Archive for October, 2009

“On the Aisle WIth Larry” 29 October 2009

Here’s your chance to get up to date with what’s hot and what’s not in New York. This week, Larry tells you about BROKE-OLOGY, THE EMPEROR JONES, BYE BYE BIRDIE, SUCH THINGS HAPPEN ONLY IN BOOKS, SUPERIOR DONUTS and MEMPHIS.

As you can see by the above list, I have been quite busy, catching up with show after show. As usual, I have mostly good things to say about all of them. What can I say? I’m easy.

Nathan Louis Jackson’s Broke-ology, at the Mitzi Newhouse Theater, is a compelling drama about a black family in St. Louis. The mom, Sonia, passed away 12 years ago, and dear old Dad, William, has had to raise his two sons by himself. They are now young men. Malcolm went away to college in Connecticut, but he is now working for the Environmental Protection Agency office in St. Louis; Ennis stayed home, works in a restaurant, and is about to become a father. William suffers from multiple sclerosis, and his condition is deteriorating. Malcolm wants to go back to Connecticut, where he has a great opportunity to work with his mentor from college; but Ennis, who plans to marry the mother of his child, wants him to stay in St. Louis to help him care for their father.

Meanwhile William, in his less lucid moments, has hallucinations in which Sonia appears. Finally, Malcolm has to make a choice: take the job in Connecticut or give up his dream and stay home with Dad.

Beautifully-directed by Thomas Kail, Broke-ology features a first-rate cast. Wendell Pierce is quite moving as William and Francois Battiste and Alano Miller are superb as the two sons. Crystal A. Dickerson is lovely as the phantom mom. The play has been derided in some quarters for being too sentimental, as well as for being too “television.” To the former, I say that there is nothing wrong with sentimental if it is done well, as it is here, and when the sentiment is so desperately needed. Here’s a play about a black father who is willing to do anything to help his sons. Anything. To the latter criticism I say: there are live actors on a stage, playing for a live audience. So it’s NOT TELEVISION.

Eugene O’Neill’s The Emperor Jones is rarely revived, largely because much of it is written in darky-dialect and because it, unlike, Broke-ology, does not exactly present a positive image of a black man. You can in effect send it up, as the Wooster Group did when they presented the play with a white woman in black-face as Brutus Jones, or you can take the play on its own terms and go for broke, which is what Ciarán O’Reilly has done at Irish Rep. To do this, you have to have a Commanding Presence playing the title role, and O’Reilly has a doozy in John Douglas Thompson, an acclaimed classical actor who elevates, to tragic stature, the role of the escaped convict who makes his way to Africa to become a corrupt, rapacious dictator but who overstays his welcome too long and finds himself hunted through the jungle by his former subjects.

O’Reilly’s production is magnificently expressionistic, employing Taymor-like puppetry and brilliant sound and lighting design. Brian Nelson did the lighting, and Ryan Rumery and Christian Frederickson the sound. Both are just incredible. As is Thompson. Expect this performance to be multi-honored next spring at awards time.

If you believe the reviews, Robert Longbottom’s production of Bye Birdie Birdie, presented by Roundabout at Henry Miller’s Theatre, is a train wreck and the leading candidate for Bomb of the Year. So, is it the turkey they’re saying it is? No, say I.

It’s a charming show, done in a cartoon-y way which I quite enjoyed. John Stamos has been derided for Not Being Dick Van Dyke, which is unfair. He is delightful as the nerdy Albert, as is Gina Gershon as his lady love, Rosie, who has been derided for Not Being Chita Rivera. Ridiculous, and again unfair. She makes a luscious, winsome Rosie. Both are supposedly weak, vocally. Untrue. True, they’re not Patinkin and Lupone; but who needs powerhouse voices in a show like this? Bill Irwin has been cast as the dad, and derided for his over the top performance. In a cartoon like this, if you have a Bill Irwin, folks, you have to use him – and Irwin does not disappoint. His clowning at the end of Act I when the family appears on the Ed Sullivan Show is priceless. Also excellent are the two teens playing Kim and Hugo (Allie Trimm and Matt Doyle) as are Jane Houdyshell, as Albert’s battleaxe of a mother, and Nolan Girard Funk as Birdie, who stops the show more than once.

The audience at the performance I attended loved the show, even though most were probably Roundabout subscribers who were there because they already had tickets anyway. I didn’t see any ditchees after the intermission. If you’re up for a goofy evening, you might enjoy this show.

Thornton Wilder, best known for classics American plays such as Our Town and The Skin of Our Teeth, was also a gifted miniaturist who wrote many short plays during his career which have also become classics, such as The Happy Journey to Trenton and Camden and The Long Christmas Dinner, and even more which were pretty much forgotten until they were recently unearthed by Wilder’s nephew and executor. Keen Company is currently presenting a bill of five of these “lost” plays under the collective title Such Things Only Happen in Books. While these short plays do not rise to the level of Wilder’s greatest work, still they are all theatrically inventive and most enjoyable. I particularly enjoyed the titular play, about a complacent novelist unaware of the real story happening under his very eyes, and “Cement Hands,” wherein an avuncular uncle warns his niece that the “perfect man” she is about to marry – he’s rich, he’s handsome — is a nit-picking cheapskate.

As usual, Keen’s production is terrific, under the able hands of co-directors Carl Forsman and Jonathan Silverstein. A most enjoyable evening.

Don’t go to Tracey Letts’ Superior Donuts, at the Music Box Theatre, expecting to see anything like his earlier plays. Killer Joe and Bug were dark and disturbing – even shocking – and his Pulitzer Prize-winning August: Osage County was a vicious family drama. Superior Donuts shows a kinder, gentler Letts. While it does not pack the punch of his other plays, it does offer substantial pleasures.

It’s about an elderly owner of a donut shop in a deteriorating Chicago neighborhood. Arthur, a draft-dodging radical in the long-lost 60’s, is now he’s in his 60’s and has pretty much given up on life. He gets by, he makes do – until he hires an eager-beaver young black man to help out in his shop. Franco is a go-getter, who talks his way into a job and then tries to persuade Arthur to spruce it up, offer poetry readings, etc. He also urges Arthur to go out with a flirty beat cop who has been dropping hints that she’s interested just about every day. The complication comes with the arrival of Franco’s bookie, to whom he owes an impossible sum of money. If he doesn’t pay up, the usual terrible things will happen to him.

My only problem with the play is that Letts constantly interrupts it with long narrative monologues in which Arthur tells the audience about his family, about the 60s, etc. These would work just fine in a novel; but in a play they seem intrusive and unnecessary. Michael McKean and John Michael Hill are terrific as Arthur and Franco, respectively, and the supporting cast is good, too.

Memphis, the new musical at the Shubert Theatre is, like Bye Bye Birdie, set in the 1950’s. A Memphis white kid is crazy about black music, and makes it his mission to bring it into the “mainstream” – i.e., white America. He succeeds, but the beat then goes on without him.

I had a great time at Memphis; but I have to admit that it sugarcoats the story of the fight for racial integration in the music business and in the “real world.” It skips over an important step in this process: Elvis. Book writer Joe DiPietro would have us believe that white kids would start hoppin’ and boppin’ to proto-soul music because of a cool radio DJ. It was, in fact, Elvis who took what was then known as “race music” and made it acceptable to white folks. He paved the way. It wasn’t until the early to mid-60s, when Barry Gordy came along with Motown, that “white” radio started playing black music. Dreamgirls deals with this subject in a much more serious, and truthful, way than does Memphis, which takes a more fairy-tale approach that says more about the Age of Obama than it does about the Age of Elvis.

Now that I’ve gotten that off my chest, I must say that Christopher Ashley’s direction is just wonderful. Sergio Trujillo, whose choreography for last season’s unfairly-maligned Guys and Dolls was most under-appreciated, really shines here. And what a cast! There are at least two, maybe more, “a star is born” performances coming from Chad Kimball, as the proselytizing DJ Huey, and from Montego Glover as Felicia, an aspiring Tina Turner-esque singer who Huey promotes to stardom and with whom he falls in love.

Memphis is not to be missed – even though it doesn’t quite tell the whole story.

BROKE-OLOGY. Mitzi Newhouse Theatre, Lincoln Center.
TICKETS: www.telecharge.com. 212-239-6200.
THE EMPEROR JONES. Irish Repertory Theatre, 132 W. 22nd St.
TICKETS: 212-727-2737.
BYE BYE BIRDIE. Henry Miller’s Theatre. 124 W. 43rd St.
TICKETS: www.telecharge.com. 212-239-6200.
SUCH THINGS ONLY HAPPEN IN BOOKS. Clurman Theatre, 416 W.
42nd St.
TICKETS: www.ticketcentral.com. 212-279-4200.
SUPERIOR DONUTS. Music Box Theatre, 239 W. 45th St.
TICKETS: www.telecharge.com. 212-239-6200.
MEMPHIS. Shubert Theatre, 225 W. 44th St.
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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ON THE AISLE WITH LARRY, 20 OCTOBER 2009

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 LADY WITH ALL THE ANSWERS, THE NIGHT WATCHER, LET ME DOWN EASY, GOOD BOBBY, and OLEANNA.

In these strained economic times it is not surprising that three Off Broadway theatre companies are currently presenting solo shows. As it happens, all three feature women in the starring (indeed, the only) role. At the Cherry Lane Theatre, you can see Judith Ivey as advice maven Ann Landers in David Rambo’s The Lady With All the Answers; at Manhattan Theatre Club, Charlayne Woodard is supercharging the stage in her new autobiographical show, The Night Watcher; while Anna Deavere Smith is back with a new interview-play, Let Me Down Easy, at Second Stage.

The Lady With All the Answers takes place in Landers’ home in 1975. She is trying to write “the hardest column I have ever had to write” and she has a serious case of procrastinitis. While she avoids writing her column she regales us with stories about her career and reads some of the favorite letters she’s received, many of which are quite amusing – as are her replies to them. Some are very touching, too, like the anguished “What’s wrong with me?” letter she received from a gay teen. Some newspapers refused to print her reply to him, which was that nothing was wrong with him, he can’t help being gay, and he should get counseling to help him embrace his true nature instead of trying to hide it.

Eventually, we learn why tonight’s column is so hard for Our Heroine to write. After thirty years of advising her readers to stay married no matter what, she is divorcing her husband because he has fallen in love with another women (of course, half his age). Ms. Ivey is quite touching here, as well as when she goes to Viet Nam to meet wounded soldiers and promises to call their parents when she returns to the states. Of course, she calls every one, offering them comfort and encouragement.

Judith Ivey is just wonderful as Ann Landers.

And Charlayne Woodard is just wonderful as well as, well, Charlayne Woodard. Her stories in The Night Watcher, presented by Primary Stages at 59 E. 59 Theatre A, focus mostly on the decision she apparently made early on not to have children, as well as not to adopt; but instead, she became a mother figure to many children, as auntie or as godmother. What emerges, is a powerful reminder to us all of our awesome responsibility as parents, mentors, friends, towards all children.

Anna Deavere Smith has achieved extraordinary success by interviewing people and then presenting them on stage with a unifying theme. In Let Me Down Easy, that theme is death, about how to cross that final frontier with strength and dignity before going gently into that good night. While there is some raging, mostly against our health care system, the best parts of this show are quiet and contemplative. As usual, Ms. Smith plays all the roles, including Lance Armstrong.

This show might seem like something of a bummer, but it’s not. I found it quite uplifting, actually.

Good Bobby, at 59 E. 59, comes to us from a successful run in Los Angeles. It’s about a shy, insecure rich kid who grew up in the shadow of his much more accomplished and confident brothers to become, with grit and determination, Bobby Kennedy.

When we first meet Kennedy, he’s counsel to the Senate committee investigating organized labor’s involvement with organized crime. He goes on to help his brother because President and eventually, becomes a candidate for president himself. We know what happened then. Brian Lee Franklin, who wrote the play, also plays Bobby Kennedy. He is terrific in the role, but the play is also pretty good, though I thought the direction was, overall, a little lethargic, making the play run longer than it should have.

But, really, this play is well worth seeing.

The Curmudgeon Laureate of our theatre, David Mamet, is back with a revival of his cryptically-titled Oleanna, a short two-hander which ran off Broadway originally and is now having its Broadway debut at the Golden Theatre, starring Bill Pullman and Julia Stiles. For those of you who don’t know the play, it’s about a college professor who finds himself accused of sexual harassment by a student in one of his classes. What pisses many people off (frankly, most of them women) is that Mamet loads the deck in favor of the beleaguered male, making his student a conniving harpy. Most of Mamet’s plays are about the struggle for power, and this one’s no different. Mamet appears to be saying that men are guilty until proven innocent of being sexual aggressors and insensitive louts – but they can’t be proven innocent because it’s her word against his – and her word is the one that constitutes The Truth.

My companion (a woman) disliked the play but put it down to the acting. She felt both actors were miscast. I did not. I thought they perfectly incarnated the two that Mamet drew. My only quibble was director Doug Hughes’ decision to frame each scene with the slow raising and lowering of window blinds, accompanied by the sound of a motor which sounded strong enough to hoist the entire theatre. Huh, and double huh?

I would say, if it sounds like the subject matter of this play would piss you off, and you just can’t bring an open mind into the Golden Theatre, don’t go.

THE LADY WITH ALL THE ANSWERS. Cherry Lane Theatre, 38 Commerce St.
TICKETS: www.telecharge.com. 212-239-6200.
THE NIGHT WATCHER. Primary Stages, 59 E. 59 St.
TICKETS: www.ticketcentral.com. 212-279-4200.
LET ME DOWN EASY. Second Stage, 307 W. 43rd St.
TICKETS: 212-246-4422.
GOOD BOBBY. 59 E. 59 Theatres.
TICKETS: www.ticketcentral.com. 212-279-4200.
OLEANNA. Golden Theatre, 252 W. 45th St.
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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ON THE AISLE WITH LARRY — 14 October 2009

Larry the Playfixer brings you up to date with what’s hot and what’s not in New York. This week, Larry tells you about A STEADY RAIN, HAMLET, THE ROYAL FAMILY, VIGIL, KILLERS AND OTHER FAMILY, THE BREATH OF LIFE and ALL THROUGH THE NIGHT.

It’s that time of the year: the traditional, old-time start of the theatre season. As soon as the Jewish holidays end, shows open just about every night. It’s a reminder of what the NY Theatre once was. In 1927, for instance, there were over 350 openings, all on Broadway – sometimes, two a night. It’s like that now, except not on Broadway, but in small theatres. Since my last column, I’ve seen about 10 new shows (what a hard life I lead). Here is my report on most of them.

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A Steady Rain by Keith Huff comes to us via Chicago, where it wowed critics. That’s not why it’s on Broadway, though. It’s here because a miracle occurred. One of the producers of the James Bond franchise saw it in Chicago, and got the script and gave it to Daniel Craig, who decided he wanted to do it on Broadway. The other role was offered to Hugh Jackman, who accepted it. In about five seconds, the Broadway production was financed. In about five minutes after it was announced, the limited run was sold out. Have you noticed how every Broadway play is announced these days as having a “limited run?” What a brilliant ploy!

Anyway, as could have been predicted, the two stars got the raves from the critics, but most of them were rather condescending to the play. Since it’s about two cops, many dissed it for being the worst thing a critic can call a play: “television.” I am pleased to inform you that A Steady Rain is definitely not television. There are live actors, on a stage, in front of a live audience. So, it’s NOT TELEVISION.

Much of the play is a series of interlocking monologues by these two cops, best friends for years and squad car partners, but Huff manages to weave in a lot of conflict between these two men so you never feel as if it’s story hour at the Schoenfeld Theatre. The play builds towards it’s tragic climax with subtlety and power. And the two actors are wonderful in their roles. Both have almost pitch-perfect Chicago accents, and both almost make you believe they are these two guys, instead of two slumming movie stars.

You may find it hard to get a ticket; but maybe this “limited run” will extend.

Around the block, at the Broadhurst Theatre, another movie star is holding court – like Daniel Craig, another Brit. Jude Law is giving one of the greatest Shakespearean performances I have ever seen, as the title role in Hamlet.

Far from being the traditional Melancholy Dane, Law’s Hamlet is passionate and furious. He was a little ragged, vocally, at the performance I attended, but his portrayal still knocked me for a loop, as did Michael Grandage’s direction, which found new ways of staging scenes and new bits of business I had never seen which often made me think, “I can’t believe nobody thought of this before.”

Law’s supporting cast has been denigrated as being second rate. This often happens when fine actors have to appear with a major film star. These actors are not second rate. This is a fine company. And this is not only the best Hamlet, and the best Hamlet, I have ever seen, but one of the finest Shakespearean productions I have ever had the pleasure to see.

When Manhattan Theatre Club began “The Biltmore Experiment,” I had high hopes that this would lead to the production of more new plays on Broadway, albeit non-commercially. Sadly, MTC has abandoned this goal and is now mounting mostly revivals at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, which is now what they are calling the Biltmore. Many of the critics are unhappy about this, most notably those of Time Out/NY, which has panned (most unfairly in my opinion) most of the new plays MTC has produced in its Broadway venue, and now can’t understand why they are not doing new plays there. Lord, have mercy.

Anyway, the current revival at the Friedman is a fine production of Kaufman and Ferber’s THE ROYAL FAMILY, an amusing trifle loosely about the Barrymore family. Today’s audience thinks the first lady of the Barrymores is Drew, so the enjoyment has to come from the play itself, rather than from how accurately it portrays its subject. The play itself is a perfectly enjoyable boulevard play, a light satire of actors and the theatrical profession. I think it helps if you’re at least something of an insider, but there is still much to enjoy if you’re a civilian. Doug Hughes’ production is, as usual, excellent, and several of the performances are of the “don’t-miss” variety; most notably, Rosemary Harris’s Fanny Cavendish and Jan Maxwell’s Julie. I also enjoyed John Glover as Herbert and Reg Rogers as Tony, the role based on John Barrymore.

Go – you’ll have a good time, even as you mourn the abandonment of the Biltmore Experiment.

Vigil, at the DR2 Theatre, by Canadian playwright Morris Panych, sounded most promising. A comedy with Malcolm Gets and Helen Stenborg, it takes place in the apartment of an elderly woman. Her nephew thinks she’s dying, and he has abandoned his life to sit with her in her last days. This proves merely an excuse for him to rant on and on and on about his unhappy life. His aunt doesn’t even say anything until the end of the first act, a contrivance that could have been sustained for ten minutes, maybe, but not for an entire play. Unfortunately, the nephew is a most unpleasant blatherer. Gets does his best, but after about 20 minutes of listening to this guy you’ll want to either kill yourself or leave the theatre.

Rattlestick Playwrights Theatre produced Lucy Thurber’s Killers and Other Family several seasons ago, and has mounted a new production of the play, the author apparently having revised the script. The central character, Lizzie, is struggling both to finish her dissertation and to escape her past, when who should arrive but her past, in the form of her brother and her former boyfriend, Danny, who claim to be headed to Mexico and need some money. Danny, it seems, may have murdered a woman back home. Also in the play is Claire, Lizzie’s roommate and lover. What ensues is a gripping, often violent, tug of war, with Lizzie as the rope.

The direction by Caitriona McLaughlin is taut as a high-wire, and the performances by her 4-member cast are superb – particularly those of Samantha Soule as Lizzie and Shane McRae as Danny.

This one’s a don’t-miss.

I travelled up to the Westport Country Playhouse to see David Hare’s The Breath of Life largely because Hare is one of the British Theatre’s finest playwrights but also because of the chance to see two of our theatre’s finest actresses, Jane Alexander and Stockard Channing. I wasn’t disappointed by either.

The play takes place in a house on the Isle of Wight inhabited by Madeleine, a woman in her 60s. There is a knock at her door, she opens it, and who should be standing there but the Other Woman, Frances. There is much tension between these two, which we learn gradually is due to the fact that they both loved the same man, Frances’ now ex-husband, who carried on an affair with Madeleine for years before Frances found out about it. It’s a peel-back-the-layers-of-the-onion sort of play, packed with fascinating observations about the choices one makes and how one lives one’s life, particularly if one is a woman, and is jam-packed with wonderful monologues and pithy dialogue, if a tad dramatically thin.

Of course, Alexander and Channing are both wonderful. On the night I attended, the house was jam-packed with Broadway types, no doubt looking at the play as a possible transfer. I would be surprised if this happened, unless it were with Hugh Jackman and Daniel Craig as Madeleine and Frances, but I wouldn’t be surprised if this turns up soon at Manhattan Theatre Club. If it does, it’s a definite must-see.

Finally, I caught Shirley Lauro’s All Through the Night, in the Marjorie S. Deane Little Theatre in the Westside Y, produced by Red Fern Theatre, a company new to me. The play appears to be based on the actual stories of German gentile women who lived through the second World War, though no source is credited in the program. This is a compelling story, though one that seemed to discomfit some audience members. Yes, anti-semiticism is expressed by some of these women, and their stories focus on the persecution and extermination of Gypsies and crippled children by the Nazi swine. Some people think this diminishes the horror of the Jewish holocaust. I am not one of them.

My problem with the play was that the actors, with one exception, simply are not up to the demands of this kind of play, though they could have been helped considerably by a more adept director. I also question the playwright’s choice to have two actresses speak mitt heavy Cherman excents, mitt a lot of “jawohl, Mein Commandants” und “Gott in Himmels”. Fortunately, though, one of these Chermans is the best actress on the stage, Andrea Sooch, whose portrayals of various Nazi True Believers are chilling.

A STEADY RAIN. Schoenfeld Theatre. 236 W. 45th St.
TICKETS: www.telecharge.com. 212-239-6200.
HAMLET. Broadhurst Theatre. 235 W. 44th St.
TICKETS: www.telecharge.com. 212-239-6200.
THE ROYAL FAMILY. Friedman Theatre. 261 W. 47th St.
TICKETS: www.telecharge.com 212-239-6200.
VIGIL. DR2 Theatre. 203 E. 15th St.
TICKETS: www.telecharge.com. 212-239-6200.
KILLERS AND OTHER FAMILY. Rattlestick Playwrights Theatre. 224
Waverly Pl.
TICKETS: www.smarttix.com. 212-868-4444.
THE BREATH OF LIFE. Westport Country Playhouse, Westport, CT.
TICKETS: 203-227-4177.
ALL THROUGH THE NIGHT. Marjorie S. Deane Little Theatre. 5 W. 64th
St.
TICKETS: www.theatremania.com. 212-352-3101

“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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