Final Follies Review: A.R. Gurney’s Posthumous Play about WASP Porn Star

For the last few years before he died in 2017 at the age of 86, playwright A.R. Gurney had been experiencing a resurgence of a career that had already produced some 40 plays over 50 years, best-known for his elegantly-structured chronicles of dying WASP culture, like “The Dining Room” and “The Cocktail Hour.”  A couple of his plays, “Love Letters” and “Sylvia,” were revived on Broadway; Signature devoted a season to him Off-Broadway; and he was writing new plays Off-Off Broadway as well

So it’s no big surprise that, at the time of his death, he had written a new play, ‘Final Follies,” and had planned to send it to Primary Stages, one of his several artistic homes.
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The Traveling Lady Review: Back with Horton Foote in Harrison, Tx

With the new production of Horton Foote’s “The Traveling Lady,” we are back on familiar Foote territory. The play, about a woman hoping to reunite with a husband recently released from prison, takes place entirely on a back porch in Harrison, Texas, the small town Foote created as a stand-in for his actual hometown of Wharton, Texas. That’s where the playwright was born in 1916, a year after Arthur Miller and five years after Tennessee Williams. Foote’s centennial passed far more quietly than those of his contemporaries. Eight years after his death, he is still primarily known for his film adaptation of “To Kill A Mockingbird” and for his original screenplay for “Tender Mercies,” both of which won him Academy Awards. But his reputation as a dramatist has been increasing, thanks to such champions as Michael Wilson, who directed both the ambitious epic “The Orphans Home Cycle” in 2010 — a marathon of nine of Foote’s Harrison plays – and the much acclaimed revival of “The Trip to Bountiful” on Broadway in 2013, with a cast that featured Cicely Tyson.

Like those plays – and much of the rest of the body of Foote’s work, which numbers some 60 dramas — “The Traveling Lady” is poignant, gently amusing, and peopled with believable small-town characters who struggle and strive to be decent, not always successfully.

It is 1950, and the traveling lady of the title, Georgette Thomas (Jean Lichty) has traveled to Harrison, the hometown of her husband Henry Thomas (PJ Sosko), in hopes of establishing a home for their seven-year-old daughter Margaret Rose (Korinne Tetlow), whom Henry has never met, and for Henry himself, who is soon to be released from prison. Georgette and Henry were married for a mere six months when his drunkenness led to a violent scuffle and incarceration. Georgette worked hard for his pardon. What she doesn’t know – what the townsfolk reveal to her – is that Henry was released a month earlier and has been working for Mrs. Tillman, a widow and temperance crusader ( Jill Tanner) who sees herself as saving him from drink. That Henry lied to his wife is not a good sign, and sure enough, after a tepid reunion, Henry…relapses.

This quick synopsis is somewhat misleading, since it doesn’t take account of all ten characters, nor the complex interplay among them. To portray this collection of deceptively low-key personalities in the production at the Cherry Lane, director Austin Pendleton has assembled a cast that includes some starry New York performers such as Karen Ziemba, most known for her roles in Broadway musicals. The audience gives a knowing laugh when, as the home-spun Sitter, she says: “If I had my life to live over again I’d learn to dance. I swear my whole life would have been different if I’d just learned to dance.” As Sitter’s mischievous mother Mrs. Mavis, Lynn Cohen gives a memorable performance, reprising a role she undertook in a 2006 revival of the play.

I have to admit that “The Traveling Lady” didn’t really kick in for me until the last third of the play, when it becomes clear that Slim, widower and deputy sheriff (Larry Bull), has taken a hankering towards Georgette but is too shy to declare himself.

“The Traveling Lady” debuted on Broadway in 1954, where it ran little more than three weeks. Like much of Foote’s work, it’s been given a second look – deservedly so. If this production may have required more attentiveness than I was willing to give it, if it didn’t move me or amuse me as much I might have hoped, that may only be because Horton Foote is responsible for some of the best theater I’ve ever seen.



The Traveling Lady

Written by Horton Foote

Directed by Austin Pendleton

Harry Feiner, Scenic and Lighting Design; Theresa Squire, Costume Design; Ryan Rumery, Sound Design and Original Compositions; Paul Huntley, Wig Design; Amy Stoller, Dialect Design and Dramaturg.

Cast: Larry Bull as Slim, Lynn Cohen as Mrs. Mavis, Angelina Fiordellisi, Jean Lichty, George Morfogen, Ron Piretti, PJ Sosko, Jill Tanner, Korinne Tetlow, and Tony Award winner Karen Ziemba

Running time: One hour and 50 minutes with no intermission.

Tickets: $65

The Traveling Lady is sc

Phoenix Review: Julia Stiles in Romantic Comedy With Abortion

In “Phoenix,” a slight and slightly dark romantic comedy with several twists that theoretically should make it feel like a more substantial play, Julia Stiles portrays Sue, an anti-social nurse who in the first scene visits Bruce (James Wirt) to tell him three things: 1. She enjoyed their one-night stand a month earlier. 2. She never wants to see him again. 3. She’s pregnant by him, and is going to have an abortion.
This last piece of information shocks Bruce – because doctors had told him that he was infertile. It also drives the remaining five scenes of “Phoenix,” which – with charm, heavy symbolism (a Phoenix rises from the ashes), and jokes that are sometimes more good-natured than amusing – chronicles Sue and Bruce’s thrust and parry towards a connection with one another.
As befits the rom-com formula, the two characters are mismatched. Sue thinks all relationships are doomed; she has a pessimistic view of the world. The playwright only hints vaguely at why this might be so, a sketchiness that threatens to turn the character into a plot device. Bruce has far more reason to be negative, because of a personal tragedy in his past, but he is ever-hopeful.
When Scott Organ’s play debuted at the Humana Festival in 2010, and opened Off-Broadway shortly afterwards, it didn’t floor the critics, but they appreciated the charisma and chemistry of the (different) two-member casts.
Over her relatively long movie career, the 33-year-old Stiles has had no trouble maintaining chemistry with leading men like Ethan Hawke and Matt Damon. She and Wirt certainly make a good-looking couple, which is oddly emphasized by backdrop artwork that incorporates each of their faces into separate collages that look like the kind of glitzy accessories that would hang in a department store showroom.
The awkwardness of the characters’ encounters seems more than just the kind of uncomfortable conversation that occurs between characters who don’t know each other well. At the outset, the dialogue sounds stilted, the staging is strange, and there is an unnatural, irregular pacing — all this must be chalked up to the director, Jennifer Delia, who is making her Off-Broadway directorial debut. The direction emphasizes some annoying verbal tics of the script, when a more experienced hand might have hurried up the pace to cover them up.
It was only near the end of “Phoenix” when it was possible to warm to the characters, rather than be impressed with the stars. There was a precise point in the performance I saw when the play became more engaging. The audience full of fans and well-wishers gave rousing entrance applause to Stiles and (as if to be polite) to Wirt, and then clapped loudly after each scene. It was clear “Phoenix” was hitting closer to the mark when a scene ended in silence.



By Scott Organ; directed by Jennifer DeLia; sets by Caite Hevner Kemp; costumes by Amit Gajwani; lighting by Rick Carmona; sound by Janie Bullard; scenic design by Burton Machen; stage manager, Rose Riccardi

Cast: Julia Stiles (Sue) and James Wirt (Bruce).

Running time: 90 minutes with no intermission.

Phoenix, a production of Rattlestick Playwrights Theater, is playing at the Cherry Lane Theater through August 23rd.

The Revisionist Review: Vanessa Redgrave in Jesse Eisenberg’s Play

ImageIs Jesse Eisenberg not just a movie star (“The Social Network”) but his generation’s Arthur Miller or Tennessee Williams or Alfred Uhry or Wallace Shawn? That is what Vanessa Redgrave implies in her bio in the program for “The Revisionist,” the second play by Eisenberg produced by the Rattlestick Playwrights Theater at the Cherry Lane. After listing her association with all those playwrights, Redgrave writes: “Vanessa is immensely excited by the script The Revisionist, which she accepted as soon as she read the play.”

“The Revisionist” certainly shows Eisenberg’s promise as a playwright. It is an intriguing three-character play with touches of sly humor and moments of pathos — better than his first effort, “Assuncion,” but also more difficult to talk about, because its power comes in some measure from a revelation near the end that would be unfair to disclose.

Eisenberg plays David, a young writer who had early success with a young adult novel, but is now struggling to revise his latest book, a work of science fiction.  Other writers he knows have gone to writer colonies to free themselves of the every-day distractions, but he hasn’t gotten into one, so he travels to Poland to visit a distant relative, Maria (Redgrave) for the first time.

Maria is thrilled by the visit.  She rarely sees her American relatives. Only one has  ever visited, and only for a few hours on the way to somewhere else, in the decades since the war. David plans to stay a week. She wants him to stay longer –“forever….To have blood back in house: This is good thing David,” she says in her imperfect English.

It becomes clear quickly that David is nowhere near as thrilled. She bought him a notebook to write in; he prefers his laptop. She arranges to take him on a tour of her town, Szczecin, with her friend, a cabdriver named Zenon (Daniel Oreskes); David tells her to cancel: He just wants to stay in his room – ostensibly to focus on his writing, but he actually spends more time smoking the marijuana he brought with him.  She cooks him a chicken dinner; he says he’s a vegetarian. So she creates a tofu dish and even agrees to eat it with him.

The problem is not just a clash of cultures and difficulties in communicating (differences that Eisenberg mines for humor). The problem is David’s personality; he is impolite, patronizing and self-involved. Maria knows far more about David’s immediate family than David does – rattling off the names of cousins and cousins’ children that David doesn’t even know, and obviously doesn’t care about. Their photographs line the walls of Maria’s apartment. David turns the pictures to face the wall because he finds them a distraction from his writing/pot-smoking.

Since Eisenberg has said he was inspired to write this play by his own real-life visit to a relative in Poland, it takes courage to make his character so insufferable. A more experienced playwright might have been kinder, more temperate, but it is a testament to Eisenberg’s skills that we don’t hate David. His callowness is often made amusing.

At one point, in a bit of humblebrag, David says of his earliest writing: “I can acknowledge the book’s strengths, but I don’t like it.”

“Yes, I think me too,” Maria replies.

“Excuse me?” David says, stunned.

“I read it again before you came here.”

“And you decided you don’t like it.”

“You want the truth?”

“No, not really.”

But as the play progresses, unexpected truths emerge, as Maria opens up about her suffering during the war.

It is exciting to see both Vanessa Redgrave and Jesse Eisenberg on such an intimate stage as the Cherry Lane, even though too much of the 100-minute  intermission-less play feels like filler,  Eisenberg rushes through his lines with an elocution that works better on film, and Redgrave is burdened with both a heavy Polish accent and more than a few lines of dialogue in Polish; Oreskes speaks entirely in Polish.  Such authenticity is more appealing in John McDermott’s cramped, believably lived-in set.

Jesse Eisenberg may not be on the road to a playwriting career like Tennessee Williams’ or Arthur Miller’s. Perhaps instead, he’ll be one of those with simultaneous careers as movie actor and playwright. A group that includes Noel Coward and Wallace Shawn and Sam Shepard is a mighty fine list to be on.

Daniel Oreskes, Vanessa Redgrave and Jesse Eisenberg in Eisenberg's play The Revisionist

Daniel Oreskes, Vanessa Redgrave and Jesse Eisenberg in Eisenberg’s play The Revisionist

The Revisionist

Rattlestick Playwrights Theater production at Cherry Lane Theater,  38 Commerce Street

By Jesse Eisenberg

Directed by Kip Fagan

Set design by John McDermott, costume design by Jessica Pabst, lighting design by Matt Frey, sound design by Bart Fasbender

Cast: Jesse Eisenberg, Dan Oreskes, Vanessa Redgrave

The Revisionist is scheduled to run through March 31, 2013.

Update: The Revisionist has been extended through April 21, 2013