Archive for April, 2010

“On the Aisle with Larry” 28 April 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 STUFFED AND UNSTRUNG, PHOENIX, THE ALIENS, AMERICAN IDIOT and BLOODY BLOODY ANDREW JACKSON.

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If you like puppetry, comedy and audience participation, then Stuffed and Unstrung, at the Union Square Theatre, is for you. Created by the next generation of Henson puppeteers, it employs a puppet cast of seeming thousands, manipulated by six wonderful puppeteers, who take ideas thrown at them by their very enthusiastic audience and improvise hilarious scenes based on them. It’s Second City, done with puppets. 

A few times during the evening the intrepid cast takes a break from their improvising to recreate bits created years ago by Jim Henson. It’s amazing to see how far comic puppetry has come since then. 

If you like this sort of thing, be advised that nobody does it better. 

In a previous column, I told you about Scott Organ’s Phoenix, which I saw at this year’s Humana Festival. New York audiences have seen many plays over the past three decades which originated at Humana, but never so soon after the Festival’s conclusion. Frankly, I’m amazed that the author and his agent allowed Phoenix to be produced by the Barrow Group, where it is running through 3 May in an extremely “bare-bones” production, instead of holding out for a higher level offer. 

Although the production values are nil, Barrow Group’s production of this slight but very satisfying play is terrific. Director Seth Barish has highlighted the romantic comedy in the play and downplayed its political aspect – a wise move, as the play’s about a couple who have a one-night stand. She finds herself pregnant, so of course she is going to exercise who Right To Choose. He is incredibly supportive, even going with her to an abortion clinic; but then he changes his mind and pleads with her not to go through with it. In Louisville, the woman was a rather callous bitch; at the Barrow Group she was much more likeable. Both actors were very different from the Louisville cast, and both were excellent. 

I see this play as a very subtle anti-abortion play. Barish’s production shies away from that, making Phoenix more of a bittersweet love story. 

Annie Baker’s The Aliens has gotten some rave reviews, which is lucky for Rattlestick Playwrights Theatre, whose last offering, Blind, was a bomb. The play’s about two slackers who spend all their time hanging out behind what appears to be a restaurant. When a teenaged kid who works there comes out to empty the garbage, they decide to adopt him into the slacker brotherhood. There’s not much more plot than that. Just a lot of wheel-spinning. 

The Aliens has actually been compared to Chekhov and Beckett; but it lacks a Chekhovian social context and is far too realistic for Beckett. The actors are most credible in their roles, but the play has been given an astoundingly languid touch by director Sam Gold, whose pregnant (nay, impregnable) pauses add at least an unnecessary half hour to what was for me an excruciatingly boring evening. 

American Idiot (at the St. James Theatre) and Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson (at the Public), two rock musicals which opened very close to each other, have been heralded as the Wave of the Future for musical theatre. Well, I doubt that; but I am delighted that both seem to be attracting a young audience. 

Of the two, I much preferred American Idiot, which is a staged version by Michael Mayer of an album by a neo-punk group called Green Day. Supposedly, it tells the story of three slackers. One flees suburbia and is sucked into the maelstrom of big city degradation. One goes off to war and gets shot up. One stays home and does nothing. Really, though, there’s about as much plot as in Movin’ Out.  But you don’t go to this show for the story. You go for the kick-ass music. Much of the lyrics are unintelligible, but I guess rock fans are used to that. And Mayer’s staging is incredibly inventive. 

As for Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, this too employs a slacker sensibility to tell the story of our seventh President. Alex Timbers, who also directed the show, has made the book an odd amalgamation of Cliffs Notes history and Monty Python or SNL sketch comedy, not done particularly well. In fact, a lot of the acting is deliberately amateurish, which astounded me. Michael Friedman’s songs are I am told in the “emo” genre, whatever that is. I found both music and lyrics to be uninventive and uninteresting. 

In my opinion, both American Idiot and Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson are incredibly over-praised, but if you’d rather be at a rock concert than to ever be caught dead at the theatre, maybe they’re more your kinda thing. 

STUFFED AND UNSTRUNG. Union Square Theatre, 100 E. 17th St.

            TICKETS: 212-505-0700

PHOENIX. Barrow Group, 312 W. 36th St.

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

THE ALIENS Rattlestick Playwrights Theatre, 224 Waverly Pl.

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

AMERICAN IDIOT. St. James Theatre. 246 W. 44th St.

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

BLOODY BLOODY ANDREW JACKSON. Public Theater, 425 Lafayette St.

            TICKETS: 212-967-7555

 “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” 22 April 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 RED, LA CAGE AUX FOLLES, THE COCKTAIL PARTY, I NEVER SANG FOR MY FATHER, THE ADDAMS FAMILY, and MILLION DOLLAR QUARTET.

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Before I tell you about my reaction to Red, by John Logan, an import from London now playing at the Golden Theatre, I must admit my prejudice against almost all of “modern art,” and most especially abstract expressionism. I believe that hundreds of years from now, when people look back on our era, they’ll be dumbfounded that we actually thought the work created by the likes of Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko was great art; indeed, art at all. So, that’s the frame of mind I had when I went in to see Red, a play about Rothko starring Alfred Molina.

 Red takes place in Rothko’s Manhattan studio in the late1950s. Rothko has received a huge commission to paint murals for a new restaurant, to be called The Four Seasons. He’s getting $35,000, which we are given to understand was a lot of money at that time.

Anyway, it’s such a big job that he needs an assistant, and the play begins on said assistant’s first day on the job, at the start of which he is informed by the imperious Rothko that he is an employee. Rothko is not his teacher, his mentor, his confidant – he’s his employer. That said, Rothko proceeds over the course of the next two years to browbeat this young man and to pontificate on a variety of subjects as they relate to the most important subject of all – Art; particularly his art. He’s particularly big on Nietsche. 

Finally, when the young assistant takes him on, assailing his boss for being a blowhard, ungenerous to the point of paranoia about any art by anyone else, Red becomes dramatically interesting. This takes place near the end of the 90-minute evening. Up until then, it’s all talk, talk, talk – much of it interesting, but little of it dramatic. 

What sustains the evening are the performances by Molina and by Eddie Redmayne as the assistant who, like Molina, has come over with the play from London. Both actors are great in their roles. Redmayne’s performance is “A star is born.” 

If you actually like “modern art,” this play might appeal to you. You’ll certainly learn a lot (maybe, more than you care to know) about one of its titans. 

Speaking of London imports, LA CAGE AUX FOLLES is back, at the Longacre Theatre, in a new production directed by Terry Johnson last season at the Menier Chocolate Factory, a hot hot hot venue in Southwark from which also sprang this season’s revival of A Little Night Music and last season’s (or was it the season before?) of Sunday in the Park with George. When it does musicals, Menier scales them down; hence, they cost much less; hence, commercial producers start salivating. 

This new version of the Jerry Herman/Harvey Fierstein musical features British classical actor Douglas Hodge as Albin, in a performance which won Hodge the Olivier Award last season. The rest of the cast is American, led by Kelsey Grammer as Georges. 

La Cage aux Folles (the club) is short on glam and long on grunge. I have to confess, I missed the glam. Grammer is charming as Georges. Reportedly, when Hodge has to go back to London in six months, Grammer is switching over to play Albin. I might go back and see this – he might be good in the role. As for Hodge, I appeare to be the lone dissenter in the chorus of praise for his performance. I found his high-pitched, nasal intonations to be more than a little annoying. What can I say? I just didn’t like him. As they say in Britain, he got on my tits. 

Critical opprobrium has made this La Cage aux Folles a hit hit hit, and the leading contenda for this year’s Tony Award for best musical revival. Frankly, I enjoyed Bye Bye Birdie more. 

There are two interesting revivals of rarely-performed plays on view at the Theatre Row multiplex. The Actors Company Theatre (TACT) has a superb revival of T.S. Eliot’s The Cocktail Party, which has closed at the Beckett Theatre, and Keen Co.’s I Never Sang for My Father is at the Clurman. Of the two, I much preferred The Cocktail Party

Eliot straddles the world of the classic drawing room comedy and the much darker, more oblique world of Pinter. In the first act the play’s central character, Edward, is hosting a cocktail party for a bunch of his wife’s friends. His wife is off visiting a sick aunt. There is a mysterious uninvited guest, and in the second act we find out who he is. We also find out that in fact Edward’s marriage is on the rocks. What seems to be a deliberately superficial play about marriage becomes much more about salvation and redemption, with haunting overtones of Eliot’s own rocky marriage to Vivien Haigh-Wood. 

TACT’s Artistic Director Scott Alan Evans’ production is subtle and superb, and there are wonderful performances all around from his cast. The Cocktail Party is one of those Famous Plays more talked about than seen. I hope you had a chance to see it. It might not come this way again. 

Robert Anderson’s I Never Sang for My Father is a memory play, a la The Glass Menagerie, wherein a middle aged man tells us of his rocky relationship with his father, a crusty old coot who is not going gently into that good night. When we meet the parents, they are returning from Florida, where they winter. Mom is suffering from a range of health problems. Dad is physically fine but starting to fail mentally. Of course, he is in extreme denial about this. 

Aside from the annoying use of narrative to tell (rather than dramatize) the story, I Never Sang for My Father can be a tough sit, because we, too, are in denial about the inevitable decline of our parents. If we are geezers like the father in the play, Anderson exposes uncomfortable truths about the inevitability of The End which we’d rather not face. 

That said, Keen’s production, while extremely bare-bones, is pretty good. Marsha Mason and Keir Dullea are excellent as the parents. Ms. Mason exits the play after the first act (guess why?). I missed her. Dullea is infuriating/heartrending as he fights his son every step of the way, refusing to accept his fate, insisting that he’s fine, everything’s fine. 

Keen doesn’t make the case for I Never Sang for my Father as a Lost Classic, but it’s still worth seeing if you don’t mind being bummed out. 

By now, you must have heard all about how The Addams Family, at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre, is a turkey. Well, it’s not. It’s a perfectly enjoyable light entertainment which, uncannily, employs basically the same plot as does La Cage aux Folles: grown child (Wednesday, now 18) is getting married, to a nice young man whose parents are conservative, straight-laced mid-westerners (in the snobby world of New York, is there any other kind of mid-westerner?) who want to meet their future in-laws, so much of the plot concerns the Addams family’s mostly futile attempts to appear “normal.” 

Nathan Lane and Bebe Neuwirth star as Gomez and Morticia, and they are both a hoot, as is Jackie Hoffman as a Grandma rather deranged from too many drugs in the 60s, and Kevin Chamberlin as a jolly Uncle Fester, in love with the moon. 

Critics have excoriated the show for being too cute, too sentimental. These are, by definition, bad bad bad, apparently. The Addams Family looks like it will succeed anyway. It’s selling tickets like it’s another Wicked – because of strong word of mouth. So: poo on you, Broadway critics! 

MILLION DOLLAR QUARTET, at the Nederlander Theatre, is an import from Chicago. It uses an actual event, a jam session in Memphis’ Sun Records’ studio which included Roy Perkins, Johnny Cash, Elvis and Jerry Lee Lewis. The first three are already big stars; Jerry Lee is a wannabe who shows up to try and get an audition with Sam Phillips, the owner of Sun Records. The other three drift in. Perkins has been overshadowed by Elvis, who shot to stardom after he performed Perkin’s “Blue Suede Shoes” on the Ed Sullivan Show, and is fiercely determined to climb back on top of the charts. Elvis, in tow with his girlfriend of the week, wants Phillips to join him at RCA, to whom Phillips sold his contract in order to save his label, because he believes only Sam understands that rock and roll is not a fad. Sam, meanwhile, is anxious about Cash, whose contract is expiring. Can he re-sign him? 

Million Dollar Quartet is rather thin dramatically but wonderful musically. The actors who portray the rockers look and sound amazingly like the originals, and are kick-ass musicians to boot. Robert Britton Lyons seethes with anger and determination as the de-throned King of Rockabilly, Carl Perkins, and you might think that you are actually watching Elvis, Cash and Lewis in the superb incarnations of, respectively, Eddie Lendenning, Lance Guest and Levi Kreis. My only quibble: what the heck is Hunter Foster doing in this show? He’s a gifted musical comedy performer in his own right. Here, he has no songs. Well, that’s all right, Ma – but imagine, say, his sister Sutton in a show in which everyone sings but her. Ridiculous.

RED. Golden Theatre, 252 W. 45th St.           

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

LA CAGE AUX FOLLES. Longacre Theatre, 220 W. 48th St.

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

THE COCKTAIL PARTY. Beckett Theatre.

            Alas, closed.

I NEVER SANG FOR MY FATHER. Clurman Theatre, 410 W. 41nd St.

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

THE ADDAMS FAMILY. Lunt-Fontanne Theatre, 205 W. 46th St.

            TICKETS: www.ticketmaster.com or 212-307-4100

MILLION DOLLAR QUARTET. Nederlander Theatre, 208 W. 41st St.

            TICKETS: www.ticketmaster.com or 212-307-4100

“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, José Rivera, William Mastrosimone, Charles Fuller, and Ken Ludwig, among many others; and the acquisition of musicals such as Smoke of the Mountain, A…My Name Is Alice, Little Shop of Horrors and Three Guys Naked from the Waist Down.  He is a now a free-lance editor, primarily for Smith and Kraus, Inc., for whom he edits annual anthologies of best plays by new playwrights and women playwrights, best ten-minute plays and best monologues and scenes for men and for women. 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. His new column, “On the Aisle with Larry,” is a weekly feature at www.smithandkraus.com.

 

He works with individual playwrights to help them develop their plays (see his website, www.playfixer.com). 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 both the Outer Critics Circle and the Drama Desk. 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 holds a B.A. from Kenyon College and an M.A. from the University of Michigan.

 

He is currently working on a book, Masters of the Contemporary American Drama.

 

“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” 12 April 2010

Lawrence Harbison, The Playfixer, brings you up to date with what’s hot and what’s not in New York (and Waterbury, CT). This week, Larry tells you about THE IRISH CURSE, WHEN THE RAIN STOPS FALLING, THE DIARY OF A TEENAGE GIRL, COME FLY AWAY, LOOPED, MIRACLE ON SOUTH DIVISION STREET.

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Apparently, Irish guys are notorious for their small, uh, tackle. That’s the premise of Martin Casella’s comedy The Irish Curse, now playing at the Soho Playhouse. We are in a NYC church, at a weekly support group meeting of men with unusually small shillelaghs, all of whom are of Irish descent, conducted by an Irish American priest. Tonight, there is a new man, a young Irishman recently over from the Old Sod, whose presence provides a reason for the other guys to talk about the group and why they are there. He is understandably reluctant to open up to the other fellas; but, finally, in the end he reveals that he is getting married in a few days, has never had sex with his bride to be, and is petrified of what she will say when she discovers his terribly embarrassing deficiency. 

This play is hilarious! The women in the audience seemed to find it even funnier than the men. Matt Lenz has done a superb job of directing, and there are uniformly wonderful performances. My fave was Austin Peck as a very macho NYC cop who’s gayer than Irish eyes, and Scott Jaeck, who plays the priest/moderator, who has a dirty little secret of his own. 

This one’s a don’t-miss. 

As is Australian playwright Andrew Bovell’s WHEN THE RAIN STOPS FALLING, at the Mitzi Newhouse Theatre, which couldn’t be more different than Casella’s comedy. It’s a very complex drama about two families, spanning several generations, which goes back and forth in time between 1959 and 2039. 

The play can be kinda hard to follow; but stick with it. It’s very powerful, particularly as directed by David Cromer, who has quickly developed a reputation for directorial brilliance (he directed the revival of Our Town). Cromer’s cast is tremendous; particularly Victoria Clark, Mary Beth Hurt and Will Rogers, who plays a young man in search of his identity by searching for his father, who abandoned his family years before. 

When the Rain Stops Falling is one of the best plays, and best productions, of this very strong season. 

The Diary of a Teenage Girl at 3LD Art & Technology Center, is an adaptation by Marielle Heller of a comic book novel by Phoebe Gloeckner, which appears to be a roman á clef about a disturbed teenager who is sexually initiated by her mother’s boyfriend, eventually descending into drug addiction before finally coming out the other side. Ms. Heller plays the teenager, and she is superb, as are all of the cast, under the co-direction of Sarah Cameron Sunde and Rachel Eckerling, who have configured the theatre so that the audience sits in and around the action (which used to be called “environmental theatre”), and have made wonderful use of multi-media projections to give the feel of the original novel. 

This is not a very pleasant story; but it’s a brilliantly theatrical evening in the theatre. 

As is Twyla Tharp’s Come Fly Away, at the Marquis Theatre, a ballet (sort of a “dancical”) homage to the music of Frank Sinatra. Ms. Tharp has set the show in a nightclub, where the onstage orchestra seems only to play Sinatra songs. Sound designer Peter McBoyle has separated Sinatra’s vocal tracks from the original recordings, and they are played in tandem with the live orchestra, which works brilliantly and seamlessly. 

The choreography is, are you would expect from Ms. Tharp, astounding, and the whole evening is just plain sublimely beautiful. 

Matthew Lombardo’s Looped, which has just closed at the Lyceum Theatre, was of interest for the astounding impersonation of Tallulah Bankhead by Valerie Harper. The play took place in a recording studio, where Bankhead is supposed to be “looping” (i.e., recording a garbled line of dialogue) from her last film. Tallulah arrives late, of course, and proceeds to drink like a fish, snort cocaine and behave abominably, much to the chagrin of Danny, the guy who has been charged with getting the line properly looped, who reveals a Dark Secret of his own at the end of the play, obviously pandering to the gay element of the audience. 

You had to be a huge Tallulah Bankhead fan to enjoy this play, willing to cut slack to an extremely unpleasant, self-destructive woman. Predictably, the Club Members in the audience went nuts. As for me, although I enjoyed and appreciated Ms. Harper’s performance, I found Tallulah Bankhead a tough sit for two hours. 

Finally, I ventured up to Waterbury, Ct, to see a new play by Tom Dudzick entitled Miracle on South Division Street, produced by Seven Angels Theatre, about a Catholic family in a declining neighborhood in Buffalo whose claim to fame is that the Virgin Mary appeared many years ago in the barbershop owned by the deceased pater familias, who commemorated this miracle by building a statue of the Blessed Mother in his backyard. 

Miracle on South Division Street is the kind of realistic, sentimental comedy which audiences love and critics loathe. It’s “kitchen-sink realism,” which seeks to persuade us that we are looking through a Fourth Wall into a world much like our own, peopled with likeable, quirky characters like people we know or would like to know. It is a well-constructed and most endearing play, wonderfully directed by Joe Brancato, who originally staged the play at Penguin Rep, where he is Artistic Director. I loved it; but then, I’m not your usual critic. I have nothing against sentimental realism – as long as it’s done well, as it is here. 

I also have to say that I was extremely impressed with Seven Angels’ facility and production values. Those of you who think that “regional theatre” is inferior to what we have in NYC don’t know what you are talking about. 

THE IRISH CURSE. Soho Playhouse, 15 Vandam Street

            Tickets: 212-691-1555

WHEN THE RAIN STOPS FALLING Mitzi Newhouse Theatre, Lincoln Center

            Tickets: www.telecharge.com. or 212-239-6200

THE DIARY OF A TEENAGE GIRL. 3LD Art & Technology Center, 80

   Greenwich St.

            Tickets: 866-811-4111 or 212-352-3101

COME FLY AWAY. Marquis Theatre, 1535 Broadway

            Tickets: www.ticketmaster.com or 212-307-4100

LOOPED. Lyceum Theatre. Alas, closed.

MIRACLE ON SOUTH DIVISION STREET. Seven Angels Theatre, 1 Plank Rd,

     Waterbury, CT

            Tickets: 203-757-4676 

“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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