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April 16, 2014

"The Library" Isn't as Savvy as It Should Be

Moviemaking—the old-fashioned kind with people and plots but no aliens or armageddons—has become so rare in Hollywood that there’s been a mass migration of some of its best talent into TV…
and the theater.  

The latest high-profile name seeking refuge within a proscenium is the Oscar-winning director Steven Soderbergh, who last year announced that he was giving up movies and is now making his theatrical debut at the helm of The Library, a new ripped-from-the-headlines drama that opened at The Public Theater last night and plays thru next weekend.

The plot centers on the aftermath of a Columbine-style high school massacre. As in the real-life tragedy, the media latches onto the tale of a girl who reportedly prayed before being shot. But the play’s central character is another girl named Caitlin Gabriel, who survived the shooting but is accused by another survivor of telling the killer where some of her classmates were hiding.

Caitlin says she didn’t do it and thus the stage is set for a substantive examination of contemporary issues like the devastating effect trauma can have on a community and the destructive ways in which the media can complicate the healing process. A different production might have delivered on all of that potential but this one doesn’t do it.
The Library is written by Scott Z. Burns, a screenwriter with whom Soderbergh has collaborated on such films as “The Informant,” “Contagion” and “Side Effects.” The play marks Burns’ stage debut as well and the production might have been better off if one of its creators had had more stage experience. Because The Library comes across more as the treatment for a movie than a fully realized play (click here to read about their adjustment process).

Soderbergh, so fluent in the art of filmmaking that he often serves as his own cinematographer, hasn’t a clue about how to stage a play. He has created one arresting image: as the audience enters the theater, a girl is lying still on a table lit by an oddly unsettling blue light. But his imagination seems to fail him after that. 
For the rest of the play, he just directs his actors to walk on, face the audience, say their lines and then walk off. Sometimes they stand on one of the five tables that constitute the play’s entire set. At other times, a light flashes, signaling the beginning or end of a scene, like a fill-in for the cut-to cues in a film.

But even under those circumstances, some of the acting is quite good. The 17-year-old actress Chloë Grace Moretz is another stage newcomer but she is able to turn her callowness into the vulnerability that Caitlin struggles with (click here to read more about the actress). Meanwhile, Michael O’Keefe manages to convey the subtle nuances of a father who wants to believe his daughter but can’t get beyond his doubts.
Jennifer Westfeldt and Lili Taylor don’t fare as well as, respectively, Caitlin’s mom and the mother of the dead girl who prayed during the attack. Each of their characters is given just one note to play, revealing shamefully too little of what these fine actresses can do. 

I also found it disappointing that Burns and Soderbergh seemed to take religion seriously at the start of the play but then quickly fall back on clichés about the malevolence of people of faith.
And yet, I still found myself wanting to see what Soderbegh and Burns might do back on their home turf with a movie version of this story. I suppose I’ll just have to hope that Soderbergh changes his mind about filmmaking. And if I'd had the courage I could have asked him. 

After the show, my husband K and I had dinner at the Public’s new restaurant, which, a little confusingly, is called The Library. The restaurant is obviously convenient, the food is fine and the prices not awful but it’s probably not the best place for an honest conversation about how you feel about the show you just saw.
A few minutes after we sat down, Soderbergh came in with the actress Jennifer Ehle and joined some friends at a table near ours. In true New-Yorkers-know-how-to-give-celebrities-their-privacy fashion, we pretended not to notice.  Or to notice that Stephen Sondheim and his frequent collaborator John Weidman were sitting across the room from us. 

April 12, 2014

"Red Velvet" Could Use A Little More Texture

Ira Aldridge, the first black man to play Othello before a white audience, is a fascinating character. And Adrian Lester, who recently played the Moor in an acclaimed production by London’s National Theatre, can be a compelling actor. So I wish I could say that I enjoyed Lester’s portrayal of Aldridge in Red Velvet, the biodrama now running at St. Ann’s Warehouse through April 20, as much as so many other folks apparently have (click here to read some of the raves).  

But, alas, Red Velvet struck me too much like those shows you find at historical museums or highfalutin amusement parks: the intentions are noble, all the teaching moments are observed and the result is as lively as a diorama at a wax museum. 
And that’s a real shame in this case because Aldridge’s life is inherently dramatic. Born in New York City to free black parents just 30 years after the Declaration of Independence was signed, he began appearing in all-black productions while still in his teens and then headed to Europe, believing, like so many black artists over the years, that he might find less prejudice and more opportunities there. 

And indeed he did, not only breaking the theatrical color barrier in England at a time when that country was hotly debating ending its part in the slave trade, but touring throughout Europe and becoming a celebrity in Germany, Russia and other Eastern European countries. 

But Aldridge still confronted bigotry throughout his career. He never appeared in London again after his Othello debut at Covent Garden in 1833 and although he hoped to return and perform in the U.S., he died and was buried in Poland two years after the Civil War ended.

The play, written by Lester’s wife Lolita Chakrabarti, begins with Aldridge's final tour and then flashes back to his breakthrough performance in Othello as a last-minute and highly controversial replacement for the great actor Edmund Kean, who had collapsed onstage and was unable to finish the run. Like all bio-works, it gooses the facts in an attempt to make its story more dramatic but the effort only partly succeeds. 

Some of the responsibility for that falls on the script. It may be time to declare a moratorium on having the subject of a bio-play relive his past in response to questions from a journalist; meanwhile Kean’s actor son, who in real life had amiably worked with Aldridge before the Covent Garden performance, is presented as an out-and-out racist.

But part of the blame also rests with director Indhu Rubasingham who hasn’t found a clear way to delineate the time shifts, key moments or, in some cases, even the characters. Three of the play’s eight actors play multiple roles, which is particularly confusing when one woman is called upon to portray Aldridge’s British wife, an actress with whom he has a dalliance and the young journalist who wants to write about him.

There are, however, moments of fun, like when the current day actors imitate the pose-and-yell declamatory performance style of their 19th century predecessors.  And Lester gives one of his characteristic all-emotions-to-the-surface performances (click here to read a piece by the actor on how he approached this performance).   

Lester is, no surprise, quite wonderful when delivering parts of Othello’s speeches and he is also quite poignant in Red Velvet’s final scene.  So much so that my husband K (already a big Lester fan from the actor’s TV caper series “Hustle”) is now lobbying for a return engagement of the NT Live screening of Othello (click here to read more about it).  That also may be the better way to pay tribute to Aldridge.

April 9, 2014

Go See "The Bridges of Madison County"

The new musical The Bridges of Madison County isn’t doing well. And I’m not sure why. It’s based on the 1992 novel about the star-crossed love affair between a war bride turned Iowa housewife named Francesca and a peripatetic photographer named Robert that sold some 50 million copies.  The 1995 movie version with Meryl Streep and Clint Eastwood took in over $180 million. And this new musical, with a gorgeous score by Jason Robert Brown and sensational performances by Kelli O’Hara and Steven Pasquale is the best interpretation yet.

Maybe the show isn’t doing so well because even though it has an 18 member-cast, it’s an intimate production that doesn’t have people flying around the auditorium, hydraulic scenery that menaces the audience, songs from the baby boomer era or flashy Hollywood names that make people feel they’re getting their money’s worth when they shell out over a hundred bucks per ticket. 
But what The Bridges of Madison County does have is an engaging and affecting book by Marsha Norman that would be right at home in the Golden Age of musicals, to-swoon-for ballads by Brown and two great-looking and great-sounding leads, all brought together by Bartlett Sher's deft direction which nimbly walks the line between romance and schmaltz.

The show is both cinematic and theatrical. Scenes flow from Francesca’s farmhouse to the state fair, where her husband (played with unshowy dignity by Hunter Foster) and children have gone away for the weekend to show off their prized pig and, of course there are detours to the state’s famed covered bridges (click here to read about the impressionistic set).  

But Norman (click here to read an interview with her) and Sher have opened up the story to bring in the townspeople, who provide a little comic relief and sit along the sides of the stage in Our Town-style, a moral presence even when not directly involved in the action.

Meanwhile, Brown, who has been Broadway’s next big thing ever since he won the Tony for Parade back in 1998 (click here to read a profile of him) pours all of his prodigious talent into a score that ranges from Americana to operetta. And although I would have liked a few more upbeat numbers, I could listen to the songs he’s created for this show endlessly.

Brown actually wrote the part of Francesca for O’Hara, who is the Julie Andrews of her generation, a pretty woman with a beautiful voice and the ability to play both comedy and drama. And O’Hara has never been better than she is here as a complex woman who’s resigned herself to a simple life and then is given one final chance at something more.

I’ve always admired O’Hara (how could one not?) although her cool perfection kept me from being a true fan. But the actress had her second child last fall and is still a little pudgy, which gives her a vulnerability that helps make her portrayal of Francesca entirely believable (even though it calls for her to be a brunette with an Italian accent) and made me ready to sign up for full membership in the Kelli O’Hara fan club (click her to read a Q&A with her).  
O’Hara’s co-star Pasquale is, of course, a certified hunk but he doesn’t rest on his pectoral laurels but brings an inner sadness to Robert that makes it clear why this man of the world would so want this farmer’s wife. I can’t imagine hetero women of any age being able to resist his yearning. 

And all this is why I can’t figure out why the show isn’t getting better word of mouth and doing better at the box office. I’m guessing that the producers are trying to hang on until the awards nominations, particularly those for the Tonys, are announced later this month.

But the competition will be stiff because this has been an unusually prolific season for new musicals (an even dozen have opened over the past eight months) and the race for best actress (with O'Hara facing off against Sutton Foster, Audra McDonald, Marin Mazzie, Idina Menzel and Jessie Mueller) will be particularly fierce.  
The Tony administration committee recently voted to expand the number of candidates for some categories (click here to read more about that). And the jockeying for frontrunner and underdog status has already begun. Singer-songwriter Carole King showed up at Beautiful, the bio-show based on her early life, this past weekend (click here to read about that). 

The Bridges of Madison County may not have that kind of card to pull out of its sleeve and I confess that I haven’t yet seen all of its rivals, but I’m still keeping my fingers crossed that this underappreciated gem is given the chance it needs to shine.

April 5, 2014

An "I Remember Mama" Worth Remembering

Back in the days when both writers and audiences prized loving families as much as dysfunctional ones, people couldn’t get enough of the Hansons, a poor but close-knit clan of Norwegian-American immigrants living in San Francisco during the 1910s.

They were the subject of the bestselling memoir “Mama’s Bank Account,” which was adapted into the 1944 John Van Druten play I Remember Mama (in which Marlon Brando made his Broadway debut) the 1948 movie starring Irene Dunne, a TV show that ran for eight years and the last musical that Richard Rodgers wrote before he died in 1979. 
Now, they’re back in a high-concept revival of Van Druten’s play that the Transport Group Theatre Company opened last Sunday in The Gym at Hudson. And I couldn’t be more pleased.
The film was one of my favorites when I was a kid. The “Million Dollar Movie,” the TMC of my youth that ran one movie for a whole week, showed it often. And I watched it so many times that the characters are still as familiar to me as those in my own family.  
So I was initially worried when I read that all the members of the family—male, female, young and old, from the tomboy baby sister Dagmar to the gruff old family patriarch Uncle Chris—were going to be played by women old enough to qualify for Medicare.

And the first few minutes did seem gimmicky. The playing space in the old gym has been filled with 10 dining room tables, each filled with props referenced in the plot—one was covered entirely with vintage typewriters, another with old books, a third with cash boxes like the one in which the titular character kept the money the family used to pay its bills. 
The 10 actresses in the cast walked on dressed in contemporary slacks and tops and wearing only the most minimal makeup. But none of it mattered as the scenes unfolded, a series of vignettes detailing the kind of funny and sad moments that make up the collective memory of every family and that become dearer over the years with each retelling.

Only two of the actresses play single characters: Barbara Barrie, now 82 but somehow totally believable as the teenage Katrin who yearns to be a writer, and Barbara Andres, 74, warm and unflappable as Mama. 

The other eight slip convincingly in and out of multiple roles—slightly deepening the voice to play Papa, eldest brother Nels or the British boarder who reads classic books to the family in the evening, or straightening their spine to portray the haughtiness of the busybody aunts Jenny and Sigrid or the quiet dignity of Uncle Chris' mistress Jessie.

Actresses, particularly older ones who too often get cast as dowdy grannies in dramas and randy ones in comedies, get so few chances to show off all that they can do. And it’s evident that, under the encouraging direction of Jack Cummings III, all 10 of these vets are relishing the chance to fill a stage with their talent and love of their craft.
I was totally charmed. But I was also a little angry that playwrights aren’t creating more parts for women like these—or that matter, for their younger sisters.  It may have made sense that Shakespeare, writing for a troupe of all-male actors, wrote so comparatively few strong female parts.  But there’s no excuse for the playwrights of today. Not when actors like these are around and creating memorable moments in the theater like this.

April 2, 2014

"Breathing Time" Passes the Time Nicely

Beau Willimon’s first play, Farragut North, was produced by the Atlantic Theater Company with John Gallagher and Chris Noth in the lead roles and then turned into the movie “The Ides of March,” starring Ryan Gosling and George Clooney. Willimon then scored big with “House of Cards,” the political drama series with Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright that made Netflix a power in the TV business. So I was a little suspicious when I saw that the world premiere of his new play Breathing Time was going to be done by the tiny Fault Line Theatre company.

Still, I got myself down to Teatro IATI to see it. A small space on the same block as New York Theatre Workshop and La MaMa that barely seats 100 people, the theater was only half full at the performance I attended but I’m glad I made it there. Because Willimon has a great ear for dialog and this 90-minute play, crisply directed by Fault Line's co-artistic director Aaron Rossini, is a great showcase for his smart talk. 
It opens in an office shared by two lower-middle-rank guys in a Manhattan financial firm.  One is a play-by-the-rules family man who works with derivatives, the other is a go-for-broke bro assigned to marketing who arrives at work with a hangover even though he’s schedule to present a potentially career-changing idea to the board that morning. 

The guys trade insults, dreams and schemes until fate intervenes and changes the course of their lives. In the next scene two women who know them get together for drinks, dinner and a more uneasy conversation.  

There is a schematic quality to the play that makes it seem as though it were an early effort Willimon pulled out of his files rather than something he recently wrote. But the easy banter and the sensitivity to power dynamics that are his trademarks still command attention. Actors looking for fresh audition material or scene work should check out the script.

The acting in the current production is a tad monochromatic.  The actors find a suitable color for the characters they play and stick with it. Although the women are a little more daring than the men. I’ll be particularly interested in seeing what Molly Thomas, who adds fresh shadings to the role of a tightly wound suburban housewife, does next.  

Breathing Time is performed in the round, with the audience seated on two sides of the playing area.  I usually find those kinds of arrangements distracting but this time, I was almost as entertained by the facial expressions of a woman sitting across from me as she figured out what was going on in each scene as by the show itself.

The seating is first-come-first-serve, so if you’re thinking about going before the run ends on April 13, get there early and grab one in the section nearest the entrance.

March 27, 2014

Turning on the Ghost Light

I can't say exactly how it happened but I've obviously missed the deadline for Wednesday's post and so I'm belatedly turning on the ghost light, the traditional sign that theaters are temporarily empty. 

And the cold hard truth is that I'm not really sure when I can turn the light off because my life is looking unbelievably crazy over the next couple of weeks and I really don't know when I'll be able to find the time to write.  

That isn't great cause we're heading into the busiest part of the spring season with 13 shows yet to open on Broadway and some really intriguing off-Broadway productions hitting the boards too (including the Atlantic Theater Company's star-studded version of The Threepenny Opera and film director Steven Soderbergh's stage debut down at the Public.) 

I'm going to try really hope to steal time to post here whenever I can.  But when I can't, I hope you will check out the interesting articles I've aggregated in the Broadway & Me Flipboard magazine, which you can find here.

March 22, 2014

"The Open House" Is Underfurnished

After years of seeing dramas about dysfunctional families, I’d begun to wonder if it was even possible for there to be a good play about a happy family. So I suppose I should have been happy to see The Open House, the Will Eno play that is entering its final week in The Linney space at The Pershing Square Signature Center. 

The central family in The Open House is as wretched as you'll find in any other play but Eno literally (and I mean this in the dictionary sense of the word) replaces this screwed up crew with a smugly contented clan right before the audience’s eyes.  And yet his play just made me grumpy.

It opens with a family of five—an unnamed mom, dad, their grown son and daughter and the father’s brother—uncomfortably gathered in the family’s modest living room. They’re supposed to be celebrating the mother and father’s anniversary and the fact that the father, although wheelchair bound, has survived a recent stroke. Instead, he just tears into them all with one venomous—but admittedly funny—put-down after another. 
Eventually, they all leave and gradually their places are filled by a chirpy realtor, her complacent clients and a contractor who arrive to inspect the house that the dad has secretly put up for sale.  Then, after about 75 minutes, the play ends.
And that seems good enough for many critics who consider Eno heir apparent to the cool existentialism of Samuel Beckett, Harold Pinter and Edward Albee. The New York Times’ Charles Isherwood almost single-handedly put Eno on the map with a review of the 2004 play Thom Pain (based on nothing)  that proclaimed the young playwright “a Samuel Beckett for the Jon Stewart generation.”  
Awards committees have drunk the Kool-Aid too.  Thom Pain was a finalist for that year’s Pulitzer. But having now seen three Eno plays—Middletown, which played down at the Vineyard Theatre in 2010, Title and Deed, which had a run at Signature two years ago, and now The Open House— 
I still don’t haven’t been able to develop a taste for him.
At the end of a play by Beckett, Pinter or Albee, I usually feel something for the people I’ve just seen onstage, even if I don’t fully understand everything that’s happened to them. But Eno hasn't made me give a damn about any of the people in his plays, including this one.  
So I don’t blame my disappointment with The Open House on its director Oliver Butler who squeezes as much entertainment as he can out of its spare text.  Nor do I blame the cast, who, lead by the always-fine Peter Friedman in the dad role, are deadpan perfect and seem to be enjoying themselves. Maybe too much: what appeared to be an ad lib broke two members of the cast up the night I saw the show.  

The problem is that Eno, who apparently wants to strip bare the artifices of the traditional genres that have sustained theater over the past century, goes so far with his deconstructions that too little remains to care about. It's all mind games and meta-theatrics without much heart.
He’s been down this road before. Middletown starts off by paying homage to Thornton Wilder’s Our Town and then turns around and kicks it in the ass. And The Open House attempts to do the same to every family tragedy from Oedipus Tyrannus to August: Osage County.

Now Eno is headed to Broadway. His four-hander The Realistic Jones, with August’s Tracy Letts in one of the roles (so he clearly holds no grudge) is scheduled to open at the Lyceum Theatre next month.   

Isherwood, who saw the 2012 production at the Yale Repertory Theater, swears it’s the best thing Eno has ever done.  Ever a theater optimist, I'm keeping my fingers crossed.