Steam Heat: “Picnic”

The hottest line on Broadway is… drumroll please…

Picnic Maggie Grace Sebastian Stan Ellen Burstyn William Inge Sam Gold Roundabout Theatre Company

“We’re not goin’ on no goddam picnic.”

Indeed!

(I think Ellen Burstyn, left, agrees with me.)

photo by Joan Marcus.

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Best of 2012!

Screen Shot 2012-12-27 at 2.05.29 PM

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.

—————

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?

Favorite Moment: Uncle Vanya

Soho Rep

Soho Rep’s star-laden staging of Uncle Vanya is already sold out—sorry, guys—so this edition of “Favorite Moment” will have to take the place of actual theatergoing for you ticketless chumps out there.

Towards the end of the play’s second act, step-relations Yelena (Maria Dizzia) and Sonya (Merritt Weaver) reconnect after years of detachment and mistrust. They share a drink and gossip over the midnight oil, and once they’ve exposed their insecurities and desires, finally come to see each other as sisters in angst. By sharing their hearts, everything feels renewed and possible, and Yelena wants to celebrate with music, even though it’s been years since she’s tickled her piano’s ivories.

So Sonya rushes out in excitement to ask permission of her father (it’s the middle of the night and he isn’t well). Several expectant seconds pass.

But when Sonya reenters the room, all hope deflates: “He said no,” she exhales in sadness.

With that, not only does the possibility of music disappear, all hope of escape, beauty, and redemption evaporates, too. It’s a gorgeously awful moment of heartbreak, and in this Sam Gold production, it’s as devastating as ever.

_____________________________
Uncle Vanya
by Anton Chekhov
at Soho Rep
directed by Sam Gold

Pictured: Maria Dizzia and Michael Shannon. Photo by Sara Krulwich

The Grandma Plays

Call Grandma!

That’s the parting impulse you’re likely to feel after two new off-Broadway plays, The Big Meal (Playwrights Horizons) and 4000 Miles (Lincoln Center Theatre). Like that old chestnut Our Town, these plays key into the transcendent power of everyday and regular family love. They are about The Big Themes, and they’re sure to send you to your phone: I love you, Grandma!

The Big Meal, by Dan LeFranc, accesses this pathos through a parade of actors who alternate as various members of one family; characters “grow old” as progressively aged performers assume the parts. It’s a terrifically moving device that highlights both the impermanence of everything and the comforting continuity of reproduction. The “story” is nothing more than the inevitable drama in a potpourri of family dinners, but the collective impact of all that “ordinary” is, well, extraordinary.

Amy Herzog’s 4000 Miles is more formally straightforward but no less emotionally potent. In it, college-aged Leo sets up camp in his grandmother Vera’s Greenwich Village pad. A youthful shot of scruff in a menagerie of fogeyism, he is in mourning for newly-deceased friend. The “4000 miles” of the title refer to a bike trip Leo has made, but they might as well signify the distance between Leo and Vera, a distance narrowed by scene after scene of awkwardness, frustration, then leisure and love.

Family drama really is the driving force of so many great American plays, and these writers continue that tradition in new, exciting ways. As the reviewers say, they’ve written something for everyone: You, Grandma, and everyone in between.

photo of The Big Meal by Joan Marcus

“Brothers and Sisters:” LIVE!

Rachel Griffiths and Matthew Rhys on "Brothers and Sisters"

Fans of TV’s “Brothers and Sisters”—yours truly included—now have a thrilling double shot at catching Matthew Rhys (“Scotty”) or Rachel Griffiths (“Sarah”) live and in the flesh. Rhys trades sweetness for sting in Look Back in Anger, at the Roundabout, while Griffiths rides a tell-all memoir to Broadway in Other Desert Cities. TV celebs don’t usually make good by their stage roles, but this situation is different. Why?

1- Griffiths and Rhys earned theater cred before going to Hollywood;
2- they’re perfect for their parts; and,
3- “Brothers and Sisters” was just that good. Sue me.

Griffiths had this to say about doing theater: “It really is our penance for taking the money in television. I’m a Roman Catholic, and [Rhys] is a Welsh Methodist. You must repent. Got to go kneel in the cathedral of the theater.” (NY Times, 1/19/12)

Repentance, then, involves a lot of fury and despair: Both Other Desert Cities and Look Back in Anger light huge fires under fraught family fracas, then bathe in the ensuing sparks. “Jimmy,” Rhys’ character, is cooped up in a 1950s London flat and endlessly condemns the world on personal and political levels. “Brooke” (Griffiths), a writer, is unsure about exposing the secrets of her Palm Springs family and dances around her right-wing parents like an anxious minesweeper. In both plays, tears are shed, papers are thrown, souls are burned. And yes, it’s all pretty wonderful.

[Read more…]

The Best of 2011!

Lay on the eggnog! Toss the confetti! It’s time for the 2011 superlatives! Huzzah! This year’s winners of the internationally renowned theater-words awards are listed below, roughly in the order they opened.

__________________________________________________________________

BEST CASE FOR THE SURVIVAL OF THE WELL-MADE PLAY:

Good People, MTC/Broadway

Here’s how it goes: There’s an interesting lead character who wants something that she has to fight hard to get. A shocking setup, I know, but we Aristotelians in the audience at David Lindsay-Abaire’s latest were giddy at the elegance and payoff of this perfectly crafted and relevant class drama.

BEST REMINDER THAT TONY KUSHNER ROCKS AND TOTALLY DOESN’T CARE ABOUT NON-COMMERCIAL TITLES:

The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures, the Public Theater

Mr. Angels in America’s four-hour behemoth stood proudly on its own, complicated terms: Spectacularly performed and directed, it simultaneously made you uncomfortable and blissed out—not exactly an easy combination.

[Read more…]

I Want to “Live Here”

Zoe Kazan’s new play at MTC is called “We Live Here,” but I’m calling it “I Want to Live There”—John Lee Beatty’s set is so beautifully, fully realized that I left City Center with a severe case of real estate envy. His take on an upper middle-class New England colonial is the oh-so-right mix of elegance and hominess. Plus, all the levels that presumably help sightlines make it a dynamic, up and down space.

Do you do apartments, Mr. Beatty?

The Walkout

Vera Farmiga in “Higher Ground (L), Lily Rabe & Josh Hamliton in “A Doll’s House,” (R)

“The Walkout:” It’s a perfect 11 o’clock moment, the instant your hero shouts, “Enough!” then marches out the door, leaving the familiar behind for the unknown.

A film and a play recently made Grade A hay out of this device. The former, Vera Farmiga’s “Higher Ground,” examines one woman’s journey in and out of faith; the second, “A Doll’s House” (which I saw in revival at Williamstown), presents a wife on the verge of implosion. Each woman makes a dramatic exit, and each gives a wrenching, climactic address explaining why she’s leaving and what she clings to as – click click – her heels take her into uncertainty and solitude.

[Read more…]

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