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October 29, 2008

The Exhilarations of "Speed-the-Plow"

[Dec. 20 Update: Jeremy Piven pulled out of the production this week and people can’t stop buzzing about. My thoughts are below in the comments in response to a reader’s question.]

Serious theater seems to have become a contact sport this season. The opening of Fifty Words, Michael Weller’s new off-Broadway play about marital discord, had to be postponed because its stars Norbert Leo Butz and Elizabeth Marvel injured themselves during their onstage fights during previews. Uptown at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre, John Lithgow and Patrick Wilson go at one another so vigorously in the climactic confrontation in Arthur Miller’s All My Sons that I began to wonder if the 63-year old Lithgow might have to put in for workers’ compensation by the end of the run. And Raúl Esparza and
Jeremy Piven battled so intensely at the performance of David Mamet’s Speed-the-Plow I attended, that it looked as though Piven’s nose actually began to bleed after their mano-a-mano clash.

Mamet, of course, is nearly always pugnacious. And his 90-minute morality play about two Hollywood studio execs on the make and the temporary secretary who comes between them sets up one of his typically rambunctious smackdowns. For years, however, Speed-the-Plow has been known as the Madonna play because the pop star made her stage debut in the original production that opened on Broadway in 1988.


I went to the opening night of that production because a friend worked at Lincoln Center, which was producing the show, and called at the last minute to say they needed people to fill the seats in the top balcony of the Royale Theatre, now called the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre, but I don’t remember much about Madonna’s performance, except that she seemed mousy. But I suppose almost anyone would have seemed so when going up against such powerhouses as her co-stars Joe Mantegna and Ron Silver, who would win a Tony for his work in the show.


The producers of the revival that opened earlier this month have also tried to bring a little Hollywood glitz to their production. While Esparza, who burrows into Silver’s role as the most desperate of the two men, is a Broadway baby, Piven, who takes on Mantegna’s role of a newly-promoted studio chief, has gained his fame (and an Emmy) as the manic agent Ari Gold in the HBO series “Entourage.” And Elisabeth Moss, who plays the secretary, is one of the stars of the currently hot AMC series “Mad Men.” But Piven grew up in a family of stage people (click here to read an interview he gave the British weekly OK!) and Moss, the daughter of professional musicians, got her first professional acting job when she was eight and made her New York theater debut in 2002 in a production of Richard Nelson's Franny's Way (click here to read a Wall Street Journal interview with her). In short, all three know what they’re doing.


Although we didn’t go together, my pal Bill happened to see the same performance and he was knocked out by Piven. I thought Esparza walked away with the show. They both deliver Mamet’s trademark rat-ta-tat-tat dialog as though it were their native tongue. And while Moss has the less flashy and more difficult role (it’s now a cliché to say that Mamet doesn’t write good roles for women but there’s a reason clichés become clichés) she still squeezes a good deal of juice from it. Kudos too to director Neil Pepe, the artistic director of the Mamet-founded Atlantic Theater Company who sets a clear and exhilarating path for his actors to follow, and set designer Scott Pask who places the action in rooms that are as superficially sleek and thoroughly sterile as the people who inhabit them.


Speed-the-Plow may not be a heavyweight show like The Seagull or August: Osage County but it still packs a punch. Plus pound-for-pound, it delivers more laughs.

October 25, 2008

In Memorian: Clayton Riley

My friend Clayton Riley died yesterday. He was an ardent and constant advocate for African-American theater, an astute critic of theater of all kinds and a supportive reader of this blog. Clayton started off as an actor and his credits include the original productions of Martin Duberman’s In White America and LeRoi Jones’ The Dutchman. During that time, he also helped form the Frank Silvera Writer’s Workshop, which developed the works of African-American playwrights. Over the years, his articles and critiques appeared in the New York Times and The Village Voice. He also taught at Cornell University, Fordham University, the New School and my alma mater, Sarah Lawrence College, where I first met him when I took his class. He later married one of my closest friends and occasional theater partners Joy and my husband K and I have spent many wonderful evenings with them. We'll miss him. Clayton was a great raconteur and a generous friend and he remained until the end, an enthusiastic believer in the power of good theater. That will live on. Joy is setting up a fund in his name at Sarah Lawrence that will buy tickets for students who otherwise couldn’t afford to see theater here in the city. It's a fitting tribute for a true theater lover.

"The Master Builder" is Poorly Constructed

Chekhov and Ibsen are such an integral part of the theatrical canon that we often forget that most of us know their works primarily through translation. Sometimes, as with Christopher Hampton’s nimble reworking of Anton Chekhov’s The Seagull (currently dazzling theater lovers on Broadway), a new translation can make one of those 19th century plays come alive for contemporary audiences. But other times, as with Frank McGuinness’ plodding adaptation of Henrik Ibsen’s The Master Builder that opened at The Irish Repertory Theatre this week, the effect can be just the opposite.

The Master Builder, written in 1892, towards the end of Ibsen’s life, has never been as popular as his A Doll’s House or Hedda Gabler (the 18th Broadway revival of the latter is scheduled to open on Jan. 25 with Mary-Louise Parker in the starring role) so the Irish Rep gets some points for taking it on. But why bother if you’re going to go at it in such a dismal fashion? During intermission at the performance my buddy Bill and I attended, audience members walked by one another, heads bowed and avoiding eye contact, as though they were at the wake of someone who had died prematurely. One man grabbed the arm of another waiting for the restroom and whispered, “So bad, so bad.” Nearly one third of the audience, apparently feeling that it had paid its respects, opted not to come back for the second act.


The actors, of course, stayed. But they seemed just as despairing. The Master Builder tells the story of Halvard Solness, an architect who, abandoning his ideals for financial success, has become an uncaring husband and an unbearable boss. His life is changed when a young woman who still worships him because of the church he built in her village when she was a child tries to reignite his idealism. James Naughton, a two-time Tony winner and usually a fine actor, seems totally lost in the role. I didn’t even recognize him when he first walked on until I heard his distinctively plummy baritone. Unfortunately, he seemed to be reciting the part instead of playing the role and he didn’t even do that well since he kept stumbling over his lines. (Click here to read a Theatermania interview in which he talks about why he took the part.) Kristin Griffith, who plays his wife, remembered hers but she was still lifeless. On the other hand, Charlotte Parry as the young woman was so lively that she came off as shrill.


Normally, I’d blame their performances and the overall lethargy of the production on bad direction and assume that the director didn’t know what he was doing. In this case, however, the show was directed by Ciaran O’Reilly, the company’s producing director and an experienced hand. But he wasn’t the only vet who was undone by this production. Eugene Lee, who has won every honor available for his set designs including having been recently inducted into the Theater Hall of Fame, put together one of the clunkiest sets I’ve seen since my high school drama class productions: the main office setting is handsome enough but when the action moves from inside the Solness home to the yard outside, stagehands simply push the furniture to the side of the stage.


But in the beginning is always the word. And McGuinness’ words sound as though he were doing a parody of a stiff 19th century play. The result is, well, a stiff 19th century play. Bill later reminded me that whenever the legendary actress Eva Le Galliene did Ibsen, she translated the play herself because she thought the standard English translations were “stilted and unworthy of Ibsen’s language, style and intentions.” One can only imagine what she would have thought of this production

October 22, 2008

Swept Away by "A Body of Water"

Even acclaimed playwrights can have a tough time getting their works produced in New York. Lee Blessing made a name for himself 20 years ago with A Walk in the Woods, a smart and surprisingly moving drama about Cold War diplomacy that was nominated for both a Tony Award and a Pulitzer Prize. Four years later the Signature Theatre devoted its 1992-1993 season to his work. But although Blessing has written some 20 other plays over the last two decades, only five have made it across the Hudson.

Luckily for Blessing (and legions of other playwrights) there are scores of regional theaters on the other side of the river and across the country. A Body of Water, which opened at the 59E59 Theatres earlier this month, was first produced by the Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis and has since played at The Old Globe Theatre in San Diego and the Round House Theatre in Silver Springs, Maryland. It won the 2006 Steinberg New Play Award, which is given to the best new work produced outside of New York City. And finally, it’s arrived here. New Yorkers—or at least New York critics—seem less taken with this meditation on identity and memory but I haven’t been able to get it out of my mind.


A Body of Water opens with an attractive middle-aged couple waking up in a comfortable waterfront home (designed by the increasingly ubiquitous and prodigiously talented Neil Patel) and empathetically lit by Jeff Croiter. Within minutes it’s clear that neither the man nor the woman knows where they are or even who they are. And none of this gets any clearer when a short time later, a mysterious young woman arrives who could be their caretaker, their daughter or perhaps just a manifestation of their shared insanity. The rest of the play is spent with the couple—and the audience—trying to solve the riddle of her presence and their existence.


I’m not big on absurdist drama and so this is the kind of play that usually drives me up a wall. But Michael Cristofer and Christine Lahti are so wonderfully compelling as the baffled couple that I found myself mesmerized despite my original misgivings (Click here to see a few snippets of the play and an interview they gave Broadway.com). And director Maria Mileaf injects just the right amount of suspense to create a real and unsettling sense of existential menace. It isn’t all grim; in fact, there’s a good deal of humor. But I won’t be able to tell you the solution to the puzzle Blessing sets up because I don’t really know what that answer is. Even he may not know. The playwright admits in the Primary Stages newsletter that “the final scene of the play has been changed every time the play has been done.”


That lack of resolution bothers some people. The man who shared an elevator ride with my friend Ann and me after the show declared the play “the worst thing I ever saw...it didn’t go anyplace.” Many critics agreed and more than one complained that the show simply “tread water” during its 90-minute running time. I know what they mean but I'm swimming against the tide on this one. I love how Blessing’s play literally so deftly set the stage for me to ruminate on the big questions. You know. The ones about life and death and love and redemption. There are, of course, no easy answers for them and we all must come to our own conclusions. A Body of Water runs through Nov. 16 so there’s time for you to go and draw your own.

October 18, 2008

It's Mother Knows Best in "All My Sons"

The email from my longtime-ago boyfriend Stan said that he would be in town come mid-October and wanted to go with me to see a good play. That kind of request always makes me anxious (how do you know what someone else will consider a good play?) but I felt an even greater responsibility this time out because Stan now lives in Bangkok and so it’s going to be a while before he gets a chance to see another Broadway show.

I decided to take him to the new revival of All My Sons that opened at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre this week. I thought that even if it wasn’t “good”, Stan would appreciate seeing an Arthur Miller classic. And if, by some chance, he hated Miller’s work, he could still get a kick out of seeing the much-talked about stage debut of Katie Holmes since even his friends back in Thailand would probably be just as curious as you, dear reader, about how Mrs. Tom Cruise fared in her first Broadway show. But more about that later.


All My Sons was the second of Miller’s plays to make it to Broadway when it opened in 1947. The first, The Man Who Had All the Luck, had played for just four performances three years earlier (a 2002 revival managed only 62 performances) and Miller, 31 years-old and the father of two, vowed to give up playwriting if All My Sons wasn’t a success. Luckily for him (and for theater lovers) Elia Kazan signed on to direct the play. Both men ended up winning Tonys. And the production played for a then-impressive 328 performances, launching Miller’s long and illustrious career.


Audiences were riveted by the then-contemporary story of a family struggling to deal with the after effects of the recently-ended war. Joe Keller, the father in the play, is a prosperous Midwestern business man who is suspected of shipping defective plane parts during World War II. The damaged equipment caused the deaths of 23 airmen, one of whom may have been the family’s eldest son Larry, still listed as missing in action. The father and surviving son, Chris, are eager to move on. Chris has even fallen in love with and wants to marry Larry’s former fiancée Ann. But mother Kate clings to the belief that Larry is still alive.


Women are usually relegated to supporting roles in Miller’s plays. They tend to be meek, long-suffering spouses like Willy Loman’s wife Linda in Death of a Salesman or comely young objects of desire like Catherine in A View from the Bridge. It’s the men—their desperate longing for a slice of the American dream, their tragic inability to live up to images they’ve created for themselves—who hold center stage. But that’s not quite the way it is this time out.


Both John Lithgow and Patrick Wilson who play the father and son are powerful actors and they don’t hold back in any way here. In fact, there’s a mano-a-mano scene where they are so intense that I thought they might do bodily harm to one another. But for me, it is Dianne Wiest as the wife and mother who walks away with this production.


And that isn’t easy to do. All of the pre-opening publicity focused on Holmes (and although several of the critics have predictably griped about her performance, I thought she did just fine.) Later, most of the reviews fixated on the post-modern devices—heavy musical underscoring, lots of conspicuous lighting, a highly stylized set, video projections that feature stage directions as well as movie clips, and other flamboyantly self-conscious stagecraft—that British director Simon McBurney has imposed on the play.


Still, Wiest manages to break through the din with a performance that transforms a woman who might have been portrayed as a scatterbrain into the heart and soul of the production. Her Kate is a quietly fierce woman who makes her choices not because she is unable to accept the realities of life but because she knows better than anyone around her how devastating they can be.


Not everything works as well in this revival of All My Sons. But it is nearly all fascinating to watch. In my book that counts as good theater. And I’m happy to be able to say that Stan thought so too.

October 15, 2008

"Fifty Words" Doesn't Say Enough

Have you noticed how curtains rarely rise anymore? Instead you walk into a theater and the set is right there staring at you. And, depending on how early you arrive and how distracted you are once you get there, you can stare back at it and, often, you can tell a lot about a show by what you see even before the play begins.

I got to the Lucille Lortel Theatre early and I went alone. So I had plenty of time to study the set for the MCC Theater’s production of Fifty Words, the new Michael Weller play that opened earlier this month. Neil Patel’s set design was so smart and so specific—a Peggy Piacenza dance poster on an exposed brick wall, the Crayola-colored Fiestaware on the kitchen shelves—that I started smiling because I could guess exactly what kind of people lived there. And because I figured if the furnishings were that good, I was in for a terrific evening.

I got the first part right. The second less so. The characters who live in the world Patel designed are an upper-middle class Brooklyn couple (he’s an architect, she’s a former dancer turned internet entrepreneur) played by Norbert Leo Butz and Elizabeth Marvel. Their nine-year-old son is off on his first sleepover, leaving his parents to their first night alone in nearly a decade. What ensues is another one of those long day’s journeys into a marital nightmare that calls to mind O’Neill and Albee. Only nowhere near as good.

Marital discord is a gift that keeps on giving to writers, from The Oresteia of Aeschylus to the “Desperate Housewives” created by Marc Cherry, and the tensions between contemporary dual-income spouses opens up a ripe new area for drama to explore. It would be hard to find two better actors to conduct the investigation than Butz and Marvel (click here to read a funny Q&A she did with Playbill). They are simultaneously cerebral and physical performers, fully committed to both approaches. So you get the whole package when you watch them. In fact, they go so full out that the play’s opening was delayed a few days because both actors got injured in their onstage brawling during the preview period. Director Austin Pendleton is also an accomplished actor and playwright and knows how to tell a stage story.

It’s the particulars of this story that bothered me. I just didn’t believe this couple. Or the night they shared. Maybe that’s because this is such a guy’s play. The husband’s fondest memory of his wife is about how she gave him a blow job in a cab the first night they met. His reminiscences about it are supposed to put her in the mood for another “romantic” evening. Huh?

The contrivances Weller uses to keep the plot moving along are just as clunky. Would the mother of the boy their son is visiting really call after midnight just to confirm what time she should bring the boy home? Would a wife who purports to still be in love with her husband really spend all her time working on her computer while he’s waiting in bed for her to make love on the night before he’s going away on a long business trip?

It’s true that I’m blessed with a happy marriage but it took me a long time to find my husband K and I know how couples can eviscerate one another (been there; been done in by that) but I’ve seen more realistic portrayals of a bad marriage on the Lifetime Channel. If a playwright is going to take this subject on, then he ought to have something fresh to say about it. "There should be 50 words” for love, “like Eskimos have for snow," the wife says at one point. That may explain the show’s title but in theater it's not how many words you use, it's how well you use them that counts.

October 11, 2008

A Blustery "Man for All Seasons"

People like me are always mouthing off about how we’d be happy to see our favorite actors onstage even if they were doing no more than reading the phone book. Well, it may be put up or shut up time for me.

Frank Langella is one of my very favorite actors. I’m a fool for his commanding stage presence, mellifluous voice and total commitment to character. A Man for All Seasons, Robert Bolt’s play about Sir Thomas More, the 16th century English noble who was beheaded for refusing to accept Henry VIII’s divorce from his first wife and marriage to his second, is hardly a phone book. In fact, it was a Tony Award winning-play and the Oscar-winning film version is one of my all-time faves. Still, there is a by-the-numbers quality about the Roundabout Theatre’s current revival of A Man for All Seasons that opened at the American Airlines Theatre earlier this month. And even the great Langella had a tough time making it come alive for me.


And it isn’t because I don’t appreciate the subject matter or think it’s dated. In fact, I’m one of those folks who can’t seem to get enough of the the lives of Henry VIII, his wives and his heirs. Since the beginning of the year, I’ve seen the movie “The Other Boleyn Girl”, looked at “The Tudors” series on Showtime, read three novels by Phillipa Gregory, the queen of literature set in the 16th century, and rented DVDs of the PBS mini-series “Elizabeth I” with Helen Mirren and the 1996 Oscar-winning version of “A Man for All Seasons” with the late Paul Scofield, reprising his role from the original stage version. And it's always the right time for a play about a man who will stand up for his beliefs.


But the play that we’re now seeing isn’t the same one that so intrigued theatergoers back in the 1960s when A Man for All Seasons ran for 637 performances. That version included a character called The Common Man, who spoke directly to the audience and served as a narrator and commentator on the play. Doug Hughes, director of the current production, persuaded the Bolt estate to allow him to drop that character because, he has said, he feels that Brechtian conceit has become too commonplace. And perhaps he also thought it would confuse people who had seen the movie, which also leaves out the character. But movies and plays are different species and although I didn’t see the original stage version, I suspect what The Common Man added was a theatricality that this production lacks.


It also lacks a truly supporting cast. The play is all about More and the battle between the demands of his conscience as a Catholic and the loyalty he is called upon to show his liege who breaks with the church. But there are other strong characters in the play, including Richard Rich, the ambitious acolyte who betrays More; Thomas Cromwell, the crafty cleric who becomes More’s chief foe and, of course, the king. A great hero needs a worthy nemesis. Scofield, who won great acclaim as More in the original production, had one in his Cromwell, played by Leo McKern, the talented character actor perhaps best known as Rumpole of the Bailey.


Zach Grenier, who plays Cromwell in the current production is a good actor but he’s not in Langella’s league. Nor is Jeremy Strong’s Rich. That throws the production out of balance and Langella seems like Gulliver in the land of Lilliputians, at times almost hammy by comparison with his co-stars.


Only Patrick Page as King Henry measures up. Page’s past credits include playing the Grinch in How the Grinch Stole Christmas, Scar in The Lion King and Lumiere in Beauty and the Beast (click here to read a New York Times profile about him). Maybe he’s just happy to be playing a human again but his Henry is a real person—charming one moment, chilling the next and Page brings a vitality to his one scene with More that made me sit up in my chair and stop shivering (the air conditioning in the American Airlines Theatre always seems frozen at full blast; take a heavy jacket if you go) and when he left the stage I wanted to go with him.


So, was I happy to see Langella under these circumstances? Yes and no. Yes because I’m always glad to see him and he still manages flashes of brilliance. No because even the finest gem needs a good setting to show it off to true effect.

October 8, 2008

Is "13" Too Immature for Broadway?

Tweens, that precocious generation between the ages of 8 and 15, have turned “High School Musical” into a cash cow for Disney. They made the Jonas Brothers (ages 17, 16 and 13 when they formed their band in 2005) one of the hottest acts in the music business today. They put 15 year-old Miley Cyrus on the cover of Vanity Fair this year. And they even helped Broadway’s Wicked become the international girl-powerhouse that it is. So as I sat watching the new musical 13 that opened on Sunday at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre, I found myself wondering “Why didn’t someone think of this before?

This is a musical about 13 year-olds, starring a cast of 13 in which no one is older than 18 and even the onstage band is composed of players who probably just began to shave and wear bras. Unlike most of the shows aimed at this demographic (Wicked, Legally Blonde, The Little Mermaid), 13 has its eye on the boys who feel they’ve outgrown The Lion King. In fact, Broadway seems to be going a bit boy crazy this season because both the upcoming shows Billy Elliot and Shrek are aiming for the same audience.

Thirteen
tells the story of Evan Goldman, a New York kid whose mother moves him to Indiana after his parents divorce and just a few months before he’s due to celebrate his bar mitzvah. The plot centers around Evan’s efforts to fit in with the kids at his new school so that they’ll join the festivities marking his entry into manhood. The book is by Dan Elish (who’s written such kid-friendly novels as “Born Too Short: The Confessions of an Eighth-Grade Basket Case”) and TV writer Robert Horn. And the music and lyrics are by Jason Robert Brown, composer of the Tony Award-winning score for Parade and the critically acclaimed The Last Five Years.

The whole idea is so smart and appealing that I really wanted to like 13. But, alas, I didn’t. It’s not the fault of the kids in the cast, who are, for the most part, talented and comfortable onstage, particularly Graham Phillips, who played Evan at the performance my friend Priscilla and I attended (he’s scheduled to take Saturday nights off). Phillips has the kind of bright, easy, and yes seductive, charm that brings to mind a junior version of the “M*A*S*H”-era mensch Alan Alda.

Other standouts include the clarion-voiced Allie Trimm as Patrice, the nice-but-non-cool girl who lives next door to Evan; and Aaron Simon Gross as Archie, a kid who gets around on crutches and a strong sense of humor. And even the young band plays well, although some of the heavy lifting is done by conductor and keyboardist Tom Kitt, whose last spin on Broadway was as the composer of the short-lived High Fidelity.

But aside from Kitt and director Jeremy Sams, who does a good job with such as young cast, I blame the show’s shortcomings on the grown-ups involved in the production. While its tunes are poppy and its lyrics witty (click here to hear a sampling), 13 struck me as the kind of show that adults think kids will find cool rather than a show that kids actually do find cool.

And I was totally turned off by how it fed into stereotypes. Does Indiana really have to be, as one song calls it, “the lamest place in the world” to live? Does the school jock have to be the predictably dumbest kid in the school? Does the blonde girl have to be the one that all the boys want? Does everyone have to be so thoroughly grossed out when two boys accidentally kiss?

Yeah, I know. I’m no where near the demographic 13 is hoping to draw. And I admit the audience the night I attended, heavily sprinkled with kids, seemed to enjoy the show, which runs just over 90 minutes. Even I got a kick out of seeing each young cast member show off in the joyful finale. And Priscilla, whose youngest is 14, said she's going to go back with her daughter and thinks that kids will like it. So what do I know? I don't even own any Jonas Brothers records.

October 4, 2008

"The Seagull" Soars to New Heights

Is there a serious actress in the last 100 years who hasn’t done, at some time in her career, Nina’s monologue about the theater in the fourth act of The Seagull? The play, of course, centers around the older Irina Arkadina and Kristin Scott Thomas, who won an Olivier for her portrayal of that self-involved actress in last year's much acclaimed London production, gets top billing, a big photo on the Playbill and the solo curtain call for the 14-week transfer that recently opened at the Walter Kerr Theatre. But it is Carey Mulligan, stunning as Nina, who hijacks this production.

The Seagull is a keystone of modern theater. Like his young protagonist, the fledgling playwright Konstantin,
played in the current production with a desperate, hollow-eyed intensity by Mackenzie Crook, Anton Chekhov wanted to move beyond the realist melodramas that dominated the stage in his day and to push further into the territory pioneer by Ibsen and Strindberg. But the 1896 premiere of The Seagull famously flopped. The audience booed all through the performance, the actress playing Nina became so unnerved that she lost her voice during the show and Chekhov himself, fled from the audience, hid out backstage and vowed never to write another play. A production at the Moscow Art Theatre two years later, directed by the great Constantin Stanislavski, who also took on the role of Trigorin, the more accomplished writer in the play, was a great success, launching Chekhov and theater as we know it.

I’ve seen several versions of The Seagull over the years, including the celebrated Public Theatre production in 2001 that starred Meryl Streep as Arkadina, Kevin Kline as Trigorin, Philip Seymour Hoffman as Konstantin and Natalie Portman as Nina. I also saw Regina Taylor’s poorly received all-black 2004 adaptation of the story, Drowning Crow, with Alfre Woodard in the Arkadina role. And just six months ago, I saw the Classic Stage Company’s production with Dianne Wiest as Arkadina and Alan Cumming as Trigorin. I’ve respected the ingenuity of some productions, admired the aspirations of others but I’ve never really been moved. Until now.


Like all four of Chekhov’s great country estate plays, The Seagull is simultaneously comic and tragic. Most productions struggle about which quality should be given more weight. This one gets the balance right. Christopher Hampton can claim part of the credit. His new translation of the play is colloquial without sounding trivial. You get the feeling that if Chekhov were writing in English today, these are the exact words he would have chosen. Ian Rickson’s direction is equally lucid and he clearly knows how to cast a play.

Chekhov gives all of the characters in The Seagull a chance to spread their wings and the actors in this production, even those in the smaller supporting roles, soar. Peter Wright brings a wistful poignancy to Sorin, Arkadina’s older brother who regrets the choices he’s made in his life. Art Malik is wry and amusing as Dorn, the doctor who is close to the family.

In fact, the only one who seemed earthbound to me was Peter Sarsgaard as Trigorin, the writer who is the young lover in Arkadina’s life and angles to be the older one in Nina’s. I get that Trigorin is supposed to be on to the fact that he’s something of a poseur and I’ve loved Sarsgaard in indie films like “Kinsey” and “Shattered Glass” but his Trigorin is too laid back and lacks the sex appeal that would make it clear why either woman might want him. The Nigerian-British actor Chiwetel Ejiofor, who recently won the Olivier for his portrayal of Othello, played Trigorin in London and I’ve read that he brought an appealing insouciance—and sexiness—to the role that I wished we Yanks had been able to see.

Still, I’m glad I got to see Scott Thomas and Mulligan. Scott Thomas, still
most famous for her role in the 1996 movie “The English Patient”, gets all of Arkadina’s haughtiness but she also gets the character’s awareness of what that arrogance has cost. She deserves the praise she’s getting. But Mulligan, just 22, and largely unknown on this side of the ocean, gives an even more heartbreaking performance. Nina will never be the great actress that Arkadina is and yet Mulligan in that final speech makes it clear that the theater is also in Nina’s blood too and that she, too, is willing to pay any price for the privilege to be even a small part of it. And what theater lover wouldn’t be moved by that?

October 1, 2008

Tovah's Mission Fulfills "Irena's Vow"

Tovah Feldshuh has a knack for playing singular women. Three years ago, she took on Golda Meir in Golda’s Balcony, William Gibson’s one-hander about the former Israeli prime minister, and turned that portrayal into the longest running one-woman show in Broadway history. So when Feldshuh walked onto the stage of the Baruch Performing Arts Center and began speaking directly to the audience at the start of her new show Irena’s Vow, I figured we were in for another solo affair. I was wrong. This true story of a Polish Catholic woman who hid Jews from the Nazis has a cast of 10. But I wasn’t completely wrong. The most commanding presence on that stage is Feldshuh.

And I hadn’t expected anything less. Feldshuh has been commanding attention since she was the undisputed star of the theater department at Sarah Lawrence College when we were both students there some 40 years ago. Back then, I, a small-talent freshman, was too intimidated to speak to her, the big-talent senior, but I’ve followed her career ever since. Her first big break was, coincidentally, in the 1978 TV miniseries “Holocaust”, where her co-stars included Rosemary Harris, Sam Wanamaker, Fritz Weaver and a couple of other newcomers named James Woods and Meryl Streep.

By that time, Feldshuh had already dropped the less-ethnic sounding stage name she’d adopted, Terri Fairchild, and was proudly embracing her Jewishness by using her distinctively Hebrew name Tovah. That pride in her heritage has remained a motivating force for Feldshuh, both personally and professionally—be it raising money for Jewish causes or adding beyond-stereotype grit to the Jewish women she played in movies like “Kissing Jessica Stein” and TV shows like “Law & Order” where she has a recurring role as the no-nonsense defense attorney Danielle Melnick.

Feldshuh’s latest character Irena isn’t Jewish but Irena’s story continues Tovah’s mission. (Click here to read an interview she gave Peter Filichia before previews for Irena’s Vow began.) Like Oskar Schindler, Irena Gut Opdyke was one of the “Righteous” gentiles who risked her life to save Jews during the Holocaust. After helplessly watching Nazis bash the head of a Jewish infant in the street, Irena, then barely 20, vowed that she would do whatever she could to help future victims. And so while working as a housekeeper for a Nazi officer, she hid a dozen Jews in his basement and when he eventually discovered them, she became his mistress to keep him from betraying her friends.

The play presents this inspirational story as a flashback, book-ended by a lecture the 70 year-old Irena gives to a group of high school students in L.A., where she immigrated after the war. (She eventually became a well-known interior decorator and died in 2003, two weeks after her 85th birthday.) Dan Gordon’s script, based on the memoir Irena wrote, adds leavening humor where it can, Michael Parva’s direction adds suspense even though we know the story will end with Irena's survival and the talented cast makes it all believable, even though Feldshuh spends most of the 90-minute play portraying a woman less than half her age.

Despite these good efforts, the show still carries the sermonizing air of one of those old uplifting "After School Specials". Of course, it’s almost impossible for this kind of Holocaust tale to do anything else. And its message remains a vital one, particularly as revisionists continue to deny the genocide that occurred and new masters of mass slaughter continue to kill millions of others around the world.

The audience at the Baruch Center didn’t need to be reminded about the lessons of the Holocaust but it clearly appreciated the retelling. You could hear people trying to stifle sobs at the performance my friend Lisa and I attended. The woman sitting right in front of us, who seemed particularly moved by the events onstage, turned out to be the real Irena’s daughter, Jeannie Smith (Click here to read about her and another Irena "descendant").

Quieting the applause at the curtain call, Feldshuh introduced Smith to the audience and brought her on stage to answer questions about her mother. The play, of course, has a special meaning for Smith. “It’s been five years since my mother died and I miss her every day,” she told the cast, barely able to hold back tears. “Thank you for bringing her back to life for these 90 minutes.”

Video projections of the actual Irena show a tall blonde woman who looked nothing like the petite brunette Feldshuh but I know what Smith means. The spirit is clearly the same. Indomitable.