Trending Off-Broadway

Water By the Spoonful - photo by Richard Termine

Anyone else notice a few striking similarities between Water by the Spoonful and The Great God PanI know I’m late to the game with these Second Stage and Playwrights Horizons productions, both recently closed, but if they left any impression (and they probably did), you might recall these shared traits:

1. MOSAIC STORYTELLING
Rather than lead their audiences on clear, linear journeys, playwrights Quiara Alegría Hudes (Water) and Amy Herzog (Pan) opted for patchwork approaches. Many of their characters don’t intersect, instead leading concurrent narratives that only reflect each other in not entirely obvious ways. In both plays, this approach added to the texture and scale of the worlds represented, even if it left some theatergoers a little miffed.

2. GREENERY!
Designer Neil Patel (Water) let plants grow rampant over his boxy set, as did Mark Wendland (Pan) for his. (Wendland used photos of plants rather than imitations of the real thing.) In both productions, this jungle/forest feel suggested both beauty and a hint of menace. And that wasn’t all: Both sets also had a segmented, collage-y thing going, a visual representation that “mosaic storytelling.”

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Water by the Spoonful, photo by Richard Termine

Great God Pan Playwrights Horizons

The Great God Pan

3. TONE
Water and Pan shared a style very much in vogue these days, that is, the quiet rhythm of everyday melancholia. And even when the volume turned up, the plays never strayed from this indie-film ethos, all quiet sadness and heartache.
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Of course, in terms of story and theme, these plays were quite different… Addiction and the internet were the stuff of Water, while memory and abuse was Pan’s focus. Still, when two of New York’s most acclaimed playwrights share at least this much, it might be time to pull out… oh yeah… the hashtag:

#trending, #offbroadway, #goodplays… you know what I’m talking about…

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YOU MIGHT ENJOY…
NO MORE FOCACCIA? — Jordan Harrison’s Maple and Vine
DRAMATIC, END OF PLAY SET CHANGE

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Best of 2012!

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Listmakers rejoice! It’s time for the annual “BEST OF” catalogue! Buckets of theater got produced this year, and below are the Official Theater-Words Favorites. (Some publications distinguish between “best” and “favorite.” Not here. Calling something a “best” but not a “favorite”—or vice versa—is like pretending you’re not, y’know, a subjective human being.)

But first, some preemptive thoughts: This list is heavily skewed towards off-Broadway—only two Broadway shows appear—and only three musicals were thrilling enough to make the cut. Sad times for Broadway, sad times for musicals.

But not sad times for theater! The following shows were united by a moment-to-moment vitality and artistry; they were distinguished by the imaginative ways that vitality was expressed.

(BTW, on-the-road employment being what it is, this list is weighted towards the first half of the season. Apologies to the fall, but I just wasn’t around.)


And now, in roughly descending order…

 

1. THE BIG MEAL (Playwrights Horizons)
Without a doubt the best play of the year. Both theatrical and humane, Dan LeFrank’s family drama elevated the commonplace to the level of profound, rather like that most perfect of plays, Our Town.

 

2. PIPPIN (American Repertory Theater, in Boston)
Coss your fingers, New York—ART’s Pippin is spectacular, and you’d be lucky to have it. Equal parts ear-to-ear smiles and musical theater chills, this show was the most fun I’ve had at a tuner in years.

 

3. UNCLE VANYA (Soho Rep)
A super cool, immersive set invited the audience inside the living room of this beautifully acted play. As much a “happening” as a production.

 

4. FEBRUARY HOUSE (Public Theater)
Director Davis McCallum and company turned down the volume in this intimate off-Broadway musical about art and the world, to beautiful effect. Gabriel Kahane’s score made you eager for more.

 

5. CLYBOURNE PARK (Broadway via Playwrights Horizons)
It’s all been said before, but really, this intelligent time-travelling race relations play was a blast, and featured some of the dirtiest jokes ever.

 

6. THE GREAT GOD PAN (Playwrights Horizons)
This was an odd, disarming play with a killer premise: a man learns he may have been molested as a child, but he remembers nothing. Did it happen? Does it matter? A seemingly slight play that stuck to your bones.

 

7. THE LYONS (Broadway via the Vineyard Theater)
Linda Lavin got lots of praise in Nicky Silver’s fantastic black comedy, but Michael Esper (and most everyone) was just as good. A great entertainment.

 

8. LOOK BACK IN ANGER (Roundabout Theater Company)
The claustrophobia and, yes, anger in this production were thrilling and eerie. A creative, uber-narrow set hit things home. Not a date show, to its credit.

 

9. MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG (City Center Encores!)
The Encores orchestra playing this Sondheim score was pretty unbeatable. And really—is there a better finale than “Our Time”? Not that I’m aware of.

 

10. AS YOU LIKE IT (The Public’s Shakespeare in the Park)
Daniel Sullivan’s production hit home the redemptive parts of this otherwise overproduced Shakespeare, making the play seem vital and generous.

 

So here’s to you, 2012! Glad to have you, here’s your coat, get home safe. Say hi to 2013 on the way out.

Coulda Shoulda Woulda

This fall, two exciting plays premier at the newly-renovated Public Theater

Present circumstances being what they are, the thumb of theater-words isn’t as closely bound to the pulse of New York theater as it usually is. So what are we most bummed about missing this fall season? Achem…

1. Sorry, at the Public Theater. The third entry of Richard Nelson’s remarkable “Apple Plays,” Sorry takes us back to the now-beloved Apple family in Rhinebeck, NY for an evening of taut, unprepossessing drama. Just like it’s two predecessors (That Hopey Changey Thing and Sweet and Sad), Sorry is an “up-to-the-second” play taking place on election night, 2012. The first two plays about the family were delivered with breathtaking intimacy and honesty; there’s every reason to believe that Sorry will continue the trend.

2. The Whale, at Playwrights Horizons. The is a tale of a six-hundred pound dude, his estranged daughter, and a young angry Mormon—all sure-to-be-potent ingredients when Samuel Hunter is the playwright and Davis McCallum is the director. And hey, there’s the thrilling prospect of watching Shuler Hensley wear a monstrously large fat suit.

3. Fun Homeat the Public Theater. Oh, agony of agonies to miss this one. theater-words has been keeping tabs on this new musical for quite some time, so its continued development is especially exciting. But to miss its premiere… oh dear. Why the enthusiasm? Fun Home was first published as a singularly brilliant graphic memoir by the peerless Alison Bechdel; the family drama therein was pretty much beyond compare. Adapted by Jeanine Tesori and Lisa KronFun Home is the kind of story that makes you knock your forehead: “Of course! What a perfect idea for a musical!” Director Sam Gold is the bee’s knees in pretty much everything he does, and will doubtlessly deliver an intelligent and sensitive production.

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There are, of course, plenty of other shows worth being excited about (here’s looking at you, The Heiress, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?and The Mystery of Edwin Drood, to name a few) but in terms of very-limited runs, for my money it’s gonna be hard to beat the three above picks.

Do you plan on seeing any of these titles? What are your thoughts? And, post-performance, how were they?

“February House,” All Amped Up

A.J. Shively and Erik Lochtenfeld. Photo by Joan Marcus

Conventional wisdom says that music-theater amplification is all bad, a lousy concession to contemporary audiences weaned on high-decibel concerts and blaring iPods. And conventional wisdom is mainly right: most any new Broadway musical is “sweetened” to a bafflingly dehumanizing degree.

And yet… every so often there’s a show that uses amplification perfectly, not for grotesque overemphasis, but as an unobtrusive magnifying glass, a useful, delicate projector.

February House, Gabriel Kahane and Seth Bockley’s wonderful new musical at the Public Theater, is one such show. Directed by Davis McCallum, it’s a quiet, gently ornate piece that wafts from performer to audience, all on a beautifully melancholic melody of banjo, violin, clarinet, etc. Yes, there are a few “belty” numbers (see “A Little Brain,” sung by Kacie Sheik) but the folk-styled score is mostly understated and quiet. Leon Rothenberg’s sound design ensures that Kahane’s music retains that quality, even when surreptitiously boosted by the sound system.

The plot: February House chronicles the true story of a group of creatives, among them W.H. Auden, Gypsy Rose Lee, and Carson McCullers, brought together by editor George Davis for an experiment in artistic, communal living. These and other boarders shared a house in Brooklyn where they could both work privately and live in community. (The preponderance of February birthdays among the tenants lent the enclave its moniker.) Unfortunately, World War II and personal dynamics broke up the utopia.

The perfectly calibrated performances of these celebrity characters mesh seamlessly with the material, with Erik Lochtenfeld (Auden), Kristen Sieh (McCullers) and Julian Fleisher (Davis) as particularly adept modulators of soul and song. Indeed—back to amplification!—the actors seem acutely aware of the ways to take advantage of their microphones–see Fleisher’s soft falsetto, on frequent display, for example.

The last song of February House is a beautiful lullaby called “Goodnight to the Boardinghouse.” The tenants have left, the dream of a “house of art” is over, and Davis soothes himself—and us—to conclusion. As performed by Fleisher (and amplified by Rothenberg) that lullaby is every bit as light, caring, and fragile as a mother’s intimate bedtime song. Properly done, theater can preserve those whispering, quiet places, and still be seen, still be heard.

February House
Music and Lyrics by Gabriel Kahane
Book by Seth Bockley
Directed by Davis McCallum
at the Public Theater

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