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September 27, 2014

Falling Back in Love with "Love Letters"


When A.R. Gurney’s Love Letters played at the old Promenade Theatre in the spring of 1989, the actors cast as its epistolary partners—the very wealthy and very WASPy Melissa Gardner and the equally WASPy but only well-to-to Andrew Makepeace Ladd III—changed every week. 

I went to see three, or maybe four, of those pairings and would have gone more if I’d had the money. For this two-hander about the 50-year relationship between a wild child and a straight arrow moved me to tears each time I saw it. And now the revival that has just opened on Broadway with Mia Farrow and Brian Dennehy has sent tears rolling down my cheeks again.

I think I so love Love Letters because it is theater at its most elemental. A female and a male actor sit at a table on a bare stage and read from a series of letters that begins when their characters are seven and, 90 minutes later, ends with the death of one of them. 
 
I know it doesn’t sound like much and as my theatergoing buddy Bill and I settled into our seats at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre, even I had some qualms about whether this play, which hinges on the now quaint practice of writing letters, would live up to my memories of it, still hold my interest. But, under Gregory Mosher’s astute but unfussy direction, I once again fell completely under its thrall.

The letters exchanged are funny and gossipy but bits of more serious life—a stepfather’s unwanted touches, a son’s problems with drugs, an interracial affair, a return to rehab—sneak in between the lines and pierce the heart. 

All the while, Gurney and Mosher make it clear that the sustaining anchor point for Melissa and Andy is the love they share even as they drift into affairs and ultimately marriages with other people. 
 
Still, it’s the acting that sustains Love Letters. It offers a textbook lesson in the alchemy that can occur when talented actors bring their distinctive personalities to rich roles. And because the actors literally read the letters from the script and don't require much rehearsal, it’s always been easy to draw that top-shelf talent (click here to see a history of the play). 

A revolving cast for this production has already been set with Carol Burnett replacing Farrow when her run ends on Oct. 10. Then Alan Alda and Candice Bergen are scheduled to move into the chairs on Nov. 9, followed by Stacy Keach and Diana Rigg on Dec. 6 and Martin Sheen and Anjelica Huston on Jan. 10 (click here to read a feature in in which some of them share memories of personal love letters they've received or sent).
 
I’d expected the always formidable Dennehy to be terrific but he started out a little stiff at the performance Bill and I saw. It was almost as though he wasn't quite comfortable pretending to be the grade and prep school aged Andy. 

But as the character matured into manhood, Dennehy relaxed into the role and with the smallest of gestures—a halting intake of breath, the slump of his massive shoulders—masterfully conveyed the profound desperation of a man who always makes the choices society expects from him instead of the ones he yearns for. 
 
But it was Farrow who proved a revelation to me. Melissa, the poor little rich girl who never seems to do the right thing, is always the flashier part but this actress who last appeared on Broadway in 1980, digs deep into the marrow of the character. 

Combining her girlish voice and fluttery mannerisms along with the moxie that allowed her to be the consort of high-maintenance men from Frank Sinatra to Woody Allen, Farrow shows the fragility hiding behind the bravado as Melissa struggles to be accepted for who she is rather than what she should be or what she has. 
 
Even after having seen Stockard Channing, Joanna Gleason and Swoosie Kurtz (all magnificent) do the part in the ‘80s, I was knocked out by Farrow’s performance and can’t imagine a better Melissa.

 And yet, I've got to admit that I’m curious to see what all those others will do with the role when their turns come.

September 24, 2014

To the Bone Cuts to the Meat of Immigrant Life


As regular readers know, I’m a big fan of plays about poor and working class people. But I’m also a scourge about most of the ones I see because they tend to stereotype their subjects or condescend to the people they’re portraying. And that is why I so like To the Bone, the new play about undocumented immigrant women that treats its subjects with compassion and dignity.

The play, which is running at the Cherry Lane Theatre through Oct. 4, was written by Lisa Ramirez, whose last play Exit Cuckoo was a one-woman show about nannies based on her own experience of working as one.

For To the Bone, Ramirez got first-hand testimony from Latina women who work in the poultry farms that have sprung up in upstate New York over the past couple of decades and that are worked mainly by people who have made the long and dangerous trek from Central America for the chance to have a better life (click here to read some of their real-life stories). 
 
I had thought a show based on interviews would be one of those docudramas like The Exonerated, in which actors recite the comments of the interviewees verbatim. But Ramirez has written a traditional narrative, although it bristles with the kind of unabashed passion for social change that would make an old agitproper like Clifford Odets proud.  
 
And, like much of Odets’ work, the story she tells is melodramatic. That’s become a bad word for most critics and I’ve used it as a putdown too.  But I actually don’t mind melodrama if it’s put to good use and done well, as is the case here (click here to read about the making of the show).
 
What distinguishes To the Bone is that instead of viewing her subjects voyeuristically and harping on the alienating behaviors that poverty can provoke, Ramirez writes from the inside, underscoring the simple and complex human traits that her characters share with the rest of us.
 
At the center of her tale are four women who share a modest house in Sullivan County, the agricultural region about 75 miles from Manhattan. Olga (the playwright herself) is the dominant force. She’s a widow who owns the house, has a green card, and is the mother of a young-adult daughter Lupe (a vivid Paola Lázaro-Muñoz), who writes rap lyrics and aspires to go to NYU to study law so that she can better fight for rights for her people.  
 
The other two women, Reina and Juana, are in the U.S. illegally and rent rooms from Olga but have become like family. They all bicker, share meals, listen to one another’s dreams, rub one another’s aching muscles after 10-hour days on the assembly line at the nearby poultry factory, and chip in to pay a likeable guy named Jorge to drive them back and forth from the plant since none of the women can afford a car and public transportation is spotty.
 
The play kicks into action when Reina’s niece Carmen, who has abandoned her studies in Honduras to travel north for a job that will allow her to help her ailing mother back home, arrives to live with the others and to find work at the plant. But Carmen quickly catches the eyes of Jorge, the plant owner Daryl and, perhaps, of Lupe as well. 
 
Soon, a rape occurs. Reina and Juana, frightened of losing their jobs or being deported, advise Carmen to keep quiet about it. But Olga, who has a dangerously volatile temper, has other plans. 
 
The denouement may be predictable but director Lisa Peterson makes the journey there engrossing.  She and a design crew lead by set designer Rachel Hauck create the women’s hermetic world by lining the theater’s walls with chicken coops and positioning key fixtures—the time clock they have to punch, the lockers where they change into work clothes, the backyard picnic table where they eat on warm nights—within a playing space that is surrounded on three sides, bringing the audience in up close (click here to read about how they did it). 
 
Peterson adds additional theatrical flourishes that include choreographed routines that illustrate the soul-squelching monotony of spending hours on an assembly line and slowing down the action for poetic soliloquies.
 
The acting is first-rate, with each one of the eight-member cast giving a performance grounded in reality. The result is a nuanced portrait of the forgotten people behind the statistics in this country’s ongoing immigration debate.  Attention, to paraphrase another chronicler of the downtrodden, should be paid.

September 20, 2014

Why "Bootycandy" Seems Stale to Me


Judging by the raves it’s been getting, everybody seems to be eating up Bootycandy, Robert O’Hara’s satirical look at growing up black and gay. Everybody that is but me.

Sitting in the audience at Playwrights Horizon, where the show is running through Oct. 19, I had a feeling of déjà vu: been there, seen it before—  and seen it done better.

Coming of age plays about black gay men are becoming a genre unto themselves. We’ve recently had the fine works of Tarell Alvin McCraney and Colman Domingo. And next month will bring the world premiere of While I Yet Live, an autobiographical drama by Billy Porter, who won a Tony for starring in Kinky Boots, which deals with some of the same issues. 
 
O’Hara, who also directs, knows his way around the genre after having directed the world premieres of the plays by McCraney and Domingo. And like those earlier works, his Bootycandy is a bittersweet memoir based on the life of the guy who wrote it and accompanied by a soundtrack of music from the ‘70s.

I'll admit the show made me laugh at times but it seems to have pretensions of doing more than that. Which is where it falls down for me because Bootycandy doesn’t offer any original insights into the still-difficult passage of growing up as an effeminate boy in a working-class black world, except for some monologs that very graphically describe gay sex. 
 
Borrowing more than a page from George C. Wolfe’s 1986 classic The Colored Museum and the '90s-era TV sketch show “In Living Color,” Bootycandy is a series of skits that poke fun at various aspects of the African-American experience (one segment is even called “The Last Gay Play,” echoing The Colored Museum's “The Last Mama on the Couch”). 

But the objects this play chooses to mock have now been so often parodied—the black preacher dressing down his congregation, the swivel-necked, round-the-way girls putting down everyone else—that they’ve become clichés. And Bootcandy doesn’t find a way to make them fresh. 

Flipping back and forth between farce, drama and even tragedy, the play's scenes are also uneven in quality and tone—and nearly all go on far too long. The playwright himself says that he basically stitched together a group of unrelated pieces when the Woolly Mammoth Theater Company in D.C. asked him for a play (click here to read about his process).  And the rough seams show.
 
O’Hara attempts to cover them up and to add some underlying meaning with a postmodern twist at the end of the first act. But even it calls to mind a similar—and better rendered—scene in Lynn Nottage’s By The Way, Meet Vera Stark in which a panel of academics show up to comment on how African-Americans are portrayed in movies and plays. 

But none of this carping should take away from the fact that the hardworking cast O’Hara has assembled is terrific, particularly Phillip James Brannon, who plays the O’Hara stand-in, here called Sutter. 
 
I’ve seen Brannon in smaller parts before, but here he gets the chance to show off how truly talented he is, adeptly playing the character from his bewildering boyhood days (the source of the play’s comedy) into his more troubled manhood (the cause of the shakier dramatic moments).

Not far behind is Lance Coadie Williams, who so seamlessly transformed himself into five completely different characters that the play was halfway over before I realized those parts were being played by the same guy.
 
My theatergoing buddy Bill says I'm being too hard on the rest of the show and that O'Hara just wants the audience to have a good time. That's probably true and everyone in the audience at the performance we attended seemed to be doing just that. And, as I said, I joined in some of the laughter. Yet, it left a hollow taste in my mouth. 
 

September 17, 2014

"Dry Land" is Rich Terrain for Theater Lovers


Ruby Rae Spiegel is only 21 and just starting her senior year at Yale but she’s already had two plays professionally produced in New York and has gotten the kind of reviews that a playwright would kill for at any age.  

"Few things are as bracing as the shock of new talent,” is how the New York Post critic Elisabeth Vincentelli opened her review of Dry Land, Spiegel’s second play, which is running at Here, down in SoHo, through Sept. 27.  In his rave review, the New York Time’s Ben Brantley declared the play “remarkable.”
 
And you’re not going to hear much differently from me. I may not have been as gob-smacked by Dry Land as Brantley and Vincentelli were (the end was a bit fuzzy for me) but it’s clear that Spiegel has an ear for the way people talk and an eye for the inconsistencies in the way they behave that make them human. 

Now here’s where I must confess to a special rooting interest in Spiegel’s career: I wrote the first profile of Ruby when her first play debuted in the Summer Shorts festival back in 2011 (click here to read that earlier piece) and found the young playwright to be just as bright and winning as her work, which, at least so far, has focused on the lives of teen girls struggling to figure out who they are. 
 
The central characters this time out are Amy, a Queen Bee-type, who has gotten pregnant by a boy she says she no longer likes; and Ester, the insecure newcomer at their Florida high school that she’s recruited to help with a DIY abortion plan.
 
So all the elements are in place for Dry Land to be a drama about mean-girl bullying, a morality play about whether or not to have an abortion or a comedy about the silly ways in which the girls try to get rid of the baby only to discover that Amy isn’t really pregnant after all. Spiegel chooses none of these.  
 
Instead, she uses the unwanted pregnancy as a kind of McGuffin to explore the constantly shifting dynamics of friendship between girls on the slippery edge of young womanhood. But the smartest decision Spiegel and her director Adrienne Campbell-Holt made was to resist the temptation to make Ester the clichéd loser who'll do anything to hang with the cool kids. 
 
To the contrary, Ester’s the star of the school’s swim team (most of the action takes place in the girls’ locker room, nicely rendered by John McDermott). She’s also just as pretty as Amy. In the one scene outside the locker room, Ester has an encounter with a college guy who’s clearly into her. And in many ways she’s better prepared than Amy for the responsibilities of adulthood.
 
That becomes apparent in a climactic scene that comes near the end of this 90-minute piece. In the very capable hands of Sarah Mezzanotte, who plays Amy, and Tina Ivlev, who plays Ester, it’s as powerful as anything you’re likely to see on the stage this fall.  
 
In fact it’s so intense that an older patrician woman sitting near me clenched her eyes shut during the whole of it and then bolted out of the theater as soon as the play ended. I wandered out more slowly, ruminating on what I'd just seen and looking forward to what Spiegel might do next.

September 13, 2014

My Purposefully Female-Centric Fall Preview


Wish lists, which are what my fall previews tend to be, can be hit or miss things. So many of the shows and performances I was most excited about at the start of previous seasons turned out to be disappointments (don't even ask about my 2012 list).  

So although I’m as eager as the next theater lover to see Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick in It’s Only a Play, Hugh Jackman in The River and the all-star casts in Love Letters and A Delicate Balance, I thought I’d try something different this year. 

There’s been so much talk about the small number of major productions given to works by female playwrights (click here to read about the latest effort to change that) that I decided my preview would highlight upcoming shows written or directed by women.
 
But that’s turned out to be a disappointment of a different kind. Diversity advocates complained that only two plays by women were produced on Broadway during the 2013-14 season and that both—Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun and Sophie Treadwell’s Machinal—were written by women who'd died years earlier.  

Now that season is looking like the good old days because there are no plays by women at all scheduled for Broadway this fall. And I only identified seven that are being done by major off-Broadway companies. Make of it what you will, but those shows also account for the majority of the fall shows that are being directed by women.  
 
I certainly don’t want to keep anyone away from the promising pleasures of shows like Ayad Akhtar’s Pulitzer-Prize-winning Disgraced or Donald Margulies’ Chekov-inspired new play The Country House just because they were written by men. But women buy the majority of theater tickets and it might be helpful if we gals (and our smart guy pals) also actively supported the work of female playwrights—and not just out of solidarity but because there’s some promising stuff by women coming this fall too. 
  
Here are four, all dealing with the kind of big, brawny issues that most interest me. The fact that the playwrights turned out to be (since I didn't choose them for this reason) so racially diverse is an extra bonus:


Ruhl
THE OLDEST BOY:  Written by Sarah Ruhl and directed by Rebecca Taichman, this show would have been high on my list, even if I weren’t focusing on women this season because Ruhl, who has just published a smart collection of essays on playwriting (click here to browse it) is one of the most intellectually ambitous writers working in the theater today. Her latest centers on a woman, played by Celia Keenan-Bolger, who discovers that her young son is considered to be the next incarnation of the Buddha. It opens at Lincoln Center Theater’s Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater in November.



Hall
OUR LADY OF KIBEHO:  Before she turned 30, Katori Hall had become the first black woman to win the prestigious Olivier Award for best new play of a London season for The Mountaintop, her meditation on Martin Luther King, Jr.’s final night before his assassination, seen it produced on Broadway, been the subject of a profile in the New Yorker and named an artist in residence at the Signature Theatre Company.  Despite all that, I wasn’t that big a fan of either The Mountaintop or Hall's subsequent play Hurt Village but I’m intrigued by the potential for a potent mix of politics and religion in her latest offering about a Rwandan girl who believes she’s seen The Virgin Mary. Directed by the male but always-inventive Michael Greif, it opens at Signature on Nov. 16.

Lee
STRAIGHT WHITE MEN: The issues of race, class and gender fascinate the playwright Young Jean Lee as much as they do me. Her past plays have been determinedly edgy and avant-garde (African-American actors wore blackface in The Shipment and a troupe of women performed naked in Untitled Feminist Show) but this one, directed by Lee herself and featuring a quartet that includes the master actors Austin Pendleton and Scott Shepherd, is said to be a naturalistic look at white male privilege. It’s scheduled for a month-long run in November at the Public Theater, which is also presenting Father Comes Home From the Wars (Parts 1, 2 &3), a Civil War drama written by Suzan-Lori Parks and directed by Jo Bonney.
 
Ramirez
TO THE BONE:  Plays about poor people are still rare—or at least rarely given significant productions—and so I’m intrigued by this play about Latina immigrants working in American poultry factories even though the playwright Lisa Ramirez, who also appears in the show, is new to me. It opens next week, under the direction of the stage vet Lisa Peterson, for a limited run at the venerable Cherry Lane Theatre, which is celebrating its 90th season.

Now let's all keep our fingers crossed that come this time next year we'll be remembering how each of the shows on this list made my good wishes for them come true.








September 10, 2014

Who’s Dancing Off With a New "Fiddler" Book?


As I suspected, Fiddler on the Roof, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary this month, remains a beloved show and so everyone who wrote in for the chance to win a free copy of my friend Barbara Isenberg’s new book “Tradition!: The Highly Improbable, Ultimately Triumphant Broadway-to-Hollywood Story of Fiddler on the Roof, the World's Most Beloved Musical,” got the right answer to my question about the name of the village in which the show's beleaguered milkman Tevye lives: Anatevka.

But there can only be one winner and the lucky guy is Gerardo González Fernandez, who wrote in from Mexico, where, he says, he's currently in rehearsals to play Uncle Fester in a production of The Addams Family. Congratulations to him, best wishes to his show and thanks to all of who you who participated in this giveaway.

And here's a consolation prize for Fiddler fans in L.A.: Barbara's giving a talk about the book tonight at the Skirball Cultural Center.  You can find out more about that by clicking here.
There's no additional post today but if you feel in the need for some theater-related stuff to read, I hope you'll check out "Broadway & Me: The Magazine," a collection of articles, photos and videos I update regularly. You can find it by clicking here and I hope you'll enjoy it enough to subscribe to it too.  

September 4, 2014

"And I And Silence" Gives Lyrical Voice to the Woes of Society's Most Downtrodden Women


It seems fitting that playwright Naomi Wallace should draw the title of her play And I And Silence from a line in an Emily Dickinson poem (click here to read it). For this awkwardly-named drama is as simultaneously delicate and fierce as a sonnet.

Running in Signature Theatre’s intimate Romulus Linney Courtyard Theater through Sept. 14, the play, which is set in the 1950s, tells the story of two girls who meet in prison when they are just teenagers and the different ways in which society continues to cage them in even after they’re released nine years later.  
 
Dee, who is white, is serving time for stabbing one of her mother’s hands-too-loose boyfriends. Jamie, who is black, is in because she accompanied her brother on a robbery that went bad. 
 
The prison where they’ve been sentenced is segregated but the girls manage to form a bond and to share modest dreams of finding work as maids, marrying brothers and living together happily ever after. It should come as no spoiler for me to say that this doesn’t happen.  
 
Wallace has constructed her 90-minute tone poem so that each woman is played by two different actors. Neither Samantha Soule and Emily Skeggs, who play the older and younger Dee; nor Trae Harris and Rachel Nicks, who portray the corresponding Jamies, actually resemble one another but it doesn’t really matter because all four are so good. 
 
And under Caitlin McLeod’s pitch-perfect direction, they are able to convey emotional through lines for Dee and Jamie even as the story skips back and forth in time (click here to read about how they did it). 
 
Special shout outs have to go to the set, costume, lighting and sound designers, who make the single set, little more than a solitary bed, thrum with meaning, from the menacing clank of cell doors to the thread-bare clothes that the paroled women carefully wash each night in a declaration of their dignity.
 
Some critics have put down the play’s overt politics (it pointedly condemns the options that exist for poor women).  While others have decried its flights of poetic fancy (some of the lines intentionally rhyme).  
 
But Jamie and Dee’s fate reminded me of those of some other desperate dreamers, like George and Lennie in Of Mice and Men, Solange and Claire in The Maids and, ultimately, the movie’s Thelma and Louise. They all know, and force us to see, that love can’t be the answer to all woes.