January 28, 2015

"The Road to Damascus" is Worth the Trip

As regular readers know, I’m always griping about how so few plays today grapple with current events. Well, I certainly can’t say that about The Road To Damascus, the political thriller at the 59E59 Theaters, which has a storyline that could easily stand in for a CNN news digest.

Set in a “not so distant future,” the play revolves around a showdown between the American president who succeeds Hillary Clinton and the ISIS-like extremists who have finally taken over Syria.  

When the U.S. threatens to bomb Damascus following an attack on midtown Manhattan, the newly-elected pope, the first pontiff from an African nation and a witness to the bloodshed in his own homeland, vows to go to Damascus to serve as a human shield for the residents of the Syrian capital.

Over the next 100 minutes, people in both Washington (a gung-ho female staffer attached to the NSA, a couple of frustrated State Department officials) and the Vatican (its wily Secretary of State, a Chechen journalist who knew the pope when he was a bishop in the Congo) try to stop him. 

Their efforts are played out in a series of talky scenes in which the characters lay out their positions. Playwright Tom Dulack tries to spice things up with a little sexual intrigue but his play still calls to mind one of those Sunday talk shows that assembles people with a range of political views and then lets them all go at one another.

Dulack teaches theater at the University of Connecticut but the dramaturgy of The Road to Damascus is a little loosey-goosey. Coincidences abound, all of its characters seem to have shared a past with one another and people cover vast distances in warp-speed time. 

HIs women come off particularly poorly: the NSA woman is one of those standard-issue ball-busters who for some inexplicable reason continue to serve as avatars for accomplished women. Meanwhile, the journalist is portrayed as an opportunist who has slept her way to the top of her profession (click here for some other examples of that tired trope). 

Still, the play's issues are compelling and the acting, under Michael Parva’s taut direction, is convincing. A special shout-out goes to Joshua Paul Johnson, whose video projections transform Brittany Vasta’s simple set into a half-dozen different locations, ranging from the inner sanctums of the Vatican to the streets of Damascus.

Dulack originally wrote his play in 2007 as a way to express his anger over the Bush administration’s handling of the Iraq War (click here to read a Q&A with him) but he doesn’t settle for easy answers or, despite his title, save-the-day epiphanies.

The ending of The Road to Damascus has more in common with the messiness of Showtime’s “Homeland” than with the neat fixes found on CBS' "Madam Secretary.” But that only makes it all the more engaging. So much so that after the performance I attended, intense debates erupted in the lady’s room. An indication, surely, that other theatergoers besides me are eager for thought-provoking works like this one.

January 24, 2015

"I'm Gonna Pray for You So Hard" is Merciless

Anger, not the forgiveness of sins, is the guiding principle in I’m Gonna Pray for You So Hard, the brand new two-hander by Halley Feiffer that opened at Atlantic Theater Company’s Stage 2 on Tuesday.

Its sole characters are David Berryman, an award-winning but aging playwright; and his twentysomething daughter Ella, a fledgling actress. The main part of the 90-minute play takes place in the kitchen of their Upper West Side apartment (oddly designed by Mark Wendland so that it’s hard to see everything that’s happening on stage no matter where you'r sitting).  

Father and daughter are waiting up for reviews of an avant-garde production of The Seagull in which Ella has been cast as the morose Masha. Her dad thinks she should have pushed to play the more impassioned Nina.

In fact, David has lots of opinions and during a near monologue, fueled by lots of wine and drugs and interrupted only by fawning interjections from Ella, he lets loose on her director whom he considers “a formerly-famous-now-completely-washed-up-hack” and on critics, whom he calls a “sick cadre of pathetic, sniveling, tiny men with micropenises and no imaginations.”

He also calls his estranged sister a “dyke” and his ill wife “a cunt.” In short, he’s not a nice guy. And as the evening progresses, Ella discovers just how awful her father can be. The second scene of the play flashes forward five years and shows how their interactions have shaped the woman and the artist she becomes.

Reed Birney, who, let’s be frank, can do no wrong in my eyes, and the talented young actress Betty Gilpin, who is best known for her role as the ditzy doctor on the Showtime series “Nurse Jackie,” are excellent as they explore the volatile elements of love and hate, pride and envy and even the sexual tensions that erupt from time to time in most relationships between parents and adult children.

Birney, who so often plays milquetoasty guys, looks, under Trip Cullman’s finely-tuned direction, to be having a ball as the overbearing David but also manages to be heartbreaking in the final moments of the play. And Gilpin, even when largely restricted to just one or two words an utterance, does an incredible job at conveying how both awed and bored Emma is by her father and yet how much she yearns to please him.

It is, of course, impossible not to draw parallels between the lives of the characters Birney and Gilpin play and those of the playwright, who is also an actress, and her father, the celebrated cartoonist and playwright Jules Feiffer.

The facts that connect David and Jules are so similar (being raised in the Bronx, becoming a teen apprentice to a slightly older master of his art form—the fictional playwright Milo Koppler for David, the cartoonist Will Eisner for Jules—winning a Pulitzer) are obvious. 

One can only guess at the emotional verisimilitude of the father-daughter relationship but it’s hard to believe that this play would have been written by anyone who didn’t have some daddy issues—and lingering anger about them—to work out.

Feiffer knew that people like me were going to be speculating about these kinds of things and so she gives Ella a second-scene speech in which she challenges the audience to resist trying to determine if a work is autobiographical. Instead, she suggests, "Why don’t you ask yourself something like this: 'Did this play move me?' 'Did I relate to it?' 'Did some part of me wish I hadn’t related to it?'”

My answers are: yes (even though it made me cringe in moments) yes (I've had my own experiences, albeit thankfully less toxic, with demanding parents) and yes (cause I wish family ties, including the Feiffers', didn't have to be so knotty). However, I also suspect that dinners at the Feiffers' are going to be tense for a while.

January 21, 2015

Brief Encounters with "Constellations" and "A Beautiful Day in November on the Banks of the Greatest of the Great Lakes"

Lots of theatergoers breathe a sigh of relief when they hear that a show is just one act. But increasingly quick gasps might be more apt. For two of the shows I saw last week—Constellations and A Beautiful Day in November on the Banks of the Greatest of the Great Lakes— ran barely 75 minutes each. And the differing pleasures I derived from them prove that size really doesn’t matter.

A show can't afford to waste time when it's this short and both of these productions are what you might call high concept plays. The extravagantly titled A Beautiful Day in November on the Banks of the Greatest of the Great Lakes, which is running at New York City Center’s Stage II through Feb. 7, turns a Midwestern family's holiday dinner into a sporting event.  Literally.

The show opens as two sportscasters take up positions in a glass booth above the stage and begin offering color commentary on the actions of the members of an extended clan as they set the table, bake the pies, roast the turkey and make the stuffing and gravy for their Thanksgiving meal.

The characters (the casting seems colorblind, which I usually applaud but here found confusing) have cutesy names like Cheesecake, Trifle and Smilesinger, which I guess are supposed to indicate their culinary specialties or personality traits. 

What they don’t have are props. Instead director Lee Sunday Evans has the actors mime all their actions, often imitating athletic gestures, like the side-to-side glide of speed skaters as they move around their imaginary kitchen or the Alley-oops of basketball players as they pass dishes from one to the other. 

It’s amusing at first but quickly wears thin, at which point playwright Kate Benson sends the whole thing spinning in a disturbingly surreal direction. But none of it adds up to much.

“Did you get that thing about the babies,” a baffled woman asked my friend Jesse and me as we all left the theater. We shook our heads but as she and I continued down the street, Jesse summed it up just right. “There’s a difference,” she said, “between a concept and a gimmick.”  A Beautiful Day lands on the wrong side of that dividing line.

But concept and gimmick blend beautifully in Constellations, which has a limited run at Manhattan Theatre Club’s Samuel J. Friedman Theatre through March 15. It’s a two-hander about the meeting, mating and marrying of a quantum physicist named Marianne and a beekeeper named Roland. 

Their love story unfolds in a series of short vignettes that often repeat the previous scene but give it a different denouement so that when Marianne first flirts with Roland at a barbecue, he spurns the advance but, an instant later, when she uses the same come on in the replayed scene of a parallel universe, he flirts back.

But the real heart of British playwright Nick Payne’s metaphysical romance is his meditation on the interplay between Marianne’s branch of physics which believes that each moment continues to exist in time even as our lives move on and the more ephemeral concept of time of Roland’s bees who live only a few weeks and so must cram a lifetime of experiences into that brief interval. 

The couple are played by the Hollywood dreamboat Jake Gyllenhaal, sporting a dapper beard and a convincing British accent, and the appealing British actress Ruth Wilson, a two-time Olivier Award winner who recently picked up a Golden Globe for her performance as a cheating wife in the Showtime series “The Affair.” Both are making their Broadway debut and they’re both superb.

Under Michael Longhurst’s lucid direction (click here to read about his approach), each actor nimbly turns on a dime as the replayed scenes demand minute variations—and different line readings—from the ones that have come just before. 

At the same time, they make all the choices seem entirely believable. Plus, Gyllenhaal and Wilson are funny and sexy together: the chemistry between them is electric (and it’s rumored to continue offstage as well—click here for more about that).

Still, as enjoyable as they make it, Constellation’s alternate-lives storyline isn’t new. Idina Menzel simultaneously follows two very different paths in the musical If/Then, which is scheduled to close in March, and Kate Atkinson’s acclaimed 2013 novel “Life After Life,” imagines a rolling series of lives and deaths for its main character.

It all makes me wonder if, as society becomes more secular, the need has intensified to find a new concept of the afterlife in which the possibility of infinite eternities can ease our dread of mortality. 

But you don’t need to be a cosmologist to enjoy Constellations. For it is a wholly entertaining show that engages not only the mind, but the heart as well.

January 17, 2015

In Memoriam: Jean-Claude Baker

Years ago, I took my aunt, then in her 80s, for lunch at Chez Josephine, the Theatre District bistro named for the legendary performer Josephine Baker. At some point during our meal, Jean-Claude Baker, the restaurant’s owner and Josephine’s adopted son, stopped by our table. He kissed my aunt’s hand and then chatted with us for a few minutes. My aunt was charmed. “I didn’t know you knew the owner,” she whispered across the table after he left. “I don’t,” I whispered back. “He’s like that with everyone.”

Jean-Claude died Thursday, an apparent suicide at the age of 71. The news of his death hit me surprisingly hard. I don’t pretend to have been close to him and yet he always made me—and countless others, including my aunt—feel as though we were.

An elfin man who favored lavishly colored tunics and caftans and flamboyant gestures, he was one of a kind. And he was a true theater lover, who went to shows, befriended people at all levels in the business and gave generously to theatrical causes. I don’t know if marquee lights will dim for him but they should.

I ate at Chez Josephine a zillion times over the years, often when I was going alone to one of its neighbor theaters at the far west end of 42nd Street. Sometimes, I’d sit at the bar or, when the weather was warm enough, at one of the café tables set up outside the restaurant. Usually, I ordered an endive salad and the boudin noir, which doesn’t seem to be served anywhere else in the city. Always, Jean-Claude came over to chat.

We talked about what I was going to see, what he thought I should see. Once he told me how he’d hired the young Harry Connick, Jr. to play piano for his customers. Another time, he told me how he’d persuaded Billy Joel to spend the first New Year’s Eve after his divorce from Christie Brinkley at the restaurant.

I told him that I’d read and enjoyed “Josephine Baker: the Hungry Heart,” the book he’d written about his adopted mother. I said the chapters about her early years on the black vaudeville circuit were my favorite part of the book. He said it was his favorite too and that he wanted to write another book about that world.

I wish he’d written that book. I wish even more that he’d known how much he meant to so many people, even relative strangers like me, and that the comfort of that knowledge would have kept him here for a while longer.

January 14, 2015

A New Look for a New Year

Yep. You're at the right place. Things just look different. That's cause I've been promising myself for ages that I'd give B&Me a facelift and I finally got around to doing it. This is still a work in progress but I think it's now easier to read (especially the news feed) and perkier too. Plus I updated the blogroll. I hope you'll like the changes.  Let me know.

How "Winners and Losers" Lost It for Me

If watching two guys drink beer and try to one up each other is your idea of a good time, then Winners and Losers, which opened last week at Soho Rep., may be the show for you. Alas, I need more than that to entertain me.

The show starts off amiably enough. Its creators and sole performers Marcus Youssef and James Long wander out on a stage set with a table and two chairs, introduce themselves and then begin a game in which they confer the status of winner or loser on a variety of subjects, including, at the performance I attended, the basketball player Steve Nash, NAFTA, microwave ovens and masturbation. They hit little silver bells when they reach a conclusion and are ready to move on to the next topic.

But as the 90 minute-show progresses, Marcus and Jamie, as they call one another, tell us more about themselves—or the characters they’ve created for themselves. They’re both Canadians, in their 40s, married with two kids each and live in a Park Slope-like neighborhood in Vancouver. Marcus is from a wealthy family and stands to inherit a lot of money from his father an Egyptian émigré and successful banker. Jamie had a more modest upbringing and left home and started to fend for himself at 16. 

All of it becomes fair game for the kinds of aggressive insults and put downs that alpha males lob at one another. Things get nasty. And the line between the theatrical and the real is intentionally hazy. The press rep says about 20% of the show is improvised each night (click here to read about how it was put together) 

Whenever Marcus and Jamie seemed to get bored with the verbal sparring, they got physical—wrestling, playing ping pong and, of course, swigging beer.  When I got bored, which happened about 30 minutes in, I simply zoned out.

I get that they were intentionally trying to make me uncomfortable (even throwing in a couple of bad-taste jokes about the ISIS beheadings) and they get a win for that. However, they apparently also want to press home some insights about male privilege and the changing definitions of manliness and since they offer few fresh observations about either, they lost on that front. 

But where they really failed was in making me care any more than I would have if I'd overhead two random dudes going all mano-a-mano over drinks at some bar.

January 9, 2015

A Very Personal Ghost Light

My husband K and I have gone off to celebrate our 20th anniversary and so no post today but I'll be back with lots to say next Wednesday.