Thursday, January 28, 2010

Time Stands Still


Something is missing in Donald Margulies’ thoughtful new play "Time Stands Still," which is receiving a uniformly well-acted Broadway production directed by Daniel Sullivan. But what exactly? Probably a more compelling overall dramatic arc.

The four-character drama observes the strained romantic relationship between James (Brian d'Arcy James), a war reporter, and Sarah (Laura Linney), a photojournalist, after they return home from Iraq. After James left, Sarah was badly injured in a roadside bombing, leaving Sarah's face badly scarred and James feeling guilty for deserting her.

Now back at their Brooklyn loft, the couple receives awkward visits from their friend Richard (Eric Bogosian), a magazine editor, and Mandy (Alicia Silverstone), his slow-witted, younger girlfriend, who cannot seem to understand Sarah's fierce commitment to her work.

This not a play about the Iraq War, though it debates the role of the media in the war zone. It is made up primarily of naturalistic, conversational dialogue aimed at exploring the characters' complicated emotions. But because of its slight plot and undeveloped overall conflict, "Time Stands Still" feels like a smart character study instead of something greater than the sum of its parts.

Laura Linney, who has made emotional clarity the defining trademark of her career, gives another fine performance. Brian d'Arcy James, finally free of his ugly Shrek costume, emphasizes his character's good nature and pent-up frustrations. The usually outrageous Eric Bogosian is low-key in the play's least interesting role. Alicia Silverstone, playing an older variation of her character from the popular 1990s film "Clueless," manages to hold her own among the rest of the cast.

Margulies still deserves credit for exploring modern relationships in a timely context with such empathy. Here's looking forward to the upcoming Broadway revival of his 1996 play "Collected Stories," which is already set to be the Friedman Theatre's next tenant.

Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, 261 W. 47th St., 212-239-6200, mtc-nyc.org. Through Mar. 21.

Ages of the Moon


Some people simply don't react well to annoyingly loud ceiling fans. In Sam Shepard's new tragicomedy "Ages of the Moon," one character is so disturbed that he takes a rifle and shoots a fan after it starts spinning out of control. This bizarre moment stands out in what is an extremely sedate, plain-looking play. But thanks to excellent acting, it's still pretty engrossing.

Not much really happens in the 75-minute, two-character play. According to the slight dramatic premise, Byron (Sean McGinley) has trekked out to the middle of nowhere to visit his old pal Ames (Stephen Rea), whose wife recently deserted him after she discovered that he had cheated on her with another woman.

With weepy country music playing in the background, both men are sitting in awkward silence on Ames' porch, bourbon in hand, looking aimlessly out onto the horizon. Ames looks helplessly depressed, while Byron is clearly uncomfortable and unsure of what to do or say. The lonely emptiness is so apparent that it recalls Beckett's "Waiting for Godot."

Ames eventually breaks the silence by making random, mostly humorous observations and musings. Is there anything sexier than women on bikes? Did you know that the moon is "4.6 thousand million years old"? A tree is a tree, right? A pattern emerges: take a drink, then a pause, make a weird remark, and repeat the cycle.

Shepard wrote the play especially for Rea and McGinley, and their stage chemistry is pretty perfect. While Rea acts hysterically melodramatic in his drunken stupor, McGinley looks on with rational, grounded silence and occasionally offers a few words of polite advice.

You often feel as if you are watching not just a sincere meditation on male friendship, but an old-fashioned vaudeville act of straight man and clown. Their antics eventually extend to physical comedy when Rea attempts to give a physically ailing McGinley a piggyback ride. Let's just say that it doesn't work out and leaves them in a very compromising position.

Atlantic Theater Company, 336 W. 20th St., 212-279-4200, atlantictheater.org. Through Mar. 7.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

As You Like It


The second annual installment of the acclaimed Bridge Project at Brooklyn Academy of Music, which spotlights an equally mixed group of English and American actors, features Sam Mendes' productions of Shakespeare's "As You Like It" and "The Tempest." Yet even "As You Like It," the lighter of the two and the first to premiere, feels like two very different plays combined into one in Mendes' intelligent but slow production.

Mendes' takes an excessively dark approach to the first half of the play, which observes the plights of young Orlando and Rosalind in the Court of Duke Frederick and their eventual escape into the Forest of Arden, where Rosalind's father, the exiled Duke Senior, is already living with a band of outcasts. These scenes are played out against a bleak gray wall with dim lighting. And even when the protagonists finally reach Arden, it is harsh, wintry and gloomy.

For instance, Duke Frederick (played by the striking Michael Thomas, who also doubles as Duke Senior) is portrayed as a corrupt modern government executive. Right after intermission, he tortures Orlando's brother with waterboarding techniques.

But just as the play's dating and mating rituals are to commence, the dreary weather clears, the climate warms up, and Arden looks like a far happier place.

Mendes displays an impressive understanding of the text and is able to convey lots of detail with little scenery. And while the cast's frequent use of pausing emphasizes awkward tension, it slows down the production's pace too frequently.

Christian Camargo appears so contemplative and sensitive as Orlando that you feel he is better suited for Hamlet, which he played Off-Broadway last spring.

Juliet Rylance is very much in control in the difficult role of Rosalind, but also wildly expressive. In her scenes with Orlando as Ganymede, where she is a woman pretending to be a man who is pretending to be a woman, it is clear that the character is experiencing a newfound freedom from sexual mores and limitations.

Severely out of place with everyone else is the typically excellent Thomas Sadoski, who is too high-strung and manic as Rosalind's clown Touchstone, desperately screaming his lines with a rough delivery. On the other hand, Stephen Dillane is so low-key as the melancholy Jacques, who delivers the "Seven Ages of Man" speech, that you hardly notice him.

Let me stress that this is in no way a bad or even mediocre production. In fact, it's quite smart and occasionally engrossing. And I really look forward to checking out "The Tempest" next month. But at least for me, this "As You Like It" just never felt altogether dramatically convincing or emotionally moving.

BAM Harvey Theater, 651 Fulton St., 718-636-4100, bam.org. Through Mar 13.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

A View From the Bridge

Last season's Broadway revival of Arthur Miller's "All My Sons" was all but destroyed by Katie Holmes' bad acting and a weird directorial concept that made little sense.

Have no such fears with the current revival of Miller's "A View from the Bridge," his attempt at writing a Greek tragedy set in 1950s Brooklyn. Starring Liev Schreiber and Scarlett Johansson, Gregory Mosher's realistic production focuses on psychological realism instead of idiotic pretension. It is straightforward, focused and uniformly well-acted.

The play observes Eddie Carbone, an Italian-American dockworker played by Schreiber, whose home is thrown into turmoil when two of his wife's male cousins illegally immigrate to the country. Rodolpho, the younger of the two, attracts the attention of Eddie's 17-year-old niece Catherine, played by Johansson, for whom Eddie harbors unhealthy sexual desires.

Alfieri, a lawyer in the neighborhood, directly addresses the audience to provide plot details, acting as a narrator, commentator and mini-sized Greek chorus. Michael Cristofer handles this awkward role with confidence and passion.

Mosher's cinematic staging drives forward with such relentless intensity that it should have been staged without an intermission to temporarily break up the narrative. The shadowy set of a brick tenement alley twists and turns to reveal the Carbone home without pause.

Schreiber, looking scruffy but handsome, delivers a thoroughly physical performance that emphasizes Eddie's inner turmoil, inability to control his suppressed urges and desperate need to maintain control over both his household and Catherine. Once he feels that he is no longer king of the castle, doom and gloom are bound to follow.

In her Broadway debut, Johansson is absolutely radiant as the good-natured but sexually blooming Catherine and displays great chemistry with Schreiber.

Jessica Hecht, who appeared in the ill-fated Broadway revival of "Brighton Beach Memoirs" earlier this season, is similarly raw and convincing as Eddie's wife Beatrice, who is desperate but helpless to save her marriage.

Cort Theatre, 138 W. 48th St., 212-239-6200, aviewfromthebridgeonbroadway.com. Through April 4.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Present Laughter


The new Broadway revival of "Present Laughter," Noel Coward's 1939 farce about an egomanaical matinee idol in the midst of a midlife crisis, feels strangely deflated and stale. It's as if someone accidentally let the air out of its tires.

This unapologetically silly, wonderfully witty star vehicle observes the crazy goings-on in the posh London pad of Garry Essendine, a thinly-disguised stand-in for Coward himself, who pauses every few minutes to catch a glimpse of himself in the mirror or soliloquize in front of house guests.

Just before Garry is to depart for a tour of Africa, he receives surprise visits from a manic obsessive playwright, a starstruck young actress, his estranged wife and his new lover. More often than not, a character is forced to hide in the closet as someone else arrives.

While the play has potential to still pack a punch, Nicholas Martin's production is slow, flat, fake and devoid of any concept or inspiration. This leaves most of his cast desperately scrambling to mug as much as possible.

Victor Garber, though a seemingly smart casting choice for Garry, acts so broadly and busily as to indicate that he is lost and in need of direction. He begins and ends his performance at the same level of pent-up frustration, ignoring all subtlety and Coward's eternal elegance.

The supporting cast is at odds stylistically. While Lisa Barnes is convincingly understated as Garry's wife, Brooks Ashmanskas aims for pure screwball comedy as the oddball playwright who becomes Garry's most devoted fan.

Though Ashmanskas is dangerously over-the-top, he leaps across the stage with a giddy, airborne quality that is missing from the rest of the production.

American Airlines Theatre, 227 W. 42nd St., 212-719-1300, roundabouttheatre.org. Through Mar. 21.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Lear


Few moments in drama are so emotionally wrenching as the final scene in "King Lear." "Lear," Young Jean Lee's five-person adaptation of the tragedy, is also painful to endure, but in a very different way. You see, "Lear" is simply a really, really bad play.

Lee's so-called "inaccurate distortion of Shakespeare" eliminates all major characters, including King Lear, except for Lear's three daughters and the two sons of Lear's pal Gloucester.

The adaptation begins immediately after Lear has been sent out into the storm and Gloucester is blinded. The kids awkwardly attempt to pass the time and ignore their dads' traumas.

Although the initial premise about the children's guilt is intriguing, the play suddenly derails and tanks altogether. By the end, it is impossible to determine what exactly is going on.

At one point, the play turns into a bizarre episode of "Sesame Street" where Big Bird is dealing with the death of Mr. Hooper. Seriously. It's as if Lee is desperately trying to cross the 80-minute finish line.

It moves at an extraordinarily slow pace, marked by short vignettes, blackouts, jokes that consistently fail to land, and rambling, repetitious monologues where actors take turns addressing the audience and making confessions.

The production, also directed by Lee, is lavish to the point of being excessively tacky. In spite of the play's postmodern absurdist groundings, the characters dance around an Elizabethan-style proscenium and wear period costumes with swords, medallions and capes.

Paul Lazar, playing the mendacious Edgar, who engineered the plot against his father, has a creepy, chilly presence and aggressive personality that distinguishes him from the rest of the amateurish cast.

"Lear" is still likely to attract a sizable crowd due to its title. What a shame that so many Shakespeare junkies will find themselves trapped at a terrible show that is not so much irreverent as irrelevant.

Soho Rep, 46 Walker St., 866-811-4111, sohorep.org. Through Feb. 6.

Monday, January 11, 2010

The Myopia and Plays


David Greenspan, who made an appearance in the Broadway revival of "The Royal Family" earlier this season, is better known as a downtown solo performer and playwright. The talents that have made him so distinctive - including the musicality of his high-pitched voice and his confident, playful flamboyance - are on full display in the Foundry Theatre's double bill of "The Myopia" and "Plays."

"The Myopia" is described by Greenspan as "an epic burlesque of tragic proportion." While sitting comfortably in an armchair on a bare stage, Greenspan performs about two dozen roles with exaggerated characterizations, interlocks three different dramas and reads aloud imaginary stage directions.

Greenspan recounts how Warren G. Harding was nominated as president in spite of his own wishes. Meanwhile, Febis, a nebbish guy in the present day, is unsuccessfully attempting to write a musical about Harding. On top of that, Barclay, Febus' son, wants to write a play about his feuding parents.

He also adds some personal observations. For instance, on his unwillingness to employ stage-hands, Greenspan notes that "If anyone's going to upstage me, I'll be the one to do it." He also finds a way to fit in his Carol Channing imitation.

Greenspan's ability to spin so many story strands at once with relative ease is a marvel to behold, yet it all eventually feels monotonous and physically underwhelming. It would serve Greenspan well to trim the show's 100-minute length and remove the intermission.

"Plays," which Greenspan is performing in repertory with "The Myopia" on weekends, is a long lost, hour-long lecture penned by Gertrude Stein in 1934. It is a dense, rambling but insightful theoretical piece that debates a variety of topics such as how time is portrayed onstage and the difference between hearing, seeing and reading a play.

Though Greenspan is considerably more restrained while performing "Plays," it serves as a welcome prologue to "The Myopia," especially since Greenspan's own work has been considerably influenced by Stein.

Atlantic Stage 2, 330 W. 16th St., 212-279-4200, thefoundrytheatre.org. Through Feb. 7.