Faves of 2014

The Few Samuel Hunter

Before the deluge of 2015 begins, let’s look at the year just past and note some favorites! I make no claim to “best” (what do you this this is? Buzzfeed?!) but these seven shows spoke and sang to me in ways original, moving, raucous, or surprising.

As for what’s “trending” here, institutional off-Broadway looms large. Though most of these shows didn’t pull in Broadway-sized audiences or paydays, they were no less towering that their Main Stem cousins.

Without further ado, the Faves are…

THE FEW, at Rattlestick Playwrights Theater
Sam Hunter’s intensely moving new play proved that love grows best in little playhouses. The story of three sad sacks and the newspaper that brings them together, this oh-so-small production felt like an oh-so-needed sigh: refreshing, humane, and a little teary.

A DOLL’S HOUSE, at BAM via The Young Vic
A perfect classic presented with all the energy and surprise of a new play. Expert underscoring hit home Ibsen’s chilling, inspiring tale—as did the frantically careening turntable set.

AN OCTOROON, at Soho Rep
You know how so many plays are “funny”? (Read: Not funny.) Well, Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’s latest work about racial history in America actually was funny, not to mention disturbing, affecting, and just the right amount of insane. Lucky us, this whirlwind of a play is coming back to NYC in the spring.

BOOTYCANDY, at Playwrights Horizons
I mean, really—how could you not enjoy a play called BOOTYCANDY? Like Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, playwright Robert O’Hara here tackles issues of race and America, but to entirely different and original effect. This work was jaw dropping in the true sense: It amazed, but also shocked.

 ALLEGRO, at Classic Stage Company
Director John Doyle had his masterful way with this famous flop by Rogers and Hammerstein. Staging, music and performances coalesced into an evening that stayed with me long after curtain call.

ON THE TOWN, on Broadway
This explosively energetic revival reminds you just how effective dance can be in a Broadway musical. The glorious score—played by a city of an orchestra—was none too shabby, either.

YOU CAN’T TAKE IT WITH YOU, on Broadway
Who could possible argue with the pure, escapist charm of this perfect comedy? Annaleigh Ashford in particular nails the kooky glee of Kaufman and Hart’s hilarity.

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But what do you think? Anything been egregiously overlooked? Comment below—the Internet needs to know!

Photo of THE FEW by Joan Marcus.

“Much Ado About Nothing” Isn’t Just a Comedy

Much Ado About Nothing

You can call it a comedy all you like, but MUCH ADO is nothing of the sort. Though often funny and sometimes hilarious, Shakespeare’s yarn of headstrong lovers is fascinatingly woven with threads of malice, cruelty and sadness.

Melancomedy” is more like it.

Onstage now in a wonderful Shakespeare in the Park production directed by Jack O’Brien, this MUCH ADO gets all the laughs you’d hope it would… but it also prompts rage at the injustices performed by fickle, proud men. Over and over, the play’s women play victim to male (or at least authority-based) idiocy; the results are sure to leave you fuming, but also newly appreciative of that Shakespeare fellow’s wisdom.

There’s a lot to this play, but the bit that concerns us here is this: When Claudio (Jack Cutmore-Scott) is tricked into believing that his fiancé Hero (Ismenia Mendes) has been unfaithful, he abruptly jilts her at the altar. It’s an absurdly extreme reversal: Soaring professions of love are replaced by fits of sharp-tongued barbs that traumatize Hero so seriously she almost dies.

You can feel the audience’s loathing toward Claudio in this charged moment. Why is he so quick to believe the worst about someone he claims to love? Why does he not ask for her side of the story? Why does he act so swiftly, without any room for question? (Hero’s father behaves similarly, slandering her without pause as she weeps.)

Then again, is such flip-flopping to be unexpected, considering the haste with which Claudio corralled Hero into engagement? After all, few were the words exchanged between them before Hero’s father presented her, trophy-like, to Claudio.

Thankfully, the truth does eventually out: Hero’s name is cleared and, true to form, Claudio and the father promply revert back to adoration. All’s well that ends well, right?

Of course not!

Shakespeare seems to be saying that love can only be partly successful in a world where half the population is refused agency. True, Claudio loves Hero by the end of the play, but what’s to happen the next time she’s accused wrongly? The next time he flies off the handle?

The play also suggests that men suffer from such an imbalance, too; that they are less than they could be, and behave worse in a world where women are either saints or whores, where the sexes sit on an unbalanced and unchanging seesaw of power.

All this from a play usually praised for its romance, wit and laughter.

Yes, the romance, wit and laughter are there, but the play is bigger and better than just that. By incorporating streaks of darkness, it becomes profound, moving and relevant.

It becomes, well, true.

Photo by Joan Marcus

Best of 2013!

photo

theater-words is a little late to the game here—hello, January 5—but no matter: Let’s do some “best of”-ing! In descending order, the shiniest theatrical jewels of the season were…

1. FUN HOME, Public Theater
Perfection. This Tesori/Kron/Gold masterpiece, an expert adaptation of Alison Bechdel’s glorious memoir, is the kind of musical I’d take to a desert island. Multiple viewings are a must to fully appreciate it. #broadwayismissingout #pulitzermaterial (MORE)

2. MATILDA, Broadway
It’s all been said. The best. (MORE)

3. THE APPLE PLAYS, Public Theater
Taking in these four plays over one cold weekend in December was one of the major highlights of my theatergoing life. Why can’t all shows be this sensitive, wrenching and incredibly acted? (MORE)

4. MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG, West End via Menier Chocolate Factory
Ok ok, I technically saw a video broadcast of this astonishing production, but who cares: The wonderful actors at the center of this Sondheim classic gave it the richest, most soulful core an audience could ask for. Many tears were shed. (MORE)

5. THE GLASS MENAGERIE, Broadway via American Repertory Theater
A classic play somehow became more itself thanks to an unconventional staging. Everyone involved needs to clear some room on their awards shelves… (MORE)

6. THE FLICK, Playwrights Horizons
The idiot audiences who stormed out of this epically intimate new play should stay out: Annie Baker’s melancholy, spare style is frikkin’ awesome.

7. BETRAYAL, Broadway
The vitriol aimed at this fantastically sexy production was entirely unwarranted. Great play, great actors, great gay subtext.

8. DOMESTICATED, Lincoln Center Theater
A fantastic, no holds barred night at the theater. Bruce Norris’s provocative message went down easy thanks to the sheer entertainment value of the proceedings.

9. HANDS ON A HARDBODY, Broadway via La Jolla Playhouse
The show with the porno title was actually a sweet, tear-jerker of a Broadway musical. Buy the CD—the score is wonderful. Oh, and can I lead up the Alison Case fan club? K thanks.

10. HERE LIES LOVE, Public Theater
David Byrne, Alex Timbers and Annie-B Parson had a kick-ass, disco love child in this killer, environmental show. A musical to convert those who say they hate musicals!

(N.B.: PIPPIN and VANYA AND SONIA AND MASHA AND SPIKE would’ve definitely made the cut—with Andria Martin and Kristin Nielsen how could they not?!—but I saw them out of town in 2012, and rules are rules!)

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A great crop, no? Totally absent, however, are more formally experimental plays. The “riskier” shows I caught this year largely left me cold, and not just because more adventurous companies can’t pay heating bills. Here’s hoping next year’s list has a few cracked-out, crazy entries!

LET’S GET GOING, 2014!

Favorite Moment: FUN HOME

Fun Home Public Theater Michael CerverisThere’s a lot to love about Fun Home, the hot new musical down at the Public Theater. It’s got great material, a talented cast, the most beautiful set in town, and—wonder of wonders—very few projections! So, picking a “favorite moment” here is a terrible, Sophie’s Choice kind of conundrum.

And yet… hard decisions have to be made.

But before that, some background: Fun Home tells the true, growing-up story of lesbian cartoonist Alison Bechdel, and is based on her fantastic graphic memoir of the same name. Both book and musical tell a swirling tale of family, growing up and sexuality. It’s deep, meaningful, fun stuff.

At the Public, three actresses play “Alison,” the narrator and protagonist. The eldest (Beth Malone) looks back at the story of her life by way of elementary- and college-aged versions of herself, played (perfectly) by Sydney Lucas and Alexandra Socha. Adult Alison struggles to reconcile her coming out and life-narrative with those of her father, a difficult, closeted gay man (Michael Cerveris).

The Three Alisons

The Three Alisons

My favorite moment of the show comes early, as adult Alison goes through an old box of heirlooms and, on the other side of the stage, child Alison does the same with her father and their own box. As Jeanine Tesori and Lisa Kron‘s wonderful musical plays, we gradually realize that the two boxes are, in fact, one and the same, here realized at different times in Alison’s life.

In an unobtrusive moment—one that could only happen in the theater—adult Alison and her father each reach into their respective boxes, and (cue the shivers) each pull out the same, silver coffee pot.

Incarnating this single pot twice, across decades, is a simple, Proustian way of saying everything about time, memory and history that no essay or description ever could. (Clearly, that’s not stopping me from trying!) Instantly, past is both infinitely removed and utterly of-this-moment; the object takes Alison back, but also emphasizes how far away that “back” is. I’m reminded of the wonderful line in The Glass Menagerie: “Time is the longest distance between two places.” Indeed—no more so than two places separated by a few feet of stage and a lifetime of experience.

This moment also illustrates unique power of simultaneous action, a device the theater shares with few other forms. Unlike a film, a play can stage two scenes and versions of the same character in direct physical proximity and have them interact. A few years ago director Michael Mayer spoke to the Times about this phenomenon in reference to his On a Clear Day You Can See Forever, praising it as “the beautiful theatrical gift of simultaneity.” Like Fun Home, Clear Day divided its protagonist between separate actors to (my opinion) brilliant effect, and thus let the audience in on a kind of dramatic irony: We got a perspective—wide, complex, funny—the characters never had, and got to see “self” interact with “self” in an imaginative, otherworldly and theatrical way. Fun Home does much the same, never more so than in this beautiful coffee pot moment.

Interestingly, simultaneity is also a prime feature of graphic novels, Fun Home’s form-of-origin. A caption “happens” alongside a picture; the resultant power can be in repeated emphasis (a picture illustrates what a caption describes), or in dissonance (a picture illustrates the opposite). Either way, the result equals more than the sum of the disparate parts.

In Fun Home’s coffee pot moment, the power is both one of repeated emphasis and one of dissonance: the pot, seen twice, shows how some things never change; Alison, also seen twice, shows how completely other things do.

Cool stuff. Cool stuff, indeed.

photos by Joan Marcus

In the Office with BULL and CORE VALUES

Core Values Ars NovaThose who can’t get enough of cubicles, memos and water coolers during the work week will be excited to learn of Core Values and Bull, two new Off Broadway productions about the peaks and valleys (but mostly valleys) of nine-to-five living. In ways quiet and vicious, these dramadies remind us that bloodlust and existential agony don’t check themselves at the office door; no, that’s where they parade in, take up shop, and feel right at home.

Ars Nova’s Core Values, by Steven Levenson and directed by Carolyn Cantor, gets at papercut drama with the kind of funny/sad mumblecorp-speak popularized by Annie Baker. When a sad sack loser-boss (Reed Birney) summons his meager travel agency staff for an in-house weekend “retreat,” trust falls and brainstorming sessions don’t quite have the desired effects, and  takeout Dunkin’ Donuts can’t sugarcoat the sense of loss present in each character’s life. In Mr. Levenson’s world, the office is the nexus of politely disguised melancholia and cringey, awkward humor, sort of like TVs “The Office” with a bigger dollop of ache.

Bull makes no such stab at delicacy. This companion piece to last year’s Cock, also by Mike Bartlett, is all knives, all the time. The setup: In a nightmare of a conference room, several yopros ream out a weaker third member while they wait for a client. We’re talking verbal annihilation, intimidation and, yes, physical violence. The proceedings are deliberately over-the-top—by making caricatures out of his characters, Bartlett seems to be drawing focus to the Darwinian impulses we might normally surpress. All it takes is a little rattling, and zing—the fangs are be bared, he seems to say. Soutra Gilmour‘s set, an in-the-round affair meant to look rather like a bull ring, makes the metaphor real and nails down the production’s point: people in suits are latter-day gladiators. (The show, by the way, is directed by Claire Lizzimore at 59E59.)

Bull 59e59

I found Core Values to be the more persuasive and involving of the plays; the humorous sympathy Mr. Levenson lends his all-too-human characters is as endearing as Bull’s high style fracas is distancing. Then again, maybe I’ve worked in too many nice people offices. Perhaps the hounds of Bull are real, are out there, and I’ve simply never crossed their paths…

Photos by Sara Krulwich

Really? REALLY?!

Really Really playReally Reallythe hot new show at MCC, was written by Paul Downs Colaizzo while he was on tour with a TheatreWorksUSA children’s production. “As we traveled with the show,” he recently told Playbill.com, “I sat in the back of the van and wrote the first half of this play.”

Whaaaaaat? As someone who recently did a TheatreWorks show, I am in awe of Mr. Colaizzo’s ability to get work done in what (for me) was always a cramped and noisy environment. My cast of seven jammed constantly in our van and our Prius, where nary a spare inch once presented itself as we wheeled through the northeast, midwest in Canada.

But also–oh!, the outrage! NOT FAIR! How did you do manage to pull that off, Mr. Colaizzo?! It took me all the energy and concentration I had just to listen to a Rachel Maddow podcast or eat a McDonalds apple pie. Creating a work of art in such a space? Too herculean task if I ever heard of one.

What’s the secret, Mr. Colaizzo? We really really wanna know…

Really Really play

photo by Janna Giacoppo

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CH CH CHECK IT OUT…
— MCC’s The Submission
— Alas, It’s True: We’re Gonna Die

Beep Beep, Honky Honky

Honky Urban StagesThere’s plenty of time left in the spring season, but we may have an early winner for the Most Enticing Premise Award. That venerable statuette goes to… oh the drama!… Honky, at Urban Stages. The show’s press material should explain its win: “When a black sneaker company hires a white CEO, their commercials begin glorifying the ghetto and sales triple among white teens. But when violence erupts in a black community, the shoe designer blames the ads and promises revenge.” Add an anti-racism pill to the mix (its street name is “bleach”) and you’ve got quite the setup.

The play’s themes echo those of other recent race plays like Clybourne Park and Luck of the Irish, but where those pieces trafficked in real estate, Honky goes after the world of advertising. Playwright Greg Kalleres’s perspective is authentic: Kalleres spent years working as a copywriter and witnessed firsthand the bizarre and hilarious depth of “white guilt,” as well as the awkward act of getting the “right” proportion of minorities represented. As he writes in the play, for advertisers it isn’t a question of race, it’s about demographics. (A friend of mine who works in advertising nodded along at that line, whispering, “it’s true!”)

Of course, theater is just as enmeshed as any other industry in the realm of sell sell sell. It takes advertising to put butts in seats. And what puts those butts in those seats? A good premise. A Most Enticing Premise.

photo by Ben Hider

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Peace, Love, and Belarus

From the Chekhov Files

Neva Vanya and Sonia and Masha and SpikeIn a supremely strange synchronicity, two plays that riff on Chekhov opened this past week. One would be occasion enough, but two? Such, apparently, is the power of that old, Russian dramatist. He is a seagull, indeed!

The plays couldn’t be more different. Broadway’s Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, by Christopher Durang, is a belly laugh a minute, while Guillermo Calderon’s Neva, at the Public, is more serious and political. Both, of course, bring up the classic, Chekhovian themes of disaffection, angst, and boredom, but their methods for doing so couldn’t be more different.

Set in the present day, Vanya… follows three middle-aged siblings, each unhappy in his/her own way. Named after Chekhov characters by their professor parents, the siblings (played brilliantly by David Hyde Pierce, Kristine Nielsen, and Sigourney Weaver) spin a hilarious roller coaster of a tale, one where coffee cups are smashed, house cleaners predict the apocalypse, and Snow White costumes are pulled from the closet. All the madcap hilarity kicks into something profound and moving by the end, but the journey there is a smile from ear to ear.

Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike Broadway Kristine Nielsen Shalita Grant

As for the other corner, you may laugh occasionally at Neva, but that’s not the focus of the evening. What is the focus is Olga Knipper, the widow of Mr. Chekhov. Appearing at a dimly-lit rehearsal room on the eve of the Russian Revolution, Olga spends the play talking with two other actors about her late husband, how he died, what it means to make art, and how she both needs and despises her public. Calderon’s theatrical dish is full of ingredients similar to Durang’s, but his proportions are wholly dissimilar.

Neva Public Theater

Were Messers Durang and Calderon in correspondence as they wrote their plays, making sure they focused on distinct turf? Assuredly not, but seen together, their productions show the singularity of an artistic voice: Two writers can start on similar turf, but they almost certainly will end up somewhere different.

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PS– I wrote about Vanya… last fall when it played the McCarter Theater… Check out that post HERE.

“Hit the Wall” at the Barrow Street

Hit the Wall Barrow Street TheaterPutting history onstage comes with perks and pitfalls. If the person or event depicted is beloved, he/she/it comes with a built-in sense of affection; audiences already know they like what they’re about to see. But such storytelling isn’t without hazards. Representing true tales situates everything under a harsher magnifying glass, and storytelling choices can irk viewers in ways they otherwise wouldn’t had the subject not been so dear.

Hit the Wall at the Barrow Street Theatre is a case study in just how hard it is to navigate that tightrope. Its concern is the Stonewall riot of 1969, that Greenwich village uprising that sparked the gay rights movement. Playwright Ike Holter and director Eric Hoff try to untether their diorama from the historical play pitfalls I’ve mentioned by lifting it from strict realism (we get Def Poetry Jam-style monologues and archetypical characters) but the play still has to face the expectations of its audience, a neighborhood audience personally invested in seeing a story that is narratively and emotionally accurate. The fact that the real Stonewall is but feet away from the theater only heightens the stakes of the initial affection and subsequent scrutiny.

Hit the Wall doesn’t quite survive that intense look. In attempting to tell so many stories—the narrative ping pongs from one set of characters to another—and by shifting styles and locations, the play becomes cacophonous and unfocused, and the riots feel almost random. Certainly, living up the actual event is an exceeding tough challenge for any play, but that is just the challenge Hit the Wall has taken on. History bears gifts, but they come with a steep price tag.

Hit the Wall Barrow Street Theaterphotos by Matthew Murphy

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A Broadway Detour in “Far From the Tree”

Far From the Tree by Andrew Solomon

Andrew Solomon‘s brilliant, brick-heavy Far From the Tree is a book seemingly far removed from the world of theater. Subtitled “Parents, Children, and the Search for Identity,” it chronicles the pains and triumphs of people who create offspring profoundly different from themselves; Solomon’s categories of dissimilarity include deafness, criminality, transgenderism, and dwarfism, among others. His ultimate message in so much heartbreak is an uplifting one: most people, he says, can love any child, no matter how disabled; indeed, the pain in loving them is made all the greater for being so hard-won. “There is a psychic proximity in desolate times that happiness does not match,” Solomon writes, adding later, “The happy endings of tragedies have a dignity beyond the happy endings of comedies.” The book’s 700 pages demand a significant time investment, but I found it more than worth my while. It is the truest book I have read in quite some time.

But back to the stage—one of Solomon’s chapters is “Prodigies.” It intersects interestingly with the theater by profiling composer Scott Frankel, himself a former child prodigy. You probably know Frankel for his Grey Gardens score, but his work will be back on the boards this summer, when his Far From Heaven opens Off-Broadway at Playwrights Horizons. Frankel’s story of growing up different is fascinating, and I’ve included a few excerpts below. Here’s what Solomon writes:

Scott’s first piano teacher knew that Scott had a remarkable talent; Scott knew, too. “There’s something palpable when your abilities fill you with a divine sense of fate,” he said. “It instantly separates, even alienates you from your schoolmates.” Playing for his parents, “I began to think they liked me for what I could do, perhaps to the exclusion of who I was. The pressure made music an unsafe area. My partner and I had people over for lunch recently, and one asked me to play and I said, ‘No,’ and I sounded really rude, and I felt that rage again. I can’t shake it”…

When he told his parents he was gay, they were livid. “I resented the parochial affection,” he said. “You get the whole package. You can’t pick the shiny bits from the other bits.” In his twenties, Scott became so angry at his parents that he stopped writing music. “Their interest made me want to eat the baby,” he said, “to deprive them of something to pimp and market for their own purposes. Of course, it had the side effect of shooting myself, career-wise and ethos-wise, in the foot. I was completely unmoored, and nothing made sense anymore. All I had was drugs, sex, and therapy.” Scott went ten years without touching a piano. “Yet music kept encroaching. I would be near a piano and feel emotions I couldn’t shut out.” Finally, Scott began composing the musicals that propelled him to Broadway…

Read the whole book for the full story—it’s fascinating, tear-jerking stuff… and it just might offer enough material to bide the time to Far From Heaven‘s May premiere!

photo of Scott Frankel (below) by Zack DeZon

scottfrankel_______________________________
CHECK IT OUT…
Wendy Wasserstein and Susan Sontag, on the page and onstage
— Billy Elliot, Trojan Horse?

 

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