Here Come the Royals! Report from Opening Night

For my money, a Broadway opening is the next best thing to a Royal Wedding. No, there isn’t a chariot or any chintzy memorabilia, but as my first-night experience at “The People in the Picture” proves, Broadway premiers have an undeniable allure and, yes, sense of royalty.

The reigning monarch at this particular kingdom was our own Kate Middleton, theater star Donna Murphy. Headlining “People” as a Holocaust survivor splinched between two eras, Murphy filled Roundabout’s Studio 54 with a tri-generational look at ancestry, sacrifice, and passing things on.

As serfs of the rear mezzanine, my friends and I dutifully followed our post-show instructions and headed directly to the premier party at the Marriot. Feasting on delectables like fried chickpeas, sautéed shrimp, and mashed potatoes, we all wondered one thing: When would our queen arrive? Where was Donna?

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Nina Arianda: Spontaneous Combustion!

photo by Sara Krulwich

At the risk of sounding wildly unoriginal, Nina Arianda is the biggest, best star you never heard of. Her winning stretch began with last year’s “Venus in Fur,” a show she not only stole but roped up, whipped, and punished into total submission. It was, to put it lightly, euphoric. As an actress/dominatrix, Arianda was fun, fast, kooky, and theatrical as hell.

Now she’s starring on Broadway in “Born Yesterday,” a “Pygmalion” kind of power to the people hotel fable. Surprise surprise, she’s fantastic, but the show’s appeal also comes from the participatory pleasure you feel from “being at the beginning.” “Born Yesterday” is only my second Arianda outing, but already I can imagine myself, years from now, looking back with moist eyes at those first, exciting years in her career.

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Tyvek and Gaff Tape

Don't Pick on Me!! (photo by Harlan Taylor)

No one told the SITI company about the housing crisis: Tyvek, 2x4s, and duct tape on hand, their “Under Construction” loudly proclaims that building and rebuilding (creating, really) is the essence of American character.

This Dance Theater Workshop collage piece (by the opensourcing Chuck Mee), then, is the theatrical equivalent of I. M. Pei’s landmark glass pyramid at the Louvre: a confrontational reckoning between past and present, one sure to get folks going and ruffle feathers. (“Strong Adult Content and Language” is a gross understatement.)

Per SITI.org, the show is “inspired by Norman Rockwell and contemporary installation artist Jason Rhoades,” but any explicit exploration of these diametrically opposed artists is avoided. Instead, we get alternating scenes of Americana and Avant-Garde: There are instructions on how to go on a date, then depictions of suicide, then a housewife tutorial, the a shocking standup routine. (And on and on.)

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An Adjustment on the Deuce

The premise behind “The Adjustment Bureau” is simple and delicious: At each human’s birth, a supreme, omniscient “chairman” creates a script for his or her life. As people grow, the chairman helps turn these prescribed narratives into reality with little nudges, or “adjustments:” inconspicuous, seemingly random blips—lost keys, forgotten appointments—that ultimately put people on the “right” path. Matt Damon and Emily Blunt oh-so-stylishly lead the way through this delightfully glossy, children’s book fantasy kind of grown-up blockbuster.

Exiting the AMC Empire on West 42nd Street, where “Bureau” is playing, I couldn’t help but wish for a few “adjustments” in that theater’s exceptional history. Once a beautiful, legitimate playhouse, it followed Times Square into general decay and porno squalor. Under the jurisdiction of The New 42nd Street Street, Inc., the Empire missed the world-class renovations sported by several of its Deuce brethren, and now serves as the entrance to AMC’s monster movie complex. (This remarkable civic tale gets the royal treatment in Anthony Bianco’s pitch-perfect book, “Ghosts of 42nd Street.”)

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Down and Dirty

Ava Bigtreee oozes, squeezes, and glides her way through the mud and muck of “Swamplandia!,” an awesome new novel by Karen Russell. Ava wades a scary crossing from innocence to adolescence, all by way of those endless, grungy waterways threading their way through the Everglades’ mystical Ten Thousand Islands. Our plucky heroine comes from a family of prize-winning alligator wrestlers, one that’s got a reputation to uphold: Swamplandia! is the “Number One Gator-Themed Park and Swamp Café in the Area.” The Bigtrees live hippyish, fantastical, homeschooled life. But like any fairy tale worth its magical salt, tragedy strikes early: Cancer’s cruel swipe at her mother is the catalyst for this bubbled, eccentric, and shocking story.

Mark Rylance, in Broadway-via-West-End’s “Jerusalem,” oozes, squeezes and glides, too – but there’s not an alligator in sight. No, he’s hunted by a band of townie police officers outfitted in reflector gear and lame video equipment. “Rooster,” as he’s called, makes his cracked-out, broken, RV home behind a soon-to-be-gentrified development, and as “soon-to-be” becomes “imminently,” he’s given an inglorious heave ho. The stage at the Music Box—fecund and decaying and everything in between—feels like a stop in “Swamplandia!:” Rooster could be some creepy loner on one of the teardrop islands, a Florida expat who’s pulled the plug and left the grid (provided there’s power for the occasional rave.)

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Dancing in the Aisles

Only in New York! Check out these hilarious theater-inspired signs in the 72nd Street Trader Joe’s:

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Lessons from the Book Review

Mr. Anton Ego Himself! ("Ratatouille"/Pixar)

Last week I wrote about what I called the “review monoculture headlined by the New York Times.” (The full post is here.) That piece ended on a largely open note. But as I leafed through yesterday’s paper, something of a solution emerged: the Book Review — a Sunday favorite — models a pluralistic alternative to the theater desk’s gladiatorial, yes/no mindset.

In the Book Review, writers are reviewed by fellow practitioners. Novelists review other novelists, zoologists review other zoologists, law scholars review other law scholars, etc. This makes for informative, engaging reviews from people who profoundly understand what their subjects are writing about. They’ve been in the trenches and know what it takes to make it out successfully. Add to this the sheer size of the Book Review’s enormous pool of writers — one that mostly works on a freelance basis — and you’ve got a truly wise collective voice, one more informed, more representative, and more empathetic than any single, professional critic.

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Going Dark

Derelict theaters rock (BAM/Harvey, anyone?!) and so does this picture.

Check out more eye candy HERE.

Two New Plays: Of Church and Theater

Would that all family talks were so well lit. (Photo by Joan Marcus)

There’s a mythical, religious undertone in two new shows off-Broadway, “Go Back to Where You Are” (at Playwrights Horizons), and “The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures” (at the Public).

“Go Back,” written by and starring David Greenspan, is a breezy breath of a play, a stream-of-conscious trip to Montauk by way of ancient Greece. Greenspan plays a displaced actor from BC times, one who probably “originated roles” in “world premieres” of plays like “Oedipus Rex” and “Medea.” (!) In true Greenspan, shape-shifting fashion, he assumes two contemporary personalities — the first, a depressed lover; the second, a dowdy, British librarian.

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Inside the Playbill Plant

This is neat — check out what goes on at the Playbill factory in Queens:

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