Eat, Drink and be MERRILY!

merrily we roll alongIt’s always nerve-wracking to see a production that’s highly acclaimed. “Of course,” you think on the way to your seat, “the show can’t be all that” if “all that” is “extraordinary!” “revelatory!” “thrilling!” or any of the other other adjectives critics love to toss around like their so many cheap breadcrumbs. Very few evenings of theater really are extraordinary, revelatory or thrilling; better to be pleasantly surprised by something than resignedly disappointed.

So it was with an anxious heart I attended a screening of Merrily We Roll Along, the Sondheim/Furth classic recently on the West End, but available to New Yorkers in a one-night-only, video broadcast. This was the production Messers Brantley and Sondheim had crowned perfect; this was the one christened with more stars than an astrology chart. No way it could measure up, I thought.

What bliss is it to be wrong. Merrily, directed by Maria Friedman, is everything you’ve been told and more. The story of a doomed friendship—famously executed in reverse—is magnificently rendered with all the heart and intelligence a musical can muster, and the big themes of dreams, loyalty and regret shine in brilliantly dramatic fashion. This is in large part thanks to the extraordinary performances of Mark Umbers, Jenna Russell and Damian Humbley (my use “extraordinary” here is earned! Believe me!) Despite creating wholly separate, perfectly constructed portraits of their characters, these actors operate in the single, created universe of their friendship, a universe that’s entertaining and heartbreaking to peek into. Umbers strike an ideal balance between swagger and insecurity; Humbley turns the slow burn into something heartbreaking; Jenna Russell is (as in Sunday in the Park With George) incapable of doing anything dishonest. And how classy is it that they take their final bows together? That’s an “old friends” move, there.

Everything else is equally right. A story that shouldn’t add up—and, if you’re a believer of conventional wisdom, never has—comes together perfectly here in this focused production. It somehow manages to have it both ways, being equal parts hopeful and despairing… try and figure that balancing act out if you can, because I can’t!

It’s absolutely criminal this production hasn’t made its way to New York. Perhaps the Gulf Stream can take a cue from Merrily and blow in reverse, with this production safely carried on its back to our shores.

photo by Alastair Muir

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Let’s Chat! With Nikole Beckwith @ Colt Coeur

HEY Y’ALL! theater-words is back! After a summer hiatus, it’s time to dust the footlights… so LET’S GO!

photo by Dave Thomas Brown

photo by Dave Thomas Brown

First up for the fall is Colt Coeur’s Everything Is Ours, the funny/sad story of a sorta happy couple facing a very unexpected new member. (Favorite line: “I’m not crying — my eyes are allergic to feelings.”) Artistic Director Adrienne Campbell-Holt helms the production which runs thru September 21st at HERE. (You may remember the interview Campbell-Holt gave theater-words for Colt Couer’s last show — it’s a great read available HERE.)

Everything Is Ours playwright Nikole Beckwith was nice enough to answer some questions about her current play, as well as London vs. New York and what to see this season. Check it out…

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What was the inspiration for Everything is Ours?
I sat down to write it because I wanted to write the play that I most wanted to be in. Also, I learned from my mom that you are never really ready to have kids and I learned from my youngest sister that you are never really ready to be one, either.

In the play, an egg donor is presented with her biological daughter, and asked to take her in. If you were in a similar situation, what would you do?
Probably what happens in the play. I’d like to think I can rise to any occasion. With comedic timing.

The design is very striking in its off-kilter way. Did you always envision the set that way, or did it come in collaboration with set designer John McDermott?
I didn’t talk with John before the show, but I’m sure Adrienne did. A close friend of mine came to first preview and said, “It looks just like your first apartment in New York,” (where I lived when I wrote the play), and though I hadn’t thought about it before, she was right. The colors and feeling were very much the same, though my apartment didn’t have additions or tilted/odd sized doors. So John is just a very intuitive designer.  And a fair amount of the set dressing comes from my own home.

What is it like to work with Colt Coeur?
It’s great and exciting. They work really hard and really fast. I think we rehearsed two weeks for this show, and they built that set in two days — it’s crazy. They really go for it. And they are all also very charming and nice to be around, which is equally as important if you ask me. The cast and creatives and behind the scenes are all terrific human beings, putting so much of themselves into this work. It’s wonderful to be a part of.

You’ve done some work in London. What is it like to be a playwright over there versus in the States?
Theater happens so fast there. I wrote a play [Seven Sisters] at the National Theatre Studio January – March, and by May it was slotted to premier at the Royal Court Theatre in July. The RC came to The Studio, saw the reading, and programmed it based on the reading. They don’t have the same development culture we have; they like a play, they do it. Also, everyone sees plays there, everyone. Theater is much more a part of their pop culture and national identity than it is for us. They devour plays the way we devour movies and television. So, being a playwright in London feels a bit like being a part of a much bigger picture.

You write/draw comics in addition to plays. Are the skills needed for one similar to those needed for the other?
Kind of. It’s telling a story in a finite amount of time. It’s actually more similar to film than it is playwriting because the writing of it is so visual and you are telling the viewer where to look and what to see. Whereas on stage one audience member can have a completely different experience than the person next to them, based on what jumps out at them, who they are watching and how. When I’m writing a comic or a film, I give you your window and open it only as much as I want to. When I write a play, I leave the door wide open.

Seen any good theater lately?
MR BURNS at Playwrights Horizons. It is huge, and scary and true, while also being magical and funny and almost other worldly. But we are that world. I can’t recommend it enough.

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Find more info about Everything is Ours HERE.

Tony Picks #4 & 5: Matthew James Thomas & Rachel Bay Jones

Pippin Rachel Bay Jones Matthew James Thomas

Matthew James Thomas & Rachel Bay Jones, Pippin

Ok, ok, they’re not actually nominated, but whatever: Rachel Bay Jones and Matthew James Thomas are wonderful in Pippin, and gosh darnit, they should be among the officially honored. Why? Because both manage to delivery thoroughly quirky, individual performances in the mega-watt machinery of a big Broadway musical—no small feat, indeed! For Thomas, this means his giggly sense of fun never gets lost; for Jones, it’s all about her particular, indescribable MO (you know what I’m taking about if you’ve seen the show). Their way with the material is unrepeatable and—in the very best sense—totally whimsical. I’m reminded of Jones’s wonderfully strange delivery of the line, “I was putting on my eyelash.” Pretty straightforward on the page, but fabulously odd as said by Jones. Thomas, too, is magnetic for how completely he does “his thing,” especially in his sweet interactions with his grandmother. These wonderful actors remind us that it is performers’ particularities rather than their “regularities” that make them most interesting.

Tony Pick #3: Tony Shalhoub

1.162767

Tony Shalhoub, Golden Boy
As a distraught, immigrant Italian father in this Odets oldie, Tony Shalhoub used a pitch-perfect accent as a direct channel to the pathos of his character. Shalhoub’s way around extended vowels and clattering consonants somehow make the role emotionally true; he used every Italian cadence and lifted phrase as another display of his character’s psychology, and the collective thrust was beautiful. If there’s any justice on Broadway, it’s Tony time for this real-life Tony!

Tony Pick #2: Lauren Ward

Matilda Broadway

Milly Shapiro, Bertie Carvel and Lauren Ward

The second act of Matilda reduced me to a blubbering snot-mess, in large part because of the title character’s touching relationship with her teacher, Miss Honey. The cross-generational bond is the heart of the show, and Lauren Ward as Miss Honey makes it work perfectly with easygoing, beautifully sung soul. The way she charts her symbiotic relationship with Matilda is expert and sensitive: Frightened, she and Matilda look to each other for strength, and in so doing receive it. It’s crazy moving, as is Ward’s simple and perfect delivery of my new favorite show tune, “My House,” itself a perfect pean to being satisfied with simple things. To boot, the show’s final sight—Ward cartwheeling into the sunset with Matilda—crystallizes all that is good about Ward and this production: their sincerity, their whimsy, and their sense of heart.

Photo by Sara Krulwich

Tony Pick #1: Kristine Nielsen

Maybe I’m just on an end-of-season, Matilda-inspired high, but Broadway seemed particularly smoosh-smashed with some truly noteworthy performances this year. As Tonys are approaching, it’s time to write about them! Let’s get started with the ultimate highlight…

Tony Pick #1: Kristine Nielsen, Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike

Kristine Nielsen

“Brilliant! Heartbreaking! Genius!” Critics like to throw these words around, even if they’re not always appropriate. But when the actress is Kristin Nielsen and the play is Vanya and Sonia, such distinctions are actually accurate: She is brilliant; she is heartbreaking; she is a genius. A great synthesizer of the tragic and the comic, Nielsen uses her extraordinary vocal and physical technique in the service of something almost frighteningly, hilariously real in this beautiful, funny play. Tony folk, I beg of you: Vote early and vote often for what is unquestionably the performance of the year.

Read more about Nielsen in Vanya here.

That Time Julie Andrews Spoke at My Brother’s Graduation

Julie Andrews Colorado College Boulder Graduation

Every year or six it’s important to leave New York—one can only stand so much of $7 cereal and the G train, after all. Last week I took one such sojourn to my brother’s college graduation in Boulder, Colorado. Here, I thought, was my chance to leave behind Mr. Man Hattan. To clear the head. To consider—very briefly—matters beyond the footlights. Sure, Sondheim’s “Our Time” might flit through my mind at The Big Event, but that moment would pass, and I would soon be thinking on, well, whatever it is non-theater people think on.

And then I learned that the graduation speaker was to be Julie Andrews.

Not kidding.

At first I thought I was being had. “Right,” I said to myself. “Julie Andrews? Who’s her date, Richard Burton? Rex Harrison?”

But the joke was on me: Apparently Dame Julie had some connection to the University, and, in a remarkable coup, had been roped into delivering the annual basket of “go get ‘em” pleasantries.

(The theater will find you, people, even if you fly four hours to the foothills of the Flatiron Range. It will find you.)

Graduation morning dawned blue and overture-worthy. Walking towards the ceremony, to be held in the football stadium, I glanced up at the mountains that cradled the city and I wondered—was Julie up there, crooning “The Hills Are Alive”? Or, I considered, passing the marijuana shops, was she there, selling loverly “flowers”? In other words, was it a Sound of Music day or a My Fair Lady day? A Victor/Victoria morning or a Boy Friend one? Which Julie were we going to get?

Silly me. An hour later, as Julie ascended to her throne/podium, the answer became clear: Today was a Camelot day, and Julie, oh Julie, was our beloved Guinevere. How could it be otherwise? It was, you see, a cheery morn in this Lusty Month of May.

“I LOVE YOU JULIE,” someone screamed from the crowd as we rose to our feet. We love you, too, our hoots concurred. We love you too!

Who knew the Colorado set was so discerning?

“Thank you,” she said, quieting the crowd, “thank you.” Then—

It’s all a Julie blur. Sorry.

There was something about overcoming adversity (egregiously overlooked! the botched operation!) and the importance of the arts, as well as brilliant lines about “my signature turn” and how “the hills truly are alive with the class of 2013,” but I was too taken with her regal poise and the mere Fact of Julie Andrews to remember much more.

Because here’s the thing about Ms. Andrews: Girl knows how to work a crowd. Seriously. Though you’ll never meet a more gentlewomanly creature on God’s green earth, Julie owned us with the strength of an iron fist—a fist draped in dainty blue satin sashes, but a fist, nonetheless. Never once was our applause allowed to get in the way of her message, never once were we anywhere but the uber-competent palm of her hand.

Such control is a miracle to behold, and renders message almost irrelevant. The way she said what she said was the meaning of what she said. Not to get all modernistic… but it really was.

So thanks, Julie. Thanks for spoiling my theater hiatus. I’m not going to spout that line about the world, and how it’s a stage—not gonna do it—but such, it seems, is the truth. You can’t, it seems, escape the theater.

And if Julie Andrews is involved, it turns out, you won’t want to.

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

A Scott Rudin, Patrick Healy Kerfluffle

Whoa! Producer Scott Rudin has some fightin’ words for New York Times journalist Patrick Healy in today’s ABCs.

Scott Rudin Patrick Healy Testament of MaryPresumably the tiff has something to do with this interview Healy conducted with Testament of Mary playwright Colm Tobin. Perhaps Rudin chafted at Healy’s contention that The Book of Mormon, another Rudin show, was somehow financing MaryWhat do you think?

 

Poor Christine Ebersole

Winning two Tony Awards apparently isn’t enough to warrant above-the-title billing in movies these days. The wonderful Christine Ebersole is the only person on The Big Wedding poster not to be named… even someone named Ben Barnes (?!) gets himself up there. Look at her, sadly watching from the corner…

photo

Ever the underdog, Ye Old Theatre…

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