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Monday, April 15, 2019

Oklahoma! (Circle in the Square)



By Harry Forbes

This high-concept revival of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s first collaboration -- a resounding success when it opened in 1943 running for years -- is very much a mixed bag. The current production premiered at Bard College, and later enjoyed a sold-out run at St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn.

Here it is now ensconced at a barely recognizable Circle in the Square, lit to maximum wattage with multi-colored mylar strips hanging above. Firearms line the walls presumably to make a contemporary point about gun violence. The playing area, designed by Laura Jellineck, is framed by picnic tables -- outfitted with slow cookers to tease the chili and cornbread that will be served at intermission -- with audience members on the outer benches.The house lights stay on full strength for most of the first act, presumably to offer an immersive experience, though the lady sitting next to me took advantage of the brightness by reading her program from cover to cover with only sporadic regard for the show.

Robert Russell Bennett’s classic original orchestrations have been replaced by Daniel Kluger’s seven-person bluegrass ensemble, creating a not unattractive musical texture. There are 12 principals (no chorus) who sing with as much a country-western flavor as Richard Rodgers’ classic tunes will bear. Terese Wadden’s non-period-specific costumes further underscore the show’s revisionist intent.

Damon Daunno’s Curly’s is an unprepossessing guitar-toting cowpoke always eager to launch into song (much like the Curly of Lynn Rigg’s original play, “Green Grow the Lilacs,” to which Oscar Hammerstein II’s book for the musical very closely adhered). He sings pleasantly, sometime in falsetto, and far from the traditional Broadway baritone sounds of Alfred Drake and Gordon MacRae. Laurey’s rather a sullen gal, and Rebecca Naomi Jones plays her with largely uninflected line readings. The voices in general are nothing to write home about. At times, the performers will grab a mike and start singing in a more presentational way.

The villainous hired hand Jud is embodied with utmost creepiness by Patrick Vaill, and his tense scene with Curly in the smokehouse and, later, his aggressive encounter with Laurey at the box social are played in total darkness with only the characters’ miked voices audible, save for a sporadic live video black and white projection on the back wall. Drew Levy’s sound design adds effectively to the scarily surreal ambiance of these scenes. Elsewhere in the show, Scott Zielinski’s lighting scheme includes some scenes bathed in green light.

Much of director Daniel Fish’s concept --  which it seems to me owes a lot to Ivo van Hove -- is clever. Some of it works, but other aspects fatally betray the source material. In fact, anyone who had a problem with how Bartlett Sher tweaked the ending of his “My Fair Lady” revival would be apoplectic over what’s been done here. Since there surely can’t be anyone on the planet who hasn’t seen the show is some form or other -- be it a high school production or Fred Zinnemann’s superb 1955 film -- it won’t be any kind of spoiler to discuss Jud’s death near the end.

As both Riggs’ and Hammerstein have it, Jud makes a surprise appearance at Laurey and Curly’s wedding, tries to plant an unwanted kiss on Laurey, and when Curly intervenes, Jud pulls a knife. The two men scuffle and Jud falls on the knife.

Here, Jud enters, kisses Laurey, and ritualistically presents Curly with a gift -- a gun -- walks a few paces away, and Curly shoots him without provocation. At that point, Aunt Eller and the townspeople suddenly turn sinister, and contrive to hush up the crime, and the implication is that the couple, now covered in blood, will be culpable for the rest of their lives for this heinous act.

This is a major betrayal of Hammerstein and Rigg’s intent. In both works, it is patently clear that Jud is a vicious killer. It’s implied he already burnt a family to death when the daughter of the house refused his advances. In “GGTL,” Laurey is actually well aware of Jud’s rumored backstory, and fears he’ll do the same to them. In “GGTL,” Jud tries to set fire to a haystack on which the couple have been hoisted as part of a wedding ritual. This scene was reinstated in Zinnemann’s film of the musical. Twice within the show, Jud tries to kill Curly. In both “GGTL” and “Oklahoma!,”  the text plainly states that Jud falls on his knife.

And afterwards, there is no indifference to his death. Everyone is acutely aware of the gravity of the situation. In “GGTL,” Curly is duly arrested to await trial. He breaks out three days later, so he can be with his new bride for at least one night. The authorities allow this, with the proviso that he’ll go back to jail in the morning. But the implication is that, of course, he’ll be acquitted as his part in a struggle was genuinely a case of self-defense. Hammerstein conflated the probable outcome, by having a quickie trial on the spot so the innocent couple could proceed with their honeymoon. Fish is no doubt aiming to make a contemporary sociological point with his staging here, but the text simply doesn’t support it.

Arguably the second major misstep here is Laurey’s “dream ballet” here an off-putting athletic modern dance solo for Gabrielle Hamilton, wearing a “Dream Baby Dream” t-shirt, who flings herself about the stage to a blaring electric guitar cacophony remotely built on Rodgers’ themes.

The scenes that are played most conventionally, such as the picnic hamper auction where Will, and then Curly and Judy vie for Ado Annie’s and Laurey’s baskets respectively come off best.

I had no reservations whatever about Ali Stoker’s delightful Ado Annie, as good as any I’ve seen. Her being in a wheelchair doesn’t interfere at all with a strong and funny performance. So, too, James Davis’ Will Parker makes a delightfully dim-witted suitor. As Will’s rival, Will Brill is consistently amusing as the Persian peddler Ali Hakim, though he eschews an ethnic accent. The great Mary Testa brings a refreshingly distinctive touch to Aunt Eller’s dialogue, but thought her raucous vocals on this occasion a bit grating.


The ballet excepted, most of the staging holds your interest, even when it’s wrong-headed, but I wouldn’t care to sit through it again.

(Circle in the Square Theatre,1633 Broadway; www.Telecharge.com or 212 -239-6200; through September 1)

Photos:
Top: Rebecca Naomi Jones & Damon Daunno (c) Little Fang Photo

Below: Ali Stroker & Will Brill (c) Little Fang Photo

Friday, April 5, 2019

The Cradle Will Rock (Classic Stage Company)



By Harry Forbes

After immersing myself in the 2018 release of Opera Saratoga’s fully orchestrated “The Cradle Will Rock” CD, with John Mauceri conducting Marc Blitzstein’s original orchestrations, I feared this pared down piano-only version might sound undernourished, especially as, additionally, some of the cast -- dressed drably in overalls by designer Ann Hould-Ward as Steeltown, USA, factory workers -- takes on as many as two or three roles apiece. Even the last New York production -- part of Encores’ summer series -- used an orchestra, albeit a reduced one with new orchestrations.

But, in fact, the historically important -- albeit very much “of its time” -- pro-unionism agitprop piece manages to build in power as it goes along, with the well-chosen cast more than up to the task of doubling and tripling roles, with only occasional confusion about which part each is currently playing.

Of course, the 1937 Federal Theater Project premiere, was famously staged by Orson Welles with the actors in the audience, and the composer on stage at the piano, in order to skirt sudden Federal restrictions imposed on them. The stated reason was budget cuts but was more likely to do with the strong anti-capitalist theme. So a traditional stage performance in the planned theater was necessarily scuttled, and another venue quickly secured. All of these extraordinary events were dramatized in the 1999 Tim Robbins film “Cradle Will Rock.” (And, fascinatingly, you can Blitzstein relate the story in his own words on the aforementioned CD.)

Unabashedly pro-labor, the work is peopled with prototypes -- doctor, professors, prostitute, newspaper editor, artists, reverend -- who have come under the dishonorable sway of the powerful steel magnate Mr. Mister, who gets his devious way at every turn through bribery. He’s convincingly played here by musical theater veteran David Garrison, blithely scattering cash with every encounter.

Most of the town’s top citizens are mistakenly jailed in the opening scene, and while waiting for Mr. Mister to release them, recall how they came to sell out to him and join his so-called Liberty Committee. The prostitute (Moll) is among them, but the trade she plies is born of need, whereas all the others have shamelessly sold out their integrity for reasons of greed or lust for power.

The hardworking and accomplished cast also includes Ken Barnett as Editor Daily, Eddie Cooper as Junior Mister, Benjamin Eakeley as Reverend Salvation, Ian Lowe as Yasha, Kara Mikula as Sister Mister, Lara Pulver as Moll, Sally Ann Triplett as Mrs. Mister, Rema Webb as Ella, and Tony Yazbeck as Larry Foreman.


The production was directed by CSC Artistic Director John Doyle, and at first glance, you might think he has eschewed his familiar device of the performers playing their own instruments. After all, no one’s carrying around a tuba or bass fiddle. But wait; actually four of the principals in this ensemble cast -- Barnett, Eakeley, Lowe, and Mikula -- are taking turns at the keyboard (and playing quite well, too), under the musical supervision of Greg Jarrett.

The score is strongly influenced by Kurt Weill, though arguably, not nearly as distinctive. Upon exiting the theater, I found myself humming “Surabaya Johnny” rather than anything in “Cradle.” But the songs -- a stylistically mixed bag -- are accomplished in their own way.

Pulver gets the show’s most famous number, “Nickel Under the Foot,” which she does superbly. (PBS viewers may recall her turn as Gypsy Rose Lee in the Imelda Staunton “Gypsy” which aired in 2016.) Another English musical theater pro Triplett makes a commanding Mrs. Mister, tirelessly conniving to get support for her husband. Yazbeck is especially powerful as union organizer Foreman, his performance culminating in an impassioned plea to the cast (and the audience) for justice and equality, as he reprises the title song. He’s also touching as Harry Druggist consumed with guilt over a betrayal of his son. Another vocal highlight is Webb’s “Joe Worker” number. But each of the cast does well in his or her solo pieces.

High-powered corruption and lower-class oppression are still, of course, very much with us so, in general terms, the themes of “The Cradle Will Rock” will always resonate, but the work still registers more as a period piece.

Doyle himself created the spare design, with expert lighting by Jane Cox and Tess James.

(Classic Stage Company (136 E 13th St, New York)  classicstage.org or 212-352-3101; through May 19)

Photos by Joan Marcus: 

Top: Lara Pulver, Kara Mikula, Benjamin Eakeley, Tony Yazbeck, Ian Lowe

Lower: Rema Webb, Sally Ann Triplett, Ian Lowe

Wednesday, April 3, 2019

Ain’t Too Proud: The Life and Times of The Temptations (Imperial Theatre)


By Harry Forbes

This latest entry in the jukebox bio musical sweepstakes is most assuredly one of the best. Helmed by director Des McAnuff with choreography by Sergio Trujillo -- two of the creative forces behind “Jersey Boys” -- “Ain’t Too Proud” emerges as very much more in the tradition of that Four Seasons hit, trumping such recent entries as “Summer: The Donna Summer Musical,” “The Cher Show” and “On Your Feet” by a mile, some individual excellences in those notwithstanding.

There is, of course, some overlap with 2015’s “Motown: The Musical,” but “Ain’t Too Proud” has a more focused narrative.
       
The show had its world premiere run at Berkeley Repertory Theatre, and went on to play sold-out runs at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts’ Eisenhower Theater, and the Center Theatre Group/Ahmanson Theatre.
   
With a strong book by Detroit playwright Dominique Morisseau which holds your interest even as the five-man makeup of famed Motown singing group sometimes seems like a revolving door (there were 24 in all), and featuring a fine cast, including the actors playing the “classic” members: excellent James Harkness (as Paul Williams), wonderfully resonant bass Jawan M. Jackson (Melvin Franklin), high-flying tenor Jeremy Pope (straight from his starring role in “Choir Boy” as Eddie Kendricks), charismatic Ephraim Sykes (as lead singer David Ruffin), and tireless Derrick Baskin (as leader Otis Williams who narrates their story).

Morisseau astutely keeps these central figures in the narrative even after they move on. Ruffin, for instance, brought his distinctive sound to the group, but drug problems, unreliability and violent behavior including abuse of singer-girlfriend Tammi Terrell (Nasia Thomas) led to a split. Still, he remains in the story long after, including his aggressively taking the stage for an impromptu duet with his startled replacement Dennis Edwards (Saint Aubyn). When illness and death take their toll on the group, it’s movingly handled. Morisseau’s script was based on Williams’ book (written with Patricia Romanowki), though as such, I’m not sure how objective the narrative actually is, but she is careful not to paint an entirely rosy picture for Otis.

So it is that we learn of his absence at home from his wife (Rashida Scott) and son (Shawn Bowers), and his sometimes fractious leadership of the group, but generally his actions are described in a sympathetic light, as in “It hurt me to let Ruffin go,” and so on. So, too, the group’s issues with drugs and alcohol are portrayed unflinchingly.

Good as Baskin is, the nonstop narration does grow a bit tiresome, but at the end of the day, it’s the music that matters. And The Temptations’ golden hits are authentically and enjoyably performed. The cast really has the group’s trademark moves down pat. There are over 30 songs listed in the Playbill, including “The Way You Do the Things You Do,” “My Girl,” “Cloud Nine,” “Just My Imagination,” “Get Ready,” and “I Wish It Would Rain.” Many of these numbers are frustratingly fragmented but they sound mighty fine under Kenny Seymour’s music direction. He also did the arrangements with Harold Wheeler’s orchestrations. Harkness has a particularly poignant vocal moment with “For Once in My Life” (actually a Stevie Wonder hit for Motown).

The story begins with Williams’ troubled childhood (including six months in juvenile detention), and the early Detroit days of the group when they were called The Elgins, their signing on with Motown, and moves through the Civil Rights era and beyond.

The expected Motown characters are here too: the Supremes (Candice Marie Woods as Diana Ross, with Nasia Thomas as Florence Ballard and Taylor Symone Jackson as Mary Wilson), Smokey Robinson (Christian Thompson) who wrote many of their hits and guided the group’s efforts, along with Norman Whitfield (Jarvis B. Manning, Jr.) who clashes with Edwards during the recording session of “Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone.” And there’s Berry Gordy (Jahi Kearse) who’s resolutely determined the group will always appeal to white audiences, a stance that causes friction when the group wants to take on more political material.

Other replacement Temps such Richard Street (E. Clayton Cornelius) and Damon Harris (Christian Thompson) and an early lead singer Al Bryant (Jarvis B.Manning, Jr.), who was necessarily ousted, are well played.

Robert Brill’s spare but classy sets, with turntables and conveyer belts, lighted by Howell Binckley, coupled with Peter Nigrini’s expert projections dominated by a Temptations marquee, allow for fluidity over the decades. Paul Tazewell’s costumes skillfully capture the era.

(Imperial Theatre, 249 West 45th Street; www.Telecharge.com or 800-447- 7400)

Photo by Matthew Murphy: Ephraim Sykes, Jawan M. Jackson, Jeremy Pope, Derrick Baskin, and James Harkness

Wednesday, March 27, 2019

Kiss Me, Kate (Roundabout Theatre Company)


By Harry Forbes

There’s certainly much to enjoy in this latest revival of Cole Porter’s masterwork, a deft blending of backstage story and Shakespeare’s “The Taming of the Shrew,” even if far from the slam dunk winner which was the last Broadway revival in 1999. Nor is it even as effective as the BBC Proms 2014 staging with Alexandra Silber, Ben Davis, and Tony Yazbeck.

Kelli O’Hara sings gloriously as ever as temperamental diva Lilli Vanessi who, after a middling Hollywood career, returns to Broadway to star with her ex Fred Graham in the Bard comedy. But lovely as she is, the too cool O’Hara simply doesn’t have the natural temperament for the flashing eyed diva (or, even with a red wig, the shrewish Katharine in the play within the play).

Director Scott Ellis has staged her volcanic, character-defining “I Hate Men” number as a staid confessional to the ladies in the audience. And though O’Hara does show fits of rage, and engages in onstage fights with Fred/Petruchio, she’s truly best in the lyrical moments: the rueful “So in Love,” the operetta-ish “Wunderbar,” and her final acquiescence “I Am Ashamed That Women Are So Simple.” As a concession to today’s gender politics, “people” has been substituted for “women” in that lyric, which is lifted almost verbatim from Shakespeare. She does get to show off her operatic chops in an impressive exaggerated cadenza at the end of the first act, a fun touch.

Elsewhere, Ellis has made sure that, at every turn, Lilli/Katharine gives as good as she gets from Fred/Petruchio. No onstage spanking for her in the revision. And Petruchio’s line about Kate not being able to ride a donkey (because she’s sore) has been amended to “Neither of us were in any condition to ride the donkey.” (Amanda Green is credited with additional material, but her revisions have been mercifully discreet.)

The usually excellent Will Chase somehow seems a notch less than ideal here, too. I’d suggest the mustache, meant to look debonair, might have been a misstep. And though he’s in good voice, there’s too much frenetic slapstick. Both his list songs, “I’ve Come to Wive It Wealthily in Padua” and “Where Is the Life That Late I Led” are too hurried, and like O’Hara, he’s most effective in the quieter moments such as “Were Thine That Special Face,” beautifully sung.

In the secondary female lead of Lois Lane (Bianca in “Shrew”), Stephanie Styles is very cute and does what she’s been directed to do well, but this is the the most radical step away from role originator Lisa Kirk’s interpretation I’ve yet seen. Styles plays Lois as the prototypical dumb chorus girl. But at least she has plenty of pizzazz.

On the other hand, Corbin Bleu -- so good in Roundabout’s “Holiday Inn” -- seems just right as Lois’s ne’er-do-well gambling boyfriend, Bill Calhoun (and Lucentio in the “Shrew”). A beautiful singing voice and a wonderful dancer, he brightens all the scenes he’s in, smallish role though it is. His “Bianca” is a high point.

As the gangsters who hold Lilli virtual prisoner in the theater over a gambling I.O.U. to which Bill signed Fred’s name, John Pankow and Lance Coadie Williams were merely adequate. Whether the fault of miking or enunciation, the sure-fire curtain number “Brush Up Your Shakespeare” failed to land as effectively as usual.

Roundabout has dutifully cast the show for maximum diversity and has done it intelligently with one wrong-note exception.

Larry Hockman’s orchestrations and David Chase’s lively dance arrangements freshen the familiar score (though the original charts are still spiffy), and Music Director Paul Gemignani (who did similar honors for the 1999 production) leads the orchestra - split in two boxes on opposite sides of the stage in the usual Roundabout way -- with his customary authority.

Warren Carlyle’s choreography is more than competent but less than exciting. And I didn’t care for the too obvious pelvic thrusting on Lois’ “Tom, Dick or Harry” number (with an unsubtle emphasis on “Dick”). His best work was the second act opener, “Too Darn Hot,” which won enthusiastic applause and bravos. And his work on the ensemble “Shrew” numbers are quite pleasing to the eye, as for instance, ”Cantiamo D’Amore” near the end of the first act, and both act finales.

David Rockwell’s attractive set design, Donald Holder’s lighting, and Jeff Mahkshie’s costumes capture the 1940s ambiance very well, and the “Shrew” scenes couldn’t be more attractive.

Overall, the show is colorful, well-paced, and fun. And despite the annoying nods to political correctness in the script, it’s essentially the same “Kiss Me, Kate” we’ve always loved with the Porter songs registering as delightfully as ever.

(Studio 54 on Broadway, 254 W 54th St; 212.719.1300, online at roundabouttheatre.org; through June 30)

Monday, March 25, 2019

The Mother (Atlantic Theater Company)


By Harry Forbes

This is the earlier written companion piece to French playwright Florian Zeller’s “The Father,” which Manhattan Theatre Club presented in 2016 with Frank Langella in his bravura Tony-winning performance as a man in the throes of dementia. What had distinguished Zeller’s treatment of the theme was the brilliant way he told the narrative from the titular lead’s point of view, helping us to understand us more vividly than any other dramatic presentation we’ve seen before the skewered way someone with that unfortunate condition views the world.

In “The Mother,” Zeller gives us a woman unraveling from a severe case of empty nest syndrome. Her beloved son is no longer home, and never calls or visits. She fondly recalls making the boy breakfast when he was a child. (She also has a daughter but seems never to have liked her much.) Her husband is at work all day, and the lady is left home to brood and imagine all sorts of things. She feels obsolete, and dysfunction rules the household.

Zeller’s technique is much the same as in “The Father,” as all the action is played out from the mother’s point of view, and likewise, we never quite know what’s real or simply imagined, as the mother is clearly having a nervous breakdown.

The character is played by the great French stage and screen star Isabelle Huppert who gives a full-out committed performance, pulling out all the stops and then some. It may be unchivalrous to say but I found her Gallic accent at times a bit hard to decipher some of the time. But she’s compellingly watchable throughout.

Still, I had heard a BBC radio adaptation some time ago that featured Gina McKee (who played the role to acclaim in London) in the role, and the relative clarity of her delivery made the play -- intentionally repetitive and confusing -- much more agreeable, I must confess.

In any case, Zeller translator Christopher Hampton has done his customary expert job of transposing the French text, as he did with “The Father,” but I think there’s little doubt that the other play is infinitely superior in its complexity and impact.

The always interesting and resourceful Trip Cullman directs -- with its ever-changing perspective -- with a sure hand.

Chris Noth is the husband of 25 years, who may or may not be having adulterous trysts when he wearily asserts he’s in meetings or attending weekend seminars. Justice Smith is the enigmatic son who’s the Oedipal love object of his overly affectionate mother. Again, fantasy or reality? We never know for sure. And Odessa Young is that girlfriend, and a couple of other roles, including, possibly, a younger version of the mother. All are excellent.

Mark Wendland’s sets, including an impossibly long sectional sofa, suggest the central character’s feeling of isolation and the mother’s emotional distance from the father, as does Ben Stanton’s cold, grey lighting. (Before the play begins, Huppert sits on the that sofa reading while the audience takes its seats.) Anita Yavich’s costumes, including a hot mini-dress that Huppert squeezes into to impress her son, suit the characters aptly. (Smith as the girlfriend later enters in the same attire.) And Fitz Patton’s sound design contributes mightily to the unsettling ambience.

Scenes are often repeated with a slightly different slant, and two of the most hair-raisingly disturbing episodes are, it seems, only the mother’s imaginings.  At one point in my performance, there was a technical snafu with the set (perhaps it was the mechanics of that movable sofa), and the actors were asked to leave the stage and the audience to keep its seats, but such is the construction of the play that many in the audience thought it was all part of the action.

Even at 90 minutes without intermission, and despite Huppert’s entertaining antics, I must confess that this Pinteresque play can seem a bit tiresome (a woman in front of me rudely yawned a couple of times). But Zeller is a playwright to reckon with, and as such, even if it’s a lessor work, “The Mother” should be seen.

(Linda Gross Theater, 336 W. 20th Street; atlantictheater.org or 866-811-4111; through April 13)

Photo credit: Ahron R. Foster: l.-r. Isabelle Huppert & Chris Noth

Friday, March 22, 2019

Daddy (The New Group and Vineyard Theatre)


By Harry Forbes

Andre (Alan Cumming), an older wealthy English art collector, smitten with Franklin (Ronald Peet), a young black aspiring visual artist, clashes with the latter’s zealous Christian mother Zora (Charlyane Woodard) when -- after her son never answers her calls -- she decides to leave her Virginia home to visit the collector’s luxurious glass house in Bel Air.

Danya Taymor’s striking production of Jeremy O’Harris’ lengthy -- partly realistic, partly surreal -- three-act play, subtitled “a melodrama,” is certainly classy. Matt Saunders’ art-dominated set design includes an onstage swimming pool (those in the front row should prepare for a bit of residual splashing), with spot-on costumes by Montana Levi Bianco, astute lighting capturing the varying times of day by Isabella Byrd, and arresting sound design by Lee Kinney, the last dominated by the tones of Franklin’s ringing cell phone. Taymor’s clever directorial groupings suggest visuals from iconic artworks.

Kinney also composed the original music and arrangements with Darius Smith, who did the vocal arrangements for the three-member gospel choir (Carrie Compere, Denise Manning, and Onyie Nwachukwu) who appear, Greek chorus-like, throughout the play.

Performances are outstanding, starting with the three leads Cumming, Peet, and Woodard, who steals every scene in which she appears with her sassy, all-knowing, sardonic delivery.

Providing colorful support as Franklin’s self-absorbed (but loyal) friends are Tommy Dorfman as out-of-work actor Max and Kahyn Kim (very funny) as his best friend, the superficial but ultimately sensitive Bellamy, and Hari Nef as Alessia, the enthusiastic curator and gallery owner mounting Franklin’s first show, a collection of so-called “coon baby” dolls, with which she hopes to make her mark.

Nudity is pretty fearless here, with Cumming and Peet baring it all, but it’s not exploitative, and it seems part and parcel of a play that deal so forthrightly with hot-button issues, starting with the interracial, intergenerational central relationship.

The most vital part of the drama involves the conflict between Andre and Zora. One can’t help feeling that, in reality, a man in Andre’s position would probably not be so welcoming of his lover’s mother under his roof, nor that Zora, so obviously critical of their lifestyle, would last more than a couple of minutes there. But without her staying, of course, there’d be no drama.

Young playwright Harris writes very well indeed, with some deliciously lively exchanges, and dialogue that rings true. But despite the artful symmetry of the three-act structure -- each with its own mood and perspective on Franklin -- the basic dramatic arc doesn’t quite earn its three-act, two-hour and forty-five minute running time. The last act especially, though the most extravagantly theatrical of all, doesn’t ultimately offer a satisfying payoff.

Nonetheless, this is, for the most part, a highly absorbing evening, and a work of quality from a playwright to watch.

(The Pershing Square Signature Center, The Romulus Linney Courtyard Theatre, 480 West 42nd Street; TheNewGroup.org. Or 212-279-4200; through March 31)

Photo by Matt Saunders: Front L-R: Alan Cumming, Ronald Peet, Charlayne Woodard; Back L-R: Onyie Nwachukwu, Denise Manning, Carrie Compere

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

The Cake (Manhattan Theatre Club)


By Harry Forbes

Playwright Bekah Brunstetter, a producer and writer for TV’s “This is Us,” has cooked up a deft mix of issue play and comic feel-good piece, inspired by those recent headline stories about businesses that refuse to provide services for gay couples on religious grounds.

Debra Jo Rupp, who played the mother on “The 70s Show,” gives a thoroughly delightful performance as the amiable Della, owner of a North Carolina bakery, whose belief system and that of her like-minded husband Tim (Dan Daily), lead to her saying a reluctant no when Jen (Genevieve Angelson), daughter of Della’s late best friend, asks her to bake a cake for Jen's impending marriage to Macy (Marinda Anderson), a black woman with strongly progressive views.

Della believes in “following the directions,” a phrase she repeats several times, and that clearly applies not only to recipes but to her firmly held religious beliefs as well. In a sidebar plot, Della is also very much counting on an upcoming appearance on “The Great American Baking Show,” and throughout the play, there are fantasy sequences wherein she imagines conversations with the disembodied voice of the show’s host (also Daily), exchanges which comment on the action of the play.

The store -- with its yummy cake display and candy-colored motif --  is, like the other settings, most attractively designed by John Lee Beatty, and brightly lighted by Philip S. Rosenberg. Tom Broecker’s costumes are also in keeping with the light tone of the piece.

As Jen, Angelson is wonderfully sincere and marvelously conveys her own deep uncertainty about the step she is about to take, as she is, after all, a product of the same community standards as Della. As the object of her deep affection, Anderson manages to be likable, while avoiding the stridency of a part that could easily be played that way.

What's especially commendable about Brunstetter’s approach is that all sides are treated in balanced and humane fashion, helping us really get under the skin of each character. The sweet-natured approach is totally engaging, even if weightier legalities of this hot-button issue are skirted. Lynne Meadow has directed with just the right lightness of touch and the production, firmly anchored in Rupp's appealing performance, is consistently funny and touching.

(MTC at New York City Center – Stage, 131 West 55th Street; 212-581-1212 or NYCityCenter.org)

 (l - r)  Debra Jo Rupp,  Genevieve Angelson,  Marinda Anderson