November 25, 2015

Taking Time Out for Thanksgiving

Good theater will certainly be among the things I'll be grateful for this Thanksgiving. But so will be the presence in my life of family, friends and faithful readers. I wish you and yours a holiday filled with similar bounty. 

November 22, 2015

Missed Posts & Ghost Lights

Sorry about missing yesterday's deadline.  But, dear readers, I had the choice of writing a post or seeing a show and, although it was my fifth of the week and I usually take a sabbatical on Saturdays, I chose the show.  More about all of them later, although not today when other commitments will be taking up my time. And, BTW, since I'm going to start preparing Thanksgiving dinner on Wednesday, the odds of getting a post out then are slim too.  But I will be back next weekend. In the meantime, I'm turning on the ghost light as theaters do when they're temporarily empty and hoping that you'll satisfy some of your theater reading needs by taking a look at the B&Me Magazine on Flipboard which you can find by clicking here. 

November 18, 2015

Families in Crisis in "The Humans" and "Hir"

Theater, or at least serious theater, is supposed to reflect the way society feels about itself at that given moment in time. And right now, gauging by the work of some of our best young playwrights who have come of artistic age in the era of 9/11, global warming and the Great Recession, the picture ain't pretty.

Stephen Karam's The Humans, at the Roundabout Theatre's Laura Pels Theatre through Jan. 3, and Taylor Mac's Hir, which is playing at Playwrights Horizons through Dec. 20, both focus on the collapse of the American Dream and the bruising fallout that is devastating middle and working class families.

The shell-shocked Baker clan gathering for Thanksgiving dinner in The Humans includes the dad who's recently lost both his job and pension; his wife who's trying to hold onto a fragile marriage and to care for her Alzheimer's-afflicted mother-in-law because the family can't afford outside help; and the family's eldest daughter who is suffering with a debilitating medical condition her insurance won't cover and heartache after being dumped by her girlfriend.

At first glance, the youngest daughter who's hosting the dinner at the new duplex apartment she shares with her somewhat older boyfriend seems to be in better shape than the rest of the family. But she has a mountain of college debt, her apartment is largely underground, the furniture hasn't arrived and there are creepy sounds coming from the apartment upstairs.

Yet the Bakers aren't the kind of dysfunctional family that populate so many plays. Karam makes it clear at every turn that these folks love and support one another. But the world around them is pressing in hard and Karam, holding true to the way contemporary life really works, doesn't provide any easy ways out for them (click here to read some about some of his inspirations for the play).

Director Joe Mantello does a masterful job of showing all the degrees of pain this causes. David Zinn's intentionally awkward two-level set looks more like a bunker than a home and underscores the unease before a word is spoken. The slightly too-bright lighting by Justin Townsend and slightly-spooky soundscape by Fitz Patton subtly reinforce that sense.

And the show couldn't be better cast. It's almost a cliché to say how good Reed Birney and Jayne Houdyshell are in everything they do. But they are superb here as ordinary people who haven't asked much of the world and who have gotten far less than that.

They're joined by fine and moving performances from Cassie Beck and Sarah Steele as the grown daughters, Arian Moayed as the boyfriend and Lauren Klein who gives an almost silent, but still heartbreaking, performance, as the grandmother Momo.

The effects of this century's upheavals are even more visible in Hir. Its dad, a longtime tyrant, has had a stroke that's addled his brain and left him unable to even speak clearly, less than to assert his old patriarchy.

The show opens with him sitting onstage wearing a house dress and a clown wig. He's dressed that way, the audience quickly learns, by his wife Paige as retribution for all the years he demeaned her. She also laces his food with estrogen to keep him docile and sprays him with water when he tries to resist.

Their son Isaac, a marine returning home after a long tour in Iraq, where he served in a mortuary unit that often had to collect body remnants blown apart by IEDs, is upset by the condition of his father and of their home, which the newly-liberated Paige has blown up in a variety of ways,. 

He's also disconcerted to learn that his little sister is in the process of transitioning into a man, who insists on gender-neutral pronouns including the titular "hir," a blend of him and her.

Taylor Mac fans, and they are legion among cutting-edge theatergoers, may be disappointed to learn that he's not in this show (click here to read a Q&A with him) but they will probably be consoled by the fact that Paige is played by Kristine Nielsen, the longtime downtown favorite who has more recently won mainstream acclaim with her performances in You Can't Take It With You and Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike.

Nielsen excels at playing eccentric—and often hilarious—women whose antics mask a deep yearning to be taken seriously. And there are moments when her Paige is almost frightening in her determination to overthrow the old order. 

The rest of the cast is a little uneven. My theatergoing buddy Bill liked Cameron Scoggins' portrayal of Isaac but I found him to be too one-note, as is Tom Phelan, the transgender actor who plays the sister.

I'm going to be honest, I found these plays to be as depressing as all hell. Maybe it's the Pollyanna in me or maybe it's because I'm lucky. But I don't find life, even in these difficult days, to be as grim as these plays portray them. 

And yet, both The Humans and Hir continued to haunt me in the weeks since I've seen them. I'm guessing that they'll be frontrunners when it comes time to award next year's Pulitzer Prize for Drama

November 14, 2015

In Memoriam: Victims of the Paris Massacre

It seems somehow frivolous to chatter about what I've seen at the theater on the day after more than 100 people were massacred in the terrorist attack at the charming 150-year old Bataclan theater in Paris. So instead of the usual post, I will just join with good people of all faiths in praying for the victims and for the end to this senseless violence.

November 11, 2015

"Dames at Sea" Has Missed the Boat

Joe Cino, who turned a gay coffeehouse into a theatrical haven for audacious playwrights like John Guare, Sam Shepard and Lanford Wilson during the 1960's, famously introduced each evening's free performance at his Caffe Cino with the phrase "it's magic time."

One of his cafe's final and perhaps most magical shows was a spoof of Hollywood musicals called Dames at Sea, which made a star out of a youngster named Bernadette Peters and became such a hit that it went onto a long commercial run, won 1968 Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle awards, and was even turned into a TV movie starring Ann-Margret.

So there was understandable excitement among theater nerds, including my buddy Bill and me, when it was announced that the show would finally make its Broadway debut at The Helen Hayes Theatre this fall. But, alas, it seems the magic has gone.

Dames at Sea, with book and lyrics by George Haimsohn and Robin Miller and a pastiche score by Jim Wise, still pokes fun at the old backstage musicals in which a plucky chorus girl becomes an overnight star while also finding the man of her dreams, all against a backdrop of splashy Busby Berkeley-style production numbers and silly plot twists (the theater is being torn down, the U.S. Navy rides to the rescue).

But these kinds of self-referential shows have become so plentiful and the budget for this version of Dames seems so minimal that the show never achieves the giddiness that is its only reason for being. If you're going to do a retro show like this you need to really go for it, in the tongue-through-cheek style of a Drowsy Chaperone.

Randy Skinner, who both choreographs and directs Dames at Sea, tries to amp things up with every trick he learned from having choreographed such Dames descendants as the 2001 revival of 42nd Street and the constantly returning productions of Irving Berlin's White Christmas but that's hard to do when you've got a cast of 10, compared to the 30-50 for those previous shows.

Skinner devises an impressive variety of high-energy tap-dance routines but the dancers look lonely up there doing them. And yes, I know that there were only six people in the cafe's original 1968 production but that was in a much, much smaller venue.

The current cast is game (each one has a nice voice and fast feet) and vets like John Bolton as the show-within-a-show's harassed stage manager and Lesli Margherita as its temperamental star have no shame when it comes to milking laughs but there are no standout performances that make this a must-see.

The sets seem kind of generic and I couldn't even find interesting feature stories about the show to link to. All in all, this production has as much excitement as one of those national tours that's been on the road for a long time.

In fact, the underlying concept for this production seems somewhat unmoored. Its references to the musicals of the 1930s (the leading lovebirds are  named Ruby and Dick in homage to that era's song-and-dance stars Ruby Keeler and Dick Powell) are unlikely to strike a chord with the folks who are name checking the rapper Biggie Smalls in Hamilton. And people who like their musicals light on their feet can find more satisfying fixes in Aladdin and American in Paris.

I still wish I'd been able to see the original production of Dames at Sea but this production has missed the boat.

November 7, 2015

"Kill Floor" & "Ugly Lies the Bone" Showcase Marginal Lives—and Promising Playwrights

This past week, Adam Szymkowicz posted the 800th interview he's done over the past six years on his website "I Interview Playwrights" (click here to read it).  Many of his subjects have won awards, done fellowships and had readings at prestigious places but only true diehards will have heard of most of them because there simply aren't enough chances for young playwrights to get their work before real-live audiences.

Which is why I so appreciate Lincoln Center Theater's LCT3 and the Roundabout Theatre Company's Underground series, both of which specialize in putting on well-cast productions of new plays by fledgling playwrights in their small black box theaters and charging just $25 a ticket as a way to encourage theatergoers to take a chance on seeing them—and to bring in new theatergoers who haven't seen much at all.

Each company is currently running a play centered around the kind of people (in this case, working class women) whose stories are seldom told on stage and while neither work is anywhere near perfect, both are worth seeing.

Abe Koogler's Kill Floor, which will end its run at Lincoln Center's Claire Tow Theater next weekend, focuses on Andy, an ex-con who's trying to get her life back together after serving time for dealing drugs. 

But the only job Andy can find is in a slaughter house where she has to strip carcasses before the animals are completely dead and the only home she can afford is too tiny to accommodate the resentful son she had to leave in the care of strangers while she was in prison.

Andy's only hope for a better life is to sleep with her boss, who's a nice guy but married and not above dangling the possibility of a job away from the horrors of the titular kill floor in exchange for favors. 

In the meantime, Andy's biracial son Brendan, whom she calls B, is wrestling not only with conflicted feelings about his mother but unrequited ones about another boy at school who seems willing to hang around only when B supplies him with pot and blow jobs.

Marin Ireland is achingly good as Andy, who knows how the rest of the world sees her and knows, too, that the odds are stacked against her being anything else, a realization underscored in a poignant scene in which Andy attempts to bond with a more affluent woman she meets in a supermarket. 

And the baby-faced Nicholas L. Ashe (click here to read a Q&A with him) is totally convincing as her teenage son B, creating a heartrending portrait of a youngster tottering on a high rope between boyhood and manhood, with no security net underneath.

Koogler and director Lila Neugebauer (click here to read an interview with her) try to relieve the grimness of Andy and B's lives with comic relief supplied by B's crush Simon, a white kid who affects the mannerisms of a black rapper, but the play is better at charting the emotional damage that society too often inflicts on its weakest members.

The damages are both emotional and physical in Lindsey Ferrentino's Ugly Lies the Bone, which will play through Dec. 6 at the Roundabout's Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center. It tells the story of Jess, who, during her third tour in Afghanistan, was the victim of an IED attack that's left her with severe burns over most of her body and face, in need of multiple operations (three alone to reconstruct her eyelid) in severe pain (hovering between 8 and 9 on a scale of 0 to 10) and in fear of crippling flashbacks that can be set off by the sight of a burning match or an unexpected sound.

Jess finds some relief in therapeutic virtual reality sessions that take her mind off the pain by transporting her—and the audience—to the place of her dreams, a snow-covered field  that is far away from her every day life in a sultry Florida town grappling with hard times caused by the shutdown of NASA's shuttle program.

When Jess leaves the rehab sessions, she has to deal with the actual reality of an old boyfriend who has married someone else and a mother who has dementia and may not recognize her.

Working with what seems to have been an extremely limited budget, Patricia McGregor's directorial options are limited but Ferrentino has created nuanced characters and McGregor has gotten fine work out of her five-member cast.

Mamie Gummer, who has spent the last four years doing TV series like "Emily Owens, M.D. and movies like "Ricki and the Flash" opposite her mom Meryl Streep, turns in the best performance I've seen her give (click here to read an interview with the actress). She makes clear the pain Jess suffers, without succumbing to the stereotypes of saintly victim or cocky survivor. 

Both plays felt simultaneously overstuffed (I'm not sure we needed the coming out subplot for B in Kill Floor or the deadbeat boyfriend of Jess' sister in Ugly Lies the Bone) and slightly undercooked (neither runs longer than 90 minutes and both seem to stop mid-thought) but it's clear that their authors have curiosity about lives outside the theatrical mainstream and talent that should be nurtured. I'm eager to see what each of them does in the future and which other writers these terrific initiatives showcase next.

November 4, 2015

"Ripcord" Opts for the Easy Way Out

David Lindsay-Abaire plays come in two flavors. They can be serious and thought-provoking dramas like Good People and his Pulitzer-Prize winning Rabbit Hole about parents surviving the death of a child. 

Or they can they can be quirky absurdist comedies like Fuddy Meers and Kimberly Akimbo, both of which put Lindsay-Abaire on the theatrical map back at the turn of this century. Ripcord, his latest play, now running at Manhattan Theatre Club's City Center Stage through Dec. 6, falls into the latter category.

Regular readers will know that my tastes run toward the former and so it will come as no surprise to them that while people all around me were chuckling at Lindsay-Abaire's tale of two elderly women engaged in a no-holds barred competition for a prime room in an upscale retirement home, I sat silently, with my mind wandering off to which leftovers I'd warm up when I got home after the show.

I can't blame the acting for my inattention cause it's terrific all-around. The roles of Abby, a grumpy retired school teacher who condescends to everyone around her; and Marilyn, the garrulous newcomer who starts off just wanting to be friends, seem tailor-made for the always-patrician Holland Taylor and the always-perky Marylouise Burke.

Both actresses look to be having a good time as their characters engage in a series of escalating pranks designed to drive each other out of the room they're uncomfortably sharing. And costumer designer Jennifer von Mayrhauser has fun with the character-defining outfits she's created for them: straight tweed skirts for Abby and floral muumuus for Marilyn.

But it's the pranks—including one in a haunted house and another in a skydiving plane—that draw the laughs and David Hyde Pierce has staged them with an intentional cheesiness that keeps the first act popping along. 

In time, though, the pranks become more sharp-edged, prompting revelations, reconciliations and a sentimental ending that makes Ripcord too saccharine for my palate.