Wednesday, November 29, 2006
Reviewed by Aaron Riccio
In spite of director John Doyle (and thanks to Raúl Esparza), Stephen Sondheim’s musical of vignettes, Company, has made a triumphant return to Broadway. From the set to the lighting, the show has everything going for it except Doyle's gimmick of doubling actors as musicians. Whereas Sweeny Todd forced Doyle to come up with creative combinations of character and instrument, Company rarely uses its entire cast at once, which renders the effect more an economic sidebar than a relevant or fresh medley.
There are a few exceptions--the alto saxophones of "You Could Drive a Person Crazy" flutter about almost as much as Bobby's three flustered girlfriends and "Side by Side by Side" has the five married couples riffing off the beat while leaving Bobby to perform a lonely kazoo solo--but it only makes the trick seem all the more forced. "One's impossible, two is dreary," go the lyrics, "three is company, safe and cheery." That said, why set Elizabeth Stanley with a tuba, only to not let her use it in "Barcelona." Not that "Barcelona" can be sung and played by the same two people--that's a feat no more possible than having the fabulous Heather Laws play a flute while singing the ferocious patter song "Getting Married Today." But then why have instruments at all? Why make it hard for the audience to tell if it's a concert performance or theatrical event that they're watching?
But beyond that first step--and it may be a doozy--Company is a triumph, and Esparza is due a Tony for his commanding work as Robert, top dog of the glowing thirteen person ensemble one moment, depressed romantic the next. Esparza nails every note of Bobby's transformation, from his reefer-rific scene with Jenny and David to his impromptu attempt to marry Amy (on her wedding day) to his relationship with ditzy stewardess April (who he affectionately calls June) and to his final straw with the great cynic, Joanne. More than a series of scenes about socialites in the city and their happily married (or divorced) lives, Company becomes a hopeful yet terrifying look at "Being Alive," which is now every bit the melancholy showstopper it deserves to be.
The place looks great, too: David Gallo's postmodern lounge of a set wraps clear glass stands around a distinctly classic Greek column, and the whole thing is topped with a seven-by-seven diamond of lights. For all its transparency, it makes for a perfect prison, and Bobby, who is constantly standing atop one piece of furniture or another looks as if he's trying to escape the mob of well-dressed but "crazy married people" beneath him. The set remains sleek and bachelor-like even as Bobby starts to drop his facade, and the upper-crust conceit is further deconstructed by Thomas C. Hase's lighting, which rises to the mood of Barbara Walsh's brilliant rendition of "The Ladies Who Lunch" and dumbs things down for the ghost-like interludes from the chorus, like "Sorry-Grateful" and "Have I Got a Girl For You." The piano is the only thing mucking up the feng shui of the set -- unless cabaret was the desired effect for songs like "Another Hundred People."
Company is the quintessential New York play, dripping with love (of our sarcastic, Sondheim kind, flayed and beating on the table in depressingly magnificent glory) from Fourteenth to the Upper West, and the gimmicks can't bring that down. There's too much truth, bravely exposed by this ensemble, for the show to be reduced to anything less than brilliance.
Sunday, November 19, 2006
Just because it hasn't been done before doesn't mean it should: a cross between a staged reading, a cold audition, and a warm heart, An Oak Tree is so forcefully different that at times it is barely recognizable as theater.
An Oak Tree is Gimmick Theater at it's not-so-finest. However, it's bankable cast makes it viable: every night, a new actor who has never read the script or seen the show will join Tim Crouch (who plays a hypnotist) for this two-hander. The play, written by Crouch, is an interesting short story that uses the metaphor and the mechanics of hypnotism to deal with the grief of memory. The actor plays the father of a little girl that Crouch's hypnotist has killed, a man so distraught by the accident that he's convinced he's turned his daughter into an oak tree. The delusion is well served by the poetic lines, but delivered cold by an actor who is coming to terms with the role piecemeal, it's more controlled and uneven than gripping. Maja Wampusyc, the actor for the 11/18 performance, may have been hypnotized: I, however, was not.
As deconstructionist theater, An Oak Tree is innovative and clever, but not fun to watch. There's a reason why audiences are not invited to rehearsals, and there's a reason why most stage actors refrain from directing themselves. Given that the set consists only of sound equipment and a few chairs (the show is actually performed on the set of Nilaja Sun's No Child...), there's nothing else to look at. Just one actor, doubling as a hypnotist and a director, and another actor, doing their best to keep up and fit in.
If there were clear boundaries in the script to distinguish Crouch's direction (hypnotic or otherwise) from that of his character, or if Crouch didn't also ask the actor to break character, the show might be more effecting. Some nights, it may very well be. But on the whole, it's contrived and, more importantly, controlled. It wants to improvise without making up any lines--it wants the actor to make the show their own with only a tenuous grip on the character. The gimmick steals from the emotion: it's just watching how adeptly the guest star copes with their role, how well they can follow directions, sight-read, and stay open to suggestion (but closed to spontaneity).
Well, it's certainly something different, to try to form the essence of a character in the midst of the action (or lack thereof) itself. But it's not exactly daring, not exactly thought-provoking. Perhaps some nights the soul comes out, and some nights it doesn't: Frances McDormand is scheduled for 11/20, Brooke Smith for 11/25. It's impossible to say what you'll see the night you go, but unless this afternoon was a fluke, chances are you won't be hypnotized either.
Barrow Street Theater (27 Barrow Street)
Tickets (212-239-6200): $45.00
Sunday-Tuesday @ 8:00; Friday & Saturday @ 9:30, Saturday & Sunday @ 5:00
Friday, November 17, 2006
How to Save the World and Find True Love in 90 minutes may not be the sharpest show off Broadway, but it definitely has the tools to keep you entertained. With some catchy songs and talented cast members, this show leaves you laughing and smiling all the way home. Michael McEachran, who plays Miles Muldoon, a bookstore clerk at the United Nations and the terrorist “He,” is much funnier as the latter character. The fact that he plays both characters makes for a hilarious ending scene in which the characters fight each other. The Greek chorus makes for great entertainment as well and each member is given their chance to individually shine. Anika Larsen also stands out as the quirky yet lovable Julie Lemmon who falls in love with Miles. She has a strong voice and sings some cute songs. The beginning and the end of the musical are strong and funny, but the middle section is a little slow. All in all, it’s an entertaining show that makes for a fun night at the theater.
How to save the world and find true love... plays at New World Stages, located on West 50th street between 8th and 9th avenue.
Sunday, November 12, 2006
Reviewed by Aaron Riccio
The problem with Samuel Beckett’s short plays is the same one you’ll find with his longer plays – for all the bleakly hopeful lyricism, it’s more often confusing than delightful. If you really go to the theater for existential minimalism and enjoy theatrical devices over theater itself, Beckett’s tightly wrapped plays will delight you; otherwise, there’s not much to do but appreciate the scenery and the craft. Disclaiming aside, the theater company known as ghostcrab has decided to carry on (I can’t go on, I’ll go on) with a compilation of four short Beckett plays. Performed in a small underground theater that gets too stuffy for comfort, the evening is titled Beckett Below, and consists of “Play,” “Act Without Words II,” “Footfalls,” and “That Time,” each showcasing a different director and set of actors. The result is a visually striking enterprise that slathers on a great deal of respect for Beckett while attempting to convert its audience.
The pieces are all text-heavy and cryptic (with the exception of “Act Without Words II,” which is, as the title suggests, wordless), but the gist, conveyed through the atmosphere—a bleak and intentionally ill-lit basement—is one of either persistent suffering or suffering persistence. Each of the shows utilizes a different thematic approach to this subject, ranging from sublime repetition to the metaphoric display of time’s endless decay. In the first scene, “Play,” actors are minimized to heads atop urns that speak only when a flashlight shines on them, and then only for a moment. As if the bare-bones dialogue about an affair doesn’t get the essential drama across enough, the show repeats itself (in its entirety) for emphasis. It’s a nice theatrical touch, but not pleasant to watch.
The second scene, “Act Without Words II,” employs the same circular logic, this time watching the pantomimes of A and B as each, in turn, comes out of a sack, dresses, moves, undresses, and gets back into the sack at the prodding of a goad. Symbolism aside—just take the “a” out of “goad” and you’ve got humanity in a nutshell—you have to ask yourself if this is really what you want to see in the theater. The last two scenes aren’t as circular, but they’re heavy on text spoken by offstage characters (“Footfalls”) or on recorded dialogue (“That Time”), which makes the evening seem, at times, more like a reading than a staged work. There’s acting going on, be sure, and it’s fine, subtle work, but it’s passive and constrained, and not my idea of a good time.
Also, because Beckett’s estate does not allow a production to deviate from the explicit stage directions, if you’ve seen these scenes before, you need never see them again. These highly visual productions, unflinching and unmoving, are as static as the timelessness that they display. You can have intellectual and emotional theater, but Beckett Below, through no fault of ghostcrab, is just aesthetic theater: good for theater majors and historians, but dry as dust and liable to stay that way.
Under St. Marks (94 St. Marks Place)
Tickets (212-868-4444): $18.00
(THROUGH 11/18): Thursday-Saturday @ 8:00
Saturday, November 11, 2006
Reviewed by: Nicholas Linnehan
Count Down, a new play by Dominique Cieri, depicts the story of seven abused teenaged girls in a mental hospital. The girls receive a teaching artist as a sort of intervention into their troubled lives. Through the process of art the students begin to heal.
The play, while it has good intentions, suffers from undeveloped characters and predictable endings. Yet the cast does a good job with the flawed script. Led by the talented Dania Ramos, Victoria L. Turner, and Valerie Blazek, the ensemble manages to give the audience soulful moments that are profound. These moments often occur when the girls are dancing or recalling past events from their lives. Unfortunately, these times are cut short in the script. Major Dodge, as the warden, gives an example of the script’s shortcomings. His character lacks emotional development, making him more of a nuisance than anything. As the antagonist, Dodge fails to deliver and the play suffers for it. It is hard to know whether the script or the actor is to blame for this deficit.
Yet, the girls manage to keep the audience interested in the world they created. This is a tribute to their talent and craft. Count Down could use some revisions and invest in some new ideas.
Wednesday, November 08, 2006
The Sneeze is one Geshundheit of a comedy, a crowd-pleasing collection of early Chekhov comedies set (and staged) in a bar. You will laugh, thanks no doubt to the excellent direction and joyously deft acting. Bless you, it's a show worth seeing!
Reviewed by Aaron Riccio
If a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down, what happens when you replace the spoonful with two glasses, and the sugar with liquor? Not that The Sneeze, a translation of Anton Chekhov’s early comic work by the talented Michael Frayn, is medicine—it’s more like ambrosia or manna, palatable as it is. Presented as part of Phoenix Theater Ensemble’s Play in a Pub series, The Sneeze is an intimate, lively bit of comedy. The theme connecting its six short scenes is a little unsteady—a wandering Russian trio walks into a bar (insert joke here)—and it isn’t served by the intermission (the break is more social than theatrical), but hey, have a drink. Stay a while.
A bar’s certainly the right place to stage The Sneeze: the use of Lillian Rhiger’s period costumes fits the cozy Ace of Clubs, and Jeffrey E. Salzberg’s lighting focuses tightly on our rowdy heroes. Director John Giampetro could have used the audience more—the action stays to one side of the room—but he compensates by using the entire bar. Characters run in and out of the two entrances, walk down imaginary steps behind the counter, aim their asides at the closest audience member, and even use the house microphone. The cast, seemingly trained in both classics and comedies, contorts, cavorts, and twitches—whatever it takes—to get the jokes across. At the same time, they stay true to Chekhov’s natural melodrama, assisted by Frayn’s delightfully rhythmic translation, and Giampetro’s sense for dramatic build.
The only flaw with The Sneeze is that Chekhov’s style involves repetition, and no matter how many drop-of-a-dime shifts the actors make, some scenes (like “The Proposal”) start to feel like skits. On the other side of that coin, the monologue “The Evils of Tobacco,” is only effective because of the prolonged repression of Nyukhin (tellingly described in the program as “his wife’s husband”), expertly played here by a faintly rebellious Jason O’Connell. The same goes for “The Bear”: without the extreme distortion built up by Dan Matisa and Laura Piquado, the creditor would never be able to fall for the widower.
These early comedies are much like those of Moliére: they poke fun at social circumstance and exaggerate innocent characters to do so. “The Sneeze” is a pantomime of bureaucracy’s obsequious nature. “The Alien Corn” is a thin excuse to make fun of the French (and Russians, in turn) that’s kept afloat by a boisterous performance from Matisa. And “Drama” is Chekhov turning his gaze back unto us, the audience that thinks it’s easy to be an artist. What could be better at a bar than a harmless series of hundred-year-old jokes at no-one’s expense?
The Sneeze is a spot-on performance, straight down to asides and tactic shifts so crisp that you can see them snap, crackle, and pop right in the actor’s eyes. Just add beer and you’ve got one heck of an infectious evening.
Ace of Clubs (9 Great Jones Street)
Tickets (212-352-3101): $35.00 (w/two free drinks)
Tuesday @ 7; Saturday @ 3; Sunday @ 3 & 7 [CLOSES 11/14]