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August 20, 2014

A Personal Postscript on This Year's Fringe

When I finished last Saturday’s post, I thought I was done with this year’s New York International Fringe Festival. But then I got an email from a friend inviting me to see a show directed by his daughter Anna Strasser. So yesterday I went to see Chemistry, a two-hander by Jacob Marx Rice about the relationship between a couple who meet cute while waiting outside a psychopharmacologist's office to get prescriptions for their meds. 

Jamie (Jonathan Hopkins) has been newly diagnosed with a manic-obsessive disorder.  Steph (Lauren LaRocca) is a longstanding depressive. They are, as Steph says, “A pair so perfect they named a disease after us.”

It wouldn’t be fair for me to review this show since I have a relationship with Strasser's dad but I can say that Chemistry has been so popular that the festival administrators added an extra performance this week (the final one scheduled for Friday is already sold out) and have selected the show for its Encore series of productions that have drawn the strongest word of mouth (click here to read what one reviewer said). 

And although it might be flirting a bit close with the conflict-of-interest line, I’m also going to say that if you can, you should make an effort to see it.

August 16, 2014

Youth, Love and Sex at This Year's Fringe

Every spring I tell myself I should see the end-of-school productions at Juilliard or New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts so that I can get a peek at the newest crop of talented hopefuls ready to storm the theater world.  Inevitably, other things come up and I end up not going. But a visit to this year’s New York International Fringe Festival has given me the chance to make up for that.

The Fringe is always filled with young up-and-comers hoping for their big break. Yet I had almost skipped it too because, as always, it's so difficult choosing what to see when 200 shows are running at 18 different venues from Aug. 8 to Aug 24. But my undaunted theatergoing buddy Bill valiantly sorted through the offerings and came up with a trio of shows for us to see in one day of marathon theatergoing.

 Two of the three—Vestments of the Gods and The Picture (of Dorian Gray)—featured fresh-faced casts and left me admiring the intensity of their young actors' energy and unbridled commitment to their craft, even if I wasn’t swept away by the shows themselves.

Vestments of the Gods, a musical that lists Lin-Manuel Miranda as a producer, uses Sophocles’ Antigone as a jumping off point. Here the principled young woman daring to go up against the establishment is Annie, a sixth grader at Thebes Street Elementary School, and the cause she’s fighting for is an end to bullying, particularly of the effeminate boy who is her best friend.  

The book writer Owen Panettieri works hard to create modern-day cognates for the characters in the original story—Ismene, Antigone’s more compliant sister, becomes Ms. Mene, the school teacher who looks the other way when the bullying occurs; Tiresias, the soothsayer in the Greek version becomes, a bit more improbably, Terry, the truth-telling janitor at the school. 

But Panettieri isn’t able to add anything to the tale beyond the obvious message that bullying is bad and so his show carries the whiff of an old-style public service announcement. A program note says the music by David Carl was added late in the development process.  It’s pleasant, if undistinguished, but the lyrics, also by Panettieri, don’t say much about the characters singing them or move the plot along.

Still the cast is game. Erica Diaz does a fine job as the noble Annie, stage vet Jennifer Cody seems to be having a good time as the school’s narrow-minded PTA president and although the eight actors who make up this show’s Greek chorus are a decade older than the grade schoolers they're playing, they are energetic and sing well. 

Vestments of the Gods, which is scheduled for three more performances at Theatre 80 on St. Marks Place, is unlikely to have much of an afterlife but some of its eager young cast members may.

The odds that the five comely actors in The Picture (of Dorian Gray) may have careers seem even stronger. The three men and two women apparently all come from Juniata College, a small liberal arts school in Pennsylvania that prides itself on its science program, and they’re almost vibrating with the desire to show how much theater matters.

Their show takes a highly-stylized approach to Oscar Wilde’s classic novella about a hedonist who trades his soul for eternal youth and beauty. Neal Utterback is listed as the adapter and director and he has the actors, all dressed in androgynous jeans and white t-shirts, pass the characters around irrespective of gender. The change is signaled when an actor puts on one of the distinctive pairs of sunglasses that symbolize each role.  

A narrator periodically recites Wilde's prose. The actors sometimes speak in unison. They also perform choreographed movements and sing snatches of contemporary songs chosen to underscore telling moments in the story. Bill found it all to be a bit too precious. And the story can be difficult to follow if you come to it new. But I'm a sucker for this kind of flamboyant stagecraft.
Watching these young actors, particularly the eyecatching Jamison Monella, reminded me of my own acting class days when my fellow students and I felt that we didn’t need props or costumes to make a show but just passion. You can catch a similar spirit on display at The Steve & Marie Sgouros Theatre on MacDougal Street, where The Picture (of Dorian Gray) is slated for four more performances, including one today.

And yet, contrary to the up-with-youth theme of this post, the show that both Bill and I like most was Bedroom Secrets, a two hander about middle-aged people written and directed by Thomas and Judy Heath, the husband-and-wife team whose previous play Perfectly Normel People won the festival’s Audience Award last year. 
The set-up for Bedroom Secrets is simple: a therapist listens to and tries to help the sexual problems of a series of clients. The therapist is played by Ashlie Atkinson, who made a terrific debut nine years ago as the overweight title character in Neil LaBute’s Fat Pig but hasn’t done much in New York since then. I hope this production changes that because she’s a marvelously genuine and sympathetic actor.

All five of the clients—male and female—are played by Stephen Wallem, who will be familiar to TV watchers as the male nurse Thor on Edie Falco’s Showtime series “Nurse Jackie.” Wallem's stage credits seem to be mainly musicals and concerts but he does a very nice job here, moving in just a beat from character to character, aided only by a simple prop—a water bottle, a cellphone, some neck wear—to distinguish each. 
The play’s underlying message is that all of us—gay or straight, single or married, young or not so young—want to be loved. That’s not exactly original but it’s sweetly told and just the kind of show that budget-minded regional theaters might appreciate. But New Yorkers will have to rush to see it because there’s only one more performance scheduled and it’s tonight at the Players Theatre on MacDougal.

There are however lots of other Fringe performances to see over the next week and a half and you can check them all out here.

August 13, 2014

This "Phoenix" Never Soars

Nothing makes sense in Phoenix, the totally inept two-hander that’s playing at the Cherry Lane Theatre through Aug. 23.  Ostensibly, it’s a rom-com about two lonely souls who hooked up one night, later discover that she’s pregnant and then spend the next 85 minutes trying to figure out where to go from there.

If that scenario sounds familiar it may be because you’ve seen the 2007 Judd Apatow movie “Knocked Up,” in which Seth Rogen and Kathryn Heigel play a couple who hook up one night, later discover that she’s pregnant and then try to figure out where to go from there. 

Of course, it’s absolutely OK to appropriate a familiar storyline (look at Shakespeare) but if you do, then you’ve got to bring something to it (look at Shakespeare). Unfortunately, playwright Scott Organ only brings vapid dialogue and half-realized characters.
The first scene of Phoenix is a meeting, four weeks after the couple's initial get-together, between the woman Sue and the man, whose name is listed as James in the Playbill but who is called Bruce onstage. And that mix-up is just the first sign that this production is in trouble. 

Sue has summoned James/Bruce to a coffee shop to tell him three things: (1) she had a good time when they were together; (2) she doesn’t want to see him anymore and (3) she’s pregnant and plans to get rid of the baby but isn't expecting any help from him. 

Really? I’m all for suspension of belief in the theater but are we actually supposed to believe that a woman would go out of her way to get in touch with a one-night stand just to tell him that she doesn’t want to have anything to do with him and is getting rid of the unintentional pregnancy that resulted from their encounter?  Really?
The absurd premise might matter less if the actors were able to convey the longing to connect that's supposed to be roiling underneath the slick surfaces of their characters—hers wary, his whimsical.  But, alas, that’s not the case either.  

Neither Julia Stiles, returning to the New York stage for the first time since she appeared in the short-lived Broadway revival of David Mamet’s Oleanna (click here to read an interview with her); nor newcomer James Wirt is at all up to that task. 

Although I have to say that barely seemed to matter to the legion of scantily-skirted young women in the audience who apparently see Stiles as a role model and, at the performance my theatergoing buddy Bill and I attended, clapped madly after every scene.

Even so, under the misbegotten direction of Jennifer Delia, making her off-Broadway directorial debut, the actors display little chemistry, deliver their lines woodenly and indulge in unnecessary and distracting stage business:  at one point, Stiles literally stands on her head.
But, as I said, nothing makes sense in this production. The set is dominated by a collection of suspended paintings, including glitter portraits of the two actors, that do nothing to establish where the action is taking place. The interstitial music is loud, the lighting garish. 

And the costuming is equally clueless: would the no-nonsense woman that Sue is made out to be really change from her sweats into a pink and white chiffon sundress when heading out to an early-morning abortion? 

I'm not the only one who was put off by the choices this show made and director Delia has written a detailed response to the earlier criticism (click here to read what she says). But it seems to me that if you've got to explain the effect your choices were supposed to make, then they didn't make them.

Part of the problem may be that from the producers on down, everyone involved in this project, with the exception of Stiles, is a theatrical first-timer. Most of them hail from the movie world and the Playbill says that a film based on Phoenix is already in pre-production.  Maybe it will fare better in that medium.   

In the meantime, anyone seeking a robust onstage portrayal of what can happen when opposites attract should take a detour from Phoenix and head over to Second Stage to see Sex with Strangers.

August 9, 2014

Hot and Cold on This Year's "Summer Shorts"

Summer Shorts, the festival of short plays that appears every August at the 59E59 Theaters, is always a grab bag. Its contributors are a motley crew of known and lesser-known playwrights. They can—and do—write about anything and in any form. Which means the shows, divided into two evenings of three plays each, include small comedies, tiny tragedies, solo works and the occasional mini musical. The quality varies too, from the very good to the nearly unbearable.

Both the highs and lows of the festival were on display when my friend Jessie and I saw the three plays that make up this year’s Series B, which consists of works by Albert Innaurato, Neil LaBute and Daniel Reitz, all performed on a simple but elegant and highly versatile set designed by Rebecca Lord-Surratt.
The evening opened with Napoleon in Exile, a two-hander by Reitz, who, according to his bio, is well-known on the regional and play development circuit although he’s new to me. But after seeing this affecting piece about a mother and her grown son who has Asperger’s syndrome, I’ll be on the look out for more of his work.

Under the excellent direction of Paul Schnee, Henny Russell is wrenching as a mother who realizes perhaps too late that her efforts to protect her son may have put him at greater risk. But the piece rises or falls on the performance of the son Corey and Will Dagger is outstanding, capturing the physical tics and emotional inhibitions of the syndrome without surrendering to stereotype. 

Dagger makes Corey funny and smart but also fearfully aware of how unable he is to function in the world on his own. My heart broke for both mother and child and for the real life families in similar situations.
LaBute is a Summer Shorts regular and his latest offering The Mulberry Bush shows how well he has mastered the form. It starts with two apparent strangers sitting on neighboring park benches and striking up a conversation. The talk turns more serious, secrets are revealed, tensions rise. But the most difficult role is left for the audience, which is challenged to find empathy for someone easy to detest.

Once again, the acting is superb, particularly from Victor Slezak, who, under the sensitive direction of Maria Mileaf, slowly peels back the fragile layers of a man at war with himself and desperately afraid of losing.

But most of the advanced attention for this collection of plays has gone to Innaurato, the onetime theatrical wunderkind who wrote such highly acclaimed plays as Gemini and The Transfiguration of Benno Blimpie but hasn’t had a new work produced in New York since 1989 (click here to read a recent New York Times piece about him). Alas, his Shorts offering Doubtless was a real disappointment. 
A smug farce whose characters included lesbian nuns, priapic priests and a vampire Jesus, it takes hits at the Catholic Church, the political right and people who have been more successful in the theater than its author, including his former Yale Drama School classmates Meryl Streep, Sigourney Weaver and Christopher Durang. Even the title is an intentional slam at Doubt, John Patrick Shanley’s Pulitzer-Prize winner about sex abuse in the Church.

The bitterness might be tolerable if the production were truly funny but director Jack Hofsiss seems undone by that challenge. Three women sitting near me (ex-nuns?  members of the Innaurato family?) guffawed loudly at each put down but the whole thing struck me as silly and sophomoric and like several other people in the audience, I kept sneaking peeks at my watch.
Doubtless runs twice as long as each of its companions and isn’t nearly half as satisfying as either. But, as my husband K said when I got home, “two out of three ain’t bad.” That's particularly so when they’ve been plucked from a grab bag.

August 6, 2014

Yet Another Listelss "King Lear"

The public radio host Ira Glass set the theater blogosphere aflutter last week. The reason: after seeing an early preview of the new Shakespeare in the Park production of King Lear, he tweeted “@John Lithgow as Lear tonight: amazing. Shakespeare: not good. No stakes, not relatable. I think I’m realizing: Shakespeare sucks.”

As you can imagine, it was that last bit that pissed off theater lovers, including my friend Howard Sherman (click here to read his response). Of course, neither the play nor Shakespeare need any defending. Lear has been holding its own for some 400 years as one of the greatest works in the western canon. As George Bernard Shaw said “No man will ever write a better tragedy than Lear.”  
And yet, having seen this production, I can understand some of Glass’ disillusionment. This Lear is as drab as the mud-colored costumes that the king and his courtiers wear as he divvies up his kingdom between his two eldest daughters and their husbands, disinherits the youngest for not flattering him enough and then quickly rues those decisions, all of which unleashes a chain of disasters.

Director Daniel Sullivan’s attempts to trim the text and leaven it with humor have made the action confusing, particularly for people unfamiliar with the play. Even with the cuts, it still went on for almost three and a half hours the night my theatergoing buddy Bill and I saw it. 
And almost everyone onstage (the park’s usual summer salad of theater vets, Hollywood names and eager up-and-comers) seemed to be declaiming their lines instead of embodying their characters. The villain isn’t dastardly enough. The contradictorily named Fool isn’t wise enough.

Two exceptions are Clarke Peters as Lear’s chief minister Gloucester and Chukwudi Iwuji as his legitimate son Edgar. Peters is best known as the world-weary detective Lester Freeman on the HBO series “The Wire” but he has spent most of the last 40 years living and working in London and he seems comfortable enough with the Bard's language to speak it naturally and to imbue it with some emotion.  
Iwuji, too, brings Brit cred as an associate artist with the Royal Shakespeare Company. I didn’t care for his interpretation of Poor Tom, the mad man disguise Edgar assumes after his villainous half brother Edmund's false charges cause their father to banish Edgar. But Iwuji is touching during Edgar’s bittersweet reconciliation with his father.

The problem is that I hadn’t come to see either of them but to see Lithgow’s interpretation of Lear and Annette Bening, making her return to the New York stage after a 30-year absence, as Goneril, the eldest of the king's two duplicitous daughters. Alas, neither star lived up to my expectations.
Lithgow is usually, as Glass tweeted, amazing. He’s at home on TV, in the movies and onstage. And he is equally adept in comedies ( The Front Page) dramas (M.Butterfly) and musicals (Dirty Rotten Scoundrels). 

He's a good writer too. I had followed the journal he’d been keeping about the production (click here to see some of his entries) and I was excited to see what he would do with the role. My buddy Bill who’d sworn off seeing another Lear, is such a Lithgow fan that he broke his vow so as not to miss this rendering of the king.

Lithgow is too fine an actor to be bad but there’s no there to his Lear.  Pivotal lines like “O, reason not the need!” and “O! let me not be mad” pass by unnoticed. He works hard but the labor has too little effect.
Bening, on the other hand, seemed miscast right from the start. At 56, she’s only 12 years younger than Lithgow but I suppose her playing his daughter might be excused by the fact that those medieval folks started procreating early. 

What can’t be excused is the fact that Bening is so tentative in the role. She tripped over her lines several times at our performance and kept moving her hands erratically as though she didn’t know what to do with them. During the climactic sword fight between Edgar and Edmund, she ran back and forth in front of the stage like a rookie soccer goalie.  

Sullivan has said he wanted a visceral production and fight director Rick Sordelet has choreographed some convincing moves (click here to read about how he did it). But Sullivan pushes things too far during the scene when Gloucester's eyes are gouged out: he has designer Susan Hilferty put a white dress on Lear's second daughter Regan (played by Jessica Hecht with her trademark, but here ineffectual, flibbertigibbet mannerisms). 

The idea is clearly to shock the audience with the red blood stains on the stark white dress but I was just bemused by why the character would change into something so impractical.

To be fair, Lear is a notoriously difficult play to pull off. This is the third one I've seen in just the past five months and none of them have worked. But, unlike Ira Glass, I'm not giving up on Shakespeare or on this play. In fact, I'm so eager to see a good production of it that I've been poking around the King Lear website (click here to check it out) looking for a version to download. If you know one, I'd appreciate your letting me know about it.

August 2, 2014

How "Sex With Strangers" Turned Me On

We all say we want to be loved for just being ourselves but playwright Laura Eason knows that romantic relationships usually start off with each person pretending to be someone different than they really are. And that knowingness is the charm of her play Sex With Strangers, which opened this week at Second Stage Theatre.

Its would-be lovers are Olivia, a late-thirtysomething writer whose debut novel was beautifully written but so totally overlooked that she has retreated into teaching and just writing for herself; and Ethan, 10 years younger and the author of a slick bestseller about how to pick up (and discard) women that began as a blog and now has him rolling in dough. 
They meet cute after a snowstorm keeps other guests away and they end up the only residents at a writers’ retreat. In typical romcom fashion, they’re turned off by one another at first and then, they’re turned on.  Really turned on. 
Their sex scenes, as directed by David Schwimmer, go on a bit longer than they need to but they are hot and erotic. Schwimmer may still be most famous for his role on the sitcom “Friends” but, like Eason, he’s also a longtime member of Chicago’s Lookingglass Theatre Company and he knows his way around a stage. 
He also knows how to squeeze the juice from the text, which, in this case, is succulent and bristling with such questions as whether the Internet will change literature and whether love can change a person (click here to read about the development of the show).
After the lovemaking come the real intimacies. Ethan is eager to be seen as a more sensitive guy than his book would suggest. He’s read, and says he’s a fan of, Olivia’s novel and he also wants to be taken seriously as a writer. Olivia yearns for the wider readership that Ethan has enjoyed and is flattered by the attention of such a young hottie even as she’s suspicious of his licentious past. 
And then come the questions. Is he really into her or just an asshole who’s trying to get her to lend the prestige of her literary background to his new digital publishing venture?  Does she really want to be with him or is she actually lusting after the contacts he has in the publishing world who can help advance her career? Does it matter why they’re together? Can either put aside the fears and jealousies that come easily for the vulnerability that is harder won?
To care about the answers, you need to care about the characters. And here’s where Sex With Strangers really scores, for Schwimmer and Eason have smartly cast Anna Gunn, best known as Walter White’s wife on the hit cable series “Breaking Bad;” and Billy Magnussen, who broke through last season as the hilariously dim-witted but chiseled-bodied Spike in Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike
Gunn struck me as straining during the first act of the performance that my theatergoing buddy Bill and I saw. I could sense the gears working as she tried to convey Olivia’s simultaneous wariness and neediness. But she burrows into the role during the second act when Olivia is forced to make tough decisions about the work that defines her and the man she’s trying to figure out (click here to read an interview with the actress).  

Magnussen lends his own boundless charisma to Ethan but he also layers believable gravitas under the character’s fratboy bonhomie. And Magnussen is so natural in the role he almost seems not to be acting.  He radiates the sense that anything could happen which makes it extra thrilling to watch his performance.  I’d love to see his Stanley Kowalski.

But in the meantime, you ought to see Sex With Strangers, which has just been extended to Aug. 31.  

July 30, 2014

"When We Were Young and Unafraid" Looks Fearlessly at How Women Define Themselves

Playwright Sarah Treem is only 33 years-old, which means she’s much too young to have lived through the pre-Roe v. Wade days that provide the backdrop for her latest play When We Were Young and Unafraid, which is running at Manhattan Theatre Club through Aug. 10. 

But Treem, who broke onto the theater scene in 2007 with a play called Feminine Ending, has an abiding interest in the ways by which women define themselves in this society (click here to read an interview about her commitment to the subject) and so she has set this new work amidst the ferment of the women’s lib era when old shames were being shucked off and bold challenges taken up.
When We Were Young and Unafraid takes place at a seemingly placid bed and breakfast on an island off the coast of Seattle that’s run by an earth-mother named Agnes and her teenage daughter Penny. But it’s quickly revealed that their home also doubles as an underground railroad station for women fleeing abusive husbands.  

The latest arrival is Mary Anne, who bears both the tell-tale black eye of a particularly bruising beating and conventional beliefs about the way women should behave. Also on hand are Hannah, a radical lesbian ostensibly searching for a nearby women’s commune, and Paul, a male guest at the B&B.

The setup is a bit overly schematic—Mary Anne teaches Penny how to play dumb so that she can get the quarterback at school to invite her to the senior prom, Hannah rants about how women are better off without men—but the underlying issue of how to be feminine and feminist is one that many young women continue to struggle with (while recent polls show that most Americans now believe in gender equality, less than a quarter of the women under-35 surveyed were willing to call themselves feminists).

But the real problem arises as Treem tries to juggle too many options and serves them up with too little subtlety. Her characters too often act, well, out of character, doing what the plot needs them to do instead of what the people they’re supposed to be would do.  Penny, in particular, hops all over the place, Gloria Steinem at the barricades one minute, a do- anything-to-please-your-man Marabel Morgan in Saran wrap the next.
Still, Pam MacKinnon has assembled a crackerjack cast and directed them masterfully. Cherry Jones, fresh from her acclaimed turn as Amanda in last season's revival of The Glass Menagerie, convincingly grounds Agnes in the solidity on which others lean but, as happens with so many strong women, wobbles when it’s called upon to support her own needs. 

And Zoe Kazan is the best I’ve ever seen her, nailing the desperate, almost flamboyant, neediness that causes women like Mary Anne to make such disastrous choices (click here to read an interview with her). 
Some critics (most of them male) have dismissed When We Young and Unafraid, calling it inconsequential, outdated, unbelievable. But those are often the kinds of words that get thrown at women when they focus on women’s stories.  This may be an imperfect play but I applaud Treem for having had the balls to write it.