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Tuesday, December 4, 2018

Mother of the Maid (The Public Theater)


By Harry Forbes

This clever and absorbing play tells the familiar story of Joan of Arc from the perspective of the saint’s mother. In playwright Jane Anderson’s hands, it’s a conceit that really works.

And best of all, it provides a great vehicle for Glenn Close in her first New York performance since her much acclaimed resurrection of Norma Desmond in “Sunset Boulevard.” And what a contrast!

Without makeup and outfitted (by Jane Greenwood) as the very picture of a hardworking, pragmatic farmer’s wife leading a hardscrabble existence. By turns simple, wise, critical, loving, determined, sorrowful and bravely steadfast, she runs an impressive gamut.

As for Joan -- beautifully played by Grace Van Patton -- she’s first a moody teenager, concealing the miraculous vision she finally admits to her mother Isabelle, then increasingly confident in her mission, but this is Isabelle Arc’s story.

Neither Isabelle nor her husband Jacques (an excellent Dermot Crowley) trust the veracity of Joan’s heavenly injunction to lead an army, and adamantly oppose her stated plan to rout the English who are occupying France. In fact, Jacques beats her and orders her brother Pierre (Andrew Hovelson) tie her to her bed.

But the local priest Father Gilbert (Daniel Pearce) intercedes and informs them the local bishop truly believes her story. The parents -- still skeptical -- eventually get on board and even follow Joan to the Dauphin’s court, though at first Isabelle comforts herself that Joan’s presence in the army is only “to keep the soldiers cheerful.”

There, Nicole (Kelley Curran in a lovely performance), a gracious court lady, takes Isabelle under wing and expresses great regard for Joan and admiration for her mother, but Isabelle will not be patronized. Pierre is made a knight and sent into battle with Joan, while Jacques, ever a caring father despite his gruffness, enjoins Pierre to look after her.

The narrative follows its inevitable course, but as it’s all from Isabelle’s perspective, if you think you’ve had your fill of Saint Joan this year -- after Manhattan Theatre Club’s solid revival -- you needn’t worry that this play covers the same ground.

John Lee Beatty’s scenic design -- which morphs from farmhouse to court banquet hall to prison -- is skillfully evocative, and Lap Chi Chu’s lighting provides a hugely important element in the intimate Anspacher space.

Anderson’s dialogue -- a mix of period and present-day jargon (and expletives) -- seems entirely apt throughout. (The playwright wrote the screenplay for Close’s acclaimed film “The Wife.”)

Director Matthew Penn draws fine performances from all and helms a well-paced production right from the start up through the moving last moments.

(The Public’s Anspacher Theater,  425 Lafayette Street; 212-967-7555 or www.publictheater.org; through December 23)

Photo by Joan Marcus: Glenn Close and Grace Van Patten

Monday, November 26, 2018

Thom Pain (based on nothing) (SignatureTheatre)

By Harry Forbes

Michael C. Hall, no stranger to playwright Will Eno, having appeared in the “The Realistic Joneses” on Broadway in 2014, takes on Eno’s intriguing 2004 monologue and delivers quite a bravura performance.

From his first few minutes on stage in almost total darkness, Hall authoritatively commands the stage with his voice alone. Eventually the lights come on, and there he is, attired in a dark suit with tie (courtesy of costume designer Anita Yavich), addressing the audience, as if extemporaneously, and ruminating in a seemingly stream-of-consciousness discourse about the meaning of existence, our part of the universe, life’s pain and randomness, love and fear, free will, and other weighty matters.

Alternately world-weary, teasing, forgetful, confidential, affable and severe, throughout the play, he toys with the audience. At one point, he descends into the auditorium, looking for a volunteer to join him on stage. (It’s one of those scary “Oh, please don’t let it be me” moments, especially as he indicates it’s for someone who might “like a little violence.”) I won’t reveal what transpires.

His character’s musings begin with the image of a small boy standing by a puddle whose beloved dog gets electrocuted in front of him by a downed power line. He would seem to be speaking of himself, but we never really know for sure.

Later there’s talk of a past failed relationship but details are sketchy. And there’s lots of animal imagery.”I don’t like magic,” he asserts a couple of times, but then seems on the verge of performing some.

The piece (only about 70 minutes)  is, by its nature, repetitive, and one man sitting close to the stage rudely or perhaps just unthinkingly, sighed audibly several times, probably echoing the feeling of others. But the play is thought-provoking, and Hall proves himself a master of his craft. What a marathon part! In addition to the sheer memorization required for such a lengthy monologue, the work is filled with shifting moods and endless non-sequiturs. Laughter, when it comes, is slightly uncomfortable, especially as early on, Hall’s character chides the audience for its uneasy chuckles.

There’s plenty of intentional humor here, though. “You’ve changed,” a woman once said to him, be adds it was he adds, “the night we met.” And the light banter throughout balances Eno’s more sobering insights into what makes us human, including our memories, our history, and our thoughts.

Amy Rubin’s set -- mostly a bare stage with some upstage props: a door frame, chair, ladder water cooler -- echoes the desolation and mystery of the piece. Jen Schriever’s lighting is key to supporting the text.

Oliver Butler, who directed the premiere of Eno’s “The Open House,” shows his affinity for the playwright’s work with a sensitive and cannily-paced production.

(The Irene Diamond Stage at The Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 West 42nd Street; signaturetheatre.org; through December 2).

Photo by Joan Marcus: Michael  C. Hall in Thom  Pain (based  on nothing)

Saturday, November 24, 2018

The Prom (Longacre Theatre)


By Harry Forbes

A group of narcissistic New York theater folk, stung by bad reviews and bemoaning their stalemated careers, decides to reinvigorate their respective reputations by championing a worthy cause. When they hear of an Indiana high school student whose plan to bring her girlfriend to the prom results in the event being cancelled, the four actors and their press agent (Josh Lamon) think they've hit on just the ticket to generate some self-aggrandizing headlines.

From this unlikely premise (concept by Jack Viertel), writers Bob Martin (“The Drowsy Chaperone”) and Chad Beguelin (“Disney’s Aladdin”) have fashioned a very amusing, crowd-pleasing trifle, half show business spoof, half high school musical. With catchy music by Matthew Sklar (“Elf,” “The Wedding Singer”) and smart lyrics by Beguelin, the show is blithely irreverent, filled with Broadway insider jokes, and ultimately, genuinely touching.

Beth Leavel and Brooks Ashmanskas are Dee Dee Allen and Barry Glickman, stars of a roundly roasted and recently shuttered Eleanor Roosevelt musical bio. Christopher Sieber is Trent Oliver, Juilliard graduate (and don’t you forget it) and once in a 1990s sitcom, but now waiting tables, and Angie Schworer is a perennial “Chicago” ensemble dancer never getting her big chance to play Roxie.

At my performance, Leavel, who had taken ill earlier in the day, was replaced by Kate Marilley who was quite marvelous, playing the ego and self-centered star to the hilt with a great voice and assured comic timing. Ashmanskas is a campy whirling dervish who feels special empathy for the high schooler Emma (beautifully played and sung by Caitlin Kinnunen).

Michael Potts is the very empathetic school principal who, surprisingly, happens to be not only a Broadway show fan, and also one long enamored of Dee Dee, whom he invites for dinner at Applebee’s.

Isabelle McCalla is lovely as Emma’s secret girlfriend Alyssa, the daughter of the strident PTA leader (Courteney Collins) who opposes the prom, having no idea of her daughter’s potential involvement.

All the principals get their big musical moments. Schworer’s “Zaaz,” wherein she attempts to liven up the dour Emma with some typical Fosse moves, is a surefire second act showstopper. Ashmanskas brings down the house with his wildly energetic “Barry Is Going to Prom” number. Siebert has a rousing gospel number “Love Thy Neighbor” as he preaches to Emma’s intolerant classmates. And at the reviewed performance, Marilley got to strut her stuff and show what made Dee Dee a star with “The Lady’s Improving."

Kinnunen’s eleven o’clock number “Unruly Heart” is lovely, and ditto her yearning duet with McCalla, “Dance with You.”

Casey Nicholaw -- fresh from mining similar territory with “Mean Girls” -- directs and choreographs with plenty of his customary liveliness and comic sensibility.

I found Brian Ronan’s sound design rather unnecessarily loud and harsh. But no complaints about Scott Park’s scenic design, Natasha Katz’s lighting, or Ann Roth and Matthew Pachtman’s costumes which are all first-rate.

(Longacre Theatre, 220 West 48th Street; Telecharge.com or 212-239-6200)

Tuesday, November 20, 2018

The Lifespan of a Fact (Studio 54)


By Harry Forbes

A meticulous fact-checker at a literary magazine clashes with a writer with scant regard for facts in this entertaining adaptation of the 2012 book of the same name.

A bearded Daniel Radcliffe (very funny and thoroughly convincing as a Yank) plays fact-checker Jim Fingal, and Bobby Cannavale is writer John D’Agata. Their dispute -- which actually played out over several years -- is condensed down to a tension-filled long weekend.

Cherry Jones is Emily, the magazine’s editor who assigns the complex editing task to ambitious intern Jim, a Harvard grad anxious to prove himself, and she is quickly mortified to learn that her distinguished writer has willfully misstated enough facts to fill Jim’s 130-page spreadsheet, all in the name of a greater artistic Truth.

Even at 85 intermission-less minutes, the arguments for factual veracity versus John’s skewed concept becomes just a tad repetitious in the otherwise sharp and witty script credited to the triumvirate of Jeremy Kareken, David Murrell, and Gordon Farrell. But the three stars are so accomplished and such a pleasure to watch, that is of little import. And, humor aside, the basic arguments about truth and facts has particularly added resonance in our present era.

The article in question -- actually, essay as John insists his work be called -- concerns the suicide of a teenager in Las Vegas. But among John’s numerous reworking of facts -- along with such minutiae as the number of topless bars and the name of particular saloon -- is his much more questionable assertion that his subject’s leap off a hotel roof was the only such jumping suicide that day. In fact, a young woman took her life in the same manner, but that detail doesn’t suit John’s poetic vision.

Enjoyable though Cannavale is, as he asserts his view of the role of the artist, the impossibility of ever really knowing truth, and his dismissal of bothersome detail -- and citing such major figures from Cicero to Sontag as his distinguished forebears in truth-twisting -- the arguments against his way of thinking are pretty potent. And though the cocky Jim, for his part, seems on the correct side of the argument, he registers as quite the nitpicker.

Still, it’s great fun to watch the escalating tensions between the two -- which occasionally turns physical -- as Emily tries mightily to play the objective referee, as she grapples with her own shifting ideas of storytelling. Jim has taken it upon himself to fly out to Las Vegas to meet John face-to-face, prompting Emily to follow suit.

Leigh Silverman directs this literary battle of wills entertainingly, and draws sharp performances from his talented cast.

Mimi Lien’s sets, lighted by Jen Schriever -- principally Emily’s office, and then John’s Nevada abode -- are beautifully designed, making a most attractive backdrop for the lively literary debate.

(Studio 54 Theatre, 254 West 54th Street; Telecharge.com or 212-239-6200)

Thursday, November 15, 2018

King Kong (The Broadway Theatre)


By Harry Forbes

First off, it must be said that all you’ve heard about the remarkable attributes of the titular giant gorilla -- designed by Sonny Tilders -- are absolutely true. He’s amazingly lifelike, despite the visible puppeteers (King’s Men) controlling him, and the overhead cables providing added support and mobility. The face, operated by offstage computer wizardry, is extraordinarily expressive. All the visible manipulation (or most of it anyway) is forgotten once the action starts going, much as one came to ignore the handlers in the wondrous “War Horse” a few seasons back.

But, in all fairness to the creative team, there is more. For starters, Christiani Pitts, in the quite enormous role of Ann Darrow (the Fay Wray character), gives an impressive performance, and manages to make us believe she has a real bond with the creature. Coupled with all the dancing and singing (and she does have several demanding solos), the result is quite a tour de force. Her character’s career ambition and her empathy with Kong register as real and touching as she plays with such conviction. And she’s immensely likable.

The scenic and projection design by Peter England is immediately striking from the start. In the show’s opening moments, gritty New York period scenes and construction girders pull you right into the 1930s period. The same can be said for Roger Kirk’s costumes. Peter Mumford’s lighting is also first rate, and is astutely used to showcase Kong to maximum advantage and, when necessary, mask the obvious trickery behind the illusion. Peter Hylenski’s sound, including the fearsome roar before the creature’s first appearance, skillfully adds to the effect.

Marius de Vries’ score and Eddie Perfect’s songs have been dismissed by many as generic, and it is true they are mostly serviceable in the way of so many current musicals, and certainly -- apart from a couple of pastiche chorus girl numbers -- utterly devoid of Thirties flavor. But having had the opportunity to see the show first in an early preview, and then post-opening, afforded that rare chance to experience a new score twice, and I must confess I admired the music far more the second time around, without necessarily wanting to rush out and purchase a CD.

Jack Thorne, who co-authored the intelligent script for “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child,” is dealing with a more simplistic tale here, but has done a more than creditable job, playing up the theme that both Kong and Ann are being victimized. And hats off to him for including reference to three actual musical theater ladies of the period: Mary Ellis, Vivienne Segal, and Adele Astaire. Still, apart from some other nods to Depression-era bread lines and some Hollywood name dropping like Clara Bow, the language is strictly contemporary.

In Thorne’s telling, Ann is a small-town farm gal who’s come to New York to make it big on Broadway, but rejection follows rejection, and thus when she and ruthless film director Carl Denham (Eric Williams Morris) “meet cute” in an eatery (he buys the starving young woman a sandwich), she’s willing to accompany him on a mysterious shoot in far-off Skull Island, and promises to make her a star. He does, however, expect her to act the damsel in distress, a role she simply can’t enact, in real life or on film.

Proudly and defiantly self-sufficient, like seemingly all female heroines these days, she never seems to need a man to protect her or rescue her. That’s just as well as Carl, in this version, is particularly repugnant and self-centered. So her leading man here is definitely meant to be Kong, underscoring the story’s “Beauty and the Beast” parallels.

The shipboard journey to Skull Island -- striking projections again -- lead to tensions with Carl and Captain Englehorn (Rory Donovan) which are only resolved by Ann’s resourcefulness. No sooner have they gotten to the island, and Ann is hanging from the foliage in mock distress, than we hear the resonant roar of Kong (Jon Hoche offstage).

Kong’s first appearance is teased by only a fleeting toothsome appearance, but when we finally get a gander at the whole of him, the effect is appropriately awesome. Kong scoops up Ann and brings her to his mountaintop hideout where they bond, especially after she’s tenderly treated the wounds he sustained in a battle with a giant serpent (not, alas, as convincingly constructed as Kong, but the audience seemed to like the sequence anyway). She soothes him with a sweet melody called “Full Moon Lullaby.”

I didn’t care much for the stylistic rendering of the forest with zig-zagging wires that seemed out of place with the realism of other locales.

Carl has a sweet-natured if socially awkward sidekick nicknamed Lumpy (Erik Lochtefeld) with whom Ann compassionately bonds. Lumpy once had a daughter and takes a paternal approach to Ann, and ultimately puts Carl in his place. “Everyone’s so desperate for success, they forget goodness.”

But Thorne does take a misstep in having Lumpy advise Ann that Carl needs a “kick in the balls.” A 1930’s man would never use language like that in front of a lady, just one of several anachronisms in the script.

Director Drew McOnie’s choreography, mostly used for NY hustle and bustle, is crisply executed by the ensemble, and indeed, is staging throughout is savvy.

The audience members around me responded very enthusiastically, so as popular entertainment, if not high art, this show very much succeeds. I sat next to rabid fan of the original film, and he was one of the first to leap to his feet during the curtain calls. Nearly all of Kong’s stunts elicited spontaneous applause throughout the show. “King Kong” is definitely a crowd-pleaser.
         
(The Broadway Theatre, 1681 Broadway at 53rd Street;  Telecharge.com or 212-239-6200)
               
Photo by Joan Marcus: Christiani Pitts as “Ann Darrow” and “King Kong”

Monday, November 12, 2018

The Thanksgiving Play (Playwrights Horizons)


By Harry Forbes

Larissa FastHorse’s very amusing satire centers around the production of a Thanksgiving Day pageant for elementary school children. The four adult principals, who consider themselves extremely “woke” and sensitive, plot out the play -- which they are determined will not only celebrate the titular holiday but also pay homage to Native American Heritage Month -- and find themselves stumbling over multitudinous hurdles as they consider the actual genocide and violence behind the traditionally benign “coming together” harvest theme.

These include Logan (Jennifer Bareilles), a drama teacher who has secured a succession of grants to finance the show, and her boyfriend Jaxton (Greg Keller), her rather dim street performer boyfriend, both proudly vegan; Caden (Jeffrey Bean), an elementary school history teacher who yearns to be a playwright, and though he has written 62 plays, has never had one performed by adults; and Alicia (very funny Margo Seibert), a self-absorbed LA actress hired for the occasion under the mistaken assumption, based on her head shot, that she has indigenous roots.

Logan stresses that the work will be “fully devised,” meaning that each actor will have input into the final product. As the four tortuously debate how they can cause least offence, they become increasingly stymied as to how they can progress at all. After all, they reason, how can any of these white actors have the temerity to speak for Native Americans?

Though the pretensions of these hyper sensitive folk are ripe for humor, FastHorse shows that the popular perception of the holiday does, in fact, cover a multitude of ills, and along the way, she has some perceptive things to say about how we learn history and the vagaries of the funding world, as for instance how some of the requirements for grants often shape what you actually see on stage.

Besides skewering political correctness and the like, she has plenty of insider jibes about theater, like an especially funny line about dramaturgs.

Moritz von Stuelpnagel (“Hand of God,” “Present Laughter”) paces the action for maximum comic effect, and draws sharp performances from his cast.

Wilson Chin’s schoolroom set is spot-on, and Tilly Grimes’ costumes, including those for the opening “Twelve Days of Thanksgiving” song with all four dressed in the conventional Pilgrims (and turkey) attire, add to to the fun.

The play -- originally produced by Artists Repertory Theatre in Portland, Oregon -- runs about 90  minutes without intermission. It does at times seem like a protracted “Saturday Night Live” sketch, but the laughs, as indicated, are plentiful.

(Peter Jay Sharp Theater at Playwrights Horizons, 416 West 42nd Street; 212-279-4200 or www.playwrightshorizons.com; through Dec. 2)

Photo by Joan Marcus: (l.-r.) Greg Keller (Jaxton), Jennifer Bareilles (Logan), Jeffrey Bean (Caden), and Margo Seibert (Alicia)

Wednesday, November 7, 2018

Girl from the North Country (The Public Theater)


By Harry Forbes

The unlikely mashup of songs from the Bob Dylan songbook with a script by great Irish playwright Conor McPherson has resulted in a perhaps not-totally-seamless, but on the whole, haunting and bewitching brew.

Premiering to acclaim last year at London’s Old Vic, “Girl from the North Country” concerns a boarding house on the verge of foreclosure in Duluth, Minnesota during the Depression. Nick Laine (Stephen Bogardus) and his mentally fragile wife Elizabeth (Mare Winningham) have under their roof such diverse and sad characters as a lonely widow (Jeannette Bayardelle); an African-American prize fighter (Sydney James Harcourt) just out of jail after being wrongly incarcerated; a once successful businessman (Marc Kudisch), his world-weary wife (Luba Mason who doubles on drums) and childlike grown son (Todd Almond); and a shady reverend (David Pittu).

The Laines have an alcoholic son (Colton Ryan) who’s an aspiring writer, and an adopted African-American 19-year-old daughter (Kimber Sprawl), pregnant but refusing to reveal the father.

Other townspeople who weave in and out of the narrative include the local doctor (Robert Joy), once addicted to morphine, who occasionally narrates from the side of the stage; an elderly shoe mender (Tom Nelis); a widower whom Nick tries to match up with his daughter; and a young woman (Caitlin Houlahan) who was the childhood sweetheart of Nick’s troubled son.

Everyone’s dreams and aspirations seem doomed to failure, like Nick’s furtive romance with the widow. And there are some very dark elements such as sexual assault, violent racism, and even murder.

The songs from the Dylan songbook are presentational in style, and don’t necessarily match the details of the plot but rather comment on or elucidate the spoken parts from which they arise. There are about 20 in all written between 1963 and 2012. Nearly all the principals shine in their respective solo numbers, such as Winningham’s powerful “Like a Rolling Stone,” Harcourt’s “Hurricane”; and Mason’s “Tight Connection to My Heart,” to name a few. The ensemble numbers are especially winning like “Make You Feel My Love” and “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere.” Some are done as if in a 1930s radio studio with the old-fashioned microphones. They are beautifully sung and gorgeously orchestrated by Music Supervisor Simon Hale.

The cast is superb across the board.

McPherson himself directs, and is obviously attuned to every nuance. Movement Director Lucy Hinds keeps the dialogue scenes and musical numbers fluid. Rae Smith’s set and costume designs are period perfect. And Mark Henderson’s lighting is skillfully evocative. Simon Baker’s sound design is a model of restraint and clarity.

Technically, “Girl from the North Country” may fall under the category of that much derided term “jukebox musical,” but whatever it is, it’s a work of uncommonly high artistic quality.

(The Public Theater, -- Lafayette Street; (212) 967-7555 or www.publictheater.org; through December 23)

Photo by Joan Marcus: Todd Almond and the company of "Girl from the North Country"