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December 17, 2014

Not Even Stopping to Turn on the Ghost Light...

There's no post today cause after weeks of heavy-duty theatergoing, end-of-the-semester madness, assorted medical appointments and other life stuff, I'm taking the day off to play hooky with my hubby.

December 13, 2014

"The Elephant Man" Fulfills A Big Dream

Theater is all about dreams and so it’s nice when one comes true as triumphantly as it does with the revival of The Elephant Man, which opened at the Booth Theatre on Sunday night, fulfilling the lifelong dream of its star Bradley Cooper.

As you probably know, the play dramatizes the real-life story of Joseph Merrick, called John onstage, who was born with such severe physical deformities (a giant forehead, an elephantine right arm, rough and tuberous skin) that he was displayed for a time in Victorian-era freak shows. A doctor named Frederick Treves discovered him at one and brought Merrick to The London Hospital where he became a subject of medical research, a pet cause of the society set and a permanent resident until his death at just age 27.


Playwright Bernard Pomerance transformed Merrick’s story into an examination of what defines a man and he mixed in large helpings of the debate over whether humanity is better served by religion (as represented by the bishop who tries to save Merrick’s soul) or science (embodied in the doctor who focuses on his physical well-being).


The Elephant Man originally opened on Broadway in 1979, won three Tonys, including for Best Play, and ran for over 900 performances. A big-box-office movie with John Hurt as Merrick and Anthony Hopkins as Treves came out the next year. A young Bradley Cooper later saw the movie and was so affected by it that he decided to become an actor and later performed scenes from the play for his master’s thesis at the Actors Studio Drama School.

Over the past 15 years, Cooper has become a Hollywood star, hitting it big at the box office with “The Hangover” comedies, winning Oscar nominations for his roles in “Silver Linings Playbook” and “American Hustle” and being named People magazine’s “Sexiest Man Alive," but his interest in The Elephant Man never waned.  He did the play at the Williamstown Theater Festival in 2012 and now he’s brought it to Broadway (click here to read more about his relationship with the play).

This has the sound of a vanity project but, luckily, it doesn’t play that way. For Cooper gives a sympathetic performance and surrounds himself with a cast of first-rate co-stars. And it’s the acting that provides the emotional through line in director Scott Ellis’ spare production of, let's be honest, a somewhat sketchy play that doesn’t always bother to connect one scene to the next or to bore deep into any of them.

Cooper personally recruited the always-intriguing Patricia Clarkson to play Mrs. Kendal, the actress who becomes the primary woman in Merrick’s life. The real-life Madge Kendal never met Merrick, although she did raise money for his care.  But the character she inspired visits often in the play and her quips provide much of the comic relief.

Unlike her cast mates, Clarkson doesn’t affect a British accent, at least not a sustaining one, but she is dryly funny and, then in Kendal’s final scene with Merrick, very moving (click here to read a profile of her). Meanwhile Alessandro Nivola is outstanding throughout as Treves, a man of science who finds himself inspired by his patient (click here to read about how he put his performance together).

But, of course, people (the average age of the audience the night my theatergoing buddy Bill and I saw the play was at least a decade younger than you typically find on Broadway) are coming to see Cooper. And I doubt they were disappointed.

The role of Merrick is supposed to be performed without prosthetics or heavy makeup. And so Cooper contorts his body and his face to portray the deformities that were so unsightly that nurses reportedly fled at the sight of Merrick. At the same time, he manages to convey the beauty of the inner life that allowed Merrick to create art, write poetry and speculate that “I think my head is so big because it is so full of dreams.”

I can’t honestly say that the play moved me as much as it did others, including Bill, but the look of satisfaction and gratitude on Cooper’s face at the curtain call made it impossible not to celebrate watching his dream come true.

December 10, 2014

"The Invisible Hand" is a Sure-Handed Thriller

This is turning out to be Ayad Akhtar’s year. Of course last year, when his play Disgraced won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, wasn’t so bad for him either. But in just the past six months, Akhtar opened The Who & The What, a play about a Pakistani-American family, at Lincoln Center’s Claire Tow Theater, saw Disgraced make its Broadway debut and, on Monday, opened his latest play The Invisible Hand, which is scheduled to run at New York Theatre Workshop through Jan 4. 

All three plays deal with the interaction between traditional Islamic values and contemporary life in a post-9/11 world. And no other writer in any medium is exploring this timely and complex issue with more honesty, insight and nuance than Akhtar does. 

Not all of it has worked. The Who & The What was more didactic than dramatic in its examination of the role of women in Islam (click here to read my review).  And while I thought the Lincoln Center production of Disgraced was the best thing I saw that year (click here for my review of it) the cast changes have drained some of the energy from the Broadway production.

Aasif Mandvi had bristled with the scrappy determination and sublimated anger of the Pakistani-born attorney in the play whose efforts to assimilate into the white world are thwarted after he makes a courtesy call on a jailed Muslim cleric. But the British actor Hari Dhillon who has taken over the role on Broadway is so refined and elegant that he seems like he’s already a member of the club who can treat the roadblocks the play throws his way as just minor annoyances (click here for an interview with the actor). 

Meanwhile, the famed dinner party scene in which the characters throw political correctness aside and painfully poke at one another’s biases is undercut by Josh Radnor, fresh off a nine-season run on the CBS sitcom “How I Met Your Mother,” who seemed to think and act as though his character has the alpha role. 

My husband K hadn’t seen the play before and, on the basis of the performance we saw, couldn’t understand why I’d originally been so excited by DisgracedSo he opted not to see The Invisible Hand, which is too bad because nearly everything about this one shows off Akhtar at his best. 

The play opens in a room where an American banker named Nick (Justin Kirk) is being held by Islamic militants who want to ransom him for $10 million. The kidnapping is a mistake. The militants meant to take Nick’s boss and while the bank might have paid for the big honcho, Nick knows that it won’t do the same for him and he can only scrape together $3 million on his own. So he offers to use that money as a bankroll he will use to play the markets and make the rest. 

During that time, Nick attempts to bond in different ways—and with varying success—with his captors: his naive primary guard Dar (Jameal Ali), the more militant—and volatile—British convert to the cause Bashir (Usman Ally) and their group’s leader, the too-smooth Imam Saleem (Dariush Kashani).

Akhtar is a smart guy and a talky writer and this play, like his others, is filled with highbrow speeches about politics, religion and, in this case, economics (the hand referred to in the title is not God’s but Adam Smith’s). In fact, there’s so much talk about how the financial markets work that I felt at moments as though I were in an Econ class  and yet, the financial machinations are presented clearly enough that I might have passed a test afterward (click here for the chear sheet the theater has posted).

The Invisible Hand profits from Ken Rus Schmoll's pinpoint direction, which, aided by Riccardo Hernandez’s prison cell sets and Leah Gelpe’s drone-and firefight-filled sound design, maintains a convincing air of menace and suspense throughout the two-hour running time. He’s also cast the show superbly, particularly the two lead roles.

Kirk combines the cocky optimism that has allowed Nick to be a successful player in the world of high finance with the crippling fear of a man who knows he’s just one slip away from being killed. Ally, who impressed me back in 2010 when he played the Indian wrestler who was forced to dress up like Osama bin Laden, call himself The Fundamentalist and adapt a trademark move dubbed the “sleeper cell kick” in The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity, is just as terrific as Bashir.

His physiognomy probably means Ally is constantly being asked to play a terrorist of one sort or another (click here to listen to another actor of Middle Eastern descent talk about that kind of pigeonholing). But here he breaks through the convention to create a guy who is funny one moment (and a fan of American pop culture) scary the next (and a critic of the way the U.S. treats the disenfranchised) but always recognizably human.

Recent events in Syria and Yemin bring extra currency to The Invisible Hand but the play and this production are deserving enough to be seen on their own right.

December 6, 2014

Who’s Won the Chance to Be Beautifully Sung to Sleep by “Beautiful" Co-Star Anika Larsen?

You readers know your stuff. Or at least those of you who participate in my giveaway contests do because once again everyone who wrote in had the right answer to the question, in this case about which show biz anthem was written by Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil, who are also characters in the Carol King musical Beautiful.

The song is “On Broadway,” the prize is an autographed copy of "Sing You To Sleep," the debut CD by Anika Larsen, who plays Weil in the show, and the winner, plucked, as always, out of a hat by my husband K, is Kevin Smith of Midwest City, Oklahoma.

Kudos to him and to the rest of you who participated. Thanks, too, for the very nice words about this posts that came along with the responses. 

That’s all for today, although, as always, you can check out the articles I’ve recently posed on Broadway & Me, the Magazine, which you find by clicking here, and for some quick reactions to things I've seen and heard, take a look at my Twitter feed @broadwayandme.com, which you can find here.

December 3, 2014

"Father Comes Home From the Wars, Parts 1, 2, & 3" is WhollyOriginal—And Truly Important

The sesquicentennial of the Civil War, which lasted from 1861 to 1865, ends in just four months but observances of the anniversary have been surprisingly quiet. Which is just one of the many reasons that I am so glad to have seen Suzan-Lori Parks’ appropriately lauded Father Comes Home From the Wars, Parts 1, 2, and 3. It also explains why I am writing about it even though the show’s extended run closes at the Public Theater this weekend. (I'll announce the CD Giveaway winner on Saturday.)

I’d seen a workshop production of three of the plays in Parks’ projected nine-part saga back in 2009 but that sampling lasted just an hour, while the current version runs about three.  But the plays continue to center around a slave named Hero, the love of his life Penny and Hero’s best friend and rival for Penny’s affections, Homer. 

The first, and least interesting, of the three parts kicks off as the slaves at a southern planation (Parks calls them The Chorus of Less Than Desirable Slaves) bicker over whether Hero will accept an offer from their master to go off with him to fight for the Confederacy in exchange for a promise of freedom when the war is over.

As the narrative requires, Hero goes. And the second part picks up some time later when he and his master have captured a wounded Union officer whom they believe to be the white commander of a regiment of free black soldiers. The final segment involves Hero’s troubled homecoming to the plantation. All three segments are linked by ballads written by Parks and sung by the soulful singer Steven Bargonetti.

The allusions to the Odyssey are intentional but, like Branden Jacob-Jenkins’ An Octoroon (click here for my review of it) Father Comes Home From the Wars is a brazenly post-modern work that seeks to debunk the long-held myths about that painful period of American history and about race relations in general. 

Parks mashes up comedy and tragedy, high culture (lyrical language) and low (street talk) traditional storytelling (a Greek-style chorus) and magical realism (a talking dog) to create a truly original take on slavery that should make everyone sit up and pay attention, no matter on which side of the racial or political divide they fall (click here to read more about how she put it all together).

I saw and respected last year’s Oscar-winning “12 Years a Slave” but found it to be so relentless in its depiction of the brutality of slavery that I tuned out, unable to absorb it all (and I imagine it also allowed some folks to cop out with the excuse that no masters could be that bad).  By contrast, the one minute of unexpected and inexpiable cruelty in the second section of Father Comes Home From the Wars made me gasp out loud.

That second section, which is called “A Battle in the Wilderness,” may be the best thing that Parks, a MacArthur genius and Pulitzer Prize winner for Topdog/Underdog, has ever written—or that has ever grappled with the subject of race on an American stage.

But the entire production is terrific, benefitting from Jo Bonney’s elegant and affective direction and superb performances, lead by Sterling K. Brown as Hero and the scene-stealing Jacob Ming-Trent as his faithful dog and oracle who is listed in the Playbill as Odyssey Dog but whom the slaves more aptly call Odd-See.  I know it sounds silly but both the character and the performance are sublime. 

We all know that slavery was awful.  Over the years, we've learned that emancipation, while welcomed, wasn’t easy. And as the muted approach to the war’s anniversary (not to mention the aftermath of the Ferguson decision) suggests, this country is still struggling with the legacies of both. But Parks’ plays are blazing a different path. And as I tweeted when I got home from seeing them this past weekend, I wish I could have binged watched the remaining six plays in her ennead.

November 29, 2014

An Unanticipated Surrender to "Tamburlaine"


It’s embarrassing to say this but, Shakespeare aside, I know virtually nothing about Elizabethan theater. So I was going to skip Tamburlaine, Parts I and II, the double bill of two late 16th century plays that Theatre for a New Audience is presenting at its Polonsky Shakespeare Center in downtown Brooklyn. 
But my theatergoing buddy Bill thought it would be good for us to broaden our theatrical knowledge, so we went—and we had a bang-up good time.

The plays were written by Christopher Marlowe, whom many scholars believe heavily influenced Shakespeare. And these two plays are widely considered to have been the first shows to hit it big with the London groundlings (even back then, producers tried to cash in on popular demand with sequels). 
 
Marlowe based his story on the rise and fall of the 14th century Mongolian conqueror Timur, whose armies were reportedly feared throughout Africa, Asia and Europe. Timur was the son of a minor nobleman but, taking dramatic license, Marlowe made his Tamburlaine a low-born shepherd whose prowess as a warrior allows him to slash his way to the top.  

Within the first half hour of Part I, Tamburlaine captures and seduces the daughter of the Egyptian king, persuades the vassals of the Persian king to cross over to his side and sets out to defeat the emperor of the Turks. In Part II, he consolidates his empire, prepares his sons to succeed him and proves as ruthless in family affairs as he is on the battlefield. 
 
All of it is done in blank verse so it’s reminiscent of Shakespeare, even if falling short of the Bard's subtle psychology and mastery of metaphor. But because everything about the plays was new to me, they seemed just as thrilling as the first time I heard Henry V's St. Crispin's Day speech.

Michael Boyd, who recently retired as artistic director of the Royal Shakespeare Company, has smushed the two plays into one long evening and staged them with wit, vigor and buckets and buckets of stage blood.
 
And Boyd has filled his 19-member cast with brawny men who stride into and around the audience. You can almost smell the testosterone in the air. The title role is played by John Douglas Thompson, who in less than a decade has emerged as one of the country's leading classical actors. 

Thompson handles the language beautifully and has a majestic stage presence. It’s easy to see why men would follow his Tamburlaine and why even kidnapped princesses would fall for him. The actor is somewhat less successful at conveying the character’s craftiness but his performance still commands attention (click here to read a Q&A with him). 
 
Equally compelling is the British actor Chukwudi Iwuji who plays Tamburlaine’s chief rival Bajazeth with an imperiousness intensity that sears through the humiliations Tamburlaine eventually makes him suffer.  

The whole saga, which is playing through Dec. 21, runs about three and a half hours, interrupted by a half-hour dinner break. You can order a light supper from the theater’s café before the show begins and pick it up during the break—my grilled ham and cheese sandwich was pretty tasty and Bill’s mushroom soup looked good too.

But the play itself is the yummiest part of the evening and I'm now on the prowl for more productions of Marlowe, Ben Jonson and other contemporaenous playwrights who, back in the day, gave old Will a run for his money.

November 26, 2014

Hey, It's A Broadway & Me CD Giveaway


This past weekend's medical emergency is over and my hand is better 
but I’m still going to take it a bit easy (I’ve even canceled cooking Thanksgiving dinner; my always-wonderful husband K is taking me out instead). And so in lieu of pecking out a full post, I’m going to do a giveaway of a CD that might make a great stocking stuffer for the theater lover on your holiday gift list.

It's the album “Sing You to Sleep” by Anika Larsen, who is currently appearing as songwriter Cynthia Weil in Beautiful: The Carole King Musical.  Jessie Mueller has gotten deserved praise (plus a Tony) for portraying King but Larsen is equally terrific as the feistier Weil, who with her husband Barry Mann wrote a string of memorable songs from the Righteous Brothers' “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’” to Dolly Parton’s “Here You Come Again.”  
 
The songs on Larsen’s debut album, which include a duet by Larsen and Mueller, range from George Gershwin to Bruno Mars with all kinds of interesting stops along the way. You can win a personally autographed copy by naming the show biz anthem that Larsen’s character Cynthia Weil and her husband wrote (hint: it’s sung in the show) and sending the answer to me (click the following blurry blue link for the address: jan@broadwayandme.com) by midnight on Monday, Dec. 1.

As usual,  I’ll put all the right answers in a hat and have K pluck one out. Then I’ll announce the lucky winner next Wednesday

In the meantime, Happy Thanksgiving.