Sunday, February 26, 2006
However, Nora works just as well as zippy drama. The play replaces the melodrama with short and haunting scenes—some just seconds long, a whispered phrase, perhaps, or a statuesque gesture. It’s quite appealing, and leaves plenty to the imagination. Director Pamela Moller Kareman has real cinematic verve, and her staging is pretty, though the scenic choices are begging for a dissertation. (Why surround a bench with trees and snow? Is it, perhaps, a metaphor for this songbird’s cage?)
Unfortunately, realism doesn’t mesh with affected technical cues. The music—eerie, synthesized carols—takes away from the dialogue’s subtlety, just like the “mood lighting” (how else to explain the emphatic dimming of the lights?). In a movie, we are liable to accept artistic blocking; in a play, it grows strained, and in this sense, Nora is more a doll’s house than the original. The characters are puppets, and the strings of artifice never go away.
Yet actors always find a way to persevere: John Tyrrell (Krogstad) and Tyne Firmin (Dr. Rank) deliver marvelously opposite performances (desperate evil versus desperate good) and Carey Macaleer’s (Nora) enthusiastic energy is catchy, even if her breathy, rapid voice sometimes overwhelms the subtext. However, this façade meshes well with her character’s cheery mask, and it gives Macaleer the extra edge to play this difficult role.
However (and the faint of heart might want to stop reading here) this art-house reinterpretation of a classic is ultimately very bad. Not because of the direction, not because of the script. Not even because of most of the actors, but because of just one. Troy Myers, who is now The Worst Actor I Have Ever Seen, single-handedly ruins the show. His dictation-perfect lines might be excusable if he didn’t also keep stumbling over them. And his stumbling might not be so offensive if he were at least emotionally connected. Torvald is emotionally naïve, not autistic. Myers makes the show unwatchable; the stick-up-his-ass is clearly in his throat, too. He’s like a broken mirror: he not only fails to show anything, he distorts what is actually good. I applaud the cast’s attempts to continue acting with such a negative actor, but the fact that nobody acknowledges Torvald’s odd behavior implicates them in this theatrical crime as well. The show, contrary to popular belief, must NOT go on when it is this bad. For such potential to be so easily belittled...it is more than sad, it is offensive.
Sunday, February 19, 2006
Reviewed by Nicholas Linnehan
Manhattan Rep produced an original work entitled, Men. This play, written and directed by Ken Wolfe, depicts 20 monologues about the “shortcomings” of men. If you want to laugh at people and yourself, go see this play. What makes this play work, instead of just being a forum for women to vent, is the human elements found in these hysterical pieces. Mr. Wolfe manages to masterfully weave subtle truths about human nature that make the pieces funny and poignant.
Now, as everyone knows, no writing or directing could be brilliant without talented actors. Jennifer Pierro opens the jam with great comic timing and a whole lot of pizzazz as a witty-jaded female dealing with inferior males. Also, unforgettable was Elizabeth Hoyte as a dominatrix and Sarah Paige as an optimistic cheerleader faced with the bitter reality that men are scum. These actors bring great energy and honesty to their work.
Despite some uneven casting, this play has something for everyone, male and female, old and young. It is most definitely entertaining and most certainly a treat!
Thursday, February 16, 2006
If you could walk back through your memories, what would you say that you never had the courage or hindsight to say at the time? A Kitchen Table allows Peter, a man on his sixtieth birthday, to revisit his childhood home and relive his adolescence. The play begins with the young Peter, played by Brian Louis Hoffman, removing cloth shrouds from the furniture in his family home. He lovingly runs his hands along the kitchen table and grips the sides of his father’s infamous chair. These artifacts are instantly endowed with the history of a family, its struggles and its unique love: the perfect setting for this play to evolve.
For his first full-length play, Peter Levine has created a poignant and humorous story. His dramatic device of a narrator blended with an ensemble creates a beautiful interplay between Bob Adrian, narrating the play as Peter at age sixty, and Brian Lois Hoffman, the Peter of his adolescence. Bob Adrian delivers his narration with such life and emotion that he is a pleasure to watch. But the show really stands out for its ensemble. Troy Miller has directed this ensemble superbly. Completing the ensemble is Robert L. Haber, the tough-loving father, Lué McWilliams, the curvaceous and bubbly mother, Michael Cuomo, playing a wonderful older brother-both the bully and the best friend, Jacqueline Sydney as the crazy aunt, and finally Geany Masai playing the delightfully sassy maid. This ensemble delivers the laughs throughout and in the end grips you in the heart as they reveal the lessons of a man’s life learned through finally gaining closure with his family and most importantly his father.
This play runs at United Stages and is presented by the Emerging Artists Theatre. A Kitchen Table is one of the three plays running in this year’s EATfest and it really fulfills Emerging Artist Theatre’s mission of fostering new playwrights.
This play and this playwright are something to watch out for!
Sunday, February 12, 2006
Though two songs precede it, I Love You Because really begins with the witty pretty patter, “The Actuary Song.” In this scene, Diana explains—mathematically—how to get over a bad breakup and find happiness. The explanation’s too complex for words (which makes the singing of those words all the more impressive), but the Q.E.D. is that Marcy has to date Mr. Wrong so that she’ll be ready for Mr. Right. That man—both of them—is Austin, a “professional poet” (i.e. greeting-card writer) who lives according to a safe and well-rehearsed plan, even though his “plan” has been cheating on him with another guy. As Austin spends their first date talking about his ex (“But I Don’t Want to Talk About Her”), Marcy realizes he’s perfect: perfectly horrible.
Their relationship gets a bit more serious, at least melodically, and so for comic relief, Diana falls for her polar opposite, Austin’s older brother, Jeff (who is horrible: horribly perfect). As David A. Austin plays him, Jeff is simultaneously charming and immature, and realistically over-the-top. Alongside the very talented Stephanie D’Abruzzo, these two steal the entire show (hell, the entire musical season), and I only wish the entire show could be as frenetically funny as their romantic satire “We’re Just Friends” (with benefits).
Unfortunately, the Diana/Jeff scenes are so upbeat (even their breakup song “That’s What’s Gonna Happen” is funny) that the main plot seems a bit lethargic. Colin Hanlon, who plays Austin, doesn’t have as much chemistry with Marcy, nor do they have much to sing about (though he and Farah Alvin certainly have wide ranges and strong voices). Joshua Salzman’s music and the accompanying band are good for punchy up-tempo hits, but they lack a ballad’s range. The score gets repetitious, and even Ryan Cunningham’s delightfully playful lyrics can't hide that. And because every thought is inevitably sung, even when it’s blatantly obvious, some songs get a little repetitious. (NYC Man and NYC Woman—Jordan Leeds and Courtney Balan, the chorus—are perky and energetic, but do we really need the unfunny play-by-play of their song “The Perfect Romance”?)
I Love You Because is a lot like one of Austin’s greeting cards. (It even looks like one: the stage, sandwiched by the audience, has cartoon-like buildings on each end of the set.) That makes it sweet and amusing, and full of some occasionally brilliantly-put observations, but it’s also risk-free, and therefore distanced and impersonal (despite the highly intimate space). But what can I say? Despite (or because) of all that, it’s very catchy, superficial fun, anchored by some truly superb acting and singing, and I recommend it anyway, because sometimes love is just like that.
Village Theater (158 Bleecker Street)
Tickets: $20.00-$65.00 (212-307-4100)
Performances: Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, Friday @ 8:00; Saturday @ 7:00 and 10:00; Sunday @ 3:00 and 7:00.
Friday, February 10, 2006
Based on his experience on the tenet board of a Fifth Avenue building, Grodin has written an ensemble comedy exposing the racial, ethnic and sexual prejudices of those at the top of the housing system’s food chain.
This marks his third play to be produced in New York, but Grodin is primarily an actor as well as a cultural and political commentator. His background can be sensed in the straightforward writing and sarcastic humor used to excoriate his subjects.
Those who are “The Right Kind of People,” according the play’s tenet board, are rich, white, Republican individuals without eccentricities and accents. The play’s best scenes involve the board’s interviews with Texan couple and Jewish orthodox couples.
Director Chris Smith, likewise, has provided his ten person ensemble cast (a huge size for non-profit, Off-Broadway standards) with a sense of rhythm to match Grodin’s verbal comedy.
For Primary Stages, this is certainly not as ambitious a project as “In the Continuum.” Even so, Charles Grodin has written an audience-friendly play that simultaneously manages to be very unfriendly.
Primary Stages, 59 East 59th Street, 212-279-4200, $60. Fri 8pm, Sat 2pm, Sun 3pm.
Tuesday, February 07, 2006
Each week, the cast (four women, each a disparate “type”) make the minimalist stage (black cubes for settees) whatever they need, and then wax (sans poetry) about the men in their lives, much as you might expect four regular Jills to do. Think Sex in the City, but brusquer, since these women lack the crucial, terse pacing of a well-revised script. Think Curb Your Enthusiasm, but with more heart, less sarcasm.
The difficulty of improv, especially when you’re trying to impart an overarching story, is that it requires you to be more intellectual and witty than emotional. Saying something clever (here a mixture of recycled idioms, hilarious non sequiturs, and honest observations) is immediate; real feelings can’t be as easily forced. That’s why it was quite surprising to see Jean (played by the talented Lynne Rosenberg) break down in tears over what we might superficially consider a small thing, but which we understand to honestly be the heart of the matter. Sure, there are bound to be problematic patches and stuttered stalls over an hour of unscripted amusement, but it only takes a few of those golden moments to justify the whole show.
In this “episode” (all of which are recorded and podcast), Jean’s dating a rich guy with a zucchini-sized dick, and "the Gang" is meeting him for the first time at a rich social gathering: some sort of tomato sauce-making contest (“That’s what rich people do”). Okay, the plot’s not important: it’s how they use it—as a diving board. Rather than floating around in the kiddy pool of mundane issues, they exaggerate the small things and turn them into big things, all while, for the most part, being quite natural (if not a little overeager to get in a good joke).
The one flaw is that there’s a lack of balance in the presentation: whoever’s hot one night is going to steal the show, and others, relegated to supporting roles, come off as unfunny and stiff. I’m sure that Lauren Seikaly (Bonnie, who married into wealth and is now pregnant) can be quite funny: tonight, she was background noise. Likewise, some of the scenes they come up are distracting from a more interesting plot and proves that women don’t always have something to talk about. Small talk between Sophie and Sara (Katharine Heller and Brenna Palughi respectively, both extremely talented character actors) may give them work, but it broke up the narrative flow of the other two, as they acted a separate scene across the stage.
Women might not really talk about things this way, but if we had to sit and watch them chat, it’d be nice if they sounded like this.
Kraine Theater (85 East 4th Street)
Tickets: $18.00 (212-352-3101)
Performances: Tuesdays @ 8:00
Monday, February 06, 2006
Clocking in at an hour and ten minutes, the show is well-crafted by Joan Worth and Alan Sacks and adroitly performed by Jason Fisher, who seems at home in Bruce’s skin. One wants to travel with him into dangerous territory, but what appalled in 1960 now plays in prime time on HBO, and more often than not one has to imagine the shock that these jokes were calculated to create.
It’s weird to lift Bruce’s material out of a nightclub and brand it capital-A Art, and the end result is nostalgia for a time when a 10-letter word starting with C and ending in R was cause for a small societal revolution. Still, LENNY BRUCE is awfully enjoyable, and the only thing that keeps it from being extraordinary is the crowd in the Zipper Theater, jaded past the point of offense, looking to Bruce’s ghost for a lesson instead of a laugh.
LENNY BRUCE… IN HIS OWN WORDS. Playing through Feb. 25 at the Zipper Theater, 336 West 37th Street. (212) 239-6200.
Friday, February 03, 2006
Now playing at The American Theatre of Actors is Sam Shepard’s “Buried Child,” presented by the White Horse Theater Company. Shepard’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play tells the story of an all-American family: Dodge, the family’s patriarch, is an alcoholic; his wife, Halie, goes on dates with the local priest; their two sons are handicapped (Bradley only has one leg and Tilden is mentally challenged); and there is a gruesome family secret they have all been hiding for years. When two estranged relatives arrive unexpectedly at the family’s farmhouse in rural Illinois, relationships deteriorate and the secret is revealed, shattering the family beyond repair.
David Elyha makes a hilarious cameo appearance as the flirtatious Father Dewis. Elyha is charming and charismatic and he almost steals the show with his delightful portrayal. As Dodge, Bill Rowley delivers an excellent performance. He is charismatic, lively and spontaneous, bringing both humor and tragedy to the role. Even during his quiet moments, Rowley never ceases to be a presence on stage. Karen Gibson plays Dodge’s wife, Halie, and has the difficult task of opening the play with a 20-minute conversation with Dodge from off stage. This requires tremendous vocal power, especially because opening moments are critical in getting an audience’s attention and introducing them to the world of the play. Unfortunately, Ms. Gibson falls short: rather than communicating or emoting vocally, she sounds like she is reading from a teleprompter backstage. When she finally enters, her voice remains noticeably constricted, and she seems lost in her own bubble, not really relating to anyone else on stage. Also absent from Gibson’s characterization are physical choices: her body does not seem to be fully engaged with what she is doing on stage.
White Horse Theater’s co-founder, Rod Sweitzer, takes on the role of the mentally impaired Tilden. Sweitzer is a talented actor and has clearly done his homework for the role. During quiet, reflective moments, Sweitzer is enormously engrossing. At times, however, he seems too self-conscious about the choices he has made. There is also the feeling that something overall is missing from his performance. This could be attributed to the fact that, throughout, Sweitzer keenly plays the victim; rather than infusing his character with an urgent desire to overcome his obstacles, Sweitzer, instead, allows himself to become mired in sadness and self-pity. If Sweitzer ditched these qualities in his portrayal, his performance would be quite moving.
Chris Stetson arrives late on the scene as Vince, Tilden’s long lost son. As Vince, Mr. Stetson is physically awkward, self-conscious and lacking in emotional depth. Acutely absent from his performance is a deep desire to reconnect with his family and genuine devastation about the shattered state of his family. The fact that Vince’s father and grandfather claim not to remember him hardly seems to register with Mr. Stetson. His lack of specific character choices and his tendency to play the surface as opposed to the truth of each moment makes his transformation from an estranged family member looking for answers to a spiteful lunatic, difficult to believe. As Vince’s girlfriend, Shelly, Ginger Kroll mugs and indicates her way throughout, playing the character’s attitude as opposed to rendering a full characterization.
The production’s climactic scene lacks the necessary tension and sense of tragedy to make it a slam-dunk. However, the production is worth seeing for director Cyndy A. Marion’s excellent musical selections, spot-on performances by Bill Rowley and David Elyha, and Sam Shepard’s brilliant script.
Thursday, February 02, 2006
The production is not without its flaws though, Karen Gibson as Halie fails to deliver. Her character seems forced and detracts from the energy of the scenes. However, the ensemble seems to cover this problem well and turns the play into in an interesting and provocative piece of theater. This play is definitely worth seeing as it attempts to uncover the mystery of human nature.
In the Continuum tells the stories of two women having parallel experiences in vastly different environs: Zimbabwe and South Central LA. Actress and playwright Danai Gurira delivers a knockout performance as she relays the story of Abigail, a Zimbabwean wife and mother who is also a professional news anchor who learns that she is pregnant and has HIV. Actress and fellow playwright Nikkole Salter brings us into the world of Nia, a troubled young woman living off the system in the ghettos of LA, who gets both a baby and AIDS from her basketball-star boyfriend.
Both actresses take on many roles as they portray the experiences of receiving the news and searching for answers, guidance, and support. Both women face the possibility of becoming statistics and losing any and everything they dreamed of. When Abigail goes to a "traditional healer, " she is told that she should not cry, she is not the only one facing this disease. "Go outside and count 1, 2, 3- she has it. Another 1,2,3 – he has it. There are many people living with this."
These pieces were originally developed as separate works, but the combination of the two – and excellent direction by Robert O'Hara which helps us see the parallels in the stories – creates a synergy that affects the audience long after the house lights go up. Despite the heavy theme of the play, there are moments of lightness and humor, making these characters all the more realistic. "In the Continuum" is a must-see.
"In the Continuum" plays at the Perry Street Theatre through February 18th. www.smarttix.com for tickets.
Wednesday, February 01, 2006
“Dreamgirls is strengthened with pastiche and original music that emulate the raw but gorgeous sound of Motown-era music with passion and fire. This is the same passion and fire that ... saturate the Prince Music Theater production.”
Read entire review:
Due to positive notices and popular demand, the Prince Music Theater in Philadelphia, named for celebrated director Harold Prince, has extended its production of Dreamgirls three times. (The theater is the lone professional troupe in the United States with the rights to the musical in the wake of the upcoming film adaptation.) Commercial producers and investors are scouting the production, according to news sources, and, as a matter of fact, the production is amazing. Its performers and production team deserve commendation for sharing a rare gem of a musical with new audiences.
A veiled portrait of Diana Ross and the Supremes, Dreamgirls follows the rise and fall of an all-female singing group, the Dreamettes, during the 1960s and 1970s. Under the management of a former car salesman, Curtis, the group sings behind an established singer before emerging on its own as the Dreams. In the face of burgeoning fame, Curtis replaces the fat and booming-voiced lead singer, Effie (read: Florence Ballard), with her sleek and sweet-voiced group member, Deena (read: Diana Ross), who embodies the growing standard of attractiveness America craved in chanteuses. Curtis replaces Effie in the bedroom with Deena as well.
At the core of Dreamgirls, however, is the anger Black musicians felt in having their music purloined and distributed with White musicians and aesthetics, and the struggle Black musicians faced in proving their merits as capable artists in the White-dominated popular music business. “If the big White man can make us think we need his Cadillac to make us feel as good as him,/then we can make him think he needs our music to make him feel as good as us,” Curtis sings. Thus, the driving force behind Dreamgirls is established, and the characters discover and unleash their individual talents and attacks onto the world.
From the sound of cowbells at the beginning of the production to the final strains of the title song at the end of Act II, Dreamgirls is strengthened with pastiche and original music that emulate the raw but gorgeous sound of Motown-era music with passion and fire. This is the same passion and fire that propel the characters into action and saturate the Prince Music Theater production.
For Dreamgirls, the first half of Act I is its strongest part, giving the viewer a keen sense of the characters and their establishment as forces with which White America will reckon. From the numbers “I’m Looking for Something” and “Goin’ Downtown” in the opening Apollo Theater montage to the numbers “Cadillac Car” and “Steppin’ to the Bad Side,” characters are introduced and conflicts are presented in a fluid and seamless manner, leaving the viewer speechless. One of the several highlights is “Steppin’ to the Bad Side.” Here, in one number, Curtis plans his ascension within popular music, and his song of struggle, hope, and frustration becomes the song that his act uses to cross into the mainstream. In the Prince Music Theater production, “Steppin’ to the Bad Side” is staged in an orgasmic show of dazzling costumes and soaring voices, becoming an amazing visual and dramatic moment.
Dreamgirls is flawed, however, and this is what the viewer learns during the Prince Music Theater production through no fault of the performers and production team. Several conflicts in the musical are resolved with unbelievable and pat dénouements. In “It’s All Over,” for example,—what Frank Rich in 1981 called a cathartic number that realizes the clashing of seven characters in musical terms—Effie is dismissed from the Dreams, and her songwriter brother, C.C., shifts from defending her uncouth conduct in the scene preceding the number to indicting her during the number. His shift is unconvincing. In Act II, after achieving stardom at the expense of her former friend, Deena tells Effie she did not know Curtis was deceitful. Her confession is unconvincing.
What is interesting, Dreamgirls, written from a subjective viewpoint, implores the viewer to condemn the abuses Effie encounters during her rollercoaster ride of a singing career. However, its writers have not afforded the character substantive material that strikes an emotional chord with the viewer, and the actress in the role at the Prince Music Theater struggles to navigate her larger-than-life character. (In other words, she struggles not to succumb to the temptation of the music and reduce her performance to that of a belter, who, handed two well-known anthems, stands stage center and belts to the rafters.) Effie is difficult and her treatment from other characters is believable and justifiable. Despite the lack of redeeming qualities for her character, Dreamgirls is stirring and groundbreaking musical theater. When people reminisce about Dreamgirls, what strikes them is not its lack of character development but its abundance of excellent music. Since character development is deemphasized, what becomes important is production and music.
Dreamgirls was the pet project of deceased theater director Michael Bennett. He wanted to create an innovative (cinematic) method of theatermaking that eliminated lapses and blackouts in transitions between scenes. With Dreamgirls, he succeeded, and a number of his inventions are reproduced in the Prince Music Theater production. What remains salient, Dreamgirls is an echo of 1981, when Bennett, who directed Follies with Harold Prince in 1971 and directed A Chorus Line in 1975, improved theater, introducing directorial techniques still used in present times.
Director Richard M. Parison, Jr., exploring the darker aspects of the musical, has given special attention to the characters and the temptations of stardom that corrupt them. “When I First Saw You,” a non-threatening love song to the naïve listener, has become a struggle between a woman wanting to forfeit the music business to pursue personal interests (Deena) and a man using her as the canvas on which to paint his dreams (Curtis). Chaunteé Schuler gives a well-formed portrait of Deena, the sleek and sweet-voiced singer. Her performance is the strongest in the production, and her well-paced transition from withdrawn teenager to unparalleled woman is excellent.
Mercedes Ellington has done excellent work using period movement to make the production dance. However, the movement is superfluous at times, distracting the viewer from the genius of the musical, and is used as unneeded filler during transitions between certain scenes.
Todd Edward Ivins has designed settings and projections that—minimal—do not overpower the tone and drama of the musical but accentuate them. Mark Mariani has designed fabulous period costumes, including a dress Effie wears during “I Am Changing” that quotes the design Theoni V. Aldridge created for that number in the original production.
In short, the performers and production team have done excellent work with the material written. With tremendous skill, Parison has staged a fluid production that, leaving the viewer entertained, would have made Bennett proud. Before the Dreamgirls film is released in December, and before the start of March, when the Prince Music Theater production concludes, make the hour-long trip to Philadelphia to see an arresting production of the classic musical in a theater setting, where it was written to be performed.