Archive for November, 2009

‘ON THE AISLE WITH LARRY” 19 NOVEMBER 2009

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 OR, CREATURE, THE UNDERSTUDY, THE LATE CHRISTOPHER BEAN and THE NEW ELECTRIC BALLROOM .

As I reported last week, this is a particularly good season for Lady Playwrights. I saw three more plays by women last week, with Sarah Ruhl’s In the Next Room; or, The Vibrator Play coming up this weekend. I heartily recommend all three, though with a few minor quibbles.

Liz Duffy Adams’ Or, produced by the Women’s Project at their Julia Miles Theatre, is a wild romp set in Restoration England about Aphra Behn, the first commercially successful woman playwright and, in fact, the first woman to make a living from her pen. When we first meet up with her, she is in a debtors’ prison, unable to pay her debts because money promised her by the king has not materialized. Aphra has been serving him as a spy against the Dutch. Well, who should show up but King Charles himself, to tell her that he will pay her debts after all – and, of course, to try and put The Moves on her. Aphra is able to deflect his amorousness, telling him that she has decided to be a writer and asking him for a stipend to do so, which he grants. Aphra returns to her lodgings and starts to try and write a play when who should show up but the actress Nell Gwynne, dressed as a boy (she has just come from the theatre, where she specializes in “breeches parts.” Nell has the hots for Aphra, and these hots are reciprocated until a former lover of Aphra’s, and a fellow spy, shows up. He’s on the lam from the King’s men, as the King thinks he’s a double agent. Then, the King himself shows up, to give it one more shot with Aphra, who manages to fob him off on Nell. The play then becomes a rollicking, door-slamming farce, with one actor playing the King, the suspected double agent and a dotty potential patroness of Aphra’s, and one actress playing Nell and Aphra’s particularly crusty maid – all more or less at the same time.

Both play and production have been justly praised, a rare occasion when the critics seem to have gotten it right. Wendy McClellan’s production is a delight (although I think she let Andy Paris go more than a little over the top in his portrayal of Lady Davenant (the widow who may just produce Aphra’s play); but Paris is terrific in his other two roles, as is Kelly Hutchinson in hers. The best performance, though, comes from Maggie Siff as Aphra Behn. She’s a TV star with real stage chops (wonder of wonders), and she is just plain wonderful.

This one’s a don’t-miss.

As is Heidi Schreck’s Creature, produced by New Georges and Page 73 Productions at Ohio, about an English mystic in the early 15th Century, named Margery Kempe (a real historical figure), who claimed to have visions of Christ and who set out to try and become a saint, much to the consternation of her husband, as this of course meant no more sex.

Director Leigh Silverman has taken a rather too contemporary approach to this story for my taste, filtering Margery’s religious ecstacy through our skeptical eyes rather than taking it seriously through the eyes of her time. This often makes the play very funny; but I think the playwright takes the character more seriously than did the director, because she has Sofia Jean Gomez playing Margery as if she were a hysteric, sort of a Desperate Housewife. That said, I have to say that within this concept Ms. Gomez is absolutely wonderful. I also enjoyed Jeremy Shamos as a priest to whom Margery comes for advice from time to time. Margery’s role model is an ascetic woman named Juliana of Norwich, here played by Mary Louise Burke. Nobody plays dotty better than Ms. Burke, and she is hysterical here. The problem is, I think the character is more than just an eccentric nutcase. She is also a devout woman with sincere religious convictions, which Ms. Silverman and Ms. Burke settle for lampooning.

Even with all of the above quibbles, I quite enjoyed Creature.

I also enjoyed Theresa Rebeck’s The Understudy, produced by Roundabout at the Laura Pels Theatre. It takes place at a rehearsal for a new understudy in a Broadway production of a lost play by none other than Franz Kafka, starring two action-movie stars – one A-List, one B-List. The understudy, Harry, played with aplomb by Justin Kirk, is to cover for the B-List dude, Jake, who is on hand with the stage manager to show him the moves. The rehearsal goes from bad to worse. To start, we learn that six years ago Harry was to marry the stage manager, Roxanne, but left her waiting at the altar and disappeared. Needless to say, this creates a lot of tension for Roxanne. Meanwhile, Harry has little but contempt for Jake, even though Jake’s latest action film grossed $67 Million it’s first weekend. Harry doesn’t seem to get that he is not there to provide any creative input, but merely to learn the blocking in case he has to go on. Also on hand, off stage, is a particularly incompetent technician up in the booth, which adds to Roxanne’s craziness.

The play is very funny, and has a lot to say about the Kafka-esque world of show business. It also has some rather irritating improbabilities. It seems that Harry is only to cover for Jake. Jake does his role, and is covering for Bruce, the A-List star who is not present at the rehearsal. In the Real World, Harry would be understudying both roles. No way would a movie star – even a B-Lister – be covering another role. Ms. Rebeck has done this, I think, because she wants to have a better possibility that Harry might actually go on. But it just doesn’t make sense. Also in the doesn’t-make-sense category is the off stage role of the techie. In the Real World, she would be fired faster than you could say “metamorphosis.” Ms. Rebeck has failed to provide a credible reason why she hasn’t been sacked, such as she’s the director’s/producer’s girlfriend or something. This device gets a lotta laffs; but, again, it doesn’t make sense. Also: When Harry arrives for the rehearsal Roxanne is surprised to see him, because the name she has on her call sheet is not his name. Turns out, Harry has recently changed his name. Here’s a guy with a lot of stage credits. It could Never Happen that such an actor would change his name, unless he has a Secret Reason for doing so – which Ms. Rebeck fails to provide. The playwright needs Harry to have a different name in order to surprise Roxanne. That’s not the right reason.

Aside from these minor quibbles, if you can suspend your disbelief regarding them you’ll have a good time at The Understudy. Julie White is a scream as Roxanne, and Justin Kirk and Mark-Paul Gosselaar are delightful as Harry and Jake.

I also enjoyed The Actors Company Theatre (TACT) production of Sidney Howard’s The Late Christopher Bean, at the Clurman Theatre in Theatre Row, a very amusing comedy from the 1930s still in print and still produced (mostly by community theatres) which appears to be getting its first NYC revival since the original production. It takes place in a small New England town, in the home of a local doctor. Several years before the play begins, the doctor gave lodging to the eponymous character, a struggling artist who died of TB, obscure and unknown. All of a sudden, people from New York start showing up on his doorstep, asking if he has any of Chris’ paintings laying around. There’s a slick guy who claims to have been his best friend, an unscrupulous art dealer and a prominent art critic. It turns out that Chris Bean’s painting are all the rage in New York, and he is being hailed as a modern master – which makes his paintings extraordinarily valuable. It’s the depths of the depression, money is tight and the doctor just could become rich – if he can come up with the paintings Chris left when he died.

Beautifully constructed, and lovingly staged and acted, The Late Christopher Bean is just plain wonderful. Veteran supporting player James Murtaugh plays the doctor, who gets progressively more consumed with greed, and with desperation, when he can’t come up with the paintings, and he is hilarious. Also good is Mary Bacon as a housemaid who loved Chris Bean; but the entire cast is terrific.

This one, too, is a don’t-miss.

On the other hand, you could stand to miss Enda Walsh’s The New Electric Ballroom, at St. Anne’s Warehouse in Brooklyn. It’s about three Irish sisters who live together in a house which looks, as designed by Sabine Dargent, like a bughouse ward. Two sisters are middle-aged; the third is younger. The two older sisters go on and on about the night each went to the eponymous dance hall, there each to receive her first kiss before being dumped by a callow man whom they saw having it off with another woman in the car park. From time to time, a manic, rather dimwitted fishmonger bursts in, carrying a tray of dead fish, which are deposited in a bin in the floor. He natters on and on about the goings on in the town. In other words, this play is comprised largely of lengthy narrated monologues about the past and about offstage events. The Irish, with their long tradition of story-telling, must have loved this play; whereas I think most Americans will find it extremely tiresome, even though the cast is just great.

OR. Julies Miles Theatre, 424 W. 55th St.
TICKETS: www.telecharge.com. 212-239-6200
CREATURE. Ohio, 66 Wooster St.
TICKETS: 866-811-4111
THE UNDERSTUDY. Laura Pels Thatre, 111 W. 46th
St.
TICKETS: www.roundabouttheatre.org. 212-719-1300
THE LATE CHRISTOPHER BEAN. Beckett Theatre,
410 W. 42nd St.
TICKETS: www.ticketcentral.com. 212-279-4200
THE NEW ELECTRIC BALLROOM. St. Ann’s
Warehouse, 38 Water St., Brooklyn
TICKETS: 718-254-8779

“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 — 9 November 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 CIRCLE MIRROR TRANFORMATION, AFTER MISS JULIE, LOVE CHILD, EMBRACEABLE ME and INVENTING AVI.

So far, this seems to be a pretty good year for women playwrights. Primary Stages’ entire season is comprised of plays by women, Lincoln Center Theatre is staging Sarah Ruhl’s In the Next Room in a Broadway house, and right now you can see four new productions of plays by women: Theresa Rebeck’s The Understudy (presented by Roundabout at the Laura Pels Theatre), Heidi Schreck’s Creature (New Georges at Ohio), Liz Duffy Adams’ Or (Women’s Project at the Julia Miles Theatre) and Annie Baker’s Circle Mirror Transformation (Playwrights Horizons). So far, the only one I’ve seen is the latter; but I am very glad to see that the ladies are finally getting their due.

Circle Mirror Transformation takes place at an adult education class in “creative drama” in a small town in Vermont. This is more like group therapy than drama, as four adults show their willingness to do just about anything their “teacher” asks them to do, much of which looks rather ridiculous to us. So, on one level, the plays works as a satire of the “touchy-feely” type of actor training; but the playwright has more than just satire on her mind. What emerges from all this is a compelling plot, most of which occurs off-stage. A lonely middle-aged man whose wife left him falls for a younger woman, a refugee actress from New York who has fled all the rejection and craziness there, as well as an abusive boyfriend. There’s the husband of the teacher, an ex-60’s radical, And, there’s a morose teenager who took the class because she thought it would help her land the role of Maria in her school’s production of West Side Story.

Mostly, the students act out incidents from their lives, and from the lives of the others in the class. As a dramaturgical exercise, Circle Mirror Transformation is fascinating. It’s like Ms. Baker has come up with a whole new way to make a play. As actual onstage drama, though, it can be a little slow; though the cast is so fine that they ultimately make this an enjoyable evening.

After Miss Julie at the American Airlines Theatre is an adaptation by British playwright Patrick Marber of Strindberg’s Miss Julie, set in post World War II Britain. I am not a fan of the original – indeed, of Strindberg in general – but I have to say that Marber’s version is more to my taste. Julie is the spoiled daughter of a country lord. Jean – here called John—is his chauffeur. Christine, the third character (called Bertha, I think, in the Strindberg original), is the cook of the manor, in love with John and hoping they will marry. As in Strindberg, Julie is a sexually voracious pest who seduces John just because she can and then ruins him.

I admired Mark Brokaw’s production very much – particularly the cat and mouse game in the first half of the play, crackling with sexual tension. Opinion seems to be mixed on Sienna Miller’s Julie. I came to it with an open mind, because I know virtually nothing about her, either as an actress or as tabloid copy. For me, she was a fresh new face, and I thought her performance of this unpleasant character absolutely terrific. Also great were Jonny Lee Miller (another movie actor I never heard of) as John and Marin Ireland (one of my faves) as Christine.

To my mind, this is better than Strindberg, and well-worth seeing.

I also enjoyed Daniel Jenkins and Robert Stanton in their Love Child, at New World Stages, a transfer from Primary Stages where it played last season. In this wild farce these two gifted comedians portray multiple roles, the central one of which is an actor hoping to get a role in an upcoming TV series called “Chelsea Boys.” He’s involved with a small theatre group which is presenting an adaptation of an obscure play by Euripides in a former sausage factory in Red Hook. Jenkins and Stanton are the entire cast of this must-miss production as well as the actor’s mother (who is also his agent) and her friend, who sit in the audience and constantly distract the actors.

Love Child is a hilarious celebration of the actor’s craft. That’s its main focus. If you’re a civilian, as was my companion, you might find it more than a little too much of an inside-joke. As for me, I loved it.

Embraceable Me, at the Kirk Theatre in Theatre Row, is a sweet, sentimental comedy by Victor L. Cahn about a man and a woman who are Perfect For Each Other, in a “When Harry Met Sally” kinda way, but who don’t embrace the inevitability of this until at least ten years after they first meet as two college students. Most of the play consists of direct address to the audience, back and forth between the two. Usually, I find this playwriting technique annoying, but Cahn’s writing is so witty and the two actors (Scott Barrow and Keira Naughton) are so charming that I was quickly hooked and wound up being enchanted; but then, I am an Old Softy who loves a love story told without a drop of cynicism.

Finally, I caught one of the last performances of Inventing Avi by Robert Cary and Benjamin Feldman, at Abingdon Theatre. I am a fan of Abingdon, having published four plays they premiered in my annual New Playwrights series. They do fine productions, mostly of plays by playwrights who are hardly household names (at least, in theatre-people households). Cary and Feldman have a few writing credits, but nothing I have ever seen. So, this was in this sense a typical Abingdon production.

The play was about an aspiring playwright who supports himself by working for a vacuous, wealthy woman with little taste who produces bomb after bomb with her husband’s money. Call her sort of a Maxine Bialystock. Our Hero has written a play which just could be a great new play which will give Tony Kushner a run for the money; but he can’t get his boss to read it. Then her circumstances change when her husband calls to tell her they have lost all their dough in some sort of Ponzi scheme, which mystifies Maxine (sorry, the character’s name is Judy). Meanwhile, Our Hero has met a young actress named Amy, one of whose many jobs is as a personal assistant to Judy’s sister, a soap opera actress named Mimi who sits on the board of a non-profit organization which supports Jewish-themed plays. Amy sees an opportunity for herself, and hatches the idea to persuade Mimi to star in the play. Since Judy won’t consider a play written by her assistant and because the non-profit will only give money if a play is by a Jewish writer, Amy brings a front into the project, her scene partner, who poses as an Israeli playwright and actor named Avi. The problem is, Judy and Mimi hate each other; but Judy is forced to work with her sister because it’s the only way she can get the play on. She has bought Amy’s ruse completely, and is not only producing “Avi’s” play but hires him as both lead actor and director. Eventually, the play becomes a huge hit – but nobody knows that Our Hero is the playwright.

In the Real World, there are no Judys, just as there haven’t been any Max Bialystocks for 40 years. There are no solo producers who raise money and present a play on Broadway, as they used to do in Olden Times. The people who call themselves “producers” are mostly people who finance pre-sold (via good reviews) commercial transfers. One of the most prominent of these people is Daryl Roth, who brags in her bio that she has produced six Pulitzer Prize-winning plays. No, she hasn’t. Manhattan Theatre Club produced Doubt and Proof, and MCC produced Wit. Ms. Roth financed their commercial transfers. In the Real World, there certainly are no producers who would hire an unknown to both star in and direct a Broadway production. And, in the Real World, a non-profit organization cannot contribute money to a commercial enterprise. In other words, the playwrights have no idea how the Real World of the theatre works.

Abingdon does – or they should. Turns out, this play came with “enhancement money,” mostly cobbled together by Mr. Feldman, who is an entertainment lawyer with a lot of rich friends. Abingdon denies it, but I think this is why they did this feeble comedy. Times are tough, fund-raising is tough, and Abingdon, like several other small off Broadway companies, is forced to get into bed with People With Money, most of whom want to “enhance” plays which are far less interesting than the ones sitting around unread because they are by playwrights With No Money. Let us hope this is a temporary situation for Abingdon.

CIRCLE MIRROR TRANSFORMATION. Playwrights Horizons, 410 W.
42nd. St.
TICKETS: www.ticketcentral.com. 212-2798-4200.
AFTER MISS JULIE. American Airlines Theatre, 227 W. 42nd St.
TICKETS: www.roundabouttheatre.org. 212-719-1300.
LOVE CHILD. New World Stages, 340 W. 50th St.
TICKETS: www.telecharge.com. 212-239-6200.
EMBRACEABLE ME. Kirk Theatre, 416 W. 42nd St.
TICKETS: www.ticketcentral.com. 212-2798-4200.
INVENTING AVI. Abingdon Theatre Co. Closed.

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