Archive for July, 2011

“On the Aisle with Larry” 20 July, 2011

Lawrence Harbison,The Playfixer, brings you up to date with what’s hot and what’s not in New York. This week, Larry reports on MASTER CLASS, THE ILLUSION, THE DEVIL’S MUSIC: THE LIFE AND BLUES OF BESIE SMITH, A LITTLE JOURNEY, MOLORA, AND VOCA PEOPLE.

Terrence McNally’s drama, Master Class, at the Manhattan Theatre Club’s Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, sends the new Broadway season off with a bang. The play is based on actual master classes the great opera diva Maria Callas taught at Juilliard, when she was long past her prime, here condensed to sessions with three students – a terrified soprano, an overconfident tenor and a fiercely determined soprano, during which Callas pontificates, insults and cajoles these young people in an effort to make them understand what it takes to be a great artist. There are also two dramatic arias, if you will, interior monologues during which Callas talks about her life and career, alone onstage as director Stephen Wadsworth rolls out the stage of Alice Tully Hall and replaces it with that of a surreal opera stage.

Tyne Daly is sensational as the difficult, tempestuous diva, but there is excellent work as well from Alexandra Silber, Garrett Sorenson and Sierra Boggess as Callas’ three victims – sorry, students. Boggess is particularly impressive. Who knew from her charming performance as Ariel in The Little Mermaid that she has an operatic-quality singing voice?

This one’s a don’t-miss.

Signature Theatre Company decided, For Some Strange Reason, to wind up its Kushner season with Kushner’s translation of Corneille’s The Illusion, which seemed to me rather anticlimactic after Angels in America and The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide etc etc etc.

The play is something of a whimsical comedy about a man who goes to the cave of a magician hoping that he (in this production, she) can conjure up news of his wayward son. What ensues are three possible fates for him, in the last of which he dies. It’s all elegant and witty but, in the end, rather inconsequential; but Michael Mayer’s production was delightful, featuring lovely performances by veterans Lois Smith and David Margulies, as the conjuror and her new client. I was less impressed with the younger actors, but this is fairly typical for me. Smith and Margulies have the technical facility to speak verse beautifully, while all too often the younger actors have lazy tongues, and fail to hit all the notes as a result.

THE DEVIL’S MUSIC: THE LIFE AND BLUES OF BESSIE SMITH, at Theatre at St. Luke’s, is for all practical purposes a one-woman show, featuring an astounding performance by Miche Braden as the tragic blues singer. Joe Brancato has done a wonderful job of directing, and the music’s great.

This one is also definitely recommended.

Mint Theatre’s production of Rachel Crothers’ A Little Journey was a beautifully directed, acted and designed evening, so typical of evenings at the Mint, of a fascinating slice-of-life play about passengers on a training heading Out West. Roger Hanna’s set was a carousel of compartments constantly on the move, brilliantly choreographer by director Jackson Gay. The actors were all terrific; but I was particularly impressed by Samantha Soule as a young woman who loses her one way ticket to nowheresville and McCaleb Burnett as a rugged young man who proves her salvation.

What an invaluable company the Mint is! They specialize in resurrecting unjustly-forgotten plays and making them shine like new. On pain of death, never miss one of their productions!

Ordinarily, I abhor modern adaptations of ancient Greek dramas, which almost always seem to be to be even more boring than the originals, but an exception may be found at the Joan Weill Center for Dance, where a South African company called The Farber Foundry is presenting a riveting modern adaption of Aeschylus’ Agamemnon, set in contemporary South Africa, called MoLoRa, adapted and directed by Yael Farber, featuring a titanic performance by Dorothy Ann Gould, something of a South African version of Judi Dench, as Klytemnestra. Also terrific are Jabulile Tshabalala as Elektra and Sandile Matsheni as Orestes. Klytemnestra is white, Elektra and Orestes are black, so Farber’s version takes Aeschylus’ classic revenge drama, sets it in South Africa, and asks, in the end, if revenge is morally justified. It’s fascinating, wonderful theatre, and not to be missed.

Voca People, at the Westside Arts, is a silly/weird theatrical whatzit, about a crew of white-clad aliens whose spaceship runs out of juice. They land on Earth, and have to sing sing sing in order to recharge it. This they do a capella, with much use of audience participation, which I found rather cloying. But the singing is phenomenal. If you are in the mood for something silly and totally weird, this would be a good choice.

MASTER CLASS. Samuel J. Freidman Theatre, 261 West 47th Street

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

THE ILLUSION. Signature Theatre Co. Alas, closed

THE DEVIL’S MUSIC … Theatre at St. Luke’s, 308 West 46th Street

TICKETS: 845-786-2873

A LITTLE JOURNEY. Mint Theatre Co. Alas, closed

MOLORA. Joan Weill Center for Dance, 405 West 55th Street

TICKETS: 212-352-3101

VOCA PEOPLE. Westside Arts, 407 W. 43rd ST.

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

For discount tickets for groups of ten or more, contact Carol Ostrow Productions & Group Sales. Phone: 212-265-8500. E-Mail: ostrow1776@aol.com.

“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” 30 June 2011

Lawrence Harbison, The Playfixer, brings you up to date with what’s hot and what’s not in New York. This week, Larry reports on SPIDER-MAN TURN OFF THE DARK, ALL’S WELL THE ENDS WELL, MEASURE FOR MEASURE, BY THE WAY MEET VERA STARK. ONE ARM, THROUGH A GLASS DARKLY,  SIDE EFFECTS and THE SHAGGS: PHILOSOPHY OF THE WORLD.

SPIDER-MAN TURN OFF THE DARK (a title which makes no sense to me), has finally opened at the Foxwoods Theatre, after months and months of previews and bad publicity, and after the producers dumped Julie Taymor and brought in a new director and playwright, all at a reported cost of $70 million. But you don’t care about the cost, nor about all the craziness – you want to know, is any good?

Well, of course, that depends on what you mean by “good.” I did not see Taymor’s version, but by all accounts it was a grandiose attempt to turn a comic book hero and story into something mythic and metaphorical. The problem was, nobody could follow the story and nobody could figure out what it all meant. So a new playwright, Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, was brought in to clarify everything and return to the comic book sensibility of the source material. Aguirre-Sacasa is the guy they should have hired from the get-go. Not only is he a successful playwright – he also writes Spider-Man for Marvel Comics.

What you see onstage is spectacular. The sets and costumes are amazing. The book now makes sense, and much of the music by Bono and The Edge is just perfect for this kind of thing. As for the performers, they’re fine but not great. I took my 20-something daughter to the show and I asked her afterwards who might like this. She replied, “teenage boys who have never seen a Broadway show before.” That sounds about right to me.

If, on the other hand other hand, you are a sentient adult you might prefer Daniel Sullivan’s charming production of ALL’S WELL THAT ENDS WELL at the Delacorte Theatre in Central Park. This is an odd comedy about a young woman who loves a guy who doesn’t want her, so she tricks him into bed and winds up with him. As you would expect, Sullivan’s direction is delightfully inventive, and all the performances are strong. My faves were Annie Parisse as Helena and Reg Rogers as Bertram’s windbag fair weather friend Parolles. Tom Kitt’s music is a special pleasure, and Jane Greenwood’s costumes are lovely. How can this great designer never have won a Tony Award (she has 15 nominations)?

Even better is David Esbjornson’s fascinating production of MEASURE FOR MEASURE, running in repertory with All’s Well that Ends Well. Oddly enough, both plays revolve around a sexual ruse. In All’s Well that Ends Well, Helena tricks Bertram into marrying her by pretending to be Diana, the babe he really wants, and getting pregnant by him. In Measure for Measure, Angelo lusts after Isabella but wants no part of the woman he’s affianced to, Mariana – so the Duke concocts a ruse whereby Mariana gets into bed and poses as Mariana, thus tricking Angelo. These ruses make these plays a perfect pair.

It’s pretty hard to top Daniel Sullivan, but Esbjornson manages that feat. He has set the play in a quasi-Jacobean Vienna, rife with black devils right out of medieval morality plays. One of the problems with this play for me has always been why the Duke decides to take a sabbatical. He makes his first entrance in this production rising up through the stage in a bed full of these devils, so Esbjornson makes it clear that the Duke is beset by temptation, which is why he goes to a monastery and assumes the identify of a friar.

As for the design elements, Elizabeth Hope Clancy’s costumes are wonderfully inventive and the sin-ridden Vienna is beautifully evoked by Peter Kaczorowski’s lighting. John Gromada’s music is terrific too.

Again, all the performances are wonderful. Lorenzo Pisoni is an authoritative Duke and Michael Hayden an appropriately weaselly Angelo. Danai Gurira is astonishing as Isabella, the best in that role I have ever seen, and André Holland (who plays the callow Bertram in All’s Well that Ends Well) is terrific as Claudio, Isabella’s brother who’s condemned by Angelo to die for fornication. Reg Rogers, as Lucio, plays a variation on his Parolles character, and I also greatly enjoyed Carson Elrod, whose amusingly slimy Pompey put me in mind of the Emcee from Cabaret.

Last summer, Heather Lind scored in two small roles (Perdita in The Winter’s Tale and Jessica in The Merchant of Venice). This summer’s Heather Lind is Kristin Connolly, who really stands out as Diana in All’s Well that Ends Well and Juliet in Measure for Measure. Like Ms. Lind, she’ll be playing leading roles before too long I expect.

Lynn Nottage followed up her Pulitzer Prize-winning Ruined with BY THE WAY, MEET VERA STARK at Second Stage (which has, alas, closed), a comedy about

a young black woman in Hollywood in the 1930’s who gets cast as the maid in a Civil War epic which becomes something of a classic. The first act of this very entertaining play dealt with the events that led up to the filing of the movie. The second act took place 70 years later, as three pompous film critics discussed Vera’s career as they watched a tape of an appearance she made on a TV talk show in the 1970’s. Sanaa Lathan was splendid in the title role, and Stephanie J. Block was delightful as the star of the picture.

I hope you were able to see this. It was really wonderful.

The New Group has up and running a production of an unproduced screenplay by Tennessee Williams called One Arm, adapted and directed by Moisés Kaufman. Williams wrote this in the early 196os, and it’s easy to see why it wasn’t produced, as its subject matter would have been far too shocking at that time, as it’s about a navy boxer who loses an arm in a car accident and becomes a hustler in the demi-monde of New Orleans.

Kaufman’s production is brilliant, and it features a strong cast headed by Claybourne Elder as the one-armed hustler. This closes this weekend. Try and get to it if you can.

NY Theatre Workshop is offering another staged screenplay, this one Ingmar Bergman’s Through a Glass Darkly, adapted by Jenny Worton, oddly enough about a crazy wife (see Side Effects below) who is a problem for her husband, her father and her brother. This is a good vehicle for director David Leveaux, who specializes in chilly subject matter, and Carey Mulligan is sensational as the mentally ill young wife. For Some Strange Reason, all the actors speak in British accents, which I found odd; but still, this is a compelling evening in the theatre if you’re into Bergman.

Michael Weller’s Side Effects, at the Lucille Lortel Theatre, is something of a companion piece to his 50 Words, which was about a Brooklyn couple whose marriage is falling apart due to her emotional problems and his infidelity. In Side Effects, we meet the woman with whom the husband in 50 Words is having an affair and her husband, who also have a rocky marriage. They say it takes two to tango but, interestingly, in both plays it’s the wife who’s the problem. This is not exactly politically correct, because as we all know marriages fall apart because the guy’s an insensitive dick …

Side Effects isn’t as powerful as was 50 Words, but it features wonderful performances by Cotter Smith and Joelly Richardson and is well worth seeing because of them.

THE SHAGGS: PHILOSOPHY OF THE WORLD, at Playwrights Horizons, is a musical true story of a terrible rock group in the late 60’s, three teenaged sisters with no talent whatsoever who were forced into performing by their desperately deluded dad, who saw them as his ticket to fortune. Some of this works; but most of it doesn’t. I found the evening a Total Bummer, often painful to watch.

SPIDER-MAN TURN OF THE DARK. Foxwoods Theatre, 213 West 42nd Street

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

ALL’S WELL THE ENDS WELL and MEASURE FOR MEASURE Delacorte

Theatre, Central Park

For ticket and performance information, call 212-539-8750

BY THE WAY, MEET VERA STARK Second Stage. Alas, closed.

ONE ARM Acorn Theatre, 410 W. 42nd St.

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

THROUGH A GLASS DARKLY. New York Theatre Workshop, 79 E. 4th St.

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

SIDE EFFECTS. Lucille Lortel Theatre, 121 Christopher St.

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

THE SHAGGS: PHILOSOPHY OF THE WORLD. Playwrights Horizons,

416 W. 42nd St.

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

For discount tickets for groups of ten or more, contact Carol Ostrow Productions & Group Sales. Phone: 212-265-8500. E-Mail: ostrow1776@aol.com.

“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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