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Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Othello (The Public Theater)


By Harry Forbes

As I walked into the Delacorte Theater on a balmy Sunday night, I felt a strong sense of deja vu remembering seeing my first Shakespeare plays at the Delacorte. This was because, even before the play began, Rachel Hauck’s set -- a series of stone archways suggesting 16th century Venice -- looked so reassuringly traditional, it was very much the way I remember things being in the days of founder Joseph Papp.

And as the players came out, that nostalgic feeling was happily reinforced by Toni-Leslie James’ lovely period costuming. It was clear that Ruben Santiago-Hudson’s production would not be subverted by any high concept notions but would unfold the story in reassuringly straight-forward fashion. And so it did.

Which is not to say, I hasten to add, that the two most recent “Othello” productions of my experience, both updated to a present-day military setting -- the 2016 New York Theatre Workshop production with David Oyelowo and Daniel Craig, and the 2013 National Theatre staging with Adrian Lester and Rory Kinnear, screened here in an NT Live presentation -- were inferior. Far from it; those productions were each in their ways revelatory, and featured superb performances..

But there’s something to be said for tradition. And in this sylvan venue, the time-honored approach seemed just right.

Ironically, though, the most unconventional aspect of the evening turned out to be the casting of Othello himself. The part is played by Chukwudi Iwuji, a fine actor and a bright spot in the Public’s recent production of ‘The Low Road” fall when he played a well-educated slave who gets the better of his arrogant young master.

But here, from his very first entrance, he somehow lacks the requisite majestic bearing of a military leader, and as soon as Iago begins poisoning his ear against his wife Desdemona, he takes the bait all too easily and become unhinged rather too quickly. While he plays the crazy jealousy very well on its own terms, at times emitting unmanly squeals and he tries to come to terms with her alleged infidelities, there’s not so much a sense of a great man brought down.

As the scheming Iago, Corey Stoll -- very impressive in last summer’s “Julius Caesar” as Brutus -- is capable enough, but can’t honestly be described the epitome of evil, as he’s simply too matter-of-fact in his machinations, and it’s somehow off-putting for Iago to be so much taller than his Othello.

Heather Lind is attractive, intelligent and fetchingly coquettish as Desdemona (and her “Willow Song” is lovely), but it is Alison Wright’s Emilia who walks away with the show as her steadfast lady-in-waiting and subservient wife to Iago. Her outraged indignation after Desdemona’s death were the finest moments of the evening, and throughout she was a model of clarity showing just how “American” Shakespeare can be done.

There was capable work too from Babak Tafti as Cassio, Flor De Liz Perez as his mistress Luce, Miguel Perez as Desdemona’s infuriated father Brabantio, and Motell Foster as Roderigo (though it was rather odd to cast a black actor as Desdemona’s disappointed suitor in a play where Othello’s race is such a key plot point),

Ruben Santiago-Hudson’s direction is admirable in its unfussiness, though hasn’t quite been resourceful enough, as had been the case in those aforementioned productions, to make us overlook the implausibilities in the Bard’s narrative. Desdemona’s endless pleadings on behalf of Cassio which so plainly fuel Othello’s jealousy and Emilia not confessing earlier that she had passed on her mistress’ handkerchief to Iago, strain credulity more than usual.

Derek Wieland’s music is always apt, coming in like movie music at key moments, but sonically has a canned perfunctory quality.

The murder of Desdemona is particularly well staged, though the aftermath -- satisfying as ever to see Othello get his comeuppance and Iago’s villanies revealed -- feels overly protracted, allowing Iwuji’s whining regret to go on too long.

Despite these occasional failings, there is much to enjoy here, and no matter how often you’ve seen it, such is the power of the piece that one is completely gripped, particularly throughout its exciting second act.

(The Delacorte Theater in Central Park, 81st Street and Central Park West or at 79th Street and Fifth Avenue; free ticket distribution or call 212-967-7555 for more information, or visit www.publictheater.org; through June 24)

Photo by Joan Marcus: (l.-r.) Alison Wright, Chukwudi Iwuji, and Heather Lind


Wednesday, June 6, 2018

The Beast in the Jungle (Vineyard Theatre)


By Harry Forbes

The top-flight team that last brought us “The Scottsboro Boys” at the Vineyard -- composer John Kander, book writer David Thompson, and director/choreographer Susan Stroman -- have come up with something completely different on this occasion, a “dance play,” loosely based on Henry James’ novella, and updated to the present day.

The narrative -- which admittedly veers considerably from James’ more subtle tale -- charts how womanizing art dealer John Marcher (Tony Yazbek) meets May Bertram (Irina Dvorovenko), but each time he has the chance to surrender to love, a beast of his imagination (and spookily embodied here by some clever puppetry manipulated by the ensemble), prevents fulfillment.

They first meet in Naples and spend an idyllic day at the beach (until John’s demon gets in the way, that is), then 20 years later in England’s Cotswalds, by which time May is a noted photographer and married to a wealthy, gun-toting Englishman (excellent Teagle F. Bougere), and then, finally, three decades after that at an art gallery. The real beast is revealed to be nothing more than his fear of commitment.

The play begins with an elder Marcher, well played by Peter Friedman, visited by his nephew (Yazbek), a short story writer, who has just broken up with his girlfriend. Rather like the elderly Marchioness in Noel Coward’s “Bitter Sweet” advising the young lovers not to miss their chance for love, Marcher counsels his impulsive nephew to return to the girl he loves. And thus his own story unfolds.

Structurally, though, I thought the switch from rather prosaic spoken dialogue scenes -- including some jarringly un-Jamesian f-bombs -- to the wonderfully lyrical dancing didn’t quite gel. I think I’d have preferred the spoken portions delivered as sung recitative to maintain a more cohesive musical flow.

Yazbek, fresh from his show-stopping rendition of “The Right Girl” from “Follies” in Stroman’s “Prince of Broadway” is again superb as the young Marcher, dancing romantically or rhythmically and dramatically conveying his ardent romantic feelings and tortured fear of the beast. And he handles those framing present-day scenes as the bespectacled nephew with good contrast.

Irina Dvorovenko, so impressive recently in the Encores’ “Grand Hotel” as the lovelorn aging ballerina, is equally bewitching here, both dancing and acting, as her character ages over the decades. So, too, there’s wonderful chemistry between her and Yazbek.

John Kander’s musical score -- purely instrumental, no songs here -- consists of nothing but waltzes, and ranks with his best. I hope a CD may be coming. The nine-piece ensemble under the direction of David Loud plays the mesmerizing melodies most feelingly.


Stroman’s choreography is, as usual, ceaselessly inventive, and cleverly utilizes her terrific dancers -- Maira Barriga, Elizabeth Dugas, Leah Hofmann, Naomi Kakuk, Brittany Marcin Maschmeyer, and Erin N. Moore -- modelling their movements on Matisse’s “La Danse” (that painting having special significance to May). So they morph from the women with whom young John shamelessly flirts, to stately statuary on pedestals who magically come to life, to young ladies gamboling on the beach with scarves, to New York socialites. And there are further magical Stroman touches such as some witty sexual interplay on a picnic blanket, and May swimming into the sea to retrieve an unmoored skiff.

Though the story is rather somber, Stroman leavens the mood with many of these delightfully light moments.

Michael Curry’s costumes and elegantly spare but evocative settings, and Ben Stanton’s gorgeous lighting create pleasing visual imagery throughout. There’s a particularly striking criss-crossing of blue lights during an erotic pas de deux for the leads. Peter Hylenski’s sound design is also first-rate.

“Wasn’t it just beautiful?” an elderly lady asked me about a block from the theater when she saw the program in my hand, summarizing succinctly the general audience reaction.

(Vineyard Theatre, www.vineyardtheatre.org or by calling the box office at 212-353-0303; through June 17)

Photo by Carol Rosegg: Irina Dvorovenko and Tony Yazbeck

Friday, June 1, 2018

Saint Joan (Manhattan Theatre Club)


By Harry Forbes

Any production of George Bernard Shaw’s classic 1923 telling of the 15th century Joan of Arc, her battlefield triumphs, and her trial for heresy must be strongly anchored in the performance of the actress in the name part. So let it be said that Condola Rashad is a very persuasive Maid throughout, playing with resolute conviction and purity, and missing perhaps only a degree of spiritual fervor when pushed to the point of recanting her “voices” at the trial.

The color blind casting doesn’t matter a jot, any more than it did when, ages ago, I saw my first “St. Joan” on stage with the late Diana Sands on the Vivian Beaumont stage where, as happenstance would have it, Shaw’s musicalized “Pygmalion,” “My Fair Lady” now holds the stage so commandingly. (If your appetite is whetted for more Shaw, so too there’s always David Staller’s excellent monthly readings in his Project Shaw series.)

Daniel Sullivan, who mounted such a fine production of “The Little Foxes” last season, directs with an equally sure hand here, and has assembled an especially good ensemble, though economic exigencies, presumably, entail quite a bit of doubling of parts. The actors are more than up to the challenge.

Thus we have the commanding Patrick Page as Robert de Baudricourt, whom Joan must convince to equip her with men to rout the English occupiers, in the early scenes, and then a fine Inquisitor at the trial; John Glover plays both the Archbishop of Reims and and English soldier; and Robert Stanton as Chaplain de Stogumber, convinced the Maid of Orleans is a witch, and Baudricourt’s steward. Also excelling in multiple roles are Matthew Saldivar and Max Gordon Moore.

Among other highly accomplished portrayals, Walter Bobbie plays the Bishop of Beauvais, Jack Davenport his opponent, the arrogant Earl of Warwick, Daniel Sunjata the stalwart Dunois, Joan’s comrade-in-arms; and Adam Chandler-Berat the weak Dauphin, later Charles VII after Joan succeeds in having him crowned at Rheims cathedral.

Shaw described the play as a “tragedy without villains,” and indeed though one, of course, roots for Joan at her trial, and doesn’t want to have her burned at the stake, the playwright has laid out the arguments on all sides so we understand fully the political and religious motives behind their fatal verdict.

The 25-years-after epilogue which has Joan appearing to Charles in a dream with other characters -- including a 20th century emissary informing her of her canonization three years earlier -- is written in a lightly humorous tone, wrapping up things in dispassionate perspective.

Scott Pask’s set eschews spectacle for an all purpose backdrop of a dominating backdrop of organ pipes, lighted expertly by Justin Townsend, most dramatically when Joan is burned at the stake offstage. Jane Greenwood’s costumes are traditionally medieval

Productions of “St. Joan,” despite its classic stature, are relatively rare, so MTC’s production is well worth your time.

(Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, 261 W. 47th Street; 212-239-6200 or www.manhattantheatreclub.com; through June 10)

Photo by Joan Marcus. Condola Rashad and Daniel Sunjata.

Friday, May 18, 2018

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child (Lyric Theatre)


By Harry Forbes

This lavish sequel to the popular books (seven in all) joins “Angels in America” as this season’s highly recommendable two-part, multi-hour, British import, albeit one, unlike the Tony Kushner play, you bring the kids to see.  Both are outstanding pieces of theater, not only for stagecraft but emotional content as well. Playwright Jack Thorne -- in tandem with author J.K. Rowling and director John Tiffany -- have fashioned a worthy continuation of Rowling’s engrossing narrative that honors and enriches all the elements of the original.

Harry Potter (Jamie Parker) is now father of young Albus (Sam Clemmett) of Hogwarts age who has grown up in the oppressive shadow of his famous dad. On the train to Hogwarts, with his friend Rose (Susan Heyward), daughter of Hermione (Noma Dumezweni) and Ron Weasley (Paul Thornley), Albus surprisingly bonds with Scorpius Malfoy (Anthony Boyle), son of Harry’s arch enemy at school Draco Malfoy (Alex Price), now a concerned father himself.

Harry is married to Ginny Weasley, nicely played by Poppy Miller. Hermione now heads the Ministry of Magic, and Harry has a desk job there. Ron is still endearingly silly.

Determined to prove himself worthy in his own right, Albus contrives to use a Time Turner device to prevent the death of Cedric Diggory (Benjamin Wheelwright) who perished in a game of Quidditch in the earlier story. They are aided in this endeavor by Delphi Diggory (Jessie Fisher). However, the stunt results in changing the present with disastrous results. And therein lies the crux of the plot. I’ll say no more as, much like Alfred Hitchcock in the trailers for “Psycho” years ago had begged audiences not to reveal the film’s surprises, the producers have done likewise here. In fact, everyone is given a button upon exiting reading “#KeepTheSecrets.”

The Showbill includes helpful synopses of the seven books and a glossary and even if you know the books (or seen the subsequent film versions), unless you’re a Potter obsessive, you’d be well advised to refresh your memory. Though I’d seen the films and read a couple of the books, I had frankly forgotten many of the details, so I found myself a bit lost at first. So, too, the actors tend occasionally to rush their lines, losing intelligibility. I had a veteran American actor on my left, and an English one on my right, and they were uniformly tsk-tsking at the sporadic lack of clear enunciation.

For my part, once I read the synopses and the helpful glossary, I felt completely up to speed, and there’s no denying that the first act ends on a real cliffhanger, with coup de theatre stage effects. Indeed, the effects throughout -- not overdone, but used judiciously -- are quite astonishing. Jamie Harrison is responsible for “Illusions and Magic,” both of which brilliantly abound.

Casting throughout is exceptionally well done, with most of the actors chosen for, or made up to look like, their movie counterparts, the big exception being Hermione. Ms. Dumezweni couldn’t be more different than Emma Watson, but she’s so dynamic and perfectly in character, one doesn’t sense any confusion on the part of the audience..

The excellent actor and singer Parker does well as the adult Harry, deeply troubled by his uneasy relationship with Albus particularly after he undercuts his son with a hurtful remark, but most of the stage time goes to Clemmett and  Boyle, the latter particularly winning.

The story is as gripping as the films, and given Rowling’s involvement, is invested with the requisite integrity. Fans of the series will not be disappointed. Tiffany directs with obvious affinity for the material, and the action is wonderfully fluid, thanks also to Movement Director Steve Hoggett. Sound Designer Gareth Fry’s stereophonic effects are also marvelously effective.

Christina Jones’ set is a marvel, switching back and forth effortlessly from the train station to the Potter home to Hogwarts to various other locales, with various cleverly employed motifs including suitcases and clocks.. Finn Ross and Ash Woodward’s video designs and Katrina Lindsay’s costumes are splendid.

For sheer entertainment value not to mention all the dazzling stagecraft, “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child” is tough to beat. And best of all, underpinning everything are such time-honored themes as parenting, friendship, love, courage; in other words, the stuff of drama and life itself.

(Lyric Theatre, 214 West 43rd Street; 877-250-2929 or lyricbroadway.com)

Photo by Manuel Harlan: Pictured  (l-r): Noma Dumezweni, Susan Heyward,  Paul Thornley, Olivia Bond, Ben Wheelwright,  Jamie Parker, Poppy Miller, Sam Clemmett. Credit:  Manuel Harlan

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Travesties (Roundabout Theatre Company)


By Harry Forbes

Delectable performances and superb staging make Tom Stoppard’s dizzying mashup of “The Importance of Being Earnest,” Tristan Tzara (one of the founders of the Dada movement), Lenin, and James Joyce richly entertaining, even if the text itself may send you scurrying for Wikipedia.

The show premiered on Broadway in 1974 as a Royal Shakespeare Company import with John Wood giving a virtuoso performance as Sir Henry Carr, the British consulate officer who narrates the play as an old man, morphing into his younger self as he joins the action. I was totally enthralled, and ran out to buy the script, a pattern repeated with subsequent intellectually challenging Stoppard plays for some time to come.

Here it’s the great Tom Hollander, only his second time on Broadway, as Carr and he’s every bit as entertaining as Wood back in the day.

What inspired Stoppard to construct this madcap comedy -- for such it is underneath all the intellectual content -- was learning that Joyce, Tzara, Lenin, and Carr were all in Zurich in 1917, and that Joyce had indeed mounted a production of “Earnest” with Carr playing Algernon, an experience that ended with acrimony and a lawsuit between the two. Stoppard has his fanciful counterparts give vent to their particular passions, and the nature of art in general.

Besides Hollander’s virtuoso performance, there’s fine work by the entire ensemble including Seth Numrich as Tzara; Peter McDonald as Joyce; Dan Butler as Lenin; Opal Alladin as his wife Nadya; and Patrick Kerr as Carr’s butler. McDonald, like Hollander, hailed from the production mounted by London’s Menier Chocolate Factory, as does the creative team.

Scarlett Strallen and Sara Topham could not be more delightful as, respectively, Gwendolen, aka Joyce’s assistant, and librarian Cecily (for whom Tzara falls), especially in their song modelled on the once famous “Mr. Gallagher and Mr. Sheen” vaudeville number. Though not a full-out musical, the songs in the show are so well done, you might at times think it is. During the interval, Gilbert and Sullivan plays on the speaker system as Carr was a G&S fan.

Patrick Marber, fine playwright himself, directs for maximum enjoyment, and if you don’t understand what’s going on -- though there are helpful program notes and a handy education guide that can be accessed on the Roundabout’s website -- you’ll enjoy it anyway.

Tim Hatley’s handsome wood-paneled set and period costumes, Neil Austin’s lighting, and Adam Cork’s sound design and are tip-top.

(American Airlines Theatre, 227 West 42nd Street; roundabouttheatre.org or 212-719-1300; through June 17)

Monday, May 14, 2018

Long Day’s Journey Into Night (Brooklyn Academy of Music)


By Harry Forbes

It’s a pity that this high-powered revival of Eugene O’Neill’s most autobiographical play (first seen in 2016 at the Bristol Old Vic), should come to us so soon after New York had the superlative Roundabout Jonathan Kent production with Jessica Lange giving such an indelible performance, and backed by a fine cast to boot.

Here we have Jeremy Irons and Lesley Manville both, of course, very fine artists and giving predictably polished, intelligent performances, and Sir Richard Eyre at the helm, so it can hardly be said to be without merit. But frankly, the Kent production was far more successful all around.

Though attractively set and costumed by Rob Howell in a abstract rendering of the Tyrones’ summer home with a forced perspective skylight, and moodily lighted by Peter Mumford with atmospheric sound design (foghorns and the like) from John Leonard, I could rarely believe these people were a family, though dysfunctional barely begins to describe how the parts are written: loving and considerate one moment, seriously hateful and hurting the next.

The great Manville, so delectably self-contained in “Phantom Thread,” comes on like gangbusters here as the morphine-addicted Mary Tyrone, chattering away a mile a minute. Though she’s too fine an artist not to ultimately give the part shading, I thought her performance overall rather one note. As the skinflint family patriarch (too cheap to engage first-rate doctors for his wife and consumptive son), and embittered after a lifetime of eschewing Shakespeare to play a part in a popular melodrama (in actuality, “The Count of Monte Cristo”), Irons still registers as a debonair Englishman, no matter how shabbily outfitted. Which is not to say that, like Manville, he doesn’t have many striking individual moments.

The sons are played passably, but not as distinctively as in past productions with the likes of Philip Seymour Hoffman, Michael Shannon, or of course, Jason Robards, Jr. in the Lumet film. As the O’Neill prototype, the consumptive Edmund, Matthew Beard perhaps overdoes the sensitivity but he’s reasonably affecting. As his elder brother Jamie, dissolute actor and alcoholic, who both loves and envies his kid brother, Rory Keenan’s bitterness has something of a superficial quality. Both brothers revelatory speeches near the end lack the requisite punch.

I very much liked Jessica Regan as the family maid who shares an intimate (and mercifully lighthearted) moment with Mary Tyrone when the family is out.

Though the play begins annoyingly with a rapid flurry of naturalistic overlapping dialogue, and Manville, in particular, reads her lines so quickly throughout, the evening still manages to feel rather long. I’d like to think I was just weary from having sat through O’Neill’s “The Iceman Cometh” (also three and a half hours long) a few nights earlier, but I do think it’s the pacing.

Flaws notwithstanding, the marquee names of Irons, Manville, and Eyre will be of interest to committed theatergoers.

At the end of its Brooklyn run, the production will play Los Angeles’ Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts during the month of June.

(BAM Harvey Theater, 651 Fulton Street; 718-636-4100 or  www.bam.org; through May 27)

Photo: Matthew Beard, Lesley Manville, Jeremy Irons, Rory Keenan. Credit:Richard Termine

Friday, May 11, 2018

The Iceman Cometh (Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre)


By Harry Forbes

This latest revival of one of Eugene O’Neill’s several epically long plays -- first produced in 1946 -- ranks high among the half dozen or so I’ve seen, though they’ve all, in their way, been very fine, with distinguished casts headed by the likes of Kevin Spacey and the peerless Jason Robards, Jr. The color blind casting of Denzel Washington in the lead role of traveling salesman Hickey brings to mind James Earl Jones’ excellent assumption of the role in 1973 at Circle in the Square.

The plot concerns a group of depressed losers in a dilapidated Westside bar in 1912, momentarily energized by the annual appearance of a flashy salesman who can always be counted upon to give them a good time. But much to their surprise, the Hickey who shows up now is a reformed man, on the wagon and consumed with evangelistic fervor in determining to rid his old cronies of their unrealistic pipe dreams.

George C.  Wolfe’s production -- pegged to Washington’s desire to take on this iconic role --  comes just three years after Robert Falls’ Goodman Theater mounting with Nathan Lane and Brian Dennehy which played BAM but, surprisingly, never came to Broadway.

In most particulars, actually, I think the Chicago production had the edge, but this one is certainly high quality too. Besides Washington’s dynamic performance, there are solid turns by Colm Meany as bar owner Harry Hope (who hasn’t left the premises in 20 years); Frank Wood and Dakin Matthews as The Captain and The General respectively, Boer War adversaries reliving their past triumphs; Tammy Blanchard as Cora, a prostitute who hopes to marry day bartender Chuck (Danny Mastrogiorgio); Bill Irwin as ex-circus man Ed; and Michael Potts as former owner of a gambling house (played so memorably by John Douglas Thompson in the Falls production).. I mean no disservice to the rest by not singling out Carolyn Braver, Joe Forbrich, Nina Grollman, Thomas Michael Hammond, Neal Huff, Jack McGee, Clark Middleton, and Reg Rogers.

David Morse is especially powerful as disillusioned anarchist Larry Slade to whom young Don Parritt (Austin Butler), son of a jailed anarchist mother, comes for absolution. Slade was his mother’s ex-lover, and Don, we learn, was responsible for her arrest.

George C. Wolfe directs the long play with as much of an eye towards the humor (and there is much) as the high drama, and elicits great performances from all. Washington’s long revelatory monologue is staged with Hickey in a chair speaking straight out to the audience as the others listen from behind, perhaps the one bit of staging that felt artificial.

Despite the play’s length and repetition -- phrases like “pipe dream” are repeated ad infinitum, and characters tread the same ground incessantly -- there’s not a dull moment.

Santo Loquasto’s dreary bar setting, Ann Roth’s character-perfect costumes, and Jules Fisher, Dan Moses Schreier’s sound design, and Peggy Eisenhauer’s lighting all contribute worthily to a highly atmospheric production.

(Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre, 252 West 45th Street;     Telecharge.com or by phone at 212 239 6200)