & Sons,” Terrence McNally’s newest play, currently playing at the Golden Theatre, you’ll have no trouble finding tickets.  At discount even.  There are two reasons for this.

First, though it’s by no means an awful play (it’s not even a bad one), it’s not great, either.  The performances are quite good (star Tyne Daly is nominated for a Tony, as is the play), and director Sheryl Kaller mostly keeps the throttle open, but the story seems to start for no good reason and never gives us a plausible justification why these characters would choose to stay in the same room with each other for five minutes, let alone a hundred and five.

The story begins when Katherine Gerard (Daly) shows up unannounced on the doorstep of Cal Porter, her son’s former boyfriend/lover/partner.  Katherine’s son had died of AIDS two decades earlier, and now Katherine has decided that on this trip to New York from her home in Dallas (where, apparently, she learned how to be an ignorant bigot – or perhaps it was just her inborn bigotry coming into flower in a field especially well-suited to that particular crop) to return her son’s diary, which Cal had sent to her a few years previous.  Neither of them apparently has – or wants to – read it.

Soon, Cal’s husband Will and their son-through-surrogacy, Bud, show up.  Old wounds are scratched open, clichés dispensed, ignorance exposed (“Everything I say is inappropriate,” according to Katherine) and yet, somehow, in the play's final line we are expected to believe there is a shot at redemption?

On the bright side, there is a brief, funny – and true – rant on how the availability of the word “husband” has changed the way gay couples can talk about their relationships, and you get to spend a couple of hours looking at another of John Lee Beatty’s gorgeous sets.  (You could smell the envy in the audience as Cal stood in his spacious living room, describing his view from Central Park West over the park to Fifth Avenue and the building where Jackie O used to live.)

Here’s the second reason why seats are available, at discount, for a show by a well-known, well-loved playwright starring one of Broadway’s best:  the timing’s all wrong.  We’re in a post-gay world.  Over at the Belasco, Neil Patrick Harris wears golden high heel boots, denim daisy dukes and a variety of wigs (all blond) as a character whose “sex change operation got botched” leaving him with “an angry inch” – and you can’t get near the place.  My guess is audiences aren’t as interested in the travails of gay men and the tragedy of AIDS as they are in a really great story – or a really good time. 

I wish “Mothers & Sons” provided at least one of those.

New York, Day Nine - "Red-Eye to Havre de Grace"

"Red-Eye to Havre de Grace"

Quick - Edgar Allen Poe.  What comes to mind?  “The Raven.”  Obviously.  It’s far and away the most famous of Poe’s works.  This was true even in Poe’s time, a fact expressed with compelling hilarity – and on several occasions – during “Red-Eye to Havre de Grace,” currently stunning East Village audiences at the New York Theater Workshop. 

Poe wrote his most popular poem in 1846 and died just three years later – broke and broken.  During his last 1000 or so days, he was asked to “do ‘nevermore’!” with significantly more frequency than we are led to believe interested him.  Though he had written many other well-received works, once “The Raven” came along, everything else dropped to a distant second. 

By the time frame of this play – the last few days of his life – Poe had moved on, flinging himself into a metaphysical treatise in the form of a 150-page prose poem called “Eureka.”  When most physicists of the day described a steady-state theory of the universe (that it always was and always will be just how it is), “Eureka: A Prose Poem” proffered a vision that incorporates what we now refer to as the Big Bang, the Singularity and the Higgs boson.

The piece (I won’t call it a play, because it’s much more than that) follows Poe on a journey to present this vision to the Philadelphia Literary Society, and then immediately return to New York to reunite with the woman he called “Muddy” – the mother of Poe’s now long-dead wife (and cousin), Virginia.  

Penniless and ill, Poe (a marvelously sunken-eyed Ean Sheehy) shambles between train cars and boarding houses, offering writing services (a poem, or recitation, even brochure copy) as payment in lieu of cash. 

The journey takes the form of music (by the Wilhelm brothers, David and Jeremy), movement, recitations and dialogues – amid a collection of simple set pieces (a couple of doors that also serve as tables, walls, etc., and a bed frame) and a handful of props.

While David Wilhelm mainly sits upstage right, playing the piano, brother Jeremy takes a more active role.  Several roles, actually.  Train conductors, boarding house proprietors, doctors…  But his primary role is that of a very sincere National Park Ranger assigned to the Poe House in Phildelphia, who introduces the play, guides us through the action and provides background and context.  From time to time he also sings (a very passable baritone) and plays a sweet and mournful clarinet.

This show is not for everyone.  None of my three companions liked it much.  I, however, found it thrilling and imaginative and heart-breaking and funny and true and beautiful and strange.  It was an experience that happened on so many different levels – emotional, intellectual, artistic, conceptual – that it’s one of those rare shows I’d see again immediately, because there was so much going on that I’m certain I missed vast swaths of meaning. 

In some ways, it reminds me of a Cirque du Soleil show, in that there is almost always music playing and almost always something surprising or amazing going on in terms of staging or physical performance.  Early on there is a delightful scene in which Poe is being led to his room in a boarding house.  By moving and turning and rearranging a pair of doors/tables, a chair and Poe’s suitcase, we get the sense of the two men climbing stairs and walking along hallways to finally arrive in an attic crawl space. 

But there are delightful surprises throughout “Red-Eye to Havre de Grace,” and I don’t want to spoil them all for you.  What I do want to do is convince you to go see it.  Immediately.  Tonight if you can.  After all, it closes June 1.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

New York, Day Eight - "Act One" and "Bullets Over Broadway"

Though unintended, an accident of scheduling conspired to have today's two shows be the most closely-related of any I've seen this trip.  Both "Act One" and "Bullets Over Broadway" have as their main story line the bringing of a new play to Broadway, focusing primarily on the writing (and rewriting) process.  Perfect subject matter for me.  Unfortunately, I had serious problems with them both.

"Act One"

The first thing that might cross your mind as you enter the Vivian Beaumont Theater at Lincoln Center is "my god - what can't they do in here?"  For your initial vision will be the massive (yet airy) set design by Beowulf Boritt.  And you'll likely think that more than once, as the structure turns and transforms over and over - from a modest Brooklyn house to a series of theaters to a posh Manhattan apartment.  It's staggering in its scale and complexity.

Unfortunately, the action - especially in the first act - moves about as slowly as the giant turntable upon which the set rotates.  For the first hour, very little happens as we are introduced to the young Moss Hart, a Brooklyn boy with a gift for storytelling.  (Ironic that the story of a storyteller should be told so clumsily.)  Hart falls into a job as an office boy for a theatrical producer, Augustus Pitou.  He writes a play under a pseudonym that Pitou likes and produces, but which fails.  

But once Hart meets - and begins to collaborate with - famed writer George S. Kaufman, and to be drawn into his world, the pace picks up and the story suddenly becomes much more compelling.  Tony Shaloub is terrific as Kaufman (and several other roles), exercising the OCD/germphobic persona he perfected on "Monk."

Through many rewrites, Hart's and Kaufman's initial collaboration (the play "Once in a Lifetime") finally works through all its problems and a hit is born - not to mention a highly-successful partnership.  But it's too bad the story of the storytellers couldn't find any real drama.  The scenes of family strife lack the bite that's needed to present them honestly.

The play is based on reality, but it never really feels true.  

"Bullets Over Broadway"

Here's what's good about this new musical, currently playing at the St. James Theater:

- The integration of songs from the 20s and 30s, making it a jukebox musical from a time close to the birth of jukeboxes.
- The tap dance in "T'ain't Nobody's Business If I Do" at the end of the first act.  Nine guys in pinstripes and fedoras (not all of them slender dancers) stomp out a rhythm that stopped the show and very nearly got a standing ovation.
- The story.  It's still a great setup for a comedy - a writer with artistic pretensions will finally get his play produced, but only if he compromises his standards by casting a ditzy, talent-free gangster's moll in a key role.
- The sets by Santo Loquasto.
- The costumes by William Ivey Long, especially the silver and black number worn by Marin Mazzie as Helen Sinclair to the first day of rehearsals of the play within the play.
- The line, "Marriage is a very serious decision.  Like suicide."

Here's what's not good:

- Vincent Pastore's (Big Pussy from "The Sopranos") singing.  Well, talking in tune.  Fortunately, Pastore brings a more authentic comic touch to his role than...
- ...Zach Braff brings to his.  Braff is a better singer than Pastore, but not by much.  His comic skills just don't compensate for his relatively weak tenor.  I'd have loved to see someone like Bryce Pinkham in this role - someone with a real Broadway voice and comic chops.
- Woody Allen's rewrite of his original film script.  The movie ends on a touching, genuine, humble note.  Here Allen decided to leave us with a lead character who realizes he's mediocre - but doesn't have enough ethical spine to realize he shouldn't ride on someone else's coattails.
- The comic timing.  It's just wrong.  Maybe without a film editor to keep an eye on pace and point of view, Woody's best lines don't hit with the impact they ought to have.

The rest of it?  Professional, workmanlike, unfulfilling.