Mike Nichols RIP. Side Show. Punk Rock. Straight White Men. Week in NY Theater

A week full of openings, Great Britain celebrated #LoveTheatre Day,  Elaine Stritch remembered, Mike Nichols mourned, and I’ve given into the promotional fever and include trailers for both Peter Pan Live (on NBC on December 4th) and Into The Woods, which opens December 25th.

The Week in New York Theater Nov 17-23

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Barry Diller envisions a $170 million park and performance space off 14th St.,Pier 55.

Elegant Elaine Stritch

“She was a volcano of ferocity, on a pillar of vulnerability.”~Cherry Jones about Elaine Stritch, at Stritch’s memorial yesterday.

Congratulations to Steven Adly Guirgis  on receiving the $200,000 “Mimi” (Steinberg Distinguished Playwright Award) tonight

Side ShowSt. James Theatre

My review of Side Show

Daisy and Violet Hilton, twin sisters permanently connected at the hip by a ribbon of flesh, were spectacularly popular entertainers in the 1920’s, so it seems fitting that “Side Show,” a musical about them that lasted just a few months on Broadway when it debuted in 1997, is back on Broadway in a spectacularly entertaining production….Those less in thrall to the musical’s legacy are more likely to see that the “freakery” is itself largely but a side show. Yes, “Side Show” is a story about being an outsider, and about finding love…But “Side Show” is also at heart a conventional show about show business,  a stars-are-born musical that doesn’t dig very deep. It does, however, allow for one musical number after another that are both visually splendid and wonderfully performed.

Full review of Side Show

Colby Minifie and Douglas Smith

Colby Minifie and Douglas Smith

 

My review of Punk Rock

Several years before Simon Stephens adapted “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time” for the stage (now on Broadway), the playwright wrote the far more in-your-face “Punk Rock,” about a group of troubled English private school students, which has now opened Off-Broadway in a scorching production by MCC at the Lucille Lortel Theater… If “Punk Rock” offers little special insight or education about the problems of adolescence, there is no denying that it is a lesson in how to make theater riveting.

Full review of Punk Rock

 

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ConstantineMaroulisinRockofAges

Rock of Ages will close on Broadway on January 18, 2015

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Half of all Broadway shows this season are set in specific NYC neighborhoods. There are Off-Broadway set in all five boroughs.  Why? Actor Tony Danza, “Disgraced” playwright Ayad Akhtar and “Grand Concourse” playwright Heidi Schreck ,  “This Is Our Youth” set design Todd Rosenthal, “On The Town” choreographer Joshua Bergasse and others explain.   Broadway’s Muse: New York City Neighborhoods

Straight White Men

My review of Straight White Men

The rowdy brothers of Young Jean Lee’s stimulating “Straight White Men,” which has now opened at the Public Theater, play a board game called Privilege, where Jake draws a card that says:

“What I said wasn’t sexist/racist/homophobic because I was joking. Pay fifty dollars to The Lesbian and Gay Community Services Center.”

Drew’s card says: “I don’t see race. Pay two hundred dollars in reparations.”

A scene like this seems to confirm what we suspected from the provocative title –that Lee, a Korean immigrant known for her avant-garde downtown theater pieces, has written and directed an acid satire of America’s de facto ruling class. But “Straight White Men,” as it turns out, is nothing of the kind. Rather, it is a sympathetic, intelligent look at a family of four men, and the different ways they are adapting to a changing world.

Full review of Straight White Men

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#LoveTheatre

MT @FringeNYC #NYC didn’t provide funding for FringeNYC this year. Let’s prove we’re here to stay! http://bit.ly/11Elvfg

Allegro1

My review of Allegro

Move over, Encores! In their second musical restoration after Sondheim and Lapine’s Passion last year, the Classic Stage Company now brings us Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Allegro, billed as the first fully-staged production in New York City since the musical debuted on Broadway in 1947, shortly after the Rodgers and Hammerstein hits Oklahoma! and Carousel, shortly before their South Pacific and The King and I.

The CSC revival is pared-down, lasting 90 minutes with no intermission. There is minimal scenery; the stage is nearly in the round. The fine cast of 12 – led by Claybourne Elder at Joe Taylor Jr and Elizabeth Davis as his wife Jenny –  plays its own musical instruments.

Aficionados will likely be in heaven, even if they nitpick. Those previously unacquainted with “Allegro” might come to understand why this is the least known of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s musicals.  It’s best to think of it as an educational experience.

Full review of Allegro

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Mike Nichols

Mike Nichols dies at 83 - director, performer, writer, one of only 12 EGOTs (winner of Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony.)

My last lunch with Mike Nichols by John Lahr.

Playwrights Horizon’s artistic diretor Tim Sanford,  playwright Lynn Nottage and Sundance theater head Philip Himberg met with the New York Times theater editors over  the Times policy of reviewing non-New York shows

Tommy Tune

Tommy Tune Joins the Cast of ‘Lady, Be Good’ for Encores!

A Delicate Balance 6 Lithgow and Close

Reviews and pics of A Delicate Balance

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HeartofRobinHoodlogo

 

The Heart of Robin Hood, a play by David Farr, will run at Broadway’s Marquis Theater March 10-August 23 2015

(Chris Miller writes the music. Nathan Tysen writes the words.)

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Should arts be pure and covered apart from worldly issues (re: Cosby allegations?) Philip Kennicott in the Washington Post says no

Musicals that strive for justice are the ones that last, says Dallas News theater writer Nancy Churnin

Trailers for Peter Pan and Into The Woods which, if nothing else, are the most promoted stage-to-screen shows this year.

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A Delicate Balance Reviews and Pictures: Glenn Close Back on Broadway

A DELICATE BALANCE Glenn CloseGlenn Close returns to Broadway after an absence of many years, as Agnes to John Lithgow’s Tobias,  a wealthy middle-aged couple whose seemingly serene suburban existence is revealed as a  nightmare involving family and friends, in Edward Albee’s “A Delicate Balance,” which is opening tonight and scheduled to run at the John Golden Theater through February 22, 2015.  The cast also features Bob Balaban, Lindsay Duncan, Claire Higgins, and Martha Plimpton.

Directed by Pam MacKinnon (who previously paired with Albee on “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf”), this is the third production of “A Delicate Balance” on Broadway. The original in 1966, starring Jessica Tandy and Hugh Cronyn, and featuring a Tony-winning performance by Marian Seldes as their spoiled daughter Julia, won for the playwright his first of (so far) three Pulitzer Prizes for Drama, even though critic Walter Kerr had called it “an elegantly lacquered empty platter.”

What do the current-day critics think of this production?

Terry Teachout, Wall Street Journal:

Mr. Albee is still what he always was, a wildly uneven author whose worst plays are so bad that it hardly seems possible that they were written by the same man who gave us the best ones. Where does “A Delicate Balance” fall on that spectrum? At its best, it’s thought-provoking and sometimes challenging, but it takes a long time to get moving, and I wonder whether modern-day audiences will be willing to wait for it. …Ms. Close’s performance is quiet, tasteful and underprojected, not surprising for an actor who has been absent from the stage for so long. Mr. Lithgow, by contrast, is in extraordinary form, by turns tightly inhibited and almost shockingly anguished.

Ben Brantley, New York Times As you would expect of these highly accomplished, multi-award-winning cast members, none of them are bad. But they’re giving us the play, instead of living it

 Mark Kennedy AP a revival where everyone does great work

Joe Dziemianowicz, Daily News, 4 out of 5 stars  a very good production that’s cool, well-composed and captivating….Close, with her aristocratic take on Agnes, comes within inches of coming off as arch. That approach doesn’t hurt the character. But Close’s unintentional habit of tripping over Albee’s dialogue doesn’t help. Lithgow, meantime, is riveting every moment he’s on stage — which is a lot — even when Tobias is silent.

Elizabeth Vincentelli, NY Post, 2 1/2 stars out of 4: This new “A Delicate Balance” is like a Christmas fruitcake that’s been left out too long: It’s boozy and loaded with goodies — Glenn Close! John Lithgow! — but it’s also on the dry side….Lithgow is best when Tobias is playing along with the women in his life, but his big letting-it-all-out scene feels forced. And Close’s one-note, tight-lipped performance keeps the audience at arms’ length,

 Charles McNulty, Los Angeles Times: ….This is an ensemble effort, with no one performer stealing the show as Elaine Stritch did when she played Claire in the 1996 Lincoln Center Theatre revival. The performances are all sharp — Higgins’ Edna is especially crisp — but they’re still coalescing. This is the kind of work that will deepen over time.

More below the photographs.

Click on any photograph to see it enlarged

Linda Winer, Newsday: although the play still dazzles with wit, gorgeous writing and the lurking terror of mortality, we miss the accumulating shock (the playwright) gave to the characters’ lives of cozy self-satisfaction (in a previous production.)…Lithgow is droll and manor-born as the retired Tobias, though we never believe he is as ineffectual as Agnes claims. Oddly, Close, who has three best-actress Tonys, seemed daunted at a recent preview by Agnes’ exhilarating but Olympian monologues. Stumbling over the words is a special problem for a silver fox who fancies herself the fulcrum of the family’s equilibrium. For reasons unknown, while designer Ann Roth dresses everyone else with an acute timeless conflation of the mid-’60s and today, Close’s Agnes is overdressed to distraction, lounging around the living-room in gowns and jewels….Nothing, alas, is delicate.

Marc Snetiker, Entertainment Weekly: B In her first leading Broadway appearance since 1994′s Sunset Boulevard, Glenn Close makes a comfy return to the stage as the self-important Agnes, whose self-pity is as dramatic as her pashminas. Close exudes the kind of veteran flair and magnetism you’d presume from such a marquee name. But although this seems to be Close’s marquee, it’s John Lithgow who runs away with the show

 

Jesse Green, New York Magazine Close, her eyes gleaming with Agnes’s useless intelligence, is superb with this material, totally believable as a lockjawed suburban virago. More fully even than Rosemary Harris, who played the role in the great 1996 revival, Close justifies Albee’s rewrite of the line “our dear Republicans, as dull as ever” to “as brutal as ever” for that production. Alas, he did not have to change it back for this one.

David Cote, Time Out New York: 4 stars out of 5…Pam MacKinnon directs this solid revival with a keen ear for the curling, teasing rhythms of Albee’s ornate lines, and the performances are top-notch, including the perfectly deadpan Balaban and a sinister Higgins as the unwelcome guests. Martha Plimpton finds sympathetic notes in the difficult, shrill role of Julia, and Close and Lithgow handle their tricky speeches with grace and nuance. If Close is a touch too frosty, she’s thawed by Lithgow’s warmth.

Jeremy Gerard, Deadline Hollywood: the affable Tobias of John Lithgow smolders, bursts into flame and slowly grows cold. It’s as rich a performance as I’ve ever seen…Nothing in Pam MacKinnon’s finely calibrated but emotionally uneven and infrequently unnerving staging measures up to the sheer power of either Albee’s dramaturgy or Lithgow’s inhabitance of Tobias.

 Matt Windman, AM New York: two stars out of four.  surprisingly flat and likely to disappoint both those unfamiliar with the three-act play, as well as those who still remember its much acclaimed revival from two decades ago with Elaine Stritch and Rosemary Harris

Allegro Review at CSC: Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Unknown Musical

Allegro 2  Claybourne Elder and Elizabeth A. Davis  Photo credit Matthew MurphyMove over, Encores! In their second musical restoration after Sondheim and Lapine’s Passion last year, the Classic Stage Company now brings us Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Allegro, billed as the first fully-staged production in New York City since the musical debuted on Broadway in 1947, shortly after the Rodgers and Hammerstein hits Oklahoma! and Carousel, shortly before their South Pacific and The King and I.

The CSC revival is pared-down, lasting 90 minutes with no intermission. There is minimal scenery; the stage is nearly in the round. The fine cast of 12 – led by Claybourne Elder at Joe Taylor Jr and Elizabeth Davis as his wife Jenny –  plays its own musical instruments.

Aficionados will likely be in heaven, even if they nitpick. Those previously unacquainted with “Allegro” might come to understand why this is the least known of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s musicals.  It’s best to think of it as an educational experience.

There is nothing wrong with the score. Although to my ears, the songs do not compare to Rodgers and Hammerstein’s best-loved melodies, several come close to standards (So Far, The Gentleman is a Dope.) If Rodgers is not doing his top work here, the lyrics often have the unmistakable mark of Hammerstein, clever and/or heartfelt:

Youre the smile on my face, or a song that i sing! Youre a rainbow I chase
on a morning in spring;
Youre a star in the lace of a wild, willow tree – in the green, leafy lace of a wild, willow tree.

 Even the story begins well enough, with the birth of Joe Jr. to Joseph Sr. and Marjorie Taylor, heralded by what amounts to a small-town Greek chorus, which lends an “Our Town” feel to the proceedings. We follow Joe, the son of a small-town doctor and mother who was the daughter of a small-town doctor, as he grows up wanting to do nothing but become a physician himself and join his father’s practice. But the story soon becomes what we can call, at best, old-fashioned. His mother disapproves of his relationship with his childhood sweetheart Jenny, seeing her as too greedy and ambitious, but Marjorie dies, and Joe and Jenny marry. Jenny and her father Ned disapprove of Joe Jr.’s choice of careers because it would take so long for Joe to make any money, if ever. (Cue the deliciously clever song “Money Isn’t Everything,” which pits the arguments for and against living for the dollar:

Money isn’t everything. What can money buy?

An automobile so you won’t get wet; champagne so you won’t get dry.

Can money make you honest?
Can it teach you right from wrong/
Can money keep you healthy?
Can it make your muscles strong?

Can money make your eyes red, the way they get from sewing?
Can money make your back get sore, the way it gets from mowing?

 So Joe Jr. gives up the dream he’s had his entire life…. and becomes a physician at a big city hospital.  The title song “Allegro” is in fact launched by the too-rapid speed in which everything is done in the hospital:

Our world is for the forceful, and not for sentimental folk,
but brilliant and resourceful and paranoiac gentle folk
not soft and sentimental folk!
“Allegro” a musician
would so describe the speed of it, the clash and competition
of counterpoint -

If there ever was a time that one surrendered one’s principles by serving in a big city hospital rather than setting up a practice in a small town, that time is long gone. Yet, we see how it corrupts Joe, forcing him to deal with rich people in order to raise funds, and shifting him increasingly away from practicing medicine and more towards hospital administration. If that weren’t evil enough, his wife Jenny is two-timing him — as if moving to a city made adultery inevitable.

It’s hard to put aside this ludicrous turn of events,  which, dare I say, was a tad hypocritical coming from the sophisticated and successful team of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II, both born in New York City. (Scholars suggest that it was his ambivalence towards his success that inspired Hammerstein to write “Allegro,” which is often called his most personal work.)

Given the extensive use of ensemble singing, and because the actors are also the orchestra, the CSC production of “Allegro” feels like an oratorio rather than “fully staged” musical theater, and the show suffers in at least two ways because of this. There is none of the dancing that supposedly distinguished the original show (choreographed by Agnes de Mille.) It is also hard to feel fully vested in the characterizations, cut down from more than 60 in the original. There are a few stand-outs, such as Jane Pfitsch as a hospital nurse who has a crush on Joe, but that’s because she’s the one who sings “The Gentleman Is a Dope.” She also plays a mean trumpet.

Allegro1

 

Allegro

At Classic Stage Company

Music by Richard Rodgers; book and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II

Directed and designed by John Doyle; musical direction and orchestrations by Mary-Mitchell Campbell; original orchestrations by Robert Russell Bennett; original dance arrangements by Trude Rittmann; original choral arrangements by Crane Calder; costumes by Ann Hould-Ward; lighting by Jane Cox; sound by Dan Moses Schreier; hair, wig and makeup design by Rob Greene and J. Jared Janas

Cast: George Abud (Charlie Townsend), Alma Cuervo (Grandma Taylor/Mrs. Lansdale), Elizabeth A. Davis (Jenny Brinker), Claybourne Elder (Joseph Taylor Jr.), Malcolm Gets (Joseph Taylor Sr.), Maggie Lakis (Hazel), Paul Lincoln (Minister/Brook Lansdale), Megan Loomis (Millie/Beulah), Jane Pfitsch (Molly/Emily), Randy Redd (Dr. Bigby Denby), Ed Romanoff (Ned Brinker/Mr. Buckley) and Jessica Tyler Wright (Marjorie Taylor).

Running time: 90 minutes with no intermission

Allegro is set to run through December 14th.

 

Straight White Men Review: Young Jean Lee’s Play About Reacting to Privilege

The rowdy brothers of Young Jean Lee’s stimulating “Straight White Men,” which has now opened at the Public Theater, play a board game called Privilege, where Jake draws a card that says:

“What I said wasn’t sexist/racist/homophobic because I was joking. Pay fifty dollars to The Lesbian and Gay Community Services Center.”

Drew’s card says: “I don’t see race. Pay two hundred dollars in reparations.”

A scene like this seems to confirm what we suspected from the provocative title –that Lee, a Korean immigrant known for her avant-garde downtown theater pieces, has written and directed an acid satire of America’s de facto ruling class. But “Straight White Men,” as it turns out, is nothing of the kind. Rather, it is a sympathetic, intelligent look at a family of four men, and the different ways they are adapting to a changing world.

Click on any photograph to see it enlarged.

 

Lest this sound too serious, Lee’s touch is light, with many delightful moments of horsing around and witty exchanges, helped along by a superb cast, in a play that takes place during a gathering of the clan around Christmas.

The merriment disguises the nearly schematic approach she takes to the characters and their adjustment. Ed, the father (Austin Pendleton), says he was raised at a different time, when nobody questioned the traditional path - “Get married, have kids, get a job….I didn’t grow up with a sense that I had any options.” On the other hand, it was his wife, now deceased, who invented that Privilege game, adapting an old Monopoly board, and we understand that it was important to both the mother and father that their children be raised with a social conscience.

Drew (Pete Simpson), the youngest, sees himself as living out the ideals set out by his parents, by writing political novels, and teaching.

Jake (Gary Wilmes) rejects the “checkbook activism” of his father, and what he sees as the self-satisfied activities of his brother. “You can’t change the system without giving up the benefits you gain from that system.” But Jake’s solution is not to try to make a difference; Jake works as a banker and refuses to feel guilty about it. However, Lee complicates this character by making him the divorced father of two black children.

Matt (James Stanley) was the oldest, the most accomplished and the most socially conscious. He got the drama teacher fired for only casting white people in Oklahoma – cue the brothers singing a hilarious rewrite of the musical’s title song, making heavy-handed allusions to the Klu Klux Klan:

Ooooklahoma Where the wind comes sweepin’ down the plain,
Where we sure look sweet, in white bed sheets,
With our pointy masks upon our heads!

“Matt was always trying to save the world,” his father says. But now Matt, despite his advanced degrees and deep competence, works as a temp and lives with his father. In what counts as the major development in this drama, he suddenly bursts into tears. Matt won’t explain why he’s so unhappy, but his brothers have their theories. Jake says: “Women and minorities may get to pretend they’re doing enough to make the world a better place just by getting ahead, but a white guy’s pretty hard- pressed to explain why the world needs him to succeed. So Matt’s trying to stay out of the way.” Matt doesn’t agree, but he doesn’t give his own answer — and, to her credit, neither does Young Jean Lee.

 

Straight White Men

At the Public Theater

Written and directed by Young Jean Lee; associate director, Emilyn Kowaleski; sets by David Evans Morris; lighting by Christopher Kuhl; costumes by Enver Chakartash; original music and remixes by Chris Giarmo; sound by Jamie McElhinney; dramaturgy by Mike Farry; movement by Faye Driscoll

Cast: Austin Pendleton (Ed), Pete Simpson (Drew), James Stanley (Matt) and Gary Wilmes (Jake).

Running time: 1 hour 30 minutes with no intermission.
Straight White Men is scheduled to run through December 7.

Update: Straight White Men has been extended through December 14, 2014

Side Show Review: Broadway Comeback of Hilton Sister Musical

The real Hilton sisters

The real Hilton sisters

Daisy and Violet Hilton, twin sisters permanently connected at the hip by a ribbon of flesh, were spectacularly popular entertainers in the 1920’s, so it seems fitting that “Side Show,” a musical about them that lasted just a few months on Broadway when it debuted in 1997, is back on Broadway in a spectacularly entertaining production. There’s nothing more quintessentially show business than a comeback, especially for a show with such a cult following; it was by far the most eagerly anticipated musical of the Broadway season in a poll I conducted.
The show’s devotees will surely debate the many changes in this production (which received huzzahs in both La Jolla, California and Washington D.C)  There are flashbacks now that show more of the Hilton’s miserable upbringing; the male characters are more fleshed out; most noticeable of all, the design is way more explicit – the freaks of the side show, from Tattoo Girl to Lizard Man to Geek, are now unmistakable grotesques. But those less in thrall to the musical’s legacy are more likely to see that the “freakery” is itself largely but a side show. Yes, “Side Show” is a story about being an outsider, and about finding love — the best songs in the show, both sung by the sisters, are “Who Will Love Me As I Am,” which closes the first act

and “I Will Never Leave You,” the 11 o’clock number. But “Side Show” is also at heart a conventional show about show business,  a stars-are-born musical that doesn’t dig very deep. It does, however, allow for one musical number after another that are both visually splendid and wonderfully performed.

Click on any photograph to see it enlarged

“Come look at the freaks, “ the ensemble sings at the very beginning of the show. The Hilton sisters, the outgoing Daisy (Emily Padgett) and the grounded Violet (Erin Davie) are the star attraction of a carnival run by their exploitative legal guardian known only as Sir (a terrifically slimy Robert Joy), when they are approached by a hustling producer Terry Connor (the always reliable Ryan Silverman) and his sidekick, the song-and-dance man Buddy (Matthew Hydzik.) They want to turn them from a sideshow exhibit into vaudeville stars, on a par with Sophie Tucker and Fanny Brice and W.C. Fields. “I’m very well-connected,” Terry sings (one of the many new songs.)
“So are we,” Daisy cracks.
This doesn’t sit well with Jake (stand-out David St. Louis), who performs as an African cannibal in the sideshow, but who is actually from Hackensack, New Jersey, and whose primary job is to protect the sisters. He delivers the first of the power ballads of the evening, “The Devil You Know.”
With Terry’s help, the sisters take Sir to court, and win control over their own lives.
We see them in increasingly polished numbers, wearing one after another of Paul Tazewell’s dazzling costumes. Davie and Padgett manage to present distinctive flavors in their performances, but also exhibit in the coordination of their dancing exactly why audiences must have been so thrilled by the Hilton sisters.
The second act continues with their show business career but also turns into a love story – or, rather, a story about the difficulty of finding real love. Violet is in love with Buddy, and Buddy wants to marry her; but he’s gay. Jake is in love with Violet, but she can’t see an interracial relationship working. Terry wants Daisy, but only if she’ll undergo an operation that will separate her from her twin.

“Side Show” ends in 1932 with something of an affirmation of the sisters’ independence and individuality, but, to the credit of the creative team, there is a hint of a less-than-happy future; they are cast in a film called “Freaks,” which adds an edge to the song “Look at the Freaks” when the ensemble repeats it as the closing number.  This is nowhere near as sad as the actual story of the Hilton sisters, who lived some four more decades without any further success.  Having been abandoned by their latest manager at a drive-in, they worked their final years as grocery store clerks. But “Side Show” is, after all, a Broadway musical.

Side Show

At the St.James Theater

Book and lyrics by Bill Russell; music by Henry Krieger; additional book material by Bill Condon; directed by Mr. Condon; choreography by Anthony Van Laast; musical direction and arrangements by Sam Davis; sets by David Rockwell; costumes by Paul Tazewell; lighting by Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer; sound by Peter Hylenski; special makeup and effects by Dave Elsey and Lou Elsey; hair and wig design by Charles G. LaPointe; makeup design by Cookie Jordan; illusion consultant, Paul Kieve; orchestrations by Harold Wheeler;

Cast: Erin Davie (Violet Hilton), Emily Padgett (Daisy Hilton), Matthew Hydzik (Buddy Foster), Robert Joy (Sir), Ryan Silverman (Terry Connor), David St. Louis (Jake) and Blair Ross (Auntie/Bearded Lady/Ensemble).

Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes.

Punk Rock Review: Darker Tale by ‘Curious Incident’ Playwright

Several years before Simon Stephens adapted “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time” for the stage (now on Broadway), the playwright wrote the far more in-your-face “Punk Rock,” about a group of troubled English private school students, which has now opened Off-Broadway in a scorching production by MCC at the Lucille Lortel Theater.

Shy, curly-haired William (Douglas Smith) is in one of the school’s little-used libraries, introducing new student Lilly (Colby Minifie) to the ways of the school and to the other five students as one by one they enter this isolated room in the school that serves as their hangout before, after, and in-between classes.

At first, they seem like normal teenagers, worrying about their exams, talking about music, gossiping, teasing one another, smooching on a desk. Tanya (Annie Funke, Hairspray on Broadway) has a crush on one of her teachers, fantasizing they’ll get married; Nicholas (Pico Alexander) plays Lacrosse and wears designer clothing that his classmates admire, and has lascivious thoughts about another teacher, not much older than himself. Chadwick (the always terrific Noah Robbins, Arcadia, Brighton Beach Memoirs, The Vandal) is a brain who knows the architecture of Cambridge (which he wants to attend) and the number of galaxies in the university; there are traces in Chadwick of Christopher, the lead character in “Curious Incident”
But we learn something darker as we follow them over six scenes that unfold over several weeks, each scene change accompanied by the cast dancing in masks to some blasting punk rock — from “Kerosene” by Big Black, and “Eric’s Trip” by Sonic Youth to “Touch Me I’m Sick” by Mudhoney.
Lilly burns herself. Cissy (Lilly Englert) is neurotically obsessed with getting good grades. Chadwick is a nihilist who delivers a convincing argument for the end of days. Bennett (stand-out Will Pullen) emerges as a bully of the worst sort, with a hint that he is overcompensating for a secret attraction to men.
He picks on Tanya for her weight, but focuses on humiliations for Chadwick, ordering his classmates to help. William seems at first charming in his nervousness and obsessions; he suffers the normal aches and disappointments of adolescents, as when he asks Lilly for a date and she rejects him. But little by little we realize he is the most….off….of all of them. It is a role that Tom Sturridge took on in the original 2009 London production and that made him a star. We can’t know whether it will do the same for Douglas Smith (who is best known for his role in the film “Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters” and as the eldest son in HBO’s “Big Love”), but he does give a performance worth seeing.
Playwright Stephens is expert in escalating the tensions, aided by Trip Cullman’s nearly percussive direction, and a uniformly credible cast. The scenes through most of the play feel as gritty and authentic as Mark Wendland’s set, mostly empty bookshelves, walls painted institutional green with patches of white plaster and a clock that may or may not actually tell the time.
Before he was a playwright, Simon Stephens was a teacher and a member of an art punk band, and both experiences are evident in “Punk Rock.” But he also reportedly was influenced by the headline-making incidents of school violence, and the play swerves into territory alien to his personal experience that ramps up the intensity in a way that feels less real than what preceded it. If “Punk Rock” offers little special insight or education about the problems of adolescence, there is no denying that it is a lesson in how to make theater riveting.

Punk Rock
Lucille Lortel Theater
Written by Simon Stephens
Directed by Trip Cullman
Scenic design by Mark Wendland, costume design by Clint Ramos, lighting design by Japhy Weiderman, sound design by Darron I. West. Dialect coach: Stephen Gabis

Cast: Pico Alexander (Nicholas), Lilly Englert (Cissy), Annie Funke (Tanya), David Greenspan (Dr. Harvey), Colby Minifie (Lilly), Will Pullen (Bennett), Noah Robbins (Chadwick), Sophie Shapiro (Lucy), Douglas Smith (William)

Running time: 110 minutes with no intermission
Tickets: $69-$79. Student rush: $20. Under 30 years old: single ticket for $30.
Punk Rock is scheduled through December 7, 2014

The River Review: Hugh Jackman, Two Women, and a Sea Trout

They’ve asked us not to reveal the ending of “The River,” a play by Jez Butterworth (author of “Jerusalem”) starring Hugh Jackman as a man who likes to fish. But I’m not sure what difference knowing the ending would make, since it’s only slightly less enigmatic than the beginning or the middle of this play.

Click on any photograph to see it enlarged.

The man (he’s not given a name) has invited the woman (also without a name, portrayed by Cush Jumbo) to join him in his remote cabin built on a cliff above a river, that has belonged to his family for generations. We gather from their conversation that she is his new girlfriend. Some of her comments are drily amusing, almost (but not quite) repartee. She wants to show him the beautiful sunset. He is too busy gathering his fishing equipment for some night-time fishing; since there’s no moon, the sea trout will be out in force, a once-a-year phenomenon that will be a wonder to behold. She is not sure she wants to go.

Blackout. We see the man calling the police to report a missing person. But then we hear a woman’s voice – she’s not missing after all; false alarm – but the woman who then appears on stage is, as it says in the program, The Other Woman (Laura Donnelly), and, when the man asks her what happened to her, she explains that, when they went out to fish at night, she lost track of him, and went wandering, and ran into another fisherman, who helped her catch a big trout. She gives the man the trout. He begins to prepare it for cooking. The Other Woman (Donnelly) then goes offstage into the bedroom, and it is The Woman (Jumbo) who returns.

And so it goes, for the 85 minutes of the play, alternating scenes of the man with the woman and then with the other woman. Not much happens. Some moments are repeated; both the woman and the other woman, for example, talk about a robin that got caught in the cabin. The characters talk a lot about fishing, and about love, so that one suspects the playwright is using one as a metaphor for the other. The man tells the woman (or was it the other woman?) that he has never invited any other woman to his cabin, that he vowed only to invite his one true love there – that if he ever invited any woman afterwards, his love for her would be a lie. Both women talk of a sketch they’ve discovered in the cabin of another woman in a red dress.

“The River” is darkly lit, atmospheric, best thought of as a stage poem (the characters often speak as if reciting a poem, and actually recite a few), or a puzzle embedded with clues, with the slightest of payoffs at the end. For those with little tolerance for ambiguity or obscurity, it’s a lot of hooey. For fans of Hugh Jackman, it’s a chance to see him in the flesh, gutting and then cooking a trout.

The River

Circle in the Square Theater

By Jez Butterworth

Ian Rickson (Direction), Ultz (Scenic and Costume Design), Charles Balfour (Lighting Design), Ian Dickinson for Autograph (Sound Design), Stephen Warbeck (Music)

Cast: Hugh Jackman, Laura Donnelly, Cush Jumbo

Tickets: $35 – $175

Running time: 85 minutes with no intermission

The River is scheduled to run through January 25, 2015

Our Lady of Kibeho Review: A Miracle, Before A Massacre

It took me nearly to the end of “Our Lady of Kibeho,” a play by Katori Hall based on a true story about three Catholic schoolgirls in 1981 Rwanda who reported having a vision of the Virgin Mary, before I gave up on it. It was the moment when Alphonsine, one of the visionary schoolgirls, calls out to the villagers

“Join us, join us in prayer. Lift your hands to the sky”

and several members of the audience did so.

Shouldn’t there be a separation between church and stage? There is nothing in the U.S. Constitution that requires this, but there may be something in my constitution – and I suspect the constitution of the average New York theatergoer – that calls for more skeptical/analytical distance than we are allowed in “Our Lady of Kibeho.”

This is too bad, because Hall’s choice of subject is, at least theoretically, fascinating.

Click on any photograph to see it enlarged

Kibeho was a small village that was unknown to the outside world until two events occurred – the report of the Virgin Mary sightings that began in 1981, and the Kibeho Massacre in 1994, part of the Rwandan Genocide that year that in just 100 days resulted in as many as a million people slaughtered, or about a fifth of the nation’s entire population. Some people later linked the vision and the massacre – as does Hall’s play: The Virgin Mary was warning of the coming horror.

“Our Lady of Kibeho” begins after Alphonsine (a luminous Mneka Okafor) has already reported seeing the vision of the Virgin Mary, and is about to be punished for lying. Sister Evangelique, the no-nonsense head nun at Kibeho College portrayed by Starla Benford, is sending Alphonsine to Father Tuyishime for a beating, but the priest (Owiso Odera) is too kind-hearted to do so.

Soon, Alphonsine’s classmate Anathalie (Mandi Masden) is also having the visions.

What follows is a series of miracles presented to the audience – Anathalie’s father tries to drag his daughter out of the school, but she suddenly is as heavy as a building; a nasty classmate Marie-Claire (Joaquina Kalukango) burns Alphonsine’s arm with a candle but it does not burn – until Marie-Claire too is entranced by the vision….and all three girls levitate in their dorm.

The Kibeho villagers start calling the girls the Trinity, and Rome sends Father Flavia (T. Ryder Smith) to investigate the veracity of the miracle. When Alphonsine is in the middle of a “rapture,” Father Flavia jabs a huge needle into her sternum, causing her to bleed – a test, we’re told, demanded by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. She is oblivious to the pain, looking heavenward.

There are hints in this play of the more layered work it could have been. The local bishop (Brent Jennings) seems a little less than saintly – he’s married, for one thing, and he is eager for Rome’s confirmation of the miracle because it will boost tourism as it did in Fatima.

But when the young women start flittering their eyes and beaming heavenward, it recalls the scene of mass hysteria among the young women in Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible,” except this time we are supposed to believe it – indeed, we are given no choice.

Hall has said she wanted to write about the Rwanda genocide through a side door, rather than confront it directly, but, while she offers occasional glimpses into the tribal hostility between the Hutu and the Tutsi, the allusions to the holocaust to come feel tacked on and nearly cheap, an excuse for some fancy stagecraft.

The playwright has a history of using stage effects to try to induce a sense of spiritual wonder. In the work for which she is best known, “The Mountaintop,” Hall climaxed the story of Martin Luther King Jr.’s last night alive with a contemplation of the cosmos – the motel room breaks apart, and we are presented with a starry set that is meant to be awe-inspiring, accompanied by a fervent monologue. The effect had the perhaps unintended consequence of seeming to try to turn King into a saint, thus paradoxically undermining the non-sectarian accomplishments of this American hero.

I doubt Hall is using her skills as a playwright and her predilection for stage magic to proselytize for a specific religion. But, despite a hardworking, appealing cast, some moving moments and an inventive design team under the direction of Michael Greif, the experience of “Our Lady of Kibeho” was ultimately akin to attending an overlong service at a church to which I don’t belong.

 Our Lady of Kibeho

Katori Hall, Playwright
Michael Greif, Director
Rachel Hauck, Set Designer
Emily Rebholz, Costume Designer
Ben Stanton, Lighting Designer
Matt Tierney, Sound Designer
Peter Nigrini, Projections Designer

Cast:

Starla Benford Sister Evangelique
Jade Eshete Girl 3
Danaya Esperanza Girl 2
Niles Fitch Emmanuel
Kambi Gathesha Villager 1
Brent Jennings Bishop Gahamanyi
Joaquina Kalukango Marie-Clare Mukangango
Mandi Masden Anathalie Mukamazimpaka
Owiso Odera Father Tuyishime
Nneka Okafor Alphonsine Mumureke
Stacey Sargeant Girl 1
T. Ryder Smith Father Flavia
Patrick J. Ssenjovu Villager 2
Angela Uwamahoro Girl 4
Bowman Wright Nkango

Tickets: $25

Running Time: 2 hours 30 minutes, including one intermission

Our Lady of Kibeho is scheduled to run through December 7, 2014

Update: The play has been extended a week to December 14. The price of tickets rises to $75 for extended shows.

The Theater Is Not Dead, Long Live Twitter. Meryl Streep and Freedom. Adam Driver Trooper to Trouper. Week in New York Theater

“The theater is the only institution in the world which has been dying for 4,000 years and has never succumbed,” John Steinbeck said, and I quoted on Twitter several times in the five years since I wrote my first Tweet.

Steinbeck’s comment hasn’t stopped anybody, least of all theater people, from writing theater’s eulogy.

“I’m a throwback. Isn’t that awful? To live long enough to
be a throwback? A leading lady without a stage,” says Blythe Danner in The Country House, one of the several shows about theater that have opened on Broadway this season – which inspired two articles (linked below).

How would you assess these shows? Would you call them absorbing, transfixing, mesmerizing, riveting — or uninspiring, pedestrian, plodding and lackluster? Roger Ebert supplied 60 synonyms for “interesting” and “boring”…on Twitter.  Twitter has been my stage for five years now — which has provided much of the content for these weekly summaries of theater news and reviews.

The Week in New York Theater Nov 10-16

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Matthew Morrison wants to create real-life Glee

Matthew Morrison

The rumors are true: Matthew Morrison is returning to Broadway to star in Finding Neverland as J.M. Barrie, the author of Peter Pan. It opens April 15th at the Lunt-Fontanne
“I can’t wait for people to see me in a different light.”

music-sting

To keep The Last Ship afloat, Sting is waiving his royalties, and reportedly may perform in the show starting in January.

Geoffrey Rush as the Marquis de Sade in "Quills"

Geoffrey Rush as the Marquis de Sade in “Quills”

Creating Characters Out of Real People

Doug Wright talks about the very different approaches he took in three works of art about actual people — Marquis de Sade in Wright’s play and movie “Quills,” Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis’s eccentric family members Edith and Edie Beale in the musical “Grey Gardens,” and the cross-dressing East German Charlotte von Mahlsdorf in Wright’s Tony and Pulitzer winning play “I Am My Own Wife” He spoke at a luncheon for theater critics at Sardi’s.

50th Annual Village Voice Obie Awards

Jerry Tallmer, a theater critic who died Sunday at 93, dreamed up Off Broadway’s Obie Awards, and helped shape more personal theater criticism. He quoted Shaw on the requirements of his trade: “Be yourself, and care.”

Stephen Sondheim

Stephen Sondheim

MerylStreep

Stephen Sondheim, Meryl Streep, Alvin Ailey (posthumously) among winners of Presidential Medal of Freedom, highest civilian honor

Complete list of 2014 Presidential Medal of Freedom recipients (e.g. also Stevie Wonder, Marlo Thomas, Isabel Allende)

11

Line-up of plays at the 2015 Human Festival at the Actors Theater of Louisville.

Judi Dench

Judi Dench

Dame Judi Dench “has a lifelong hatred of the Merchant of Venice after being taught it badly at school. There’s a right way and a wrong way to teach Shakespeare. “If you’re reading Shakespeare you can get baffled by the language, but if you see actors deliver it with passion and engagement, even if you don’t pick up every word, you can follow a story and be transported to a different world…”

AdamDriver-SPLIT

Theater helped military veteran Adam Driver adjust to civilian life. He is now in the cast of HBO’s Girls. He created Arts in the Armed Forces.

Driver told the Wall Street Journal

Here you are with a small group of people where everything has meaning. The uniform you wear, you have a certain rank and when you walk into a room people know your status immediately….All that kind of structure and meaning is gone when you get out and suddenly you’re at Starbucks and you’re being ordered around by some college student who doesn’t know anything about who you are, and you start thinking that civilians are nasty and disgusting and there’s no meaning in things. You’re aware of what you can accomplish in a day, you’re aware of how precious life can be at an early age. I think it’s a tricky transition to figure out: How do I apply the things I learned to this life? For me, I didn’t find a way to really express that until I was reading plays about these characters who weren’t in the military but experiencing the same themes of loss and identity and mourning. I just understood.”

Theater About Theater

At a time when an increasing number of people are questioning the vitality and relevance of live theater—if not explicitly, then by how they are spending their money and time elsewhere—these Broadway revivals of theater about theater felt almost like a declaration of surrender. If the theater appeals to a shrinking audience, they seem to be saying, let’s just cater to the in-crowd.

What Theater About Theater Says About Theater

Lines from The Country House, It’s Only A Play, The Real Thing, and Search Characters in Search of an Author.

12

32,495 people, including Sondheim, Hugh Jackman, Diane Paulus, Lin-Manuel Miranda,  have signed a petition urging The Tony Awards to restore sound design awards. Tonys “stand by” its “carefully studied decision” to drop the sound design award, and there will be none this season. But a Tony committee will give it “further review.”

Producers of Its Only A Play offered The Audience $400,000 to move next door to the Jacobs. They refused.

dave movie

Dave,1993 political satire, is being made into a Broadway-aiming musical by Tom Kitt (Next to Normal), Thomas Meehan (Annie,Hairspray)

GRAND CONCOURSE OCTOBER 17, 2014 – NOVEMBER 30, 2014 PETER JAY SHARP THEATER Written by   Heidi Schreck Directed by  Kip Fagan WORLD PREMIERE Called to a life of religious service, Shelley is the devoted manager of a Bronx soup kitchen, but lately her

My review of Grand Concourse

Heidi Schreck, the playwright of “Grand Concourse,” is also an actress who performed in Annie Baker’s“Circle Mirror Transformation” and has served as actress and writer for the Showtime series “Nurse Jackie,” and the influence of both shows is evident in her play about four people in a church soup kitchen in the Bronx – a nun, a maintenance man, a homeless client, and a mysterious teenager who shows up one day to volunteer.

Like Annie Baker’s play, “Grand Concourse” unfolds slowly, obliquely, an apparent attempt to reproduce the rhythms of real life rather than hew to dramatic convention. Like “Nurse Jackie,” its characters struggle, grapple, behave at times ignobly or inexplicably — and, still, are easy to fall in love with.

That these flawed characters are so appealing in this production helmed by Kip Fagan, which has now opened at Playwrights Horizons, has much to do with the wonderful cast.

Full review of Grand Concourse

13

There will be a new Lincoln Center Hall of Fame, celebrating all aspects of performing arts and film, when Avery Fisher Hall is renovated (and renamed)

Kelsey Grammer will return to Broadway as J.M. Barrie’s theatrical producer, in Neverland.

American Dance Machine for the 21st Century works to preserve classic Broadway choreography.

Hair

Hair

Broadway Revealed exhibition

14

My fifth anniversary on Twitter

The Shuberts, which owns 17 of Broadyway’s 40 theaters, reportedly will take over New World Stages with its five Off-Broadway stages on Monday.

16
Should minimum wage apply to the arts, Chris Jones asks.

OUR LADY OF KIBEHO

My review of Our Lady of Kibeho

It took me nearly to the end of “Our Lady of Kibeho,” a play by Katori Hall based on a true story about three Catholic schoolgirls in 1981 Rwanda who reported having a vision of the Virgin Mary, before I gave up on it. It was the moment when Alphonsine, one of the visionary schoolgirls, calls out to the villagers

“Join us, join us in prayer. Lift your hands to the sky”

and several members of the audience did so.

Shouldn’t there be a separation between church and stage?

Full review of Our Lady of Kibeho

Hugh Jackman and Laura Donnelly

Hugh Jackman and Laura Donnelly

My review of The River

They’ve asked us not to reveal the ending of “The River,” a play by Jez Butterworth (author of “Jerusalem”) starring Hugh Jackman as a man who likes to fish. But I’m not sure what difference knowing the ending would make, since it’s only slightly less enigmatic than the beginning or the middle of this play.

Full review of The River

My Five Years on Twitter

My first Tweet as @NewYorkTheater, five years ago today:

Five years and some 40,500 Tweets later — an average of more than six a day, every day, rain or shine — I’ve had some more interesting and less self-serving Tweets, some of which I’ve saved.

Interestingtoboringsynonyms

This is useful, funny and sad all at the same time – sad because it is from Roger Ebert, who since has died.

Each week for at least four years, I’ve also put together a weekly summary of New York theater news, (first on a now-defunct online newspaper site, then on this blog.) The Week in New York Theater posts have mostly been culled from the Tweets that week.

I’ve overseen Twitter debates on theater etiquette, such as

whether there should be opening applause for celebrities

whether it’s rude to leave a show early during the curtain call …

or at intermission

Here are some recent Tweets that had the most favorites and Retweets.

My most popular Tweets seem to be about memorializing somebody who’s died, or celebrating somebody who’s lived.

Not all my Tweets have been absorbing, riveting or transfixing, but neither have they all been unimaginative, unremarkable and unoriginal.

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