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

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Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson

Benjamin Walker as Andrew Jackson in Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson, 2010. The musical by Alex Timbers and Michael Friedman, brought a campy downtown sensibility in its depiction of the seventh president of the United States as a combination sexy rock star, immature populist, and killer. They build in an ambivalence towards Jackson’s legacy with the meta-theatrical device of including a character who is a historian commenting on that legacy – until Jackson kills her halfway through the musical.

In honor of Presidents Day, I resurrect my review of “Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson,” which opened on Broadway on October 13, 2010 and closed three months later, on January 2, 2011.

Watching “Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson” for a second time, I wasn’t sure whether it reminded me more of “Urinetown,” “American Idiot” or “Springtime For Hitler.” One thing was clear: it was no “1776.”

The cheeky musical about America’s seventh president that has now moved to Broadway has turned me into Sybil, each of  my multiple personalities reacting differently. The history buff in me is appalled. The rock fan is entranced. The politico is irked that others somehow see in this sophomoric mish-mash a useful commentary on what’s going on in the country today. The would-be hipster wants desperately to talk about “emo” rock as if he knew what that meant, make knowing references to bands like Dashboard Confessional, and in general share in the downtown aura that invests this show with much of its marketing appeal. The theater aficionado is thrilled to witness the work of some intensely talented artists near the beginning of their careers, especially the actor who plays Andrew Jackson, Benjamin Walker, and the two first-time creative collaborators, director and book writer Alex Timbers and Michael Friedman, composer and lyricist.

“Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson” tries to set itself apart from your normal Broadway musical before the action has even begun, by turning the Bernard B. Jacobs Theater into a discotheque circa 1985 with a combination Wild West and Halloween theme, courtesy of set designer Donyale Werle—red lights are strewn across the ceiling along with the kind of chandeliers you can buy in bulk from ABC Carpet, a full-sized stuffed horse hangs upside down bound in chains, fake oil portraits of unnamed illustrious 19th century men line the walls, and placed throughout the theater are pelts, a Big Buck Hunter video game, a crow, a snarling grizzly bear.

None of this is on the stage, which is itself stuffed with beer cans, moose heads, faded landscape paintings, a disco ball, a dartboard, assorted bric-a-brac, like a T.G.I. Friday’s with an especially detail-oriented manager.

The visual busyness offers a glimpse into the approach of the musical itself, which presents scenes from the life and career of Andrew Jackson — frontiersman, military hero, controversial politician — in the sort of mash-up that might be cooked up by a group of clever, giddy college roommates during a drug-fueled all-nighter after attending an afternoon history lecture.

Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, original Off-Broadway production

Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, original Off-Broadway production

 

“Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson” is part rock concert, part Fringe show, part shock jock riff, with gratuitous swipes at gay people and the disabled. It is a mock children’s story hour mixed with a Behind the Music episode of the rise and demise of a rock star. The characters speak like 21st century adolescents, and there are a range of anachronistic allusions — to modern-day political campaigns, Internet start-ups, the Bush administration’s policy in Iraq, totalitarian dictatorships.

There is even an odd kind of romance: When Jackson meets Rachel, his wife-to-be (Maria Elena Ramirez) they sing about Susan Sontag’s “Illness as Metaphor”, and bleed each other. “Sometimes when I’m out on the battlefield, and I’m covered in blood and I have terrible dysentery and diarrhea, I think of you,” Jackson says dreamily to Rachel at one point. “Here at the Hermitage, bleeding yourself.”

The musical, which lasts roughly 90 minutes without an intermission, takes us on a quick tour of some of the highlights – and low points – in this profoundly intriguing historical figure, with particular attention to his treatment of Native Americans, focusing on the forced relocation policy, which has gone down in history as the Trail of Tears. The history is unreliable, the tone teeters from silly and fey to offensive and in-your-face. The musical attempts at times also to be pointed and poignant with only intermittent success. Yet for all its flaws and wrong-headedness, the theatergoer in me found that “Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson” largely works, because of Michael Friedman’s 13 songs. Played by a three-member band on stage and sung by Walker and the rest of the large, capable cast, they are hard-charging, tuneful, inventive — and, unlike much of the rock on Broadway stages, theatrical. Friedman, who is most associated with the seriously engaged “investigative theater” company The Civilians, is making his Broadway debut…as a composer; he was a dramaturg for “A Raisin in the Sun.” He also reportedly has written the original music for this season’s revival of Tony Kushner’s “Angels in America” at the Signature Theater. Benjamin Walker and Alex Timbers (who is also directing “Pee-wee’s Playhouse” this season) have been getting the ink for “Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson.” Michael Friedman is the member of the team I’d vote for.

BloodyBloody

Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson

Bernard Jacobs Theater (242 West 45th Street) Written and directed by Alex Timbers Music and lyrics by Michael Friedman Choreography by Danny Mefford; sets by Donyale Werle; costumes by Emily Rebholz; lighting by Justin Townsend; sound by Bart Fasbender; musical director, Justin Levine; music coordinator, Seymour Red Press; fight director, Jacob Grigolia-Rosenbaum Cast: Benjamin Walker (Andrew Jackson), James Barry (Male Soloist/Citizen/Phil), Darren Goldstein (Andrew Sr./Calhoun), Greg Hildreth (Red Eagle/University President), Jeff Hiller (Cobbler/Messenger/John Quincy Adams/Tour Guide/Florida Man), Lucas Near-Verbrugghe (Keokuk/Van Buren), Cameron Ocasio (Lyncoya), Bryce Pinkham (Black Fox/Clay), Nadia Quinn (Toula/Female Ensemble), Maria-Elena Ramirez (Rachel/Florida Woman), Kate Cullen Roberts (Elizabeth/Erica), Ben Steinfeld (Monroe), Emily Young (Female Soloist/Announcer/Naomi), Kristine Neilsen (the Storyteller) and Justin Levine, Charlie Rosen and Kevin Garcia (Musicians) Running time: 90 minutes without intermission Ticket prices: $61.50 to $131.50. Premium tickets as high as $251.50. Lottery for first two rows of orchestra, $20

Superior Donuts Review: A Play Like a Sitcom

Below is my 2009 review of Superior Donuts, the play by Tracy Letts, which opened on Broadway on October 1, 2009, and closed on January 3, 2010. A new TV series of the same name, starring Judd Hirsch and Jermaine Fowler that is based on the play, is offering a “special preview” tonight before it takes up its regular sitcom slot Mondays at 9 p.m. on CBS — which, if you read my old review below, counts as irony.

 

What is most shocking about “Superior Donuts,” the new Broadway play by Tracy Letts about an aging hippie who hires a young African-American go-getter to help him run his rundown donut shop, is that it is not shocking at all. It resembles a TV show; “sitcom” has been used almost as frequently to describe it as “sweet.” The sweet has been meant as a pun; the sitcom has not been intended as a put-down. (That’s a shock too.)

Those who saw “August: Osage County” by the same playwright can understand some of the surprise– that much-praised winner of the 2008 Best Play Tony and Pulitzer Prize in Drama, while full of humor and pathos, offered one jolt after another as its tale unfolded of a family afflicted by suicide, addiction, child molestation, incest, adultery, betrayal, deep regrets and deeper unhappiness.

But you would have to go back further to get a fuller appreciation of how different “Superior Donuts” is from any Tracy Letts play previously produced in New York.

In “Killer Joe,” which was last produced in New York in 1998, a drug dealer in debt gives his virgin sister over to a police detective/hired hit man as payment to kill their mother for the insurance money. It does not go as planned. “Nothing’s worse than regrets, not cancer, not being eaten by a shark, nothing,” the brother says in the cheap trailer outside Dallas that is his father’s and his sister’s home. The play is such an over-the-top horror show about stereotypical trailer trash, extremely violent and intentionally ugly, that it comes off as a vicious parody of family life. By contrast, “August: Osage County” seems almost like a comedy of manners.

“Bug,” which I saw at the Barrow Street Theater in 2004, was an even more explicit horror show. Agnes is a drug abusing motel-dweller with an abusive ex-con for an ex-husband and a child who vanished years ago – “I just get sick of it, my lousy life. Laundromats and grocery stores, dumb marriages and lost kids.” She takes in an oddly hypnotic stranger named Peter, who was either a veteran of the Gulf War and the victim of a government conspiracy to implant him with insect eggs, or a delusional paranoid. In either case, Peter infects Agnes – either with his bugs, or with his paranoia. “Bug” later became a horror movie directed by William Friedkin, best known for “The Exorcist.”

As Tracy Letts’ own mother, a novelist named Billie Letts, reportedly once said of his work: “Everybody in Tracy’s stories gets naked or dead.”

A clue to the Letts approach may be in a scene from his far milder play, “Man from Nebraska,” which has not been done in New York*. It debuted in 2003 at the Steppenwolf Theater Company in Chicago, the company of which Letts is a member as an actor and director as well as a playwright. Ken Carpenter, a middle-aged God-fearing family man from Lincoln, Nebraska wakes up one day and breaks down, realizing that he has lost his faith; he no longer believes in God. Acting on advice from his pastor, he takes a break from his life, leaving his wife while he goes on vacation in London, where he eventually befriends a black woman bartender named Tamyra and her flat-mate Harry, a sculptor. He begins to take lessons from the sculptor, using the woman as his model.

Harry the sculptor looks at Ken’s work and tells him to “exaggerate” it. “There’s no point in producing Tamyra again: she already exists. I mean, yes, you want to have the ability to do that: that’s craft. But your belief, your expression of your belief: that’s art.”

And so we come to his latest play, getting laughs at the Music Box Theater.

Franco Wicks, 21 (Jon Michael Hill) walks into Superior Donuts in response to a Help Wanted sign. But the owner, Arthur Przybyszewksi (Michael McKean), whose shop has just been vandalized, and whose ex-wife recently died of cancer, doesn’t want to open for the day, much less hire anybody. Franco talks his way into the shop and into the job. Just after they shake hands on it, Arthur asks Franco where he’s from, and he tells him he has lived his whole life in the area, the Uptown neighborhood of Chicago.

Arthur: How come I’ve never seen you in here?

Franco: I don’t eat no nasty-ass donuts.

This got a big laugh in the performance I attended. I am assuming that some of this is based on the titillation that Broadway audiences consistently get from the utterance of even mildly naughty words; part of it is the surprising sassiness of this response.

But the young man, who we find out later is desperately in debt, had just barely managed through cleverness and persistence to get a job from this stranger. Would he then immediately tell his new boss how much he hated the product that the man sells?

It is hard to discern a realistic characterization here. It is an exaggeration. But unlike the Sam Shepard/Martin McDonagh-like violent exaggerations of Letts’ earlier works, this one has the rhythms of a television comedy.

There are moments in “Superior Donuts” where he does himself a disservice by establishing these rhythms. Among the nine characters in the play is one of the few regular customers of the donut shop, an alcoholic and probable street person whom everybody calls Lady (played by Jane Alderman). At one point Arthur, who has not seen his own daughter for five years, asks Lady whether she has any kids.

“Oh, sure. Two boys, two girls,” she answers. “One of em’s still alive.”

This too got a big laugh, as if it were a one-liner — a reaction that, judging by the dialogue that follows, in which she explains how her children died, was not what Letts was trying for.

The plot also follows a familiar and overly contrived television formula, the two men from very different worlds overcoming obstacles both external and internal, and changing one another for the better. And, to complete the TV picture, there is the rest of the cast of characters, who, if this were in fact on television, would be called wacky: The police officer (James Vincent Meredith) who likes to dress up like Captain Kirk and attend Star Trek conventions, and his lady cop partner (Kate Buddeke); the heavily-accented Russian Max (Yasen Peyankov)* who owns the DVD store next to the donut shop and wants to buy Arthur out so that he can expand, and Max’s recently-immigrated nephew Kiril (Michael Garvey) who is as big as a truck and as shy as a little girl; and two thugs who provide the catalyzing tension in the play, Luther (Robert Maffia) who drinks milk for his ulcer, and his henchman Kevin (Cliff Chamberlain.)

What saves “Superior Donuts” from standard small-screen mediocrity are the down-to-earth performances, especially by McKean (who, ironically or not, is probably best known for his role as Lenny in “Laverne & Shirley,” but who has been a regular in Christopher Guest’s satirical films, such as “A Mighty Wind” and “Best in Show”, and has a list of Broadway credits, including last year’s “The Homecoming” by Harold Pinter); credible details of character that TV writers don’t have time for; and, beneath the jokes and the heartfelt hopefulness, an undercurrent of sorrow, regret, isolation and even ugliness that would probably keep ratings too low for prime-time.

The bio for Tracy Letts in the play’s program includes the information that he has appeared as an actor in half a dozen television series. But it also mentions that he authored an adaptation of Anton Chekhov’s “Three Sisters.” Given the presence in “Superior Donuts” of Max the Russian, who bears a resemblance to the ambitious ex-peasant Lopakhin in “The Cherry Orchard,” I suspect that the effect that Letts hoped for was less Norman Lear and more Chekhov, who strove to find both the humor and the tragedy in the dreary lives of people forced to find their way through cataclysmic changes in the world around them. Or maybe Letts just wanted a break.

*”Man from Nebraska” directed by David Cromer and starring Reed Birney, will open at Second Stage on February 15.

In the sitcom, the business owner next door is now named Fawz (Maz Jobrani) and is Iraqi.

I’m not sure if this is a further irony, but Jon Michael Hill, who made his Broadway debut as Franco, was nominated for a Tony Award for his performance, but has not been on stage since,  becoming instead a regular on television, first in the police drama, Detroit 1-8-7,  and now as Detective Marcus Bell in the CBS series Elementary.  (Michael McKean, who’s been on Broadway twice more, is a series regular on Better Call Saul.)

The play:

The sitcom:

Fences Movie Trailer, Play Review: Denzel Adapts August Wilson

Denzel Washington’s movie adaptation of “Fences,” August Wilson’s 1987 play, will be in movie theaters nationwide on December 25, 2016. Below is a first movie trailer from Paramount Picures — and below that my 2010 review of the Broadway production, starring Denzel Washington and Viola Davis (the same stars as in the movie.)

Fences Review: Denzel Washington Bats It In

Troy Maxson, the character played by Denzel Washington in the must-see revival of August Wilson’s “Fences,” is greeted by foot-stamping cheers from the audience in the Cort Theater, surely the most ecstatic whoops of delight ever for a Pittsburgh garbage collector.

There was a time, though, when Troy was himself a star. “Ain’t but two men who ever played baseball as good as you,” his best friend Bono tells him. “That’s Babe Ruth and Josh Gibson.” Bono might just be telling Troy what he wants to hear, but, however good he actually was, he lived at a time when people of Troy’s race were barred from major league baseball – and from much else in American life. But Troy did play in the Negro Leagues, and hit seven home runs off the great Satchel Paige. “You can’t get no better than that,” he tells the youngest of his two sons. He says this proudly, defiantly, but also angrily, and in resignation.

It is a phrase that, perhaps unconsciously, he means literally. It is 1957, he is 53 years old, and however hopeful others might be about the change that will be coming for African-Americans, Troy is convinced that things will in fact never get any better.

Denzel Washington is not as physically large as the actor who, to great acclaim, originated the role of Troy on Broadway in 1987, James Earl Jones. But through the magic of his performance, Washington sometimes seems as big as a bear, whether giving a tremendous hug to his wife (the incomparable Viola Davis) or growling warning at his son. Other times, he seems both small and small-minded. Troy is a compulsive storyteller (“you got more stories than the devil got sinners”), an expansive charmer, and also an embittered, limited and illiterate black man; orderly, hard-working, dutiful; stubborn, unreasonable, irresponsible — a complex and believable human being, and Washington embraces this character in all his mercurial contradictions.

It is a different interpretation than the original one of a giant fenced-in by circumstances, but it is one of the many things that work in a production that does justice to August Wilson’s deeply moving play.

“Fences” is part of what is sometimes called the Pittsburgh Cycle, 10 plays, one for each decade of the 20th century, that was August Wilson’s singular achievement, written over more than two decades and completed the year of his death in 2005. They all offer specific details of time and place and character and yet, individually and taken together, provide nothing less than a portrait of the African-American experience. “Fences” was only the second he wrote in the cycle, and is not the best of them – although good enough to have won every big theater award, from the Tony Award for Best Play to the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, and for Frank Rich to have written: “’Fences’ leaves no doubt that Mr. Wilson is a major writer, combining a poet’s ear for vernacular with a robust sense of humor (political and sexual), a sure instinct for crackling dramatic incident and a passionate commitment to a great subject. “

Wilson’s later work more smoothly integrates the turns in the plot so that they seem to spring from the characters rather than feeling imposed by the author. In “Fences,” Troy makes a sensational revelation to his wife in the second act that seems to come out of nowhere. (A careful reading of the script shows that Wilson had actually planted clues in the first act, but it still feels abrupt). In a lesser production, the play might from then on have felt derailed, veering into domestic melodrama.

Viola Davis, best-known on stage for her Tony-winning performance in Wilson’s “King Hedley II” and on screen for her Oscar-nominated performance as the mother of the (possibly) abused student in “Doubt,” seemed to me almost single-handedly responsible for keeping the play on track, her feelings shaded, moving, and not melodramatic. She and Washington are well-matched. I am not sure I have ever witnessed two actors angrily yelling at each other with such clarity and control.

The real plot in “Fences” is in the artful revelation of character, not just Troy’s but the people who surround him — his wife Rose, his long-time friend Jim Bono (Stephen McKinley Henderson, a veteran and exquisite interpreter of Wilson’s work); his brain-damaged brother Gabriel (Mykelti Williamson), the older son Lyons whom he all but abandoned (Russell Hornsby), the teenage son Cory (Chris Chalk) — ensemble acting at its finest. Their characters come through in the niggling little arguments (humorous to outsiders) that families repeat endlessly, and in the many stories told to one another of past events and future dreams. Much of what’s happening, as told through incidents on stage but also through recollection, is a tale of fathers and sons, battling one another, escaping one another and becoming one another. Cory wants to play football and has been recruited by a college football team; Troy wants him to work at the local supermarket:

“The white man ain’t gonna let you get nowhere with that football noway. You go on and get your book-learning so you can work yourself up in that A&P or learn how to fix cars or build houses or something, get you a trade. That way you have something can’t nobody take away from you.”

Times have changed, more than one family member tells Troy, his son is just trying to be like him. Times haven’t changed, Troy says; the last person I want him to be like is me.

In addition to Santo Loquasto’s solidly realistic set, Brian MacDevitt’s lighting, and spot-on costumes by Constanza Romero (the playwright’s widow), Branford Marsalis has composed bluesy music for the beginning of each act. It’s nice, but it’s not necessary. This production of “Fences” fills the Cort Theater with music.

Fences by August Wilson at the Cort Theater (138 West 48th Street) Directed by Kenny Leon Original music by Branford Marsalis Set design by Santo Loquasto, costume design by Constanza Romero, lighting design by Brian MacDevitt, sound design by Acme Sound Partners Cast: Denzel Washington, Viola Davis, Chris Chalk, Eden Duncan-Smith, Stephen McKinley Henderson, Russell Hornsby, SaCha Stewart-Coleman, Mykelti Williamson Running time: 2 hours and 30 minutes with one 15 minute intermission Ticket prices: $61.50 to $131.50. Premium seats as high as $326.50. There are apparently no rush or student tickets available. Recommended for age 13 and older. Under 4 not permitted. Through July 11th, 2010.

Sister Act Review: No Whoopi.

patinamillerinsisteract

Sister Act ran on Broadway between March 4, 2011 and August 26, 2012. Patina Miller went on to a Tony-winning performance in Pippin. Below is my review the night it opened, April 20, 2011:

Patina Miller, the newly-discovered diva making her Broadway debut as star of “Sister Act,” doesn’t thank God in her Who’s Who bio, and thank God for that. She thanks Whoopi Goldberg. In many ways, that makes more sense; in one way, it doesn’t. Whoopi is the lead producer and thus the major force behind making a musical adaptation out of the 1992 film whose major appeal was the performance of Whoopi Goldberg.

The 1990’s Reno lounge singer is now a 1970’s Philadelphia aspiring disco queen (a change that allows for original songs that imitate the Philadelphia Sound), but otherwise the plot is much the same: Deloris Van Cartier, born Deloris Carter, witnesses a mob murder, and is put into a witness protection program by disguising herself as a nun in a convent. The church to which the convent is attached is about to shut down for lack of attendance. The fake nun (spoiler alert) teaches the real nuns how to boogie in rousing gospel numbers that fill the pews and the collection basket, and she thus saves the day.

“Sister Act” the musical originated for some reason in London, but first-rate Broadway talent put it together, including composer Alan Menken (Little Shop of Horrors, Beauty and the Beast, etc.) and director Jerry Zaks (Guys and Dolls, Assassins, some 20 other Broadway shows, including — let’s not forget — The Addams Family.) There is even “additional book material” by Douglas Carter Beane (Xanadu, The Little Dog Laughed).

There are some 30 cast members, and it sometimes seems as if each and every one gets at least one number to do, and every number reveals a startling talent, such as Marla Mindelle as the meek novitiate who finds her voice and her courage in her two renditions of “The Life I Never Led.” Fred Applegate shines as the deep-voiced, dignified Monsignor O’Hara not above a little wheeling-dealing. Even the three thugs dispatched by the mob boss to kill Deloris (Caesar Samayoa, Demond Green and John Treacy Egan) get the funny and soulful “Lady in the Long Black Dress” about how, as ladies men, they’ll have no trouble winning over the nuns in order to gain entrance to the convent.

Much of the musical, of course, relies on the sinuous presence and brassy pipes of Patina Miller, with a graceful assist by the lovely-voiced Victoria Clark (Light in the Piazza, Titanic, Urinetown) as Mother Superior, who was not in the West End cast. Of particular note in the production is Klara Zieglerova’s terrific set, which alternates between an awe-inspiring church (stained glass windows and huge stone archways) and ticklingly tacky disco. More often than not, however, my reaction during this rich parade of talent was: I cannot wait to see him/her in a better show. There is no disguising how bland and silly “Sister Act” is, another in the nuns-are-fun genre, requiring not just a suspension of disbelief but an unwavering faith in the hilarity of a sister in sequins. (Lez Brotherston’s costumes are over-the-top glittering show biz nun ensembles in precisely the way you’d expect.) Patina Miller does not exhibit the comedic chops of Whoopi Goldberg, and (although there is plenty of comic shtick), “Sister Act” the musical is less about wit than it is about fabulousness. Make no mistake, Patina Miller is fabulous; she has the God-given talent that surely would have brought her to Broadway without Whoopi, which might have been a better idea.

 Sister Act at The Broadway Theater Music by Alan Menken, lyrics by Glenn Slater, book by Cheri Steinkellner and Bill Steinkellner. Additional book material by Douglas Carter Beane. Directed by Jerry Zaks, choreographed by Anthony Van Laast, set design by Klara Zieglerova, costume design by Lez Brotherston, lighting design by Natasha Katz, sound design by John Shivers Cast: Patina Miller (Deloris Van Cartier), Victoria Clark (Mother Superior), Fred Applegate (Monsignor), Sarah Bolt (Sister Mary Patrick), John Treacy Egan (Joey), Demond Green (TJ), Chester Gregory (Eddie), Kingsley Leggs (Curtis), Marla Mindelle (Sister Mary Robert), Audrie Neenan (Sister Mary Lazarus). Caesar Samayoa (Pablo). , Jennifer Allen, Natalie Bradshaw, Charl Brown, Christina DeCicco, Holly Davis, Madeleine Doherty, Alan H. Green, Blake Hammond, Wendy James, Carrie A. Johnson, Kevin Ligon, Louise Madison, Marissa Perry, Ernie Pruneda, Corbin Reid, Lance Roberts, Rashidra Scott, Jennifer Simard, Lael Van Keuren, Roberta Wall, Alena Watters Running time: Two and a half hours with a 15-minute intermission Ticket prices: $51.50 – $136.50 premium tickets as high as $201.50. Rush Tickets: $26.50

Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark Five Years Later

“Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark” opened on June 14, 2011. It ran for a total of 1066 performances, closing on January 04, 2014. Below is my review upon its official opening. Scroll below the review for an update.

At the beginning of the second act of Spider-Man 2.0, the evil Green Goblin explains how he was transformed from scientist Norman Osborne to genetic mutant: It took weeks and cost $65 million – “well, more like $75 million,” he says in a cackle that sounds like a cross between Foghorn Leghorn and Harvey Fierstein.

This is an inside joke, or at least it would be an inside joke if the making of “Spider-Man Turn Off The Dark” were not the most publicized Broadway backstage story in history. The superhero musical has been plagued with superlatives: the most expensive show ever to appear on Broadway (the tab is now up to, yes, about $75 million); one of the longest in gestation (nine years, with its opening scheduled a half dozen times); the show with the longest number of previews in Broadway history (182!); and, when critics got tired of waiting for the official opening, one of the worst-reviewed musicals ever to appear on the Great White Way. It is surely the most ridiculed.

“Spider-Man” has been troubled in a disturbing variety of ways. There were the injuries, followed by government investigations and citations. There were also so many technical glitches that caused delays during preview performances that Patrick Page, who plays Osborne/Goblin, would fill the waits with mocking ad-libs. Somebody recognized a good thing, because a taste of Page’s ad-libs are now incorporated into the new, improved “Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark.”
And there is no question that the musical, which is finally opening tonight, is improved, vastly so, after the producers in effect fired the original director, Julie Taymor, hired a new creative team, and shut down the show for three weeks to reboot. The plot now is more coherent, and more familiar. Twenty minutes have been trimmed from the running time, several songs removed, several more reworked, and a new song added. The Julie Taymor whole-cloth inventions have either been eliminated (the “Geek Chorus”) or sidelined: Arachne, the female spider of Greek mythology, has fewer songs, and has been turned from wicked to wondrous — no longer Spider-Man’s nemesis but part of Peter Parker’s inner/dream life.
When the musical begins, Peter is delivering a class report on spiders, reading from a pile of index cards, and it is to illustrate that report that we first see Arachne (T.V. Carpio) and her entourage, spider-women dressed like monks in orange descending from the rafters on huge rolls of orange cloth and then swaying back and forth as they weave an over-sized orange place mat.
Best of all, Patrick Page’s Green Goblin is given more to do, including that new song, “A Freak Like Me,” a funky comic ditty with a danceable beat that is something of a showstopper – except, thankfully, the show does not stop anymore.
So does this mean that “Spider-Man Turn Off The Dark” is fixed? Will it last forever, recoup its investment, sweep the Tonys in 2012, spawn progeny in Vegas and Sydney and the West End? Time and ticket sales will tell whether the show becomes a lasting commercial success. But, while Spider-Man is no longer a catastrophe, neither did I find it the thrill that the hype would have you believe.
Spider-Man now begins and ends with Peter Parker (Reeve Carney), and focuses on his relationship with Mary Jane Watson (Jennifer Damiano), whom he has loved since the second grade, with a secondary focus on Peter’s relationship with Dr. Norman Osborn, whom Peter has admired. It is in the good scientist’s lab where Peter is bitten by the super-spider and transformed into Spider-Man, and the same DNA lab experiments turn Dr. Osburn until the Green Goblin, Spider-Man’s chief antagonist.
All of this is now relatively straightforward, and it is a less distracting frame for what is by far the best thing about this show: the visuals. I thought this when I saw an earlier preview performance, and the most magical aspect of Spider-Man for me remains the series of awesome images, among them the little subway train chugging across the Queensboro Bridge, Peter Parker literally bouncing against the red walls of his room (while the walls themselves bounce) as he turns into Spider-Man, the fight atop the Chrysler Building in vertiginous perspective, with the little cars speeding by way underneath as if we too were in the sky. That fight, between Spider-Man and the Green Goblin, which also involves much flying over the orchestra, is an electrifying moment, especially now that it more intelligently serves as a climax for the whole show. And it is only one of several exhilarating scenes. Another is the first appearance some 50 minutes into the show of Spider-Man in full costume, accompanied by leaps, flips and somersaults by the Spidey-clad ensemble. The visual spectacle and the impressive gymnastics may be enough for some theatergoers, and it will not matter to them that there is little else about this musical that is outright exciting.
Indeed, too much about “Spider-Man Turn Off The Dark” seems…off. There is an inconsistency in tone and even era: The Daily Bugle editor J Jonah Jameson (Michael Mulheren) talks about blogs and the Internet, but he and his cronies are dressed in the striped double-breasted suits and fedoras of the 1940’s. Dr. Osborne and his lab assistants wear full-length silver lame lab coats like a 1950’s science-fiction B movie. Nods to a comic book sensibility compete with grand mythologizing left over from the Taymor playbook. The songs are melodious and surely sound pleasing if played individually, say, on American Idol or The Tony Awards broadcast; songwriters Bono and The Edge have been part of U2, one of the best-selling bands in popular music, for more than three decades. But the score seems to suffer from what one might call the Paul Simon syndrome. Simon had been popular just as long when he wrote “The Capeman” for Broadway, which flopped. The songs for “Spider-Man” do not add up to a distinctive and coherent theatrical journey.
Most of the attempted humor falls flat; many lines have the rhythm of a joke without actually being funny. The only exception is Page’s Green Goblin, who can be hilarious; watch while he tries to make a threatening telephone call and gets voice mail. The choreography is often a muddle. This is most evident with the Sinister Six, monsters who were ridiculous in Spider-Man 1.0, prancing around as if mutant models on a runway, and are only slightly less ridiculous now. Now, yes, they supposedly menace citizens before Spider-Man dispatches them, but the staging is sloppy and unimaginative, and the mammoth video projections of them and the Green Goblin are just annoying. The mute mutants are not really menacing at all; they are nothing more than their costumes, which wouldn’t get a second look at the annual Village Halloween parade.
Even the much-ballyhooed cutting-edge stagecraft grows almost tiresome. How many times do we need to see Spider-Man fly over our heads and into the balcony? Why are so many of the scenes staged in mid-air? A sweet moment between Peter and Mary Jane, where they sing “If The World Should End” (the song they sang during the Tony Awards) takes place on what is supposed to be a fire escape, but it is actually more like a window washer’s scaffold suspended maybe 30 feet above the stage.
This is an example of the misplaced priorities of a show whose guiding principle seems to have been: If it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing to excess — and when it’s not worth doing, do that to excess too.

Given all they have gone through over the past year, and what they go through at every performance, the actors deserve medals for daring and endurance. Through no fault of their own, none of them especially stands out, except for Patrick Page.

Even though the show has now opened, Bono and The Edge have given interviews saying they feel it’s 90 percent there, heavily implying that they still see it as a work in progress. Perhaps, like Spider-Man the comic book character — a teenage loser whose sudden super-powers don’t just save the city, but help him to find himself — these super-stars will put together a complete winner by the time Spider-Man turns 50. Spider-Man was created in August, 1962. So what’s another year?
Spider-Man Turn Off The Dark
Foxwoods Theatre
Music and lyrics by Bono and The Edge
Book by Julie Taymor, Glen Berger, and Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa
Original direction by Julie Taymor; Creative consultant, Philip Wm. McKinley Choreography and aerial choreography by David Ezralow, additional choreography by Chase Brock
Scenic design by George Tsypin, lighting design by Donald Holder, costume design by Eiko Ishioka, sound design by Jonathan Deans, projection design by Kyle Cooper
Cast: Reeve Carney as Peter Parker/Spider-Man,cJennifer Damiano as Mary Jane Watson,T.V. Carpio as Arachne,cPatrick Page as „Norman Osborn/Green Goblin Michael Mulheren, Ken Marks, Isabel Keating, Jeb Brown, Matthew James Thomas, Laura Beth Wells, Matt Caplan, Dwayne Clark, Luther Creek, Kevin Aubin, Gerald Avery, Collin Baja, Marcus Bellamy, Emmanuel Brown, Jessica Leigh Brown, Daniel Curry, Erin Elliott, Craig Henningsen, Dana Marie Ingraham, Ayo Jackson, Joshua Kobak, Megan Lewis, Ari Loeb, Natalie Lomonte, Kevin Loomis, Kristin Martin, Jodi McFadden, Bethany Moore, Kristen Faith Oei, Jennifer Christine Perry, Kyle Post, Brandon Rubendall, Sean Samuels, Dollar Tan, Joey Taranto, and Christopher W. Tierney.
Running time: About two and a half hours, with a 15-minute intermission
Ticket prices: $67.50 to $140

Five Years Later

By the time it closed, the musical based on a beloved Marvel comic book character broke  all sorts of records, both good and bad. It was the fastest show to be seen by a million theatergoers (by the time it ended, some two million saw it on 42nd Street.) It also had the longest preview period (182 performances) with the largest number of scheduled and canceled opening nights in Broadway history. It set records for the highest attendance and the greatest box office receipts at any Broadway show in a single week (17,375 theatergoers; $2,941,790.20 in receipts.) It was the most costly Broadway musical ever produced (initially $75 million) and, although it took in more than $200 million at the box office, it is likely to be the biggest money-loser (reportedly as much as $60 million) that ever played on the Great White Way. It is also surely the most critically panned Broadway musical (twice) ever to have so long a run. At the same time, both scenic designer George Tsypin and costume designer  Eiko Ishioka were nominated for Tony Awards, and Patrick Page for a Drama Desk Award.

Are there any lessons to be learned? “Before something can be brilliant, it first has to competent” is at the top of the list by Glen Berger, who with Taymor and Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa is credited as the author of the musical (with Bono and The Edge of U2 as the composers and lyricists.) Berger published the tell-all book Song of Spider-Man: The Inside Story of the Most Controversial Musical in Broadway History.

When the producers announced it was closing, restauranteur Joe Allen issued a statement: “A lot of people have been asking if we are going to put SPIDER-MAN Turn Off The Dark on the flop wall, so let me say, once and for all: absolutely not. Any show that plays for three years on Broadway, providing steady employment to members of the theater community and pumping money into the local economy, is no failure in my book.”

The theater where Spider-Man ran, the Foxwoods, named after a casino, has been renamed the Lyric. Its current tenant is Cirque du Soleil’s Paramour.

Patrick Page continues his brilliant career, currently as Hades in Hadestown.

PatrickPage

Lin-Manuel Miranda’s In The Heights and The Broadway Breakthrough

BlackoutInTheHeights

In the Heights opened on March 9, 2008 — eight years ago today. By the time it closed exactly 34 months later, it had won five Tony Awards including best musical, and launched the Broadway careers of Lin-Manuel Miranda, director Thomas Kail and performers Joshua Henry and Javier Munoz, among others; it had also given a boost to choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler, musical director Alex Lacamoire and performer Christopher Jackson.
At the time, I wrote: “My hope is that Lin-Manuel Miranda will return with a new work for the New York stage, rather than – the big temptation – going Hollywood.”
And so he did, collaborating once again with many of those with whom he worked on In The Heights, on Hamilton.
Seeing “In The Heights” for the first time inspired me to write an essay on the definition of Broadway, which I excerpt below:

 

New York is the only city I know of whose streets are not just locations but synonyms for whole industries — Wall Street and Madison Avenue (hence “Mad Men”); or even for an entire way of life — Fifth Avenue and (once) The Bowery. Broadway is short-hand for both an industry and a way of life. But Broadway means something different to different people.
This was brought home to me in at least three ways while attending “In The Heights.”  From the very start of the musical, the audience is brought cheekily into another Broadway – the street that runs through Washington Heights:
“Now you’re probably thinking ‘I’m up shit’s creek, I never been north of Ninety-sixth Street,” the main character, a bodega owner named Usnavi, raps before the looming backdrop of the George Washington Bridge. “Well, you must take the A train even farther than Harlem to Northern Manhattan…get off at 181st, and take the escalator.”
We are in a Broadway of Puerto Rican, Dominican and Cuban residents who are struggling with rising rents and paltry paychecks and a blacked-out, broken down city, but also a neighborhood of exuberant aspiration, the neighbors’ stories told in a score infused with rap, salsa and meringue, “sounds that are an ear-tickling novelty on Broadway,” wrote the New York Times reviewer. He did not mean Broadway at 181st Street, where they are anything but a novelty.
Some call “In The Heights” a breakthrough musical — a breakthrough for Latin music and Latino performers and for Lin-Manuel Miranda, the star, lyricist and composer who conceived the idea for the show when he was a sophomore at Wesleyan College. (Other reviewers explicitly said it was not a breakthrough musical, e.g.: “In the Heights” is not another break-through tribal musical like, in their respective days, “West Side Story,” “Hair” or “Rent,” but it gets its electricity from the same source.”)

Sometimes it seems there have been so many “breakthrough musicals” on Broadway — yes, “West Side Story,” “Hair” and “Rent” but also “A Chorus Line” and before that “South Pacific” and before that “Oklahoma” and before that “Of Thee I Sing” (the first Broadway musical to win a Pulitzer) and before that “Show Boat” — that “Broadway” is synonymous with “breakthrough.” If the story in “In The Heights” is  familiar, the story of “In The Heights” is familiar too…and thrilling. Breakthrough productions and star-making performances are a large part of Broadway lore…a large part of what Broadway is .

The first Broadway musical that anybody ever called a Broadway breakthrough was “The Black Crook”, because, some claim, it was the very first Broadway musical — in 1866.

Fire had destroyed the largest theater in New York, the Academy of Music, which was on Union Square, leaving the impresario with no place to present a troupe of ballet dancers he had brought over from Paris. The producer went over to the owner of the second largest theater in New York, Niblo’s Garden, which was on Broadway (and Prince Street). The manager of Niblo’s was about to put on a melodrama called “The Black Crook.” The ballet producer convinced the melodrama manager to combine theatrical forces…and the Broadway musical was born, a uniquely American art form; a true breakthrough.

Superior Donuts – From TV-Like Broadway Play to Broadway-Like TV Series

brian-darcy-james

The news that Tracy Letts’ play, “Superior Donuts,” which was on Broadway in 2009, is being adapted as a TV series starring Broadway regular and Spotlight co-star Brian d’Arcy James (in the part originated by Michael J. McKean) and 27-year-old comic actor Jermaine Fowler (as the “kid” he hires), may be the least surprising development in the history of TV adaptations, as my review when it opened in 2009 should make clear:

Jon Michael Hill and Michael McKean in Superior Donuts

Jon Michael Hill and Michael McKean in Superior Donuts on Broadway in 2009

What is most shocking about “Superior Donuts,”  the Broadway play by Tracy Letts about an aging hippie who hires a young African-American go-getter to help him run his rundown donut shop, is that it is not shocking at all. It resembles a TV show; “sitcom” has been used almost as frequently to describe it as “sweet.” The sweet has been meant as a pun; the sitcom has not been intended as a put-down. (That’s a shock too.)

Those who saw “August: Osage County” by the same playwright can understand some of the surprise– the much-praised winner of the 2008 Best Play Tony and Best Drama Pulitzer, while full of humor and pathos, offered one jolt after another as its tale unfolded of a family afflicted by suicide, addiction, child molestation, incest, adultery, betrayal, deep regrets and deeper unhappiness.

But you would have to go back further to get a fuller appreciation of how different “Superior Donuts” is from any Tracy Letts play previously produced in New York.

In “Killer Joe,” which was last produced in New York in 1998, a drug dealer in debt gives his virgin sister over to a police detective/hired hit man as payment to kill their mother for the insurance money. It does not go as planned. “Nothing’s worse than regrets, not cancer, not being eaten by a shark, nothing,” the brother says in the cheap trailer outside Dallas that is his father’s and his sister’s home. The play is such an over-the-top horror show about stereotypical trailer trash, extremely violent and intentionally ugly, that it comes off as a vicious parody of family life. By contrast, “August: Osage County” seems almost like a comedy of manners.

“Bug,” which I saw at the Barrow Street Theater in 2004, was an even more explicit horror show. Agnes is a drug abusing motel-dweller with an abusive ex-con for an ex-husband and a child who vanished years ago – “I just get sick of it, my lousy life. Laundromats and grocery stores, dumb marriages and lost kids.” She takes in an oddly hypnotic stranger named Peter, who was either a veteran of the Gulf War and the victim of a government conspiracy to implant him with insect eggs, or a delusional paranoid. In either case, Peter infects Agnes – either with his bugs, or with his paranoia. “Bug” later became a horror movie directed by William Friedkin, best known for “The Exorcist.”

As Tracy Letts’ own mother, a novelist named Billie Letts, reportedly once said of his work: “Everybody in Tracy’s stories gets naked or dead.”

A clue to the Letts approach may be in a scene from his far milder play, “Man from Nebraska,” which, as far as I know, has not been done in New York. It debuted in 2003 at the Steppenwolf Theater Company in Chicago, the company of which Letts is a member as an actor and director as well as a playwright. Ken Carpenter, a middle-aged God-fearing family man from Lincoln, Nebraska wakes up one day and breaks down, realizing that he has lost his faith; he no longer believes in God. Acting on advice from his pastor, he takes a break from his life, leaving his wife while he goes on vacation in London, where he eventually befriends a black woman bartender named Tamyra and her flat-mate Harry, a sculptor. He begins to take lessons from the sculptor, using the woman as his model.

Harry the sculptor looks at Ken’s work and tells him to “exaggerate” it. “There’s no point in producing Tamyra again: she already exists. I mean, yes, you want to have the ability to do that: that’s craft. But your belief, your expression of your belief: that’s art.”

And so we come to his play at the Music Box Theater.

Franco Wicks, 21 (Jon Michael Hill) walks into Superior Donuts in response to a Help Wanted sign. But the owner, Arthur Przybyszewksi (Michael McKean), whose shop has just been vandalized, and whose ex-wife recently died of cancer, doesn’t want to open for the day, much less hire anybody. Franco talks his way into the shop and into the job. Just after they shake hands on it, Arthur asks Franco where he’s from, and he tells him he has lived his whole life in the area, the Uptown neighborhood of Chicago.

Arthur: How come I’ve never seen you in here?

Franco: I don’t eat no nasty-ass donuts.

This got a big laugh in the performance I attended. I am assuming that some of this is based on the titillation that Broadway audiences consistently get from the utterance of even mildly naughty words; part of it is the surprising sassiness of this response.

But the young man, who we find out later is desperately in debt, had just barely managed through cleverness and persistence to get a job from this stranger. Would he then immediately tell his new boss how much he hated the product that the man sells?

It is hard to discern a realistic characterization here. It is an exaggeration. But unlike the Sam Shepard/Martin McDonagh-like violent exaggerations of Letts’ earlier works, this one has the rhythms of a television comedy.

There are moments in “Superior Donuts” where he does himself a disservice by establishing these rhythms. Among the nine characters in the play is one of the few regular customers of the donut shop, an alcoholic and probable street person whom everybody calls Lady (played by Jane Alderman). At one point Arthur, who has not seen his own daughter for five years, asks Lady whether she has any kids.

“Oh, sure. Two boys, two girls,” she answers. “One of em’s still alive.”

This too got a big laugh, as if it were a one-liner — a reaction that, judging by the dialogue that follows, in which she explains how her children died, was not what Letts was trying for.

The plot also follows a familiar and overly contrived television formula, the two men from very different worlds overcoming obstacles both external and internal, and changing one another for the better. And, to complete the TV picture, there is the rest of the cast of characters, who, if this were in fact on television, would be called wacky: The police officer (James Vincent Meredith) who likes to dress up like Captain Kirk and attend Star Trek conventions, and his lady cop partner (Kate Buddeke); the heavily-accented Russian Max (Yasen Peyankov) who owns the DVD store next to the donut shop and wants to buy Arthur out so that he can expand, and Max’s recently-immigrated nephew Kiril (Michael Garvey) who is as big as a truck and as shy as a little girl; and two thugs who provide the catalyzing tension in the play, Luther (Robert Maffia) who drinks milk for his ulcer, and his henchman Kevin (Cliff Chamberlain.)

What saves “Superior Donuts” from standard small-screen mediocrity are the down-to-earth performances, especially by McKean (who, ironically or not, is probably best known for his role as Lenny in “Laverne & Shirley,” but who has been a regular in Christopher Guest’s satirical films, such as “A Mighty Wind” and “Best in Show”, and has a list of Broadway credits, including last year’s “The Homecoming” by Harold Pinter); credible details of character that TV writers don’t have time for; and, beneath the jokes and the heartfelt hopefulness, an undercurrent of sorrow, regret, isolation and even ugliness that would probably keep ratings too low for prime-time.

The bio for Tracy Letts in the play’s program includes the information that he has appeared as an actor in half a dozen television series. But it also mentions that he authored an adaptation of Anton Chekhov’s “Three Sisters.” Given the presence in “Superior Donuts” of Max the Russian, who bears a resemblance to the ambitious ex-peasant Lopakhin in “The Cherry Orchard,” I suspect that the effect that Letts hoped for was less Norman Lear and more Chekhov, who strove to find both the humor and the tragedy in the dreary lives of people forced to find their way through cataclysmic changes in the world around them. Or maybe Letts just wanted a break.

 

America’s Health Plan: Live Forever. ‘Let Me Down Easy’ by Anna Deavere Smith

AnnaDeavereSmithLetMeDownEasy2When Anna Deavere Smith’s one-woman show “Let Me Down Easy” opened at Second Stage Theater in 2009, there was no more timely play — and now that, as she announced today, the script is available from Dramatists Play Service, it’s still timely, despite passage of the Affordable Health Care Act (“Obamacare”) in the interim.

LetMeDownEasy1That’s not because the characters discuss health care policy (although some of them do), or delve into the particulars of the continuing debate, nor because they advocate for a saner health care system, although many of them do, at least indirectly. But this is no polemic, no stage version of Michael Moore’s “Sicko.”

Rather, it is because, if you listen closely, you will gain a clearer understanding of how Americans’ attitudes — towards health, towards their bodies, and especially towards death — seem to help explain why America stands out, and not in a good way. Nobody expects to die in America. Doctors rarely tell their patients that there is nothing more they can do for them. “That’s a cultural phenomenon that doesn’t exist…around the world,” says Phil Pizzo, the dean of the Stanford University School of Medicine. “I mean you’ve traveled the world, Anna, and you know how people talk about death and dying in other societies. It’s different than we do here.” When Lance Armstrong survived cancer, it changed his attitude towards athletic competition: He no longer wanted just to win the Tour de France; he wanted to avoid the failure of losing it. The motivation to conquer his disease had been the fear of failure, “cause failure’s death. And so I took that into cycling,” he told Smith…. and she tells us.

Seeing death as a failure that can be avoided is a common attitude among many of the 20 people she offered up to the audience, assuming their manner and their voice and some suggestion of what they wore when she interviewed them in order to present their words verbatim. Sports columnist Sally Jenkins observes that the public wants its sports champs to be immortal, to achieve “timeless perfection. And it makes them uncomfortable to watch athletes grow old. I mean athletes are us.” Writer Eve Ensler observes: “We are all forever young here.” Supermodel Lauren Hutton sounds most grateful about her successful career because it meant that she could be the patient of “world-class doctors,” the doctors referred to her by her wealthy cosmetic-heir boss who donated heavily to medical institutions. “I think most very rich guys want to live forever. And they give money to that purpose.”

Anna Deavere Smith, who is best known for her one-woman shows about race riots in Crown Heights (“Fires in the Mirror”) and Los Angeles (“Twilight”) — but is probably also recognizable for her roles on television (“Nurse Jackie,” where she played a hospital administrator, and “The West Wing”) and the movies (“Philadelphia”) — is said to have spent eight years interviewing 300 people across the country and around the world. The people she selected for the stage, whatever else they are — dancers, athletes, physicians, ministers, teachers, patients — are mostly storytellers. The stories they tell are personal, moving, amusing, shocking. A doctor in Charity Hospital in New Orleans is shocked that the patients in all the private hospitals were evacuated after Hurricane Katrina, but none of the poor patients treated in her hospital…and she is more shocked that nobody else is shocked. The discrepancy between the care for the rich and the poor is one of several themes easily discernible in “Let Me Down Easy.” But the power of this play lies not in the themes but in the moments. There is Ann Richards, outspoken former governor of Texas, laughing (but deadly serious) about the need to preserve her Chi, her life force, in the face of illness. There is Joel Siegel, ABC movie critic, telling hilariously corny jokes, but he tells them with a video camera projecting his face onto a screen at the back of the stage, with the clear implication that his illness has all but paralyzed him. It takes a moment to remember, this is not actually Joel Siegel, but one of the most gifted theatrical presences in America. “Art should take what is complex and render it simply,” Anna Deavere Smith has written. That’s what she’s done in “Let Me Down Easy.”

Circle Mirror Transformation Review, 2009

“Circle Mirror Transformation” ran at Playwrights Horizons, opening on October 13, 2009 and closing after several extensions on January 31, 2010. It was a remarkable debut for playwright Annie Baker, who went on to win the Pulitzer Prize for her subsequent play, The Flick.  Indeed, so many members of the cast, the creative team and the design team have gone on to greater glory that I am moved to resurrect the review I wrote at the time, published opening night in a now-defunct online newspaper:

Almost halfway through “Circle Mirror Transformation,” the terrifically acted and improbably entertaining new play by Annie Baker about a summer acting class, the glum-looking 16-year-old student named Lauren nervously approaches the free-spirited teacher Marty, all head-band and bangles, with a question: “Are we going to do any real acting?”

It is a hilarious question to an audience that has just spent nearly an hour watching five people in a dance studio walking around each other in circles; lying on the floor, closing their eyes and counting slowly — very slowly — to ten; posing as a bed and a tree and a baseball glove. Later, we will see two of them face one another and have a conversation that begins:

“Ak Mak”

“Goulash”

“Ak Mak?”

“Ah…goulash. Goulash.”

and continues the same way. These are theater exercises, de rigueur for actors (circle mirror transformation is the name of one of these games), and if you are unfamiliar with them, hunt up “A Chorus Line” and play the song “Nothing”, about one dancer’s inability to “get” what they are about.*

The exercises are what seem to be going on in this play about a six-week summer acting class at a community center in the small town of Shirley, Vermont, and it is slow-going at first. But what is really happening is that we are learning about the five characters as they learn about one another.

The teacher Marty (Deirdre O’Connell) and her husband James (Peter Friedman), who is a student in the class, met at a hippie wedding years ago, he has a grown daughter from a previous marriage who doesn’t speak to him (but speaks to her stepmother); they live in a colorful house with a three-legged cat named Coltrane; their marriage seems about to fall apart.

The marriage of Schultz (Reed Birney) has already fallen apart, although he still wears his wedding ring. He is a furniture-maker, he had to give up gardening when he moved from the beautiful house he shared with his wife to a corporate-feeling condo. He is drawn to Theresa (Heidi Schreck,) a professional actress and recent transplant from New York, recovering from a break-up with a boyfriend and training to become a massage therapist specializing in acupressure and rolfing.

Then there is Lauren (Tracee Chimo), who is not sure whether she wants to be an actress or a vet. All this and more is revealed during the breaks between the exercises, and in the exercises themselves, a clever frame and, as it turns out, an effective one for showing the characters’ shifting relationships and emotions.

If the play could have been shorter — it is an hour and 50 minutes without an intermission — its unorthodox structure works. “Circle Mirror Transformation” is not just a series of exercises; it’s a story. Above all, “Circle Mirror Transformation” is a showcase for five wonderful actors, whose simplest of gestures and facial expressions — the way Reed Birney as Schultz sips from his bottled water while talking to Theresa (Heidi Schreck); the way that Tracee Chimo as Lauren watches while two of the adults kiss — bring us into entire worlds.

The actors make this play funny and moving in a way that I don’t think could be possible in any other medium besides live theater. So, yes, Lauren, you will be doing some real acting.

Circle Mirror Transformation by Annie Baker At the Peter Sharp Theater of Playwrights Horizons 416 West 42nd Street Directed by Sam Gold Scenic and Costume Design David Zinn Lighting Design Mark Barton Sound Design Leah Gelpe Production Stage Manager Alaina Taylor Cast: Deirdre O’Connell as Marty, Peter Friedman as James, Reed Birney as Schultz, Heidi Schreck as Theresa, Tracee Chimo as Lauren Running time: 1 hour 50 minutes without an intermission. Ticket prices: $50

*Excerpt of lyrics Nothing:
“Okay… we’re going to do improvisations. Now, you’re on a bobsled. It’s snowing out. And it’s cold…Okay…GO!” Ev’ry day for a week we would try to Feel the motion, feel the motion Down the hill. Ev’ry day for a week we would try to Hear the wind rush, hear the wind rush, Feel the chill. And I dug right down to the bottom of my soul To see what I had inside. Yes, I dug right down to the bottom of my soul And I tried, I tried. And everybody’s goin’ “Whooooosh, whooooosh … I feel the snow… I feel the cold… I feel the air.” And Mr. Karp turns to me and he says, “Okay, Morales. What did you feel?” And I said…”Nothing, I’m feeling nothing,” And he says “Nothing Could get a girl transferred.” They all felt something, But I felt nothing Except the feeling That this bullshit was absurd!