Friday, August 27, 2010

Our Town - David Cromer Returns

It sounded like just another boring production of “Our Town,” Thornton Wilder’s classic play about everyday life in Grover’s Corner that’s been performed in virtually every high school in America at some point.

But David Cromer, who become one of the hottest directors in the entire country in the year and a half since his revival premiered Off-Broadway, had other things in mind.

Not only did Cromer opt to play the play’s stage-manager (i.e. narrator) himself, he removed the folksy sentimentality and nostalgia that is now associated with the play and replaced it with uncompromising reality.

The staging, which will shutter on September 10, now stands as the longest-running staging of “Our Town” in theater history. This week Cromer returned to the role of the stage-manager, which has alternatively been played by Helen Hunt and Michael McKean.

Cromer found deadpan humor and highlighted the play’s incredible darkness and sorrow. He gutted the Barrow Street Theater so that the audience surrounds the actors in a church basement style, adding intimacy and immediacy. The cast wears street clothes and the house lights are used.

Though the minimalistic set consists only of a few chairs and tables, Cromer has a coup de theatre in Act Three. When the deceased Emily is allowed to revisit her twelfth birthday, Cromer pulls a curtain and reveals a full set of the Webb family kitchen. This devastating trick highlights how it is only in death that Emily can truly appreciate the sights and sounds and flavor of everyday life.

Cromer portrays the Stage Manager in a low-key, casual style. The rest of the ensemble cast is similarly focused, allowing the play to resonate in a truly fresh manner.

If you go – “Our Town” plays at the Barrow Street Theater through Sept. 11.
27 Barrow St, 212-868-4444, ourtownoffbroadway.com.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Next to Normal - Replacement Cast

Don’t get us wrong. “Next to Normal” is still the most daring, original and haunting new musical on Broadway. And it has the potential to live on without Alice Ripley in the role of Diana Goodman. But Marin Mazzie, although an excellent actress and singer, is just plain wrong as a replacement for Ripley.

One year ago, it was considered a risky gamble to bring this pop-rock musical about a bipolar-depressive mother who suffers hallucinogenic episodes and undergoes shock therapy to Broadway. Nevertheless, “Next to Normal” has become both a popular and critical success. It even won the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Drama.

Alice Ripley ripped through the role of Diana Goodman like a force of nature, carrying an electrifying and urgent intensity. But at the same time, she displayed a childlike fragility that made her performance thoroughly believable and heartbreaking.

Marin Mazzie lacks the unpredictable spark that Ripley brought to the character. By portraying Diana as more depressed than manic, Mazzie is less theatrical and interesting to watch. Moreover, Mazzie’s powerful voice is better suited for classical musical theater than Tom Kitt’s modern rock music.

Jason Danieley, who is Mazzie’s real-life husband and is also playing her husband in the show, is noticeably stiff and still finding his way around the role, which is ill-suited to his golden tenor voice.

The rest of the cast is fine. And on the whole, “Next to Normal” still makes for compelling theater. But for those who saw Alice Ripley, it’s hard to ignore what’s been lost in transition.

“Next to Normal” plays an open run at the Booth Theatre.
222 W. 45t St., 212-239-6200, nexttonormal.com.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Random Roundup of New Jersey Productions

It's time to play catch-up. I've got a plethora of shows that tend to involve either Shakespeare or New Jersey to go over with you. Where to start? It all feels like a blur, but I'll try and make sense of it all while being brief.

Let's begin with the ReVision Theatre's production of "Tommy," which enjoyed a sold-out run last month at the Carousel House in Asbury Park. I have seen two prior Revision Theatre productions, "Hair" and "The Full Monty," performed within this skeletal, once abandoned, in-the-round structure next to the beach. It is my understanding that the troupe is looking for a different theater space to use in the future. As unique and special as the Carousel House is as a venue, it brings with it a horror house of sight line and acoustic problems.

I thought that "Tommy" was a more than appropriate choice for the venue and the young theater company. Though still in its infancy, ReVision has proven itself to be an enterprising and freethinking group that has brought a youthful, unpredictable downtown mentality to the rather polite and ordinary New Jersey theater scene. It's surely New York's loss that the troupe has set its sights primarily on the Garden State.

What was most fascinating about their "Tommy" was their choice to Americanize and modernize it. World War II became Vietnam. Victoria Station became Grand Central Station. Mrs. Walker is now 31 instead of 21 when Tommy enters his trance, though I don't really understand the point of that change. And in another unnecessary change, they changed the plot so that Captain Walker is killed, rather than the mother's lover. This choice is problematic in terms of story and character. Why should the mother's lover care so much about Tommy? The mother's lover wouldn't sing "I Believe My Own Eyes."

Nevertheless, the choice to Americanize the story was altogether successful and could be an important step in making "Tommy" more appealing to amateur theater companies that don't know how to sport British accents. Similarly, their production demonstrated that "Tommy" can be mounted with no video or computer imagery whatsoever, though some shadow puppetry was effectively employed for Uncle Ernie's molestation scene.

Oh, and before I forget my favorite part of all about the production: antique pinball machines outside the theater! Loved it!

Another musical I saw in New Jersey was "Rent," performed by New Jersey Youth Theatre at NJPAC, which consists of young actors in their late teens to early 20s. This was an unusual choice for the company, which I have seen perform "Carousel," "1776" and "Sweeney Todd" with pitch-perfect production values. Vocally, Cynthia Meryl's production was superlative, just as all her previous stagings have been. But the acting was pretty lackluster - in fact, completely ineffective. Did these kids not grow up as Rentheads? Are they too far removed from the grim realities of the AIDS epidemic to understand the musical's sobering realities?

But perhaps worst of all was Meryl's unmistakable choice to copy the original staging. Not just the original scenic design, but almost every move. Not just the simple staging of "Seasons of Love," but the entire choreography of "La Vie Boheme."

A show I enjoyed far more in New Jersey was "Arms and the Man," performed by the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey in Madison. I find it hard to believe that no major New York companies have mounted Shaw's anti-war comedy in response to the Iraq invasion. Unlike Shaw's heavier and more didactic plays, "Arms and the Man" manages to be light and breezy while also full of intelligence. Bravo to the Shakespeare Theatre on its smart programming choice and an altogether smashing production.

Now that we've reached the end of this round-up, I must confess that I must now move to a show I saw not in New Jersey, but New York's Hudson Valley - namely "Troilus and Cressida" at the Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival. I had never before seen a show at this well-regarded outdoor space, and was eager to finally set a date to do so. After arriving at the train station, I took the company's "Bard Bus" to the company's extraordinarily scenic location a few miles away. Stunning views of the Hudson Valley.

It didn't rain, but perhaps I didn't choose the best night to see the show. It was humid - deadly humid. I must confess that I could barely concentrate due to the heat and the flies. I even had to put on complimentary bug spray during intermission. But whatever. The company's production of the rarely seen romance was quite lovely, though opening Act Two with a takeoff of Beyonce's "Single Ladies" was unnecessary and weird.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Trust

Sutton Foster has a lot more in common with Miley Cyrus than you might think. Both are now trying to shed their nice girl reputations by dressing up in sexually provocative attire.

Foster is best known for playing heroines in family-friendly musicals such as “Shrek,” “Thoroughly Modern Millie,” “Drowsy Chaperone” and “Little Women.”But in Paul Weitz's black comedy “Trust,” Foster gets the once-in-a-lifetime shot to play a dominatrix.

Upon entering the stage, Sutton is wearing a black leather catsuit, lingerie, gloves and a wig and carrying a whip. Prudence, Foster’s character, orders Harry, played by Zach Braff, to lick her high-heeled boot. But after just a few minutes of role play, Harry recognizes Prudence as his high school classmate.

Harry, who made millions by selling his internet company, now feels emotionally lost, deflated and out of touch with his wife. He quickly becomes obsessed with Prudence and proceeds to invade her life. Her aggressive boyfriend, played by Bobby Cannavale, contemplates blackmailing Harry for rent money.

Paul Weitz, who is best known for the film “American Pie,” has a real talent for dark humor and exploring troubled individuals with sexual problems. But there is simply appears to be little point or purpose to “Trust,” which lacks an involving plot and has little character development. It simply offers awkward conversations that add up to nothing.

Foster admittedly looks very, very hot in her new wardrobe and is sure to shock some of her fans, but her character never changes. Braff, after a bout of emptiness and moral guilt, suddenly becomes unpredictable and frenzied. It's a successfully believable performance, but his role is rather odd and uninteresting. Both Foster and Braff and their co-stars deserve a more substantial play.

“Trust” plays at Second Stage Theatre through September 12.
305 W. 43rd St., 212-246-4422, 2st.com.

Abraham Lincoln's Big, Gay Dance Party

“Abraham Lincoln’s Big, Gay Dance Party” is a pretty amusing title. No doubt about it. Whether Aaron Loeb’s play is actually any good is another issue entirely. In fact, it’s a real stinker.

The two-hour-plus political comedy premiered as part of last year’s New York International Fringe Festival, the annual August event crowded by over 200 shows with the craziest titles imaginable.

It begins with an Illinois fourth-grade teacher presenting a Christmas pageant. In an unexpected addition to the script, the children declare that Abraham Lincoln engaged in a gay relationship with his pal Joshua Fry Speed.

The teacher is soon on trial for corrupting the kids. The cast tells the audience that it can choose the order of three 40-minute acts that recount the trial from the perspectives of the defense attorney, the prosecutor and a famous journalist.

All three acts are slow, unfunny and poorly acted soap operas dealing with political espionage instead of Lincoln’s sexuality. Except for a few obviously didactic points, the play is completely ineffective as political theater.

Occasionally, the seven-member ensemble prances around while dressed in Lincoln costumes and waving flags. During these moments, they project a silly comedic spirit that is otherwise suffocated by the play’s idiotic plotting.

In spite of what may have been a noble intention on the part of the playwright to discuss Lincoln’s ambiguous sexuality, there is simply no redeeming value whatsoever to “Abraham Lincoln’s Big, Gay Dance Party.” That is, besides the title.

“Abraham Lincoln’s Big, Gay Dance Party” plays through September 5 at
Theater Row.
410 W. 42nd St., 212-239-6200, abrahamlincolnsbiggaydanceparty.com.

Secrets of the Trade

“Secrets of the Trade,” Jonathan Tolins’ semi-autobiographical new play, desperately wants to be more than just another tale of a wide-eyed, stage-struck kid who meets his idol. In fact, Tolins sets out to provide an unflinching examination of the mentor-mentee relationship with all its ambiguities and politics revealed.

Andy Lipman (Noah Robbins), a 16-year-old Jewish boy from Port Washington, writes a letter to Martin Kerner (John Glover), supposedly Broadway’s biggest director, for advice on how he can succeed in the theater. After a lunch meeting, the two continue to sporadically meet up throughout the 1980s.

Andy, who starts out as an ambitious overachiever, becomes sexually and professionally frustrated as the years pass. Meanwhile, Martin becomes increasingly fed up with Andy and his pleas for help.

Constantly on the sidelines are Andy’s parents, who question whether Martin has a sexual motive for being their son’s mentor, and Martin’s assistant, who provides the most levelheaded perspective.

But in the end, this comedic drama is too slow and laborious to succeed in any form. What might have been a cute nostalgic story is overwhelmed by Tolins’ desire to unload emotional baggage from his youth. Even the handful of jokes meant for the theatergoing crowd fail to land.

There is little justification for the play being set in the 1980s. As the audience enters, show tunes from the period are playing. And numerous references are made to Ronald Reagan throughout the play. But otherwise, it has no direct bearing on the story itself.

Noah Robbins, who played Eugene in last season’s flop revival of “Brighton Beach Memoirs,” is credibly awe struck as a youngster but less convincing as his character matures.

John Glover is charming as the egotistical Martin, but hams it up while yelling at his poor protege or making a drunken phone call.

If you go? “Secrets of the Trade” plays at 59E59 through September 4.
59 East 59th Street, 212-279-4200, 59e59.org.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

A Little Night Music

It was all over. At least it seemed to be. The producers of “A Little Night Music” announced that the Broadway revival would end its run in mid-June when Catherine Zeta-Jones and Angela Lansbury’s contracts expired.

But the gods of musical theater smiled upon us and offered a last-minute reprieve: Elaine Stritch and Bernadette Peters, both divas known for appearing in Stephen Sondheim musicals, would take over the roles of Madame Armfeldt and her daughter Desiree.

Sondheim’s waltz musical 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.

In spite of her painfully horrific rendition of “Send in the Clowns” on the Tony Awards, Zeta-Jones was not bad as Desiree, the middle-aged actress who now clings to the hope of settling down with her former beau Fredrik Egerman. She looked absolutely gorgeous and displayed a strong singing voice.

In comparison, Peters completely masters the role in all its emotional complexity. She nails every laugh with her baby doll persona, and her teary performance of “Send in the Clowns” is truly heartbreaking. Peters isn’t just playing Desiree – she is Desiree.

Elaine Stritch, as the wheelchair-bound former courtesan Madame Armfeldt, practically defines what it means to be a hot mess. While her line readings are often irritatingly slow, she is comically authoritative and refreshingly unpredictable. Stritch also brings a surprising vulnerability to the role.

Trevor Nunn’s scaled-down production looks visually exquisite, but the lighting is too dim, the pacing is too slow and the orchestra is too reduced. But with Peters and Stritch joining a strong supporting cast, Sondheim’s romantic musical continues to ring out with divinity. Now send in the audience!

“A Little Night Music” plays at the Walter Kerr Theatre.
219 W. 48th St., 212-239-6200, nightmusiconbroadway.com. Open run.