Archive for February, 2011

“On the Aisle with Larry” 15 February 2011

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 BLACK TIE, WHAT THE PUBLIC WANTS, THE WITCH OF EDMONTON, APPLE COVE, NEWSICAL, THE MAN WHO ATE MICHAEL ROCKEFELLER and THE WHIPPING MAN.

A. R. Gurney made his reputation with his satiric depictions of the mores of WASP America, in plays such as The Dining Room. In his latest, Black Tie at Primary Stages, Gurney has returned to these roots. We are in a rather tacky hotel in the Adirondacks, where a middle-aged man named Curtis is preparing for his son’s wedding. Curtis gets a lot of advice about how to stage a proper wedding from his father, a dapper man in a tuxedo who, it turns out, is a ghost.

There’s nothing earth-shaking in this play – it’s “merely” a genial and very witty comedy poking fun at the old ways vs. the new. Mark Lamos’ direction is pitch-perfect, as are all the performances – particularly, those of Gregg Edelman as Curtis, Carolyn McCormick as his frazzled wife Mimi, and Daniel Davis as the ghostly Dear Old Dad.

I hear the play is sold out for its originally-announced run but that Primary Stages has extended one week – so there may be tickets. Go – you’ll have a great time.

The Mint Theatre has another fine production of a forgotten play on their boards, Arnold Bennett’s What the Public Wants, a comedy about a forerunner of Rupert Murdoch who runs a string of what would now be considered “tabloid” newspapers. This may be what the dumbed-down public wants – but is it journalism?

I wouldn’t say that the Mint’s production makes a case for this play as a Lost Classic; but it is undeniably relevant to our own dumbed-down times, is well-constructed and engaging, and features a slew of fine performances under Matthew Arbour’s fine direction. My faves were Rob Breckenridge as the media mogul and Mark Vietor as his quizzical, skeptical brother; but all the performances are, as is usual at the Mint, Mighty Fine.

Like the Mint, Red Bull Theatre specializes in productions of forgotten old plays. Whereas the Mint’s plays largely come from the early years of the 20th Century, though, Red Bull’s come from the early years of the 17th. Red Bull has been around for a while, but I had never seen any of their productions until I went over to St. Clement’s to see The Witch of Edmonton, a collaboration, it is believed, between Thomas Dekker, John Ford and William Rowley originally produced in 1621.

The plays tells the dual stories of the persecution for witchcraft of an old woman, and of a young man who is forced to marry a woman for economic reasons, though he loves another. Both come to a bad end, and both stories are dark and disturbing, about the darker side of human nature, which was common in plays of that era. One of the fascinating aspects of the play is the presence onstage of the Devil, in the shape of a dog, who manipulates both stories with evil intent.

The production, directed by Red Bull’s Artistic Director Jesse Berger, is astounding, and features a large cast of wonderful actors, most of whom are classically-trained. My faves were Charlayne Woodard as the old witch lady and Derek Smith as the Devil Dog.

I’ll say this: I do not plan to miss another Red Bull production. Don’t miss this one.

The Women’s Project has finally gotten their season going with a wild satire by Lynn Rosen called Apple Cove, at the Julia Miles Theatre, which lampoons the new comformity of people who live in “gated” communities. Giovanna Sardelli’s production starts broad and gets broader, but the actors go with it and make it enjoyable even though the play is I think rather silly. If you’re in the mood for silly, though, this one’s for you.

Newsical, at the Kirk Theatre is also pretty silly. It’s a musical review which riffs on current events. It’s kinda like the Capital Steps, though not quite as inventive or funny; but the performers are great fun to watch and the singing is terrific. Rick Crom’s book, music and lyrics are fun, and Mark Waldrop’s direction witty and wild.

Jeff Cohen’s The Man Who Ate Michael Rockefeller, at ArcLight, definitely falls into the category of Not The Same Old Thing. It imagines what might have happened to the young son of Governor Nelson Rockefeller, who disappeared without a trace in Papua New Guinea. Cohen dramatizes the story from the natives’ point of view. His central character, Designing Man, is the tribe’s resident artist, who accepts a commission from Rockefeller is create wood carvings which the young anthropologist plans to bring back to New York to display in a museum he is building.

Cohen handles the dialogue between the various members of the Asmat tribe in a wonderfully anachronistic, contemporary-slangy way, and all the actors are amazing, absolutely convincing as these primitive people. Alfred Preisser’s direction is amazing, too.

If you’re in the mood for Something Completely Different, check this one out.

I also loved Matthew Lopez’ gripping The Whipping Man at Manhattan Theatre Club. In fact, I would go so far as to say that it is one of the best plays of the season.

It takes place in a burnt-out house near Richmond, just at the end of the Civil War. An injured soldier named Caleb staggers in, and we find that he is the son of the owner of the house. Everyone’s gone except for a slave named Simon, who quickly ascertains that Caleb’s leg is gangrenous and needs to be amputated, which he does with the help of another former slave named John who shows up out of the blue.

This is not your usual southern family. Since the whites are Jewish, the slaves are too, and one of the high points of the play is at the end, when Simon officiates at a makeshift seder.

There are big surprises in the play, which Lopez handles brilliantly, and which pack quite a whallop. Doug Hughes, the director, is at the top of his game and the three actors, André Braugher (Simon), Jay Wilkison (Caleb) and André Holland (John) are all excellent.

This one’s a don’t-miss.

BLACK TIE. Primary Stage, 59 E. 59th St.

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

WHAT THE PUBLIC WANTS. Mint Theatre Co., 311 W. 43rd St.

TICKETS: 212-315-0231

THE WITCH OF EDMONTON. Theatre at St. Clement’s, 423 W. 46th St.

TICKETS: 212-352-3101

APPLE COVE. Women’s Project @ Julia Miles Theatre, 424 W. 55th St.

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

NEWSICAL. Kirk Theatre, 416 W. 42nd St.

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

THE MAN WHO ATE MICHAEL ROCKEFELLER. ArcLight Theatre, 152 W.  71st St.

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

THE WHIPPING MAN. Manhattan Theatre Club, 131 W. 55th St.

TICKETS: 212-581-1212

“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 February 2011

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 ROAD TO QATAR, THREE SISTERS, THE NEW YORK IDEA, THE MILK TRAIN DOESN’T STOP HERE ANYMORE, GRUESOME PLAYGROUND INJURIES and MOLLY SWEENEY

Ordinarily, I begin my column with my thoughts on my favorite show of the week; but this week I’m breaking that rule by starting off with The Road to Qatar at the York Theatre Co. I have been going to the York for many years. Many of their shows I have liked, a few I haven’t liked; but until last week I had never seen a Total Turkey there. I guess there’s a first time for everything.

Apparently, a few years ago librettist Stephen Cole and composer David Krane were contacted out of the blue, via the internet, by a rich guy from Qatar who wanted to hire then to create a big, flashy, Broadway-style musical to premiere there, offering them a huge amount of money. The Road to Qatar is about the creation of that musical. Cole and Krane try very hard to imitate the style of the Hope-Crosby “Road to” movies, but Cole’s book and lyrics are so witless, with one lame joke and terrible rhyme after another, and Krane’s music so mediocre, that what we experience is 90 minutes of Pure Torture.

The actors, under Philip George’s way-too-broad direction, try their best to make this at least bearable, but it’s a lost cause.

How could this have found its way to the stage of the York Theatre? Could it be because they have had to do a show which came with “enhancement” money? Looks that way. Oh by the way guys: “Qatar” is pronounced “cutter,” not “catarrh.” Come to think of it, The Road to Catarrh is a much more appropriate title for this terrible show.

Much, much better is CSC’s fine production of Chekhov’s Three Sisters, beautifully directed by Austin Pendleton and featuring a uniformly fine cast headed by Maggie Gyllenhaal (Masha), Jessica Hecht (Olga) and Juliet Rylance (Irena). As good as these ladies are, though, they are matched by the supporting players, especially Marin Ireland (Natasha) and Josh Hamilton (Andrey). The Paul Schmidt translation they are using seemed a little too contemporary American for my tastes, but this is a small quibble with what is one of the finest productions of this beautiful play I have ever seen. It’s a don’t-miss.

Also good is Atlantic Theatre Co.’s production of Langdon Mitchell’s The New York Idea, at the Lucille Lortel Theatre. It’s a different play, though, than it was in 1909 when it premiered. Then, it was a rather shocking play about a controversial subject: divorce. Now, divorce is universally acceptable, so the play seems much more of a light comedy, particularly as here adapted by David Auburn.

The two central characters are (gasp) divorced women, one of whom, Cynthia Karslake, is about to remarry, to a stuffy middle-aged judge who is the exact opposite of her ex-husband John Karslake, a charming profligate. Meanwhile, the judge’s ex-wife Vida is a flamboyant “New Woman” – Sex and the City, 1909-style. She even smokes! Also in the mix is a dashing British lord who falls for Cynthia and tries to lure her away from him, on her wedding day no less.

I have never seen a production of Mitchell’s play but I’ve read it, and Auburn’s version is much funnier. Mark Brokaw’s production is fast-paced and witty, and all his actors are splendid. I particularly enjoyed Jaime Ray Newman as Cynthia and Francesca Faridany as Vida. My only quibble is that both ladies are stylish “Gibson girls,” but neither has the hairstyle of one. This is particularly noticeable when you look at the program cover, which features a photograph of an actual Gibson girl of the era.

Aside from this quibble, I loved this show. It’s hilarious.

Tennessee Williams’ The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore, which flopped not once but twice on Broadway in the early 1960s, has now been revived by Roundabout at their Off Broadway venue, the Laura Pels Theatre. Apparently, Olympia Dukakis, who stars in it, and the director Michael Wilson went through Williams’ many drafts and tried to create a coherent play out of them. The result is a fascinating mish-mosh, which almost succeeds.

It’s about an elderly, wealthy woman, famous for being famous, who is dying in her villa on an island off Capri. Her name is Flora Goforth, and she knows she is soon to go forth into that proverbial undiscovered country, so she is feverishly trying to finish her memoir, with the help of a young American woman named Frances. A mystery man shows up on her island. His name is Christopher Flanders, and he’s a failed artist who goes about from elderly woman to elderly woman; sponging off them, yes – but also providing some comfort in their end days. Flora decides that Christopher may not be the “Angel of Death,” as he is known all over Europe, but rather her salvation.

I still can’t decide if Olympia Dukakis’ performance is Totally Brilliant or Totally Ridiculous. I lean towards the latter. She employs a strange attempted-Southern accent and she speaks as if she has a mouth full of cotton balls. Darren Pettie is hunky as Christopher, but he has no charisma, no passion, no desperation.

There’s an eccentric called The Witch of Capri who comes to visit from time. Here, the Witch of Capri is played by Edward Hibbert, a wonderfully swishy British actor who appears as if he’s wandered in from a Paul Rudnick play. He’s delightful; but he’s in the wrong play.

If you’re a big Tennessee William fan, you should take the opportunity to see this play. Anyone else, be prepared for a lot of eye-rolling.

Rajiv Joseph’s Gruesome Playground Injuries, a two-hander at Second Stage, is a poignant story of unrealized love. Kayleen and Doug have been BFFs since they were kids. As their lives progress, she gets more and more disturbed and he gets more and more banged up. Doug is incredibly accident prone, but somehow Kayleen is able to heal his wounds. Kaylee’s wounds are internal ones, and Doug is unable to save her from them. Pablo Schreiber and Jennifer Carpenter are very compelling as these two lost souls.

This one is worth seeing, particularly for the work of these two fine actors.

Finally, Irish Rep has revived Brian Friel’s Molly Sweeney. The title character is a woman who has been blind since she was a baby, and has been perfectly happy – until, that is, an American doctor operates on her and is able to restore her sight.

The story is told in interlocking monologues, given by Molly, her husband and the doctor. Friel’s writing is exquisite – but it’s narrative writing, not dramatic. What puts this over are the fine performances, particularly by Geraldine Hughes as Molly and Ciarán O’Reilly as her husband, Frank.

THE ROAD TO QATAR. Theatre at St. Peter’s, 619 Lexington Ave.

TICKETS: 212-935-5820

THREE SISTERS. CSC, 136 E. 13th St.

TICKETS: 212-677-4210

THE NEW YORK IDEA. Lucille Lortel Theatre, 121 Christopher St.

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

THE MILK TRAIN DOESN’T STOP HERE ANYMORE. Laura Pels           Theatre, 111 W. 46th St.

TICKETS: 212-719-1300

GRUESOME PLAYGROUND INJURIES. Second Stage, 305 W. 43rd St.

TICKETS: 212-246-4422

MOLLY SWEENEY. Irish Repertory Theatre, 132 W. 22nd St.

TICKETS: 212-727-2737

“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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