AISLE SAY New York

STOPGAP ROUNDUP #4

(in order of appearance)
IN THE BODY OF THE WORLD
PARTY FACE
HANGMEN
DOGS OF RWANDA
AN ORDINARY MUSLIM
JERRY SPRINGER: THE OPERA
ANGELS IN AMERICA
GOOD FOR OTTO
EDUCATION
ADMISSIONS
A LETTER TO HARVEY MILK
AMY AND THE ORPHANS
ESCAPE TO MARGARITAVILLE
THE LOW ROAD
THE STONE WITCH

Reviewed by David Spencer

Renovating the site has been delayed yet again because I’ve been deep in the land of Parentcare (they’re 93 and 95). Details are not for this venue, but a fairly fulltime approach was needed and I’m just now coming up for air.

So: Here’s another stopgap roundup. And I’ll be getting back to the reboot soon.

Let me start with a few that are ending their runs quickly, as they deserve the most immediate attention:

*******

Eve Ensler’s In the Body of the World is drawn from her memoir of the same title, detailing her (ultimately successful) battle with a critical illness, finding parallels between the state of her body and the state of the world. It’s an interesting and moving monologue and worth seeing. (As a side note, it has much in common with a show from 20 years ago, Time on Fire, in which actor Evan Handler recounted his battle with illness…down to one shared, stark bit of physical business, done quietly. Handler’s recollection made the reverse journey, from stage piece to published memoir.)

*******

Party Face actually has about a month to go, but it’s not much worth bothering with. A comedy by Isobel Mahon from Australia about a social gathering of women—a mother, her two grown daughters, and two of their friends—it has very little in the way of story and not much more in the way of incident. It’s an excuse for a kind of dialectic about women’s issues and has the usual “gathering” play revelation of an unpleasant secret. Its one novelty is that it toplines former child star Hayley Mills as the mom. She just does fine, thank you, as does the rest of the cast, under the direction of Amanda Bearse.

*******

Hangmen is yet another slyly twisty tale dramatized by Martin McDonaugh, about exactly what the title advertises; and one hangman in particular, and how he conducts his business as a local publican in the wake of hanging being abolished. The characters are eccentric, the plot unpredictable, the language full of Northern British brio…and Matthew Dunster’s excellent production the same one that graced the West End, with several of the same performers. I saw it there as well as here, and it has lost nothing in the migration.

*******

Dogs of Rwanda by Sean Christopher Lewis, adding some extra performances in its final week at Urban Stages, is a genuine sleeper (as in, you don’t sleep at all; it has this underground profile but takes you by surprise in a major way). One narrator (Dan Hodge), an adult white male in his thirties; one musician (Abou Lion Diarra), an African drummer. The narrator talks of a book he has recently published of his time in Uganda at the age of 16, as a church missionary, right as the genocide was erupting. A book that has been well received but for a note he got, attached to a copy, that says simply, “There are untruths here.” And to the accompaniment of complex, evocative rhythms on simple percussion, our narrator tells us not only of the time described in his book; but the time of his return, to investigate the charge. Excellently performed, unobtrusively and as excellently co-directed by Frances Hill and Peter Napolitano.

*******

Here’s the New York Theatre Workshop boilerplate on their latest: “Balancing the high expectations of the previous generation, the doctrines of their Muslim community, and the demands of secular Western culture, Azeem Bhatti and his wife Saima struggle to straddle the gap between their Pakistani heritage and their British upbringing.” Making his professional debut, playwright Hammaad Chaudry explores what it means to be An Ordinary Muslim. Obie Award winner directs.” I wish the play itself were as engaging as the thumbnail. No mistake, it has its moments; and in the second act, after you’ve kind of made a pact with it, and gotten used to the characters and their relationships, it kicks into a higher gear. But until then, it seems to be exploring too many related issues at once, and isn’t optimally focused. Is the player nonetheless an auspicious debut for a new writer? Your mileage may vary on that one; mine says it’ll be interesting to see what he comes up with next.

******
I wasn’t that enthused with the original iteration of Jerry Springer: The Opera—music and lyrics by Richard Thomas (not the acting one), book and additional lyrics by Thomas and (heard then via cast album and seen subsequently via video broadcast version). I thought its satirical look at the lure and societal impact of brief, low-rent fame via reality television was broad and obvious, overwritten and craft-sloppy. (I hasten to add, I was not in a majority; the excitement of its novelty factor was perhaps not altogether unearned.) But I’m happy to report, there has been much retooling, rewriting, consolidation and cutting in the interim—likely, at least in part, under the guidance of its American debut director, John Rando, for whom comedy is a specialty. And being presented, in the three-quarter surround Linney space at the Signature center (under the aegis of The New Group), it seems to be in a happier venue, more akin to an actual TV studio space, and full interactive advantage is taken of that, with an audience likewise happy to play along. Another new wrinkle is that, where before the role of Jerry was for a prominent non-singing star (in London, expatriate American TV stars Michael Brandon of Dempsey and Makepeace [he’s on the album], followed by David Soul of Starsky and Hutch [he’s on the video]), now Jerry is a singing role; he doesn’t have much, but it allows a full fledged musical theater veteran such as Terrence Mann (who recently left the production as scheduled) and Matthew McGrath (who recently took over) to own his territory a little bit differently, and when the singing shows up, more surprisingly. The rest of the cast is also excellent, in particular Jill Paice as the ethereal Baby Jane (a character not completely unlike the test pattern girl in the original British version of Life on Mars, but a lot more vocal).As before, the book stops being entirely coherent somewhere around the midpoint, during the second act’s detour into the supernatural realm; but at that point, if you’re already along for the ride, you’re not up for mind to get out of the car.

•••••••

And here are the productions you have more time to catch:

The big news is the Broadway opening of the National Theatre production of Tony Kushner’s Angels in America. I’m not sure I can add anything you haven’t heard about director Marianne Elliott’s magnificent production per se; it is indeed everything it’s cracked up to be. But for the sake of consumer advocacy, since it’s an expensive ticket (being the presentation of a two-part play performed either on a marathon Wednesday, Saturday or Sunday, or Thursday for Part One and Friday for Part Two)…if you saw the National Theatre Live screening at one of your local cinemas, or if you have access to the video, somehow (it has “gone on walkabout” through backdoor pathways not to be discussed here, and there may yet be late screenings in certain venues, though probably not in NYC)…you’ve pretty much had the experience, or will. The differences are these:

At the National the play was on a stage space not unlike those at Lincoln Center, in particular the Vivian Beaumont’s partial thrust. Since the production wasn’t contained in a proscenium box (as it is at the Neil Simon), the space lent it a little more operatic grandeur. But the trade-off is not a bad one, because given the relatively small cast of only nine (notwithstanding the angel’s silent puppeteers), and how deeply you invest in the principal characters they play (each plays at least one other supporting role as well) Angels in America can never be hurt by increased intimacy.

Also different is American actor Lee Pace as Joe Pitt, the sexually and ethically conflicted young lawyer in the thrall of Roy Cohn (a roaringly powerful Nathan Lane), in for Russell Tovey. Where Mr. Tovey can still convey the innocence of boy grappling with manhood, Mr. Pace, taller, deeper-voiced, is more like a man uncomfortable in his own skin.

One must also note that with regard to this production, the camera was a little, though just a little, unkind to Andrew Garfield’s extravagant turn as the central character, AIDS victim Prior Walter. His performance on screen seemed kind of shouty, too often at a peak pitch. Watching him give essentially the same performance live, it seems that this is one of those rare cases where, even within the context of a video’d stage production, the camera doesn’t reveal what seeing him live does: that he’s pitching his technique to fill the theatre in a manner that’s entirely proportionate to his character. Then again: it’s also entirely possible that with continued performances, Mr. Garfield has further wrangled his tool kit. I didn’t hear the same vocal near-stridency, and I found his “mood-work” significantly more varied.

As a sidebar note, it seems that the Angels team are smart about standbys too. The list of potential swap-ins is impressive, particularly Mark Nelson as the cover for Nathan Lane. One of the very few actors in New York who could deliver that role to an initially disappointed audience…and then not remotely disappoint. I wouldn’t mind seeing it again with him in it; and if the engagement extends, I hope the powers that be have the good sense to let him inherit the role.

*******

For me, David Rabe is very much a hit and miss playwright, but I’m glad to say he’s firing on all cylinders with Good for Otto, also at the Signature, also a New Group offering. It’s an ensemble piece, whose hub characters are two psychotherapists in a regional clinic (Ed Harris and Amy Madigan). Theirs is not a boutique shop; they specialize in treatment of the community, trying to navigate not only the needs of their patients, but the protocols of insurance coverage. The play intertwines a number of cases, the patients a variety of mentally challenged, abused, young and old—a kind of cross-section gamut really—and interspersed with that is how the therapists themselves deal with their own demons, professional and personal. One can argue, probably convincingly, that at almost 3 hours (with two intermissions), the play is too long. But I found that, even though it can be cut, it was rarely redundant; or at least, given that this is a play about therapy, things repeated are not doing the same work that they did previously. There’s a sense in which the dramaturgical stretching of time replicates the progress of the therapeutic process; and that’s among the qualities that gives the play a striking verisimilitude. The cast, whose notables include Mark Linn Baker, F Murray Abraham, Rhea Perlman, and Laura Esterman—as well as some equally notable, if less famous—is finely tuned and perfectly pitched under the direction of Scott Elliott, whose affinity for realism is an excellent match to the subject matter. And it’s good to see him applying it to a play that is so life-affirming.

*******

Within a week of each other, two genuinely original and provocative plays about the educational system in America have opened in New York City. Each is something of a Shavian dialectic, exploring familiar themes from nuanced, contemporary viewpoints, expressed by unusually rich and complex characters. As Shaw himself (or so I’m told) once said, you create a compelling villain by giving him the best arguments. As it happens, fittingly, no character in either play is a villain, but some are certainly adversarial (in fact, most of them are, just not all the time, and they take turns at it), and none of them walks an obvious line. The themes of the first one center around accepting who you are, what you represent and the impact you make along the way; the second play centers around the toll taken on lives and relationships when you have to reckon with the consequences of being deemed worthy or not by others.

In Brian Dykstra’s simply titled Education, an artistic display of political rebellion by a student (Wesley T. Jones) draws fire from a school administrator (Bruce Faulk). Both are biracial but identify black, and the arguments go deeper than race and liberal vs conservative. Alongside this, there’s the student’s girlfriend (Jane West), a controversial poetry jammer—whose offstage father just happens to be an abusive minister. On the receiving end of the blowback are the boy’s white uncle and guardian (Matthew Boston), a wry and understanding college professor, who supports his charge making his own (informed) decisions; and the minister’s wife (Elizabeth Meadows Rouse), who doesn’t want her daughter to make any. I’m not sure that Mr. Dykstra has devised the best possible ending to the play, in terms of it being informed by a late, offstage event, that struck me as an unnecessarily melodramatic irony. But that seems a small, and if Mr. Dykstra chooses, correctable blip in an otherwise deliciously smart play, with subtle direction to match by Margarett Perry.

At a somewhat higher pitch of playing, dealing with the transition from high school to college, Joshua Harmon’s Admissions, at Lincoln Center, is as smart, but very different. The title is (at least) double-edged: the subject is the effect of ethnicity (in the desire for diversity) upon the process of getting into a good school; and the play is driven by characters who are driven to speak their minds on the subject, each to the point of complex revelation. Its premise question is, what happens when the principal of a private school (Jessica Hecht) who is obsessed with diversity percentages in the school and in its catalog, has to face the disappointment of her son (Ben Edelman) being refused admission to Harvard, while his less deserving best friend (offstage), a biracial student who identifies black, has been accepted? Also on hand are the principal’s husband (Andrew Garman), and two colleagues: her best friend, the other boy’s white mother; and the beleaguered teacher (Ann McDonough) she has put in charge of amassing “representative” photos for the catalog. I don’t want to say too much more than that, because a dialectic is all about the competing viewpoints, and because the characters are all multi-faceted, it’ll be best if you’re constantly surprised by them. I was. Excellent direction is by Daniel Aukin.

*******

I lost count of the conflicts of interest that would face me in a discussion of the new musical A Letter to Harvey Milk, currently on offer at Theatre Row. For starters, co-librettist Jerry James is among my very best friends, and director Evan Pappas, who I've known for decades, helmed the staged reading of my and Alan Menken’s The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz that was at the York just this past December. So I’ll just say that whatever you may feel about the show (the consensus seems to veer toward positive, but individual opinions are all over the map; understandably, given the show’s subject matter and treatment), you’ll find it worth your while to have attended. The run has just been extended. And I’ll leave it there.

*******

Another starkly original play is the mostly-comedy-but-a-little-bit-drama Amy and the Orphans by Lindsay Ferrntino. Here’s the boilerplate, which is a pretty fair summery, if a little hyper: Hop in, buckle up, and hold on for dear life in this raucous family road trip. After their father’s death, two unhinged siblings (Debra Monk, Mark Blum) reunite with Amy (Jamie Brewer), their movie-loving sister who has Down syndrome. Together, they careen down the Great American Long Island Expressway, navigating strip malls, traffic jams and some serious (and not-so-serious) family drama. An unexpected turn reveals the moment that changed their lives…and the fact that Amy may be the only one who knows her own mind.” The structure of the play is as surprising as the story, and the direction, by Scott Ellis, is perfectly in tune with the script’s sense of movement, comedy and pace. The cast is also splendid, not least because you can feel the spirit that has bonded around Ms. Brewer a very high functioning and talented young woman, whose Down Syndrome is genuine. It’s a confluence of elements that would naturally create that kind of spirit, and in many ways, one can make the case for it being a once-in-a-lifetime event. Angels in America it ain’t…but it’s a thing.

*******

The jukebox musical Escape from Margaritaville, fashioned around the songs of Jimmy Buffett, is about as lightweight an affair as it can be. A scientist type woman who is seeing anybody and her overweight but saucily attractive best friend, who hasn’t oafish fiancé trying to change her, take off for a tropical island vacation; where of course the scientist meets the resident Player, a guitar strumming, beach bumming singer at the only club in town, and his best friend, the overweight bartender and good-natured, resident doofus. There’s almost nothing at stake, but the libretto by [], and the direction by Christopher Ashley, keep the leads and the supporting characters bouncing around so much that you almost don’t notice. But then, inevitably, you do. And at that point, it’s up to you whether to befriend the evening or not. That it wants nothing more than to be a feel-good musical, and that makes many in the audience feel good, is unequivocal. But just as unequivocal is that it’s not really about anything, thematically, if we put aside the old bromide about grabbing the chance to live the life you want with the one you want while you can; which isn’t so much a theme here as a romcom formula. Me, I found that the antics weren’t very charming for very long (despite the engaging cast, who are charming indeed, and the production, which is decent enough). But this is not the kind of show where the voice of any one critic can be your guide. If fun, laughs, and a bunch of familiar pop songs will do it for you, Escape to Margaritaville may be just the ticket.

*******

Here’s the slightly-modified-with-parentheses boilerplate on The Low Road by Bruce Norris (he of Clybourne Park), just extended at the Public. Set in the 18th century, this wild new work imagines America’s first laissez-faire capitalist (a whinily entitled-behaving Chris Perfetti), a young man inspired by a chance encounter with Adam Smith (who is also the wry narrator, played with wry flair by Daniel Davis) to put his faith in the free market. But his path to riches becomes inextricably entangled with that of an educated slave (Chukwudi Iwuji), a man who knows from experience that one person's profit is another’s loss, in this parable about the true cost of inequality.” Told with the kind of free-wheeling epic-in-a-black-box techniques pioneered by the RSC’s he Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby, this faux-classic has a tone not dissimilar to what a Jay Ward Fractured Fairy Tale might be, if given a full-length treatment that dispensed with “entertainment for kids” and retained only the “with something for the adults too” part. All others in the large-ish cast—which also includes Harriet Harris and Kevin Chamberlin—play multiple roles, he air of exuberant cynicism kept aloft under the direction of Michael Greif.

*******

Finally, there’s The Stone Witch by Shem Bitterman. Premise: The legendary, bestselling author-illustrator of world-renowned children’s fantasy-and-magic books, Simon Grindberg (Dan Lauria) has been unable to complete anything new for a dozen years. His editor and, once-briefly his lover, Clair Forlorni (Carolyn McCormick), has had a brilliant young author-illustrator neecomer, Peter Chandler (Rupak Ginn) recommended to her. The deal she offers: If Peter will go to Grindberg’s cabin, deep in the woods, and can coax the great man, work with him, give him the assistance and inspiration he needs to go the distance…Peter will have an outlet for his own work to be published as well. Peter would not be the first to try; and of course, when he arrives, he sees why those before him have flamed out; Grindberg is a gentle mentor one moment and a roaring monster the next, plagued by who-knows-what, dementia? personal demons? attention deficit disorder? The play never makes it entirely clear, which makes Grindberg a moving target in more ways than one.

I think this is one of those odd-duck populist plays that regular audiences like and critics look askance at. I think the reason for the chasm between in this case is that nothing much in the story holds up under scrutiny; the situation isn’t authentic; Grindberg’s madness isn’t real madness, just conveniently explosive eccentricity—and etc. But, consciously or unconsciously, the audience buys into the almost entirely tacit conceit that the story itself is a fairy tale and so don’t apply much scrutiny. The princess who alone holds the torch (her name is Forlorni) sends off the knight (named Chandler; literally candle-maker; poetically the holder of the light) to slay, or at least tame, the ogre (named Grindberg, nuff said). All that matters to them is that the roles are meaty enough for the actor to sink their teeth into, and they do, especially Lauria, who seems to thrill them here, beyond simply being impressive (which he is), if the post-show chatter is any indication. And who am I to say them nay.

The direction by Steve Zuckerman exhibits a few rough spots but, except for technical aspects that employ projected animations against the background, keeps things moving cleanly enough and mostly stays out of the way. Which is as it should be.


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