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Sunday, February 11, 2018

Party Face (NY City Center Stage II)

By Harry Forbes

Hayley Mills provides the principal spark in Isobel Mahon's pleasant if unremarkable domestic Irish comedy/drama. She plays Carmel, a domineering, though not altogether horrid, mother visiting her daughter Mollie May (Gina Costigan) who’s been recently released from a psychiatric ward and now hosting a modest party to show off her new kitchen extension in her suburban Dublin home (sleekly attractive set by Jeff Ridenour).

The guests include cynical sister Maeve (Brenda Meaney) and gossipy neighbor Chloe (Allison Jean White), the latter invited by status-conscious Carmel without her daughters’ knowledge. In the second act, they are joined by germaphobe tomboy Bernie (Klea Blackhurst providing some lively moments). The lady, we learn, was one of Mollie May’s fellow patients in the home. (She’s both manic-depressive and compulsive-obsessive.)

Maeve is divorced, and we never see Mollie May’s husband Alan or their two children. Alan has apparently been absent during Mollie May’s recent travails, and Carmel is kept in the dark about why, but as is eventually revealed, he has, in fact, left home.

A first act flood and a second act catfight give offer the cast some opportunity for physical comedy, and the second act opens with the party in full swing and the ladies dancing in a conga line around the stage to a disco beat, a briefly fun moment that leavens the increasingly serious proceedings, not dissimilar to the impromptu dance occurring in Lucy Kirkwood’s post-apocalyptic “The Children” at Manhattan Theatre Club.

Isobel Mahon’s play is at best innocuously diverting rather than side-splittingly funny, and the whole situation feels more than a little contrived. When the play aims for poignancy, as for instance in Mollie May’s second act accounting of her breakdown, which Costigan delivers superbly with genuine gravity, the shift in tone is rather jarring.

Platitudinous busybody Chloe’s prying into the family’s affairs is particularly unconvincing. And there’s a late play revelation which you’ll probably have long since guessed anyway. Director Amanda Bearse -- who played Marcy D’Arcy on “Married with Children” --  puts her good cast through the paces capably enough, though there’s a sitcom feel to the whole enterprise.

The ladies make a cosy ensemble all in all, but the real treat is Mills, whom we’ve seen far too infrequently here in New York. She nails the domineering, constantly undermining parts of her role, while still retaining her charm. She looks great (nicely outfitted by Lara De Bruijn), demonstrates her stage savviness, and though she affects an Irish brogue here, every so often you catch the voice of the delightful youngster we all so fondly recall from the Disney films.

There were some halftime walkouts -- “Just a bunch of women talking shite,” one man was heard to comment -- but the second act passed enjoyably enough, and earned decent applause.

(City Center Stage II, 131 West 55th Street; or 212-581-1212; through April 8)

Photo: Hayley Mills and Gina Costigan in Party Face (© Jeremy Daniel)

Thursday, February 1, 2018

Jimmy Titanic (Irish Repertory Theatre)

By Harry Forbes

“Not the Titanic again” you might be thinking. Well, yes it is, but playwright Bernard McMullan’s well-structured take on the iconic 1912 tragedy is uniquely powerful, and provides a one-man showcase for star Colin Hamell who plays an impressive variety of 20-odd characters throughout the 75-minute performance.

The titular Jimmy Boyle (fictitious) is a Belfast dock worker who, after helping construct the ship, earns a job shoveling coal on the doomed vessel’s maiden voyage with his friend Johnny. Hamell embodies those two characters, as well as other unsung crewmen, the ship’s high and low-born passengers (from John Jacob Astor to a poor Italian man imploring help for his family), an anxious New York Times editor, and a Belfast mayor who fears that the city will be blamed for the ship’s faulty construction.

The plights of the ship workers and the doomed passengers are poignantly dramatized. The whole is framed by a whimsical setup of Jimmy in Heaven where, as a survivor, he has become quite the star, as he intermingles with an effete, practical joking Gabriel, a very Italian St. Peter, and a goodfella God.

These Heaven scenes may sound hokey on paper, but actually the brew of humor -- which includes such conceits as a disco where Jimmy has become a magnet for the ladies thanks to his Titanic exploits  -- and high drama are a canny dramatic device, and McMullan doesn’t pull any punches when describing the flaws in the Titanic’s makeup, the inadequate emergency measures, the fatal errors in judgement in terms of the evacuation, and of course, the many instances of bravery and self-sacrifice.

And without weighing down the play with ponderous facts, McMullan manages to work in plenty of extraordinary statistics about the 1500 fatalities (all but one of the numerous newlywed husbands perished, to cite one such) and how the lifeboats that were not filled to capacity, resulting in the needless death of several hundred.

Hamell relates all this with alternating charm, intensity, and unflagging energy.

The piece premiered at Origin Theatre’s 1st Irish Theatre Festival NYC in 2012, and has toured since. It’s been directed by Carmel O’Reilly at a fast-moving, absorbing pace. The whole is greatly enhanced by Michael Gottlieb’s evocative rivet-studded backdrop, new to the Irish Rep’s mounting,  and dramatic lighting, as when Hamell mimes shoveling coal in the fiery furnace.

Simple as the production is, it packs as much of a wallop, in its way, as James Cameron’s epic film and other big budget tellings.

(Irish Rep Theatre, 132 West 22 Street; 212-727-2737 or; through February 18)

Photo by Carol Rosegg.

Friday, January 19, 2018

John Lithgow: Stories By Heart (Roundabout)

By Harry Forbes
John Lithgow is a highly accomplished and versatile actor, and his exemplary thespian skills are on concentrated display in this bare-bones, one-man show which consists, basically, of the reading of a dark Ring Lardner yarn in the first act, and a typically humorous P.G. Wodehouse tale in the second, interspersed with recollections of his highly theatrical father (director, producer, teacher) who introduced him and his three siblings to the myriad short stories compiled by Somerset Maugham in a 1939 collection called “Tellers of Tales.”
Throughout the evening, Lithgow displays the cherished tome (his only prop) -- assuring us it’s the actual family heirloom -- but when acting out the stories, he does indeed perform them from memory.
Though not particularly revelatory or original, Lithgow’s family reminiscences (the other sense of the punning titular “heart”) are rather more compelling than the stories themselves, masterfully though he performs them, utilizing different voices and sound-effects (the barbershop setting of the first, for instance).
He introduces the evening with some self-deprecatory remarks about the simplicity of the evening along with some standard issue setup about the power of storytelling and imagination, etc., an apology not entirely rendered unnecessary by the modest entertainment of the next two hours.
Despite Lithgow’s excellence, one does need to concentrate alertly on the narratives of each story. “Haircut” -- a seemingly folksy Midwestern tale that turns subtly chilling as it progresses -- was a bit confusing in the telling, though I’ll confess I may have just been tired. Still, there were, in fact, some walkouts during the interval.
By contrast, the second half -- the droll “Uncle Fred Flits By” -- was better by far, though Lithgow makes the mistake of rather overstating the hilarity of what we are about to hear in his introductory remarks. Still, the added poignancy of learning that the tale helped his ailing father rally during the latter’s decline gave some added resonance to the telling.
John Lee Beatty’s simple wood-lined set with an armchair and table, Kenneth Posner’s lighting and Peter Fitzgerald’s sound design contribute to a warmly intimate ambience that sits comfortably on the American Airlines Theatre stage.
The evening began under the auspices of Lincoln Center Theater back in 2008. It was directed at that time by Jack O’Brien, and on this occasion, Daniel Sullivan is at the helm, guiding Lithgow through his paces, and giving as much variety to the perforce limited action as possible.
All in all, “Stories By Heart” makes for a pleasantly diverting evening, and an affirmation, not that any such is needed, of Lithgow’s impressive technique and engaging persona.
(American Airlines Theatre, 227 West 42nd Street; 212.719.1300 or; through March 4)
Photo: Roundabout Theatre Company presents JOHN LITHGOW: STORIES BY HEART on Broadway
Pictured: John Lithgow; Photo by Joan Marcus (2017)
John Lithgow: Stories By Heart (Roundabout)

Friday, December 29, 2017

Meteor Shower (Booth Theatre)

By Harry Forbes

Steve Martin’s first Broadway offering since “Bright Star,” the underrated musical he wrote with Edie Brickell, turns out to be an amusing trifle about an Ojai, California couple, Corky and Norm (Amy Schumer and Jeremy Shamos), who invite an aggressively seductive pair, Laura and Gerald (Laura Benanti and Keegan-Michael Key), for dinner and, in short order, find their placid lives upended. 

The action takes place in 1993, the year of a spectacular meteor shower, and the guests are ostensibly visting to watch the light show from the former couple’s prime location garden. However, we soon learn the devilish guests are really there to destroy their hosts’ marriage. 
Each scene change is punctuated by meteor projections against the night sky, adding the requisite beautiful but dangerous frisson to the action.

The play had its world premiere at San Diego’s Old Globe Theatre, and a later production at the Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven, CT.

Schumer is highly amusing, likable and confident in her Broadway debut and there’s a first-rate ensemble around her including Shamos’ increasingly discomfited husband; Benanti’s hilarious sexpot temptress; and Key’s macho male.

Martin’s dialogue is quirkily amusing, and he has a couple of neat absurdist twists up his sleeve during this 90-minute intermission-less evening.

Director Jerry Zaks knows his way around farce and keep things moving entertainingly. Though the work is wafer-thin, the laughs are consistent. 

Beowulf Boritt’s stylish 1990s abode -- chic living room and back of house vista -- Ann Roth’s costumes, Natasha Katz’s lighting, and Fitz Patton’s sound add up to a satisfyingly slick overall production.

(Booth Theatre, 222 West 45th Street; or 212-239-6200; through January 21)

Photo by Michael Murphy: Keegan-Michael Key, Jeremy Shamos, Amy Schumer, and Laura Benanti. 

Thursday, December 28, 2017

Farinelli and the King (Belasco Theatre)

By Harry Forbes

Claire van Kampen’s entertaining play about the bipolar 18th century Spanish king, Philippe V, and the castrato Farinelli whose heavenly tones helped restore the former’s sanity, serves as a worthy vehicle for the estimable Mark Rylance (husband of van Kampen), and the great countertenor Iestyn Davies (James Hall at some performances). 

Van Kampen demonstrates how the beleaguered king, seriously out of touch with reality (he’s trying to fish in a goldfish bowl in the opening scene) is hugely distressing his minister Don Sebastian De La Cuadra (Edward Peel), his physician Dr. Jose Cervi (Huss Garbiya), and his loving second wife Isabella (Melody Grove). It is she who hatches the plan of having the renowned singer take up residence in the palace to soothe her husband’s troubled mind, much to the consternation of Farinelli’s manager John Rich (Colin Hurley) who frets about Farinelli sabotaging his lucrative opera career. 

But the scheme indeed works and the king comes out of his depression, regains his senses and comes to rely completely on Farinelli whose castration at the tender age of 10 touches Philippe profoundly.

Van Kampen’s language is, at times, quite colloquial, and “f” bombs abound, but somehow it doesn’t detract from the period ambience.

The play premiered in 2015 at London’s Globe, and had a run in the West End, too. The production is beautifully staged by John Dove, and like Rylance’s 2013 productions of “Twelfth Night” and “Richard III” -- is here presented Globe-style, with some of the audience sitting on two tiers at the sides of the playing area.

It is most atmospherically designed by Jonathan Fensom, lit only by candlelight. 

Rylance, of course, has a field day with his eccentric role, but the cast is uniformly good. Farinelli is played by the excellent Sam Crane in the dramatic scenes, and when required to sing, Davies, identically dressed, steps forward and joins him on the stage, though not necessarily mirroring Crane’s movements. Crane, for his part, doesn’t lip-sync, but simply stands nearby in sympathetic attitude. Grove is lovely as his ever-supportive wife. Peel is appropriately crotchety.

The musical sequences are sublime -- with van Kampen serving as musical arranger -- and the seven onstage musicians earn a well-deserved hand at the end. One of the most magical sequences occurs in the second act when Farinelli insists they move to the forest to better appreciate the relationship of music to the planets, and the Belasco audience is addressed as if the townspeople who have appeared for the concert. 

Though perhaps not the very best of the British imports, the play rates nonetheless as a more than worthy addition to the Broadway season. 

(Belasco Theatre, 111 West 44th Street; or 212-239-6200; through March 25)

Monday, December 18, 2017

The Children (Manhattan Theatre Club)

By Harry Forbes

This superbly written and powerfully acted drama from London’s Royal Court Theatre concerns a post-apocalyptic England wherein Rose, a nuclear engineer (Francesca Annis) pays an unexpected visit to two old colleagues and friends, Hazel (Deborah Findlay) and Robin (Ron Cook) as the country is recovering from a nuclear power plant accident triggered by an earthquake. 

The play is nearly two hours (and might benefit from a little trimming), but is performed without an intermission. Lucy Kirkwood’s drama is as much about the relationship among these three old friends -- fraught with tension as, among other issues, Robin and Rose once had an affair -- and about aging and our responsibility to the next generation. (Rose, as we learn, never married and has no children, while Robin and Hazel have four, including an elder daughter whose difficulties gravely concern Hazel.)
For such heavy-duty subject matter, there is a surprising amount of humor in the piece, not to mention a most surprising and amusing dance the three perform to James Brown’s “Ain’t It Funky Now,” and the enormity of the disaster and its repercussions only gradually unfold as the evening builds in intensity.

Annis, whose stateside stage appearances have been all too rare, is commanding as her unflappable, outwardly calm Rose, while Findlay finely delineates her nervous, fretful character, the polar opposite of Rose. And Cook skillfully shows how Robin must navigate between the two women.

The production has been expertly directed by James Macdonald, and vividly designed (set and costumes) by Miriam Buether showing the cottage (just outside the exclusion zone) in which Robin and Hazel are living after their own home has become uninhabitable. Peter Mumford’s creepy lighting and Max Pappenheim’s atmospheric sound design add to the appropriately ominous mood.

(The Samuel J.Friedman Theatre Box Office at 261 West 47th Street; or 212-239-6200/ through February 1) 

Pictured (L-R): Ron Cook, Francesca Annis, and Deborah Findlay Photo © Joan Marcus 2017

Thursday, December 14, 2017

Spongebob SquarePants (Palace Theatre)

By Harry Forbes

This musical version of the hugely popular Nickelodeon franchise turns out to be a most delightful entertainment, even for a newbie like me with little prior exposure to the TV series, or film versions, or any other incarnation of the the story of the sweet-natured kitchen sponge and his cronies in the underwater world of Bikini Bottom.

One quickly learns who these characters are, even though they are played as humans not as anthropomorphized creatures, and the cast members beautifully convey all the requisite characteristics of their roles.

Spongebob (endearingly embodied by Ethan Slater) toils in the Krusty Krab diner run by skinflint proprietor Eugene Krabs (Brian Ray Norris). His circle includes Krusty’s powerful voiced daughter Pearl (Jai’ Len Christine Li Josey). his dimwitted but loyal friend sea star Patrick (Danny Skinner) (“BFF” as their first duet goes), and squirrel Sandy Cheeks (Lilli Cooper).

When a volcano threatens the destruction of the town, the three of them contrive to defuse it before disaster strikes. There’s also a showbiz wannabe Squidward Q. Tentacles (Gavin Lee) a groupie pirate named Patchy (Jon Rua) who opens each act before “security guards” evict him, Larry the Lobster (Allan K. Washington), and more. The villains of the piece are Sheldon Plankton (Wesley Taylor) and his wife Karen the Computer (Stephanie Hsu).

David Zinn’s multi-hued set and costume design must surely rank as the most zanily and gorgeously colorful on Broadway. (The green and pink bedecked sardines, and the pink jellyfish are eye-popping cases in point.)

Christopher Gatelli’s choreography is highly inventive and entertaining, especially “I’m Not a Loser,” a glitzy old-fashioned song and dance production number for Squidward and a chorus line of Sea Anemones.

In the action packed second act, as Spongebob, Patrick, and Sandy attempt to ward off disaster, Landau’s staging is really quite brilliant. With chairs, ladders, and platforms, there’s a real sense of the intrepid trio scaling the volcano. Her work here and throughout is comparable to the magic wrought by Julie Taymor in “The Lion King,” the gold standard of unlikely animated tales successfully adapted for Broadway.

The score is an amalgam of numbers from disparate sources (David Bowie, Cyndi Lauper, Sara Bareilles, John Legend, and so on, but somehow it all hangs together most engagingly from the exuberant opening number (“Bikini Bottom Day”) to the penultimate and touching “Best Day Ever.” Krusty and Pearl’s contrapuntal duet “Daddy Knows Best,” with Krusty extolling money, and Pearl wanting her father’s love is a standout. Patrick’s incongruous gospel number “Super Sea Star Savior” wherein sardines (dressed nattily in pink and green) extol his great wisdom.

Needless to say, kids will love it, but there were few at my performance, and enthusiasm was still off the charts.

(Palace Theatre, 47th & Broadway; or 877-250-2929)