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January 28, 2012

A "Richard III" That Just Limps Along

People have been going to the theater to see stars since Thespis broke out of the chorus in the 6th century, barnstormed the cities of ancient Greece and gave his name to the acting profession that he is credited with creating.  And I’m just as eager to see a star onstage as generations of theater lovers have been ever since.

So, despite having seen Richard III more than a half dozen times over the last 10 years, I signed up for the entire season at BAM just to make sure I didn’t miss out on getting a ticket to see Kevin Spacey put his trademark sardonic spin on the most wicked—and most wickedly entertaining—of Shakespeare’s villains.

The production that opened at the Harvey Theater last week marks a reunion between Spacey and the director Sam Mendes, who not only worked with the star on the 1999 Oscar-winning movie "American Beauty" but is the guiding force behind The Bridge Project, the transatlantic partnership that has brought British and American actors together to perform classic works.

Richard III is the final of the Bridge productions and the Spacey-Mendes take on the tale of the hunchbacked miscreant who manipulates the deaths of his brother, nephews and wife to gain the throne of England has drawn raves in London and here (click here to see some of those reviews). 

But, as was the case with the initial Bridge production The Cherry Orchard back in 2009 (click here to see my review) the show failed to work for me.

It gets off to a good start with the sight of Spacey sprawled on a throne. Clearly pissed off by the celebration going on around him as his elder brother gets the crown (or, to be more accurate, the celebration that is being projected on the screen above him) Spacey's Richard snarls out the play’s famous opening line, “Now is the winter of our discontent/Made glorious summer by this sun of York..” 

Spacey never loses his prodigious intensity but the energy around him quickly dissipates and although, as I’ve said, I’ve seen the play a lot, it was hard to follow what was going on.

Mendes clearly means to comment on the nefarious ways in which political leaders use the media to manipulate the masses but, ironically, he seems to have put more thought into coming up with ways to use video projections than in developing his theme.

His other choices are just as off the mark.  It’s become uncool to do Shakespeare in period dress and so he has designer Catherine Zuber put all the men in chic Mad Men-era suits and contemporary military garb. 

They look great but they also all look alike.  So, despite the decision to project the names of the major characters on a screen as they appear onstage, it’s hard to tell who is whom or on whose side.

Paul Pyant’s lighting doesn’t help either.  I thought he and Mendes might have been making a point when the spotlight failed to illuminate an actor until he was almost finished speaking but after it happened a few more times, I decided that even if the choice had been intentional, it was annoying, particularly in such a large house.

The sound design went in the opposite—and more emphatic—direction. Two percussionists played big Japanese taiko-like drums to punctuate the action and at various times, the actors strapped on drums and beat along (John Doyle-style) with them.   

This, too, is stylish—and it helps to keep the audience awake—but it also drowns out the dialog, which is already compromised in the acoustics-challenged space of the Harvey. 

But, I hear you thinking, isn’t it worth it to put up with all of that just for the chance to see Spacey in the flesh?  Well, I’m not sure it is. He certainly goes all out, which, with Spacey, is saying something. 

The brace he wears and the limp he affects as the crippled Richard made me worry about his future orthopedic health. But the inner life of the character isn't as sharply delineated and it was never clear why anyone would believe or trust this twisted Richard.

Besides, even a star of Spacey’s magnitude needs some help, particularly in a production that runs three-and-a half hours. Back in 1955 when Laurence Oliver, filmed my all-time favorite version of Richard III, he was wise enough to recruit a supporting cast that included John Gielgud, Ralph Richardson and Claire Bloom.

Of course, you don’t always have to have big names to make a good production.  When Classic Stage Company did Richard III five years ago, Michael Cumpsty lead a cast filled with CSC regulars and that production was funny, moving and memorable (click here to read my review).   

None of which, alas, I can say about the current one.  In fact, I was so disappointed by it, that for the first time I can remember, I left my Playbill at the theater.

January 25, 2012

"Untitled Feminist Show" Offers Naked Truths

Every once in awhile, I like to venture outside my theatergoing comfort zone.  One of the surest ways for me to do that is to see a play by the comfort-be-damned playwright Young Jean Lee.  And Lee’s latest, Untitled Feminist Show, which opened at the Baryshnikov Arts Center last week as part of PS 122’s COIL Festival, certainly fits the bill.

Untitled Feminist Show is a series of silent vignettes about women’s lives that are performed by six women, each as naked as the day she was born.  There’s no narrative, no dialog, no scenery and, of course, no costumes, except for some tiny pink parasols.

The mise-en-scène is generated by Raquel Davis’ subtle lighting design, some mystifying projections by Leah Gelpe and, most notably, by the excellent sound design of Chris Giarmo and Jamie McElhinney which features music that ranges from genteel Baroque to head-banging heavy metal. As Lee explains in a program note, the show is intentionally designed to “resist categorization.”

Defying categories is Lee’s specialty.  Her big breakthrough was the 2009 production of The Shipment, a satirical look at stereotypes about African-Americans that drew attention, in part, because it was written by a Korean-American woman.

I couldn’t get a ticket to the limited run of The Shipment but I did catch Lee’s next show, a perplexing retelling of Shakespeare’s King Lear in which the mad monarch never appears (click here to read my review). 

Untitled Feminist Show is equally demanding.  In the program note, Lee explains that she likes to cast “my shows before I write them and then write them based on conversations with my cast.” 

This time, she has recruited performers from the worlds of dance, burlesque and the downtown theater scene and then challenged them with the following question: “What would it look like if people with female bodies enjoyed unlimited possibilities for transformation?”

The bodies of her performers run the gamut from petite to near-obese, creating kind of a raunchier version of those old Dove ads that always seemed to be smugly patting themselves on the back for showing women of varying body types. But the nudity quickly ceased to be a distraction over the course of the one-hour show. The emphasis switched to what the women did instead of how they looked.

Some of the answers that the performers and Lee devised to answer her transformation question are witty (little girls outfoxing a wicked witch) others are moving (two women meeting and falling in love in a lovely pas de deux) but at least one (a mime sequence detailing one woman's experience of giving men oral sex) suggested a misandry that made me far more uncomfortable than being flashed repeatedly.

The hipster audience the night my friend Priscilla and I saw the show seemed delighted with all of it—and, I suspect, with themselves for being there to see it.  And, despite my reservations, I have to say that when I woke up the next morning and walked past the mirror in my bedroom, I felt a comfort with my own body that I haven’t felt for a longtime.

January 21, 2012

"The Road to Mecca" is a Long, Slow Trip

There are some plays that you out-and-out love.  And then there are others that you feel you ought to admire.  The latter is the way I feel about Athol Fugard’s The Road to Mecca, which opened this week at the Roundabout Theatre Company’s American Airlines Theatre.

I mean how can you not admire Fugard? The white South African playwright founded a multiracial theater in his homeland back in 1958 right as the country's racially segregationist  policies were solidifying. 

Over the years he’s written more than two dozen plays, including such acclaimed works about the cruelties of the apartheid system as Master Harold…and the Boys, Boesman and Lena and Blood Knot, which will kick off the season-long retrospective that Signature Theatre is doing to celebrate Fugard’s 80th birthday this year.

 And who doesn’t admire Rosemary Harris? Over the past seven decades (she’s currently celebrating the 60th anniversary of her Broadway debut) Harris has appeared in, and won raves for, her work including nine Tony nominations (she won for the original 1966 production of The Lion in Winter) and five Drama Desk Awards. And now, at 84, she is giving as present and luminous a performance as she ever did (click here to read a profile about her).

And yet, I had to fight to keep from falling asleep during the first act of The Road to Mecca, which, at least as directed by Gordon Edelstein, moves at as deliberate and solemn a pace as a State of the Union speech: there may be good and important stuff in it and maybe even some flights of poetic language but you can’t wait for the thing to end (click here to read the director’s take on the show).

A three-hander in which all the characters are white, The Road to Mecca deals less overtly with race than some of Fugard’s other plays. But its subject is still the cost of being different in an intolerant society.

Fugard based the play on the real-life story of Helen Martins, an Afrikaner woman who, in middle-age, alienated her rural churchgoing neighbors when she began to create a garden full of whimsical glass and concrete sculptures that she called her Mecca (click here to read more about her).

Harris plays Miss Helen, as the character is called, and Carla Gugino, another gifted actress, plays her only friend Elsa, a liberal young school teacher who lives 12 hours away in Cape Town. The play opens as Elsa arrives for a surprise visit in response to a letter she’s received from her friend, who is aging, despondent and fearing an approaching darkness. 

But not much happens until Jim Dale arrives as the town’s minister. His appeal to Helen to give up her art and return to the church sets off a battle for her soul. That perks things up a bit but it all involves a lot of talk (the play runs two-and-a-half hours) as each character lays out his or her case.  And the talk seemed to go on and on and on.  Judging from the light snoring I heard the night my friend Ann and I saw the show, I wasn't the only one dozing off.

Maybe attention spans have simply grown shorter over the past 24 years since The Road to Mecca first played off-Broadway, with Fugard himself in the role of the minister.  Or maybe we just think less reverently about artists now that their success is toted up more in dollars and sense than in dedication and an independent spirit.

It’s no spoiler to say that art triumphs in The Road to Mecca.  But the ending of the real-life Miss Helen’s story may be more telling.  She committed suicide by swallowing a mixture of caustic soda and crushed glass. Her home is now a major tourist attraction.

January 18, 2012

Why "Seminar" Gets a Failing Grade From Me

My good friend Andrea recently came to New York for the first time in four years and, of course, she wanted to see a Broadway show.  After some research— reading the Times and talking to me—she settled on Theresa Rebeck’s new comedy Seminar, largely because she’s such a big fan of its star Alan Rickman. Alas, while she did enjoy seeing him, Andrea ended up disappointed with the play.  Ditto for me. 

Seminar, which is playing at the Golden Theatre thru March 18, stars Rickman as an erstwhile literary lion who is running a private master class for four young writers. Each has paid $5,000 for the privilege but his pedagogical approach is mostly dismissive put-downs. 

It’s a perfect role for Rickman’s trademark acerbity and he tosses off the one liners with the same hard-hearted ease that the Republicans have been using to discard frontrunners. He gets able support from his co-stars: Hamish Linklater, Jerry O’Connell, Hettienne Park and Lily Rabe, who just seems to get more and more impressive each time she walks on a stage.

Sam Gold, the deservedly hot director of the moment, applies his usual verve to the proceedings. And the entire design team steps up as well, particularly David Zinn, who’s created two very different New York apartments, both of which I wanted to move into immediately.

So what, you may be asking, made Andrea and me unhappy? Well, the only thing left is the play itself.  And I'm sorry to have to say that Seminar is the latest in a long string of disappointments by the prolific Rebeck, who comes up with appealing scenarios for her plays and then fails to develop them fully enough.

The set-up for Seminar is similar to the one that Terrence McNally used for Master Class, his play about the opera diva Maria Callas: genius teacher amusingly humiliates and then satisfyingly uplifts talented students.

But while McNally provided glimpses into Callas’ life that allowed the audience to understand what drove her, Rebeck stays on the surface. Her characters do things because the play needs them to, not because the characters need to do them.

Some feminists have gotten particularly pissed off with Rebeck because of the way the play treats its female characters.  And, indeed, there is one bit of business early in the play that makes no sense, other than to get a smutty laugh. (Click here to read one complaint and here to read another).

The critical response to the show has been mixed but it’s still managed to get a B+ on StageGrade, the site that aggregates the reviews of the top New York critics (click here to read some what some of them have to say). 

But Andrea’s experience reminded me that those of lucky enough to see lots of shows (professional critics average well over 200 a year) can afford to be more forgiving. Or maybe writers just like shows about writers. 

So, if you’re not a writer or a really rabid Rickman fan, and are coming to town with just enough time to see one or two shows, this probably shouldn’t be one of them.

January 11, 2012

"Outside People" Tackles a Very "In" Topic

The Soviet Union was the bogeyman that threatened what Superman used to call “The American way” when I was a kid.  It lost the gig when the Berlin Wall fell in 1989.  Since then, Iraq, Iran and North Korea have been auditioned for the role. But increasingly China has become the hands-down favorite to play the part.  Which may explain why this season has already brought us two plays about the culture clash between the U.S. and China. 

The first was David Henry Hwang’s Ch’ing•lish (click here to read my review) which is limping along on Broadway with houses that are barely a third full. The latest arrival is the Naked Angels production of Outside People, which opened last night at the Vineyard Theatre.  

Outside People is like the friskier younger sister of Ch’ing•lish.  It’s sexier and more fun and it deserves to do better business.

In both plays, guileless white guys travel to China, seeking to reset lives that have veered off the track. There they meet and fall in love with beautiful and (old stereotypes die hard) inscrutable Chinese women.

The guy in Outside People is Malcolm, a nebbishy twentysomething who’s kicked around aimlessly in the years since graduating from Stanford and so gratefully accepts an offer from his far slicker former Chinese roommate David, or Da Wei, to take a job as “The Token White Guy” with a company in Beijing (click here to read a piece about that real-world practice).

The play opens in a trendy club where the friends have gone to celebrate Malcolm’s first night in town with Da Wei’s girlfriend Samanya, the daughter of a Cameroonian diplomat who grew up in China and feels more Chinese than African, and Xiao Mei, a Chinese woman who  hooks up with Malcolm suspiciously quickly.

Like Ch’ing•lish, parts of Outside People are performed in Mandarin but, unlike the Broadway production, there are no projected translations here.  And somehow the dislocation that produces feels right as the audience struggles to figure out what’s going on just as Malcolm does.

Alas, playwright Zayd Dohrn soft pedals the conflict and refuses to draw conclusions. It’s a trend that’s become annoyingly popular and not just in theater (click here to see an L.A. Times piece on its use in the movies). 

Here, the ending is left hanging in the air to the point that the audience the night my theatergoing buddy Bill and I saw the show didn’t realize the play was over and was clearly waiting for more to happen when the actors appeared onstage to take their curtain-call bows. 

All four actors are excellent under Evan Cabnet’s sure-handed direction.  Although Li Jun Li may have the heaviest lifting to do as Xiao Mei since Dohrn gives her such inconsistent stuff to play: one minute, the character’s English is supposedly so weak that she can barely order a drink but then, the next minute, she’s delineating the difference between freedom in the two countries.  Somehow, Li, who played Liat in the recent revival of South Pacific, manages to make nearly all the moments believable.  

The technical aspects of the show are equally nimble. The women look so fabulous in the form-fitting outfits costume designer Jessica Wegener Shay has put them in that you’ll want to sign up for Pilates as soon as you leave the theater. 

The fluid set by Takeshi Kata and cinematic lighting by Ben Stanton are spot on too.  And the music—a playlist that roams from American pop to movie-score Chinoiserie, to Mandarin hip-hop—slyly underscores the changing dynamics.

Outside People may be an imperfect play but it’s still an enjoyable way to start off the year. May a thousand similar theatrical flowers bloom.

January 7, 2012

"Lysistrata Jones" Fails to Score on Broadway

Despite recent balmy temperatures, the winter frost is beginning to settle in. The new year isn't even a week old and two shows have already announced that they’re folding their tents because they’re not strong enough to withstand the cold box-office months of January and February when the holiday tourists have gone home and New Yorkers customarily hibernate in theirs or only venture out for exotic fare, like the Public Theater's Under the Radar festival (click here to find out more about it). 

The first Broadway show to go is Lysistrata Jones, the updated spin on Aristophanes' 5th century comedy about a group of women who decide to deny their men sex until they end The Peloponnesian War.  Only in this musical version—with a book by Douglas Carter Beane and music and lyrics by his husband Lewis Flinn—the women are co-eds who, in the lyrics of one song, are “giving up giving it up” until their basketball player boyfriends break a years-long loosing streak and win a game. 

Lysistrata Jones was a surprise hit when the Transport Group presented it, appropriately enough, in The Gym at Judson Memorial Church last spring and it made a relatively quick leap to the Walter Kerr Theatre last month—and brought along some fans with it.   

Chief among the cheerleaders was the New York Times’ Ben Brantley who proclaimed it an “endearingly escapist show” (click here to read his entire review.)  My blogger buddy The Mick over at The Craptacular loved it too (click here to read her rave) I didn’t see the downtown production but the Broadway transfer was a low scorer for me.

Flinn’s tunes are suitably peppy and Dan Knechtges, who directed and choreographed the show, gives the young energetic cast a real workout. Patti Murin, who plays the title character is particularly perky (click here to read a piece about her). 

And the show’s be-the-best-that-you-can-be motivational message comes through loud and clear. But it's all been done before—and better—in Disney’s “High School Musical” series. 

Most of the technical fouls are committed by Beane. He can be sharp and witty as he was in As Bees in Honey Drown and The Little Dog Laughed or comically indolent as he was in Mr. & Mrs. Fitch and is, alas, here. The laughs in Lysistrata Jones rely far too much on the scatological (or as The Mick says, dick jokes) campy pop-cultural references and a cheap use of cultural stereotypes.    

Lysistrata Jones gets points for having one of the most diverse casts I’ve seen on Broadway in a long time (even if the cute blonde is inevitably the main character) but it undermines the good deed by doing things like having the Latino characters mangle their English. Beane uses the same tired trope for one of the characters in his book for Sister Act. This hasn't been fresh since Ricky Ricardo's day.

The show also makes the narrator a big finger-waggling-neck-swiveling black woman. Liz Mikel is very good in the role (the audience loved her the night my theatergoing buddy Bill and I saw the show) and I’m sure she's grateful for the job but I couldn’t help feeling badly that someone as talented as she is was reduced to this modern-day version of hambone.

Beane obviously gets a kick out of mixing it up with the Greeks. He (and a lot of people, although, again, not me) had a lot of fun with his update of the toga-heavy Xanadu, which played over 500 performances four seasons ago (click here to read what I thought of that one) and he was, no doubt, hoping for a repeat of that success. 

But the Fates had other plans.  When it closes tomorrow, Lysistrata Jones will have played just 30 performances.

January 4, 2012

"Close-Up Space" is Too All Over the Place

What are they teaching in drama schools and playwriting workshops?   
I ask because so many playwrights today seem to think all they need is snappy dialog and then voilà, they have a play. It’s like they all graduated from the Henny Youngman School of Dramaturgy.  What happened to full-bodied characters, compelling situations, challenging ideas?  

I found myself thinking about these questions and other similar ones as I tried to keep my mind from wandering while watching Close Up Space, the new play by Molly Smith Metzler that is running at Manhattan Theatre Club’s City Center Stage through Jan. 29. 

Metzler, whose bio lists degrees from both The Juilliard School and New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, isn't untalented.  In fact, she's one of the up-and-coming playwrights who has been given all kinds of fellowships and residencies to develop her work. Her play Elemeno Pea was a hit at the 2011 Humana Festival of New American Plays (click here to read a Q&A with her). 

But Metzler has had the misfortune to come along at a time when the term “well made play” seems to be regarded as a malady. Metzler, who's 33, cites Marsha Norman and Christopher Durang as role models but her play lacks the kind of solid scaffolding on which those older playwrights drape even the wildest flights of fancy.

Close Up Space—the title is a play on the proofreading symbol that means one should get rid of an unnecessary space and bring the things on either side of the gap together—is a basic dysfunctional-family play, gussied up with some overly eccentric characters and a few faux-absurdist touches. 

The main-protagonist is Paul, a senior editor at a publishing house and the widowed father of a teenage daughter. The play opens as he’s training a new intern by taking a critical red pencil to the letters the headmaster of his daughter’s school has sent explaining why the girl is being expelled.

Even critics who didn’t like the rest of the play loved this scene, which is supposed to set up what a perfectionist Paul is in everything except fatherhood. But I didn't buy a bit of it.

First off, Paul edits the letters on an overhead projector.  There’s no inherent reason for him to do that since he has a computer on his desk. The only possible reason he’s using the outdated machine is that it allows the audience to see the changes he’s making and be amused by them. 

Second, and more importantly, it’s unlikely that even the most uninvolved dad would be more concerned with syntax than the fact that his kid is being thrown out of school.  And the play goes downhill from there.

Subplots involve the publishing house’s most successful author who has the hots for Paul and his assistant, a slacker who has literally moved into the office following a falling out with his dog (no, that’s not a typo).  And, of course, there’s the daughter. She's so angry with her father that she will only speak to him in Russian, which he doesn’t understand.

What I don’t understand is what the actors—so many of them fine comedians—saw in Close Up Space when they signed on to do it.  David Hyde Pierce plays Paul and he summons all his prodigious gifts and personal likeability to lift that opening scene and the play as a whole. But there’s only so much he can do. By the end he looks as embarrassingly bewildered as everyone else onstage.

Rosie Perez is miscast as the demanding author but she still gets some big laughs, largely because she’s Rosie Perez and is basically incapable of not being funny. Michael Chernus, one of my favorite young actors, is given little but whimsy to work with.

Even the production's few bright spots are sabotaged. Set designer Todd Rosenthal has created a beautiful and minutely detailed office for Paul but both he and director Leigh Silverman stumble big time when, later in the play, a dramatic change is required.

I saw Close Up Space with a holiday matinee audience that was full of AARP types, out for a good time and eager to see Hyde Pierce.  But you could feel the goodwill leaching out of them over the course of the play’s 90-minute running time. 

“I can’t understand a word she’s saying,” the woman across the aisle from me whispered, not quietly, to her girlfriend.  “That’s because they’re all overacting,” said the friend.  I glared at them. They ignored me.

“Is it over yet?” the first woman asked a few short minutes later.  “I hope so, this is terrible,” came the response.  I was certain that the actors could hear them and I was annoyed by the women’s rudeness but I have to say that everything they said was true.