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Monday, October 8, 2018

I Was Most Alive With You (Playwrights Horizons)


By Harry Forbes

Craig Lucas has found inspiration for his latest play from, of all things, The Book of Job, fashioning a modern story about a TV writer and his family beset with a deluge of bad fortune leading them to question God, free will, and other such weighty matters.

Though the underlying philosophical message may be dense, the narrative -- starting in 2010, with extended flashbacks to critical events that befell the characters in 2009 -- is clear enough, completely absorbing, and profoundly moving. You might say this is a spectacular demonstration of “when bad things happen to good people,” though that would be a huge oversimplification.

Ash (Michael Gaston) is the writer of a long-running series, and when the play opens, barely recovered from the tragic events we will soon observe in the flashback scenes (and I shan’t reveal them as Lucas unfolds them in masterly storyteller fashion as the play progresses), and he and his longtime writing partner and friend Astrid (Marianna Bassham) -- attracted to each other, but honorably platonic -- having been trying to come up with a new idea after their fallow period necessitated by the aforementioned events.

Ash’s deaf son Knox (Russell Harvard), once a substance abuser, is madly infatuated with an opiod-addicted lover Farhad (Tad Cooley). Ash, for his part, had drug problems in his youth, and even did some jail time. He is in a fractious marriage with his not very accurately named wife Pleasant (Lisa Emery). His mother Carla (Lois Smith) -- who lives with her caretaker Mariama (Gameela Wright), whose estranged son happens to be on Death Row, presides over the annual Thanksgiving dinner, a gathering that will explode with revelations and recriminations among all the characters, and culminate with the horrific incident that propels the rest of the play.

After everything that has happened, Ash and Astrid decide to use the Book of Job material for their new project, as the relevant scenes from the family troubles are interwoven. It’s difficult to tell whether Ash and Astrid are guiding the play’s narrative in a fictionalized way or whether the events described are completely as they were. The ending, however, is intentionally ambiguous.

The play’s press material speaks of the “interpersonal miscommunication...across lines of deaf (physically), Deaf (physically and culturally), hearing, Muslim, Jewish, Jehovah’s Witness, atheist, gay, straight, addict, sober, class, gender, racial, ethnic, and generational identities.”

That may sound like heavy going, and some have found the preponderance of misery excessive, I was absolutely riveted throughout.

Uniquely, the play -- originally produced by Boston’s Huntington Theatre Company -- is performed on two levels on Arnulfo Maldonado’s split level set, the main action below, and above, a “shadow” cast of silent performers (Seth Gore, Beth Applebaum, Amelia Hensley, Harold Fox, Anthony Natale, Kalen Feeley, Alexandria Wailes) signing the dialogue. ASL is a significant plot point too. Knox, for instance, can actually speak but chooses not to do so. His partner Farhad, also partly deaf, has had an implant, and refuses to sign. Pleasant has never believed in signing, a sore point with all, although it was through her obstinacy that Knox learned to speak. Throughout, the cast morphs between speaking and signing, and when it’s only the latter, super-titles projected on the stage, provide the translation.

All of the performances are superb, though the extraordinary Harvard (“There Will Be Blood,” “Tribes”) -- and for whom Lucas was apparently inspired to create a vehicle -- must be singled out for his heartbreakingly powerful work. The most dramatic adversities involve his character, and it’s hard to know whether Job is meant to be the not-very-Job-like Ash, who relates the action of the play, or Knox. Or perhaps it’s all the characters.

The complexities of the work are deftly choreographed by Tyne Rafaeli, with Sabrina Dennison as Director of Artistic Sign Language, as ASL is such a major component.

The production credits are all top-notch from Annie Wiegand’s lighting to David C. Woolard’s costumes to Jane Shaw’s sound design to Daniel Kluger’s striking original music.

(Mainstage Theater at Playwrights Horizons (416 West 42nd Street; 212-279-4200 or www.playwrightshorizons.org; through October 14)

Photo by Joan Marcus. Below: Tad Cooley, Michael Gaston, Lisa Emery, Russell Harvard; Above: Anthony Natale, Seth Gore, Amelia Hensley, Harold Foxx.

Thursday, October 4, 2018

The Nap (Manhattan Theatre Club)


By Harry Forbes

About that title, no, this is not about someone’s cozy afternoon siesta, but rather, “The Nap” is a novel comedy thriller about a snooker championship, and “the nap,” as we learn early on, refers to the texture of the playing table.

Richard Bean’s play -- his first on Broadway since the hilarious “One Man, Two Guv’nors” in 2012 -- was first produced at Sheffield’s Crucible Theatre in 2016, and in fact, the action is set there.

Dylan (Ben Schnetzer), a local lad about to compete in the World Snooker Championship, is the offspring of a divorced ex-con, former drug dealing father (John Ellison Conlee) and a gambling-addicted mother (Johanna Day), who’s now involved with a ne’er-do-well Irish boyfriend Danny (Thomas Jay Ryan).

Despite his less than upstanding heritage, Dylan, for his part, is scrupulously honest about the game, and resolutely refuses a suggestion that he throw one frame of the upcoming match in order to pay back his colorfully named benefactress, one-armed Waxy Bush (Alexandra Billings), a crooked trans woman with a penchant for malaprops.

In any case, Dylan needs to be especially above board as an “integrity officer” of the International Center for Sport Security (Bhavesh Patel) and a comely National Crime Agency cop (Heather Lind) who’s clearly attracted to Dylan from the get-go, are close at hand. But, as events will demonstrate, Dylan’s integrity is sorely tested.

Besides the amusing dialogue fashioned by Bean, the production -- smartly directed by Daniel Sullivan (a far cry from his last MTC outing, “St. Joan”!)  -- has the clever added feature of a video projection of the snooker table so the action can be seen up-close. The play culminates in an actual snooker game with Dylan, the 117th ranked snooker player in the world, pitted against champion Abdul Farrah (played by real life champion Ahmed Aly Elsayed). Interestingly, the denouement can change depending on the actual winner.

The game is sufficiently explained for novices, and thus the plot is easy enough to follow for all. (, “It’s not like pool," one of the commentators informs us. "Any ball is available to either player. It’s a game of points accumulation. A red ball is one point, and if you pot a red it stays in the pocket and you stay on the table to try and pot a colour.”)
               
The Yank cast handles their English accents with aplomb, and their comic talents are uniformly  exemplary. Not all Bean’s jokes are equally felicitous -- Waxy’s malaprops wear a but thin, for instance -- but on the whole, they are quite rib-tickling, such as the running gag of Bobby trying to recall the names of iconic movies, which invariably involves the whole cast in a sort of impromptu round of Twenty Questions. The funniest bits are perhaps the droll, tightly understated remarks by the offstage color commentators. And there are some neat plot twists along the way, too.

David Rockwell’s set, aptly lighted by Justin Townsend  -- from the the grubby British Legion snooker practice room to the high tech Championship Final stage -- are all authentically designed. Kaye Voyce’s costumes are spot-on for this milieu.

Putting aside the boisterous farce of “The Play That Goes Wrong,” I think it’s fair to say “The Nap” takes pride of place as the funniest show currently on the Broadway boards.

(Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, 261 W. 47th Street; 212-239-6200 or www.manhattantheatreclub.com; through November 11)

Photo by Joan Marcus: (l - r)   Bhavesh Patel , Thomas Jay Ryan , Ahmed Aly Elsayed , Max  Gordon Moore, Ben Schnetzer, John Ellison Conlee, Johanna Day, Heather Lind, Alexandra  Billings, Ethan Hova

Monday, October 1, 2018

Bernhardt/Hamlet (Roundabout Theatre Company)


By Harry Forbes

At the age of 55, the great French actress Sarah Bernhardt, who had already triumphed playing several Shakespearean heroines including Ophelia, decided to take on the title role of Hamlet. And it is the mounting of that legendary 1899 production that serves as the focus of Theresa Rebeck’s uneven but mostly rollicking backstage comedy/drama.

Using largely present-day colloquial dialogue, Rebeck attempts to show us the artistic process behind the endeavor, and her characters comprise “The Divine Sarah’s” inner circle, including actor Constant Coquelin (excellent Dylan Baker) (playing both Polonius and The Ghost in the production, and later, as we see, originating the part of Cyrano de Bergerac), Art Nouveau poster illustrator Alphonse Mucha (Matthew Saldivar), disapproving theater critic Louis Lemercier (Tony Carlin), and her latest lover, married playwright Edmond Rostand (Jason Butler Harner) whom Bernhardt recruits to take the iambic pentameter out of Shakespeare, leaving only the meat of the story. (That point actually puzzled me a bit, as I don’t believe iambic pentameter translates to French in the first place, but never mind.)

In the second act, Rebbeck shows us the genesis of Rostand’s most celebrated work, “Cyrano de Bergerac,” and we even get a fully-staged scene from that play. It’s a colorful digression to be sure, but one that makes a long play, already juggling a lot of themes, even longer and less focused.

Rostand’s wife Rosamund (Ito Aghayere) shows up unexpectedly in the second act and there’s a pretty good confrontation scene, as does Bernhardt’s disapproving but ultimately loving son Maurice (Nick Westrate). But for all its good bits, the play lacks a strong dramatic arc.

Still, there’s real chemistry between McTeer and Harner, the latter a strong asset to the production. Other parts are capably essayed by Brittany Bradford, who plays Ophelia in the production, and Triney Sandoval and Aaron Costa Ganis, who at one point, are seen rehearsing the Rosencrantz and Guildenstern scene with McTeer. One of the most compelling scenes shows the rehearsing of the ghost scene between McTeer and Baker.

McTeer gives a confident, flamboyant, imperious, larger-than-life performance, as you’d expect. She’s no slouch at taking on classic roles (e.g. Mary Stuart in Shiller’s play, Nora in “A Doll’s House”), but there’s nothing particularly Gallic about her assumption of this role, nor was there in Glenda Jackson’s portrayal in the only fair 1979 film, “The Incredible Sarah.” It’s perhaps unreasonable to expect a great English actress to suggest Frenchness, unless perhaps by affecting an accent, but then everyone in the cast would have needed to do so. Still, that might have been the way to go in order to make the whole more authentically persuasive.

Rebeck presents her protagonist as a trendsetting naturalistic actress, which is somewhat contrary to the more declamatory style for which Bernhardt was known. Still, we learn Bernhardt felt Hamlet must be played as a ripe 19-year-old youth.

Despite my intense admiration for McTeer, and the promising subject matter, I found the overall tone too jocular, and overly laden with present-day feminist, gender, and sexism jargon, as in tiresome questions about what it means for a woman to play Hamlet. I may be wrong but I don't think historically it was such a big deal for her to be playing Hamlet at the time (any more than it is for Glenda Jackson to take on King Lear as she’ll be doing later this season, or for McTeer to have played Petruchio as she did in the park); Bernhardt played several men's roles in her day. The gambit may raise eyebrows, but not generate outrage.

The dynamic between Bernardt and Rostand is intriguing. Beyond their romantic entanglement, he is shown to be frustrated by her demands to adapt Shakespeare’s text. (As we learn, the task was eventually done by other hands.) But, in any case, we never actually get a sense of how this prose “Hamlet” might have sounded, as it would have had to be an English translation of that French text.

Director Moritz von Stuelpnagel handles all the backstage activity with panache (to use a “Cyrano”-inspired word), and is adept at staging the considerable comic elements and snappy one-liners of Rebeck’s script. “A woman who does nothing is nothing. A man who does nothing is Hamlet,” Bernhardt quips at one point.

Beowulf Boritt has designed a cleverly revolving set with morphs from backstage to cafe to Rostand office to Bernhardt dressing room, all atmospherically lighted by Bradley King, Toni-Leslie James’ costumes are richly designed, and Fitz Patton’s original music and sound design add to the rich period ambience.

(American Airlines Theatre on Broadway, 227 West 42nd Street; 212-719-1300, or roundabouttheatre.org; through November 11)

Monday, September 24, 2018

The True (The New Group)


By Harry Forbes

To cut to the chase, Edie Falco is just plain wonderful as Dorothea “Polly” Noonan, the blithely foul-mouthed right-hand confidante to Albany’s mayor Erastus Corning II (played by Michael McKean) in 1977. Sharr White’s absorbing play, which crackles with lively and thought-provoking dialogue, concerns Corning disassociating himself from Noonan after decades of the latter’s passionate support.

Erastus has been a close friend of Polly and her husband Peter (a beautifully understated Peter Scolari), but suddenly the mayor’s social visits to their household cease. Polly is beside herself with grief and puzzlement. She suspects that the rumors of an affair between her and Erastus are the cause, and the rift -- once it becomes public -- will seem to confirm them.

Peter urges her to let the matter rest, but indefatigable Polly -- fiercely loyal to the Democratic party as much as to the man for whom she’s worked and, in White’s view, platonically loved for so long -- keeps unofficially working on the Erastus’ campaign for reelection during the primary, especially as she fears his laid-back complacency will lose him the election in favor of upstart state senator Howard C. Norton (Glenn Fitzgerald) whom Erastus had once mentored, now that Democratic party head Dan O’Connell has died.

As it happens, Noonan was the grandmother of New York senator Kirsten Gilibrand of whom there is fleeting reference in the play. (Polly, ever relieving her tensions at the sewing machine, is shown making an outfit for her young granddaughter.) Aggressive as her tactics are, White makes the point that Polly is only doing what men in her position have always done, and for which they are usually admired.

Falco’s galvanic performance remains intensely likeable despite Polly’s short fuse and bossy ways. And it’s the sort of marathon role that makes one admire how actors can memorize such lengthy dialogue. The rest of the cast is uniformly terrific, too, including John Pankow as a slimy would-be party boss whom Polly visits to broker a deal, and Austin Cauldwell as a clueless young man whom Polly puts forth as a committeeman assuming he will make a lifelong commitment to working on their side.

If an up close look at the Albany political machine would not seem to be your thing, don’t worry, “The True” (that title referring to party loyalty) is the stuff of high drama and White’s focus is as much on the personal as the political. Indeed, he seems to be showing us how the two intersect.

The New Group Artistic Director Scott Elliott beautifully balances the drama and the humor with nary a dull moment.

Rob Milburn and Michael Bodeen’s sound design includes background music with percussion and cello enhances the drama. Derek McLane’s booklined set with changing insets evokes just the right backdrop, while Clint Ramos’ period costumes and Jeff Croiter’s lighting are equally apt.

The Pershing Square Signature Center (The Alice Griffin Jewel Box Theatre, 480 West 42nd Street); www.thenewgroup.org for tickets & more info; through October 28)

Photo by Monique Carboni: L-R: Michael McKean, Edie Falco, Peter Scolari

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Days to Come (Mint Theater Company)


By Harry Forbes

It would be pleasant to report that Lillian Hellman’s seven-performance 1936 flop, written shortly after her sensational lesbian-themed drama “The  Children’s Hour,” and derided by the critics, is an underappreciated gem.

But sad to say, it seems to me those critics were on the mark, though the WPA Theatre’s 1978 revival was admittedly greeted more warmly. Still, whatever your viewpoint, the play is not without merit, and Mint Theater Company has done a commendable job in giving it a classy staging.

The plot revolves around a labor dispute at an Ohio brush factory modelled, it seems, on the historic Wooster Brush Company, though the town here is called Callom. The owner Andrew Rodman (Larry Bull) has hired thuggish strikebreakers to deal with the recalcitrant workers and protect the Rodman family: Sam Wilkie (Dan Daily) and a couple of goonish henchmen, Mossie Dowel (Geoffrey Allen Murphy) and Joe Easter (Evan Zen). Rodman’s wife Julie (Janie Brookshire) is moodily discontented with her marriage and the current situation, and is prone to solitary walks.

On one such outing, she breaks protocol and visits the stalwart leader of the strike Leo Whalen (an excellent Roderick Hill) for reasons she at first finds difficult to articulate, but there’s a romantic frisson to the encounter. That night, however, she and Whalen witness a crime that propels the action of the far more absorbing second act.

Rounding out the Rodman household are Rodman’s bossy and brittle sister Cora (Mary Bacon), co-owner of the factory, Rodman’s friend and lawyer Henry Ellicott (Ted Deasy) and maid Lucy (Betsy Hogg) and cook Hannah (Kim Martin-Cotten), who knows all the family’s dirty secrets, and harbors a soft spot for the workers.

The first act, as indicated, takes a while to get going, but beginning with the clandestine meeting between Julie and Whalen onwards, the plot grips. When hot-headed worker Tom (Chris Henry Coffey) ignores Whalen’s advice not to fight, tragedy ensues, all culminating in recriminations and revelations.

Family dysfunction is Hellman’s main focus, more than the labor backdrop. She herself wrote, ”It’s the story of innocent people on both sides who are drawn into conflict and events far beyond their comprehension” and also their lack of values which bring about dire consequences for the community.

Some of J.R. Sullivan’s direction is, I feel, too low-keyed and conversational whereas a more heightened delivery would be more compelling. Performances are all competent, several more than that, especially Daily as the ruthless strikebreaker.

Harry Feiner’s set convincingly suggests the affluence of the well-to-do household with a neat revolve to Whalen’s headquarters. Andrea Varga’s costumes are attractively period. Christian Deangelis’ lighting and Jane Shaw’s sound design are first-rate. And hat’s off to Fight Director Rod Kinter for staging a neat piece of violent action which I won’t spoil.

(Theatre Row, 410 West 42nd Street; Telecharge.com or 212-239-6200; through October 6)

Photo by Todd Cerveris: (l.-r.) Janie Brookshire, Roderick Hill, and Dan Daily.

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Heartbreak House (Gingold Theatrical Group)


By Harry Forbes

The most interesting aspect of Gingold Theatrical Group’s fully staged production of George Bernard Shaw’s WWI era masterpiece, one inspired by Tolstoy and Chekhov and dramatizing a complacent upper crust society on the edge of destruction, is textual. Artistic Director David Staller went back to Shaw’s original manuscript and notes to present a more trenchant anti-war piece than the toned down standard version, necessitated by a public eager to forget the carnage of the Great War.

Company namesake Hermione Gingold had apparently written to Shaw in 1940 asking if she might play the piece in a London air raid shelter. This fascinating bit of backstory has inspired Staller to use a World War II Blitz setting as a rather distracting framing device, making a worthily lengthy play even longer. So the conceit of the production would have us in the basement of London’s Ambassador Theatre during an air raid, and we are handed singalong sheets (rather than standard programs) for some tiresome audience sing along (“Pack Up Your Troubles,” “Keep the Home Fires Burning,” etc.) The players decide they'll perform Shaw’s play on a spontaneous request from the audience.

The cast assembled here is comprised of seasoned pros, but ultimately not a patch on the two New York revivals within memory. There was the one at Circle in the Square  in the 1983/4 season with Rex Harrison, Amy Irving, Rosemary Harris and Dana Ivey, later filmed for PBS’s “Great Performances.” And there was another good one in 2006 from Roundabout headed by Philip Bosco.

On this occasion, I found Derek Smith’s cold hearted industrialist Boss Mangan, Lenny Wolpe’s sweetly paternal Mazzini Dunn, and Kimberly Immanuel’s his soon-to-be-disillusioned by life daughter Ellie especially satisfying. And there’s intelligent work from the rest, albeit sometimes stylistically discordant.

Alison Fraser and Karen Ziemba are the sharply contrasted daughters of former sea captain Shotover, Ariadne Utterwood and Hesione Hushabye, the former all pretentious airs, the latter warmly maternal to Ellie whom she hopes to save from a marriage of convenience to Mangan.  

Raphael Nash Thompson is their seemingly befuddled but ultimately clear headed Shavian prototype father. And Tom Hewitt has some good moments as Hesione’s straying husband who breaks Ellie’s heart. The most wrong-headed piece of casting was Jeff Hiller in drag as housekeeper Nurse Guinness (giving the whole a feel of farcical panto), Ariadne’s brother-in-law and lover Randall Utterwood, and the burglar (that role, incidentally, surprisingly cut in the Circle-in-the-Square production altogether). The part of Guinness is not just a throwaway; in fact, Helen Westley in that role was among those singled out for praise in the play’s 1920 premiere at the Theatre Guild in New York.

Staller is doing commendable work with his monthly Shaw readings, often sharply cast with performers who rarely get the chance to play classic theater. But for a full-out production, one needs more.

Brian Prather’s set does double duty as the theater basement and the Shotover house, usually designed along more nautical lines, as it’s meant to be symbolic of a society at sea. Barbara A. Bell’s period costumes are attractive.

For all its shortcomings, there is still much pleasure at hearing Shaw’s peerless wit and social conscience in full flower.

(Lion Theatre at Theater Row, 410 West 42nd Street between 9th and Dyer Avenues; Telecharge.com or 212-239-6200; through September 29)

Photo by Carol Rosegg: Karen Ziemba, Derek Smith, Raphael Nash Thompson, Tom Hewitt, Kimberly Immanuel, and Lenny Wolpe.

Monday, August 27, 2018

Pretty Woman: The Musical (Nederlander Theatre)


By Harry Forbes

It seems to me that anyone among the legions of moviegoers who loved the 1990 Julia Roberts-Richard Gere film, will be pleased with this enjoyable musicalization with a somewhat sanitized script by the late Garry Marshall (who, of course, wrote and directed the film) and J.F. Lawton.

The 1980’s pop-style music and lyrics are by Bryan Adams and Jim Vallance, and though the lyrics may not exactly be plot-advancing, nor the last word in erudition, I rather liked them on first hearing.

Samantha Barks, who made such a moving Eponine in the film of “Les Miserable” after playing that role on stage and also winning acclaim as Nancy in “Oliver!” has the Roberts part and she’s very watchable indeed. This is a distinguished Broadway debut and, in hindsight, a far better choice for her than the quick-closing “Amelie” would have been (she created that role at Berkeley Rep, but Philippa Soo brought it to New York).  Andy Karl, late of “Groundhog Day,” makes a fine leading man, and there’s good chemistry between them.

Jerry Mitchell directed and choreographed the show which is slickly staged on David Rockwell’s stylish palm tree dominated set.

There’s exceptionally strong support from Orfeh (Mrs. Karl in real life), Eric Anderson, wonderfully versatile as both the suave hotel manager of the Beverly Wilshire and a street hustler called Happy Man, and Jason Danieley in a mostly non-singing role as Edward’s slimey lawyer, not afraid to play the repellant aspects of the role.

The plot follows the movie closely. Vivian (Barks) and Kit (Orfeh) are Hollywood Boulevard hookers looking to better themselves. Vivian is picked up by a wealthy corporate raider Edward (Karl) -- after meeting him “cute” on a bench -- and he pays for her services for a week, setting her up in his suite at the plush Beverly Wilshire, and bringing her to business meetings and social functions. Edward takes Vivian for a shopping spree on Rodeo Drive, and she emerges, Eliza Doolittle-like, as a lady.

It is one of the flaws of the property, though, that Vivian remains rather common longer than someone with the innate intelligence and good heartedness to captivate Edward really should. But I suppose if her full transformation occurred sooner, there’d be no plot.

At the hotel, Vivian is taken under wing by the kind manager Mr. Thompson (Anderson), and the scrappy belboy Giulio (acrobatic dancer Tommy Brocco). Her guileless nature ultimately helps finesse Edward's business dealings with shipping executive David Morse (Robby Clater).

And in the course of their relationship, she humanizes Edward and softens his ruthless business tactics.

The songs are mostly of the generic variety we’ve come to expect these days, and the sentiments unsurprising. Vivian sings of wanting to be “Anywhere But Here” and later, after experiencing a better life, she vows “I Can’t Go Back.” Edward longs for the “Freedom” to change. But they’re all valid character expressions, and generally quite catchy. There’s an enjoyable tango, “On a Night Like Tonight” wherein Mr. Thompson teaches Vivian how to dance with an assist from the staff, nicely staged by Mitchell. The big production number, “Never Give Up on a Dream” showed Anderson, Orfeh and the cast in top form with both Mitchell and Rockwell pulling out their respective stops.


The scene where Edwards takes Vivian to the opera is cleverly and fluidly recreated here. While Allison Blackwell and Brian Calì emote from “La Traviata,” Edward sings a counter melody of  “You and I” to Vivian in their box seat above. Vivian’s 11 o’clock number, “I Can’t Go Back (I’ve Seen a Different World,” is appropriately stirring.

Other production credits are top of the line including Gregg Barnes’ costumes, which satisfyingly mirror those in the film, Kenneth Posner and Philip S. Rosenberg’s lighting, and John Shivers’ sound design.

All in all, this is a well-crafted, rom-com audience pleaser.

(Nederlander Theater, 208 West 41st St; 877-250-2929 or PrettyWomantheMusical.com)

Photos: Matthew Murphy
Top: Andy Karl, Samantha Barks
Bottom: Eric Anderson, Orfeh