How to Transcend a Happy Marriage Review: Sarah Ruhl’s Spiritual Orgy Play with Marisa Tomei and Lena Hall

In Sarah Ruhl’s new play, “How to Transcend a Happy Marriage,” two middle-aged married couples, long-time friends, find themselves fascinated with a young woman nicknamed Pip ( Lena Hall, Tony winner for Hedwig and the Angry Inch) who lives and loves with two men, in what they call a polyamorous relationship, or a throuple, or a triad. The two couples decide to invite the throuple to a New Year’s Eve party.

“And our lives would change forever,” George (short for Georgia), portrayed by Marisa Tomei, says to the theatergoers sitting politely at Lincoln Center’s Mitzi Newhouse Theater.

It’s not actually clear that their lives do change forever. But ours certainly don’t.

The New Year’s Eve party ends in an orgy, right before intermission. In Act II, Ruhl’s play takes a series of surreal turns, in an apparent but by no means straightforward attempt to tell us something about love and marriage; and the spirit and the flesh; and the conflict between our animal desires and our human duties, as well as our efforts to reconcile these two natures.

Ruhl is a lovely writer, capable of witty aphorisms, sophisticated dialogue, humorous set-ups, and a theatrical sense of wonder. She also has a tendency towards the twee. All this is on display in “How To Transcend a Happy Marriage,” but this play doesn’t come together as effectively as some of her previous theater that touches on similar territory. She has written about love and marriage in my favorite of her plays, “Stage Kiss “; about spiritual matters, in “The Oldest Boy” ; and, in her only play on Broadway so far, “In The Next Room, or the Vibrator Play,” she has written satirically about the conflict between our animal desires and our bourgeois habits.

The strength of “Happy Marriage” is in the characterization of Lena Hall’s Pip, who isn’t just polyamorous. She is a free spirit who slaughters animals when she wants to eat meat, seeing it as the only ethical way to be a meat-eater. She is also taking pole dancing classes. And she is something of a shape-shifter. Hall, best-known for her rock personas, seems the exact right performer for the role.

One problem is that, as reliable and appealing as the rest of the cast is, they are portraying characters that seem deliberately…bland. This even includes Pip’s boyfriends, a mathematician named David (Austin Smith), who talks about Pythagoras, and Freddie (David McElwee), who doesn’t have a job: “It’s kind of a philosophy. I think, I walk. I try not to leave any imprint. Or footprint…I went to Harvard.”

Pip’s liveliness contrasts with the two couples’ banal bourgeois existence. Pip makes a living as a temp at a legal aid office; this is where she met Jane (Robin Weigert ), who works there as a litigator. Her husband Michael (Brian Hutchison) writes jingles. I don’t even remember what the other couple do for a living, except that Marissa Tomei’s George is assigned narrator duties and also gets long ruminative monologues. These sound as if they might be perceptive, but they existed in a spiritual realm somewhere above my head.

Here is what might be a typical exchange during the New Year’s Eve Party, an example of the ways in which “How to Transcend A Happy Marriage” manages to be simultaneously entertaining and tedious:

Pip: The thing about being bisexual that’s tedious is you constantly have to announce yourself. It’s like, if you decide to be a vegetarian, you don’t go around reminding people, well I’m technically an omnivore. You know?

Paul:So if you’re a monogamous bisexual, does that make you a liar all the time?

David: I sort of think so. But monogamy is a construct that will seem passé in the next century. So will race. The whole world will be like Brazil.

George: I love Brazil.

Michael: Pistachios?

Freddie: Yes, please. I love pistachios at a party. Gives you something to do with your hands. I never know what to do with my hands while I make small talk.

All this is before the fanciful twists of the second act, which I shouldn’t describe, although it wouldn’t matter much if I did. I’ll only say they take place in a forest, a jail cell, and in Michael and Jane’s home, and involve woodland creatures, and a teenage daughter, and snow, and lots of hugging.

How to Transcend a Happy Marriage
Mitzi Newhouse Theater
Written by Sarah Ruhl. Directed by Rebecca Taichman. Set design by David Zinn, costume design by Susan Hilferty, lighting design by Peter Kaczorowski, sound design by Matt Hubbs
Cast: Lena Hall as Pip, Brian Hutchison as Michael, David McElwee as Freddie, Omar Metwally as Paul, Naian Gonzalez Norvind as Jenna, Austin Smith as David, Marisa Tomei as George, Robin Weigert as Jane
Running time: two hours and 15 minutes, including an intermission
Tickets: $87
Through May 7, 2017

 

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Miss Saigon: Review, pics

The first Broadway revival of Miss Saigon is being marketed as the return of a classic. But, if the show has become an undeniable fan favorite, the production’s impressive visual spectacle, lively staging and crowd-pleasing vocal calisthenics cannot completely mask a script that leans heavily on emotional manipulation and one-dimensional storytelling.

Full review in DC Theatre Scene

Click on any photograph by Matthew Murphy or Michael Le Poer Trench to see it enlarged.

For St. Patricks Day: The Irish and How They Got That Way

In honor of St. Patrick’s Day, a reposting of my 2010 review;

Eleven U.S. presidents have been descendants of the Irish, including Barack Obama. An Irishman was the first to make a piano in America; take out an American appendix; start a fistfight on the floor of the United States Senate; jump off the Brooklyn Bridge. Indeed, an Irish monk was the first European to discover America, in the sixth century, according to “The Irish…and How They Got That Way,” a musical revue and history lesson that was put together by the retired schoolteacher Frank

McCourt in 1997, a year after his memoir “Angela’s Ashes” made him famous.

The Irish Repertory Theater is now reviving the show exactly a year after McCourt’s death. If it were far shorter than its two-hour length, “The Irish” would be close to ideal as a stage show on Ellis Island, filled as it is with an educational mix of quirky facts and trenchant cracks (mostly about the hated British), historical overview and anecdotes, sentiment and humor, period quotations and old-time melodies, from the familiar (“Yankee Doodle Dandy”) to the inevitable (“Oh Danny Boy”) to the unearthed (“No Irish Need Apply.”) This is not to suggest that it’s an expurgated version of Irish-American history. Though not the irreverent romp that the title suggests, it has its share of zingers: During the nineteenth century, “there were two types of people the Irish did not get along with” one cast member says. “The blacks and the whites.” “This is a dark, dark world,” another quotes Adlai Stevenson. “That’s why the Irish are always half lit.” The six cast members include two that were in the original production, and two who variously play violin, mandolin, bodran, piano and accordion. In a more or less chronological series of monologues, against a changing backdrop of old illustrations, they tell us harrowing stories about the Irish potato famine that killed a fourth of the population, and drove many of the rest to America; about the astounding discrimination to which the Irish immigrants were subjected; about the infamous role the Irish played in the Draft Riots during the Civil War; about the Irish domination of big city political machines and labor unions and their role in the building of America: On a map of the United States, “run your finger along the route of any canal or any railroad and you’ll be passing over the graves of thousands of Irishmen who died… It was a rare thing in America to see a gray-haired Irishman.” They also touch on the Irish involvement in show business. There are four songs by George M. Cohan and a wonderful tap-dance-with-jokes vaudeville routine. Together they suggest the broader entertainment that could have been fashioned out of this gently diverting collection of history and song.

Beckett, George M Cohan, O’Neill, Shaw, Oscar Wilde

Postscript: Some of the world’s greatest dramatists were of Irish birth or heritage

Samuel Beckett

Sean O’Casey

Eugene O’Neill

George Bernard Shaw

Richard Sheridan

Oscar Wilde

The Price on Broadway With Danny DeVito: Pics, Review

Danny DeVito, making his Broadway debut, gets the best deal out of The Price. Arthur Miller is not a playwright known for comically colorful characters, yet here’s DeVito as Gregory Solomon, a Jewish acrobat turned 89-year-old used furniture dealer who “smoked all my life, I drinked, and I loved every woman who would let me.”

DeVito’s character is the most enjoyable but not a central one in Miller’s sober family drama, now getting its fifth production on Broadway, in a cast that also includes Mark Ruffalo, Jessica Hecht and Tony Shalhoub. If none are at their absolute best here, that only means that all of them at one time or another have given performances that have left me in awe.In the play — which is also not Miller’s absolute best — Shalhoub and Mark Ruffalo are estranged brothers who meet in their childhood home years after their parents’ death in order to sell off their old possessions before the building is torn down. The meeting turns into a confrontation, with secrets revealed, the past unearthed. The price is not just what Solomon will give them for the furniture but what the characters have paid for past choices and lost chances.

Full review at D.C. Theatre Scene

Click on any photograph by Joan Marcus to see it enlarged.

 

Come From Away on Broadway: Review, Video and Pics

“Come From Away” tells the story of the 9,000 residents of Gander, Newfoundland who took care of some 7,000 passengers and crew of 38 airplanes that were forced to land at the local airport because of the September 11, 2001 attacks. The production has gained fans for its foot-stomping Celtic-flavored music, the tight ensemble work of its 12-member cast, and its heartwarming view of humanity, as it’s traveled from La Jolla to Seattle to D.C. to Toronto. But now that it’s in New York, it has to deal with people like me.

As I wrote on the 15th anniversary of September 11th,I was across the street from the Twin Towers on the morning of September 11, 2001 when they were attacked. When an out-of-town friend visiting New York recently bought me a ticket to the 9/11 Memorial Museum, I couldn’t bring myself to go.

So I was worried that Come from Away would, in contemporary parlance, be triggering. But the exact opposite occurred. The Canadian song writing team of Irene Sankoff and David Hein are so eager to please that Come From Away keeps a safe distance from the horror of 9/11.

Come From Away focuses on the kindness of strangers, and how they ease the fear and inconvenience of the “plane people,” some 1,500 miles away from any real danger.

This is not really a “9/11 musical,” then, but it will certainly be seen that way. The question thus arises: Are we so battered by the trauma of actual events that the only stage depictions we welcome about them are feel-good entertainment?

The answer seems to be yes,  judging by the enthusiastic embrace of this musical

Full review at D.C. Theatre Scene

Click on any photograph by Matthew Murphy to see it enlarged.

The Glass Menagerie with Sally Field: Review and Pics

Sam Gold, the innovative director who won a Tony for Fun Home, has cast Sally Field in a new Broadway production of Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie that doesn’t include a glass menagerie! And that’s among the least intrusive of Gold’s directorial choices, which theatergoers weaned on Williams must struggle to reconcile with the playwright’s beloved text….

The absence of a display on stage of the glass animal figurines that give the play its title reflects the minimalist set at the elegant Belasco Theater…The play unfolds on a bare stage, with just a table and a few chairs…

Sally Field… is angry, bitter and no-nonsense. When she recalls the 17 gentleman callers of her youth, she is not immersing herself in the fantasy world of her genteel Southern upbringing, she is full of resentment for having chosen the wrong beau to marry, the long-absent father of her children

Full review at DC Theatre Scene

Click on any photograph by Julieta Cervantes to see it enlarged.

The Outer Space Review: Ethan Lipton’s Sci Fi Shaggy Dog Midlife Crisis Musical

At first glance, singing storyteller Ethan Lipton and his three-member band – the creators and entire cast of “The Outer Space” – look like middle-aged men who never outgrew their childhood obsessions with space travel and rock ‘n’ roll. They wear those blue astronaut jumpsuits, and drink out of plastic spaceship sippy cups, and sing and play tunes in front of the walls at Joes Pub newly festooned with stars that glow purple if you shine a black light at them – precisely the decorations you’d expect in the bedroom of a nine-year-old boy.
This is how it seems on second glance, too, as Lipton narrates the funny, pointed, and strange story of the unnamed married couple who decide they’ve had it with Earth; they buy an old jalopy of a rocket ship and live in a space colony that orbits the planet Mercury, where 3,100 people live, work and shop in some 450 vessels, including a “one-dollar ship.”
Half science fiction, half Moth-like shaggy dog tale involving a midlife crisis, half social satire, half a revue of unrelated songs in a mix of genres, “The Outer Space” doesn’t quite add up to a musical. But it does count as an almost unique entertainment – “almost,” because it’s a sequel of sorts to “No Place To Go,” Lipton and company’s 2012 show, also at the Public. In that one, the man’s job was moving to Mars, and he had to decide whether to move along with it or stay in New York. In “The Outer Space,” that same man moves reluctantly to Mercury with his wife, who is the one who needed to get away from Earth.
It would be foolhardy to try to summarize the story in the 90-minute show, not because there isn’t one – although there isn’t one – but because “The Outer Space” makes something of an art form out of off-the-wall and out-of-left-field.

That’s true about the lyrics – for example, in “She Does Well in Space,” Lipton describes the wife as:
“Friend to every varmint on the block
Chickens, broccoli, they all join her flock.”

Or in the song, A to Z:
Like apples and aardvarks
Birthdays and bingo
(etc through the whole alphabet)
it’s hard to know how we could walk and talk more differently.”

That’s true about his analogies too. Lipton says the husband

“….had to concede,
our cost of living keeps going up like a rocket
while our wages putter along like a school bus
and our savings sit there like a turtle until some major catastrophe—
like a trip to the grocery store— drives them back into the toilet.”

It’s true about his descriptions of the other characters in the space colony, such as “Mika, who works in cosmology, and her husband Donald, who is part bicycle.”

Vito Dieterle, on sax

In keeping with this approach, “The Outer Space” is full of non-sequiturs and digressions. But these are funny non-sequiturs and digressions full of a kind of folksy urban social commentary, and they are set to music that is variously folk, down home blues, funk, bluegrass, Latin-flavored jazz, both soft pop and hard rock, and a final lovely ballad that begins:

Have you ever had the dream
of going somewhere beautiful
Somewhere far away and magical
at the end of all that’s natural

In short, “The Outer Space,” helps the audience, just like that space-traveling couple, get away from it all, albeit just for 80 minutes or so. And by “it all,” Lipton explains, he means:
“noise, violence, oppression, the grind,
rudeness, tourism, traffic, trash,
smelly buses, corporate greed, cultural homogenization, economic marginalization, pollution, overcrowded schools, overpriced rents, overhyped pastries, and busker rock” – as well as (I expect a recent update) the “Dark Lord” that “took over the universe.”

The Outer Space
Joe’s Pub at the Public
Book and Lyrics by Ethan Lipton 
Music composed and performed by Ethan Lipton, Vito Dieterle, Eben Levy & Ian Riggs
Directed by Leigh Silverman

Scenic and Costume Design: David Zinn
Lighting Design: Ben Stanton
Sound Design: Nicholas Pope
Running time: 90 minutes, no intermission
Tickets: $40
The Outer Space is scheduled to run through April 9, 2017

All the Fine Boys Review: Abigail Breslin in (Half A) Horror Play of Lost Virginity

Isabelle Fuhrman and Abigail Breslin

Isabelle Fuhrman and Abigail Breslin

Jenny and Emily are both 14 years old, new friends in a small-town suburb in South Carolina in the 1980s; they both love horror movies; they both want to lose their virginity. In “All the Fine Boys, their differing paths after their sole scene together function as a right way and a wrong way to have a crush. But their separate scenes also demonstrate the right way and wrong way to put together a play.

Emily (Isabelle Fuhrman) has a crush on Adam (Alex Wolff.) As she explains to Jenny: “He’s smart. He’s tall. He’s old, he’s like an adult.”

“He’s 17,” Jenny says.

“He glows,” Emily replies.

By contrast, Jenny (Abigail Breslin) gets together with Joe (Joe Tippett), a man who is twice her age and, we eventually learn, is both a husband and a father.

If “All The Fine Boys,” written and directed by Erica Schmidt, had just been the scenes between Emily and Adam, the play would have been a sweet, funny, awkward, well-observed coming-of-age tale. Adam, as portrayed by Wolff, is hilariously full of himself, but he also treats Emily with respect, and we see the two of them mature just in the short time frame of the play.

But the scenes between Jenny and Joe wind up as a combination Lifetime movie cautionary tale, and campy Grand Guignol horror movie, which features Abigail Breslin (Oscar nominee at age 10 for Little Miss Sunshine) being deflowered on a couch before our eyes while eating a slice of pizza – and it gets worse from there, escalating to violence involving a birthday cake.

Even Amy Rubin’s set seems to offer a commentary on the play’s unfortunate split personality. In the scenes between Emily and Adam, the door opens onto a hallway. In the scenes between Jenny and Joe, the same door opens onto a bathroom.

 

 

 

All The Fine Boys
New Group at Signature
Written and directed by Erica Schmidt
Set design by Amy Rubin, costume design by Tom Broecker, lighting design by Jeff Croiter, sound design by Bart Fasbender
Cast: Abigail Breslin, Isabelle Fuhrman, Joe Tippett and Alex Wolff
Running time: 100 minutes
Tickets: $85
“All The Fine Boys” is scheduled to run through March 26, 2017

 

If I Forget Review: Jewish Family Argues About Identity and Dad

In “If I Forget,” a well-acted, often funny and always engaging Jewish family drama by Steven Levenson (the book-writer for Dear Evan Hansen) we travel back to an era that no longer exists except in memory, although it is a mere 15 years ago. Cell phones are an oversized novelty in 2000 and 2001, when the play takes place, and the Fischer family talks of hanging chads and Students for Nader and the second Intifada. Yet the concerns of Levenson’s play feel both up-to-the-minute and age-old, as Michael (Jeremy Shamos) and his two sisters Holly (Kate Walsh, from Private Practice) and Sharon (Maria Dizzia) argue politics and religion and identity.


They also argue about what to do about Dad. That is more or less the reason they have reunited in their childhood home in Washington D.C. (a substantial two-tiered set by Derek McLane), where their father (Larry Bryggman) still lives. In failing health, he has retired from the clothing store he inherited from his father and ran his entire life, now renting it out to a Latino family that has turned it into a dollar store.
The central plot, which doesn’t kick in until after the intermission, revolves around how to take care of Dad – and what to do about the store. Sharon, who works as a kindergarten teacher and takes on the bulk of the caretaking, wants to keep renting the store at below-market rate to the Latino family. Holly, the dilettantish wife of a lawyer Howard (Gary Wilmes), wants to take it over to launch an interior decorating business she plans to call Spaces and Places. Michael, a Jewish Studies professor with a precarious career and a daughter in need of expensive mental health care, wants to sell it. As individual and family secrets are revealed, we realize that each character has an ulterior motive for the positions they are taking.
All of this unfolds expertly, each character maintaining their appeal and our interest, even those on the periphery: Seth Steinberg as Joey, Holly and Howard’s sullen teenage son, is hilariously spot-on, and the way his mother Holly bickers and fusses with him is priceless. But this conventional drama also ties into the larger issues the playwright skillfully weaves in. Michael has written a book entitled “Forgetting the Holocaust,” whose controversial thesis is that the memory of the Holocaust is being used to force blind support of Israeli policy. Shamos delivers long passionate and provocative passages:
“A hundred years ago, Jews were part of every single radical, secular political movement in Europe. The Zionists? They hated religion. They hated the rabbis more than the communists did. The point was to change this world. To make a world where Jews wouldn’t even exist – there would just be one single international human brotherhood. And then at a certain point, we just, we gave up. We gave up on politics and social justice, because…I don’t know why…..And now you look around and everybody on the Upper West Side is reading books on Kabbalah and kosher sex, whatever the hell that is, and it’s just, what happened to the last hundred years? ”
The rest of the family is aghast at his views.
“You know, a lot of Democrats, a lot of liberals, people like you, have become frankly very anti-Semitic. Especially about Israel,” Sharon says to him.
If it’s a little hard to buy some of the opinions the playwright gives to a Jewish Studies professor (such as his contempt for Hebrew) there are certainly plenty of Jewish families who continue to have these debates.

If I Forget
Laura Pels Theatre

Written by Steven Levenson
Directed by Daniel Sullivan
Set design by Derek McLane, costume design by Jess Goldstein, lighting design by Kenneth Posner, sound design and music composed by Dan Moses Schreier
Cast: Larry Bryggman, Maria Dizzia, Tasha Lawrence, Jeremy Shamos, Seth Michael Steinberg, Kate Walsh and Gary Wilmes
Running time: two hours and 40 minutes, including one intermission
Tickets: $89

IF We Forget runs through April 30, 2017

Wakey, Wakey Review: Dying, Via Eno and Emerson

Wakey Wakey

“Over a hundred thousand people died today,” the character played by Michael Emerson (Lost, Person of Interest) tells us in “Wakey, Wakey,” the latest ethereal, esoteric play by Will Eno, who also directs. It’s one of several fascinating facts that the character, named only Guy, delivers from his wheelchair on the stage of the Signature Theater, often reading from note cards:

“You will produce two swimming pools’ worth of saliva in your life…Use it wisely.”

“Hearing certain words can create the realities behind those words, in the hearer, in the hearer’s body. Joy, Light …”

“They say practicing gratitude can physically change the shape of the brain, in a good way.”

Is any of this true? And why is Guy telling us this?

Afterward, I did some Googling, and sure enough:“How Expressing Gratitude Might Change Your Brain.”

I doubt my brain is going to be changed very much by “Wakey, Wakey,” but I did like it better than anything else I’ve seen by Eno, whose comic, cosmic, cryptic approach to playwriting has consistently charmed other people. Too often, I’ve found his impish sensibility grating. “The Realistic Joneses,” his only play to make it to Broadway so far, was well-acted by a stellar cast, but for me it added up to a whole that was less than the sum of its parts.

With gentle humor and a lack of fussiness, Michael Emerson manages to woo us through the deliberate vagueness, starts-and-stops, meta interruptions, of his monologue, even before we are completely certain why Guy is talking to us. There are hints from the get-go that he’s presiding over his own wake – “Wakey, Wakey,” get it? — or perhaps that he’s rehearsing for his wake:
“We’re here to say good-bye, of course– there’s always someone or something to say good-bye to, and it’s important to honor the people whose shoulders we stood upon and fell asleep against. So, yes, we’re here to say good-bye and maybe hopefully also get better at saying hello.”
It becomes irrefutably clear that Guy is dying only when Lisa (January LaVoy) arrives and her casual ministrations establish her as his caretaker (perhaps his hospice nurse.)
What fills most of the 75-minute play is what feels like Guy’s effort to fill the time, or make the most of the time, with word games, thought experiments, those facts and thoughts from the note cards. He also clicks on a remote, and we are treated
to entertaining, occasionally amusing video projections – such as animals apparently laughing.
Much of what Eno’s script is trying to induce about the celebration and uncertainty of life and death has been done better and with more clarity elsewhere, in such plays as “Every Brilliant Thing,” “Wit”…and the works of Eno’s hero, Samuel Beckett. But Eno the playwright is well served in “Wakey Wakey” by Eno the director, and by Emerson, LaVoy, and the show’s designers — Christine Jones’s simple set, including an unmoored door; David Lander’s varied lighting; Nevin Steinberg’s elaborate sound; Peter Nigrini’s fast-paced, celebratory, almost hallucinatory projections.) This is especially true at the end, or after the end — the wake. That the Signature serves up an elaborate wake, complete with balloons and bubbles, but also coffee cake and little gifts,probably shouldn’t come as a surprise, but it does. It’s a weird surprise, yes, but it’s also an oddly touching one, and one I appreciated. (So, ok, maybe my brain will change after all.)

Wakey, Wakey
Signature Theater
Written and directed by Will Eno
Set deisgn by Christine Jones, lighting by David Lander, sound by Nevin Steinberg, projections by Peter Nigrini
Cast Michael Emerson and January LaVoy

Running time: about 75 minutes with no intermission

Tickets: $30
Wakey, Wakey is scheduled to run through April 2.