Archive for June, 2009

On The Aisle with Larry – June 20, 2009

“On the Aisle with Larry”

Lawrence Harbison brings you up to date with what’s hot and what’s not in New York. This week, Larry tells you about THE AMISH PROJECT, THINGS OF DRY HOURS and Ensemble Studio Theatre’s MARATHON, SERIES B.

I am ordinarily not much of a fan of one-person plays, which are ever more ubiquitous these days because they are the cheapest plays to produce; but I like Rattlestick Playwrights Theatre a lot, so I wasn’t going to hold it against them that they’re ending their season with a monodrama, in this case The Amish Project written and performed by Jessica Dickey. In fact, I was eagerly anticipating this one, because I have been hearing some very good things about it.

About three years ago, a man invaded an Amish schoolhouse, expelled all the boys and proceeded to shoot the girls. This tragedy inspired Dickey to spend time in Pennsylvania talking to the locals, Amish and non, and the result is this collection of monologues in which she plays seven characters in all. I was surprised, and grateful, that Dickey does not indulge in pop psychology to explain away this horrific event. She is more interested in its effect on the lives of the people affected by it – including the wife of the shooter. This all coalesces into a question too inscrutable for our secular culture to fathom: how could the Amish, whose children were murdered, forgive their murderer and try to assist his wife?

Ms. Dickey is terrific, both as writer and performer. My only quibble with this is the title. It’s a working title, not a final-draft title. Still, this is a poignant 65 minutes and well worth seeing.

As is Naomi Wallace’s Things of Dry Hours at New York Theatre Workshop. This takes place in the 1930’s in the deep south and concerns a negro communist agitator who lives with his daughter who don’t give a hoot about the revolution. A young white man arrives on their doorstep, claiming to be on the run from the bosses’ goons and asking for sanctuary. Reluctantly, it is granted, and the agitator proceeds to try and educate his guest in the philosophy of communism as expounded by Mark and Engels in The Communist Manifesto and by God in The Bible.

Of course, the daughter falls for the guest and, of course, its revealed he’s not who he says he is. This sounds kind of dull; but Wallace’s scenes are taut and dramatic. She only falters when she resorts to narrative monologues directly addressed to the audience. The play is bookended with these, which are unnecessary and, well, boring.

The cast, under Ruben Santiago-Hudson’s rather languid direction, works wonders with this intense, occasionally turgid play. Delroy Lindo is magnificent as the black communist and Roslyn Ruff is fierce as his angry daughter.

This play is a challenge to sit through, but it’s not the turkey you may have read about. I recommend it.

I also recommend Ensemble Studio Theatre’s annual Marathon of One Act Plays. So far I have only seen Series B (one of three), but each play was most enjoyable. My fave was Meir Ribalow’s outrageous metaphysical western, Sundance, wherein gunslingers sit around Your Basic Saloon talking about their reasons for killing. One kills to uphold the law; one kills for pure pleasure; another kills for the revolution. They wind up meeting their fates at the gun barrel of the Ultimate Killer, the eponymous character who kills for no reason whatsoever. At times chilling, at times whimsically hilarious, this was the best play of Series B. The weird thing about it is, this play was written at least 25 years ago and published at least 20 years ago. EST does premieres in its Marathon –so what is Sundance doing therein?

THE AMISH PROJECT. Rattlestick Playwrights Theatre. 224 Waverly Pl.

TICKETS: www.smarttix.com. 212-868-4444.

THINGS OF DRY HOURS. NY Theatre Workshop. 79 E. 4th St.

TICKETS: 212-460-5475.

ENSEMBLE STUDIO THEATRE MARATHON. 549 W. 52ND St.

TICKETS: 212-247-4982.


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On The Aisle with Larry – June 8, 2009

“On the Aisle with Larry”

Lawrence Harbison brings you up to date with what’s hot and what’s not in New York. This week, Larry tells you about OUR HOUSE, CORALINE and NEXT FALL.

The opening of a new play by Theresa Rebeck is always a cause for celebration. This is one of the American Theatre’s smartest, and funniest, playwrights. Her latest, Our House at Playwrights Horizons, does not disappoint. It’s required viewing for anyone concerned about what has been happening to news on television, and about the spread of so-called “reality television.”

Jennifer Ramirez is the hot, rising star of TV news. She anchors the morning news, but the head of programming, a manic, slimy character named Wes, has bigger plans for her. He decides to make her a feature of his network’s hottest reality show, “Our House,” unconcerned that reality TV isn’t really “news” – at least as Edward R. Murrow or Walter Cronkeit would have conceived it.

Between scenes involving Jennifer, Wes and the unctuous head of news Stu, we are given scenes in a real house, in which reside four people. One of them is a TV nut named Merv, who apparently does nothing but sit around the house all day watching reality TV, much to the dismay of Alice, who hates it that the TV is on 24/7 and who keeps the house books. Mel is over $4,000 behind in his contributions to the house expenses, and Alice wants the other denizens to boot him out. So, Mel comes downstairs with a gun and shoots Alice and the other woman in the house, Grigsby. “What do you want?” pleads Vince, the only unscathed resident. “I want to talk to Jennifer Ramirez,” says Mel. What ensues is a taut hostage negotiation drama, as the network sends Jennifer into the house to get the exclusive story. Of course, the network’s numbers go through the roof.

Michael Mayer’s production is flat-out brilliant, and his cast is across-the board wonderful. Christopher Evan Welch is scarily terrific as Wes, and Morena Baccarin is scarily robotic as Jennifer. Jeremy Strong, as Merv, is scary, too – because he is so likeable, albeit in a nutcase kind of way.

Our House is funny and horrifying. Don’t miss this one.

I also recommend Coraline, an MCC production at the Lucille Lortel Theatre – particularly if you are in the mood for Something Completely Different. This is a horror yarn about a little girl who finds herself in a parallel universe on the other side of a bricked-up doorway, where she is the daughter of a sinister Other Mother and Father. Will she escape back to the safety of the real world, or will she been turned into a tortured spirit like the other children she meets in her nightmare?

David Greenspan has adapted a weird children’s novel by Nail Gaiman, and there are several very creepy songs by Stephin Merritt. Jane Houdyshell, a wonderful character actress in her 50s (that’s my guess) plays Coraline, and she makes you believe she is this little girl. David Greenspan himself plays the Other Mother, and he is as weird and sinister as you might expect.

Coraline is a weird kiddie show which can be enjoyed by adults, too.

Finally, I caught Naked Angels’ production of Artistic Director Geoffrey Nauffts’ Next Fall, at the Peter Jay Sharp Theatre (Playwrights Horizons’ upstairs space, although this is not a PH production), which reminded me a lot of the sort of play I used to see regularly at the late lamented Circle Rep, no doubt because of the presence in the cast of Circle Rep veteran Cotter Smith, who has been doing television and some film lo these past 15 years or so, and whose return to the New York stage is most welcome.

We are in a hospital waiting room with the family and friends of Luke, a young actor who has been in an accident and is in a coma. There’s his father and his step-mother, his boyfriend, his ex-boyfriend, and a female friend who runs a candle shop where he works as his day job. There are flashbacks involving Luke and the current boyfriend, a 40 year-old nebbishy sort, and these form the heart of the play’s conflict. Luke, you see, is a sincere Christian; whereas the boyfriend, Adam, is a cynical atheist. Talk about an odd couple! Adam thinks Luke is seriously wrong-headed; Luke worries that Adam is damned to hell because he doesn’t accept Christ as his savior. There is much to savor in the debate between these two men; but these scenes in the waiting room are great, too.

Patrick Breen and Patrick Heusinger and wonderful as the contentious lovers Adam and Luke, and Cotter Smith is most impressive as Luke’s Dad, a stuffy conservative type clearly unhappy with his son’s lifestyle. Connie Ray provides a lot of the comic relief as Luke’s step-mom, and there is excellent work as well here from Sean Dugan as the ex and from Maggie Corman as the candle selling, self-described fag hag. Sheryl Kaller’s direction is first-rate.

Cotter, come home for good!

OUR HOUSE. Playwrights Horizons. 416 W, 42nd St.

TICKETS: www.ticketcentral.com. 212-279-4200.

CORALINE. Lucille Lortel Theatre. 121 Christopher St.

TICKETS: www.ticketcentral.com. 212-279-4200.

NEXT FALL. Peter Jay Sharp Theatre. 416 W, 42nd St.

TICKETS: www.ticketcentral.com. 212-279-4200.

Who is this guy?”

For over thirty years Lawrence Harbison was in charge of new play acquisition for Samuel French, Inc., during which time he was responsible for the first publication of plays by such luminaries as Jane Martin, Don Nigro, Tina Howe, Theresa Rebeck, José Rivera, William Mastrosimone, Charles Fuller, and Ken Ludwig, among many others; and the acquisition of many musicals such as Smoke on the Mountain, A…My Name Is Alice, Little Shop of Horrors and Three Guys Naked From the Waist Down. He has a B. A. from Kenyon College and an M.A. in theatre from the University of Michigan. He is currently Senior Editor for Smith & Kraus, Inc., the nation’s largest theatrical trade publisher, for whom he edits annual anthologies of best plays by new playwrights, best ten-minute plays, best monologues for men and for women and best stage scenes. For many years he wrote a weekly column on his adventures in the theater for two Manhattan newspapers, the Chelsea Clinton News and The Westsider. He has also served as literary manager or literary consultant for several theatres, such as Urban Stages and American Jewish Theatre. He is a member of the NYC press corps and is an Outer Critics Circle member. He has served many times over the years as a judge and commentator for various national play contests and lectures regularly at colleges and universities. He loves to hear from readers – particularly if they disagree with him. E-mail him at LHarbison1@nyc.rr.com

“It requires a certain largeness of spirit to give generous appreciation to large achievements. A society with a crabbed spirit and a cynical urge to discount and devalue will find that one day, when it needs to draw upon the reservoirs of excellence, the reservoirs have run dry.”

—– George F. Will

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On The Aisle with Larry – June 1, 2009

“On the Aisle with Larry”

Lawrence Harbison, The Playfixer, brings you up to date with what’s hot and what’s not in New York. This week, Larry tells you about Vieux Carré, Next to Normal, American Hwangap and Danny And Sylvia. I would love to know your opinion — particularly if you disagree with me! Click on “Comments.”

Tennessee Williams’ Vieux Carré ought to exert quite a fascination for fans of this great playwright. It hails from the latter part of his career when he had fallen out of critical favor (to say the least), and was a very notorious Broadway bomb. Still, there have been two notable productions in New York of this fascinating work, one at the WPA Theatre and now the current incarnation at Pearl Theatre Co.

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Apparently, Williams began work on this play before he achieved fame with The Glass Menagerie, when he was living in a seedy boarding house in the French Quarter of New Orleans. It is an intensely autobiographical work, even more so than The Glass Menagerie, and it contains prototypes of many of William’s great themes explored to better effect in his best work. Its central character, known here only as The Writer, is a young man coming to terms with his homosexuality even as he searches for his voice as a writer. Clearly, the characters in this play are based on people Williams knew, and individually they are indelible portraits of human flotsam and jetsam, slowly swirling down into the maelstrom of fate and bad luck.

I can assume that the play’s frank treatment of homosexuality was part of the reason it did not find favor the first time it was produced, but the main reason the play doesn’t quite work is that its structure is so episodic. Many of the individual scenes are top-drawer Williams; but the play overall has no dramatic focus.

It’s not helped much by the scene design concept, which looks extremely Off Off Broadway bare-bones. It’s just a collection of dilapidated furniture strewn about the stage, which never manages to suggest either the Quarter or this particular place therein. Part of Williams’ point is that his characters live lives of lonely, quiet desperation in cubicle-like rooms. If one cot serves as everybody’s bed, you not only confuse the audience but you undercut the claustrophobic existence of these lost souls. Was this a deliberate choice on the part of the director, Austin Pendleton, or did Pearl just plain run out of dough at the end of the season? Hard to tell. Either way, the production is a scenic jumble, redeemed only by some really fine acting from the likes of Pearl veteran Sean McCall as The Writer; George Morforgen as a dying, elderly painter; Carol Schultz as the landlady, Rachel Botchan as a good girl from up North wallowing in sexual ecstasy like Stella Kowalski with a brutish barker at a Bourbon Street strip show, and from Pamela Payton-Wright and Beth Dixon as two destitute old ladies desperately trying to preserve the tattered remnants of their gentility.

If you’re a true-blue Williams fan or a scholar, you won’t want to miss this one. If you’re just looking for a good night of theatre, this one is skippable.

The Broadway transfer of Next to Normal is, on the other hand, not to be missed. This musical about a wife and mother struggling with severe bipolar disorder and depression was small in scale at Off Broadway’s Second Stage; whereas at Broadway’s Booth Theatre it is magnified into a poignant musical tragedy.

Brilliantly directed by Michael Greif, Next to Normal features a heart-rending performance by Alice Ripley and superb supporting work from all the cast. I was bowled over by Aaron Tveit as the teenaged son who, it turns out, is a phantom in Mom’s deranged imagination, her creation of what her dead baby would look and sound like now.

The magnificent rock score by Tim Kitt (music) and Brian Yorkey (lyrics) will long stay in your memory. If you want just a fun night out, go to Shrek. If you’d rather see a serious musical for adults, this one’s for you.

I also enjoyed Lloyd Suh’s American Hwangap, a co-production by Ma-Yi Theatre Co. and The Play Co. at the Wild Center in the East Village, a cozy and very pleasant playhouse new to me. It has been beautifully directed by Trip Cullman, one of my favorite “downtown” directors who can’t seem to break out of downtown but who very much deserves to.

The play’s about a 60 year old Korean man who deserted his family in America years ago to return to Korea after he suffered the disgrace of losing his engineering job. He has returned at the invitation of his ex-wife for his “Hwangap,” a traditional Korean 60th birthday party, much to the chagrin of two of his three children. There’s his son Ralph, who lives in his Mom’s basement and who is determined to prolong his adolescence for as long as he can (he’s almost 30); his daughter Esther who can’t let go of her anger towards her father; and oldest son David, a successful investment banker who just doesn’t give a you-know-what.

James Saito is magnificent as the Dad, embodying a man who just plain let his life get away from him in a very moving manner. Michi Barall and Peter Kim are wonderful, too, as Esther and Ralph; and Hoon Yi is simply astounding as older brother David.

This one is a don’t-miss.

You could definitely pass on Danny and Sylvia at St. Luke’s Playhouse. This is a musical about Mrs. and Mrs. Danny Kaye, which is mostly an ego-trip for its star, Brian Childers, who sounds a little like Kaye but who is so pretty and so gay that his portrayal just seems ludicrous, unless all those rumors about Kaye and the Prince of Wales and Olivier are true. But that would be a different show. Kimberly Faye Greenberg fares better as Sylvia Fine, but hers is very much a supporting part. Pamela Hall’s direction seems rudimentary, and she has been unable to reign in Childers’ worst excesses.

Vieux Carré. Pearl Theatre Co. 80 St. Marks Pl.

TICKETS: 212-598-9802.

Next to Normal. Booth Theatre.

TICKETS: www.telecharge.com. 212-239-6200

AMERICAN HWANGAP. Wild Project. 195 E. 3rd ST.

TICKETS: 212-352-3101

DANNY AND SYLVIA. Theatre at St. Luke’s.

TICKETS: www.telecharge.com. 212-239-6200

“It requires a certain largeness of spirit to give generous appreciation to large achievements. A society with a crabbed spirit and a cynical urge to discount and devalue will find that one day, when it needs to draw upon the reservoirs of excellence, the reservoirs have run dry.”

—– George F. Will

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