Archive for February, 2010

“On the Aisle with Larry” 22 February 2010

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 COMMON AIR, AS YOU LIKE IT, TIME STANDS STILL, HAPPY NOW? ReENTRY, BLACK ANGELS OVER TUSKEGEE, and A CABLE FROM GIBRALTAR.

The Common Air, Alexander Lyras’ latest solo show at the Theatres at 45 Bleecker, is typical of this gifted performer’s work. Lyras, who co-writes his plays with Robert McGaskill, is a dark satirist, rather like Eric Bogosian. The Common Air is a series of interlocking monologues which buzz around a central event, in this case a purported terrorist attack on Kennedy airport which affects the days of disparate characters, from a manic middle-eastern cab driver with what he believes is a great idea for a reality TV show to a gay businessman to a war vet, etc., all of whose lives intersect in or near the airport. Lyras and McGaskill are brilliant writers, and Lyras is one heckuva performer.

The Common Air is several cuts above your usual one-man show.

And, Sam Mendes’ fascinating production of Shakespeare’s As You Like It, at BAM’s Harvey Theatre, is several cuts about your usual Shakespearean production. This is part of the Bridge Project, wherein a repertory cast of American and British actors play Shakespeare at BAM and then in London (next up: The Tempest). There seems to be a trend a-borning to find dark undertones in Shakespeare’s comedies. Theatre for a New Audience has taken a similar tack with its fine production of Measure for Measure, which I will be writing about next week. Shakespearean production is, at best, a reflection not only of Shakespeare’s time but also of our own. It’s the winter of our discontent, even in the Forest of Arden.

The Duke’s court, where the play begins, is a dark, sinister place. We feel we are in a totalitarian state. When the action shifts to the Forest of Arden, we find not a sylvan glade, but a wintry, seemingly impenetrable forest, where the exiles shiver in the cold. It’s a novel concept, which works well though it does tend to undercut the laughs sometimes.

Mendes’ cast is superb. I particularly enjoyed Juliet Rylance’s perky Rosalind, Christian Camargo’s well-spoken yet insecure Orlando and Stephen Dillane’s archly pessimistic Jacques. Thomas Sadosky is excellent, too as Touchstone, and Alvin Epstein is very touching as old Adam.

This one’s a don’t-miss

As is Donald Margulies’ Time Stands Still, produced by Manhattan Theatre Club at the Friedman Theatre on Broadway. Laura Linney and Brian D’Arcy James star as a couple who come home from the war only to war at home. She is a photographer who was almost killed in an IED explosion which killed her Iraqi translator. He is a journalist whose career is floundering and who wonders, what is the point of reporting incessantly the suffering of the victims of war? Also in the play are a photo editor and his much younger girlfriend.

Linney and D’Arcy James are very compelling in their roles, as is Alicia Silverstone in hers. Eric Bogosian is, as always, excellent but here he is playing a solid, rather nice guy; in other words, he does a fine job in a role that many other actors could have played. He is rather wasted, I thought. Daniel Sullivan, who seems to be one of the few directors who gets to direct plays on Broadway these days, has done his usual excellent work.

Time Stands Still is a fine new play by one of our best playwrights, and not to be missed.

Also not to be missed: Lucinda Coxon’s trenchant comedy Happy Now? produced by the always-reliable Primary Stages at 59 E. 59 Theatres. Coxon is a hot, up and coming British playwright. This is, to my knowledge, the first British play Primary Stages has ever produced. Since this production is “In Association With,” I assume it has been enhanced by commercial producers. To whom we should be grateful in this case. This is a terrific play about a woman who has a good career, a loving husband and two children, who can’t stop asking herself the Big Question: Is this all there is? Is this my life, my one and only life?

Liz Diamond, a fine director who most likely will never get to direct plays on Broadway since apparently only Sullivan and Doug Hughes qualify for that, has done a superb job with Coxon’s funny/poignant play, and Mary Bacon is giving a breakthrough performance as Kitty, Our Anti-Heroine. Everybody in the cast is wonderful, though I enjoyed most particularly Quentin Mare’s performance as Miles, a friend of Kitty’s husband who is an alcoholic. Seldom have I seen a stage drunk so convincing.

Again, this one’s a don’t-miss.

Emily Ackerman and KJ Sanchez, two refugees from The Civilians, have a Civilian-esque documentary play, Re-Entry, up and running at Urban Stages. They have interviewed Marines and their families and have put together an evening, largely comprised of monologues, about the harrowing experience of war, and about the difficulties of returning to civilian life. Sanchez has directed this with a gifted hand, and the evening features performances which are very strong; particularly, that of Joseph Harrell, a career Marine now turned actor who really is The Real Deal.

Re-Entry
helps us to understand the sacrifices our service men and women make. It is not a pro or anti-war play. It accepts war as a given, and examines its effect on the combatants. It is riveting.

Layon Gray’s Black Angels Over Tuskegee, at the Theatre at St. Luke’s, is also a military drama. It tells the story of the famed Tuskegee Airmen, a squadron of Black fighter pilots who served in North Africa and Italy during World War II. The first act gives us six men at a testing center in Utah, where they hope to pass the examination which will get them into the war as pilots. The second act shows them during the war.

It’s a compelling story, tied together by lengthy expositional monologues by a man who turns out to be a descendant of one of the six airmen. The device pays off at the end, but along the way it just serves to halt the play in its tracks; or, rather, to ground the planes, as do numerous stories Gray gives his characters to tell, about Important Events which happened in the past. Had Gray pruned much of this expositional material an overlong play would have been much better. What makes me give this one a thumbs-up though are the terrific performances by the cast.

Finally, I saw Daniel Meltzer’s dark comedy A Cable from Gibraltar, at the Medicine Show Theatre, directed by Robert Kalfin. This is a suite of three related one-acts which focus on a somewhat archetypal Man and Woman. When we first meet them they are newborns in a hospital ward who try to understand the difference between “M” and “F.”

In the second act they become a couple while fishing, though they part when she receives a cable instructing her to travel to Gibraltar. In the final act they are two semi-senile generals on opposite sides of a conflict which has gone on forever, so long that no one remembers what started it.

A Cable from Gibraltar
functions both as a comedy about the difficulty men and women have in communicating with each other and as a poignant meditation on the faultiness, and yet the persistence, of memory, written in an arch, faux British style which makes it seem somewhat like Samuel Beckett as adapted by Noel Coward, or perhaps vice-versa, and Kalfin has perfectly captured this odd style in his staging. His actors are excellent, too.

This one is definitely worth checking out.
______________________________________________________

THE COMMON AIR. Theatres at 45 Bleecker, 45 Bleecker St.
TICKETS: www.telecharge.com 212-239-6200
AS YOU LIKE IT. BAM Harvey Theatre, 651 Fulton St., Brooklyn
TICKETS: 718-636-4100
TIME STANDS STILL. Friedman Theatre, 261 W. 47th St.
TICKETS: www.telecharge.com 212-239-6200
HAPPY NOW? Primary Stages, 59 E. 59th St.
TICKETS: www.ticketcentral.com 212-279-4200
Re-ENTRY. Urban Stages, 259 W. 30th St.
TICKETS: www.smarttix.com 212-868-4444
BLACK ANGELS OVER TUSKEGEE. St. Luke’s Theatre, 308 W. 46th St.
TICKETS: www.telecharge.com 212-239-6200
A CABLE FROM GIBRALTAR. Medicine Show Theatre, 549 W. 52nd St.
TICKETS: www.smarttix.com 212-868-4444

“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

Share

ON the Aisle with Larry – 22 February 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 THE COMMON AIR, AS YOU LIKE IT, TIME STANDS STILL, HAPPY NOW? ReENTRY, BLACK ANGELS OVER TUSKEGEE and A CABLE FROM GIBRALTAR.
_______________________________________________

The Common Air, Alexander Lyras’ latest solo show at the Theatres at 45 Bleecker, is typical of this gifted performer’s work. Lyras, who co-writes his plays with Robert McGaskill, is a dark satirist, rather like Eric Bogosian. The Common Air is a series of interlocking monologues which buzz around a central event, in this case a purported terrorist attack on Kennedy airport which affects the days of disparate characters, from a manic middle-eastern cab driver with what he believes is a great idea for a reality TV show to a gay businessman to a war vet, etc., all of whose lives intersect in or near the airport. Lyras and McGaskill are brilliant writers, and Lyras is one heckuva performer.

The Common Air is several cuts above your usual one-man show.

And, Sam Mendes’ fascinating production of Shakespeare’s As You Like It, at BAM’s Harvey Theatre, is several cuts about your usual Shakespearean production. This is part of the Bridge Project, wherein a repertory cast of American and British actors play Shakespeare at BAM and then in London (next up: The Tempest). There seems to be a trend a-borning to find dark undertones in Shakespeare’s comedies. Theatre for a New Audience has taken a similar tack with its fine production of Measure for Measure, which I will be writing about next week. Shakespearean production is, at best, a reflection not only of Shakespeare’s time but also of our own. It’s the winter of our discontent, even in the Forest of Arden.

The Duke’s court, where the play begins, is a dark, sinister place. We feel we are in a totalitarian state. When the action shifts to the Forest of Arden, we find not a sylvan glade, but a wintry, seemingly impenetrable forest, where the exiles shiver in the cold. It’s a novel concept, which works well though it does tend to undercut the laughs sometimes.

Mendes’ cast is superb. I particularly enjoyed Juliet Rylance’s perky Rosalind, Christian Camargo’s well-spoken yet insecure Orlando and Stephen Dillane’s archly pessimistic Jacques. Thomas Sadosky is excellent, too as Touchstone, and Alvin Epstein is very touching as old Adam.

This one’s a don’t-miss

As is Donald Margulies’ TIME STANDS STILL, produced by Manhattan Theatre Club at the Friedman Theatre on Broadway. Laura Linney and Brian D’Arcy James star as a couple who come home from the war only to war at home. She is a photographer who was almost killed in an IED explosion which killed her Iraqi translator. He is a journalist whose career is floundering and who wonders, what is the point of reporting incessantly the suffering of the victims of war? Also in the play are a photo editor and his much younger girlfriend.

Linney and D’Arcy James are very compelling in their roles, as is Alicia Silverstone in hers. Eric Bogosian is, as always, excellent but here he is playing a solid, rather nice guy; in other words, he does a fine job in a role that many other actors could have played. He is rather wasted, I thought. Daniel Sullivan, who seems to be one of the few directors who gets to direct plays on Broadway these days, has done his usual excellent work.

Time Stands Still is a fine new play by one of our best playwrights, and not to be missed.

Also not to be missed: Lucinda Coxon’s trenchant comedy Happy Now? produced by the always-reliable Primary Stages at 59 E. 59 Theatres. Coxon is a hot, up and coming British playwright. This is, to my knowledge, the first British play Primary Stages has ever produced. Since this production is “In Association With,” I assume it has been enhanced by commercial producers. To whom we should be grateful in this case. This is a terrific play about a woman who has a good career, a loving husband and two children, who can’t stop asking herself the Big Question: Is this all there is? Is this my life, my one and only life?

Liz Diamond, a fine director who most likely will never get to direct plays on Broadway since apparently only Sullivan and Doug Hughes qualify for that, has done a superb job with Coxon’s funny/poignant play, and Mary Bacon is giving a breakthrough performance as Kitty, Our Anti-Heroine. Everybody in the cast is wonderful, though I enjoyed most particularly Quentin Mare’s performance as Miles, a friend of Kitty’s husband who is an alcoholic. Seldom have I seen a stage drunk so convincing.

Again, this one’s a don’t-miss.

Emily Ackerman and KJ Sanchez, two refugees from The Civilians, have a Civilian-esque documentary play, Re-Entry, up and running at Urban Stages. They have interviewed Marines and their families and have put together an evening, largely comprised of monologues, about the harrowing experience of war, and about the difficulties of returning to civilian life. Sanchez has directed this with a gifted hand, and the evening features performances which are very strong; particularly, that of Joseph Harrell, a career Marine now turned actor who really is The Real Deal.

Re-Entry helps us to understand the sacrifices our service men and women make. It is not a pro or anti-war play. It accepts war as a given, and examines its effect on the combatants. It is riveting.

Layon Gray’s Black Angels Over Tuskegee, at the Theatre at St. Luke’s, is also a military drama. It tells the story of the famed Tuskegee Airmen, a squadron of Black fighter pilots who served in North Africa and Italy during World War II. The first act gives us six men at a testing center in Utah, where they hope to pass the examination which will get them into the war as pilots. The second act shows them during the war.

It’s a compelling story, tied together by lengthy expositional monologues by a man who turns out to be a descendant of one of the six airmen. The device pays off at the end, but along the way it just serves to halt the play in its tracks; or, rather, to ground the planes, as do numerous stories Gray gives his characters to tell, about Important Events which happened in the past. Had Gray pruned much of this expositional material an overlong play would have been much better. What makes me give this one a thumbs-up though are the terrific performances by the cast.

Finally, I saw Daniel Meltzer’s dark comedy A Cable from Gibraltar, at the Medicine Show Theatre, directed by Robert Kalfin. This is a suite of three related one-acts which focus on a somewhat archetypal Man and Woman. When we first meet them they are newborns in a hospital ward who try to understand the difference between “M” and “F.” In the second act they become a couple while fishing, though they part when she receives a cable instructing her to travel to Gibraltar. In the final act they are two semi-senile generals on opposite sides of a conflict which has gone on forever, so long that no one remembers what started it.

The play is written in an arch, faux British style which makes it seem somewhat like Samuel Beckett as adapted by Noel Coward, or perhaps vice-versa, and Kalfin has perfectly captured this odd style in his staging. His actors are excellent, too.

This one is definitely worth checking out.
_______________________

THE COMMON AIR. Theatres at 45 Bleecker, 45 Bleecker
St.
TICKETS: www.telecharge.com 212-239-6200
AS YOU LIKE IT. BAM Harvey Theatre, 651 Fulton St.,
Brooklyn
TICKETS: 718-636-4100
TIME STANDS STILL. Friedman Theatre, 261 W. 47th St.
TICKETS: www.telecharge.com 212-239-6200
HAPPY NOW? Primary Stages, 59 E. 59th St.
TICKETS: www.ticketcentral.com 212-279-4200
BLACK ANGELS OVER TUSKEGEE. St. Luke’s Theatre, 308
W. 46th St.
TICKETS: www.telecharge.com 212-239-6200
A CABLE FROM GIBRALTAR. Medicine Show Theatre, 549
W. 52nd St.
TICKETS: www.smarttix.com 212-868-4444

“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

“Who is this guy?”

For over thirty years Lawrence Harbison was in charge of new play acquisition for Samuel French, Inc., during which time his work on behalf of playwrights resulted in the first publication of such subsequent luminaries as Jane Martin, Don Nigro, Tina Howe, Theresa Rebeck

Share

“On the Aisle with Larry” 4 February 2010

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 CIRCUMCISE ME, VENUS IN FUR, A VIEW FROM THE BRIDGE, ROUGH SKETCH and My trip to Vermont.
_________________________________

My theatergoing was quite eclectic last week, ranging from stand-up comedy (Circumcise Me) to gut-wrenching tragedy (A View from the Bridge). All in all, it was a very satisfying week. I ended it by venturing far afield, to the frozen mountains of Vermont, where I saw two terrific productions, one of a new play. We tend to believe that we in New York have a monopoly on good theatre. Not so.

Yisrael Campbell is, to say the least, one of a kind. He’s an Orthodox Jewish stand-up comedian, living in Jerusalem, who was born and raised as Christopher Campbell before he converted to the Jewish faith. He tells you how this came to pass in his hilarious stand-up act, Circumcise Me, which has been extended into mid-May at the Bleecker Street Theatre.

Searching for an alternative to a life of drinking and drugs, Campbell found it in Judaism. After taking lessons from a Reformed rabbi, he converted – which involved a ritual circumcision (just a little snip, as he was already circumcised). Reformed Judaism didn’t quite cut it for him, though, so he converted to Conservative Judaism – which involved yet another ritualized snip – only to come to the realization that to be a True Blue Jew he had to convert yet again – he had to become Orthodox. You guessed it: he had to be snipped again. He now looks like one of those guys you see selling diamonds in W. 47th St., or on the street in Crown Heights or Midwood. The hat, the long black coat, the beard, the temple curls – the works.

Campbell’s tale of how this came to pass, of how and why he followed his bliss, is hilarious. Mazel tov, Yiz – you’re one funny schlemiel.

CSC is an off Broadway company which specialized in productions of classic plays by Famous Dead Europeans. Recent FDEs include Shakespeare and Chekhov. The problem with this business model is that plays by FDEs usually have large casts, at least by present-day standards, which are expensive. With David Ives’ Venus in Fur, the company has saved its dough for the Ostrovsky play they’re doing in the spring by presenting a play with only two actors, a play within-a-play adaptation of a notorious novel from 1870 by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, from whose name the term “masochism” derives.

Rather than adapt the novel in a straightforward way, Ives has set the play in an audition room, where a director is casting the role of Vanda in his own adaptation of Venus in Fur.
He has seen scads of actresses but nobody has impressed him. He’s about to head home when a dizzy, ditsy actress arrives with a satchel full of excuses as to why she’s late. He’s tired and wants to go home but she is relentless, so finally he agrees to give her a shot. Gradually, he and she get into the play, becoming their roles; and, gradually, we begin to wonder, who is this woman? Is she just a scatter-brained actress, is she spying on the guy for his girlfriend, or is she Something Else Entirely? I love a good mystery, don’t you? And Venus in Fur is a doozy.

Walter Bobbie’s direction is just wonderful, as are the two actors, Wes Bentley and Nina Arianda, the latter of whom has the showier role so, in the true tradition of Critics’[ Darlings, she has gotten the raves. Both deserve them.

This one’s a don’t-miss.

As is Gregory Mosher’s compelling production of Arthur Miller’s A View from the Bridge, at the Cort Theatre, which emerges here as Miller’s best play after Death of a Salesman and The Crucible.

The play is set in Brooklyn’s Red Hook neighborhood and focuses on a longshoreman, Eddie Carbone, who has taken in a raised his niece, Catherine. His tragedy is that he lusts after her, and this leads to his doom.

Live Schrieber, as Eddie, demonstrates once again that he is one of our finest stage actors, able to segue almost effortlessly from The title role in the Scottish Play to the provocative radio host in Talk Radio to the suave Ricky Roma in Glengarry Glen Ross to the sullen Eddie Carbone. This man, it seems, can play anything –so it’s no surprise that he is terrific in this play.

The big surprise is Scarlett Johanson, who plays Catherine beautifully, with a sweet innocence which belies her screen persona as a glam femme fatale. Jessica Hecht is solid, as she always is, as Eddie wife Beatrice, and there is fine work here too from Michael Cristofer as the lawyer Alfieri, who functions as something of a Greek Chorus, as well as from Corey Stoll and Morgan Spector as two illegal Italian immigrants, Rudolpho and Marco, staying with the Carbones. When Rudolpho and Catherine fall in love, and Eddie is faced with losing Catherine, Miller’s tragedy spurs towards its endgame.

You missed Shawn Nacol’s fascinating Rough Sketch, at 59 E. 59 Theatres, as it closed 31 January. This terrific play was about two animators at a studio which makes children’s cartoon films. Although they have worked side-by-side for several months they have never actually spoken to each other until both come in while the office is closed during the week between Christmas and New Year’s. Both are oddballs, obsessive about their work. They start out with diffidence, proceed to passion and wind up fight-to-the finish enemies, as each has a different attitude about the meaning of the work they do.

Nacol’s writing was fresh, funny and full of insights, sort of like David Hare on speed, and Ian Morgan’s direction was clever and matched the script perfectly. The two actors were mighty fine. Matthew Lawler was exceptional. Tina Benko was phenomenal.

Sorry you missed this one.

Finally, I journeyed up to Burlington, Vermont at the behest of a local playwright to meet with a group of VT playwrights and see the playwright’s new play. I was surprised to find the area a hotbed of theatrical activity, most of which is at the amateur level – which is to say everyone does it for love, not for pay, and which is not to say that the quality of the work was not up to what we here would consider professional standards.

After meeting with the playwrights, telling my jokes and wowing them with my vast knowledge and Good Advice, I saw a terrific play by local playwright Maura Campbell called Rosalee Was Here, about a disturbed teenaged girl and a teacher’s valiant attempts to save her. Liz Gilbert, the teenager who played this girl, was astonishing.

The next night I went to Vermont Stage Company in Burlington to see their production of Stephen Temperley’s Souvenir, about the deluded, tone-deaf soprano Florence Foster Jenkins. This was the fourth time I had seen the play, and it has never failed to amuse me. I saw it at the York Theatre and on Broadway – both with Judy Kaye, and then at the Wilma Theatre in Philadelphia with Ann Crumb – and VTSC’s production was as good as any of these. In some ways, Nancy Johnson was the best Flo or all those I have seen – she certainly was the funniest – and Carl J. Danielsen was a scream as Cosme McMoon, Mrs. Foster Jenkin’ accompanist who narrates this odd tale.

NYC sharpies who denigrate “regional theatre” don’t know what they’re talking about.

CIRCUMCISE ME. Bleecker Street Theatre, 45 Bleecker St.
TICKETS: 212-260-8250
VENUS IN FUR. CSC. 136 E. 13th St.
TICKETS: 212-677-4210
A VIEW FROM THE BRIDGE. Cort Theatre, 138 W. 48th St.
TICKETS: www.telecharge.com 212-239-6200
ROUGH SKETCH and ROSALEE WAS HERE. Alas, closed.
SOUVENIR. Vermont Stage Co., 110 Main St., Burlington, VT
TICKETS: 802-863-5966

“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

Share