Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Brief Encounter

You don’t need to see two people fly into the air against a dramatic backdrop of rushing waters to know that they have fallen in love. Such is the problem with the tongue-in-cheek and excessive stage adaptation of the 1945 Noel Coward-David Lean flick “Brief Encounter,” which expands upon the same plot but mars its romantic poignancy.

“Brief Encounter” explores the restrained romance between Laura, a polite suburban housewife, and Alec, an alluring medical doctor, after they meet unexpectedly in a train station tearoom. Because of middle-class English morality, they remain plutonic in spite of their shared passion.

Emma Rice’s overstuffed and overwhelming production, which premiered Off-Broadway last season, adds song and dance, slapstick comedy, video projections, puppetry and a jazz band to what is a relatively sober and sad tale of star-crossed lovers. The end result is just as clever as it is irritating and unnecessary.

The production 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’s Piano Concerto No. 2, which makes up the film’s soundtrack, is retained.

Although the use of mixed-media and theatricality is often inventive, the bells and whistles compete against and slow down the essential story. We don’t need to see Alec and Laura literally swing from chandeliers to know that they are reaching passionate heights.

The cast is quite convincing. Tristan Sturrock has a restrained charm as Alec, but it is Hannah Yelland who captures the mannerisms of old-fashioned romantic drama and Laura's sadness.

If you go – “Brief Encounter” plays at Studio 54 through December 5.
254 W. 54th St., roundabouttheatre.org, 212-719-1300.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

The Little Foxes

Here are three words guaranteed to strike fear and terror into the hearts of any theatrical purist who dislikes the avant-garde: Ivo-van-Hove.

Hove, a notorious Flemish director, is best known in New York for his artsy and deconstructed productions of classics such as “A Streetcar Named Desire,” “Hedda Gabler” and “The Misanthrope” at New York Theatre Workshop.

His latest target (or victim, depending on one’s point of view) is Lillian Hellman’s “The Little Foxes,” a melodramatic potboiler about a greedy southern family in 1900 determined to cheat each other out of profits from a cotton mill. The play is best known for its 1941 film version with Bette Davis.

As expected, Hove has done away with any realistic qualities like southern accents and period costumes. He even takes out the play’s intermission.

The cast performs in contemporary business attire on an empty stage on which the walls and floor are covered with posh purple carpeting. A flat screen television is set atop a staircase, on which offstage characters are silently observed.

His stripped-down, space-age approach surprisingly suits the play, which is at heart a simple thriller. A background score of creepy electronic music is even employed. It is often stimulating, but too self-conscious and inappropriately strange to be entirely convincing.

The actors, while violently passionate, are so over-the-top that their performances become grossly excessive. Even the characteristically fierce Elizabeth Marvel, in the plum role of the villainous and determined Regina, lacks spark and individuality.

The production’s saving grace remains the play itself, which is strong enough to survive Hove’s signature handiwork and still provide action-packed, exciting entertainment.

“The Little Foxes” plays at New York Theatre Workshop through October 31.
49 E. 4th St., 212-279-4200, nytw.org.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Me, Myself & I

In Edward Albee’s new play “Me, Myself & I,” a disheveled mother played by Elizabeth Ashley can’t tell her two sons apart. The young men are identical twins that are both named Otto. Actually, one is named otto and the other is OTTO.

But you won’t have any trouble distinguishing “Me, Myself and I” from far better plays written by Albee like “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” and “A Delicate Balance.”

“Me, Myself & I” explores Albee’s trademark theme of absurdity in the everyday household. The evil son suddenly insists that his brother no longer exists and has been replaced. This causes the good son and his mother to doubt his very identity and chaos to ensue.

This dilemma recalls the plot of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?,” where George and Martha claim to have a son who may or may not be a figment of their imagination.

Unfortunately, “Me, Myself & I” operates like a half-baked, torturously overextended sketch instead of a substantial play. By the end of the first act, nothing has yet to even happen.

It feels as if Albee is simply congratulating himself on his legendary wit and complex language instead of actually writing a story. Worst of all is how Albee resorts to off-color humor and directly addressing the audience for cheap laughs.

Even so, Emily Mann’s production, which premiered three seasons ago in New Jersey, is quite handsome and focused. At the very end, the stage opens up from below and out comes a long-lost character on a chariot with black stallions.

The gravely-voiced Elizabeth Ashley is terrific as the cranky and dazed mother, and Brian Murray is in fine form as her longtime lover. What a shame they are not appearing in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” instead.

“Me, Myself & I” plays at Playwrights Horizons through Oct. 31.
416 W. 42nd St., 212-279-4200, playwrightshorizons.org.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

If It Only Even Runs a Minute 3

It was the second best moment of theater I’ve witnessed this entire summer, second only to Bernadette Peters’ rendition of “Send in the Clowns.” Frank Vlastnik, Daniel Jenkins’ understudy in the Broadway musical “Big,” detailed the evolution of the Act One closer “Cross the Line” by performing bits and pieces of the three different songs that preceded “Cross the Line” with explanations as to where the creative team was and what it was going for.

It was certainly the most artistically compelling moment I’ve yet to see in the “If It Only Even Runs a Minute” series, where performers give due respect to flop Broadway musicals. But in addition to just performing some songs, co-hosts Jennifer Ashley Tepper and Kevin Michael Murphy provide detailed introductions to the stories and histories of each show along with Powerpoint visual slides. Sitting to the side of the stage and reading from notes on music stands, they provide a more freewheeling commentary than say Scott Siegel and his "Father Knows Best" style at the podium during a Town Hall concert.

Vlastnik’s performance was certainly fine as a polished cabaret piece. But what made it so appropriate for “If It Only Even Runs a Minute” is how it displayed the committed dedication of Richard Maltby Jr., David Shire, John Weidman and Michael Okrent – and reminded us how easily we forget about that dedication when it comes to musical flops. Even if it didn't make a mint, that's not to say that blood, guts, sweat and tears didn't go into making the show and trying to perfect it.

Similar sentiments were shared by Krysta Rodriguez, who spoke about being a swing in the Broadway cast of “Good Vibrations.” Rodriguez spoke of the affection that the cast shared for each other and how they tried to cheer each other on in spite of artistic team idiocy, bad reviews and poor attendance. Tepper spoke about how much she loved the show and caught it multiple times during her freshman year at NYU. I, myself, was quite taken with "Good Vibrations." In spite of all its problems, there was this insane burst of catchy energy to it.

This is not to say that the musical numbers themselves weren’t terrific. Each version of “If It Only Even Runs a Minute” has gotten progressively better, and I look forward to the series’ return in October as part of New York Musical Theatre Festival.

I was particularly glad that this edition highlighted “The Human Comedy,” one of my all-time favorite flops. They performed the challenging quartet “I Let Him Kiss Me Once,” in which a duo of teenage girls sing romantic pop in counterpoint to a boy delivering a telegram to a Spanish mother that her son died in World War II. (I would have preferred it if Alison Renee Foster were not laughing at herself and would have actually taken the intense song seriously, but the other three performers were great.)

Broadway celeb cameos came from Liz Larsen, who spoke about and performed from “Starmites,” and Michael Rupert, who closed the concert with “Walking Among My Yesterdays” from “The Happy Time.”

Below is a full set list:

1. Nobody Steps on Kafritz (Henry Sweet Henry) – Kate Wetherhead
2. I Just Can’t Wait (Subways Are For Sleeping) – Todd Buonopane
3. Don’t Laugh (Hot Spot, Madwoman of Central Park West) – Samantha Martin
4. Floozies (The Grass Harp) – Will Roland
5a. Do Black Patent Leather Shoes Really Reflect Up?- Story by Larry Hochman
5b. Do Black Patent Leather Shoes Really Reflect Up?- Story by Jacey Powers
5c. Little Fat Girls (Black Patent Leather Shoes) – Jacey Powers and Alex Wyse
6. Millwork (Working) – Francesca Garrard
7a. Big- Story by Frank Vlastnik
7b. Big Medley (Frank Vlastnik) – Big
8. Top That (Teen Witch) – Megan Maes, Kevin Michael Murphy, Lauren Conlin Adams
9. Sleepy Man (The Robber Bridegroom) – Jo Philbin, Matthew Dure
10a. Starmites- Story by Liz Larsen
10b. Superhero Girl (Starmites) – Liz Larsen
11. Milady (Starmites) – F. Michael Haynie with Roman Pietrs, Peter Kriss, and
David Janett
12a. Good Vibrations- Story by Krysta Rodriguez
12b. Your Imagination (Good Vibrations) – Krysta Rodriguez with Megan Kip, Stephanie Griffith, and Ashley Anne Harrell
13. I Let Him Kiss Me Once (The Human Comedy) – Sam Tedaldi, Alyse Alan Louis, Joel Ingram, and Alison Renee Foster
14a. The Happy Time- Story by Michael Rupert
14b. The Happy Time/ Walking Among My Yesterdays (The Happy Time) – Michael Rupert