intermissionmag.com

New York Reviews
February 2017

Let’s Misbehave
92nd Street Y
Manhattan

A Review by Deirdre Donovan

As seen Sun Feb 12, 2017

Teaser: Cole Porter is resurrected at the 92 Street Y with some “de-lovely” tunes from The American Songbook.

The 92nd Street Y “Lyrics & Lyricists” program recently presented “Let’s Misbehave,” a whirlwind tour of the art and life of the great American songwriter Cole Porter. Written and hosted by 92nd Street Y’s Artistic Director David Loud, Porter devotees not only learned what made Porter tick but what made him...

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January 2017



The Liar

Classic Stage Company
East 13th St.

Reviewed by Deirdre Donovan

Runs Jan 11 – Feb 26, 2017

Lies, lies, and more lies! No this is not a reference to what’s happening on our current political front but about the fictive Dorance, the charming protagonist and habitual liar...

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December 2016

A Bronx Tale

Longacre Theatre
220 West 48th Street

Reviewed by Deirdre Donovan

Runs from Dec 1, 2016 through...

Robert De Niro and Jerry Zaks co-direct this new musical that takes you into the beating heart of the Bronx.

A Bronx Tale, the new musical that opened on December 1st at the Longacre Theatre, has had a long and winding road to Broadway. Co-directed by Robert De Niro and Jerry Zaks, it is a poignant coming-of-age story that smacks of...

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November 2016

Women of a Certain Age

LuEster Stage at Public Theater
Manhattan

Reviewed by Deirdre Donovan
Runs through December 4, 2016

Teaser:  Richard Nelson returns to the Public Theater with the final installment of his three-play cycle about the Gabriel family.

There are few plays that hold a mirror up to life with such intensity as Richard Nelson's three-play cycle The Gabriels...

Plenty
Newman Theater
Astor Place

Review by Deirdre Donovan
Runs through December 1, 2016

Teaser:  The British actress Rachel Weisz tackles the plum role in David Hare’s play about British post-war disillusion, now in revival at the Public Theater.

British actress Rachel Weisz is in the catbird seat in David Hare's Plenty, his 1978 celebrated play about post-war disillusion...

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October 2016


Holiday Inn
Studio 54
Broadway, NYC

Review by Deirdre Donovan

As seen October 9, 2016

Runs through January 15, 2017

Thanks to Gordon Greenberg, theatergoers have a chance to see Irving Berlin’s patriotic musical Holiday Inn on a New York stage for the first-time ever. Greenberg, who directs the production, and wrote the book (with Chad Hodge), whips up a... 

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The Encounter
Complicité Theatre Company

252 W 45th Street, Manhattan

A Review by Deirdre Donovan
Runs through January 8, 2017

The Complicité’s production of The Encounter has landed on Broadway and become an instant hit of the new theater season. Conceived, directed, and performed by the British actor-director Simon McBurney, it has wowed audiences in London, Edinburgh, and throughout Europe before coming to New York. With binaural technology and McBurney’s unique brand of storytelling, it is sure to leave a lasting impression on any theatergoer who visits the production.

Based on Petru Popescu’s book Amazon Beaming, McBurney sensitively retells the story of how National Geographic photographer Loren McIntyre in 1969 got desperately lost among...

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Cats
Neil Simon Theatre
250 W. 52nd St.

A Review by Deirdre Donovan
As seen October 2, 2016
Opened July 31, 2016

There’s no purrr-haps about it. Andrew Lloyd Webber’s iconic musical Cats is back on Broadway.

Directed by Trevor Nunn, it opened at the Neil Simon Theatre on July 31st in the midst of the summer tourist season and fry-an-egg-on-the sidewalk temperatures. But in spite of the sizzling heat, folks lined up at the box office on West 52nd Street, all hoping to get a ticket to the first-ever revival of the legendary show.

Okay, musical aficionados, you probably know the history of this landmark musical inside-out. But for those readers who might like a refresher on how it carved itself a niche into theater history, here’s the skinny on the show: Cats pounced into the Winter Garden Theatre in October 1982, ran for 7,485 performances, and kept purring away to audiences for a total of 18 years. It was, in fact, the longest running musical show on Broadway until its record was eclipsed by The Phantom of the Opera in 2006. Which, by the bye, is Lloyd Webber’s as well.

So what was its unique theatrical magic? Spectacle, spectacle, and more spectacle...

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November 2012

The Roman Tragedies
Brooklyn Academy of Music, NYC

Reviewed by Deirdre Donovan
Ran Nov 16-18, 2012

All those holding tickets to Ivo van Hove’s Roman Tragedies at the Brooklyn Academy of Music saw the production, but nobody saw it alike. This six-hour theater marathon, a mash-up of Shakespeare’s Coriolanus, Julius Caesar, and Antony and Cleopatra, pushes the Bard forward and flavors him with ticker tape news feeds, sound bytes, tweets, and video. In a short run at the Howard Gilman Opera House at BAM (in Dutch with English titles), it was a real Shakespearean shebang.

Van Hove, who began his career in the 80s by staging his own texts, has gained an international reputation for his avant-garde staging of plays from the world repertoire. Some of his major productions include his remakes of Macbeth, Wedekind’s Lulu, Sophocles’s Ajax/Antigone, and O’Neill’s Desire Under the Elms. In New York, he has presented numerous works Off Broadway at the New York Theatre Workshop (Hedda Gabler, A Streetcar Named Desire, More Stately Mansions, Misanthrope, and The Little Foxes), garnering many accolades and several Obie nominations and two Obie awards. Last seen at BAM in 2011, he staged a piece based on Ingmar Bergman’s 1972 film Cries and Whispers. Indeed he frequently uses film to accent his stage productions, which may explain his omnipresent videos in his Roman Tragedies.

The traditional line between the actors and the audience is purposefully blurred in his new immersive work. Audience members could choose to sit in an orchestra or balcony seat in the capacious theater (2,090 maximum seating capacity), or wander freely onto the stage that had been morphed into a modern-day Roman amphitheater. Most decide to do both, and reaped the benefits of seeing the production from a distance and close-up.

Say what you will about this show, but never say it is dull. Van Hove takes Shakespeare’s triptych of Roman tragedies, deconstructs them, and turns them into a compact twenty-first century experience. True, he plays fast-and-loose with the Bard’s text. But you are still exposed to the essence of the Roman myths. In his Coriolanus, the hero is re-imagined as a product of the contemporary media: a composite of a flinty military general, arrogant aristocrat, and mama’s boy, all served up in a “sauce of lies.” In Julius Caesar, the posse of assassins looks like panel members who are participating in a CNN television program. Van Hove takes a different tack for his Antony and Cleopatra. In stark contrast to his philosophy of having actors share the stage space with audience members, he insisted that audience members leave the performance area and return to their seats in the theater to watch the final act of the play. Why? Well, one could speculate that van Hove wanted to underscore that Cleopatra was a diva to the nth degree (she often referred to herself as the god Isis), and that she wanted to be the star at her own death scene, without competing with any underlings. Sorry, folks. To get the full impact of this show, one had to check one’s ego at the door, and simply watch the action unfold in the high Roman fashion.

The downside to this production was that you didn’t get any Roman tragedy in its entirety. Yes, you could listen to Coriolanus’s mother Volumnia desperately trying to persuade her son to defect from the Volscians and return to his native Rome. Yes, you could witness the splendid funeral oration of Mark Antony next to Caesar’s corpse. The suicide of Antony and Cleopatra was well-done, too. Yet, you might have bemoaned that some of the most telling scenes, poetry, and set pieces, from the three plays were streamlined or jettisoned from the show.

Novelty trumped tradition here. And, gratefully, the Belgian director has a deep regard for the classics, and his non-conventional theatrical choices tend to illuminate key moments in each play. Take, for instance, Enobarbus’s meditation on deserting his great master in Antony and Cleopatra. Here it was re-imagined as a nightmarish episode caught on video, in which the performer playing Enobarbus raced offstage, down the aisle, through the lobby and out onto the steps of BAM. All the action was projected on a giant screen above the stage, and the audience could watch the character Enobarbus as he had his mega-melt down on BAM’s steps, with real passers-by on Lafayette Avenue looking on in utter confusion. It definitely gave a new Vanhovian twist to the tragedy. Moreover, when the actor playing Enobarbus returned to the indoor stage moments later, he got the biggest applause—and laughs--of the evening.

This was an incredible one-of-a-kind theater experience. If you missed this epic trilogy, try catching van Hove’s next offering. It’s bound to change the way you view theater.

Performed on November 16, 17, & 18 at The Brooklyn Academy of Music, Howard Gilman Opera House, 30 Lafayette Avenue, Brooklyn, New York, as a featured performance of BAM’s Next Wave Festival. For more information, visit www.bam.org

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Scandalous

Neil Simon Theatre

Reviewed by Deirdre Donovan

Open run

Scandalous, the new musical by Kathie Lee Gifford (book, lyrics, and additional music), is a rollercoaster ride through the life of the celebrity evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson. Although this religious tuner has its heart in the right place, its holy-rollering tends to go over the top, and its cliches may well draw a yawn from the most pious theatergoer in attendance at the Neil Simon Theatre.

True, it is tough to pull off religious-themed musicals on the Great White Way. Sister Act and The Book of Mormon managed the hat trick, but Leap of Faith and the revivals of Godspell and Jesus Christ Superstar fell far short of the mark.

Where does Scandalous take a wrong turn? Certainly, its subject is a worthy one. Sister Aimee was a fascinating evangelist who lived 100 years ago and went a-preaching in the 20s and 30s. You couldn’t find a more amazing woman of the cloth at the beginning of the twentieth century. But to tell her story, in all its complexities, would require a better book, fresher songs, and more inspired music (by David Pomeranz and David Friedman).

Gifford has undertaken an ambitious project here, but her enthusiasm for the superstar preacher doesn’t translate itself into a convincing musical form. Gifford, who is best-known as a morning talk show host on NBC, colors Sister Aimee in a too seraphic light. Though she does bring out her dark side, and doesn’t neglect revealing the sex scandals that threatened to bring down her career and tarnish her wholesome image, Gifford uses a predictable template for her famous evangelist: High-spirited girl from a farm turns rebellious and leaves the homestead to find fame and fortune. The wrinkle in this story, of course, is that the Canadian farm girl became, not a stage or film actress, but the prominent preacher who founded the Foursquare Church and became a national presence via her radio broadcasting and faith healings at Angelus Temple.

Ironically, the show is at its best when it points out that Sister Aimee had feet of clay and lots of life baggage: She survived one preacher-husband (played by the charismatic Edward Watts), deserted her second husband (solidly-acted by the reliable Andrew Samonsky), and had two children in tow. She was not immune to the good life or attractive men. And when it came to preaching, she would often blur the line between God’s will and her own.

The show has a few good songs but no outstanding ones. The opening song “Stand Up” sets the tone for this fire-in-your-stomach musical and will be amped up for its reprisal at the finale. In between are a couple of heart-felt numbers, including “Minnie’s Prayer” (sung with pathos by Candy Buckley) and Aimee’s dark-night-of-the-soul number “How Could You?”

Walt Spangler’s lavish (and occasionally garish-looking) sets are not unlike those seen in many Fred Astaire films. Yes, there are more modest sets for depicting the protagonist growing up on the family farm in Canada and trail-blazing her way across the country from 1915 through 1917. But the majority of scenes focus on her celebrated career and Spangler pulls out the stops with his grand Hollywood scenery, complemented by Natasha Katz’s dazzling lights and Gregory A. Poplyk’s frocks, flowing robes, and haberdashery that runs the gamut from straw-brimmed to bowler hats (Charlie Chaplin was an admirer of Sister Aimee, and his character makes a cameo appearance in this show).

In spite of its superficial narrative, Carolee Carmello saves the musical from a wash-out. Carmello has titanium pipes that can easily reach the back rows of the Neil Simon. Too bad she doesn’t have a real showstopper of a song here to match her oversized talent. She does an incredible job at making tepid tunes sound better than they are, and deserves a better vehicle than this to show off her voice.

Although Scandalous won’t put you on Cloud Nine, the show does bring to the boards an unforgettable twentieth-century evangelist and her cradle-to-grave story. It’s a flawed production, but Carmello is divine as Sister Aimee.

Open run.

At the Neil Simon Theatre, 250 W. 52nd Street, Manhattan

For tickets, call 800-432-7780 or online telecharge.com.

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April 2012

The Lyons

A Review by Deirdre Donovan

Linda Lavin gives a master class in comedic acting in Nicky Silver’s play.

“Death is around every corner,” remarks the nurse in Nicky Silver’s play The Lyons at the Cort Theatre. So are the laughs.

Staged off Broadway at the Vineyard Theatre last fall, this scathing dark comedy has been newly-refurbished for its Broadway digs. Linda Lavin, and the rest of the original cast, are still marvelously on board, bringing to life this dysfunctional Jewish family who are struggling to say goodbye to Daddy Lyons. You don’t have to be Jewish to enjoy this show, but a robust sense of humor is a must.

The action opens with paterfamilias Ben Lyons (Dick Latessa) lying in his hospital bed, attached to a morphine drip, with a nurse (Brenda Pressley) making a notation on his chart. His wife Rita (Linda Lavin) is turning the pages of a magazine, trying to get ideas for redecorating their living room. Just as Rita and Ben begin to discuss—or rather argue--over re-doing their home’s decor, their daughter Lisa (Kate Jennings Grant) and son Curtis (Michael Esper) arrive on the scene, with their own complicated lives. Lisa is a divorcee with 2 kids and an alcohol problem, and Curtis is a short story writer who is supposedly in a long-term relationship with his boyfriend Peter. They have come to the hospital to learn about their Dad’s illness. Ben and Rita have kept it a secret that he is dying of cancer, and now the news hits them like a giant sledgehammer.

Silver is a master of comedy (Raised in Captivity, The Food Chain), and is at last making his Broadway debut. He knows how to balance serious and light repartee, and has the Midas touch with zingy one-liners. His Act 1 is clearly stronger than his Act 2. But the play takes hold, and ever reminds you that “romance is a dangerous arena,” and that old expressions like “a man’s man” can have different meanings for different folks. He continually tugs laughs out of the audience, largely because he is saying things that one instinctively knows but has never heard articulated in conversation with such nasty clarity.

Allen Moyer’s set design is appropriately clinical, and David Lander’s lighting gives everything a sterile glow. The director, Mark Brokaw, manages to ground the comedy through his deft staging and excellent pacing. The play clocks in at over 2 and a half hours, but you won’t find yourself shifting in your chair or eyeing the exit.

One caveat: Theatergoers should realize that this play, though extremely funny, deals with death and dying head-on, and goes heavy on the curses and four-letter words. So if you are sensitive-souled, and get ruffled by morbid matters or vulgarities, you should be duly forewarned. Indeed, one audience member sitting across the aisle from me abruptly headed for the exit after the first couple of scenes. In spite of its overall levity, The Lyons is no confection of a play.

Those who dare to go, however, will be greatly rewarded by its ultimately life-affirming message and its first-rate acting.  Linda Lavin is terrific as the suck-the-air-out-of-the-room matron. Her Rita knows how to eviscerate each family member with an apt phrase. Indeed, watching Lavin is a master class in comedic acting.

The rest of the cast is not to be dismissed, however. Dick Latessa, as Ben, is spot-on in his portrayal of a dying man. Yes, his Ben is an old curmudgeon and curses like the dickens at his wife and children. But you get a sense that he deeply loves his family, and will do so until his last breath. Kate Jennings Grant, as Lisa, smoothly blends vulnerability with resilience. And, Michael Esper, as the fiction writer Curtis, makes a good showing as an author who’s in search of his nascent humanity. In the minor role of Nurse, Brenda Pressley is the epitome of efficiency. And Gregory Wooddell, playing Brian, is convincing as the slick real-estate agent who moonlights as an actor. At first blush, Wooddell’s Brian might seem superfluous to this domestic drama. But, as Act 2 unfolds, one realizes that his character is pivotal to the plot, and becomes a catalyst for Curtis’s transformation at play’s end.

You must save some space on your calendar to spend some time with the Lyons at the Cort. The Grim Reaper himself would roar with laughter at what Silver has served up here. Moreover, you will get to see Lavin execute sheer legerdemain as she portrays Rita, that monster of a Jewish mother. Not only does she bring her own brand of theatrical magic to the show, she totally disappears into her role.

Nick Silver’s The Lyons (open run)

The Cort Theatre, 138 W. 48th Street, in Manhattan

Call (212) 239-6200 or www.telecharge.com

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Magic/Bird
Longacre Theatre, 
Manhattan

Reviewed by Deirdre Donovan
Open Run

Alley—oop! Basketball is suddenly in vogue on Broadway. With the arrival of Eric Simonson’s Magic/Bird at the Longacre Theatre, two of its legends, Earvin “Magic” Johnson and Larry Bird, are getting into the limelight again. Although this sports-themed show may not be a complete slam-dunk, it makes some good theatrical swishes as it tells the story of a rivalry that does an extraordinary volte face into friendship.

Theatergoers will likely recall playwright Simonson’s first foray on Broadway, Lombardi, which was a portrait of renowned football coach Vince Lombardi. Fran Kirmser and Tony Ponturo, the producers of Lombardi, in association with the National Basketball Association, are now joining to facilitate Simonson’s new theatrical production Magic/Bird. So there’s lots of authenticity and basketball intelligence to be witnessed in this work.  And, according to a recent Playbill feature, Johnson and Bird enthusiastically participated “in the creative process of the play.”

The show begs the question: Do you need to know basketball to enjoy Magic/Bird? Yes and no. One cannot, however, go on watching this piece without thinking oneself deeply into the sport and its sports legends. Naturally, you need to have a sense of the game. But this is a true human drama, set against the backdrop of game tip-offs, scrimmages, and cut-throat competition.

Spanning a time period from 1979 to the present, you will see historical footage of some great basketball moments and watch the gradual transformation of Johnson and Bird from arch rivals to soul-mates. The show opens with all the hoopla of a basketball game: cheers, musical crescendos, and a rock-and-roll version of the National Anthem. This festive atmosphere shifts to a darker key, however, when a phone loudly rings. It is 1991, and you are suddenly eavesdropping on a private conversation between Johnson and Bird, standing at opposite sides of the stage. Simultaneously projected on a huge screen is archival footage of the Los Angeles Forum Press Conference Room, where the 32-year-old Johnson announces that he has “attained the HIV virus.” You see Johnson standing behind the lectern and addressing the press as Kareem Abdul Jabbar, David Stern, Kurt Rambis, soberly look on.

Enough of the bright lights. You are invited to do some soul-searching here, and to have a déjà vue moment: Where were you when you learned of Magic Johnson’s HIV diagnosis?

Following this unforgettable scene, Magic/Bird rewinds thirteen years to 1979 to the National Champions at Michigan State University, where you see a 19-year-old Johnson being interviewed courtside by a 30 year-old Bryant Gumbel (Francoise Battiste). Then it’s on to Beantown! There’s a cross-fade to a still of Boston Gardens and to Boston sports-writer Jon Lennox (Francois Battiste) interviewing the tight-lipped Bird in 1979 (“How do you like Boston, Larry?” “The ride from the airport was okay.”). Though some people have rightly criticized this bio-drama as lacking in theatricality at times, Magic/Bird soars on the wings of its two protagonists. Whereas Johnson loved the spotlight, and Bird avoided it like the plague, this show convincingly conveys their unique personalities. No caricaturing here!

Ironically, one of the best scenes takes place off the basketball courts, in a modest dining room in French Lick, Indiana. Bird had invited Johnson to his home for lunch during a break from the shooting of their 1980s Converse commercial. During lunch preparations, Bird’s Mom (Deirdre O’Connell) proceeds to heap praise on Johnson for the upward spiral of his extraordinary career. Exhausting her litany of compliments to Johnson, she suddenly shifts to examining her own son’s basketball record. And, in true motherly fashion, she shares some of his less-than-golden moments, including that he had been accepted to study and to play basketball at Indiana University under Bobby Knight but quit after only 3 weeks. This cozy lunch scene, though lacking in glamour, allows you to see the vulnerable human beings pulsating behind the headlines. And it brilliantly illuminates the time that Johnson and Bird’s rivalry sparked into a friendship.

David Korins’ multi-media set design captures the buzz and commotion of professional basketball as well as the quieter down-time of its players. It shifts from sports arenas, to a Boston bar, to diverse domestic scenes. Enhancing Korins’ set is Howard Binkleys’ lighting, which alternates between the white-hot glare of the basketball courts to the softer glow of domestic scenes.

To play historical figures is never an easy task. However, Kevin Daniels proves he can step into the legendary sneakers of Magic Johnson with suaveness. Tug Coker, playing the laconic Larry Bird, rightly rations out his words with strict economy. Peter Scolari struts his stuff in five roles, including Pat Riley, Jerry Buss, Tom, and Bob Woolf. The surprise of the evening, however, is Deirdre O’Connell’s turn as Larry Bird’s Mom (Georgia Bird). Though basketball statistics are the stuff of fame, it’s O’Connell’s portrayal of Larry’s Mom that will win your heart.

Magic/Bird, as directed by Thomas Kail, fills a much-needed gap on Broadway. Granted, Simonson’s script is rather flimsy, and lacks the psychological texture found in his Lombardi. But sports-enthusiasts, long overlooked on the Great White Way, can now cheer on their basketball greats both at Madison Square Garden and in the Times Square neighborhood.

Magic/Bird (open run) 

Longacre Theatre, 220 W. 48th Street, in Manhattan

For tickets, call (212) 239-6200 or http://www.telecharge.com



December 2011


Shakespeare’s
King Richard II

The Pearl Theatre Company

City Center, NYC

Reviewed by Joan Leyden

Amidst the clamor of the holiday season, the Pearl Theatre is quietly presenting New Yorkers with two very special gifts -- the rare chance to see King Richard II and some very good acting, in particular the disturbingly beautiful performance of Sean McNall as the ill-fated monarch.

In a well-spoken, carefully mounted production directed by J. R. Sullivan, the play is mostly easy to follow except for some confusing double-casting made more so by Martha Hally’s very similar, drab costumes. There are some very strong scenes by McNall, Dan Kremer as the courageous John of Guant, Bill Christ as the tormented Duke of York, Carol Schultz bringing comic relief to the Duchess of York and the young Robin Leslie Brown, who is convincingly triple-cast as Richard’s wife, a gardener’s assistant and a murderer, is a special pleasure.

However, the production as a whole suffers from faltering dramatic tension, due in part to few scenes of strong conflict, and also to the rather wooden acting of Grant Goodman as Bolingbroke, the usurper of Richard’s throne. The play has what could be considered a downward action, being essentially a study of Richard’s nature as it is revealed in his almost passive surrender to his cousin Bolingbroke’s challenge. And it is here that McNall shines, expressing in some of Shakespeare’s most eloquent verse the disillusionment and humiliation of a rash, privileged man who has never been fit to rule. He bring enormous sensitively, high intelligence and achingly real honesty to the scenes in which Richard struggles to divest himself of the name of king. His is a real achievement.

Credit must also be given to Harry Feiner for his versatile, multi-level setting, Stephen Petrilli’s lighting, and the voice and diction direction of Dudly Knight.

This play with its large cast (here reduced to 12 actors) would be a challenge for the most accomplished company and the Pearl is to be commended for taking it on with half of the cast new to the company and its modest production budget. It was a courageous choice.

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November 2011


Godspell

Circle in the Square Theater


Reviewed by Deirdre Donovan

Open-ended run


Godspell and Broadway. It sounds like the perfect conjunction of theater and religion. But this resurrected 70s musical, which opened at the Circle in the Square Theater in early November, will appeal more to Bible-belters and religious zealots than typical theatergoers. A bit like seeing Christ get the full Sesame-Street treatment, it’s not that the show is altogether bad, but does Christ really need to be so cuddly?


Conceived and originally directed by John-Michael Tebelak, the show retells the Gospel of St. Matthew in terms of vaudeville and popular culture. The action opens with the great philosophers down the ages materializing on stage, and the cast quickly disposing of them and their supposedly defunct ideas. The cast reappears as a posse of regular Joes and Jills being converted to a simplified version of the Gospel from a fresh-faced Christ (Hunter Parrish).


Much of the original musical has been retained, but there’s a smattering of new lyrics by Stephen Schwartz to give a firm nod to the here and now. Yes, the cast talks on cell phones, and their dialogue is peppered with the patois of today: Facebook, Lindsay Lohan, “Purple Rain,” Khadafy’s death, and the latest advertising slogans. And if that’s not enough to persuade you to convert, there’s a new-fangled take on the parable (“Forgive Your Brother from Your Heart”), which gets done to a rhythmically comforting rap. In fact, most of the parables aren’t proclaimed, but enthusiastically sung and danced to, with clever gymnastics on inset trampolines. It’s all fun, and very entertaining. But if you are in search of an epiphany, you won’t find it in this hyperbolic revival.


In this musical about the penalties of sin and the Golden Rule, it should be an ensemble affair. Obviously, Parrish’s Christ shouldn’t hog the limelight or indulge in any self-aggrandizing behaviors. But he should be charismatic, something beyond having a killer smile. Wallace Smith’s Judas comes across the footlights better. True, Smith is never allowed to outshine Parrish’s Christ. But he’s a devil you can’t take your eyes off.


That said, the songs are altogether hummable.“Prepare Ye” in Act 1 is quite catchy. And the musical’s most famous number, “Day by Day,”still has a mesmerizing effect when the cast sings it with earnest goodwill. In fact, all 16 numbers have a likeable, if very naïve, quality to them. And, say what you will about this show, the songs rock.


Granted, in a post-9-11 world, it’s difficult to find effective ways of projecting gospel truths. But there’s more subtle ways to preach without being preachy. And though the Biblical language rings true, the perpetual motion of the cast somehow undermines the spiritual message here. And by the time the Crucifixion is enacted in the final scenes, its impact is mostly lost.


Although the show will make for interesting discussion at the Bible-study level, it offers thin substance for the serious theatergoer. But if you can suspend your intelligence for 2 hours, you might try this latest reincarnation of Godspell. Otherwise, get thee to The Book of Mormon orSister Act.


Godspell

At Circle in the Square

1633 Broadway at 50th Street

Tickets:  Phone (212) 239-6200

Open-ended run.


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October 2011

The Mountaintop

At the Bernard B. Jacobs Theater

A Review by Deirdre Donovan

What was the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. thinking about on April 3rd, 1968, the eve of his assassination? That question gets close to the heart of Katori Hall’s new play The Mountaintop at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theater. Hall’s play invites us to join Dr. King on his last night in Room 306 at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee. But, unfortunately, this drama doesn’t deliver any new or penetrating insights on the great Civil Rights leader.


Samuel L. Jackson as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Angela Bassett as Camae in the new play "The Mountaintop" by Katori Hall, with direction by Kenny Leon and original music by Branford Marsalis. Now in performance at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theater (242 W. 45th St). Photo Credit: Joan Marcus.

Hall has the legendary Dr. King (Samuel L. Jackson) alone onstage for the first 15 minutes of the play. And she’s intent on giving us a flesh-and-blood man, not the plaster saint. Earlier that day, Dr. King had delivered his famous “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech at Mason Temple in Memphis. But Hall carefully plays down his visionary personality and high-flown rhetoric. In fact, we watch an exhausted Dr. King settling himself into his motel room to retire, with a lightning storm raging outside. We watch King loosen his tie, go into the bathroom to urinate, and then returning to our view, pick up the phone to order room service. Moments later, a motel maid named Carmae (Angela Bassett) arrives with coffee. And, in the next few scenes, we get the comic spectacle of a young woman coming face to face with her hero.

The dialogue between the plucky Camae and the famous preacher is often witty and funny. True, the verbal jokes aren’t always sustained by the internal dynamic of the play. But the chemistry between them is palpable, and lends a definite sexual tension to the evening. What Hall is writing about is fascinating and important. But, oddly, the play seems to lose momentum early on. And even though civil rights issues are frequently pulled into the conversation, there’s just too much verbal chaff tossed in with the wheat here.

The play is historical fiction. And it has a surprising hairpin twist at midpoint that puts us betwixt and between reality and fantasy. And that’s all I will say here, as the press representatives of the production rightly prefer that the plot details be veiled for the sake of future ticketholders.

Unfortunately, the excellent actor Angela Bassett (What’s Love Got to Do With It) is miscast as the motel maid Carmae. According to a recent article in The Wall Street Journal,Halle Berry was initially cast in the role but withdrew early on. Bassett, who subsequently auditioned, took the part in a beat. Even so, Bassett seems to be wrong for this working class part, and overacts in the majority of her scenes. In contrast, her co-star Samuel L. Jackson is a glove-in-hand fit for the famous civil rights leader. And he has no difficulty stepping into Kings’ metaphorical shoes here.

Incidentally, one of the bigger laughs of the evening is that King had smelly shoes. Other things we learn along the way are that his detractors twitted him with monikers like “Chicken a la King” and “Martin Loser King.” Although the play lacks psychological depth and doesn’t always ring true with former biographical portraits, it does have its share of comic lines.

As the director, Kenny Leon falls short here. Leon, who brought us the Tony Award-winning production of Fences in 2010, appears to work better with non-legendary figures. True, we won’t have to wait a long time before seeing his next production. His Stick Fly arrives on Broadway this December.

If there is a star turn in the production, it belongs to set designer David Gallo. Gallo has fashioned a seedy motel room, which, in its low ceiling and rectangular shape, eerily evokes a tomb. And as the scenes unfold, and Camae and King’s conversation grows more sobering, this room seems to shrink to near casket dimensions. Gallo’s superb set, in fact, almost compensates for the play’s considerable flaws. And in the final 10 minutes, he presents the audience with a coup de theatre that is utterly breathtaking.

Coming on the heels of last season’s JerusalemThe Mountaintop is a disappointing production. It was enthusiastically received in London, garnering much critical acclaim and winning the 2010 Olivier Award. But in crossing the pond, The Mountaintop has, to the chagrin of New York theatergoers, lost altitude.

The Mountaintop

At the Bernard B. Jacobs Theater

Through January 15th.


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July 2011

Timon of Athens

The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey

F. M. Kirby Shakespeare Theatre

Drew University, Madison, NJ


A Review by Deirdre Donovan


The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey‘s new production of Timon of Athens is not only fresh, it’s one of the freshest staged productions of Shakespeare that I’ve seen in over twenty years of theatergoing. Directed by Brian B. Crowe, this take on Shakespeare’s most pessimistic play turns the tragedy into a dark vaudeville, and can appeal to the most Shakespeare-resistant theatergoer.


Having seen The Public Theater Lab’s elegant presentation of Timon, starring Richard Thomas, earlier this year, I wondered how Crowe’s interpretation could possibly outshine the New York production. Thomas’s Timon not only had star power but smoothly straddled both the philanthropic and misanthropic impulses of his character.


Undoubtedly, this current production wins by not competing with the former incarnation. In fact, Crowe’s production may well be retitled “The Clockwork Timon” for its ingenious clock motif.


Crowe’s staging is original from the get-go. As the audience members enter the theater, one immediately sees the actors onstage, moving to-and-fro like robotic automatons to the rhythm of an invisible ticking clock. Although each actor’s movements are highly idiosyncratic, their collective movements create a unified effect, much like a giant mosaic. This dramatic tableau serves as a brilliant “prologue” to the play. And Crowe’s premise of human beings “apeing” robots will linger in your mind during the 90-minute show.


Crowe also knows how to stress the theme of money that is at the core of the play, and that echoes so powerfully with our post bail-out times: Whenever the protagonist executes a financial transaction, or offers an expensive gift to a “friend,” the grating sound of “Ching! Ching!” interrupts the mellifluous Shakespearean dialogue. Yes, it’s funny, jolting, and crass as it gets. But it potently underscores the idea that money rules in Athens.


As Timon, Greg Jackson (in his 13th season at STNJ) is unforgettable. His Timon is intentionally a cartoon, garishly overdressed as a clown in the first half of the play, and wearing a “motley coat” of creditors’ bills in the second half (costume design by Pamela A. Prior). Jackson’s wide-eyed naivite is ideal early on, and his acid-tongued curses in the later scenes are appropriately explosive. Jackson’s Timon is terribly in touch with the Grim Reaper at the play’s end, and his self-written epitaph translated by Alcibiades (Brent Harris) in the final scene is deeply affecting.


Bruce Cromer also excels in his difficult role of the cynical philosopher Apemantus. The faint grin, the dry wit, the dessicated tone, the strident querulousness and the shrewdly observant eye—all are finely drawn. His Apemantus, who sees through the wealthy lords’ hypocrisy, becomes the voice of Truth here. And though he’s as welcome as the sound of fingernails scratching down a chalkboard, his observations about flattery in the play are dead-on.


Incidentally, the unfinished text of Timon (written circa 1607) was never produced in Shakespeare’s lifetime. The renowned international director, Peter Brook, staged a minimalist Timon at the Theatre des Bouffes du Nord in Paris in 1974, but few other memorable productions have graced the post-modern stage.


So you missed this Timon? Not to worry. The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey (celebrating its 49th season) has gained a reputation, not only for staging Shakespeare well, but for interpreting other masters, both old and new. The next in their line-up is a revival of Dario Fo’s Accidental Death of an Anarchist (August 3-28). Don’t miss it!


Timon of Athens

By William Shakespeare

Through July 24th.

The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey, F. M. Kirby Shakespeare Theatre, 36 Madison Avenue (on the campus of Drew University), Madison, NJ.

For more information: Phone (973)-408-5600

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Interview with Cary

Hoffman On His New

Musical Play

My Sinatra

Interviewed by Deirdre Donovan

So much of our lives has been lived to the soundtrack of Sinatra music, it’s hard to tell where our actual experiences end and those we’ve felt vicariously through Sinatra lyrics begin. – A quote from Will Friedwald’s Sinatra! The Song is You: A Singer’s Art.

Though Will Friedwald, in his documentary book Sinatra! The Song is You: A Singer’s Art might not have had Cary Hoffman specifically in mind when he penned the above words, Hoffman gives them new meaning in his one-man musical play My Sinatra. Hoffman turns his celebrated PBS special into an homage of Sinatra, weaving over 20 classic songs with personal anecdotes about his longtime obsession with Sinatra. Currently running at the Midtown Theatre, his 90-minute presentation is alternately whimsical, funny, poignant, and very entertaining. Hoffman’s song selections are virtually leitmotifs of Sinatra’s career, including The Voice’s early career, his forays onto the big screen, and his major-league celebrity. Hoffman doesn’t look like Sinatra, but when he croons a Sinatra tune, you will swear that Ol’ Blue Eyes himself is in the room.

I recently spoke with Cary Hoffman about his new solo show in a phone interview on July 12th. Here is an excerpt of our conversation.  

DD: What was the impetus for My Sinatra?

CH: I got the idea really after my PBS Special [on Sinatra] when I was doing concerts all over the country and in Switzerland, and Athens, Greece—

DD: When you were globe-trotting with your Sinatra show, does any performance stand out?

CH: Yes. When I performed for the President of Singapore, at the end of the show I was told that I should stay onstage. And I saw a military guard in the wings of the stage. And I thought, did I say something wrong in the show? Am I going to be shot? The next thing I know, the military guard takes me off the stage, and everybody in the audience is standing. And he takes me to the President’s table and his wife flings herself at me. ‘Oh, we loved you. We want to have you back, we want to have you back soon.’ I don’t know if he is still in power, but it was just a great show.

DD: You sing some great Sinatra songs during your show, but it’s your personal stories that add the real texture to the evening. Early in the show you describe being raised in Long Island by your mother and a “mad symphony of uncles” who had ties to Sinatra. Were they all studio musicians who recorded with Sinatra?

CH: Yes. And with everyone else who you can think of. My mother had six brothers. We went to live with just the musicians, because the musicians were the younger ones. And they were all single. And that sound of Sinatra brass, that filled my head as a kid. It was all over the house. They were practicing in different rooms, in different keys. Maybe if they had practiced in the same key, my life would have been less chaotic.

DD: You share some of your tough times as an artist in the show. You tell a real-life story of when you were in your early twenties and your mother tried her best to snap you out of your Sinatra obsession. You describe how she shook you one day and told you, ‘Listen to me! You’re not Frank Sinatra!’ How did you react to this?

CH: I hated it. But she was just trying to protect me. She had tried to be a singer herself. She had a beautiful voice. But she wound up a housewife. And she saw how difficult it was for her brothers to get work. Her brothers were really the best musicians there were. But two out of three brothers were ultimately put out of work by rock and roll.

DD: The most poignant story of the evening is about your father’s sudden death when you were only seven years old. Why did you decide to put this painful memory in the show?

CH: I put it in the show because that planted the seeds for the kid searching for a father, for the big hole in my life. And because I was musical, somehow all that feeling went toward the music.

DD: Pete Hamill wrote a fascinating book about Sinatra called Why Sinatra Matters. As a Sinatra maven and premier interpreter of his songs, why do you think Sinatra matters today?

CH: Sinatra matters because he was about when music and art were human.

For more information about Cary Hoffman and his solo musical play My Sinatra, visit www.mysinatra.com.

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Victory:

Choices in Reaction

at Atlantic Stage 2

330 W. 16 St.


Reviewed by Deirdre Donovan


Runs through July 31



Jan Maxwell as Bradshaw and Michaela Lieberman as Devonshire (Charles Stuart’s mistress) Photo courtesy of PTP/NYC.


The real reason to go to Howard Barker’s Victory: Choices in Reaction is to see Jan Maxwell back on the New York boards. Having recently finished her star turn in the revival of Follies at the Kennedy Center, the four-time Tony-nominated actor tackles an historical drama without missing a beat. Maxwell plays a Puritan widow in 1660s England, who is determined—come hell or high water—to retrieve her husband’s body and bring it back home for a proper burial.


Written in 1983, Barker’s Victory, is a fascinating and complex play. And in its American premiere in PTP/NYC’s production at the Atlantic Theaters’ Stage 2, it allows theatergoers to time-travel back to the era of Charles II, and witness how the monarch lived a double-life: the righteous king seen in public; and the private man indulging himself in his lewd and libertine court.


The plot revolves around Maxwell’s character Bradshaw, who becomes the chief catalyst for exposing Charles II’s court. Bradshaw, at the get-go, reveals great self-determination and conjugal devotion. She will beg, borrow, or steal to recover her husband’s body. Her husband was a Republican intellectual and revolutionary who signed the death certificate of Charles I, and was then executed, along with other revolutionaries, by order of Charles II. We learn that his body was posthumously decapitated and quartered by the Restoration government, and his head impaled on a pike. Most of the play centers on Bradshaw’s single-minded journey to recover her husband’s “head” and his mutilated body parts.


The plot and characters of Barker’s play are never dull. But this 2-hour and 45-minute drama at times gets overly saturated with bawdy theatricality. Barker really peels the onion in showing how the court was politically corrupt, vain, greedy, and lascivious. And its’ riveting for about two hours. But after that, the play feels drawn out and loses dramatic energy. Director Richard Romagnoli might consider tightening the first half of the play or cutting a few scenes at the end.


To be sure, the acting is the play’s strength. But nobody compares with Maxwell in her role as the resolute Bradshaw. True, David Barlow, as King Charles, is very entertaining as the pompous monarch. Barlow’s King Charles has nary a scruple, and shrugs at sin at every turn (having sex with a mistress in plain view of his entourage is just one of his royal indiscretions). Indeed, this play is not for the timid or Puritanical-minded. In short, there’s lots of raw human energy and appetites coursing through these characters. And though the language can be high-flown, there’s lots of four-letter words peppered in as well.


I would be greatly remiss if I didn’t give a nod to the rest of the fine acting ensemble, including Alex Cranmer, Steven Dykes, Robert Emmet Lunney, Robert Zukerman, Michael Kessler, Michaela Lieberman, Willy McKay, Edelen McWilliams, Mat Nakitare and Ele Woods. They are all strong actors, many veterans of Broadway and off-Broadway. And they truly took hold of their parts here.


Another point worth making is that very good theater can be found off-Broadway. Broadway may be more glitzy, but in going to an off-Broadway show, you really get a genuine taste of New York theater. And, even better, the ticket prices won’t break your wallet.


Victory, at Atlantic Stage 2, 330 W. 16th St.

Through July 31.

For tickets, phone (212) 279-4200, or visit www.ticketcentral.com

Victory is playing in repertory with Steven Dykes’s Territories and Neal Bell’s Spatter Pattern or, How I Got Away With It.


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January 2011

John Gabriel Borkman

The Brooklyn Academy of Music’s

 Harvey Theater

  

 

Alan Rickman, Fiona Shaw, and Lindsay Duncan (image used by permission BAM, copyright 2011) 


Reviewed by Deirdre Donovan

Runs Jan 7 through Feb 6, 2011

John Gabriel who? It might not be one of Ibsen’s better-known plays, but John Gabriel Borkman is getting a first-rate staging at the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Harvey Theater. With a lustrous cast and bold direction by James Macdonald, the Abbey Theatre’s production of Ibsen’s penultimate work takes on vivid contemporary meaning.

The plot is tightly constructed, and unfolds more schematically than other dramas in Ibsen’s canon. The action takes place near the capital city, at the Rentheim family estate, in the dead of winter. The titular character, John Gabriel Borkman, is a disgraced financier who was incarcerated three years for embezzlement, and for the past eight years has lived like a prisoner in his own home. Despite his emotional estrangement from his long-suffering wife Gunhild and his adult son Erhart, and loss of his influential friends, he deludes himself into believing that he can somehow make a comeback in the financial world. When Ella, Gunhild’s twin sister and Borkman’s former lover, arrives on the scene for an unannounced visit, she reawakens painful family memories and rattles all the skeletons in the closet. She is intent on settling scores with the embittered Gunhild and the ever-calculating Borkman. Moreover, she hopes to persuade her beloved nephew Erhart to return to the city with her and take on her name, as she is without an heir. Over one long winter night each member of this family confronts difficult truths and decides how they will embrace their individual future.

Like several other male protagonists in Ibsen’s realistic plays, the character Borkman allowed the author to investigate how a broken man lives out his quiet desperation. But this dramatic portrait is not simply a morbid study of a corrupt bank president. Ibsen, through the alchemy of his dramatic genius, illuminates the relation of Borkman’s excessive ambition to his basic humanity and to his women.

And who is Borkman? Consider him as the epitome of the post-Eden man, or as the fictive counterpart to the real-life crookster, Bernard Madoff. If you ever thought Ibsen was old hat, think again.

The show’s production values are solid. Tom Pye’s set is visually arresting and remarkable for its pristine feel. During the evening, you will see two interiors of a grand home, hemmed in by huge snow banks and fierce gusts of sporadically falling snow. Equally eye-catching are Joan Bergin’s period costumes, which look like they could have been borrowed from the Metropolitan Museum’s historical dress collection. The richly embroidered dresses and well-tailored outfits aptly suggest the Borkmans’s former aristocratic life-style and high social standing. To reinforce the ponderous mood and atmosphere, Ian Dickinson’s sound design (the loud footfalls of Borkman pacing in the upstairs room are downright haunting) and Jean Kalman’s lighting is aptly glaring at crucial points. To be sure, this creative team has captured the spiritual emptiness at the core of this work, and given it convincing artistic dimension.

Though the entire cast is excellent, the evening is largely Alan Rickman’s. Rickman fully exudes the pathological personality of Borkman, that ex-con who’s little bothered by his past crime, but greatly irked that he was betrayed. Other notable performances are given by Lindsay Duncan as Ella, Fiona Shaw as Gunhild, and Marty Rea as Erhart. No weak links in this ensemble.

To be sure, The Brooklyn Academy of Music is a world-class performing arts institution and offers a valuable contrast to the horse-racing atmosphere of Broadway theater. If you really are looking for a profound theater experience this season, you might skip the mega-musical Spider Man, Turn Off the Dark at Foxwoods, and head to BAM’s Harvey Theater. John Gabriel Borkman runs through February 6th, and a new adaptation of Nikolai Gogol’s Diary of a Madman (starring Geoffrey Rush) arrives on February 11th.

For more information, phone 718.636.4100 or visit BAM.ORG.

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March 2010

All About Me

The Henry Miller Theater

Reviewed by Deirdre Donovan

Reviewed at the March 17th press performance; Closed April 4, 2010







          Michael Feinstein and Barry Humphries in All About Me. (Photo credit: Joan Marcus)

There may never have been a Broadway show with more mismatched co-stars than All About Me. Here was a show with two performers that everybody adores: café singer and musical factotum Michael Feinstein and diva extraordinaire Dame Edna Everage (alter ego of Barry Humphries). But aside from being beloved entertainers, they have very little in common. After seeing the short-lived production at the Henry Miller’s Theater, you don’t feel you’ve been to the theater, but to a ring-side sporting match on Broadway. For 90 minutes with no intermission, these well-known performers tried to outdo each other onstage. They verbally sparred and tossed off razor-sharp witticisms, but few of them landed with any impact. With their theatrical styles being at polar opposites, the show never coalesced into a harmonious whole, and it wore thin fast.

Being ungrateful for this trifle is, I realize, verging on blasphemy. The suave Feinstein is a national treasure, as is the comic genius Dame Edna. But truth be told, they deserve their own Broadway vehicles to show off their unique talents to advantage. The creatives behind this production—Christopher Durang, Lizzie Spender, and Terrence Flannery—surely had the best of intentions in juxtaposing these two luminaries. But even the best intentions can go awry.

Aside from the clashing styles of Feinstein and Dame Edna, the show didn’t have a real narrative through line, but was a kind of theatrical tug-of-war between the celebrities to gain the central spotlight. Each briefly succeeded in being kingpin of the evening, but one never had a chance to enjoy the breadth of their talents or repertoire. This was more about one-upmanship than anything else.

In spite of all the fragmentation, there were some golden moments during the evening. In Michael Feinstein’s case, he sang snatches of great songs from the American Song Book, peppered in with some anecdotes about George and Ira Gershwin; and in Dame Edna’s case, she engaged members of the audience in frank discussions about their lives and somehow extracted the most outlandish trivia. Directed by Casey Nicholaw, the show generated sparks, and in the final scene, lavished dozens of gladioli (courtesy of Dame Edna, of course) to audience members.

Because the 2 performers were not relying on their old material, we were invited to listen to a medley of 9 original songs composed by Feinstein (music), Dame Edna (lyrics), and other artists. A few were catchy and up-beat, notably the tongue-in-cheek “We Get Along Amazingly Well.” And there was the flamboyant “The Gladdy Song,” which was a not-so-subtle tribute to Dame Edna. Although the songs were fun, they aren’t the kind that you would hum as you exit the theater.

Putting these 2 greats on stage together sounded promising in theory, but under Broadway’s glaring lights this theatrical experiment just didn’t deliver. The show closed on April 4th, following 27 previews and 20 regular performances. And the moral of this production? Perhaps that even the biggest and brightest stars can totally flop on The Great White Way. Still, something about the grandeur of Dame Edna and the classiness of Feinstein gives All About Me a special place in my affections.

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Race

The Ethel Barrymore

243 W. 47 Street

Reviewed by Deirdre Donovan

As viewed on Jan 7, 2010 (opened Dec 6, 2009; runs until ???) 

“Do you know what you can say to a Black man on the subject of race?” That explosive question gets the ball rolling in David Mamet’s new play Race, which recently opened at the Ethel Barrymore. But, unfortunately, that question fails to ignite any fresh revelations on the hot-button subject. It seems that the playwright, who is well-known for his rapid-fire language and forays into new dramatic terrain, is on auto-pilot here. He fails to blaze any new dramatic ground with this four-hander. 

The plot is basic: A blue-blood shows up at a multiracial firm in hopes of mounting a defense for his case. He has been accused of raping a Black woman, and is looking for a lawyer who can clear him of the steamy charges. But as the lawyers and client discuss the particulars of the case, the multicultural veneer of the firm peels off. And what we watch is Blacks and Whites lunging at each other’s jugulars, if you will, and hidden prejudices.

The play analyzes sex, rape, the law, employment, relationships, all within the space of 90 minutes (with one unnecessary intermission). Race argues that Whites spin their wheels when it comes to having a meaningful conversation with Blacks on race. It suggests--no, downright nudges--that racial guilt is the White man’s burden and inheritance. Worse, it sees race as a continuing problem in our post-Obama world.

The problem with the play is that it is too politically and dramatically ambivalent. It returns us to a subject that has been overworked and overdone. Yes, racial tensions still exist between Blacks and Whites. Yes, affirmative action in white-collar professions continues to be practiced unevenly. But Mamet seems to be relying on an old template for this play. Instead of adding new colors to his palette, Mamet offers us a washed-out argument on race in America.

What this drama needs is more character and plot development. There are too many loose ends, and the ending itself feels rather contrived. Mamet never explores the working relationship between James Spader’s Lawson and David Alan Grier’s Brown, which might add necessary texture to the piece. Moreover, Kerry Washington’s Susan and Richard Thomas’s Charles Strickland seem more like rough sketches than viable characters.

That said, there are some ingenious and striking details woven into the drama. The character Susan has no last name, perhaps Mamet’s way of informing us that she is holding the short end of the stick in the situation with the 2 lawyers. And as a young Black female, she is. Called to task by the lawyers for mishandling the paperwork of their new client, she doesn’t precisely melt under their grilling, but she doesn’t stand up to them either. If you have ever suspected that Mamet is a misogynist, the character Susan gives plenty of new evidence to support the case.

The best reason to see this play, however, is to watch the fine acting of James Spader. His Emmy-award winning portrayal of Alan Shore on Boston Legal has endeared him to the public, and his turn as Jack Lawson here doesn’t disappoint. The rest of the acting is uneven. Playing opposite Spader is the reliable David Alan Grier, as the law partner Henry Brown. The excellent Richard Thomas, who plays the client Charles Strickland, seems somewhat miscast in his role. Thomas doesn’t possess the necessary vitriolic manner that his character requires. Kerry Washington, as the legal assistant Susan, is serviceable but not memorable. Admittedly, none of the parts are that meaty. But Spader overcomes the thin characterization and manages to infuse his Lawson with that je-ne-sais quoi quality.

In spite of its significant flaws, this play sharply shows us how race remains a thorny issue in the legal system, and by inference, in our world. Directed by Mamet, the playwright may not be at the top of his game here. But if you like Mamet-speak and heated arguments on race, you might give it a visit.

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Angela Lansbury, Catherine Zeta-Jones, and Keaton Whittaker in A Little Night Music

A Little Night Music

Walter Kerr Theatre, 219 W. 48 St.

Reviewed by Deirdre Donovan

As viewed on Dec 12, 2009 (open run) 

The revival of A Little Night Music waltzed into the Walter Kerr just in time for the New Year, and promises to stick around the Great White Way for some time. The 36 year-old musical is wearing its age mighty well, and with 2 powerful performances from Angela Lansbury and Catherine Zeta Jones, this show will likely smile its way to a raft of Tony Awards.

Among other things, A Little Night Music is a story of sexual musical chairs that is played out by couples, ex-couples, and would-be couples at a country estate in turn-of-the-century Sweden. The plot is convoluted and frequently doubles back on itself before the finale. Harold Prince, who originally produced and directed the musical, was bent on making this a Chekhovian musical--and he succeeded in spades. For Stephen Sondheim, the show gave him his first bonafide hit—“Send in the Clowns”—a wistful melody that took on its own life (thanks to later recordings by Frank Sinatra and Judy Collins) outside the precincts of Broadway.

The title is poached from Mozart’s divertimento “Eine Kleine Nacht-musik;” and the story from Ingmar Bergman’s 1955 movie “Smiles of a Summer Night.” To these, Sondheim infused his own musical genius, inspired by the romantic music of Rachmaninoff, Brahms, and Ravel. (The New York Times summed up the musical back in 1973 with the following exclamation:  “Great God!  An adult musical!”). And though his other Prince-collaborated musicals, Follies and Company, had been well-received, A Little Night Music was a new high-water mark for Sondheim. Its ravishing music communicated something entirely fresh on Broadway. And still does.

Each character—major or minor—in this operetta serves the plot. Whether it’s the lustful lawyer Fredrik living in a platonic marriage to his virginal wife Anne, the great actress and Fredrik’s old mistress Desiree, or the fierce Count Carl Magnus Malcolm and his equally fierce wife Countess Charlotte Malcolm, each character is made of real flesh-and-blood. Madame Armfeldt, however, may be pound-by-pound, the most memorable one. She delivers some dazzling bon mots (“Solitaire is the only thing in life which demands absolute honesty.”), which can only be gleaned from long-lived experience.

Angela Lansbury may be in the running for another Tony Award for her performance as the ex-courtesan Madame Armfeldt. The 83 year-old actor gives us another master class in acting here as the wheelchair-bound grand dame. No ivory tower personage, she enumerates her own past liaisons with unabashed directness. Catherine Zeta Jones, making her Broadway debut as the worldly Desiree, looks and sounds divine. Her “Send in the Clowns” is sure to raise goose bumps on the spine of even the most jaded theatergoer. Only one of the actors seems out of synch in the production. Ramona Mallory, playing Anne Egerman, displays too much body language, and her excessive gesturing distracts from her speech.

Trevor Nunn is at the helm, and though he might have tightened a few scenes here and there (the show clocks in at almost 3 hours), he does manage to keep the pace moving at an even clip. The set and costume design (David Farley) are top-notch, complete with period furniture, petticoats and frocks, 3- piece suits, and bedtime night shirts and feminine whatnots.

To be sure, this is a comedy of manners, but it’s a substantial one. Sex and death are inextricably woven together in this show. And though I don’t want to be a spoiler for those who aren’t familiar with the plot, this carnal comedy has more than its share of tragic-tinged moments and characters who confront cul-de-sacs in their lives. When Charlotte and Anne begin the song “Every Day a Little Death” in Act 1, they darkly predict a lot of what is to come in Act 2.

Even if you have seen this musical in another incarnation, this current revival is worth traveling for. Lansbury and Jones are smoldering in their principal roles, and Sondheim’s music is enchanting.

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FELA!

Eugene O’Neill Theatre

230 West 49 Street

Reviewed by Deirdre Donovan

As viewed Dec 3, 2009 (opened Nov 23, 2009, runs until ???)

No two nights are ever the same at the Eugene O’Neill, where the new musical Fela! is currently playing. And whether you see Fela! as a musical or a concert, or a blending of both, go to this show for its incendiary music and high-powered dancing. Tony Award-winner Bill T. Jones (Tony Award for Spring Awakening) is the guiding force behind this new venture. As both director and choreographer of the piece, he demonstrates that he is able to deliver a work infused with sound and fury.

So who is Fela? He is Fela Anikulapo Kuti, the Nigerian pop star and musician who created a new kind of music called Afrobeat, whose rhythm was culled from all over the world. The lyrics to his songs openly attacked the repressive military dictatorships that ruled Nigeria and most parts of Africa. And as we will learn in this musical biography, Fela’s music will become an emblem for human rights and justice.

There are 2 actors (Kevin Mambo & Sahr Mgajah) alternately playing Fela. On the evening I attended the show, I watched Sahr Ngaujah in the part of Fela Anikulapo-Kuli--and he truly disappears into the role. Ngaujah’s directness with the audience is disarming. He speaks through the “fourth wall” from the get-go, playfully inviting the audience to chant and verbally participate in the performance. Then just when you think he might go over-the-top as master of ceremonies, he steps back from the lip of the stage and melts into the ensemble. Later, he will smoothly step back into the limelight, sharing fresh patter about the Shrine’s history and informing us about the danger brewing near and far in Nigeria.

The musical features 25 musical numbers, all somehow connected to Fela’s personal search for a “true African style.” Curiously, the show’s musical idiom--Afrobeat--never feels repetitive or boring. Why? No doubt it’s because the music is artfully interwoven into the larger story of Fela. Indeed music is not merely an expression of high emotion in this show; music here has the spiritual connotation of the Yoruban religion, which is practiced by Fela and his devotees.

Although the musical appears to be free-wheeling, there’s a sound architecture to each scene and smooth transitions from one episode to another. At the outset of Act 1, we are welcomed to the Shrine (“Welcome Na De Shrine”) by Fela, and then good-naturedly taught how to decode the idiosyncratic rituals of the Yoruban religion (“B.I.D (Breaking It Down).” Just when we feel that we have caught on to the Shrine’s cultural idiom, Fela tosses in a chestnut that few in the audience could miss: James Brown’s “I Got the Feeling.” In fact, what gives this show its zing is that it sublimely mixes its Afrobeat with beloved soul classics and references to contemporary cultural icons. The second half of the evening is less carefree, and more politically explosive. In fact, much of it revolves around the arrest, imprisonment, and torture of Fela. Numbers like “The Storming of Kalakuta” and “B.Y.O.C (Bring Your Own Coffin)” reveal the unconscionable actions of the military regime in Nigeria. Not for the faint-hearted, Act 2 is by far the more powerful part of the evening.

Ngaujah, and the cast, act as if they have been preparing for Fela! all their lives. There’s a real confidence exuding from the performers, and their collective virtuoso dancing is breath-taking. Also the costumes and sets (Marina Draghici) are appropriately flamboyant, and the dazzling lighting (Robert Wierzel) ensures that no strand of the narrative or dance movements will be missed.

One cannot easily typecast this musical or its central character. Entertaining, yes. But it’s also confrontational and politically edgy. True, there have been a spate of juke-box musicals on Broadway (Jersey Boys), at least one other musical biography (Lennon), but nothing that is quite like Fela! Go to this show to discover how this revolutionary left his mark on history. No doubt you will exit the theater wiser.

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Michael Cerveris and Laura Benanti in In the Next Room

In The Next Room

Or

The Vibrator Play

The Lyceum Theatre

149 W. 45 Street

Reviewed by Deirdre Donovan

As viewed Nov 21 (runs Nov 19, 2009 until ?)

Porn on Broadway? No, not quite. But Sarah Ruhl’s sure rips the veil off the female orgasm. This new show, which opened at the Lyceum in late-November, explores how an actual medical doctor in the 19th century used a “vibrating” instrument on women’s genitals to stimulate an orgasm. Directed by Les Waters, the show is funny, cerebral, and refreshingly honest.

The story takes place in a prosperous spa town outside of New York City (think Saratoga Springs). It’s the dawn of the age of electricity, and after the Civil War, circa 1880s. It’s meant to evoke an age of enlightenment, in which people are just learning to use electric lights in their homes, and literally seeing everything (including sex) in a new light.

Fortunately, this show goes much further than mere titillation. It translates sex into personal transformation, spiritual metaphors, and physical and mental health. The narrative begins with Dr. Givings (Michael Ceveris) treating his female (and the occasional male) patients for their hysteria with his new-fangled genital “vibrator.” Though Mrs. Givings is completely in the dark about her husband’s unusual medical treatments, she is quite cognizant of her own female problems. To wit: she has been unable to provide enough breast milk for their newborn daughter and immediately must hire a wet nurse to feed her baby. When a wet nurse arrives on the scene, this only creates more tension for the couple. Mrs. Givings feels that her motherhood and feminine identity have been irrevocably compromised; and Dr. Givings, unable to comprehend his spouse’s distress, becomes increasingly preoccupied with his work. Things change, however, when Dr. Givings recognizes that his wife’s mental health is dangerously deteriorating.

If the subject is spicy, the acting rises to meet it. Benanti is well-cast in the role of the young dutiful wife who still yearns to live a little. Michael Cerveris, as Doctor Givings, possesses equal parts sternness and solicitude. Having seen this actor in various Broadway shows (notably Sweeney Todd and Assassins), it is heartening to see him tackle this unique new role, and succeed with understated charm.

Just when you think you’ve seen everything on Broadway, somebody like Sarah Ruhl comes along and pulls the rug out from beneath us. Sex may not be a new subject on Broadway, but it literally gets a new treatment this season. But the real pleasure of Sarah Ruhl’s new play, however, is not in laughing over its orgasm scenes but in exploring our own views of human sexuality. If you have seen Equus, Kiss of the Spider Woman, or The Vagina Monologues, then this show won’t altogether shock you. But it surely does give us a brand-new definition to the joys of sex.

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A Searing King Lear


Shakespeare Theatre Company


Reviewed by Ed Cloos


November 2009


King Lear may be Shakespeare’s greatest play—indeed the greatest play in the English language­—as material accompanying its performance by Shakespeare Theatre Company suggests, or it may not. But the production that closed out the 2008-2009 season made for gripping, searing, painfully emotional theater.

 

As the audience left Sidney Harman Hall July 19, after the final Sunday afternoon matinee, the buzz was “how can the cast come back in just two hours and go through all that again?” We, the audience, were drained. They must have been near exhaustion. But I’m sure they did do it again, every bit as powerfully as they did it for us.

 

Director Robert Falls, three years ago in Chicago’s Goodman Theater, chose a post World War II setting inspired by Josip Broz Tito and the Yugoslavia he had held together with his own charisma (and some brutality) only to have it fragment in wars after his death. That’s not the story of Lear, but the inspiration was apt in its own way. The play opens with the king in uniform, appearing as a vain dictator demanding absolute obedience, obeisance and obsequiousness—and getting it.

 

Shakespeare Theatre artistic director Michael Kahn saw the production in Chicago and knew Washington audiences had to see it. He was right.

 

A lot of written words of philosophy, scholarship and interpretation surrounded the production—some of it laying it on pretty thick for this viewer’s taste—but the production clearly succeeds in expressing the many sides of the individual characters. We didn’t see just a foolish old man with three daughters: two evil and one good (if terribly naïve).

 

While Shakespeare set the play in some vague time in a Britain much earlier than 1605, believed by scholars to be about when it was written, the Falls interpretation works even though it has nothing to do with post-war Britain. Although Stacy Keach as Lear first appears in uniform very similar to that we remember Tito in, that pretty much is the end of the parallels.

 

As Falls intended, the production is searing, gripping, emotional and also, at times deafening, thanks to music as loud as batteries of artillery, and the sounds of guns and artillery themselves.

 

Keach played Lear in the original in Chicago, and he’s been Macbeth and Richard II, so he’s got the Shakespeare character down. As far as I’m concerned, I’ve seen Lear in person.

 

As we all know, the action starts with Lear ceremoniously dividing his kingdom—Britain itself—between his three daughters, supposedly according to their expressions of love for him, but clearly the shares were decided in advance and his beloved Cordelia was to get the richest portion.

 

Who of us men wouldn’t melt if his Fathers’ Day card read: “I love you more than words can wield the matter,” as Goneril begins her essay of excess?

 

Then Regan follows with endorsement of all her sister said, “only she comes too short,” and claims no other joy in life than her love of her father. Cordelia laments that she lacks the gift of such flowery words as her sisters. But she’s sure she’ll be all right because “my love’s more ponderous than my tongue.” Wrong. So when Lear asks what she can say to draw a third “more opulent” than her sisters, her reply is “Nothing, my lord.”

 

Perplexed, Lear explodes with the line we all know: “Nothing will come of nothing. Speak again.”

 

Innocently sure her true love will shine through, she seals the doom not only of herself but of the whole kingdom by saying, in effect, that she loves her father just as a daughter should, no more, no less. If that satisfied the king the play would be over. Lear coaches her and tries for a suitable expression of the love he expects, but fails.

 

Even before the drama of the daughters, we get a hint of the plots to come as we meet the dukes of Kent and Gloucester, lined up at urinals in the men’s room, and Edmund, Gloucester’s son. Edmund is illegitimate, but freely acknowledged. He’s been away from the court for years so he needs to be introduced to Kent, perhaps the King’s most loyal supporter and advisor. Edmund says nothing but polite responses, but he presents a picture of brooding evil ambition. Gloucester also mentions Edgar, his legitimate son who is a year older than Edmund.

 

If I have a cavil with the original and creative interpretation of the production, it is that the chain of events is presented too much as the result of the machinations of the evil Edmund rather than the tragic flaws of the main characters themselves. His half-brother Edgar is good, but gullible. His father even more so.

 

In the main hall, after Lear, in a rage, has disinherited Cordelia, Kent comes to her defense and urges Lear to come to his senses and recognize that Cordelia is the same person whom he’d loved most only minutes earlier. For his honest effort, Kent is banished from the court. What hope can we have that good will prevail? None, we soon learn.

 

Kent is soon followed by Edgar who becomes a fugitive when Edmund, through a forged letter, convinces his father that Edgar plotted to kill him. Through a self-inflicted minor wound, he “proves” that Edgar attacked him also.

 

With the other characters, the production does even-handed justice. Regan and Goneril are greedy sensuality gluttons, but they have their kingdoms to preserve, and not everything they do is selfish. They have a reasonable case when they object to Lear bringing his hundred knights when he is to spend alternate months in the houses of each daughter. After all, they are a raucous bunch and outnumber the host guards.

 

Kim Martin-Cotton and Kate Arrington made Goneril and Regan strong, sensual and–dare I say it?—desirable, at least until they reach states approaching madness.


Lear, whose early actions are irrational if not insane, says he fears he may lose his mind. After being rejected by both of the favored daughters, he wanders out into a storm (that appears to be perpetual) and never finds shelter again. He’s joined by the loyal Kent who, in disguise, becomes his jester. Also by Edgar, who dons a wig and appears as naked Mad Tom. “Poor Tom’s cold,” he repeats often.

 

In the storm, Lear loses his clothes and joins Tom in cavorting in the nude. Nudity seems natural to Joaquin Torres as Edgar since his body is young and toned. Stacy Keach is a plump older man, so he discreetly turned away from the audience. He was naked, after all.

 

Having lost his clothes and his mind, Lear has gained clarity of thought and recognizes the error of his actions. He becomes sane when he loses his mind.

 

This could be a dreary and sordid tale. After all, failure of good to counteract evil isn’t uplifting. But the production drove the cast to such levels of intensity and emotion, and the action was so fast-paced, that we, the audience, were on the edge of our seats in anticipation of what would happen next—even though most of us knew the story, and the program laid it out in detail for any who didn’t.

 

There’s a ray of hope when the French forces land and Cordelia is reunited with her father. She appears to be in charge of the troops since her husband, the king, had to return return to France because of some pressing domestic problem. But the British, led by Edmund, are too strong and quickly win the battle. Thanks to the modern setting, there is tremendous noise from the guns and artillery—everything but air strikes.

 

Not all is well for the British, though. Goneril has poisoned Regan to have Edmund for herself—a prospect her husband, the duke of Albany, doesn’t accept. Then Edgar appears, challenges and kills Edmund. That’s cause for Goneril to kill herself. Before meeting Edgar, Edmund has sent Lear and Cordelia off to prison. After he is shot, he reveals that he’d ordered Cordelia to be hanged and urges haste to go and save her.

 

That happy ending isn’t to be as Lear appears with the battered, but beautiful, naked body of Cordelia in his arms. Then the lines we can’t forget: “Why should a dog, a horse, a rat, have life, and thou no breath at all?” Then Lear himself collapses and dies. And we left the theater in a sort of subdued shock.


Shakespeare Theatre Company begins its new season Sept. 29 with The Bacchae by Euripedes.

 

Three Shakespeare plays follow: As You Like It, Richard II and Henry V. Next spring they’ll do The Liar, by Pierre Corneille, and George Bernard Shaw’s Mrs. Warren’s Profession.


______________________________


Twelfth Night

Shakespeare In the Park

Reviewed by Deirdre Donovan

Screen star Anne Hathaway can now add a glowing Shakespearean stage credit to her resume. The fresh-faced actor is in the lead role in Twelfth Night (Viola) at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park, and her talent soars with the more seasoned thespians. Crisply directed by Daniel Sullivan, the Bard’s romantic comedy lands with much brio, a star-studded cast, and a lesson or two for everybody. 

The cast is an eclectic mix of Broadway greats, veteran actors, and the aforementioned film personality.  Hathaway is well-suited to playing the plucky Viola as well as the cross-dressing Cesario. Raul Esperza nails the part of the love-sick Orsino, not with pathos but with a canny humor.  And when he breaks into song with Feste in Act One (“Come away, death”...) we realize why he consistently lands the big leads in Broadway musicals.  The reliable Michael Cumpstey plays the killjoy Malvolio, and he gives us a master class on how the Puritanical character can be whipped up to perfection. Julie White deserves kudos for her inventively comic portrayal of Maria, Olivia’s scheming servant. Small-boned and diminuitive, she plays the part with a natural feistiness and quicksilver energy. Playgoers who know her as the tough-as-nails Hollywood agent in The Little Dog Laughed will find her scheming Maria just as riveting.

The story begins in Illyria, with Duke Orsino pining over the heiress Olivia. But the plot gains new complexities when the shipwrecked Viola appears in the following scene, miraculously washed ashore on Illyria, grieving over the supposed death of her twin brother Sebastian. Aided by a sea captain (Kevin Kelly), she disguises herself as a boy (Cesario) and becomes the page of Duke Orsino, who sends her on love-errands on his behalf to the Countess Olivia. Mourning her late-brother, Olivia coolly rejects Orsino’s romantic advances but ironically falls in love with Viola impersonating the page Cesario.  Viola, recognizing the ridiculousness of Olivia’s attraction to him/her, tries to squelch Olivia’s romantic notions. And truth be told--she’s secretly fallen in love with her master Orsino.

The songs are many in Twelfth Night, and the rock-band Hem serves them up in sounds of brass, wind, and percussion instruments. The live rock-band is a terrific idea for the production. Not only does it underscore the inherent musical motif of Shakespeare’s comedy, but it invites (or perhaps nudges) the musically-talented actors in the ensemble to join in with Feste’s songs, and show off their pipes.

John Lee Beatty’s alfresco set is a jewel. Illyria, that fictive kingdom on the Adriatic Sea, is envisioned as a seaside town with a meticulously manicured green lawn with steep embankments complete with thickets of small trees and shrubs.  Like a botanical garden super-imposed on the Delacorte’s deck, the sculpted set for Illyria is fittingly romantic and fanciful. And as we watch the assorted lovers cut wild and mad paths through its gorgeous landscape, we cannot help but feel that all the confusions of the mis-matched couples may somehow come out right after all.

Shakespeare (a biological father of twins) felt right at home putting twins in his comedies. His earliest venture in “twinning” was in his first play The Comedy of Errors. In Twelfth Night he exploits the idea of “twinning” once again, but he shifted from using the conceit of identical twins to boy-girl twins, Viola and Sebastian (Stark Sands). The twin’s gender difference opened up new comic paths for Shakespeare, which he plumbed to refreshing romantic depths here.  Granted, the character Viola (with 337 lines to Sebastian’s 124 lines) is the meatier part. Though not quite the dramatic equivalent of Shakespeare’s Rosalind, the resourceful and cross-dressing Viola is a female character that stands up to anyone’s close scrutiny.   

It may be worth mentioning that Twelfth Night was written by Shakespeare circa 1601, the same approximate time as Hamlet and Troilus and Cressida. Obviously, the comedy differs greatly from these other two works, but one can safely surmise that at this point in his career, Shakespeare was in full command of his craft. In fact, this split-personality play gets so tangled up in its gender-bending, mistaken identities, and mismatched court-ships that only the Bard could brilliantly invent such romantic chaos, and then correct it.  

The sheer beauty of the language in this play is reason enough to go to the show. From its famous opening lines (“If music be the food of love, then play on.”) to its wonderful meta-theatrical touches (“If this were played upon a stage now, I could condemn it as an improbable fiction.”), this is Shakespeare at his Shakespearean best.

This romantic comedy is so enter-taining that one might forget that it also serves as a moral inquiry. The character of Malvolio is both terribly funny and sadly poignant. After all, his real sin is placing himself--a mere steward--among the elite, and aspiring to marry the Countess Olivia. That he departs the play at the end--disgruntled and perplexed—with unfinished business (“I’ll be revenged on the whole pack of you!”) is a very dark statement for a comedy. Alas, Shakespeare never intended his dramas to be pigeonholed in any neat and narrow category.  

Critics and scholars have had a field day with the madness themes in Twelfth Night. And you will too! The critic and scholar Harold Bloom sees not only the wretched Malvolio as insane, but feels that he should be joined in his “dark room” by the other zany characters in the story:  Orsino, Olivia, Sir Toby Belch, Sir Andrew Aguecheek, Maria, Sebastian, Antonio, and even Viola. Indeed all are so borderline in their behaviors that we can only wonder what keeps them on this side of reality. Indeed this drama deals with the slippery slope of romantic love, and nobody gets a foothold on their emotional identities easily.

Whether you go to this play for the entertainment, or the deeper life lessons, don’t miss this madly wonderful show in Central Park. This Twelfth Night is something to toast—and remember long after summer fades.

Delacorte Theatre in Central Park, at 81st Street.

Through July 12 For additional information about Shakespeare in the Park, visit The Public Theater website at www.publictheater.org

Next summer production at the Delacorte Theater is Euripides The Bacchae. (August 11-30).

___________________________


West Side Story
at the Palace

Review by Deirdre Donovan

When Jerome Robbins originally considered retelling the story of Romeo and Juliet, he toyed with the idea of presenting a fracas between young Irish and Jewish lovers. But after presenting the idea to Leonard Bernstein, they both decided that the Irish-Jewish theme had been run dry on Broadway. Together, the two artists proceeded to brainstorm, and finally agreed that Shakespeare’s story could be reworked to advantage with Puerto Ricans and Polish Americans. The demographic makeup of New York City in the mid 50s, with the high influx of Puerto Ricans to the New York scene, offered contemporary validity. What’s more, the Latin group was linked with high passion and violence, the very crux of Shakespeare’s story. Yes, they had the engine for West Side Story.

Fifty years after its Broadway opening, their creative choices still hold up. The revival of West Side Story at the Palace gives the musical sturdy new legs. No, we don’t get the theatrical shock waves that occurred with its first go-round in 1957. But so what? The current show may be less fierce than its stage predecessor, but the story (book by Arthur Laurents), music (Leonard Bernstein), songs (Stephen Sondheim), dances (choreography reproduced by Joey McKneely), set (James Youmans) are still exploding with frisson.

Dancing—no surprise here—still dominates the show! Jerome Robbins’ choreography has been lovingly recreated by Joey McNeely, and makes the old dances new again. In this production, dance not only became music’s best friend, but as critic Walter Kerr once pointed out, “it is its ultimate, most graphic extension.” Robbins was following in the footsteps of Agnes de Mille when he created his combustible choreography for West Side Story, and we still get a real taste of his genius in “The Prologue” and in numbers like “Dance at the Gym” and “The Rumble.” If some of the crackling electricity has been tamed by time, one can still admire the sharp precision of the ensemble executing the kinetic dances. This revival, in fact, constantly reminds us that this musical is a near ballet, and visually lyrical from the getgo.

The music of West Side Story (Leonard Bernstein) has an extra-ordinarily broad range, and it still soars. The Prologue’s assimilation of modern jazz is astonishing, and the sheer verve and complexity of “Something’s Coming” is a rare treat with its Latin American rhythms. “Cool”--a sort of twelve-note fugue--is classically executed, and a tune that many theater pros believe is indebted to Beethoven.

Stephen Sondheim, of course, cemented himself into Broadway theatrical history with his top drawer lyrics for West Side Story. Sondheim’s words seamlessly incorporate themselves into the veteran composer’s music, making it a true marriage of classical technique and Broadway flavor. Even though Sondheim often claims he had to compromise some of his lyrics to Bernstein’s music, who’s complaining? There are 29 “Marias” in the song “Maria” (Go ahead, count ‘em!) and each one is completely delicious to the ear. True, we take Sondheim’s lyrics for granted today, and sing them almost by heart. Nonetheless, when they first arrived on Broadway, the most selective theatergoers recognized that the songs were not only endearing, but enduring.

Arthur Laurents (book writer) directs the revival with much sincerity, but isn’t entirely successful with his ambitious goals. First, he has the Sharks speaking in Spanish, which adds obvious authenticity to the story but runs the risk of confusing some audience members unfamiliar with the storyline. Secondly, he has strongly underscored Tony and Maria and their love. It might have worked like a charm, except that it demands a flawlessly matched Tony (Matt Cavenaugh) and Maria (Josefina Scaglione). And though each principal holds their own throughout the evening, their love chemistry onstage is not always convincing.

To be sure, Josefina Scaglione is to be treasured as Maria. Her natural beauty, coupled with her effortless soprano, makes her a sublime fit for the part. The Argentina-born actor was discovered on You Tube and later auditioned for the lead role. A world-class performer, she’s well-cast as the virginal Juliet figure. Matt Cavenaugh, as Tony, has the leading man quality but his singing seemed self-conscious in several songs. Instead of simply sitting back and enjoying gorgeous numbers like “Maria” or “Somewhere,” you begin to worry if he’ll hit all the notes. What’s more, Cavenaugh seemed almost reserved playing opposite Scaglione. In the “Dance at the Gym,” one has to take him at his word that he’s fallen in love at first sight with Scaglione’s Maria. The emotional temperature just didn’t seem to spike enough between the young couple. And though Karen Olivo may not get top billing on the marquee, her Anita (Maria’s best friend and Bernardo’s girlfriend) is fully-realized, vivacious, winning.

You already know the classic story about the Jets and the Sharks (it parallels Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, except Juliet doesn’t die). And the massive hit that West Side Story was back in 1957. Well, the best news is that the revival is something worth traveling for. Start packing your bag if you haven’t already arrived in New York City. The economic recession might be on, but this show about prejudice and gang wars is still worth your top dollar. Dare to miss it at your own risk.

West Side Story at The Palace, 1564 Broadway (near 46th Street).

For tickets, visit www.ticketmaster.com

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Hair: TheAmerican Tribal Love Rock Musical
Delacorte Theater

Central Park

Reviewed by Deirdre Donovan

Broadway is nice, but Central Park is more natural. And with last summers staging of the free-flowing musical Hair: The American Tribal Love Rock Musical at the Delacorte Theater, that truth couldnt have been more evident. Happily, the whole show lifted off into its own orbit, and became the hottest ticket in town for its late-summer run.

In a class by itself is Hair, as the landmark musical that illuminated the hippie counter-culture and defined the genre rock musical. Few musicals, old or new, have the pizzazz that this show possesses. Everything about it is high-octane. It is frank in attitude, controversial in its politics, kind at heart, and sentimental without being the least mawkish. In short, its a valentine to human freedom, and an invitation for the most calloused person to rediscover his, or her, inner love child.

Remarkably, Hair still holds up. In its Central Park revival, the young company knocked itself out in a bristling display of rebellion. The musical is extremely American in its attitude toward life, and its don't-give-a-damn mood still gives it considerable edge. This staging retained the original story (James Rado and Gerome Ragni) and score, and its happy whip of rhyme. The show was wistful to those over 50, and exhilarating to any one listening to the music (Galt MacDermot) for the first time. Director Diane Paulus didn't just dust off the 1967 production, she made the piece come alive and sing out again.

Hair tells the story of a group of young people peaceably fighting against the Vietnam War in New York City. We meet Claude (Jonathan Groff), his friend Berger (Will Swenson), their roommate Sheila (Caren Lyn Manuel) and other friends, all grappling with how to rightly deal with the big issues of the 60s. No, the characters don't become mere mouthpieces for the weighty socio-political problems. Instead the cast subsumes themselves in the rich amalgam of rock songs and dances of free-expression, which are far more eloquent than any forthright statement.

Hair is marked by a bold collision of scenes enacting anti-war demonstrations, irreverent attacks against the American flag, and all kinds of love-ins and be-ins. The musical is generously peppered with four-letter words and punctuated, of course, with its famous erotic nude scenes. Perhaps the real advantage to seeing the show in revival is that we go with a more rounded perspective and can better absorb the once shocking aspects of the production.

That said, audience members who came to the Central Park performance for cozy after-dinner relaxation were jolted out of their torpor. The young actors hardly confined themselves to the al fresco stage but gleefully zig-zagged through the aisles, inviting unsuspecting ticketholders to join in the action. The total effect was energizing and life-affirming. And one could not help but feel that something good was taking seed in The Park.

And, by gosh, something good did bloom. Given the huge popularity of the revived landmark musical, folks at The Public Theater felt that a Broadway production in 2009 would bring the show to a wider audience. Thus, what began as a summer frolic in The Park has turned into something of more significance. Beginning in February, Hair will be transferring to Broadway (at the Al Hirschfeld), and opening in early March.

No one can predict, of course, whether the future reincarnation will be as successful as the thrice-extended Central Park show. But few will argue with The Public Theaters decision to move this rock musical back to Times Square. Hair, in spite of its age, seems to be the last word in theater nowadays.



Chad L. Coleman and Amari Rose Leigh in a scene from the Lincoln Center Theater production of August Wilson's Joe Turner's Come and Gone. (Photo credit: T. Charles Erickson)
Joe Turner's Come and Gone


The Belasco Theatre

Reviewed by Deirdre Donovan

Seems like August Wilson’s Joe Turner’s Come and Gone is going places this season. The revival at the Belasco is as good as it gets. The 11-member cast is uniformly strong, and with helmer Bartlett Sher on board, the play has a happy landing on Broadway.

Back in the 1987, when I saw this play mounted at Arena Stage, it possessed unmistakable theatrical power. It’s fascinating to see this play now revived and returning to Broad-way (the 1987 Arena Stage product-ion transferred to Broadway in March 1988) in a new staging.

Chronologically, this is August Wilson’s second play and was his third play to reach New York. Joe Turner didn’t match the instant popular success of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom or Fences, but it still made a serious mark on the theatrical land-scape. The play garnered a Tony Award nomination for Best Play, and walked away with the New York Drama Critics' Circle Award.

The story remains riveting. It recounts the tale of Herald Loomis—a church deacon held in illegal bondage for 7 years--who journeys North in 1911 with his young daughter in search of his wife. All of the action takes place at a black boarding house owned by Seth Holly and his wife. The rest of the characters who populate the play evoke that Post-Civil War period when Blacks were technically free and migrating North, but still suffer-ing under the double standards imposed by the White culture. The nominal “Joe Turner,” in fact, is a symbol of White oppression.

Wilson didn’t believe in colorblind casting and other fashionable ideas circulating in his contemporaneous theater circle. Thus one wonders how he might feel about Bartlett Sher—a white man--directing the current production. Well, if the rapt faces of audience members in the orchestra are a barometer of success, then chances are that Wilson would feel mighty proud of Sher’s work.  At any rate, Sher commands this play with an adroit hand.

No doubt the current production is well-timed politically and cultural-ly. With President Obama in the White House, we can actually see the play being of its own time yet powerfully speaking to us today.  Joe Turner’s Come and Gone is set in Pittsburgh, but there’s nothing provin-cial about this work. It has universal themes that transcend its urban setting and racial sensibilities. The play gives us a web of emotional relationships and offers an in-depth look into each character’s soul. Seth Holly (Ernie Hudson) is the most  stable character here with his boarding house run, if not like a Swiss watch, like a decent place for Black folk to hang their hats. Seth’s unwritten rule is that no boarder under his roof will cause any trouble to anybody. In short, no double-dealing, no shady business, no riff-raff. Set against that atmosphere, we listen to the various characters feelingly retell their life stories to each other. Granted, we may hear only fragments of their lives and suffering, but what they do divulge gradually coalesces into a colorful and illumin-ating mosaic of the Black human experience circa 1911. And not sur-prisingly, what they don’t say is just as important as what they do.

There’s a good mixture of fun and seriousness in the story--courtships between men and women, lively dancing, and a whole lot of philosophizing about life. One of the more philosophical characters Bynum Walker (Roger Robinson), is a sort of mystic who has a reputation for “binding people together,” giving him his unusual name. Though not everybody believes in his curious potions, roots, and mumbo-jumbo rituals, they do listen carefully to him when he talks about the Secret of Life, the importance of finding one’s song and seeing a “shiny man” before one dies.  And why? Well, it seems Bynum once had a vision of his dead father, teaching him about finding his personal song and the value of seeing  “a shiny man.” As Bynum explains to Seth and Selig one day at the boarding house: “I asked him about the shiny man and he told me he was the One Who Goes Before and Shows the Way. Said there was lots of shiny men and if I ever saw one again before I died then I would know that my song had been accepted and worked its full power in the world and I could lay down and die a happy man.”

Happily, Michael Yeargan’s set and Brian MacDevitt’s lighting neatly appropriates such leaps of imagin-ation. (My only quibble is about the faux brick windows suspended from the flies, calling to mind Alexander Calder’s mobiles). Yeargan has creat-ed an impressionistic replica of the Pittsburgh landscape and skyline of 1911, projecting it on a giant screen on the back stage wall. Several times during the evening, we see showers of “stardust” cascading across this improvised skyline. No, we never get any character overtly commenting on this strange glowing apparition. But given all of Bynum Walker’s talk about “a shiny man,” one can’t help but consider this starry effect  on both a physical and metaphysical level. Is it a subtle foreshadowing of “a shiny man?” Or an omen for brighter times for Blacks in America? Or just daring to hope in the future? Go to the show to find out. But one of the real strengths of the drama is the profound questions it raises. 

Wilson is a storyteller extraordinaire.  Yes, some fault him for getting carried away with his leitmotifs, and his character’s talkativeness (espec-ially in Act One). But the author has a pitch-perfect ear for Black dialogue, and endows each character with his own indelible way of speaking. Like real people, his characters may not always express themselves with economy, but their Blues-like lang-uage is a sure manifestation of their large souls.

The acting is terrific. Ernie Hudson plays the owner of the boarding house Seth Holly with just the right amount of common sense. Playing opposite him is the reliable Latanya Richardson Jackson, as his wife Bertha. Aunjanue Ellis, as the seduct-ive Molly Cunningham, will immed-iately melt you with her delicious looks and Southern charm. Andre Holland, as the young boarder Jeremy Furlow, is the young stud falling head over heels for her.  Michael Cummings and Amari Rose Leigh, as the 2 adorable children, Reuben Scott and Zonia Loomis respectively, are suitable in their parts. The rest of the cast, all good, make this lengthy show breeze by.

Even if you are not a Wilson enthus-iast, you should  go to this play to see this excellent cast on Broadway.  Wilson is one of those major American playwrights that you simply can’t ignore.  He painstakingly chronicled the African-American ex-perience for each decade of the 20th Century. And after seeing this thought-provoking show, you just might become a worshipper at Wilson’s shrine.

Joe Turner’s Come and Gone  at the Belasco Theatre, 111 West 44th Street,  tickets priced from $51.50 to $96.50, visit telecharge.com or www.lct.org.

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BROADWAY


Superior Donuts

The Music Box

Reviewed by Deirdre Donovan

Tracy Letts’ Superior Donuts at the Music Box is a real departure for this playwright who gave us August: Osage County, Killer Joe, and Bug. Instead of raw emotion, this work is chock-full of sweetness and sentimentality. It’s quite a volte face for the author, and adds new colors to his dramatic palette.

The main plot revolves around Arthur Przbyszewski (Michael McKean), the white, middle-aged proprietor of a Chicago donut shop called Superior Donuts. As the action begins, we learn that his shop has been broken into, and 2 officers are investigating the crime scene. When Arthur finally arrives at his shop, he oddly seems more resigned to the crime than angry. It’s as if he’s been the victim before in his life, and that this latest incident is but the next thing to bemoan with a sigh. We will learn later that he was a draft dodger during the Vietnam War, and only returned to the country following President Clinton’s pardon. This revel-ation allows us to better understand his rather passive character. No doubt Arthur is a survivor, but he has lost a lot of himself over his life’s journey. The dynamo here is Franco Wicks (Jon Michael Hill), a young Black who comes to the shop seeking employment. Once hired, he attempts to persuade Arthur that he is the one to turn things around at Superior Donuts, that all the place needs is a few tasteful wall posters and a poetry evening to pull in more customers.

The subplot, which seems a whiff contrived, centers on Franco’s past. He somehow got himself in over his head from gambling debts, and his financial troubles have finally caught up with him in the character of Luther Flynn (Robert Maffia) and his tough-looking posse.

The drawback to the drama is that it’s a bit too formulaic and pat. Even a violent fight scene that should really be making our hearts pound looks totally unconvincing—and tame.

Letts, however, has a firm grip on the dialogue, and the smart repartee between Arthur and Franco keeps the story moving along at a brisk clip. True, some scenes seem too sitcom-ish, and the conceit of Franco writing the Great American Novel is a bit far-fetched. Happily, Letts’ witty dialogue saves the production from being a wash-out. The characters of Arthur and Franco are likable, and McKean and Hill are well-cast in the roles. Tina Landau directs unevenly (especially in the fight scene), but she has a good grip on those comic scenes when Arthur trains Franco in the art of donut making.

Though Letts may not be at his dramatic best here, Superior Donuts should not be altogether dismissed. The production has some thought-provok-ing scenes, and without over-playing its racial issues, it reminds us that we are living in the Obama Era. In short, things in this country are a-changin’.

At The Music Box

239 W. 45th Street

Phone: (212) 239-6200 or visit telecharge.com

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Hair

Reviewed by Deirdre Donovan

The hoopla spilling out of the Hirschfeld these days is a sure sign that the Age of Aquarius is back. Yes, the free-flowin’, war-hatin’, draft-card burnin’ musical Hair just roared back onto Broadway—and its rock vibes still ring true to our times. Last summer’s Delacorte staging was an ace (see my review), but this strenuously-polished new production turns up the talent to a high flame. 

Back in 1968 the show was far and away the most important musical event of the season. Though it originally was ineligible for a Tony Award due to its opening date (April 29, 1968), it qualified the following year with 2 Tony nominations, only to lose the 1969 Best Musical to 1776. No matter. It was a resounding commercial, aesthetic, and historic success. And it ran for 1750 performances at the Biltmore Theatre.

Admittedly, the book (Gerome Ragni) was rather sketchy. But abetted by its mega-hit rock songs (lyrics by Gerome Ragni and music by Galt MacDermot), Hair colorfully told the tale of the bewildered long-haired Claude and the tribe squatting in the East Village, which pitted the hippie culture against the Establishment.

This current revival raises the bar on the legendary musical.  Moreover, it squelches that one longstanding argument held against the show:  the book’s plotlessness. At its new digs at the Al Hirschfeld, Hair’s narrative comes into tighter focus, much thanks to Scott Pask’s brilliantly-conceived set design. His backwall mural of nature icons reconciles the need for open space onstage and a lyrical structure that induces a storytelling aura. The songs continue to propel the story forward, but the book truly works as an accomplice. 

The acting is superb. Will Swenson, reprises Berger, and seems born to play this diamond-in-the-rough hippie. Gavin Creel, as Claude, is a new addition to the Broadway cast—and nails the Hamlet-like part. Other standouts are Bryce Ryness’s Woof (in love with Mick Jagger), Kacie Sheik’s Jeanie (glowingly pregnant), and Caissie Levy’s Sheila (Berger’s love interest). In short, the cast is sterling.            

Yes, the famous nude scene is still powerful, and though it may not seem as scandalous today, it clearly sends out a message of freedom, honesty, and unconditional trust in the audience. In its time, the Act One nude tableau was clearly a stage breakthrough in erotic frankness and opened the door to other musicals that featured nudity, like the contemporaneous Oh! Calcutta! and the more recent Spring Awakening!

This resuscitation of Hair is life-affirming and proves that Broadway has not grown too old and decrepit, that it still can embrace its youthful rambling musicals of yesteryear. It may be full of gripes about Uncle Sam and his military excursions overseas, but those irreverent complaints aren’t empty fol-de-rol.  Significantly, there is not a single idea or debate in this show that doesn’t resonate with our current political landscape, including the obvious parallel to the Iraq War.

As staged by Diane Paulus, Hair echoes with the present but the story is kept firmly rooted in its own time. Paulus also keeps the show moving at a brisk pace, and in diverse directions. And, oh yes! If you are in an aisle seat, don’t be surprised if a cast member engages you in a lively conversation, gives you a flower, or invites you onstage for the post-show dance. So you’ve been forewarned. 

The show that began its career at the Public Theater as a notorious avatar of what was then called the “Sexual Revolution” continues to expand its meaning and profoundly speak to us. Hair is the kind of theater that is life-changing. Go to this show, leave a different person.

At the Al Hirschfeld Theatre, 302 West 45th Street.

Tickets for Hair (starting at $37) are available via Telecharge.com or by calling (212) 239-6200., 


The Winter’s Tale
 at The Brooklyn Academy of Music

The Bridge Project

Reviewed by Deirdre Donovan

When Simon Russell Beale is on stage acting, there is an irresistible urge to follow his every word, gesture, and facial expression. He’s just that good. It’s not that he’s trying to upstage anyone, he just has talent to burn. Without matinee idol looks, he utterly commands the stage. And considering that every other actor surrounding him is first-rate, that’s a difficult feat to pull off.

As Leontes, King of Sicilia, in The Bridge Project’s transatlantic production at BAM, Beale cements his reputation as one of the greatest Shakespearean actors of our generation. Over the years he has undertaken many of the Bard’s major roles (He’s played Hamlet and Iago at BAM). But Leontes is his first go at a completely irrational character--and he nails the part.

There’s no official theory on why Leontes goes insane. But he outrageously believes his loyal wife Hermione is having an affair ("paddling palms") with Polixenes, the King of Bohemia. His paranoia creates seismic tremors in the Sicilian court and his home. And though the Oracle proclaims Hermione’s innocence in the trial scene, Leontes persists in his delusions and psychotic rage toward his wife. The results are catastrophic. Hermione and their son Mamillius die of shock and Leontes’s infant daughter Perdita is exiled from Sicilia. Though the tragedy slowly morphs into a fable, the tragic sense never departs the story.

No sentimental production, this. Director Sam Mendes has the intelligence to burn away the emotional excesses and get to the bone-deep core of the tale. Equally remarkable, Mendes manages to make Antigonus’s (Dakin Matthews) grisly death look not ridiculous but convincing. The famous statue scene, which can founder the best of directors, gets a deft, natural touch by Mendes.

The acting is spot on. Though at first blush Rebecca Hall seems too young to play Hermione, she ultimately proves herself quite capable of this emotionally-demanding part. The reliable Richard Easton is endearing as the old Shepherd and the chorus Time. And Ethan Hawke’s roguish Autolycus is raffishly right, strumming a guitar one moment and pick-pocketing his neighbor the next. In short, there’s not a miscast actor—English or American-- in the show.

Anthony Ward’s glowy set is inspiring, a visual feast of flickering candles placed behind a scrim in the opening scene. This serene set eventually gives way to tumultuous action, however. The storm scene with Antigonus and the infant Perdita, in particular, arrives with thunderingly-loud realism. Only the storm scene out of King Lear would outdo the natural power represented here. Looking beyond the impressive sets, Catherine Zuber’s period costumes are old-fashioned without being fussy. Josh Prince’s choreography and Dan Lipton’s musical direction infuses a bit of musical theater into the Bohemia setting, which strikingly balances the dark subtext with a satyr-like dance and joie de vivre.

The Winter’s Tale is playing in repertory with Chekhov’s through March 8 . Following the BAM run, The Bridge Project plans to tour various countries and major cities, including Singapore, Auckland, Madrid, Germany, London, and Greece. But if you want to see either show in New York, catch it now, or catch it never.

The Bridge Project is co-presented by The Brooklyn Academy of Music and The Old Vic, through March 8.

For more information, call 718-636-4100 or BAM.org



The Cherry Orchard

at Brooklyn Academy of Music

The Bridge Project’s Inaugural Production

Reviewed by Deirdre Donovan

The Brits and Americans are cheek by jowl  in a fresh revival of Anton Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (Harvey Theatre).   In Tom Stoppard’s new version, Chekhov’s sunset masterpiece truly takes off into the stratosphere.  It is still the Russian writer’s play, but Stoppard has made it incredibly hip.

The last time this work was staged at the Harvey Theater was back in 1988, when the legendary Peter Brook was at the helm.  It would be sacrilegious to state that the current production trumps the former one.  So let’s just say that the present staging clearly stands on its own merits, and needs not apologize for any of its splendid idiosyncracies.  Under Sam Mendes’s direction, this show succeeds by being coherently eclectic.

The Cherry Orchard, if you are in agreement  with the author’s opinion, is a comedy.   All the characters find themselves in situations that they are unable to handle, and consequently bungle.  What else can we do but laugh at their chronic ineptitude!  Moreover, everybody in this play is infected with a kind of Peter-Pan syndrome, refusing to grow-up and face the harsh realities of life.  The opening scene in the nursery captures this exquisitely, with the adults forced to sit on Lilliputian furniture.   But this comedy will hardly evoke belly-laughs.  One of the most moving moments in the play, in fact, is when old Firs (played by the wonderful Richard Easton) falls off his tiny nursery chair in the final scene.  With all other characters offstage , his sprawled decrepit figure is pathetic—and loneliness personnified.  

Act One was fine, but Act Two was unforgettable.  A masked Russian folk dance colorfully opens Act Two, and the fast-and-furious  scene injects a festive—and almost dangerous--air into the evening .  Only Sinead Cusack’s character Andreevna, in a stunning cherry-red gown (costume design by Catherine Zuber), remains fixed at the stage’s center, in meaningful contrast to the vibrant, circling dancers.  The entire scene is striking for its frenetic atmosphere, and Cusack’s counterpoint acting is poignant.

The acting is not homogenous.  But how could it be?  These are American and English thesps on the same stage, employing their native acting techniques and accents.  Still, it’s very authentic, and a true ensemble effort (including Simon Russell Beale, Sinead Cusack, Ethan Hawke, Richard Easton, Rebecca Hall) with a distinctive international stamp.  Starturns?  To single out any actor would be tasteless here.  This show sparkled  for its collective brio.     

Chekhov is one of the few writers whose words bridge time.  It’s fitting that BAM has teamed up with The Old Vic & Neal Street Productions in The Bridge Project (a multi-year series of co-productions from 2009-2011) to bring us Chekhov’s last, and deeply-moving, drama.   It is impossible not to like this production.

 

The Cherry Orchard at BAM Harvey Theatre (651 Fulton Street)  Jan. 2 - March 8.

The Winter’s Tale at BAM Harvey Theatre, Feb. 7 – March 7.

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