Archive for July, 2009

On The Aisle with Larry – July 27, 2009

This will bring you up to date with what’s hot and what’s not in New York. This week: THE TIN PAN ALLEY RAG and HAUNTED HOUSE.

I went to see the new off Broadway musical “The Tin Pan Alley Rag,” at Roundabout’s Laura Pels Theatre, the day after the dreadful, dismissive reviews came out in the major papers. Roundabout has a captive audience of subscribers most of whom, I am sure, were aware that the show they were about to see was a turkey. Talk about a tough house! Then, the show began, and we were provided with Yet Another reminder that just because it’s in the newspaper, that doesn’t mean it’s true.

The show imagines an encounter between a young, successful songwriter named Irving Berlin and an over-the-hill Scott Joplin. Towards the end of his life, Joplin tried without success to get his ragtime opera “Treemonisha” produced, making the rounds of music publishers in New York. What if he dropped by Irving Berlin’s publishing company in W. 28th St., known to the trade as “Tin Pan Alley?” This never happened, of course. Neither did a meeting between Queen Elizebeth I and Mary Queen of Scots but the critics had no problem with this in last season’s Broadway production of Schiller’s Mary Stuart. Apparently, they were willing to cut a Recognized Classic some slack; whereas they jumped all over Mark Saltzman, author of the book for The Tin Pan Alley Rag.

Saltzman uses this device to explore the lives of both Joplin and Berlin, cleverly incorporating their music as he does so. He juxtaposes young Berlin as a man who sees himself as a hit factory and the older Joplin as a man who has high aspirations. As each man reveals himself to the other, the book (and the set) opens up to show us scenes from both men’s pasts; Berlin’s, as an impoverished immigrant from Russia, forced to go to work at a very young age to support his family after his father died, becoming a singing waiter on the Bowery and, eventually, getting discovered; Joplin’s, as a cathouse piano player, also getting discovered. Both men had a lot in common, not the least of which was the loss of a wife to death shortly after both were married.

The cast, under Stafford Arima’s inventive and almost cinematic direction, is uniformly superb; particularly the two leads, Michael Therriault as Berlin and Michael Boatman as Joplin. “The Tin Pan Alley Rag” is fascinating history lesson, chock-full of wonderful music. I found it engrossing and often downright poignant, particularly at the end. As I went up the aisle afterwards I heard several people exclaim, “Can you believe this got bad reviews?!?” Well, believe it. But don’t always believe what you read in the newspapers. Just remember, critics don’t usually have your best interests primarily in mind when they write their opinions.

I rather enjoyed Daniel Roberts’ “Haunted House,” produced by Audax Theatre Group at the Irish Arts Center. Audax is a group new to me. Their history indicates that their raison d’etre appears to be to produce Roberts’ plays, directed by his partner in Audax, Brian Ziv. Fortunately, both are good enough that this one is worth your while.

It’s about a strange family living on the Jersey shore who a creepy horror attraction out of their house. Their “ride,” though, has seen better times when a young web reporter arrives to do a story on it, followed by her snarky boss (who is also her boyfriend). The pater familias is an odd man who dresses always as a ghoul. His son, who works for his as a sort of handyman, is mentally-challenged. His daughter, a chain restaurant waitress, wants to get the heck out of Jersey with her brother with whom, it turns out, she is having an affair. This does sound rather convoluted, but it all does wind up making fractured sense in the end. Given that this is a showcase, the performances are pretty good. My babe of the evening thought the play was hokey. We agreed to disagree.

THE TIN PAN ALLEY RAG. Laura Pels Theatre, 111 W. 46th St.
TICKETS: 212-719-1300.
HAUNTED HOUSE. Irish Arts Center, 553 W. 51st St.
TICKETS: 212-868-4444

On the Aisle with Larry – July 15, 2009

“On the Aisle with Larry”

Lawrence Harbison, our very own critic, brings you up to date with what’s hot and what’s not in New York. This week, Larry tells you about THE TEMPERAMENTALS and LEVITTOWN.

Jon Marans’ The Temperamentals, at the Barrow Group Theatre, has become something of a sleeper hit. Apparently, it opened up as a showcase and then Daryl Roth swooped in and funded an open-ended extension. I was finally able to see it, and it knocked me out. It’s a beautifully-written, superbly acted and directed look at a forgotten moment in the history of our country. Great plays tell stories that needed to be told. This one’s a doozy.

Back in the day when gay people had to stay firmly locked up in the closet, they developed a code, sort of a secret language with which they could communicate with each other. A common euphemism for “gay” was “temperamental.” This is a play about what it meant to be “temperamental,” when that could get you beaten up or even thrown in jail. It tells the story of two courageous men, a teacher named Harry Hay and a young Austrian fashion designer named Rudi Gernreich (who later became famous in the 1960’s as a top mod designer and the creator of the notorious topless swim suit) who, in the late 1940’s-early 1950’s founded the first gay rights organization. That their efforts to change our laws and public consciousness about homosexuality fizzled out does not denigrate their courage.

An intrepid cast of six men play many different roles, though Thomas Jay Ryan (as Hay) and Michael Urie (as Gernreich) play their characters throughout. The effect is as if you are seeing a large cast play, and Jonathan Silverstein’s direction here is stunning. All the actors are wonderful, but Ryan and Urie really score as the two leads.

Whether you’re temperamental or not, don’t miss this one.

I also enjoyed Marc Palmieri’s drama Levittown, at Theatre at St. Clements. This is a compelling dysfunctional family drama (haven’t seen one of those in a while) set in the locale of cookie-cutter homes on Long Island and focuses on three generations of a troubled family. Son Kevin has dropped out of college and come home, not knowing what his next step in his life will be. His Mom is a new-age whacko, but the good news is his sister Colleen, ever the family black sheep, seems to have pulled her life together and is planning to get married. Kevin thinks that now is the time for a reconciliation between Colleen and their father, who left his family years ago. Dear old Dad, it turns out, is a deeply troubled man who simply cannot forgive Colleen for the angst she put him through, and Kevin’s good intentions almost pave the road to hell.

There’s nothing much that’s new here, but Palmieri has a strong empathy for his characters (even the horrible father) and George Demas’ direction is very subtle and very strong. The actors are uniformly terrific. I particularly enjoyed Tristan Colton as Kevin, and Susan Bennett as Colleen. The real standouts in the cast, though, are Curzon Dobell as the Dad, Dane Knell as crusty old Gramps and, above all, Tyler Pierce, who plays two roles and who absolutely bowled me over. What a terrific actor!

If you’re a “downtown theatre” aficionado, this one ain’t for you; but if you like plays with strong stories and compelling characters which are firmly grounded in the real world, check this one out.

THE TEMPERAMENTALS. Barrow Group Theatre.312 W. 36th St.
TICKETS: 212-868-4444
LEVITTOWN. Theatre at St. Clements. 423 W. 46th St.
TICKETS: 212-352-3101

On The Aisle with Larry – July 1, 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 TWELFTH NIGHT and ARCHBISHOP SUPREME TARTUFFE.

When the New York Shakespeare Festival announced that it was offering Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night at the Delacorte Theatre in Central Park, I must confess my first thought was, “Again?” I have seen at least six productions of the play in the past twenty years, three of them at the Delacorte. Well, the current production, directed by Daniel Sullivan, more than justifies Yet Another look at this wonderful play. It’s my favorite of all my Twelfth Nights, and in my top five all time great nights of Shakespeare.

Sullivan has set the play vaguely in the Empire period, though some of Jane Greenwood’s beautiful costumes evoke the era of Hogarth, on a rolling countryside of a set by John Lee Beatty, which Sullivan uses to hilarious effect. In this most musical of Shakespeare’s comedies he has employed the talents of a wonderful band called Hem, whose music sounds Irish country, and who interact with the actors to a most amusing effect.

And then: those actors! Anne Hathaway is a charming Viola. She inhabits her role better than anyone else I’ve seen, and she has a lovely singing voice. She’s that rarity, a movie star with real stage chops. She is matched by Audra MacDonald as Olivia, who starts out austere and instantly turns giddy when she falls for young Cesario, in Orsino’s service, who is of course Viola disguised as a man. Easily transitioning from demonically intense Charlie Fox in Speed-the-Plow to Orsino, lovesick suitor to Olivia, Raúl Esparza once again demonstrates that he is one of our finest stage actors. And then: those clowns! Never have I seen them funnier. Jay O. Sanders plays Sir Toby Belch as if he were as kin to Falstaff as he is to Olivia and Hamish Linklater is a scream as that archetypal wimp Sir Andrew Aguecheek. David Pittu is hilarious as Feste, and Julie White an absolute delight as Olivia’s serving lady Maria.

This is one special evening, folks. It’s worth waiting in line for hours and hours.

Classical Theatre of Harlem’s Archbishop Supreme Tartuffe (at the Clurman Theatre) sounded to me like a very promising premise. This play easily can be adapted to changing times and mores. Several years ago, Circle in the Square did an amusing adaptation of the play by Freyda Thomas called Tartuffe: Born Again, in which John Glover played a wily televangelist. Here, the play, adapted by Alfred Preisser and Randy Weiner, has been set in Harlem in the 1920’s-30s, and Tartuffe is a blatant rip-off artist whose only god is lucre, who makes Rev. Ike seem like Billy Graham. Much of the evening consists of the “Archbishop’s” services, which feature scantily-clad chorus girls shaking their tail feathers as the preacher duns us for more money to help support his profligate life style. His biggest supporter, Orgon is emptying his coffers and giving it all to his “church,” much to the dismay of his family.

Part of the problem with the show is that the Archbishop’s “services” tend to seem more of the same after a while, and I don’t think the basic premise works all that well. Tartuffe is too obviously a con artist for the play to have much credibility. Still, the performers are high-energy – particularly André De Shields in the title role, and Kimberly Glennon’s costumes are a hoot.

I sat there rolling my eyes for much of the show; but I have to report that the black folks in the audience were yukking it up.