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 LITTLE FOXES, THE REVIVAL, EXIT/ENTRANCE, ROADKILL CONFIDENTIAL, AN ERROR OF THE MOON, underneathymybed, BOTTOM OF THE WORLD, WIFE TO JAMES WHELAN and SECRETS OF THE TRADE.
Well, the summer doldrums are gone and the Jewish holidays passed, so the New York theatre season is exploding with new activity, some of it terrific, some of it not-so-terrific – as usual. I have been going to the theatre almost every evening (and some matinees). Here’s my Report from the Front.
The New York Theatre Workshop has brought back Dutch director Ivo van Hove, this time to direct Lillian Hellman’s The Little Foxes. The first time they brought Ivo over, his deconstruction of A Streetcar Named Desire was very controversial. Many people walked out at the interval; most of them subscribers, some of whom were so pissed off that they cancelled their subscriptions (so I’m told). I was with them.
Van Hove specializes in Famous Old Plays, which he stages in a very eccentric way, so that the Main Event of his productions is not the play, but his take on the play. This style is pretty much universal in Europe, but not all that common here (Peter Sellars’ abominable destruction of Othello last season notwithstanding). I deplore it, because I’m with Shakespeare, who not only wrote “The play’s the thing” but had Hamlet instruct the players to do the lines he’s inserting into The Murder of Gonzago as he wrote them. To my mind, a stage director is not a Creative Artist, he’s an interpretive artist, and the assumption, I take it, that few really care about what the playwright intended; but if they do, they’ve seen that Famous Old Play so often that they’re clamoring for a Fresh Take on it, such as our Ivo can supply in spades, is egotistical and Just Plain Wrong in extremis.
That said, I went with dread to The Little Foxes; but I found myself actually getting with the program. I wound up rather liking it! Astounding, but true. It’s not Lillian Hellman’s The Little Foxes but, rather van Hove’s adaptation (which I do wish they would put in the program). Van Hove has condensed the three acts into one long act, playing with the passage of time in a fascinating way. This works very well. It also eliminates an interval in which to ditch … Gone are the period clothes and southern accents of the feuding Hubbard clan. The scenery is a purple velour-covered box set with what I can only describe as a sort of Elizabethan “inner above” upstage center, in the center of which is a video screen on which we view characters moving about offstage.
The acting style van Hove calls for is very melodramatic – lots of shouting and bouncing off the walls. In the hands of a less-adept cast, this would be unwatchable; but not here. Elizabeth Marvel (Regina) is as usual, well, marvel-ous; though don’t go expecting anything remotely resembling Tallulah or Bette. I also liked Cristin Milioti as Alexandra and Tina Benko as Birdie. Both have moments of towering rage which rise to the level of Marvel’s. I wasn’t taken with Christopher Evan Welch’s Horace, but I must assume he was a puppet to Puppeteer von Hove. For Some Strange Reason, he’s not in a wheelchair, though there is a line referring to it, and he appears to have consumption rather than a bad heart. Why? Nobody Knows …
Still, this is a fascinating production, both intellectually and emotionally stimulating. I guess, once in a while, Ivo is OK. I wouldn’t want a steady diet of this sort of thing, though. Lillian Hellman is certainly rolling over in her grave.
Project Y Theatre has been around for a while, but not only have I never seen one of their productions, I never heard of them. Amazing, but true. They have a new production running at the Lion Theatre of Samuel Brett Williams’ The Revival, and it’s terrific.
The play’s about a Baptist preacher in a small town in Arkansas. He’s Harvard-educated, and is trying to save the church his father founded, which has been hemorrhaging congregants, by asking them to think more deeply about their faith when, of course, they want less thought, more emotion, more testifying, more “Praise Jesuses.” At a church supper, he meets a young drifter who comes in for a meal, and is smitten with him. He lets him stay in a cabin he owns, and they begin a torrid lover affair which, if exposed, could ruin him.
Williams had me gripped right up until the end, when he resolves his plot with a non-credible twist; but director Michole Biancosino has put up a superb production. All the actors are wonderful; but Trent Dawson as the preacher and David Darrow as the drifter are even more so.
This one is well worth checking out, and Project Y is now on my A-List.
The First Irish Festival is going on now, at various venues. I saw Aidan Matthews’ Exit/Entrance at 59 E 59 and am seeing Trans-Euro Express this weekend at Irish Arts.
Exit/Entrance is about two couples – or is it? In the first act, an elderly couple are preparing to commit suicide. Why? Nobody Knows. Next door, a young couple is moving in. In the second act we meet the young couple, newlyweds who are starting their life together. Both men and both women have the same first name. Both women speak in an Irish accent; both men, in an American accent. Why? Nobody knows. There is much wheel-spinning in each act, and very little dramatic action. A friend of mine sitting nearby commented during the interval that the playwright must have seen or read too much Enda Walsh, an Irish playwright whose plays are all like this.
The actors are pretty much OK, Linda Thorson in the first act much more so; but I found this play to be pretty much insufferable. A definite must-miss.
Clubbed Thumb, one of my favorite “downtown theatre” groups, is back with Sheila Callaghan’s Roadkill Confidential, at 3LD Art & Technology Center. The play’s about an “artist” whose latest project involves scooping up road kill and making a kind of sculpture out of it. One of the animals has been infected with a deadly virus and a Sam Spade-like FBI agent thinks maybe a terrorist is at work, so he’s on the trail of the artist.
I have enjoyed several of Callaghan’s plays in the past, but this one is Just Plain Silly. It’s wonderfully staged, though, by Kip Fagan, and the actors are excellent. A good production of a not-so-good play.
Luigi Creatore’s new play An Error of the Moon, at the Beckett Theatre, is about the Booth brothers – Edwin and John Wilkes. It appears to take place in a dressing room in some sort of Limbo, where Booth is forced to relive the awful events leading up to his brother’s assassination of Lincoln. Why? Nobody knows. John Wilkes is a zealot, obsessed with revenge. Edwin is a mewling alcoholic whose obsession is his determined belief that his brother is having an affair with his wife. He’s Othello to Johnny’s Iago.
Well, this is poppycock. I have nothing against a playwright using dramatic license to play fast and loose with the facts, but certainly not to this degree. I might have been willing to go along with it if the actors were better. The set and projections were terrific though. If you’re one of those theatergoers who likes to leave the theatre humming the scenery, you might well want to check this one out. For everybody else, it’s a must-miss.
As is Florencia Lozano’s underneathmybed (really, folks, that’s the title as printed in the program), at Rattlestick Playwrights Theatre. It’s a drama about an Argentine family living in the U.S., where they’ve come to escape the brutal Argentine dictatorship, which has been “disappearing” thousands of people. The central character is a young girl who’s obsessed with another young girl back home who was able to get a message out about her torture and imprisonment. Though her two sisters have become Americanized, she can’t forget the past, and neither can her father, who rages incessantly about the political situation back home. Unfortunately, his tirades are delivered almost exclusively in Spanish, and there are large sections of the play spoken in that language – which is fine if you speak Spanish, but if you’re a Gringo who no habla Espanol much of the play is incomprehensible. What almost saves this is, as usual, is the excellent cast.
If you understand Spanish you might like this play; if you don’t, it’s a must-miss.
Also eminently missable is Lucy Thurber’s Bottom of the World, at Atlantic Stage II. The play takes place simultaneously in two time frames. In the present, a young woman is looking for love; of course, with other women. Her sister, recently deceased, has published a novel about farm people many years ago. Although she’s dead, Our Heroine and her sister interact, going over sections of the novel, which we see staged. These are also about love lost and won.
Thurber is trying to be Just Too Damn Clever, and the two halves of the play don’t fit together very well. The actors are good though. I wasn’t wild about the set, which features raw lumber splayed out as a sort of half-proscenium. What does this mean? Nobody Knows …
The Mint Theatre’s Wife to James Whelan, by Teresa Deevy is, like almost all of the Mint’s plays, a forgotten gem. Deevy was a highly-regarded playwright whose plays achieved great acclaim at Dublin’s Abbey Theatre. When W.B. Yeats, the company’s founder and Artistic Director, retired, the new management rejected this play and it wasn’t produced until years later, after Deevy’s death.
Mint’s Artistic Director, Jonathan Bank, has directed a superb production of this play about a man who achieves success away from home, in Dublin, and returns to found a successful business. The Love of His Life, Nan, refused to wait until he achieved success and married another man, who died leaving her destitute. When he returns, a success, Whelan is very much in play with the town women; but he has no time for them because all he cares about is his business. He could rescue Nan by marrying her; but that he doesn’t is his tragedy, and hers.
The actors are wonderful, the production’s wonderful – don’t miss this one.
Finally, I am belatedly writing about Jonathan Tolins’ terrific Secrets of the Trade, which ran at Primary Stages but is now closed. Noah Robbins starred as a young theatre geek who just might possibly be a Future Genius. When he’s 16, he writes a letter to a famous Broadway director, asking to meet him, and receives no reply. Two years later, the director replies, and invites him to come to his office in New York. The director is a brilliant man. He’s also gay. He takes an interest in the kid, and becomes his mentor. We begin to wonder exactly what the nature of his interest is, particularly when we realize that he waited to invite the kid to New York to meet him until Our Hero was at the Age of Consent
Matt Shakman’s direction was superb, and the production featured wonderful performances by Robbins and, as the mercurial director, John Glover. I hope you got a chance to see this one. If you didn’t – bummer!