Sunday, December 27, 2009

We'll Be Back Soon: In Israel Till Jan 10

I will be away till January 10 on a Birthright Israel trip. I've repeatedly put off doing the trip, which offers 18-26 year old Jews the opportunity to visit Israel for free for 10 days, since 2002. And since I am now 26, as Elvis would say, it's now or never. And why not do it when there are essentially no plays or musicals opening in New York at all? I will start writing again as soon as I return, just as the spring theater season is starting to heat up.

Here's hoping I find a Hebrew-language production of "Spring Awakening" in Tel Aviv.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

The Best and Worst in New York Theater in 2009

2009 was an extremely eclectic year for New York theater, filled with hits, misses, stars, classics, surprises, disappointments, all-day play marathons and one-person gems.

The Public Theater had the most mixed record of success of all. Its acclaimed revival of "Hair" successfully transferred to Broadway, and "Twelfth Night" in Central Park with Anne Hathaway was the summer's hottest ticket. But its avant-garde reinterpretations of "The Bacchae" and "Othello" were dismal embarassments.

"Next to Normal," an edgy rock musical about a manic-depressive mother (played with stunning clarity by Alice Ripley), was the only truly great new musical. Still, "Memphis," a passionate look at race relations during the birth of rock and roll, and "Rock of Ages," a silly, heavy metal jukebox tuner, are pretty entertaining. "Fela!," which offers Afrobeat spectacle instead of narrative, is highly overrated. The dance spectacle "Burn the Floor" is mindless and tasteless.

The best new plays were all written by women, including "Ruined," Lynn Nottage's Pulitzer-winning drama exposing the plight of women in the Congo; "Circle Mirror Transformation," Annie Baker's engaging look at how an adult drama class changes the lives of its participants; and "In the Next Room (or the vibrator play)," Sarah Ruhl's farcical yet lyrical examination of the birth of the electric sexual aid in the 1880s.

The best play revival was David Cromer's stripped-down "Our Town," which removed the musty sentimentality now associated with the drama. Runners up include the excellent Broadway revivals of "Joe Turner's Come and Gone" and "Waiting for Godot." The worst play revival was probably "The Philanthropist," a dull academic comedy starring Matthew Broderick.

There were many Broadway musical revivals, all wishing to emulate the success of "South Pacific" at Lincoln Center. In spite of initial concerns that there would be less interest in seeing an angry hippie musical following the election of Obama, "Hair" continued to thrive both artistically and financially after its Shakespeare in the Park run. "Bye Bye Birdie" and "Guys and Dolls" managed to turn musical comedy classics into miscast catastrophes. "Finian's Rainbow" and "Ragtime" are truly wonderful, but will soon shutter if their box office grosses fail to improve.

Play marathons became the new hot fad. "The Norman Conquests," Alan Ayckbourn's comic trilogy depicting six characters over the course of a single weekend in different parts of an English country house, received a masterful production. "The Orphans' Home Cycle," which combines nine Horton Foote plays about the author's father in three parts, is drawing unanimous raves and rumors of a Broadway transfer.

Angela Lansbury, who returned to Broadway in both "Blithe Spirit" and "A Little Night Music," wins the title of performer of the year. Other standouts include Will Swenson in "Hair," Alice Ripley and Aaron Tveit in "Next to Normal," John Douglas Thompson in "The Emperor Jones," Simon Russell Beale in "The Winter's Tale," Geoffrey Rush in "Exit the King," Thomas Sadoski in "reasons to be pretty" and Cate Blanchett in "A Streetcar Named Desire."

In terms of movie stars, Hugh Jackman and Daniel Craig wowed the crowds in the decent but forgettable cop drama "A Steady Rain," Jude Law proved to be the most energetic Hamlet in recent memory, and the original cast of "God of Carnage" (James Gandolfini, Jeff Daniels, Marcia Gay Harden and Hope Davis) was pure dynamite. Don't ask about "Impressionism" with Jeremy Irons and Joan Allen, which shuttered quickly after being panned.

The best solo shows included Will Ferrell in "You're Welcome America: A Final Evening with George W. Bush," Coleman Domingo in "A Boy and His Soul," Jim Brochu in "Zero Hour" and Carrie Fisher in "Wishful Drinking."

At the opera, New York City Opera made an impressive comeback and the Metropolitan Opera's stark new "Tosca" drew boos on opening night. At the cabaret, Michael Feinstein drew raves teaming up with Cheyenne Jackson, Christine Ebersole and David Hyde Pierce. His next partner will be Dame Edna - but on Broadway.

So what's ahead in 2010? How will Christopher Walken, Denzel Washington and Scarlett Johansson fare on Broadway? Will Julie Taymor's $50 million "Spiderman" musical actually open? Will "The Addams Family" be a hit or a miss? Stay tuned.

The Top 10 Best Shows:
1. Hair (The Public Theater/Broadway)
2. Next to Normal (Second Stage/Broadway)
3. Our Town (Barrow Street Theatre)
4. Twelfth Night (The Public Theater)
5. The Norman Conquests (Broadway)
6. The Orphans' Home Cycle (Signature Theatre Company)
7. Finian's Rainbow (City Center Encores/Broadway)
8. Ragtime (Broadway)
9. Circle Mirror Transformation (Playwrights Horizons)
10. In the Next Room, or the vibrator play (Lincoln Center Theater)

The Top 10 Worst Shows:
1. Othello (The Public Theater)
2. Guys and Dolls (Broadway)
3. The Philanthropist (Roundabout Theatre Company)
4. The Bacchae (The Public Theater)
5. Bye Bye Birdie (Roundabout Theatre Company)
6. Mourning Becomes Electra (The New Group)
7. Hedda Gabler (Roundabout Theatre Company)
8. Impressionism (Broadway)
9. Soul of Shaolin (Broadway)
10. Burn the Floor (Broadway)

Best One-Person Shows:
1. Wishful Drinking (Roundabout Theatre Company)
2. You're Welcome America: A Final Evening with George W. Bush (Broadway)
3. A Boy and His Soul (Vineyard Theatre)
4. Humor Abuse (Manhattan Theatre Club)
5. Zero Hour (Theater at St. Clement's)

Best Multi-Play Marathons:
1. The Norman Conquests (Broadway)
2. The Orphans' Home Cycle (Signature Theatre Company)
3. Les Ephemeres (Lincoln Center Festival)
4. Lipsynch (Brooklyn Academy of Music)
5. The Lily's Revenge (HERE Arts Center)

Most Overrated:
1. Fela! (Broadway)
2. This (Playwrights Horizons)
3. The Starry Messenger (The New Group)
4. Let Me Down Easy (Second Stage)
5. Idiot Savant (Public Theater)

Most Underrated:
1. Oohrah! (Atlantic Theater Company)
2. The Royal Family (Manhattan Theatre Club)
3. Things to Ruin (Second Stage)
4. The Bereaved (The Wild Project)
5. Ordinary Days (Roundabout Theatre Company)

Best Encores! show: Finian's Rainbow
Worst Encores! show: The Wiz

Honorable Mention (i.e. other really good productions):
Joe Turner's Come and Gone (Lincoln Center Theater), Ruined (Manhattan Theatre Club), The Winter's Tale (Brooklyn Academy of Music), Waiting for Godot (Roundabout Theatre Company), The Emperor Jones (Irish Repertory Theatre), My Wonderful Day (59E59), Love, Loss and What I Wore (Westside Theatre), Rock of Ages (Broadway), God of Carnage (Broadway), Memphis (Broadway), A Little Night Music (Broadway), Brief Encounter (St. Ann's Warehouse), The Full Monty (Paper Mill Playhouse), Hamlet (Broadway), Paint Your Wagon (Musicals Tonight!), The Grand Tour (York Theatre Company), Broadway's Rising Stars (Town Hall)

Dishonorable Mention (i.e. all other really bad productions):
The Retributionists (Playwrights Horizons), Accent on Youth (Manhattan Theatre Club), 9 to 5 (Broadway), Irena's Vow (Broadway), The Age of Iron (Classic Stage), La Sonnambula (The Metropolitan Opera), West Side Story (Broadway), Wildflower (Second Stage), Vanities (Second Stage), A Lifetime Burning (Primary Stages), Two Unrelated Plays (Atlantic Theatre Company), Offices (Atlantic Theatre Company), The Tin Pan Alley Rag (Roundabout Theatre Company)

Special Citations:
-Jeffry Denman for directing and choreographing almost the entire Broadway by the Year season at Town Hall
-Jeffrey Richards for preventing the Broadway transfer of "Hair" from falling apart financially, preventing "Speed-the-Plow" from falling apart after Jeremy Piven jumped ship, and for having the guts to produce almost whatever he wants
-Ciaran O'Reilly for accepting "The Emperor Jones" on its own terms and staging it brilliantly
-Lincoln Center Theater for producing "In the Next Room" on Broadway instead of Off-Broadway
-New York City Opera for mounting a strong comeback
-Joe Iconis for his humorous, energetic concerts overflowing with talented young performers
-Hugh Jackman and Daniel Craig for literally selling the shirts off their backs to benefit Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS
-The producers of "Avenue Q" for manging to keep their show alive - even after it closed
-The producers of "Ragtime" and "Finian's Rainbow" for fighting to keep their show

Shameful Citations:
-Charlotte St. Martin, Howard Sherman, and all others involved in the abhorrable, inexplicable, just plain idiotic decision to remove the press as Tony voters, thereby making the Tony Awards into a total sham where producers just vote for their own shows. They needed the press as voters to insert some credibility and objectivity into the voting pool. And believe me, the full weight of their action hasn't been seen yet. Wait till June.
-Jeremy Piven

The Emperor Jones

"The Emperor Jones," Eugene O'Neill's surreal 70-minute tragedy, has long been considered outdated, embarrassing and totally unworkable. That is, until now.

The 1920 work observes Brutus Jones, an African-American train porter who murdered a friend, escaped from a chain gang, and managed to become the tyrannical ruler of a Carribean island by tricking the native population into believing he is a god.

The second half of the play is essentially a monologue during which Brutus descends into madness while running away from his subjects, who have finally rebelled against him. The character speaks in a strange, extremely politically incorrect dialect. Please, please don't ask us to cite an example.

Whereas most contemporary revivals attempt to deconstruct the play and comment upon its political incorrectness, Ciaran O'Reilly's thrilling production does the opposite by actually taking the story and its complex title character seriously.

In doing so, O'Reilly is not necessarily condoning its politically incorrect content and primitive lingo. He is simply accepting the play on its own terms and directing it with compelling clarity. To O'Reilly, Brutus Jones is a universal, recognizable everyman. As a result, "The Emperor Jones' finally works as a hallucinatory narrative and psychologically intense character study instead of a postmodern critique.

The production is set in a shadowy jungle filled with Jungian symbolism, life-size puppets, masks reminiscent of horror movie villains, dark lighting and eerie music. It is here that Brutus'
hallucinations come to life in vivid and haunting detail.

John Douglas Thompson's performance as Brutus Jones is physically and emotionally tremendous. In portraying the character's journey to insanity, he believably transitions from an obnoxiously haughty criminal, sick of self-love and full of bravado, to a lost, terrified soul, now made insane by his guilt and without the slightest hope of salvation.

The narrow proscenium stage of the SoHo Playhouse is a less ideal space than the intimate Irish Repertory Repertory, where the production opened earlier this fall before transferring to a commercial run. Nevertheless, the production remains a mighty piece of theatrical magic.

SoHo Playhouse, 15 Vandam St., 212-691-1555, Through Jan. 31.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Ernest in Love

"The Importance of Being Ernest," Oscar Wilde's 1895 comedy of manners satirizing the silliness and hypocrisy of social pretense in Victorian society, is so perfect that it really can't be improved upon. But that didn't stop Lee Pockriss and Anne Croswell from trying anyway with their 1960 Off-Broadway musical "Ernest in Love."

This faithful adaptation retains most of Wilde's original wordplay while adding several clever and playful songs. Just as in the play, "Ernest in Love" observes Jack and Algernon, two bachelors who occasionally pretend to be named Ernest, but later learn that their young fiancés will only marry them if they really are named Ernest. According to the girls, Ernest is a name that "inspires absolute confidence."

The Irish Repertory Theatre's classy and intimate production succeeds as both classical and musical theater. As directed by Charlotte Moore, the strong cast handles both the songs and text with comic perfection.

Noah Racey plays Jack, who was supposedly discovered as a baby in a handbag at a railway station, with dashing ease. An expert dancer, Racey even gets the opportunity to waltz with a coat rack. Meanwhile, Ian Holcomb plays Algernon with smug self-satisfaction, a touch of flamboyance and a devious smile.

In the prized comic role of Lady Bracknell, Algernon's dogmatic and disapproving aunt, Beth Fowler acts as if she were taken straight out of a vampire film, displaying wide-eyed expressions and raised eyebrows. But she resists the urge to overdo her character's famous "A handbag?" line, delivering rather like a quick sneeze.

For those familiar with the original play, watching "Ernest in Love" might be compared to riding a local subway train. Wilde's dialogue, like the train, keeps a speedy rhythm, but is forced to slow down and halt every few minutes to make way for a song. But in the end, you are unexpectedly glad to have made that stop.

Irish Repertory Theatre, 132 W. 22nd St., 212-727-2737, Through Jan. 31.

Friday, December 18, 2009

The Orphans' Home Cycle: Part 2

Horton Foote was literally putting the finishing touches on "The Orphans' Home Cycle" when he passed away in March at the age of 92. The nine-play cycle chronicles the life of his father, Horace Robedaux, in turn-of-the-last-century Texas.

Several of the plays have previously been performed and even filmed, including "Convicts" and "Valentine's Day," but the cycle has never before been produced as a whole.

The Signature Theatre's noteworthy production, which presents the nine plays over three evenings, features 22 actors playing over 70 roles. Directed with cinematic finesse by Michael Wilson, the epic effort displays the gentle playwright at his very best. When other playwrights abandoned traditional storytelling in the mid-20th century, Foote devoted his writing to detailed, complex characters from the viewpoint of his Texas hometown.

"Part 1: The Story of a Childhood," which premiered last month, observes Horace's adolescence following the death of his alcoholic father. When his mother remarries his mean-spirited stepfather, Horace is unceremoniously sent to work on a plantation alongside convicts. In the final third, titled "Lily Dale," Horace is stricken with malaria and recovers at his mother's home, much to his stepfather's anger.

"Part 2: The Story of a Marriage," which just opened, centers on Horace's search for a wife and is considerably lighter in tone. After initially courting a young widow with two children, he sets his sights on Elizabeth, the daughter of a wealthy landowner. Its last act, "Valentine's Day," focuses on Horace's tense relationship with Elizabeth's parents following their marriage.

Taken as a whole, the first two evenings present a harrowing, unsentimental look at the overwhelming loneliness of Horace's life. After "Part 3: The Story of a Family" opens next month, the entire cycle will be performed in repertory.

The entire cast is superb, especially Bill Heck as the forlorn but resilient Horace. But it is the playwright's daughter Hallie Foote, often considered the foremost interpreter of his work, who truly stands out in a wide variety of roles.

Signature Theatre Company, 555 W. 42nd St., 212-244-7529, Through March 22.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

A Little Night Music

Stephen Sondheim's sublime 1973 waltz musical "A Little Night Music," once described as "whipped cream and knives," elegantly mixes passionate romantic longing with bittersweet regret. Based on Ingmar Bergman's film "Smiles of a Summer Night," it observes the silly games played by several couples trying to break in and out of their relationships in turn-of-the-century Sweden.

Middle-aged lawyer Fredrik Egerman, played with convincing sensitivity by Alexander Hanson, suffers from sexual frustration after marrying Anne (Ramona Mallory), an immature 18-year-old who still clings to her virginity. Out of loneliness, Fredrik seeks out his former lover, Desiree Armfeldt (Catherine Zeta-Jones).

Tired of her hectic life as a stage actress, Desiree hopes to settle down with Fredrik, but encounters resistance from her egomaniacal military beau (Aaron Lazar). After much plotting, the characters converge upon the estate of Desiree's mother, Madame Armfeldt (Angela Lansbury).

Trevor Nunn's scaled-down revival, which originated in London, treats the musical like a Chekhov drama filled with pausing. It is set on a bare stage with dim lighting and black-and-white costumes.

Regretfully, the musical's sweeping orchestrations have been reduced for a teeny tiny band. The score, which contains the ballad "Send in the Clowns," sounds less operatic and vibrant as a result. It is also conducted at an unusually slow pace. Nevertheless, the intimate production is so visually exquisite and emotionally open that the scaled-back orchestra can be overlooked.

Zeta-Jones looks gorgeous and is truly captivating as Desiree. Stressing the character's emotional maturity and sense of humor, she delivers a nuanced performance while projecting a strong singing voice.

Lansbury, playing the wheelchair-bound Madame Armfeldt while covered with ghoulish white makeup, is playful but also authoritative, treating every line as a piercing barb. Trouble is that she rushes through her song "Liaisons," treating it too much like a monologue.

Leigh Ann Larkin is earthy and lusty as the maid Petra, but is far too forceful with 11 o'clock number "The Miller's Son," making it feel more like hard work than a showstopper.

Aaron Lazar downplays the role of Carl-Magnus to such a degree that the character does not feel like too much of a threat to Fredrik. Marc Kudisch, who has played the role several times, is so over-the-top that you do believe that the Count is so foolish as to be truly dangerous. Erin Davie, playing the Count's jealous wife Charlotte, brings an emotional, very vicious edge to the role.

As for Hunter Ryan Herdlicka, I get the impression that he scored the role of Henrik because he could play the cello and looked Swedish. Rather like Leigh Ann Larkin, he is overly strident and takes the character's overdramatic and whiny personality a bit too far.

Here's a fun trivia fact: Ramona Mallory, who plays Anne, is the daughter of Victoria Mallory, who originated the role in 1973! The younger Ms. Mallory is credible in the role, pouting and giggling like a little girl playing dress up.

This being the first Broadway revival of "A Little Night Music," I get the feeling that many felt as if it should have been bigger and brighter and more expensive, rather like the Lincoln Center Theater revival of "South Pacific." Nevertheless, on the whole, this is a really beautiful production. And I do believe that many will find great satisfaction in it.

Walter Kerr Theatre, 219 W. 48th St., 212-239-6200, Open run.

Friday, December 11, 2009

The Last Cargo Cult

Mike Daisey, who made a splash at the Public Theater last year with his rant on the Department of Homeland Security and has made a career out of performing Spalding Gray-esque monologues exploring topics ranging from politics to the regional theater movement ("How Theater Failed America"), returns with a new piece that ties together a philosophic examination of modern finance with his journey to a remote South Pacific Island whose inhabitants worship America and its goods.

Daisey, who sits behind a desk and reads from notes, convincingly mixes storytelling, sarcastic delivery, manic facial expressions and progressive politics. The content of the show varies in quality, but Daisey's rubbery presence and extreme commitment kept me engaged. I couldn't help but think that I'd love to see him set up a weekly Internet television program along the lines of "The Daily Show" where he could comment on current events, and which might help his fan following grow larger.

It must be noted that upon entrance to the play, one is handed a dollar bill of varying amounts - anywhere from a buck to $100. When I received a $20 bill, I assumed it was part of the show, but obviously counterfeit. Not exactly it turns out. Daisey is handing out real money. His money, it turns out. The money the Public Theater is paying him to perform for that performance. And at curtain call, he displays a large bowl at the top of the stage. He tells the audience that if it would like, it can return the money it received, or less money, or more. Apparently, Daisey has more faith in his audience than I would.

Public Theater, 425 Lafayette St., 212-967-7555, Through Sun.

Love's Labour's Lost

The Globe Theatre, which is making its first New York appearance in four years, performs Shakespeare's plays in a traditional Renaissance style with ornate costumes and live background music, bringing a party-like atmosphere that is missing from modern productions. But of all possible Shakespeare plays, did it really have to bring us "Love's Labour's Lost"?

The early comedy, which is hardly ever performed, is not exactly the Bard's finest play. It served mainly as an opportunity for Shakespeare to show off his witty wordplay. Because it's so difficult to perform, but most directors attempt to compensate for the densely-packed language with shtick and overly broad performances. Perhaps that is why it's more fun to read the play than actually watch a production.

Its battle-of-the-sexes plot observes how the King of Navarre and his courtiers, after pledging to abstain from women, suddenly lust after the Princess of France and her ladies-in-waiting. The bulk of the play observes their flirtations. But as if providing a hint of a more mature Shakespeare soon to arrive, it ends on an unexpectedly sad but hopeful note.

Dominic Dromgoole's production attempts to make the play more accessible by playing it up with a relentlessly upbeat pace and lighter than air spirit of frivolity. The numerous gags include farts, makeout scenes, life-size deer puppets and a food fight.

Their enunciation of the text is so hurried that it often fails to make sense of the language. The lampooning also slows down the pace of the play, bringing the running time to a full three hours. The comedy peaks in key scenes, but just as often feels too desperate and forced.

Michelle Terry makes a high-powered Princess of France and is one of few in the cast to nail the play's double-edged humor. Trystan Gravelle, who sports a cutting Welsh accent, is particularly persuasive as Berowne, seemingly the smartest of the king's courtiers. And Paul Ready provides a sad and innocent interpretation of Don Adriano de Armado, who is typically performed as a buffoon.

Pace University, 3 Spruce St., 212-868-4444. Through Dec. 20.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

God of Carnage

A decade ago, Yasmina Reza's comedy "Art" was so popular that celebrity replacement casts were brought in to keep the Broadway show running. Now the question is whether "God of Carnage," also written by Reza and directed by Matthew Warchus, can achieve similar success following the recent departure of Jeff Daniels, Hope Davis, James Gandolfini and Marcia Gay Harden, all of whom received acclaim and drew sell-out crowds.

This well-crafted 85-minute comedy of bad manners comes across as a farcical version of "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" and a parody of shallow adult etiquette. It observes two sets of parents whose bottled-up emotions violently explode after they politely attempt to discuss a schoolyard fight that arose between their 11-year-old sons. In other words, the parents unexpectedly trade fake smiles for wrestling and alcohol.

With little plot and lots of physical comedy to orchestrate, the success or failure of "God of Carnage" is completely dependent upon its cast. As of now, Christine Lahti ("Chicago Hope"), Annie Potts ("Designing Women"), Jimmy Smits ("NYPD Blue") and Scottish actor Ken Stott are not quite up to the level of their predecessors. Their comedic rhythm is out of precision and there is little ensemble chemistry. As a result, "God of Carnage" now feels like a slow-footed sitcom instead of a brutally outrageous and absolutely hilarious social meltdown.

Still, most of the new cast displays promise. Christine Lahti, who has the daunting task of replacing Marcia Gay Harden, throws herself into the role of a defensive control freak turned crazed and harried. Likewise, Annie Potts brings a real sense of frailty and sadness as a much ignored wife. Ken Stott, a member of the original London cast, embraces his character's primitive dark side and urge to ignore social pretense.

But Jimmy Smits, playing a condescending corporate lawyer, is miscast and out of place. He is not much of a comedian and makes no effort to join in the fun, making the play feel rather like a table with only three legs.

Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre, 242 W. 45th St., 212-239-6200, Open run.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Brief Encounter

"Brief Encounter," a London hit now playing a short run at St. Ann's Warehouse in Brooklyn, is an extremely theatrical and utterly romantic mixed-media mashup of David Lean's classic 1945 British film of thesame title about star-crossed lovers, the Noël Coward play upon which the film is based, original film clips, cabaret songs, puppetry and music-hall vaudeville.

The film "Brief Encounter" is renowed for its stunning black-and-white cinematography and use of Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 2 as a soundtrack. Starring Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard, it explores the passionate but plutonic romance between Laura, a polite suburban housewife, and Alec, an alluring doctor, after they meet unexpectedly in a train station tearoom.

The pair meets secretly on a weekly basis until it is clear that their love cannot be consummated due to the sexual repression and reserved mores of English society. Their final scene together, in which both painfully hold back their emotions as he silently walks away, remains truly heartbreaking.

Emma Rice's inventive stage version of "Brief Encounter" pays homage to the look and feel of the film by combining live action with black-and-white video clips. Occasionally, an actor will disappear behind a curtain and then suddenly reappear onscreen within the two-dimensional film. Rachmaninov is retained in the background.

Tristan Sturrock has a restrained charm as Alec, but it is Hannah Yelland who perfectly captures the mannerisms of old-fashioned melodrama and Laura's feelings of desperate longing and moral guilt.

A quartet of men, dressed as 1930s ushers, interrupt the plot by performing classic Noël Coward songs that indirectly comment upon the plot. Meanwhile, cafe workers perform slapstick and balletic movement, and children are portrayed by puppets.

It occasionally feels as if Rice's bizarre theatricality is competing against the intimacy of Alec and Laura's story. But more often than not, the bells and whistles and gags of this whimsical deconstruction serve to open up the story and accentuate its romantic poignancy.

St. Ann's Warehouse, 38 Water St., 718-254-8779, Jan. 3.

Sunday, December 6, 2009


Things haven't been going too well lately for playwright David Mamet. "November," his political farce starring Nathan Lane as the president, was a dud. A double-bill of his one-acts at Off-Broadway's Atlantic Theatre Company was a complete waste of time. Broadway revivals of "American Buffalo" and "Oleanna" flopped in spite of star wattage, and "Speed-the-Plow" was marred by the early departure of Jeremy Piven due to his supposed case of "mercury poisoning."

"Race," Mamet's newest play, operates like a pale imitation of "Speed-the-Plow." Whereas "speed-the-plow" is about two Hollywood producers and a young female assistant with a hidden agenda, "Race" is about two attorneys (James Spader and David Alan Grier) and a young female clerk (Kerry Washington) with a hidden agenda. The sudden opportunity to defend a rich white man (Richard Thomas) accused of raping a black girl leads to an extended debate about how everyone thinks in terms of race.

For the most part, the play is an engaging piece of cultural dialogue. But by the same token, it is considerably undercooked. The characters are broadly sketched and undistinctive, rather like mouthpieces designed just to take opposing positions. Mamet ends the play abruptly by revealing that a confession has been made, putting a quick end to the ambiguity and argumentation upon which the play thrived. And besides some gratuitously graphic language, there's nothing shocking or even original about "Race."

Mamet, who also directed the production, emphasizes his text with a simple staging. The actors, manipulated as if they were Mamet's puppets, deliver his trademark rat-a-tat dialogue with a confrontational edge.

James Spader, playing a scaled-down version of his "Boston Legal" character Alan Shore, makes a fine Broadway debut. David Alan Grier, who is known mainly as a comedian, is surprisingly and credibly dramatic. Richard Thomas, in a rather passive role, seamless switches from acting defensive to tortured with guilt. However, Kerry Washington's performance is as wooden as the set.

Ethel Barrymore Theatre, 243 W. 47th St., 212-239-6200, Open run.

The Joe Iconis Christmas Spectacular

It was a rather weird moment. As the 11 PM late show of the "The Joe Iconis Christmas Spectacular" at Ars Nova started, I realized that I couldn't see. Annie Golden, sitting in front of me, was decked out in full angel attire with wings and a circle around her head. The wings were no big deal, but I couldn't see over the damn circle. So there I was, meekly asking Annie Golden if she could take off her headset so I could see. I'm really sorry, Annie Golden. If it's an consolation, I loved you in "Full Monty"!

Anyhow, this marked the second Joe Iconis concert I've attended this fall, following his similarly conceived "Joe Iconis' Rock and Roll Haunted Halloween Special" at the Laurie Beechman. Directed by John Simpkins, the large cast included Susan Blackwell, Liz Lark Brown, Bill Coyne, Katrina Rose Dideriksen, Badia Farha, Melanie Field, Annie Golden, Molly Hager, Matt Hinkley, Ian Kagey, MK Lawson, Lorinda Lisitza, Jeremy Morse, Lance Rubin, A.J. Shively, Brent Stranathan, Jason Tam, Mary Testa, Jared Weiss, Jason "SweetTooth" Williams, and Ross Wolkenbrod.

Unlike most of his other concerts, or his polished revue "Things to Ruin," the "Christmas Spectacular" consisted mostly of songs not written by Iconis himself. Instead, he and his pals ripped and roared through a random collection of holiday classics with a heavy dose of sarcasm, in addition to a bunch of extended skit scenes. The Iconis songs included "The Joe Iconis Christmas Spectacular Theme Song," "If You Like It" (sung by Mary Testa at the 8 PM performances), "Sweet Baby Jesus Theme Song" and the 11 o'clock number "Celebrate Christmas with Me."

At the top of the show, we were warned that Channukah wouldn't be covered within the concert because it's boring, and that Kwanzaa is a lie. The skits, while mostly cute, could have been edited down a bit. The most memorable skit featured Susan Blackwell playing the cranky, Scroogesque landlord of Ars Nova. At the beginning of the show, she threatened to set the performers on fire if they were not out of the building in 80 minutes, yet returned later in a holly jolly Christmas mood. Other skits involved a very horny Santa Clause and poor Lance Rubin waiting for his errant father to arrive. With all the surprise guests and short subplots, the evening reminded me, weirdly enough, of "Pee Wee's Playhouse Christmas Special."

In the evening's most bizarre segment, Joe performed a tribute to his friends who weren't able to attend the concert. No, these friends weren't dead or sick. As explained in a slide show, they were either in the Broadway cast of "Mamma Mia!," in Scotland wearing a kilt, on a journey of self-discovery (apparently that's what John Gallagher, Jr. is doing), or drunk. Since "Hard Candy Christmas" was was sung during the slideshow, hard candy was then pelted at audience members. (Later on, Eric William Morris arrived to inform the audience that, contrary to information spread in Joe's slideshow, although he is in "Mamma Mia!," he is not playing one of the "three lesbians.")

To be honest, I would have preferred less Christmas stuff and more Iconis songs. But there's plenty of time for that in 2010.

Friday, December 4, 2009

The Heart is a Lonely Hunter

Adopting a classic novel to the stage is a tricky game made even more complicated when the original work lacks a straightforward linear narrative. Such is the problem posed by Rebecca Gilman's well-intentioned but underwhelming stage adaptation of Carson McCullers' atmospheric novel "The Heart is a Lonely Hunter."

Originally published in 1940, the novel revolves around John Singer, a kind-hearted deaf-mute who closely observes the inhabitants of a small town in the South during the Great Depression. The locals, drawn to Singer's warm spirit and inability to talk back, use him as a sort of silent therapist, openly divulging their feelings of loneliness and frustration.

A 1968 film version with Alan Arkin and Sondra Locke successfully trimmed the novel by focusing squarely on Singer's relationship with Mick,
a 13-year-old tomboy with a passion for classical music, to the exclusion of other characters.

Gilman instead attempts the maintain the novel's episodic structure. She overloads the play with supporting characters, subplots and short scenes. The resulting work feels broadly painted and disjointed. By the middle of Act Two, it has entirely lost focus and moves all over the place.

Particularly strange is Gilman's decision to have John Singer, who is supposed to never speak, deliver opening and closing monologues to the audience. Doesn't that defeat the spirit of the story?

Henry Stram, playing John Singer, mixes a Chaplinesque playfulness with a genuine emotional longing for Singer's missing best friend. The rest of the cast is hindered by a lack of character development.

Doug Hughes has staged the play with fluidity, bringing a bit of order to its sprawling nature. Multiple scenes are performed continuously on a bare stage with small platforms. But in spite of his efforts, this is a story for the page and not the stage.
New York Theatre Workshop, 49 E. 4th St., 212-239-6200, Through Dec. 20.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

A Streetcar Named Desire

Australian film actress Cate Blanchett looks and acts much like a pale and plastic Barbie doll as the faded southern belle Blanche DuBois. Play with her too hard and she will break apart. Yet watching Blanchett’s tragic turn from campy theatricality to manic desperation proves to be an intense and unforgettable experience.

The Sydney Theatre Company’s production of Tennessee Williams’ 1947 landmark play “A Streetcar Named Desire,” which is playing Brooklyn Academy of Music for a limited run, marks the American directorial debut of 70-year-old Norwegian actress Liv Ullmann.

The detailed production features many nuanced performances and many unexpected and original moments of staging. But too often Ullmann indulges in gratuitous bits of surprise that unnecessarily slow down the drama. For instance, Stanley and Blanche are now seen together in bed just after he rapes her.

The setting, usually marked by the romantic embellishments of an open courtyard in New Orleans, is pared down as an ugly, confined apartment of kitchen sink realism.

The production is clearly packaged as a star vehicle for Blanchett. But to her credit, the tall and statuesque actress delivers a vulnerable and volatile performance that is truly mesmerizing.

Upon entrance, Blanchett is visibly shaking, too fragile to even hold onto her suitcase and frazzled by loud noises. Moments later, she is eagerly slugging down liquor and trying to dominate her sister.

Robin McLeavey has an unashamed sexuality and youthful ease as Blanche’s sister Stella. Joel Edgerton, a muscular actor with the face of a child, is a brutish Stanley who clearly feels threatened by Blanche. But like much of the cast, Edgerton is often unable to hide his foreign accent.

Word on the street is that the entire BAM run of “Streetcar” is sold out. But if you can somehow snag a ticket, Cate Blanchett’s performance is not to be missed.

BAM Harvey Theater, 651 Fulton St., 718-636-4100, Through Dec. 20.