Thursday, October 08, 2015

New York, Day Ten:  "Something Rotten" and "The Legend of Georgia McBride"

There are musicals designed to be nothing more than entertaining.  A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder, Spamalot, Xanadu, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels…no big underlying messages or themes, just a lot of silly (and often clever) fun with the sole aim of making you laugh and taking your mind off your troubles for a couple of hours.  Then there are shows like Legally Blonde, Kinky Boots, Hairspray, The Music Man, Fiddler on the Roof which, while still highly entertaining, have a point to make – about feminism, racism, homophobia, anti-semitism…

Something Rotten, currently playing at the St. James Theatre, lies somewhere in between.  The silliness here is rampant.  Unlike most purely entertaining shows, to get all the jokes here, one must pay close attention, as they come at you like pies in a Mack Sennett movie: fast and from every direction.  But the writers here (book by Karey Kirkpatrick & John O’Farrell, music and lyrics by Wayne Kirkpatrick and Karey Kirkpatrick) also have a deeper message to deliver, satirizing our celebrity culture by depicting William Shakespeare as a demanding, egotistical, conceited superstar, feeding off the attention of his fans and the media.

The setup is simple: Nick Bottom (Brian D’Arcy James) and his brother Nigel (John Cariani) are Elizabethan era theatrical producers/writers, hungry for a hit. Especially since their former acting companion, Shakespeare (the brilliant Christian Borle) is the toast of London, grabbing all the attention and much of the money.  But when the investor in their new play about Richard II pulls out because he’s heard Shakespeare is writing his own Richard II play, the Bottom brothers need to find inspiration.
Nick turns to – who else? – Nostradamus, who peers into the future and tells Nick the Bard’s biggest hit will be called “Omelette,” and that in the future, the biggest thing in theatre will be something called “musicals.”

From there, the silliness shifts into overdrive.  If you try to keep track of all the musical and Shakespearean references, you’ll have your hands full, because there must be at least 50 of each – in songs, in dialogue, in physical business.  The Bottom brothers strive to get their new musical onto a stage, while Shakespeare lurks around every corner, looking to steal ideas and lines from Nigel Bottom, who is the writer of the pair.

There are a couple of terrifically fun songs (especially “A Musical” and “Right Hand Man”), a beautifully-detailed (and highly-flexible) set from scenic designer Scott Pask, and a talented and energetic cast.  
Something Rotten is something silly, but also something a little bit wonderful.

Like so many powerful things, the male ego can have both a dark and light side.  Casey (Dave Thomas Brown) is a perfect illustration of this. As an Elvis impersonator, he always feels on the edge of stardom.  That the next performance will be the one that propels him to bigger stages with larger audiences and brighter lights.  For now, however, Casey is stuck in a Florida panhandle dive bar, lip-synching Elvis tunes to crowds you could count with the fingers of one hand.  When his girlfriend Jo (a charming Afton Williamson) reveals she is pregnant, Casey is elated, and stands ready to do his fatherly duty.  Unfortunately, he doesn’t have much of a plan beyond getting a new sequined jumpsuit to brighten up his act.

But when the joint he’s working decides to dump his Elvis act for a drag show, Casey stays on as a bartender, even though his ego prevents him from telling Jo about the demotion.  And that male ego really prevents him from letting her in on the news when one night he is pressed (and dressed) into service on stage in the drag extravaganza, becoming the titular Georgia McBride. Turns out Casey is a far better performer when he’s being a queen instead of The King.

Playwright Matthew Lopez is best-known for his quite excellent drama The Whipping Man (which I enjoyed immensely in its run at Marin Theater Company), so the comic bitchiness on display here might seem a little surprising.  But the shade being thrown here (mostly from Matt McGrath as the alpha queen, Tracy Mills) is often in the service of larger themes of self-acceptance and holding true to ideals.  Especially, for Casey, the ideal of being a man who can support his family.  But since he’s supporting that family primarily on tips tucked into his bra, Casey’s ego (and the secrecy it induces) will get him into some serious trouble before the curtain falls.

This is a delightful, if somewhat lightweight, production, staged with just the right amount of dumpy splendor at the Lucille Lortel Theatre in Greenwich Village.
New York, Day Nine:  "Perfect Arrangement" 

Nostalgia is rampant in America, especially on Fox News, which seems regularly to bemoan the loss of innocence and the primacy of traditional roles that ruled this country in the 1950s.  If you were – like the leadership of Fox News – white, male, and at least middle class, things were indeed pretty darn awesome. 
Unless, of course, you were gay.  In which case (and if you were found out) you dropped suddenly from top of the food chain to an existence as prey.  Like reef fish darting in and out of coral to avoid hungry predators, gay men and women – at least until Stonewall – either kept a very low profile, hid themselves away, or disguised themselves in order to pass in straight society.

Millie and Bob Martindale and Jim and Norma Baxter seem to have perfected the art of camouflage. They live a stereotypical 50s American post-war dream, complete with houses in the suburbs, cocktail parties with friends, poofy skirts and narrow ties.  But for the Martindales and the Baxters, this is all veneer, covering up their real lives: Norma and Millie are lesbians, Jim and Bob are gay men.  Their houses adjoin (accessed, fittingly, through the closet) and they present to the world as two ordinary couples, while behind closed doors they live seemingly happy lives, comfortable knowing their cover protects them.

Bob, however, works for a government agency investigating the presence of communists, and has been informed that the department will now be expanding its search to include homosexuals and adulterers.  
It’s a fascinating setup, but unfortunately the play itself is clumsy and clich├ęd, playing for humor for the first two-thirds, then descending into tragedy.  It’s anything but perfect.

New York, Day Eight:  "Clever Little Lies" 

The common wisdom on extramarital affairs (at least in popular culture, if not in actuality) is to deny, deny, deny. No matter how damning the evidence, always claim innocence. In this clever, if insubstantial, new play, currently in production at the Westside Theatre, we get to see both sides of the infidelity equation.  In the very first scene, Billy (George Merrick) confesses to his father (Greg Mullavey) that – despite having a lovely, attractive wife and new baby at home – he has fallen in love with his much younger personal trainer.  Bill swears his father to secrecy – though dad has a confession of his own: his wife Alice (the delightful Marlo Thomas) has a way of prying secrets out of him.  Sure enough, in scene two, Bill Sr. can’t utter a single sentence without Alice sensing something being hidden, and before long she has put in place a plan to uncover all.

Joe DiPietro’s script is tight, workmanlike and engaging, if ultimately lightweight.  It’s the perfect sort of thing for a matinee, when one is seeking a few laughs (and there were some very big ones in here) and a couple of hours spent with someone else’s problems.
New York, Day Seven: "The Christians" and "Hand to God"

This is one of those occasions when I wish I wasn’t seeing 15 shows in 10 days, and writing reviews of each for you.  For The Christians, Lucas Hnath’s new play that just opened at Playwrights Horizons, is so thought-provoking and so interesting on so many levels, that I’d prefer to have a few days to think it over, and a nice, long, uninterrupted day of writing in which to share those thoughts with you.
But, I don’t have that time. There is work to do, another review to write, and another show to see and review this evening.  (And another tomorrow and two more on Wednesday…)  So let’s get right to it. The Christians is the most interesting and compelling new play I’ve seen in a long time.  Perhaps not since John Patrick Shanley’s Doubt: A Parable, which staggered me with its brilliance when I saw it during previews in its first off-Broadway run.  

The play takes place in a megachurch of the sort run by Victoria and Joel Osteen or Rick Warren. What started as a tiny storefront organization with a handful of congregants has bloomed into a giant facility with arena seating for thousands, classrooms, a clutch of associate pastors and a board of directors watching over the business aspects of the operation. This growth is due in large part to the charisma of Pastor Paul (Andrew Garman – sounding amazingly like William H. Macy), beloved by his flock.
When audiences walk into the theater at Playwrights Horizons, they could be forgiven for thinking they are actually in church, as the set mirrors the sort of designs one could find in any megachurch: bland, massive, inoffensive in its attempt to be inspirational.  And what is a church but another sort of theater?  Especially when there is a 22-member robed choir (assembled from a rotating group of 150 singers) upstage, opening the service/show with a couple of gospel numbers, followed by the entrance of Pastor Paul, his wife, an assistant pastor and one of the church’s board members, all of whom take seats on the stage in front of the choir.

At this service, Pastor Paul begins the proceedings with the proud announcement that the church has finally – after years of paying for the construction of the giant facility in which he preaches – become debt-free.  (An especially daunting challenge when one has built a church with a “baptismal as big as a swimming pool.”)  He then immediately follows this announcement with a sermon in which he lays out a revolutionary new theology for the church: hell doesn’t exist, and you don’t have to even believe in God for him to save you.

As you might imagine, this causes some discord among the members and leadership, who have had decades of faith rocked by this pronouncement – especially Associate Pastor Joshua, whom Pastor Paul converted as a troubled young man and mentored into his current role.  Joshua simply isn’t ready to give up what he believes as God’s unchanging word.

The Christians isn’t experimental, it doesn’t mess with timelines or points of view, but Hnath and director Les Waters have embraced one fascinating approach to the delivery of dialogue by having virtually every line spoken into a handheld microphone.  This begins naturally enough when Pastor Paul takes the lectern at the top of the show/service to begin his sermon – but it never lets up.  Every character has his/her own microphone, and even when it becomes clear that we are no longer in the service that began the show, everyone still speaks into a microphone.  Which makes intimate conversations ostensibly conducted in offices and while lying in bed both off-putting and strangely compelling.  

The Christians would make a perfect matinee/evening double header with The Book of Mormon, as they raise similar issues about the nature of faith – albeit in wildly different ways.

But whatever you do, make sure if you have the chance that you get yourself tickets to this mesmerizing work of playwright Lucas Hnath.

This self-described “new American play,” should – based on its subject matter – have been a contender as a companion piece to The Christians or The Book of Mormon, half of a double bill focused on the issues of faith and its limitations.  Unfortunately, despite plenty of sometimes biting (but almost always profane) humor, Hand to God fizzles when it should sizzle like the flames of hell.

The set-up is interesting: Jason (Steven Boyer) is a young man trapped (not literally) in a church basement, where his mother Margery (Geneva Carr) leads a class in Christian puppetry.  But the puppet Jason creates (which he calls Tyrone) is anything but loving, kind, or filled with charity.  Tyrone, in fact, may be the devil.  More accurately, he may be the devil inside Jason, for it is Jason who makes Tyrone move and gives him voice.  All those awful, hateful (but often sarcastic and clever) things one wishes they could say? Tyrone says them.  He’s Triumph, the Insult Comic Dog – with even less of a filter.  

Though there are plenty of laughs here (the puppet sex is amazing, making Avenue Q’s trysting look positively soft-core), Hand to God ultimately ignores the larger issues it could raise and satisfies itself with being little more than a very long sketch, with no real dramatic (or comedic) arc.  It’s perfect as an off-Broadway show (which is where it began), but doesn’t have what Broadway audiences are looking for – which is probably why it’s playing to less than half-full houses.
New York, Day Six: "Love & Money" and "The King & I"

What a curse wealth is. Though vast numbers across the globe would welcome the chance to see what it’s like to be thus cursed, Cornelia Cunningham, the dowager WASP at the heart of A.R. Gurney’s new Love & Money is decidedly of the opinion that too much of the latter prevents one from having enough of the former.  Which is why, when lights go up in Signature Theatre Company’s Griffin Theater, Cornelia is writing large checks to a variety of charities.  She is interrupted in this by the arrival of a young estates and trusts lawyer who has come to inform her that the extremely philanthropic nature of her will leaves it open to challenge.

Cornelia is having none of this. Her grandchildren will get enough that they never have to worry about having a roof over their heads, but not so much that they will be tempted to buy Ferraris and private islands.  She’s also giving away pretty much everything in her large New York apartment, including a leather-bound edition of the complete works of Dickens and a player piano that has been modified to play the full Cole Porter songbook.

As Cornelia and her lawyer argue, they are interrupted/joined by other characters: Agnes, Cornelia’s maid/cook/major domo/best friend; Jessica, a Julliard student who has come to claim the donation of the player piano, and Walker “Scott” Williams, a young man of African-American descent who claims to be the son of Cornelia’s long-deceased daughter.  

This all probably sounds more complex than it is, for Love & Money is actually quite a frothy, light entertainment, perfect for a Sunday matinee with the ladies.  There’s nothing to offend here, but nothing to inspire, either.  The actor’s performances are all well-crafted (with the exception of Gabriel Brown as the young claimant to the estate, who unfortunately overdoes his impersonation of Will Smith in Six Degrees of Separation), and the script bounces along over the course of 90 minutes, but there’s nothing here to really bite into.  Like a palate-cleansing sorbet, it melts away in moments.

Lincoln Center is, to my mind, the closest thing we have to a national theater in the US.  It is not directly supported by the government (at least not to the extent that other national theaters are), nor does it boast any official imprimatur.  But given the scale of theatrical production they are capable of, especially in the Vivian Beaumont, and the fact that they operate as a non-profit, I can think of no better organization to bear the standard of a “national” theater.  Because of this, I come to the Lincoln Center Theater with certain expectations.  Generally, that their productions will be either classics (South Pacific, Macbeth, Anything Goes) or important contemporary works (Stoppard’s The Coast of Utopia, War Horse, Six Degrees of Separation), which will be produced with excellence and presented on a grand scale.
The new production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s The King and I lives up to these high standards, yet it still somehow disappointing.

But let’s begin with the positives.  First and foremost, Kelli O’Hara.  From the second she appears on stage – arriving in Bangkok on a giant steamship that sails on stage in a magnificent curtain up moment – she feels like she belongs. Only a few stars have the presence and the power to blend so seamlessly in the enormous, expansive environment that is the Vivian Beaumont, and O’Hara is one of them.  She could make this stage her home for the next 20 years and it wouldn’t disappoint me in the slightest.

Once she begins to sing, she cements her position as a star of the first order even more completely. Her voice is lovely, delicate but powerful, hitting all the high notes – but with a round, full tone that keeps them from becoming the high-pitched shriek that bedevils so many sopranos. The Tony she won for this role (her first) is well-deserved.  She sings and acts the role of Anna Leonowens with near perfection.
It’s also impossible to fault the design team for The King and I.  The environment they have created is nothing short of magnificent.  From the steamer that delivers Anna to Siam to the opulent and impressive throne room to the garden scenes with dripping vines, all is massive, impressive and gorgeous to behold.  The costumes (for a cast of about 50) are also arresting and elegant.

The blame can’t be placed on any of the actors, either.  Jose Llana is forceful and imperious, commanding the stage as a king should. Even though he fails to successfully land some of his funnier lines (“Is a puzzlement!” never seems to deliver the impact it should), he’s still terrific.  Ruthie Ann Miles, as Lady Thiang, first wife to the king, proves why Tony voters tapped her this year.

The orchestra, likewise, is magnificent, and the ballet of “The Small House of Uncle Thomas” is brilliantly choreographed and staged by choreographer Christopher Gattelli and director Bartlett Sher.
So what happened?  Why didn’t this production woo me in the same way Lincoln Center’s 2008 production of South Pacificdid?  First, I suppose I set an incredibly high bar, as that South Pacific was one of the finest things I’ve ever seen on stage anywhere, and I’m of belief that its book and score combine to make it the greatest of all American musicals.  The King and I, despite featuring some of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s most memorable songs (“Getting to Know You,” “Whistle a Happy Tune” and “Shall We Dance”), there’s a certain Disney-esque quality to them that feels slightly forced, especially in the context of the show. The darker elements of this The King and I, while certainly not ignored, failed to stand out against all the gorgeousness and light of the rest of the production.  

Despite this disappointment, I still highly recommend this production.  Because Kelli O’Hara.  Also, when Lincoln Center puts its not-inconsiderable weight behind a show of this scale, it’s almost impossible not to be transported and impressed.  They simply accomplish things no other theater organization can.
New York, Day Five: "The Flick"

This winner of the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Drama is serious theatre.  Not because it addresses serious subject matter, concerning itself with the lives of three minimum wage workers at a dying single-screen movie theater in Massachusetts.  Sure, they have their issues (when you’re 35, working for $8.35/hour and living in your parents’ attic, you’re bound to have some regrets), but the failed dreams of 20- and 30-somethings generally lacks a certain gravitas.  No, The Flick must be serious drama because it clocks in at a hefty three-hour+ running time, putting in more in line with The Iceman Cometh and Death of a Salesman than, say, Avenue Q.

Much of the length of The Flick is due to long pauses between moments of action, between lines, between scenes, between pretty much everything. Nothing happens quickly here.  But if you get into the flow and they rhythm of The Flick, there’s real richness to be mined. There are but three characters (and two cameos by another actor): Sam, the aforementioned 30-something senior usher; Avery, a 20-year old African-American man who loves movie with a passion that could likely be diagnosed as Aspergian; and Rose, a moody, standoffish projectionist who speaks in almost constant uptalk, turning common declarative statements into questions.

There are inappropriate crushes, games of six degrees of separation (at which Avery is a savant of the highest order), and lots and lots of sweeping up of spilled popcorn and other assorted detritus.  During it all, we get to go inside these characters.  And even though we never get down to why Sam has been unable to rise above his menial labor, we do get a deep sense of the shame he feels, yet hides beneath a veneer of ignorant superiority. Rose is similarly adrift in her own world, seemingly content on her pinballing course from boyfriend to boyfriend, never staying with one for more than four months.

But it’s Avery we get to know best – or at least understand the most.  He’s the only one of the three to exhibit any real standards of behavior – both his own, and what he expects from others.  When he states that there has been no great American film in the past decade, and Sam offers “Avatar” as a possibility, Avery simply doesn’t know how to respond to such a ludicrous suggestion.  Avery believes digital technology is ruining the movie business, and vows that if the theater ever abandons the projection of film, he’ll have to quit.  But his high standards also let him down, because the world fails to meet them. This leads to disappointment and depression.

As their concerns and anxieties intersect, The Flick flows slowly forward to a sad, resigned – but ultimately hopeful – resolution. Something that you’d be forgiven thinking would ever come during its long, long running time.