Archive for December, 2010

“On the Aisle with Larry” 20 December 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 A FREE  MAN OF COLOR, HYSTERIA, THREE PIANOS, THE COLLECTION & A KIND OF ALASKA and IN THE FOOTPRINT.

“What a week I’m having!” – Eugene Levy, in Splash.

As those of you who read my column know, I am not exactly known for being a critical critic. My tastes are broad and eclectic; and I try, whenever I write about something I’ve seen, to imagine who might like it, and write my “review” for that person. Imagine my surprise (and, no doubt, yours) that this week I regret I must tell you about three shows which more or less totally suck.

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Lincoln Center Theatre has mounted a production of John Guare’s new play, A Free Man of Color, in the Vivian Beaumont Theatre, directed by George C. Wolfe. The play takes place mostly in New Orleans in 1803, and its central character is one of the city’s wealthiest citizens who, amazingly, is a black man whose name is Jacques Cornet. Everybody who’s everybody comes to Cornet’s house, mostly to score a loan but also because the town’s best prostitutes are there. He’s apparently so wealthy, and so well-endowed, that he doesn’t have to go to them – they come to him.

Essentially, the play is about how the Louisiana Purchase came to be made, and the subsequent ramifications this had for our country. This is an interesting subject, and I must say it was a pleasure to see a stage peopled with 26 actors, most playing multiple roles. However, watching the play I thought of Ben Jonson’s famous crack when someone said that Shakespeare’s plays were perfect and ready to go as soon as he had finished them, and that he never changed a line. “Would that he had blotted a thousand,” quipped Ben. To call this play “overstuffed” is an understatement. And all too many of the “jokes” fall flat.

The main reason, though, that the jokes fall flat and indeed, much of the evening, is Wolfe’s direction. Although the play is set in 1803, most of it is staged as though it were a Restoration comedy, done by a director and actors who think that “period style” means hamming it up and acting in general as artificially as possible. Some of this is Guare’s fault, but a lot of it is Wolfe’s.

What annoyed me about A Free Man of Color was that it coulda/shoulda been much better – if Guare had taken his story seriously and Wolfe had taken the play seriously. It also would have been a lot funnier.

By and large, the plays in the annual Brits Off Broadway Festival at 59 E 59 are pretty good. In fact, almost everything at 59 E 59 is pretty good, due to the astute artistic stewardship of Elizabeth Kleinhans over there. This season’s Festival includes not one but two productions by an experimental theatre troupe called Inspector Sands. I saw one of the two, Hysteria. I was hoping that Inspector Sands would be another Knee High Theatre, Emma Rice’s troupe which gave us Brief Encounter and The Red Shoes. No such luck.

Hysteria was about 60 minutes of nonsense about a couple on a first date. There’s also a waiter, who is expressionless and never speaks, sort of like Buster Keaton but not funny. About the only thing I can say for Hysteria is that it is Blessedly Brief.

That’s in contrast to Three Pianos, at NY Theatre Workshop which, like Hysteria, owes much to bad 1960’s experimental theatre. It’s about three piano-playing buds. On a cold winter’s night, they try to buck up one of their number, who’s depressed, so they start playing a depressing cycle of songs by Schubert (Oh, that’s a good choice …) and go back and forth between the present and the past, in which Schubert himself and his buds have a grand old time talking, singing and playing games.

The three performers and pretty good ivory-tinklers but mediocre singers and actors. We are forced to spend over two interminable, intermissionless hours with them. Three Pianos is on my short-list for Bomb of the Year. It’s definitely a must-miss.

Lest you think I must have been in a dyspeptic frame of mind last week, I did see two shows I really liked. Alas, though, they both have closed.

Atlantic Theatre Co., in tandem with CSC, revived two one-act plays by the late Harold Pinter, The Collection and A Kind of Alaska, at CSC. Pinter was a master of mysterious comedies of menace, which is impressively on view with The Collection, one of his earliest plays. It’s about a man who thinks his wife has had it on with a man on a business trip. She may have. She may have not. Pinter leaves a lot to our imagination. A Kind of Alaska, one of his last plays, is about a middle-aged woman who wakes out of a coma in which she has been for 29 years and struggles to understand what has happened to her. Larry Bryggman was terrific in both plays, as was Rebecca Henderson, while Matt McGrath and Darren Pettie were impressive in The Collection. The real standout performance of the evening, though, came from Lisa Emery as the woman who’s been in a coma. Karen Kohlhaas’ direction was perfectly, delicately modulated. I’d love to see what she’d do with Pinter’s Old Times.

If you saw this, lucky you; if not, bummer.

The Civilians’ latest show, In the Footprint at the Irondale Theatre in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, has closed unfortunately. Taking a cue from Moises Kaufman’s The Techtonic Project, The Civilians decide on an issue which interests them, interview all the participants, and then create a play, largely composed of monologues and songs. In the Footprint was about the controversy surrounding the Atlantic Yards construction project. It dealt with the pros and the cons, but wound up damning the developer, a man with a name that sounds like he’s a character in a Restoration comedy (his name is Ratner) and various government officials who allowed him to run rough-shod over anybody who got in his way. Mayor Bloomberg and Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz both came across badly. Imagine my surprise …

I wouldn’t be surprised if this terrific docudrama resurfaces somewhere.

A FREE MAN OF COLOR. Vivian Beaumont Theatre, Lincoln Center

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

HYSTERIA. 59 E. 59.

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

THREE PIANOS. NY Theatre Workshop, 79 E. 4th St.

TICKETS: 212-460-5475

THE COLLECTION & A KIND OF ALASKA. CSC,

TICKETS: Alas, this just closed. I hope you got to see it.

IN THE FOOTPRINT. Irondale Theatre Ensemble, Fort Greene Brooklyn.

Alas, closed.

“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” 10 December 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 THE BREAK OF NOON, HAUNTED, MISTAKES WERE MADE, THE RED SHOES, ROSMERSHOLM, PLAY DEAD, BEING SELLERS, NOTES FROM UNDERGROUND, GHOSTS IN THE COTTONWOODS and LINGUA FRANCA.

In Neil LaBute’s The Break of  Noon,  which is running until 22 December at the Lucille Lortel Theatre, a flawed everyman named John Smith finds himself the sole survivor of a horrific mass-killing where he works. A deranged man came in and started shooting, murdering 37 people. As the play begins, he’s telling an unseen police interrogator what happened. It seems that he heard the voice of none other than God, reassuring him that he would be  saved from death. I know, I know — ridiculous, right? That’s what they said when Saul came back from Damascus, changed his name to Paul and started raving that the late Mr. Christ appeared to him.

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Smith decides that God wants him to try and be a better person and to go out into the world and exhort his fellow man (and woman) to do the same. He starts with his estranged wife. She is unwilling to forgive and forget. He moves on to his mistress, who thinks he’s crazy. He makes the rounds of TV talk shows, where he is ridiculed, of course – because as we all know (and if we don’t, we should), belief in God is the delusion of people who live in Red States, who are a bunch of dimwits.

The Break of Noon is an incredibly daring play to be putting on in Gomorrah-on-the-Hudson, because it asks us to believe that God does exist, and that He still cares about the human race, enough to speak directly (as opposed to metaphorically) to someone, and ask him to tell others what happened to him. Predictably, the reviews have to varying degrees ridiculed the play (as in, “Is he kidding?”), just as John Smith is ridiculed. Imagine my surprise …

Jo Bonney’s production is Just Plain Brilliant. David Duchovny plays Smith with an appealing mixture of bewilderment and passion, and Amanda Peet, Tracee Chimo and John Earl Jelks – each playing two roles – are excellent.

At the end Smith, speaking to an unseen group of people who have come to hear him preach, reveals the full, miraculous details of what happened to him on that fateful day, and what I can only describe as a miracle occurs, laughable if you think the play is laughable but jaw-droppingly moving if you do not.

The Break of Noon is the best new play of the season.

Haunted, by Irish novelist/playwright Edna O’Brien (at 59 E 59), is pretty damn good, too. It’s a, well, haunting portrait of a man who can’t stop lying to his wife and, ultimately, to himself. Mr. Berry, a pensioner, sits home with little to do but tend his garden, read his Shakespeare and fantasize while his wife is off at work. He meets a charming young woman and takes her under his wing, so to speak. This becomes an obsession, as he lies to her (he tells her is wife is dead) and to his wife, digging himself in deeper and deeper until, finally, he’s found out.

Mr. Berry could be perceived as rather creepy – but not in Niall Buggy’s moving performance. Also terrific are Brenda Blethyn as Mrs. Berry and Beth Cooke as Hazel, the object of Mr. Berry’s obsession. Braham Murray’s production is brilliant. This one’s a don’t-miss.

Craig Wright’s Mistakes Were Made, at the Barrow St. Theatre, is essentially a one-man play about a Broadway producer named Felix Artifex whose current project is an epic about the French Revolution. He spends all his time on the phone, trying to get a Hollywood star to commit to the project, dealing with his ridiculous demands for re-writes, and trying to persuade the playwright (who lives in the Midwest somewhere) to make said re-writes. He also has to deal with a crisis situation going on in the Middle East involving his far-fletched plan to come up with the financing for the play.

The problem with the play is that it reflects a Broadway reality that simply doesn’t exist. There are no Felix Artifexes anymore, and there haven’t been for decades – wheeler-dealer showmen who single-handedly put shows on Broadway. The director, Dexter Bullard, and the set designer, Tom Burch, appear to be aware of this, as the set looks like the kind of office a Broadway producer in the 1920s might have inhabited. The only thing that sets the play in the present is Our Hero’s wireless telephone headset, the crisis happening offstage involving shadowy Muslim insurgents and the producer’s desperation to woo the movie star by hook or by crook.

So, Mistakes were Made requires a huge suspension of disbelief on the part of the audience; but what makes the evening work ultimately is the hilariously manic performance by Michael Shannon as Felix Artifex.

Emma Rice and Knee High are back at St. Ann’s Warehouse with a weird rendition of the classic Andersen story The Red Shoes. This couldn’t be more different in tone than Brief Encounter, also directed by Rice, but it’s equally visually arresting. Her The Red Shoes is most dark and disturbing – nothing like the classic film. It’s like Andersen’s story as adapted by Samuel Beckett.

You would think that a play by a Great Playwright which requires only six actors and a single set would be produced regularly; yet the Pearl Theatre’s production of Ibsen’s Rosmersholm is the first production I have seen of the play in many years of theatre-going. There’s a reason why the play is so rarely produced.

Rosmersholm is about the head of a great, long-prominent family. Rosmer has recently given up the priesthood and finds himself the rope in political tug of war between the conservatives in his town and the progressives. The political debate in the first act gives the play a startling contemporary relevance; but unfortunately, the play descends into melodrama in the second act and has an ending second only to The Master Builder in awfulness. The climax happens offstage as the housekeeper says to the audience, Oh my goodness – guess what’s happening offstage! D-minus in Playwriting 101, Henrik!

Director Elinor Renfield has done a pretty good job, though, with this creaky, ultimately ridiculous play, and all the actors are excellent.

If you go to see Play Dead, at the Players Theatre, don’t expect a play. What you’ll get is an engaging grand guignol show, performed by a charmingly creepy fellow named Todd Robbins, who wrote it in tandem with Teller, who has directed. Since Teller’s involved, you know you’re going to get some great illusions, and Robbins and Teller do not disappoint. Audience members are invited/dragged up on stage to participate in many of the illusions, which involve several ghosts and a lot of blood.

If you’re in the mood to be creeped-out, Play Dead’s your show.

Being Sellers, part of the Brits Off Broadway festival which also includes Haunted, is a one-man play by Carl Caulfield about the late British film actor Peter Sellers. It is set in a hospital room on the last day of Sellers’ life. David Boyle, who plays Sellers, looks a little like him, though at a younger age. Sellers is obsessed with his mother, to whom he carries on a running monologue, as he relates/enacts various events in his life. The portrait of Sellers which emerges is of a deeply-troubled, rather unpleasant man.

You would think a play about Peter Sellers would be funny, but this one isn’t particularly, partially due to Boyle’s performance. To put it bluntly, Boyle is no Peter Sellers.

This closes Sunday, 12 December. If you missed it, you didn’t miss much.

You also didn’t miss much if you missed Notes from the Underground at the Baryshnikov Arts Center, adapted by Bill Camp and Robert Woodruff (who also directed) from Dostoevsky’s novella. It was mostly narrated, and was about a thoroughly unpleasant fellow who is universally loathed. You know why? Because he’s loathsome and insufferable. He wouldn’t have been sufferable for 10 minutes, let alone the almost two hours this evening took before it was finally, thankfully, over.

There was weird music, performed live, as well as weird projections. None of this helped. The evening was interminable. Its one saving grace was the performance of Merritt Janson. She was one of her onstage musicians for most of the play but, briefly, she left her station to play a pathetic prostitute who is used and abused by the narrator character. She broke my heart, even though Woodruff completely botched the staging of the scene when she comes out of the brothel to the narrator’s lodgings in hopes that he’ll save her from a life of despair, only to have to endure a horrifyingly abusive rant from this asshole. When you have an actor with the kind of haunting, tremendously expressive eyes of a Merritt Janson, Bob, you don’t have her facing upstage as her brief candle of hope is brutally, callously snuffed out.

Adam Rapp’s Ghosts in the Cottonwoods, presented by The Amoralists at Theatre 80, also closes on Sunday 12 December. It’s an early Rapp play, directed by the author, about a poor woman who lives in a cabin in the titular woods with her son. They are awaiting the return of her older son, who has escaped from prison. When he arrives, there is a horrifying climax.

Rapp’s direction is excellent, and there are fine performances from all the actors, with the exception of the actor who plays the younger son, who speaks so quickly and so quietly and with such poor diction that he is unintelligible most of the time.

Peter Nichols’ Lingua Franca, also part of the Brits Off Broadway Festival at 59 E 59 and now closed, was a wonderful play about teachers at an English language school in Florence in the 1950s. Beautifully directed by Michael Gieleta, it featured a cast of top-notch British actors, all of whom were superb.

If you saw this, lucky you. If you missed it – bummer.

THE BREAK OF NOON. Lucille Lortel Theatre, 121 Christopher St.

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

HAUNTED. 59 E 59 Theatre A, 59 E. 59th St.

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

MISTAKES WERE MADE. Barrow St. Theatre, 27 Barrow St.

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

THE RED SHOES. St. Anne’s Warehouse, 38 Water ST., Brooklyn

TICKETS: 866-811-4111

ROSMERSHOLM. City Center Stage II, 130 W. 56th St.

TICKETS: 212-581-1212.

PLAY DEAD. Players Theatre, 115 McDougall St.

TICKETS: 800-745-3000.

BEING SELLERS. 59 E 59 Theatre C, 59 E. 59th St.

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

NOTES FROM UNDERGROUND. Baryshnikov Arts Center. Closed.

GHOSTS IN THE COTTONWOODS. Theatre 80, 80 St. Mark’s Pl.

TICKETS: 212-388-0388

LINGUA FRANCA. 59 E 59. Alas, closed.

“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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