Act One Review: Moss Hart’s Beloved Theater Memoir Brought to Broadway Stage

“Act One,” the  well-meaning stage adaptation of the beloved theatrical memoir by Moss Hart, aims to explore the intoxicating appeal of the theater, but it instead demonstrates the theater’s mysterious alchemy in ways that it surely did not intend. Nearly every element of this play promises sparkling entertainment – the terrific source, the experienced creative team, a huge and hugely talented cast that features Tony Shalhoub, Santino Fontana, Chuck Cooper and Andrea Martin, even an elaborate three-tiered set that rotates – but somehow “Act One” doesn’t even begin to deliver on that promise until, ironically, Act II.

Written and directed by James Lapine, Sondheim’s frequent collaborator, as a way of celebrating his own three decades as a theater artist, the play uses some of Hart’s choice lines and presents many of the incidents from the book.

Three different actors portray Moss Hart at different stages of his life. Matthew Schechter is the child growing up in poverty in the Bronx in the early 1900s, whose love of the theater is inspired by his  crazy aunt Kate (Andrea Martin.)

Santino Fontana plays the young man, forced to leave school in eighth grade to help support the family. His first job is in a smelly fur factory, but he is serendipitously hired as an office boy for a theatrical producer, who keeps on calling him Mouse. Hart has a series of theater-related jobs – more like adventures, one more improbable than the next. Still an office boy, he writes a play that his boss takes on the road aiming for Broadway, with disastrous results. At age 17, he debuts as an actor on Broadway, playing a 60-year-old man in “The Emperor Jones” by Eugene O’Neill, opposite the great (if often drunk) performer Charles Gilpin (Chuck Cooper.) That Broadway debut, however, did not launch his career as an actor; it ended it. From there he became a social director at a Catskills hotel – a world now gone, and one Hart writes about extensively in the memoir, but is here given just a single scene. (This is not a criticism; something had to go.)

But more than half of  “Act One” the play – as more than half of Hart’s memoir – is taken up with the lengthy process that resulted in Hart’s first big hit on Broadway, the comedy “Once in a Lifetime.”

Tony Shalhoub plays Moss Hart as the older adult (the age he wrote the memoir), and performs the duties of narrator. As with most of the actors in “Act One,” Shalhoub plays multiple roles. His two other parts are as Hart’s embittered immigrant father, and as Hart’s mentor, George S. Kauffman, who co-wrote “Once In A Lifetime.” Kaufman apparently shared many of the quirks of Shalhoub’s most beloved character, Monk. He washed his hands a lot, obsessed over pieces of lint on the rug. He also literally ran away whenever anybody tried to offer him heartfelt thanks. The scenes between Hart and Kaufman as they try to hammer out the script offer a liveliness and a lightness that are the most rewarding parts of the play.

There is plenty here to keep your attention. Beowulf Boritt’s set alone is a complicated contraption three stories tall, that seems always in motion, full of staircases and tenement apartments that spin around into rundown offices and theater balconies, and then that are transformed in the second act to plush offices and Kaufman’s elegant townhouse. The cast of some two dozen, most playing multiple parts, also seem always in motion as they populate scenes that unfold from 1914 to 1930.

Yes, there are some obvious missteps, such as Lapine’s choice to begin with the staging of a scene from Oscar Wilde’s “A Man of No Importance,” which he presents as the first play that Hart ever saw, at age 11. The scene doesn’t feel witty; it certainly doesn’t communicate why a boy would find it the stage so wondrous. At best, it’s confusing, and since we’re presented no context for this drawing room comedy, it seems pompous.

But many of the scenes are more or less faithful re-creations of moments in the memoir. On page, they are moving or amusing or otherwise delightful. And yet on stage, they seem mostly… informative.

It approaches something of a cruel irony that the second act of “Act One” focuses so extensively on how to fix the play-within-the-play, since surely the creative team was having some similar discussions about the play itself.  What is on stage most of the time seems…. respectful, as if striving above all for accuracy;  the earnest, straightforward scenes rarely capture the lively, passionate, slyly humorous tone Hart establishes in his memoir.

As I wrote in my profile of Santino Fontana, Moss Hart’s name is no longer widely known, but at the time he wrote Act One in 1959, he was one of the most celebrated men of the theater.  As a director, he won a Tony for  the original production of My Fair Lady. As a playwright, he won a Pulitzer  for You Can’t Take It With You, and gained great success with such evergreens as The Man Who Came To Dinner. As a book writer of musicals, he worked with Irving Berlin, Cole Porter and Richard Rodgers; a play he wrote inspired Stephen Sondheim to create a musical adaptation with the same name, Merrily We Roll Along.  He wasn’t just a playwright and director. He produced  Camelot. He was even the co-owner of the Broadway theater (the Lyceum) where Born Yesterday debuted.  As if all that were not enough, Moss Hart also wrote the screenplays for the popular movies Gentleman’s Agreement starring Gregory Peck, Hans Christian Anderson starring Danny Kaye,  and A Star Is Born starring Judy Garland.

None of this is in his memoir – which is why it’s called “Act One. ” The book, which was a number one bestseller when it was first published, takes the readers on a funny, hair-raising and often moving journey from Hart’s poverty-stricken childhood to his first big Broadway hit.

 The best thing to say about “Act One” the play is that it will remind those who have read  “Act One” the memoir just how charming it is, and it will inspire theatergoers who have not read it to get hold of that wonderful book

Act One

Vivian Beaumont Theater at Lincoln Center

Written and directed by James Lapine, from the autobiography by Moss Hart; sets by Beowulf Boritt; costumes by Jane Greenwood; lighting by Ken Billington; sound by Dan Moses Schreier; music by Louis Rosen

Cast: Bill Army (Eddie Chodorov), Will Brill (David Allen/Dore Schary/George), Laurel Casillo (Roz/Mary), Chuck Cooper (Wally/Charles Gilpin/Max Siegel), Santino Fontana (Moss Hart), Steven Kaplan (Irving Gordon/Pianist), Will LeBow (Augustus Pitou/Jed Harris), Mimi Lieber (Lillie Hart/Helen), Charlotte Maier (Phyllis/May), Andrea Martin (Aunt Kate/Frieda Fishbein/Beatrice Kaufman), Deborah Offner (Belle/Mrs. Rosenbloom), Matthew Saldivar (Joseph Regan/Jerry), Matthew Schechter (Moss Hart/Bernie Hart), Tony Shalhoub (Moss Hart/Barnett Hart/George S. Kaufman), Bob Stillman (Priestly Morrison/Sam Harris/Pianist) and Amy Warren (Mrs. Henry B. Harris).

Running time: 2 hours 40 minutes.

Act One is scheduled to run through June 15.

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Broadway Dogs of 2014

Broadway barks indeed. This season, dogs are in the casts of four Broadway shows. All four were rescued from a dog pound, and now perform eight shows a week. Are their Pooper-Scoopers monogrammed?

Santino Fontana’s Act One, The Unluckiest Lucky Actor in New York

“The theatre is not so much a profession as a disease, and my first look at Broadway was the beginning of a lifelong infection,” playwright and director Moss Hart wrote in Act One, his long-ago bestselling memoir.

“My diagnosis came later,” says Santino Fontana. “I wanted to be a baseball player when I was a kid.”

Fontana, born more than two decades after Hart died, is one of three actors who portray him at different ages of his life in a stage adaptation of Hart’s memoir at Lincoln Center, written and directed by James Lapine, which opens April 17th.

This is an iconic book in the theater, at least with the older generations of theater artists,” says Lapine. “It seemed like a wonderful opportunity to share this story with a new generation…and also to celebrate my thirty-plus years working in this world.”

ACTONEposterIt’s a world that Moss Hart dominated for decades, and one for which he yearned from a very young age. That first look at Broadway that he talks about in his memoir happened when he was 12 years old and finally took the subway from his Bronx home to Times Square: “A swirling mob of happy, laughing people filled the streets, and others hung from the windows of every building…” The air was filled with confetti, noisemakers and paper streamers. His first visit happened to coincide with Election Day, 1916.

“Much of the book feels apocryphal,” Fontana says, taking a break in the lobby of the Vivian Beaumont. “Whether it happened that way or not, that’s how he remembered it.”

Fontana’s Broadway is not Moss Hart’s. “So much has changed.” The theater for Hart was a path out of poverty. These days, the theater takes many in the exact opposite direction.

It is true that some still grow up with the Broadway bug, but Fontana says he was not one of them. Born in Stockton, California and raised in a small town in the State of Washington, he says “As a child I didn’t even have any idea what Broadway was. And I don’t really have a first memory of seeing Times Square.”

Still, if there is a marked difference in their life and times, so there are also striking similarities between Moss Hart and the actor who is portraying him as a young man.

That is why Lapine cast him: “Santino is smart, charming and plausible as a great writer.”

In Moss Hart’s day, success in the theater took timing and luck, as Hart writes in Act One. “Timing and luck haven’t changed,” says Fontana, who admits he’s been very lucky. But he can lay legitimate claim to being the unluckiest lucky actor in New York.

A Star Is Born Yesterday

Moss Hart’s name is no longer widely known, but at the time he wrote Act One in 1959, he was one of the most celebrated men of the theater.  As a director, he won a Tony for  the original production of My Fair Lady. As a playwright, he won a Pulitzer  for You Can’t Take It With You, and gained great success with such evergreens as The Man Who Came To Dinner. As a book writer of musicals, he worked with Irving Berlin, Cole Porter and Richard Rodgers; a play he wrote inspired Stephen Sondheim to create a musical adaptation with the same name, Merrily We Roll Along.  He wasn’t just a playwright and director. He produced  Camelot. He was even the co-owner of the Broadway theater (the Lyceum) where Born Yesterday debuted.  As if all that were not enough, Moss Hart also wrote the screenplays for the popular movies Gentleman’s Agreement starring Gregory Peck, Hans Christian Anderson starring Danny Kaye,  and A Star Is Born starring Judy Garland.

None of this is in his memoir – which is why it’s called Act One.  The book, which was a number one bestseller when it was first published, takes the readers on an amusing, hair-raising and often moving journey from Hart’s poverty-stricken childhood to his first big Broadway hit co-written with his mentor George S. Kaufman, Once In A Lifetime, when Hart was 26 years old.

Santino Fontana was 26 years old when he made his Broadway debut, in Sondheim and Lapine’s Sunday in the Park With George, following up the same year by originating the role of Tony the older brother in Billy Elliott.

“I was knocked out by Santino’s work,” says Lapine. “I think him to be a very unique acting talent. He seems to be able to do everything, from classical material to musicals.”

“Working with Santino has been a humbling and awe-inspiring experience,” says Tony Shalhoub, who plays the older Moss Hart. “He is tremendously skilled, inventive, mercurial and generous as an actor, and what’s even more painful, he makes it all seem effortless…. On breaks, he plops down at the piano and his fingers just fly – worrying me further that perhaps there is nothing he can’t do.”
Act One is the seventh Broadway show featuring Fontana, now 31.  His life may seem as charmed as was Hart’s;  indeed, his last role on Broadway was playing Prince Charming, in Cinderella.  (He played another prince for Disney, voicing Prince Hans in Frozen.)

Fontana was five years old when he first started acting: “It was a Thanksgiving play. I was the turkey. I do remember spearheading the production.”  At 6, his mother took him to a production of Grapes of Wrath. At 11, he played the Artful Dodger in a community theater production of Oliver. As student body president in high school, he made announcements every morning, and turned them into three-minute skits. He even performed in some school productions of Kaufman-Hart plays. But it wasn’t until he attended Interlochen Arts Camp in Michigan one summer that he changed his mind about a baseball career. “There was nobody in my hometown that made their living in the arts. But these kids knew about theater; I felt I fit in.”

Once he’d decided on his path, it was a quick ascent.  He was accepted as an undergraduate in a joint program of the University of Minnesota and the Guthrie Theater, which hired him as a company member upon graduation. At 22, he got his first job in New York, a workshop with James Lapine. He played Hamlet at the Guthrie at age 23. A few years later, he was on Broadway.

Unlucky Guy

Then his luck took a mischievous turn. He was cast as a lead in the Broadway revivals of Neil Simon’s Brighton Beach Memoirs and Broadway Bound, receiving good reviews for the first show.  But Brighton Beach Memoirs closed in a week, and Broadway Bound was canceled. The very next day, he was cast in A View From The Bridge opposite Scarlett Johansson. But then in a preview performance he hit his head against the table during a fight scene. It was a far more serious injury that he at first realized, and he was forced to withdraw from the production. “From an MRI it looked like I had been in a car accident. The doctor flat-out said ‘we don’t know how much your memory will come back.’ I couldn’t get through the alphabet without stopping. I got migraines. I couldn’t use my eyes for three weeks; I had to stay in dark rooms.”

Even when he started to recover, it was a tricky time to try to get a new role. “You don’t want to appear injured – but you don’t want to get re-injured.”

It took him six months before he did a reading. It was for Stephen Karam’s Sons of the Prophet. “I read ‘It’s been a bad year’– that was the character’s last line – and I lost it.” He started sobbing. “They probably thought ‘Oh, we’ve got a really good actor.’” Fontana was cast Off-Broadway in the role, and received solid raves for his performance.  Critics compared him to Tom Hanks and Tony Shalhoub, called him a great performer and a star in the making. “I didn’t work for a year after that.” The producers of Cinderella had cast him – but it took a year to get the musical in front of paying customers.

The oddly paired ups-and-downs over the past few years make Fontana appreciate all the more some of Hart’s pointed observations in Act One. “The theatre, strictly speaking, is not a business at all,” Hart wrote, “but a collection of individualized chaos that operates best when it is allowed to flower in its proper medley of disorder, derangement, irregularity and confusion.”

Hart is said to have had deep periods of depression, something unmentioned in his memoir, but detailed in later biographies. Evidence of such despair can arguably be parsed between the lines of Act One. In recounting a particular low point in his efforts to forge a career, Hart wrote, “I wondered ruefully if the theater was really worth it.”

Fontana can relate. “I still do that. It’s hard. There’s no real security.”

Most of Hart’s words in Act One, though, are tinged with humor, and affection, and wonder for his life in the arts.

While working on Once on A Lifetime, Hart recalled his co-writer Kaufman casually inviting him to a party that turned out to have “everyone I had ever read or hero-worshipped from afar”– from George Gershwin to Dorothy Parker to Harpo Marx. Fontana felt the same awe when he was invited, as part of the cast of his first Broadway show to a party being given by Stephen Sondheim.

In the morning of the opening night of  Once in a Lifetime, Hart described how he suddenly saw Broadway in a different light:

“The tawdriness and the glitter were gone. It seemed to stand hushed and waiting – as if eager to welcome all the new actors and playwrights struggling to reach it.”

Soon afterward, certifiably rich and famous, Moss Hart made two vows: He would never take the hated subway of his youth again, and he would never get out of bed before noon.

“I take the train,” says Santino Fontana, who is in the Act One of his career, “but I wouldn’t mind getting up past noon.”

 

2014 Pulitzer Prize for Drama Winner: Annie Baker’s The Flick

Annie Baker’s The Flick has won the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Drama.

Here is my review of The Flick.

175anniebakerCitation: “Awarded to “The Flick,” by Annie Baker, a thoughtful drama with well-crafted characters that focuses on three employees of a Massachusetts art-house movie theater, rendering lives rarely seen on the stage.”

Update: Barrow Street Theater plans to produce The Flick in the near future, according to a spokesman for its producer, Scott Rudin, although all details are to be announced. (Buyer and Cellar is running at the theater through the end of August.)

Finalists

Also nominated as finalists in this category were “The (curious case of the) Watson Intelligence,” by Madeleine George, a cleverly constructed play that uses several historical moments – from the 1800s to the 2010s – to meditate on the technological advancements that bring people together and tear them apart; and “Fun Home,” book and lyrics by Lisa Kron, music by Jeanine Tesori, a poignant musical adaptation of a graphic memoir by cartoonist Alison Bechdel, exploring sexual identity amid complicated family constraints and relationships.

Watson, a member of the Dweeb Team

Watson, a member of the Dweeb Team, in The Curious Case of the (Watson) Intelligence, Pulitzer finalist

 

Noah Hinsdale, Griffin Birney, and Sydney Lucas

Noah Hinsdale, Griffin Birney, and Sydney Lucas in Fun Home, Pulitzer finalist

 

My mixed reaction to The Flick is evident in this excerpt from my review:

Those who have seen the previous gently-paced, meticulous, near miraculous collaborations between playwright Annie Baker and director Sam Gold — “Circle Mirror Transformation,” “The Aliens,” their adaptation of “Uncle Vanya” – may be similarly entranced by “The Flick,” which has now opened at Playwrights Horizons, focusing on three employees of a run-down movie theater in Worcester County, Massachusetts. The cast is exceptional, and the play is just as quietly breathtaking as their previous efforts.

But it also runs longer than their other plays, much longer –  since the characters talk about films all the time, I’ll say Heaven’s Gate longer, reaching towards Andy Warhol’s Empire State Building film longer. Ok, not really; it only starts to feel that way.

Baker’s previous plays have all been no more than two hours. “The Flick” is three hours and 15 minutes – 195 minutes (including intermission.) On hearing the length, devotees of their work may think it inconsequential, and the truth is “The Flick” is wonderful in all ways but this one. Even those theatergoers who wind up agreeing that the play should be shortened may not mind much, but to me, the excessive length indicates something of a breakdown – in Baker and Gold’s exquisite sense of timing, even in the bond between these great theater artists and the audience.

Slowly, with painstaking care, we eventually see the three develop over one summer into what could be called a love triangle, although that implies the kind of swirling, romantic action that happens in the movies, not the awkward, unrequited, half-articulated desires and fears that happen among them in this movie theater while they are sweeping up in-between (unseen) movies – interaction that feels so real that it’s nearly painful.

Interspersed with this development is much talk about movies. The characters argue over movies,  and play games about movies, in ways that are hilarious, touching, and even informative. “The Flick” is a play about movie-lovers that theater-lovers can love, if they’re patient enough. (It would have been better an hour shorter, though.)

I am delighted that Annie Baker has won the Pulitzer — though wish it had been for one of her other plays, such as Circle Mirror Transformation.

The Flick was the subject of great controversy — many theatergoers walked out, complaining it was too long, which prompted the artistic director of Playwrights Horizons to write a letter to the theater’s subscribers.

This year’s jury that selected the three finalists and the winner for the Pulitzer for Drama was comprised of:

Jill Dolan, professor, Princeton University (Chair)
David Auburn, playwright, New York, NY
Karen D’Souza, theater critic, San Jose Mercury News/Bay Area Newspaper Group
Dominic P. Papatola, theater critic, St. Paul Pioneer Press
Alexis Soloski, drama critic, Village Voice, New York, NY

Previous winners of the Pulitzer Prize in Drama:

2013: Disgraced by Ayad Akhtar
2012: Water By the Spoonful by Quiara Alegria Hudes
2011: Clybourne Park by Bruce Norris
2010: Next to Normal by Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey
2009: Ruined, by Lynn Nottage
2008: August: Osage County, by Tracy Letts
2007: Rabbit Hole, by David Lindsay-Abaire
2006: No award
2004-05: Doubt, by John Patrick Shanley
2003-04: I Am My Own Wife, by Doug Wright
2002-03: Anna in the Tropics, by Nilo Cruz
2001-02: Topdog/Underdog, by Suzan-Lori Parks
2000-01: Proof, by David Auburn
1999-00: Dinner with Friends, by Donald Margulies
1998-99: Wit, by Margaret Edson
1997-98: How I Learned To Drive, by Paula Vogel
1996-97: No award
1995-96: Rent, by Jonathan Larson
1994-95: The Young Man From Atlanta, by Horton Foote
1993 94: Three Tall Women, by Edward Albee
1992-93: Angels in America: Millennium Approaches, by Tony Kushner
1991-92: The Kentucky Cycle, by Robert Schenkkan
1990-91: Lost in Yonkers, by Neil Simon
1989-90: The Piano Lesson, by August Wilson
1988-89: The Heidi Chronicles, by Wendy Wasserstein
1987 88: Driving Miss Daisy, by Alfred Uhry
1986-87: Fences, by August Wilson
1985-86: No award
1984-85: Sunday in the Park With George, by James Lapine and Stephen Sondheim
1983-84: Glengarry Glen Ross, by David Mamet
1982-83: ‘night, Mother, by Marsha Norman
1981 82: A Soldier’s Play, by Charles Fuller
1980-81: Crimes of the Heart, by Beth Henley
1979-80: Talley’s Folly, by Lanford Wilson
1978-79: Buried Child, by Sam Shepard
1977-78: The Gin Game, by D.L. Coburn
1976-77: The Shadow Box, by Michael Cristofer
1975-76: A Chorus Line, by Michael Bennett, James Kirkwood, Nicholas Dante, Marvin Hamlisch and Edward Kleban
1974-75: Seascape, by Edward Albee
1973 74: No award
1972-73: That Championship Season, by Jason Miller
1971-72: No award
1970-71: The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds, by Paul Zindel
1969-70: No Place To Be Somebody, by Charles Gordone
1968-69: The Great White Hope, by Howard Sackler
1967-68: No award
1966 67: A Delicate Balance, by Edward Albee
1965-66: No award
1964 65: The Subject Was Roses, by Frank D. Gilroy
1963-64: No award
1962-63: No award
1961-62: How To Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, by Abe Burrows and Frank Loesser
1960-61: All the Way Home, by Tad Mosel
1959-60: Fiorello!, by Jerome Weidman, George Abbott, Sheldon Harnick and Jerry Bock
1958-59: J.B., by Archibald MacLeish
1957-58: Look Homeward, Angel, by Ketti Frings
1956-57: Long Day’s Journey Into Night, by Eugene O’Neill
1955-56: The Diary of Anne Frank, by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett
1954-55: Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, by Tennessee Williams
1953-54: The Teahouse of the August Moon, by John Patrick
1952-53: Picnic, by William Inge
1951-52: The Shrike, by Joseph Kramm
1950-51: No award
1949-50: South Pacific, by Richard Rodgers, Oscar Hammerstein II and Joshua Logan
1948-49: Death of a Salesman, by Arthur Miller
1947-48: A Streetcar Named Desire, by Tennessee Williams
1946-47: No award
1945-46: State of the Union, by Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse
1944-45: Harvey, by Mary Chase
1943-44: No award
1942-43: The Skin of Our Teeth, by Thornton Wilder
1941-42: No award
1940-41: There Shall Be No Night, by Robert E. Sherwood
1939-40: The Time of Your Life, by William Saroyan
1938-39: Abe Lincoln in Illinois, by Robert E. Sherwood
1937-38: Our Town, by Thornton Wilder
1936-37: You Can’t Take It With You, by Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman
1935-36: Idiot’s Delight, by Robert E. Sherwood
1934-35: The Old Maid, by Zoe Akins
1933-34: Men in White, by Sidney Kingsley
1932-33: Both Your Houses, by Maxwell Anderson
1931-32: Of Thee I Sing, by George S. Kaufman, Morrie Ryskind and Ira Gershwin
1930-31: Alison’s House, by Susan Glaspell
1929-30: The Green Pastures, by Marc Connelly
1928-29: Street Scene, by Elmer Rice
1927-28: Strange Interlude, by Eugene O’Neill
1926-27: In Abraham’s Bosom, by Paul Green
1925-26: Craig’s Wife, by George Kelly
1924-25: They Knew What They Wanted, by Sidney Howard
1923-24: Hell-Bent fer Heaven, by Hatcher Hughes
1922-23: Icebound, by Owen Davis
1921-22: Anna Christie, by Eugene O’Neill
1920-21: Miss Lulu Bett, by Zona Gale
1919-20: Beyond the Horizon, by Eugene O’Neill
1918-19: No award
1917-18: Why Marry?, by Jesse Lynch Williams
1916-17: No award

Bullets and Billie Holiday on Broadway. Tax Help for Artists. Spring Beefcake. The Week in New York Theater

WeekinNewYorkApril13Eight Broadway shows are opening in the next ten days. Two opened last week, Bullets Over Broadway and Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill.
It’s tax time, which may be why there is a special section on artists and money (see 13 below)

Also below: News about Michael Cera, Taylor Mac, Tommy Tune, Spring is Here beefcake section (shirtless Zac Efron, Neil Patrick Harris, James Franco)

The Week in New York Theater

Monday, April 7, 2014

Anthony Rapp, James Snyder, Idina Menzel, and LaChanze at  the If/Then recording session. Album will be out June 3

Anthony Rapp, James Snyder, Idina Menzel, and LaChanze at the If/Then recording session. Album will be out June 3

Mayor Bill de Blasio names Queens Museum’s Tom Finkelpearl to be commissioner of NYC Department of Cultural Affairs

 

Gertrude Lawrence and Yul Brynner in the original Broadway production of The King and I

Gertrude Lawrence and Yul Brynner in the original Broadway production of The King and I

The King and I will be on Broadway (at Lincoln Center) for the fifth time in 2015, says Rodgers and Hammerstein Organization’s Ted Chapin. They are in talks with Kelli O’Hara to star

Morgan Saylor (Dana Brody in Homeland) will play Cherry Jones’s daughter in MTC’s When We Were Young & Unafraid.Opens June 17

The disabled are US’s largest minority, yet invisible on our stages, says Christine Bruno of Inclusion Arts.

8This is our Youth Media Call

 

Michael Cera (Juno, Arrested Developmnet), Kieran Culkin (Igby Goes Down.) to co-star in Kenneth Lonergan’s This Is Our Youth on Broadway. Opens Sept 11, Cort.

Cera will play the character of Warren, a young man who has stolen $15,000 from his father, and Culkin will play his self-absorbed drug-dealing friend, Dennis. It will also feature the Broadway debut of Tavi Gevinson.

BkxzSEkCIAACIiT110 years ago today, Long Acre Square was renamed Times Square. (Pictures of Times Square through the years in Museum of the City of New York collection.)

Jane Greenwood, who’s been designing costumes for Broadway since 1963, will get a Special Tony Award for Lifetime Achievement

2014-15 New York Theater Workshop season will include: 1. Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage, adapted. 2. The Invisible Hand by Ayad Akhtar (Pulitzer winner), about kidnapped stockbroker

9

JoanMarcus2014 Tony Awards for Excellence: The Actors Fund’s Joe Benincasa, photographer Joan Marcus, general manager Charlotte Wilcox

It was set to reopen tomorrow Off-Broadway, but A Night With Janis Joplin “will postpone its opening indefinitely due to production issues.”

Yes, accessible theater IS possible. third in Howlround series on disability. Q & A with Charles Baldwin of Wheelock Family Theater.

 

10

Even people who don’t care for a particular Broadway show give it a standing ovation, survey by Ken Davenport found.

Meh to show but standing ovations:

41 percent: “I liked the actors, just not the show.”

36 percent: “Everyone else was standing, so I did too.”

My reasons for standing during a standing ovation:

1. I can’t see the performers bowing otherwise

2. I need to put on my coat.

taylormac1

TaylorMac2

Theater should do what fashion does: Make avant-garde seem exciting, even if you don’t want to wear it ~  Taylor Mac in interview with Bomb Magazine. “My outsiderness gave me a way inside to something else.”

NINE-time Tony winner Tommy Tune in “More Taps,Tunes and Tall Tales” his #CafeCarlyle cabaret debut April 22-May 3

 

RyanMcCartan

11

PhyllisFrelich

RIP Phyllis Frelich,Tony-winning deaf actress (Children of a Lesser God), co-founder of the National Theater for the Deaf, age 70.

Those who love him forgive his syphilis jokes. Drama Desk panel on Shakespeare 

EstelleParsonsTheVelocityofAutumn

“Most of my plays begin as questions,” says Cleveland’s Eric Coble, making his Broadway playwriting debut with The Velocity of Autumn.

What are your dream roles?

Ben Platt: Bobby in Company.

Nic Rouleau: I’m playing mine right now. Book of Mormon #BOMCHAT

The Obamas attended A Raisin in the Sun. At intermission, Michelle Obama gave A Raisin in the Sun actor Stephen McKinley Henderson a hug: “I’ll never be the same”

12

 

Theater Artists and Money

Haven’t done your taxes yet? Tax guide for freelancers (e.g. artists) from Freelancers Union

The theater is “built on the backs of unpaid young people”  writes Greg Redlawsk, who was one of them. Why unpaid internships are wrong.

They are also illegal: For an unpaid internship to be legal, it must be “for the benefit of the intern” not the employer, says the Department of Labor.

“Real artists have day jobs..The biggest myth we’re fed is that we need to sustain ourselves solely on our art”~ Sara J. Benincasa

Instead of unpaid internships, Americans need more paid apprenticeships . U.S. Senator Cory Booker from New Jersey is co-sponsoring a bill to create them.

In Mexico, artists can pay taxes with artwork  Can actors pay with performances?

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My review of Lady Day At Emerson’s Bar and Grill

Audra McDonald is the same age as the Billie Holiday she is depicting in the first Broadway production of “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill,” a remarkable performance that transcends the two singers’ differences…ust looking at the photographs of Holiday in the period of the play show the challenge that a clean liver and radiant beauty like McDonald would have in depicting her. McDonald meets that challenge successfully — but a question remains: Why?

Full review of Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill

 

Spring Is Here

Zac Efron at MTV Awards

Zac Efron at MTV Awards

Neil Patrick Harris with a snake, apparently promoting Hedwig and the Angry Inch

Neil Patrick Harris with a snake, apparently promoting Hedwig and the Angry Inch

 

James Franco promoting Of Mice and Men without ever leaving home.

James Franco promoting Of Mice and Men without ever leaving home.

Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill Review: Audra McDonald as Billie Holiday

click on any photo to see it enlarged

Audra McDonald is the same age as the Billie Holiday she is depicting in the first Broadway production of “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill,” a remarkable performance that transcends the two singers’ differences, which far outweigh such superficial similarities as age and race.

In her early 40’s, McDonald — the offspring of a solidly middle class family (both her parents educators) who became a Juilliard-trained opera soprano — has an ever-ascending career, with five Tony Awards (a number matched only by the 88-year-old Angela Lansbury and the late Julie Harris) and two Grammys.  She is embraced for her performances on stage, on screen, in the concert hall, on iTunes.

At the same age, Holiday, often called the world’s greatest jazz singer,  was appearing in a dive in North Philadelphia, strung out on drugs and all but abandoned by the public, a few months before she died in 1959. Only seven people reportedly attended the actual club performance that inspired playwright Lanie Robertson to write the play “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill” almost three decades ago.

Just looking at the photographs of Holiday in the period of the play show the challenge that a clean liver and radiant beauty like McDonald would have in depicting her. McDonald meets that challenge successfully — but a question remains: Why?

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Billie Holiday near the end of her life

Over 90 intermission-less minutes, McDonald sings 15 of Holiday’s songs in Holiday’s distinctive style. Although she had no formal training as a singer, and had a limited vocal range of little more than an octave, Holiday, the abandoned daughter of jazz guitarist Clarence Holiday, had an innovative ear that turned her voice into a jazz instrument. Influenced equally by the Louis Armstrong and Bessie Smith records she heard as a child, she in turn influenced generations of singers that came after her. For this role, McDonald has adjusted her very different singing voice to resemble Holiday’s to an impressive degree.

McDonald doesn’t stop there. She effectively alters her speaking voice, even her posture, while presenting the monologues about Holiday’s life story that are presented to the audience as if random, rambling patter in-between the songs.

In turn witty, coarse, playful, angry, or matter of fact – and BHlastalways in a haze and a daze brought on by alcohol and drugs — McDonald’s Holiday tells us as if in passing about her rape at age 10; her prostitution at 13; the abusiveness of her first husband, trombonist Jimmy “Sonny” Monroe, who turned her on to heroin and her subsequent life-long/life-ending addiction; her imprisonment on drug charges; her cruel banning from New York City nightclubs because her felony conviction prevented her from acquiring the required “cabaret card.”  Even her successes as an artist provoke sad stories. One of her longest is about the bigotry she encountered while touring as the first African-American singer in an otherwise all-white big band, Artie Shaw’s; she talks of a maitress d’ in the South refusing to allow her to use the restaurant’s rest room, and calling her Miss Day. “Listen, honey, you have me confused.  I’m not Doris Day.  I’m Billie Holiday.  Lots of folks has said she and me resembles each other….”

Not all of what we hear is reliable information. Billie Holiday stopped touring with Artie Shaw in 1938, and Doris Day wasn’t well-known until 1945. One can charitably chalk up some of the insignificant errors in “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill” to the character Billie Holiday’s drug-addled memory, or to the real Holiday’s penchant for fabrication, as in her autobiography, Lady Sings the Blues, but this one rests squarely with the playwright.

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Billie Holiday during her prime

Only the producers can answer why this play is being revived now, just a few months after Dee Dee Bridgewater’s portrayal of Holiday in Stephen Stahl’s similar play “Lady Day” Off-Broadway, and it would probably take a sociologist to explain why so many shows continue to be built around the sad ends of great talents, such as the nearly unwatchable performance of Tracie Bennett as Judy Garland in End of the Rainbow on Broadway just two years ago.

McDonald is more watchable, although she deteriorates before our eyes, because “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill” is much more of a genuine cabaret concert. She is backed by a competent trio:  Shelton Becton at piano, Clayton Craddock on drums and George Farmer on bass. Only Becton has a speaking role, portraying Holiday’s music director and fiancé Jimmy Powers. James Noone’s set attempts, unsuccessfully, to turn the huge, 700-plus-seat Circle in the Square into an intimate club,  placing some two dozen small tables around the small stage. But little of this matters, when McDonald is singing. She shares with her subject the ability to translate feeling — even feelings of misery — into something glorious.

Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill
Circle in the Square
By Lanie Robertson
Directed by Lonyy Price
Scenic design by James Noone, costume design by Esosa, lighting design by Robert Wierzel, sound design by Steve Canyon Kennedy, animal training William Berloni, musical arrangements by Tim Weil.
Cast: Audra McDonald, SheltonBecton, Roxie (that’s a dog.)

Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill is set to run through August 10, 2014.
Musical numbers:
I Wonder Where Our Love Has Gone
When A Woman Loves a Man
What a Little Moonlight Can Do
Crazy He Calls Me
Pig Foot (And A Bottle of Beer)
Baby Doll
God  Bless The Child
Foolin’ Myself
Somebody’s On My Mind
Easy Livin’
Stange Fruit
Blues Break
T’ain’t Nobody’s Business If I do
Don’t Explain/What a Little Moonlight Can Do
Deep Song

LadyDaysign

Bullets Over Broadway Reviews and Photographs

"Don't Speak!" Marin Mazzie shuts up Zach Braff in Woody Allen's Broadway musical Bullets Over Broadway

“Don’t Speak!” Marin Mazzie shuts up Zach Braff in Woody Allen’s Broadway musical Bullets Over Broadway

“Bullets Over Broadway,” based on Woody Allen’s 1994 movie about a novice playwright in the 1920s whose show is saved by a mobster, is opening tonight at the St. James Theater. Allen himself is not a novice; this is his sixth show on Broadway. But it is his first high profile musical. (His first and only other musical, in 1960, “A to Z,” lasted just 21 performances.) The new musical, using music from the period, marks Zach Braff’s Broadway debut

What do the critics think?

Ben Brantley, New York Times: “occasionally funny but mostly just loud new show…This production, directed in heavy italics by Susan Stroman and featuring a score of 1920s standards and esoterica, is inspired by Mr. Allen’s 1994 film of the same title. It features the same story line, most of the same characters and much of the same dialogue. Yet while the movie was a helium-light charmer, this all-talking, all-singing, all-dancing reincarnation is also all but charm-free….like being head-butted by linebackers. Make that linebackers in blinding sequins.”

Marilyn Stasio, Variety:  “Susan Stroman’s energetic direction almost compensates for a weak book and a few key miscastings in Woody Allen’s showbiz tuner.”

Terry Teachout, Wall Street Journal: “The book is funny, the staging inventive, the cast outstanding, the sets and costumes satisfyingly slick. All that’s missing is a purpose-written score, in place of which we get period-true arrangements of pop songs of the 1920s and ’30s. Does that matter? It did to me—a lot—but I doubt that many other people will boggle over the absence of original songs from “Bullets Over Broadway.” Except for a flabby finale, it has the sweet scent of a box-office smash.”

David Rooney, The Hollywood Reporter:  There’s a ton of talent onstage in Bullets Over Broadway, evident in the leggy chorines who ignite into explosive dance routines, the gifted cast, the sparkling design elements and the wraparound razzle-dazzle of director-choreographer Susan Stroman‘s lavish production. So why does this musical, adapted by Woody Allen from his irresistible 1994 screen comedy about the tortured path of the artist, wind up shooting blanks? Flat where it should be frothy, the show is a watered-down champagne cocktail that too seldom gets beyond its recycled jokes and second-hand characterizations to assert an exciting new identity.

Charles McNulty, Los Angeles Times: Stroman’s staging moves with an effervescent fluidity — gangsters and flappers glide by, each in high Cotton Club style — yet the book isn’t as spry. Scenes that could be distilled into a few lines are belabored. For all the frenetic Jazz Age motion, the show feels dramatically sluggish. Something’s slightly out of whack with the performances. There’s some strong singing (Mazzie and Ziemba are vocal standouts), some expert clowning (Ashmanskas really knows how to chomp on a drumstick while selling a musical number) and some solid acting (Braff’s characterization has a few extra notes of authenticity), but only in Cordero’s performance do all three strengths triumphantly merge.

Thom Geier, Entertainment Weekly: A- “From [the] rat-a-tat start to the utterly bananas finale, Susan Stroman produces one of the sprightliest and most effervescent new musicals in years….captures the screwball spirit of the time period while remaining entirely fresh and new”

Brendan Lemon, Financial Times, 3 stars out of 5: “Helen Sinclair, portrayed by the wonderfully self-assured Marin Mazzie, is one of the reasons to see Bullets Over Broadway, the new musical birthed by Woody Allen from his 1994 movie of the same title. The Broadway show makes a Sinclair-sized effort to persuade us of the value of early-20th-century songs shoehorned into a 1929 setting. The attempt is intermittently enjoyable, extremely well crafted by the director/choreographer Susan Stroman, and progressively unthrilling.”

Robert Kahn, NBCNewYork: terrific new screwball thriller from perfectionist duo Susan Stroman and Woody Allen….While not without some curious choices, “Bullets” is certainly the best of the musicals to open on Broadway so far this season, though make note … it’s a new musical with old music.

Robert Hofler, The Wrap Stroman gave us dancing elephant buttocks in “Big Fish” earlier this Broadway season. In “Bullets,” she gives us very large dancing hot dogs, and a vendor selling frankfurters of various lengths and girths. The number achieves a level of low vulgarity not encountered even among the non-stop obscenities of “The Book of Mormon.”

Matthew Murray, Talkin Broadway:  Whatever else it may be, Bullets Over Broadway certainly isn’t cohesive….The best Woody Allen comedies, Susan Stroman musicals, and revues are characterized by excitement, innovation, and integration. And these are just what Bullets Over Broadway, however strongly it evokes its individual components, lacks most.

Meanwhile, here are photographs from the production:

Click on any photograph to see it enlarged.

 

 

 

 

Denzel, Menzel, Michael C. Hall. RIP Mickey Rooney. The Broadway Effect. NYC on Stage. Week in New York Theater

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If/Then with Idina Menzel, A Raisin in the Sun with Denzel Washington and The Realistic Joneses  with Michael C. Hall opened on Broadway; Adrian Lester gives a star turn portraying the first African-American actor to play Othello in Red Velvet. The actor, Ira Aldridge, performed the role in London in 1833, but he was a native New Yorker.

New York is the setting for nearly half the shows of Broadway’s Spring 2014 season (See April 1 below, but it’s no joke.)

Of course, Broadway is not the only place for shows in April. Here is a list of April New York theater openings – more than one per day.

Also, check out the update Broadway 2013-2014 Season Guide: What’s closed, what’s opening; reviews,

 

The Week in New York Theater

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With a  few exceptions (shows with “rock” in the title), Broadway shows have trouble attracting men. Men now comprise just 32 percent of Broadway audiences. Men and women go in equal numbers to sports events, rock concerts, even movies. Why not theater?

NeilPatrickHarrisasHedwig

Neil Patrick Harris AS Hedwig, Complete With Blonde Wig, Custom Heels

Red Velvet4AdrianLesterbyTristram_Kenton

My review of Red Velvet

When Ira Aldridge played Othello in London, they were still debating whether it was a good thing to end slavery in the British colonies. Aldridge is the real-life African-American actor portrayed by Adrian Lester in “Red Velvet,” the fascinating play written by Lester’s wife Lolita Chakrabarti in a production by London’s exquisite Tricycle Theatre now opened at St. Ann’s Warehouse through April 20th. It manages not just to dramatize a little-known 19th century figure but provide insight into the art of acting and of theater.
Aldridge was a native New Yorker who left the United States as a teenager in order to pursue a career on stage, becoming a successful actor throughout Europe, specializing in Shakespearean roles.

Full review of Red Velvet

Idina Menzel

Idina Menzel

My review of If/Then

In “If/Then,” Idina Menzel portrays two different versions of the same character Elizabeth, and at the beginning of the musical, I was feeling like two versions of myself as well.  Elizabeth as Liz pursues love, and as Beth goes after a career as a city planner, in order to try to make a difference in the world.  I, Jonathan, initially felt both like Joe and Nathan – as Joe, irritated at the premise, and as Nathan, excited by the promise of entertainment from so much proven stage talent,  with various past successes in Next to Normal, Rent and Wicked.

By the end, we (I) could agree: The way the premise plays out is more intelligent than it at first seems. The entertainers themselves deliver on their promise. It is terrific to see (and hear) Idina Menzel back on Broadway after an absence of nine years.  She is employed wisely — on stage nearly all the time, she’s given songs that emphasize character as much as vocal gymnastics; we must wait for the occasional  full-steam pop arias like “Always Starting Over”; making them all the more flooring.

But this is a story that would have worked better as a novel, or perhaps a serial on Netflix.

Full review of If/Then

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March 2014 Theater Quiz

New York Theater March 2014 Quiz

Stars in the Alley, The Broadway League’s annual concert, returns to Shubert Alley 11 a.m. to 12:30 pm Wednesday, May 21

More on Maries Crisis, a theater piano bar where nobody knows your name, but they know Ethel Merman’s http://bit.ly/PcxY30

Theater artists, don’t give up! Expand your skills, redefine success, bond with your network, says Jennifer Lane.

How do YOU keep from giving up as a theater artist? (Or shouldn’t I ask this on a Monday morning?)

Harriet: @harriet75
I have given up on the dream if being on bway but now I find community theatre is my outlet.

 

Sinisha Evtimov ‏@SinishaEvtimov Just move to Europa… give it a try somewhere where it is truly appreciated

Aleisha Force ‏@aleishaforce  remembering that this is my work, not my entire life.

April 1, 2014

Nearly one half of all Broadway shows in Spring 2014 are set in New York City.

“This is probably a sure way to get applause in New York, but I was born in Brooklyn,” Jessie Mueller as Carole King says from the stage of the Stephen Sondheim Theatre at the beginning of Beautiful.
These are the first spoken words in this Broadway musical, which is set in locations around New York City. The line about Brooklyn does get applause, without fail.
New Yorkers may be applauding a lot this season. Nearly half the shows opening on Broadway in spring 2014 are set wholly or mostly in New York City.
“I don’t think it’s a coincidence,” says Brian Yorkey, who, with composer Tom Kitt, has written the book and lyrics for If/Then, which stars Idina Menzel as a city planner who moves to New York. “New York is our home, and it’s what we know, and what we love.” That’s true, he says, of many of the other writers of shows set in the city this season, from Woody Allen to James Lapine.

Full story: The Many New Yorks This Season on Broadway

Rosie O’Donnell to receive 2014 Isabelle Stevenson Tony Award for her commitment to arts education through her org Rosie’s Theater Kids

Touring stage productions that hold their tech rehearsals in upstate theaters to get tax break.

Noah Hinsdale, Griffin Birney, and Sydney Lucas

Noah Hinsdale, Griffin Birney, and Sydney Lucas in Fun Home

Nominations for 2014 Lucille Lortel Awards: Fun Home; Here Lies Love; Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812 get the most nominations.

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Here Lies Love 4

Cast recording for Here Lies Love coming April 22, a week before show opens again at the Public Theater.

Courtney Love and Kurt Cobain

Courtney Love wants to see a Broadway musical about Kurt Cobain

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Artists are more educated and more unemployed than the general workforce. Sixty-five percent have BAs or higher (v. 32% overall). 7.1% are unemployed

TheMysteries4Jesus Baptism

A preview of The Flea’s epic irreverent The Mysteries — 48 playwrights adapt tales from The Bible

ARaisinInTheSun3

My review of A Raisin in the Sun

“… a masterpiece on just about every level…Much of the reaction from the moment this new production was announced concerned Denzel Washington’s age. He is 59; the character he is portraying, Walter Lee Younger Jr., is supposed to be 35…His age doesn’t bother me.  Consider it a new form of innovative casting — age-blind casting… Director Kenny Leon has rethought this play, in ways that work better, and perhaps a few ways that don’t work as well. Denzel Washington works better…”

Full review of A Raisin in the Sun

 

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Aladdin1Adam_Jacobs_Cave_of_Wonders_Photo_by_Deen_Van_Meer

The Broadway Effect

The musical Aladdin on Broadway has gotten rid of Abu, Aladdin’s trusted if mischievous monkey companion, as well as the pet tiger Rajah, both of whom were in Disney’s 1992 animated film. In Rocky on Broadway, you cannot see the real streets of Philadelphia, nor in Les Miserables on Broadway can you see the performers’ nostrils; both loomed large in the film versions.

About a third of the forty two new shows in the 2013-2014 Broadway season were either adapted from a movie or so closely associated with one that the film serves both to lure an audience into the musical, and to raise audience expectations—the former a godsend for the producers, the latter a terror for the creative team. How do you offer something both comforting and exciting, familiar and surprising; what can Broadway offer as compensation for the loss of Abu, Philadelphia and Hugh Jackman’s shapely nose?

The answer is what we can call The Broadway Effect

over the past few decades have entered the standard Broadway playbook of stage effects:

Stage smoke/fog

Confetti shot out of (on-stage or off-stage) cannons

Banks of bright lights shining directly in the audience’s eyes

Shimmering stars against a deep black night (I mean the celestial bodies, but of course celebrities are also now standard.)

Weather (usually rain), accompanied by somber black umbrellas or loud crashing noises.

Magically moving scenery (via computer automation)

Video projections

It’s not just such stage special effects that contribute to the Broadway Effect; one must include Broadway’s traditional elements that continue to thrive, such as massive synchronized ensemble tap-dancing.

Complete story on The Broadway Effect

 

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Times Square Billboard

BlahTimesSquareBillboard

Paul Rudnick on straight men and theater: A straight guy’s ‘I want” song is “I want to leave at intermission”

ATCA New Play Award

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“I was a 13-year-old boy for 30 years” — Mickey Rooney, who has died at age 93. The movie star was on Broadway twice. Sugar Babies is said to have made him a star once again.

The Realistic Joneses Lyceum Theatre

 

My review of The Realistic Joneses

Ninety minutes and a dozen scenes after it began, this often comic, sometimes cosmic and thoroughly cryptic play by Will Eno, a downtown playwright making his Broadway debut, was over….Fans of Michael C. Hall expecting “Dexter”-like intrigue and plenty of plot, or those of Marisa Tomei hoping for a light comedy like “My Cousin Vinny” are likely to be disappointed, and baffled by “The Realistic Joneses.” Actually, most people are likely to be baffled by “The Realistic Joneses.” But not everybody will be disappointed. Those who know Will Eno’s work will be in familiar unfamiliar territory.

Full review of The Realistic Joneses

The Realistic Joneses Review: Michael C. Hall, Marisa Tomei, Toni Collette, Tracy Letts On Broadway With Beckett Light

In “The Realistic Joneses,” a kind of “Endgame” reoriented to the American suburbs, Michael C. Hall and Marisa Tomei as a couple named Jones pay an unexpected visit to introduce themselves to their new neighbors, also named Jones and portrayed by Tracy Letts and Toni Collette.

“This was fun,” one Jones says to another at the end of that first scene. “I mean, not fun, but definitely some other word.”

Not long afterwards, a moment of clarity occurred, which was also a moment of dread: “The Realistic Joneses” is not going to be realistic, I realized, and it’s not going to go anywhere.

Ninety minutes and a dozen scenes after it began, this often comic, sometimes cosmic and thoroughly cryptic play by Will Eno, a downtown playwright making his Broadway debut, was over. Here is what we know:

Click on any photograph to see it enlarged

 

 

John and Pony Jones (Hall and Tomei) have just moved into the semi-rural community where Bob and Jennifer (Letts and Colette) have lived for some time.  Both men are suffering from the same rare degenerative neurological disease, which isn’t really a coincidence: A specialist in the disease has his office in this small town.  The men have reacted differently: Bob leans on Jennifer; John hasn’t even told Pony. The wife of one of the couples and the husband of the other have apparently compared fears and exchanged bodily fluids. The disease affects language.

Fans of Michael C. Hall expecting “Dexter”-like intrigue and plenty of plot, or those of Marisa Tomei hoping for a light comedy like “My Cousin Vinny” are likely to be disappointed, and baffled by “The Realistic Joneses.” Actually, most people are likely to be baffled by “The Realistic Joneses.” But not everybody will be disappointed. Those who know Will Eno’s work will be in familiar unfamiliar territory.

Eno has been a distinctive presence in New York theater for a decade, making a splash with “Thom Pain (based on nothing)” which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in Drama. Eno’s plays are generally less concerned with plot or character – with any kind of linear coherence – than they are with language.  He is intrigued by the banalities, awkwardness and outright weirdness of everyday language, injecting his own brand of word play, non-sequiturs and outright nonsense.  Here is an exchange from The Realistic Joneses:

 Pony Jones: I never know what he’s talking about. Say one of your things.

John Jones: Oh, this is a good one. So, if you take the letters from the words “The United States of America,” and you scramble them all up, it doesn’t spell anything. It’s just gobbledygook, total nonsense.

Bob Jones: So don’t scramble them up.

One can argue that Enos playfulness with language has found a good match in the story of two men afflicted with a disease that affects language. There is a suggestion in “The Realistic Joneses” that human beings face the cosmic questions like mortality and ultimate meaning by retreating into pedestrian chatter; that words fail to create connections. I suspect the trick to appreciating “The Realistic Joneses” may be to resist the attempt to find its overall meaning, and hone in on specific moments.  Aficionados of modern art revel in an abstract painting’s specific textures; Eno enthusiasts can enjoy specific exchanges in his absurdist play’s text, helped along by the four starry cast members’ fine performances, wrangling many moments of humor and even a few of feeling. Letts is particularly good in delivering lines so that they somehow resonate:

 “I don’t think anything good is going to happen to us. But, you know, what are you going to do. I forgot, I grabbed some mints at the restaurant. I like mints. Mint.”

While it is clear that Eno is influenced by Samuel Beckett, “The Realistic Joneses” has little of the haunting, apocalyptic quality of Beckett’s post-war plays. Perhaps the playwright isn’t trying for this; times, after all, are different.

Theatergoers can take heart in that even the characters don’t seem to know what’s going on:

“I get what you’re saying,” Bob says to John about midway through “The Realistic Joneses.”

“You don’t get what I’m saying,” John replies. “Not your fault. Words don’t really do it for me anymore, anyway. It’s all just bodies and light. People say it’s death and taxes, which, of course, are great, but, no, it’s bodies and light. Appearance, disappearance, that’s the whole thing….”

Ok, if you say so.

 The Realistic Joneses

Lyceum Theater

By Will Eno

Directed by Sam Gold

Scenic design by David Zinn, costume design by Kaye Voyce, lighting design by Mark Barton, sound design by Leon Rothenberg

Cast: Toni Collette, Michael C. Hall, Tracy Letts, Marisa Tomei

Running time: 90 minutes with no intermission

Tickets: $39.00 – $135.00

The Realistic Joneses is set to run through July 6, 2014

A Raisin in the Sun Review. Denzel Washington, Anika Noni Rose: Age-blind Casting in a Masterpiece

Raisininthesun5“Me and my family…we are very plain people,” Denzel Washington says in “A Raisin in the Sun,” at the start of a monologue that by the end – “we are very proud people” — is one of the most moving in all of American theater.

But Lorraine Hansberry’s 1959 play,  being given a worthwhile production at the Ethel Barrymore Theater , is not just an affecting family drama.  The first play by a black woman ever produced on Broadway, it is a richly layered, well-structured, poetically-inspired work of literature; an often amusing entertainment; an insightful character study; a prophetic piece of social commentary – it is a masterpiece on just about every level.

Much of the reaction from the moment this new production was announced concerned Denzel Washington’s age. He is 59; the character he is portraying, Walter Lee Younger Jr., is supposed to be 35 (the script has been changed to make him 40.) Washington doesn’t look 35 or even 40; he looks his age.  This continues to bother some people. His age doesn’t bother me.  Consider it a new form of innovative casting — age-blind casting – and it’s not the first time for this show:  In the original Broadway production, and then the 1961 movie, Sidney Poitier as Walter Lee Younger Jr. was only 10 years younger than Claudia McNeil, who played his mother Lena Younger. Yes, Washington is only five years younger than the actress playing his mother, LaTanya Richardson Jackson. But if a movie star like Denzel Washington wants to play Younger, I say: Bravo. Washington’s the reason this great play is back for its second-ever Broadway revival.

Click on any photograph to see it enlarged

Director Kenny Leon, who gave the play its first Broadway revival in 2004 starring Audra McDonald and Phylicia Rashad (who both won Tonys for their performances), and a game if inexperienced Sean Combs, has rethought this play, in ways that work better, and perhaps a few ways that don’t work as well. Denzel Washington works better as Walter Lee, a man with big dreams and bigger frustrations. He is a chauffeur who lives with his wife, son, sister and mother in their mother’s rattrap of a Chicago tenement apartment, but hopes to convince his mother to give him the $10,000 from the life insurance payment after the premature death of his father. Walter Lee wants to invest that money in a liquor store. Lena, who moved as a young woman to Chicago from the South and has faced a lifetime of disappointments with an adamant religious faith, doesn’t want to be in the liquor-selling business. She has other dreams for that money – to save some of it for medical school for Walter’s younger sister Beneatha (Anika Noni Rose), and to buy a house in a better neighborhood. In Act II, we learn that she has spent some of the money on a down payment for just such a house, in Clybourne Park.

 RUTH: Clybourne Park? Mama, there ain’t no colored people living in Clybourne Park.

 MAMA Well I, guess there’s going to be some now.

 WALTER: So that’s the peace and comfort you went out and bought for us today!

 MAMA: Son, I just tried to find the nicest place for the least amount of money for my family .

 RUTH: Well—well—’course I ain’t one never been ‘fraid of no crackers, mind you—but—well wasn’t there no other houses nowhere?

MAMA: Them houses they put up for colored in them areas way

out all seem to cost twice as much as other houses. I did the best I could.

Now, of course, we know Clybourne Park, a fictional neighborhood in Chicago, because it’s the title of Bruce Norris’s play, which updates and riffs on “A Raisin in the Sun” using some of Lorraine Hansberry’s characters. “Clybourne Park” won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, an award that ironically was not bestowed on Hansberry, who died tragically young in 1965 at the age of 35.

Part of Hansberry’s craft is in weaving in so many issues – from redlining to abortion to African colonial struggles to the African-American generational shift – without making “A Raisin in the Sun” seem like a political play.  Another part of the playwright’s superior craft is in creating such complex and involving female characters. Sophie Okonedo, who was so terrific as the terrified wife in Hotel Rwanda, here makes a splendid Broadway debut as Walter’s wife Ruth, weary from the daily compromises of poverty, but still hopeful, and still loving Walter, despite how much he irritates her.

Anika Noni Rose does her usual extraordinary job as Walter Lee’s sister Beneatha, an ambitious, idealistic, intellectually searching college student. Rose has shined in everything from her Tony-winning role as Emmie in the musical “Caroline, or Change” to Lorrell the main backup singer in the film ‘Dreamgirls” to the wily candidate Wendy Scott-Carr in the TV series “The Good Wife” to the African fussbudget of an assistant Grace Makutsi in “The No 1 Ladies Detective Agency” on HBO. Nobody has complained that, like Denzel Washington, Rose is – pardon the lack of gallantry in this – 20 years older than the character she is playing (in her case, thus twice the character’s age.) Perhaps this is because she is not in anybody’s radar the way Denzel Washington is. I would prefer to think it’s because everybody realizes how protean an actress she is. She delivers once again as the clear stand-in for the playwright (who obviously had fun satirizing herself, but also captures beautifully the black woman in transition.)

LaTanya Richardson Jackson replaced Diahann Carroll at virtually the last moment, and offers a credible turn as the mother, here (as with Phyllicia Rashad) as much a meddlesome grandmother as a source of strength.

It seems unfair to single out specific cast members because Leon has populated this production with some world-class talent – the actor and director David Cromer plays the genteel racist Karl Lindner; Stephen McKinley Henderson, the wonderful interpreter of August Wilson’s work, here plays the small but pivotal role of Walter’s friend and would-be business associate Bobo.  Jason Dirden and Sean Patrick Thomas are both spot-on as Beneatha’s very different suitors, the rich college boy and the wise African exchange student (another clever way that Hansberry weaves in contemporary issues without seeming to do so.)

Together the cast creates an ensemble that makes the play feel spontaneous,  promising the audience an entertainment rather than demanding their worship. (For this reason, I quibble with some of Leon’s choices that might detract from this sense of spontaneity — putting on the curtain the Langston Hughes poem, from which the play derives its title; creating a set that has the distancing effect of sometimes being placed behind a scrim; pauses before the action begins, accompanied by dramatic lighting and jazz music “curated” by Branford Marsalis )

Denzel Washington offers a different interpretation than we might be used to– more beaten-down than explosive.  When an unknown white man shows up at their door, Walter quickly brushes down his hair as if he feels the need to present his best self. When his mother speaks to him, he paws  nervously with his foot, like a horse stuck in a stable – a movement echoed very subtly (in what must be a directorial flourish) by his son Travis (Bryce Clyde Jenkins.) When he must admit a terrible mistake he has made to his mother, he seems to grow smaller; his reaction is heartrending. The scene of his self-humiliating minstrel act shortly before the monologue about being plain and proud, is horrifying, believable, masterful.  There is no mistaking, in other words, what a fine actor Denzel Washington is, whatever his age.

A Raisin in the Sun

Ethel Barrymore Theater

By Lorraine Hansberry; directed by Kenny Leon; sets by Mark Thompson; costumes by Ann Roth; lighting by Brian MacDevitt; sound by Scott Lehrer; music curated by Branford Marsalis;. Through June 15

Cast: Denzel Washington (Walter Lee Younger), Sophie Okonedo (Ruth Younger), Anika Noni Rose (Beneatha Younger), David Cromer (Karl Lindner), Bryce Clyde Jenkins (Travis Younger), Jason Dirden (George Murchison), Sean Patrick Thomas (Joseph Asagai), Keith Eric Chappelle and Billy Eugene Jones (Moving Men), Stephen McKinley Henderson (Bobo) and LaTanya Richardson Jackson (Lena Younger).

Running time: 2 hours 40 minutes, including one intermission.

Tickets: $67.00 – $149.00

A Raisin in the Sun is set to run through June 15.

 

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