April 25, 2015

"Airline Highway" Goes Right into The Heart of the Underside of the American Dream

There is a direct line connecting the down and outers waiting for Hickey in The Iceman Cometh and the outcasts who gather in the parking lot of the Hummingbird Motel for the premature funeral of their den mother in Airline Highway, an incredible new play by Lisa D’Amour that Manhattan Theatre Company opened Thursday night at its Samuel J. Friedman Theatre.

Airline Highway is set during Jazz Fest, the high-spirited music and culture festival that has drawn hundreds of thousands of people to New Orleans each spring for the last 45 years. But the folks who hang around the seedy Hummingbird, situated on the titular highway that connects the city and its airport, are as faraway from the romantic fantasy of the Big Easy as you can get.

Among them are Tanya, the aging hooker who has lived—and turned tricks—at the Hummingbird for years; Krista, a younger stripper who’s recently been evicted because she's not earning enough to pay her rent; Sissy Na Na, a sassy (is there any other kind) drag queen; and Miss Ruby, the old and ailing burlesque queen who has requested a funeral before she dies so that she can hear the nice things people will say about her when she’s gone.

Unlike the Iceman crew, these folks don’t have delusional pipe dreams. They know they’ve fallen to the underside of the American Dream, know how hard it’s become for people like them to have any kind of dream and are just trying to survive. 

The arrival of a Whole Foods in their gentrifying neighborhood doesn’t signify an opportunity to get fresh vegetables and gourmet cheeses but just the distressing fact that there's one less place where they can buy cheap groceries. 

And when an outsider bearing a platter of sandwiches from Whole Foods arrives at the wake, he unsettles them precisely because he is the exception to the rule that says there’s no hope of making it over to the other side. 

That outsider is Bait Boy, Krista’s former lover. He’s gotten over by taking up with a successful realtor in Atlanta and now lives in her nice home, instead of a pay-by-the-week flophouse like the Hummingbird. He wears preppyish khakis and shirts and asks his old friends to call him by his real name, Greg. 

Greg has also brought along his teenaged stepdaughter who is doing a school paper on what she calls subcultures and is eager to interview the Hummingbird residents. Their reluctant answers to her questions become soliloquies about the mishaps that have brought them to their current sad state.

Those speeches go on admittedly too long. But they’re also a needed reminder that the folks at the margins of society—the panhandlers, the people pushing shopping carts filled with the odds and (mainly) ends of their lives—are real human beings who, as my mother used to say, only by the grace of God, might be us.

The 16-person cast is outstanding. And the invaluable Joe Mantello proves a master of this kind of crowd control. There are moments when several conversations are going on at once, with lines of dialogue overlapping one another Robert Altman-style. And yet everyone, even those in the background ensemble, gets a moment to shine and does so.

Among the brightest are K. Todd Freeman, who does the most anyone can with the stock role of the black drag queen, and Judith Roberts, elegant and elegiac as Miss Ruby, a dream part for actresses of a certain age. In fact, I couldn’t help wondering what the hell Elizabeth Ashley’s agent was doing when the script was making the rounds cause it would be a fabulous role for her.

Still, it’s hard not to single out Julie White, so often brought in for her dry comic timing but here heartbreaking as Tanya, who is haunted both by the mistakes she made in her past and the ones she knows she won’t be able to avoid in her future (click here to read an interview with the actress).

D’Amour's family goes back five-generations in New Orleans (click here to read an interview with her) and she displays a fierce pride in her characters and in her hometown's traditions (there’s even a funeral parade, complete with music and undulating umbrellas). She may sentimentalize a bit but she doesn't condescend. And this isn't a total wallow in misery; there's plenty of buoyant humor. 

For D'Amour is comfortable in the world of the have-nots. Her earlier play, Detroit focused on the downward mobility of middle-class suburbanites and it drew big praise from the mainstream critics when it was produced at Playwrights Horizons in 2012. 

But many of those critics have been far less enthusiastic about this one, dismissing it as derivative, a word that somehow rarely gets used when talking about the scores of plays about middle class ennui that are turned out and produced year after year.

I was much cooler on Detroit (click here to read my review) but, as you can probably tell, I'm fired up about this this one. Like Iceman, American Highway is a big bruiser of a play, sympathetic to society's most wounded. And for me, it hurts in all the right ways.

April 22, 2015

"Hand to God" is a Devilishly Good Play

Plays like Hand to God rarely make it to Broadway nowadays. For as its cheeky ad campaign says, the play has no movie stars, isn’t a transfer from London or based on a movie. On the other hand, like The Book of Mormon, Hand to God is both outrageously funny and unexpectedly touching. I'm praying it gets the long run it deserves.

It centers around the puppet ministry at an evangelical church. The group is lead by Margery, a fortysomething widow, who’s grieving for a husband who ate himself to death and trying to fend off the well-meaning advances of the church’s minister, Pastor Greg.

The only participants in her puppet group are Jason, Margery’s forlorn teenage son; Timothy, an alpha-male who shows up only because he needs something to do while his mother attends a 12-step program at the church and Jessica, the droll but empathetic girl on whom both boys have a crush.

And then there’s Tyrone. He’s the sock puppet that Jason wears on his hand but that seems to have a mind of its own. And that mind is all id. Tyrone is foul-mouthed, blasphemous and hysterically funny. Really, people, including me, could barely stop laughing at the performance my friend Jessie and I attended.

But the play has its serious side too. Playwright Robert Askins attended conservative Lutheran churches as a boy in Texas and although he’s now the epitome of a Brooklyn hipster (the bald head, the bushy beard, a day job as a bartender—click here to read more about him) he hasn’t forsaken his roots entirely. Hand to God may poke fun at organized religion but it acknowledges the pain that causes people to seek refuge in faith.

Askins occasionally gets a little preachy (I could have done without the spell-it-all-out-for-you final scene). But director Moritz von Stuelpnagel makes the most of the play's zanier moments as Tyrone’s rampages encompass vandalism, cannibalism and even sexual adventurism (this is clearly not a puppet show for kids).

The cast couldn’t be better. Each actor fits into his or her role as though it had been custom-made, moving between the humor and the pathos with ease and equal skill, making sure that even when generating non-stop laughs, they are never condescending towards the characters or their beliefs.

Still, first among equals is Steven Boyer, who plays both Jason and Tyrone. Boyer doesn’t pretend to be a good ventriloquist (you can see his mouth moving when Tyrone speaks) but he's remarkable at channeling two distinctly different characters. 

In one section the meek boy and the ferocious puppet literally wrestle for Jason’s soul, with Boyer switching back and forth between the two in a nanosecond. It’s a knockout performance even in this season filled with standouts (click here to read an interview with the actor).

Friends have expressed surprised when I’ve told them how much I like Hand to God. I’m not exactly sure what to make of that.  

Maybe they feel that I'm not the target audience for the show because so many young people, who presumably missed the show's sold-out off-Broadway runs, are filling the Booth Theatre to see it now. Or maybe it's because some overly prissy folks in my age demo have reportedly been walking out.  

But whatever the reason, they're wrong. I had a helluva good time.

April 18, 2015

Ah Paree: "An American in Paris" and "Gigi"

Like most Americans, I’m a sucker for the mystique of Paris. And I’ve recently had the chance to overindulge that fascination by seeing the new productions of Gigi and An American in Paris that have opened on Broadway over the past two weeks. My verdict: comme ci comme ça.  

Gigi, a revisal of the 1973 Lerner & Loewe musical, has fared the worse with the big-gun critics (click here to see what some of them said). The show, as you probably know, is based on the French writer Colette’s novella about a girl raised to be a courtesan and the rich older man who falls for her harder than he thought he would.

A 1951 stage play of the story marked the debut of Audrey Hepburn and seven years later, Hollywood turned the tale into an Oscar-winning musical starring Leslie Caron.

Those are tough acts to follow. The '73 show flopped. Now the producers of this latest incarnation have put their hopes on the very slender shoulders of Vanessa Hudgens, who made her name as the star of Disney’s “High School Musical” TV and movie franchise.

Hudgens, now 26, began singing and dancing in local productions in her native California at age 8 (click here to read an interview with her) but she’s a creature of the “American Idol” generation that seems to believe volume can make up for emotion. 

And that comes off really badly when contrasted with the exquisite singing of Victoria Clark who plays Gigi’s still-stylish grandmother.

Yet, there’s a pluckiness about Hudgens that suits the character of the pixyish Gigi.  Plus she works so hard and looks so smashing in the dresses that Catherine Zuber has created for her (click here for a Q&A with the designer) that I found myself rooting for Hudgens. 

Director Eric Schaeffer and book writer Heidi Thomas have tried to ease the way by toning down the uncomfortable storyline that basically calls for Gigi’s grandmother and aunt to pimp the girl out. They've made their Gigi more feisty and narrowed the age gap between her and her suitor, played appealingly by Corey Cott (click here to read more about those changes).

And the performances by Clark and the amusing Dee Hoty as her money-minded aunt, Zuber’s costumes, the Art Nouveau-inspired set by Derek McLane and the choreography by Joshua Bergasse kept me from getting cranky. But they’re not enough to get me to recommend Gigi to others in this season which is plump with song and dance shows.

One of the most anticipated of those shows has been An American in Paris, a stage makeover of the Oscar-winning movie musical, which starred Caron and Gene Kelly as an ex-GI turned expat painter who becomes involved with two women—one an American heiress who can help his career and the other a local French woman who has entanglements of her own.

As it turns out Gigi’s book writer and lyricist Alan Jay Lerner also wrote the script for the Caron-Kelly movie, although the music was—and thanks to some added songs is even more so—all George and Ira Gershwin.  In another coincidence, Vincente Minnelli (yep, Liza’s dad) directed the film versions of both Gigi and An American in Paris (click here to read about that).

Like the new Gigi, the new American in Paris has had its script revised. In this case, the playwright Craig Lucas moves the setting closer to the end of World War II and interpolates issues like closeted homosexuality and the after effects of the Nazi occupation to add some emotional heft. But, as in the film, dance remains at the heart of the show, including the famous 14-minute dream ballet that comes near its end.

The world-renowned ballet choreographer Christopher Wheeldon does double duty as director and choreographer and he realizes his clear vision for the show, which includes casting it with real ballet dancers (click here to read an interview with him). 

Both Robert Fairchild, a principal dancer with the New York City Ballet, as the painter; and the gamine Leanne Cope, a corp member with London’s Royal Ballet, as his French love, sing well enough but their dancing is spectacular and is probably the reason the show has gotten so much praise (click here to read some of those reviews).

Now here's where I have to own up to philistine status and say that I felt there was too much dancing. So much so that it undercut the cathartic power of that beautiful final ballet.

But there are other reasons to enjoy what it shaping up to be the snob-hit musical of the season. Bob Crowley’s set performs a magical dance of its own, with scrims shifting here and there around the stage, virtually flirting with the smart video projections created by 59 Productions (click here for more about that).

And there are some fine supporting performances from Max von Essen and Brandon Uranowitz as the other men in the French girl’s life and, especially, from Jill Paice, who makes the heiress a real person instead of a cartoon villainess.  Finally, of course, it’s always, always great to hear Gershwin.

April 15, 2015

"Skylight"—And Its Stars—Shines Brilliantly

So much money is now spent on creating spectacles for theatergoers that we sometimes forget that all that’s really needed are a play with something to say and actors who know how to say it. At least that’s all that proves necessary to make the revival of David Hare’s 1996 play Skylight starring Bill Nighy and Carrie Mulligan one of the most exquisite experiences of this theater season.

The play unfolds over a wintry night in the drab and barely heated London apartment of a young schoolteacher named Kyra who is visited by her much older and much, much wealthier former lover Tom (his car and driver wait for him, unseen, outside the building).

On the surface, the plot is simple. Years earlier Tom and his wife hired the 18-year-old Kyra to work at one of their tony restaurants and she became a virtual member of their family.  But the older man and younger woman began a six-year affair that ended only when the wife found out and Kyra fled, cutting off all contact with the family. Now the wife has died and Tom wants Kyra back.

But Hare has never been a surface kind of playwright. While he explores the tangle of love and betrayal, grief and guilt that connect Tom and Kyra, he also delves into the larger morass of class, income disparity and social responsibility.

The broader politics are made personal in the choices Tom, a self-made man, and Kyra, in self-imposed exile from middle-class life, have made. And they're also underscored by Bob Crowley’s evocative set, in which the poor neighborhood where Kyra lives forms a visible and enveloping presence in the background.

Skylight is nearly all talk (although Kyra prepares and cooks a spaghetti dinner onstage; so don’t see the show hungry) but the talk is riveting: sometimes angry, often funny, always insightful. And under Stephen Daldry’s deft direction, Nighy and Mulligan make a feast of it.

Although he’s best known in this country for movies like “Love Actually” and “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel,” Nighy is a veteran stage actor in Britain and has a long association with Hare (click here to listen to the two of them discuss that).

But the last time Nighy was on Broadway, he appeared opposite Julianne Moore in The Vertical Hour and seemed to reign himself in so as not to overpower Moore in what turned out to be her shaky Broadway debut.  But he’s gloriously unleashed here and it’s a marvel to behold.

Tall, gangly and vibrating with energy, Nighy’s Tom is unable to stand still, posing, preening, kicking in chairs, twisting his face into grins and grimaces, all in a desperate—and mesmerizing—effort to woo Kyra back and all the while fearful that he can't. 

I saw Michael Gambon, who recently announced his retirement from the stage, in the original 1996 production of Skylight and Gambon used his bulk to make Tom a more solid and imposing presence.  Both interpretations work but I—and even my husband K—found Nighy’s to be utterly seductive.

The role of Kyra is less flashy but Mulligan is no less compelling. I first fell in live with her when her performance as Nina in the 2008 production of The Seagull literally reinvented Chekhov for me (click here to read my review).

Hare has said that he’s turned down requests from numerous other actresses to play Kyra but got excited when he heard that Mulligan wanted to do it and his instincts prove right. 

Mulligan roots Kyra’s determination to do good in a compassion for the less fortunate but she also makes it clear that Kyra’s decisions are a way to atone for her past wrongs and to insulate herself from future ones.  It’s a quietly devastating performance.

Of course Mulligan, too, has a flourishing movie career and so this production is only scheduled to run at the Golden Theatre through June 21. It’s selling out but you should do what you can to get a ticket because it's the kind of spectacle you really should see.

April 11, 2015

"Buzzer" Provokes the Right Kind of Noise

After-show talkbacks set my teeth on edge. Instead of talking about the show or what it provoked in them, most people just seem to want to show off. So I sighed inwardly when my theatergoing buddy Bill suggested we stay for the discussion after Buzzer, the fine new drama that opened in The Public Theater’s Martinson Theater space this week. But, with the exception of one windbag, the people (including Bill) who raised their hands and spoke after Buzzer were genuinely wrestling with the questions the play poses about white privilege and black achievement, black anger and white guilt.

That’s a tribute to the skill, honesty and courage of playwright Tracey Scott Wilson (who is black) and director Anne Kauffman (who is white). For they deal with these issues of race and class in a perceptive and intimately comprehensible way that is rarely seen on stage—or elsewhere for that matter (click here to read a Q&A with the playwright).

There are basically three people in Buzzer but they represent an interesting cross-section of the racial dynamics that might be most familiar to the people in the audience watching a play like this one.

Jackson is a black guy who grew up in the tough Brownsville section of Brooklyn but managed to get a scholarship to Exeter and then went to Harvard and, like Barack Obama, on to Harvard Law School. Now on the track for a partnership at a fancy firm, he’s returning to the old neighborhood as a gentrifier.

His girlfriend Suzy is white. She’s Ivy-educated too but has chosen a different career path and teaches in a public school populated by poor kids of color. Yet she is more wary about the idea of living in a neighborhood where, as she says, none of their friends will visit.

None that is, except for Don, Jackson’s best friend since they were roommates at Exeter. Don’s white and he’s from a much wealthier family than Suzy’s but he’s also a classic fuck-up, who dropped out of school, has been in and out of rehab and is now angling to stay with Jackson and Suzy while he tries one more time to stay clean.

This isn’t the first time that Don has sought refuge with Jackson. After Don’s father threw him out, Jackson’s single mom took him in and while Jackson stayed in the house and studied, Don roamed the streets trying to score drugs, which he now thinks makes him far more of a neighborhood homeboy than Jackson.

Suzy’s not crazy about having the deadbeat Don around but the renovated apartment they share is the kind of place New Yorkers dream about: thick walls, high ceilings, long hallways, spacious rooms, top-of-the-line appliances, including a washer and dryer. (Sorry to go on and on but I dream about this stuff too.)

Set designer Laura Jellinek and lighting designer Matt Frey show just enough of the place so that our imaginations can fill in the rest. But they show virtually nothing of the outside, except for a few glimpses of the building’s lobby with the broken buzzer of the title, and so, more ominously, imaginations are set loose here too. 

Suzy stays in as much as possible to avoid encounters with men on the corner who say things to her as she passes by. Don ventures out and engages with their new neighbors to the point that he even invites one into the apartment. Jackson keeps his distance until events force him to do otherwise.

Some critics have griped that the interactions between the characters don't ring true. But, as in real life, Don, Jackson and Suzy do what they do for a variety of reasons—love, envy, fear, loneliness and, not to be discounted, feelings of obligation.  

The acting by Grantham Coleman as Jackson, Tessa Ferrer as Suzy and Michael Stahl-David as Don is uniformly excellent. And throughout this 90-minute update of the Othello story, the tension is kept high. Gestures are deliberately ambivalent. Words easily misconstrued. Truths reluctantly revealed.

The choices that are made spring from the desire on each character’s part to keep race out of the equation. But, of course, it seeps in and the exact nature of the taint must, as the talkback questions and comments indicated, be determined by those of us left staring at it.

April 8, 2015

Onboard With "On the Twentieth Century"

“They might as well give the Tony to her right now,” my husband K said as we walked out of the American Airlines Theatre after seeing Kristin Chenoweth in the Roundabout Theatre Company’s revival of On the Twentieth Century.

There are still nine big musicals opening before the Tony nominations are announced on April 28 but K may be right. Cause Chenoweth is so great and the role fits her so perfectly that you’d think Cy Coleman, Betty Comden and Adolph Green had come back from the dead to tailor it to her talents.

They didn’t of course (although click here to read an interview with Chenoweth in which she talks about how Comden and Green once told her she should do the show). On the Twentieth Century was created back in 1978 as a showcase for the great Madeline Kahn and as an homage to the roots of musical theater.

Coleman’s music is a mix of operetta and show tunes in the style of Sigmund Romberg and Victor Herbert. Comden and Green’s book is an adaptation of Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur’s 1932 farce of the same name. With the exception of a few flashbacks, all the action takes place on the legendary passenger train the 20th Century Limited as it makes its 16-hour journey from Chicago to New York.

The show's main passengers are the flamboyant but bankrupt producer Oscar Jaffe, whose latest show bombed so badly that he had to sneak out of town without paying the actors, and Lily Garland, the mercurial movie actress and Jaffe’s former lover and protégée, whom he hopes will save his career by agreeing to star in a musical based on, of all things, the Mary Magdalene story.

Also onboard are Jaffe’s loyal press agent and business manager, a rival producer, a philandering congressman and his paramour, an eccentric evangelist and Lily’s current lover, a beefy boneheaded movie star named Bruce Granit. Naturally, much silliness ensues.

Now to be truthful, only some of it tickled me. Comden and Green, even when working from someone else’s material, are less book writers than sketch writers. And they have a weakness for badabing-badaboom-style jokes, whose success depends less on what’s being said than on how it’s staged.

Luckily, director Scott Ellis, aided by Warren Carlyle’s zippy choreography (especially the numbers with a quartet of Pullman porters) keeps things moving along. Even luckier, he’s packed his cast with pros who know how to bring the funny. 

Peter Gallagher is goofily—and winningly—grandiose as Oscar (click here for a Q&A with him).  Mark Linn-Baker and Michael McGrath are comic delights as his put-upon lieutenants. And Andy Karl puts the muscles he developed for the ill-fated Rocky—and his own oddball charmto great use as Bruce Granit.

But Chenoweth is the little engine that truly drives this show—and the reason I succumbed to it. The part of Lily is beond demanding. It calls for a brilliant comedienne who’s adept at slapstick and an accomplished singer who can hit high C’s with crystalline clarity. 

Kahn famously left the original production after two months, pleading exhaustion. I don’t know how Chenoweth isn’t similarly wiped out by the end of each night’s performance in this one. 

A gifted clown, Chinoweth zips her tiny body around the stage, performing one inspired bit after another and using her distinctive helium-inflected speaking voice to give an extra bounce to even the flattest lines. A trained opera singer, she also hits every wickedly high note that Coleman devised and filigrees the rest.

I had been thinking this might finally be the year that Kelli O’Hara, who opens in The King and I next week, might take home the Tony. Or that Chita Rivera, finally getting the chance to bring Kander & Ebb's The Visit to Broadway, might get it. And one of them (or someone else) still might. But, as K says, Chenoweth is going to be very tough to beat.

April 4, 2015

"The Undeniable Sound of Right Now” Sings

The bathroom at the Rattlestick Playwrights Theater is a tiny space that sits between the backstage and the audience and that can accommodate just a couple of people at a time and so there’s usually a line of people waiting to use the facilities as you enter the small theater and the show can’t begin until the last person has finished his or her business. 

It took nearly 15 minute for everyone, including the woman sitting next to me who waited until the last minute to jump up and go, to cycle through Tuesday night.  Luckily, the show, Laura Eason’s The Undeniable Sound of Right Now, turned out to be worth the wait.

Set in 1992, it centers around a father and daughter who really love one another and openly show it. The father in question is Hank, a former musician who runs a Chicago bar that has served as an incubator and playground for legions of rock bands, some now famous. As the club nears its 25th anniversary, Hank remains a fierce defender of that music even as tastes have changed and customers have begun to drift off elsewhere.

His daughter Lena was raised by Hank and a loving step-mom Bette in an apartment over the bar after her birth mother OD’ed on heroin. Now in her early 20s, Lena adores her dad and his music but is also drawn to the more contemporary sounds of hip-hop and to a brash young DJ named Nash. 

Adding to the tensions are Toby, the nerdy bartender who not so-secretly pines for Lena, and Joey, the landlord’s slimy son, who openly yearns to renege on the handshake agreement between his dad and Hank, close the bar and move in a more upscale tenant who can pay a higher rent in the now-gentrifying neighborhood.

But the biggest tensions are the ones that exist between art and commerce—and love. Is Nash really into Lena or does he just want the boasting rights of a gig at Hank’s legendary bar? Will Hank be a sellout if he plays hip-hop in his rock club? Should Lena accept Joey’s offer to sleep with him in exchange for a cheaper rent?

As she did in the wonderfully nuanced Sex With Strangers (click here for my review) Eason refuses to settle for easy solutions. And, also as with the earlier play, her quest to work out some answers has elicited an excellent production.

Director Kirsten Kelly and her design team do wonders with the small stage at the Rattlestick, creating a bar so authentic looking that you can just about smell the reek of beer and marijuana and they almost make an offstage rave seem real.

The casting is pitch perfect. Jeb Brown, so good as the leisure-suit wearing record producer Don Kirshner in Beautiful, The Carole King Musical, now convincingly embodies the bodacious swagger of the aging rocker who still looks great in tight jeans and comes most alive when he's tearing into riffs on an amped-up guitar.

And Brown's Hank and Margot Seibert's Lena capture every nuance of the relationship between a father and daughter whose bond is so tight that there’s almost an erotic charge to it.

A special shout-out also has to go to Lusia Strus, whose Fran Descher-like inflections provide a lot of the laughs as Hank’s ex-wife and Lena’s stepmom, but who also manages to leaven the humor with streaks of the pathos that linger in a woman who can’t live with or without the same man.

The early reviews of The Undeniable Sound of Right Now have been largely so-so. Which isn’t surprising. Dysfunctional families tend to dominate most modern plays and the more outrageous or weird they are, the more most critics seem to admire them. But I found it a welcome change to get a play like this in which the main characters genuinely like and care about one another.

That doesn’t mean that everything is all boringly hunky-dory either. For Eason knows how to create affecting plays with people who, although they care about one another, don’t always see eye-to eye, occasionally get on each another’s nerves and sometimes hurt one another. But still love one another. Just like in real life.