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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:

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.

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.

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.
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.

September 3, 2014

Hey, It's a Broadway & Me Book Giveaway

It may not be a groundbreaking musical like Oklahoma, Hair or Company, but it’s hard to find a show more beloved than Fiddler on the Roof, which opened 50 years ago this month.

That original production ran for over 3,200 performances and the show has had four Broadway revivals since then.  But that doesn't count the legions of high school, community theater and summer camp productions that have sung and danced their way through the story of the Jewish milkman Tevye and his endless struggles to hang onto a traditional way of life.

To commemorate Fiddler's 50th anniversary, my friend Barbara Isenberg has written “Tradition,” a new book on the making of the show, its most noteworthy subsequent productions and, of course, the 1971 film.

I’ve just started the book, which only came out yesterday, but I've already gotten a kick out of discovering that the Sholom Aleichem stories on which Fiddler is based had previously been adapted into a musical called Tevye's Daughters that Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein actually considered producing for Broadway.

But I'm getting an even bigger kick out of the fact that Barbara and her publisher are giving me the opportunity to give away a copy of the book to one of you. 
Here's how you can get it: email the name of Tevye’s village to me at jan@broadwayandme.com by midnight this Sunday, Sept. 7.

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

August 30, 2014

A Labor Day Salute to Actors Via Two DVDs

The temperature in New York has been so unseasonably cool this month that it prompted a friend to post a comment on her Facebook page declaring “August is the new September.”   

But now Monday will mark not only the beginning of the real September but Labor Day as well. And that means that, as I’ve done for the last few years, I’m taking time out from my regular posts to salute the work of some of the people who make the theater that folks like you and me love.

Over the past few years, I’ve tipped my hat to casting directors, playwrights, composers and lyricists but it’s been a while since I last singled out actors. Watching two recently released DVDs over the summer convinced me that it’s time to do that again. 
The first DVD is “Now: In the Wings on a World Stage,” a chronicle of the Richard III production that director Sam Mendes and star Kevin Spacey toured around the world in 2011.

The second is "Theatreland," an up-close-and-personal look at London’s historic Theatre Royal Haymarket, from its founding during the Restoration period that brought the British monarchy back to the throne and theater back to London after both had been chucked out by Oliver Cromwell and his Puritan brethren to the 2009 productions of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot and the musical Breakfast at Tiffany’s. 

Bioth documentaries offer peeks at the process of putting a show together, from the jitters of the first meet-and-greet rehearsal straight through to the parting farewells of closing night, with lots of time in between to show the grit and sweat that go into making the magic we see onstage.
Richard III was the final production of the three-year Bridge Project that Mendes and Spacey conceived to bring British and American actors together to do the classics. So Spacey decided to film the behind-the-scenes workings of that last show and even took on the task of distributing the doc himself (click here to stream it or order a copy).  

The result is a fancy version of a home movie and it focuses almost entirely on the good stuff (backstage feuds or other backstabbings are totally absent). But it’s still fascinating to hear company members talk about the challenge of mixing styles between the Americans (some of whom had never before done Shakespeare professionally) and the Brits (for whom speaking the Bard’s verse is virtually a native language). 
And equally compelling is the chance to watch as actors on different levels of the success ladder interact with one another. Almost everyone is initially intimidated by Spacey, who is not only an Oscar winner but, until next year, the artistic director of London's Old Vic Theatre. But many also are in awe of the British stage vet Gemma Jones, whose career stretches back nearly 50 years.

So it's fun to watch as the walls come down. At one point during the tour, Spacey rents a yacht and gives everyone a luxurious day off. Several of his cast mates have never been on a boat that big. “I’ve got to get more rich friends,” says one. Meanwhile, the 70 year-old Jones admits to having a crush on one of the buff young men in the cast and it’s sweet when you later see the two of them innocently canoodling. 
But most of the 90-minute film deals with the nuts and bolts of being an actor on tour—the logistics of doing the same role in different playing spaces from the ancient Greek amphitheater of Epidaurus to a high-tech new theater in Beijing, the pre-curtain rituals that help each actor prepare for his or her performance, the loneliness of being away from home and family for such a long stretch.

By the time the actors who also had stops in Istanbul, Naples, San Francisco, Sydney and Doha, say goodbye to one another after their final performance at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, I found myself having enjoyed the documentary more than I enjoyed the production itself (click here to read my review of the show). 
"Theatreland," (which you can find by clicking here) is divided into eight episodes that total 201 minutes, and a lot of that time is centered around the celebrated revival of Waiting for Godot directed by Sean Mathias and starring Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart as Beckett’s existential hobos. 

The production also had a triumphant run on Broadway last season and the documentary shows McKellen and Stewart as they originally rehearsed, performed and promoted the show. The stars are, of course, thoroughly entertaining to watch but the most memorable moments belong to the film’s bit players.  
An aspiring young actress who has been hired to work as an usher is giddy at the prospect of serving tea during the intermission to the theatrical grande dames Maggie Smith and Joan Plowright, who is also the widow of Laurence Olivier. 

In another episode, an understudy gets to go on when Stewart loses his voice. It’s the biggest night of the understudy’s career and he basks in the applause of the audience and a gracious backstage compliment from McKellen. But when it comes time to leave the theater, he walks out unnoticed and heads for public transportation home as autograph seekers wait for the well-known face to come out. 
In the end, both films seem to say, the greatest reward for theater actors—those famous and those not—is just the chance to create magic on a stage. And as we head into this Labor Day weekend, it seems a good time to say that I appreciate their work and am grateful to them for doing it.

August 27, 2014

"Poor Behavior" isn't Nearly Good Enough

Ever since she was canned as executive producer of “Smash,” that misbegotten TV series about putting on a Broadway show, Theresa Rebeck has said that she didn’t get the chance to fully realize her vision of what she wanted it to be. I bought her argument because network execs have a bad rep for interfering with creative visions.

It’s different in the theater, where, by tradition, the playwright has the final say. So I’m now wondering what excuse Rebeck has for Poor Behavior, the misbegotten new play that Primary Stages opened last week at its new home at The Duke on 42nd Street.
Poor Behavior starts off well enough. Two couples are spending a weekend at a vacation home and after a long boozy dinner, Ella, the wife of the host couple; and Ian, the husband from the visiting pair, have gotten into a shouting match about what it means to be a good person. A few minutes later, Ian’s wife Maureen discovers the erstwhile antagonists in a quieter encounter that leads her to suspect they’re having an affair. 

But having established the premise, Rebeck has no idea where to go with it. Accusations are just lobbed back and forth, with occasional time outs for snappy one liners and puffed-up monologs from Ian. 
Rebeck clearly intends the play to be a provocative meditation on morality and infidelity but she paints with such broad cartoonish strokes that the message is no more profound than the slick self-help advice you might get from a TV psychologist.

Poor Behavior might have had a better chance if Rebeck had created believable characters but she doesn’t even make it clear who these folks are (I’ve no idea what any of them do for a living) why they’re friends or even why they’re with their spouses.  

Ella (Katie Kreisler) is supposed to be the most responsible of the group and yet, for the sake of some cheap laughs, Rebeck has her carelessly destroy the only thing they have in the house for breakfast (and who, by the way, invites people for the weekend without stocking up enough food to feed them?).

Ian (Brian Avers), who, for some reason, has been made Irish, is supposed to be the kind of rogue that women find irresistible but seems more like a psychopath. Meanwhile, Maureen (poor Heidi Armbruster) is given little more to do than be hysterical in scene after scene.  And Ella’s husband Paul (Jeff Biehl) is more a prop device than a person.

Director Evan Cabnet and his cast, all of whom have done better work in other shows, seem as frustrated in trying to put this show together as my theatergoing buddy Bill and I were by watching it. 

There was no chemistry between any of the actors. What’s worse, there was no reason, except again for the convenience of the plot, that any of their characters would have stuck around instead of hightailing it back to the city.  
Over the last two decades, Rebeck has had 15 new plays produced in New York, three of them on Broadway and she’s already got another one in the pipeline (click here to read about it). I started out a fan but each production of hers that I’ve seen has been less satisfying than the last. 

I don’t begrudge Rebeck her success. It’s so difficult for female playwrights to get their work done that a group of them recently issued the Kilroys’ List, a roster of 46 new plays by women, and a plea that they be put on (click here to read more about their campaign). 

So it's good to see a woman getting so much attention. I just think it may be time for producers and artistic directors to to give some other women a shot and for Rebeck to take some time out so that she can get her act back together and realize whatever vision and talent she may still have.

August 23, 2014

Between Riverside and Crazy is the Place to Be

Between Riverside and Crazy, the new play by Stephen Adly Guirgis, ends its six-week run tonight. And that’s a shame because the Atlantic Theater Company's Linda Gross Theater space only seats about 200 people and a whole lot more should have had the chance to see this flamboyantly entertaining play.

My husband K and I only caught up with it this week and are so glad we did. For like Guirgis' previous play, The Motherfucker With The Hat (click here to read my review) this one realizes that poor people are primarily just people without money and so it treats them and their concerns with the kind of respect, humor and affection that far too many other plays usually reserve for the well-off.
The story centers around Walter Washington, a former cop with more problems than Job (the religious allusions are entirely appropriate since faith is a constant undercurrent in Guirgis’ work, which includes Our Lady of 121st Street and Jesus Hopped the 'A' Train).  

Walter’s beloved wife has recently died. He’s drinking all day and struggling through weekly visits from a proselytizing Church Lady. His grown son Junior, recently released from prison, has moved back home and brought along a floozy girlfriend and an ex-con pal with daddy issues. 
Meanwhile, Walter’s landlord, eager to gentrify, wants to evict him from the rambling rent-controlled apartment on Riverside Drive that has been Walter’s home for years. And, most egregiously, the NYPD still refuses to pay the settlement that Walter, who is black, has been demanding ever since a white cop mistakenly shot and disabled him eight years earlier. 

That’s a whole lot of plot and, to be honest, narrative is not Guirgis’ strong suit (lots of ends remain loose at the play's conclusion). But he is a master at creating robust characters whose rough surfaces belie their rich inner lives and dialog that seamlessly mixes scatology and philosophy, street talk and poetry.

 These are the kind of rare parts that all actors yearn to play and that tend to be in even shorter supply for actors of color. Which is why Guirgis, a longtime member of the LAByrinth Theater Company, probably the most diverse company in the city, if not the country, has made a habit of creating roles specifically for African-American and Latino actors. 

And the entire Between Riverside and Crazy cast, under the nimble direction of Austin Pendleton, shows its appreciation for the gifts they've been given by turning in one bang-up performance after another. 
Leading the pack is Stephen McKinley Henderson, the rotund character actor who has leant invaluable support to dozens of plays, particularly those by August Wilson. But this time out Henderson gets to command center stage. Guirgis is reported to have written the role of Walter for him and Henderson’s natural and yet nuanced performance proves that he deserved the honor (click her to read a profile of the actor).
And although she doesn’t arrive until the second act, Liza Colón-Zayas goes toe-to-toe with Henderson as a mysterious woman who helps Walter achieve an epiphany (click here to listen to a short interview with her). 

I could go on but as I do, I get more and more annoyed that there's been no talk of transferring this show. Hello producers and artistic directors out there: someone should give Between Riverside and Crazy the full respect—and longer run—it deserves.