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Saturday, October 29, 2011

Relatively Speaking (Brooks Atkinson Theatre)


By Harry Forbes

The three one-acts that make up this evening of dysfunctional family comedies are a mixed bag, but never less than amusing.

The problem with the first – Ethan Coen’s “Talking Cure” – is that it ends too abruptly, but what there is of it is intriguing. You have Larry, a patient in a mental hospital (Danny Hoch) – a postal worker who, we learn, went “postal” -- being interrogated in a series of a short blackout scenes by a doctor (Jason Kravits) fighting a losing battle with his overly verbose patient.

Then there’s a flashback cutaway to Larry's parents (Allen Lewis Rickman and Katherine Borowitz) when she was pregnant with Larry, and we understand how he turned out as he did. Both halves are funny and sharply played, but one longs for more of a wrap-up, perhaps a return to the doctor and Larry for the final coda. Still, this is an intriguing curtain-raiser.

The second (and most solid of the trio) is Elaine May’s “George is Dead.” In this, wife Carla (Lisa Emery), currently at odds with her teacher husband (Grant Shaud) who resents that he takes second fiddle in her life, is anxiously waiting for his return home after a lecture of his she missed. There's suddenly a pounding on the door, and in comes Doreen, a pampered, self-absorbed chatterbox (Marlo Thomas) whose husband has just died in a skiing accident. It happens that Carla’s mother was Doreen’s childhood nanny. Deep seated resentments surface with funny and poignant results.

All the players, including Patricia O'Conncell as Carla's mother, are fine, but Thomas is brilliant, nailing Doreen’s childish needfulness to a tee.

With snappy one-liners and a promising premise, Woody Allen’s “Honeymoon Motel,” which comprises the entire second act, seems to be the crowd pleaser, based on post-show chatter.

Newlyweds Jerry and Nina (Steve Guttenberg and Ari Graynor) are about to experience kinky bliss in a wonderfully tacky motel room, but there’s a surprising twist, which I shan’t reveal. Suffice to say, their love nest is soon invaded by Jerry’s friend (Shaud again), wife (Caroline Aaron), stepson (Bill Army), Nina’s parents (Julie Kavner and Mark Linn-Baker), a eulogy-spouting rabbi (Richard Libertini), Jerry’s psychiatrist (Kravits), and a pizza delivery guy (Hoch)

This is vintage Allen in high farce mode with a Borscht Belt gags abounding. The problem is that farce needs to be grounded in more initial reality than Allen has constructed here, and the one-liners are not very organic on such an implausible foundation.

John Turturro directs all three playlets sensitive to the varying tone of each, and draws sharp performances from his cast

Santo Loquasto goes to town with the kitschy motel set of the second act, but Clara’s cluttered middle class apartment and Larry’s parents’ wood-paneled dining room are all right on target, as are Donna Zakowska’s apt costumes, and Kenneth Posner’s lighting design.

“Relatively Speaking” is tailor-made for the proverbial tired businessman, that's for sure, but there are moments, particularly in the more literate Coen and May pieces, that strike chords on a higher level.

(Brooks Atkinson Theatre, 256 West 47th Street, 877-250-2929 or www.ticketmaster.com)

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Sons of the Prophet (Roundabout Theatre Company)


By Harry Forbes

This fine and deeply affecting play by Stephen Karam – commissioned by the Roundabout as part of its New Play Initiative for emerging and established artists – will surely rank as one the best of the 2011-2012 season. And it marks the occasion of another treasurable performance by the impressively versatile Santino Fontana who shone, most recently, in Roundabout’s “The Importance of Being Ernest” last season.

Here, he’s Joseph. a Lebanese-American living in central Pennsylvania surrounded by his handicapped brother Charles (Chris Perfetti) who, like Joseph, is gay; a crotchety uncle (Yusef Bulos) in failing health; and his clinically depressed, pill-popping book publisher boss Gloria (Joanna Gleason).

In the play’s early moments, we learn his father dies of a heart attack one week after swerving to avoid what he thought was a deer while driving. In fact, the animal was on a stuffed decoy placed on the road as a prank by Vin (Jonathan Louis Dent), a local football star who had been raised in a foster home, and whose juvenile sentence is postponed till after football season. This becomes a point of contention in the town, one ultimately debated in the play’s climactic scene, a town meeting.

Joseph is beset by various health ailments, and sorely needs the insurance he gets from working for the scattered, self-absorbed Gloria, a lady who, comically, knows no boundaries. But he faces his various adversities with humor and resilience, as misfortune seems to beset his family at every turn.

When Gloria discovers his ethnic heritage and learns that his family is distantly related to Kahlil Gibran, she sees a way to boost her failing business: a memoir about Joseph’s family geared to their tenuous connection to the famed author of “The Prophet.”

Karam has ingeniously structured the play along the lines of that book with projected headings “On Pain,” “On Friendship,” “On Work,” etc. But for all the Big Issues explored in the play – suffering, sickness, death, loneliness – the play is never heavy-handed, leavened as it is by humor throughout.

Besides Fontana’s fine work, Chris Perfetti shines as the campy younger brother with a spiritual bent, influenced no doubt by their father who revered the Lebanese Maronite St. Rafca, canonized for her suffering, and whose portrait looms in the upstairs bedroom.

Also excellent are Charles Socarides as a reporter covering the hearings about the car accident and who shares a history with Joseph from high school days; and Dee Nelson and Lizbeth Mackay is various roles.

The play is finely directed by Peter DuBois who, like his cast, is ever sensitive to the frequent funny-sad shifts. Production credits are first-rate including Anna Louizos’ split-level set, Bobby Frederick Tilley, II’s costumes, and Japhy Weideman’s lighting.

I didn’t catch Karam’s first well-received play for the Roundabout – “Speech & Debate” – but clearly, he is an exciting playwright with a bright future.

(Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre/Laura Pels Theatre, 111 West 46th Street, (212) 719-1300 or www.roundabouttheatre.org.)

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

I due Figaro (Amore Opera)



By Harry Forbes

Opera lovers, get thee hence to the enterprising Amore Opera which is currently offering a gem of a rediscovery: Saverio Mercadante’s tune-filled 1826 “sequel” to “The Marriage of Figaro.”

The action takes place 15 years after the events in Mozart’s opera (and Beaumarchais’ play) and involves the same sort of intrigue, this time revolving around the Count’s former page Cherubino who’s now in disguise as another “Figaro” and determined to win the hand of the Count and Countess’ daughter Inez whom the Count would marry off to an older suitor.

The music is closer to Rossini than Mozart, but it’s not just a watered down, second rate Rossini, but music of similarly high quality. Perhaps Rossini might have provided more contrasting moments of light and shade, but I’m not complaining about the steam of infectious melody that just bubbles along from start to finish. Riccardo Muti’s performance of the piece in Europe last year was hailed worldwide, so bravo to Amore for picking up on the buzz so quickly, and giving the work its New York premiere.

Company president Nathan Hull (currently playing an excellent Figaro in the concurrent Mozart work) has directed a delightful production, conducted with panache by Gregory Buchalter. The parts are mostly double cast, and at my performance, the standout of a strong roster was mezzo Hayden DeWitt’s Cherubino singing with smooth and stylish tone throughout.

Elizabeth Treat was an accomplished Susanna, like DeWitt, handling the high flying coloratura passages with ease. Rounding out the female contingent, Alea Vorillas’ Inez, the Almaviva daughter, proved a delightful comedienne, especially in her despondent second act aria where, as amusingly staged by Hull, she contemplates various methods of suicide. Though the part is smaller than in Mozart’s “Figaro,” Nicole McQuade was an attractively sung Countess, she, Treat, and Vorillas offering a most appealing trio in the first act.

In Mercadante’s work, Count Almaviva is a tenor again (as in “The Barber of Seville), and Gilad Paz sang strongly, while Daniel Quintana applied his virile baritone to the wily Figaro. But in librettist Felice Romani’s text, it’s really the women who dominate here.

The production is a treat. But hurry. The final performance is Friday, October 28.

(Connelly Theatre, 220 E. 4th St., http://www.amoreopera.org or 1-888-811-4111)

Photo credit: Tal Karlin. Daniel Quintana (Figaro) is Figaro in Amore Opera’s American Premiere of Mercadante's hit 1826 opera "I due Figaro" ("The Two Figaros").

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Man and Boy (Roundabout Theatre Company)



By Harry Forbes

Some may disdain Terence Rattigan as dated and irrelevant (a sentiment I emphatically don't share), but surely even his critics can't deny the solid construction, effectiveness, and sheer entertainment value of his works, as a recent spate of London revivals commemorating his centennial have demonstrated.

So, too, the present Roundabout revival of his 1963 play about a corrupt Romanian financier and his estranged son proves quite mesmerizing despite, or even because of, its melodramatic trappings.

The play is set in 1934. Gregor Antonescu, played magnificently by Frank Langella, is on the brink of financial ruin. He contrives to visit his son Vasily (Adam Driver) with whom he had a terrible row five years earlier.

The latter, who has assumed the name Basil Anthony, earns his living as a lowly lounge pianist and lives in a Greenwich Village basement apartment. He has an actress girlfriend (Virginia Kull) who knows nothing of his background.

Antonescu shows up, accompanied by his sidekick Sven (Michael Siberry). Langella’s entrance – overcoat collar upturned, and a concealing fedora – heralds a great star turn, and indeed it is. This is a vivid portrayal of a charming but manipulative and emotionally repressed figure. The part was written for Charles Boyer and played to acclaim by David Suchet in a 2005 London revival, also directed, as this so finely is, by Maria Aitken.

The great man has arranged for Mark Herries (Zach Grenier) -- an American magnate who, in light of Antonescu’s financial instability, has called off a proposed alliance – to meet him there.

Antonescu has built his fortune on the principles of liquidity and confidence, both now in seriously short supply. But he has discovered that Grenier has a certain vulnerability, and comes up quite a diabolical way to use it to his advantage. Let’s just say what happens next belies the accusation that Rattigan shied away from themes that might compromise his own closeted sexuality.

Though Langella is so magnetic, he is not the whole show. Driver is completely convincing – physically and dramatically -- as Basil, conflicted by his revulsion of his father’s methods, but adoring him throughout. Kull makes the girlfriend – who takes the news about her boyfriend’s lineage with surprising equanimity – also believable. Siberry, too, offers solid support, proving again a great asset to any production in which he’s cast.

The second act is rather less unconventional than the first, though it introduces the character of Antonescu’s second wife (Francesca Faridany good in a rather stock role), as well as a further obstacle to the financier’s monetary reformation.

Derek McLane’s slightly worn two-room flat captures the 1930’s Village ambiance adeptly, as do Martin Pakledinaz’s period costumes.

Rattigan could have easily called this play “Father and Son” and certainly, as far as dramatizations of that eternal conflict go, this is one of the most intriguing. And for American audiences, the parallels to the Bernie Madoff scandal add further resonance.

More Rattigan, please.

(American Airlines Theatre on Broadway (227 West 42nd Street (212)719-1300 or www.roundabouttheatre.org)

Friday, October 14, 2011

The Mountaintop (Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre)


By Harry Forbes

Samuel L. Jackson and Angela Bassett give tremendous performances as, respectively, Dr. Martin Luther King and a garrulous maid in this audacious and ultimately moving play about King's last night in Memphis' Lorraine Motel in 1968 where he would meet his death on the balcony the next day.

When the play opens, King – exhausted after delivering his "I've been to the Mountaintop" speech -- is sending his (off-stage) associate, the Rev. Ralph Abernathy, off to buy him a pack of cigarettes. Left alone, King frets that the room might be bugged, misses the toothbrush that wife Coretta forgot to pack for him, relieves himself audibly in the bathroom, and takes note of his smelly feet as he removes his shoes, all the while mulling the approach of his next big speech. In short, we're seeing the human side of this now mythic figure.

When he wearily calls down to room service for a cup of coffee, Camae, an alternately feisty and flirtatious maid on the first day of her job, arrives. She’s a plain-spoken, lower-class woman but she certainly recognizes King, who, before long, begs her for a cigarette, and is asking her advice about matters large and small, including whether he should shave his mustache for image reasons. Camae indignantly replies that it's the sort of question he should more properly be asking his wife.

Carmae soon proves how there’s more to her than first apparent, when King asks her to demonstrate what she would say in his position. In a trice, she puts on King’s jacket, leaps onto one of the beds, and launches into an increasingly forceful sermon which builds to the point when she's exhorting the congregation to “f – the white man.”

Afterwards, she brags that her oratorical skills, and she chastises him for presuming she might not know what that word means. She boldly asks if she's as good as he is. He tells her she speaks nonsense; she counters that it’s poetry.

Bassett really shows her comic chops throughout, but reveals impressive gravitas when the script calls for it.

There’s a major twist in all this – thus, that audacity I mentioned earlier – but I shan’t spoil playwright Katori Hall‘s neat construction by giving it away here. The play originated in London and won last year’s Olivier Award for Best New Play.

Jackson looks rather less like King than Jesse Jackson, but he convincingly embodies King’s public persona and his personal demons.

It’s a joy to watch these two play together. They’ve got wonderful chemistry, and should be well remembered at award time next year. Bassett has the showier part, and she really is tremendous, but Jackson’s world-weary King is every bit as skillful, bringing just the right gravitas to the role.

Director Kenny Leon keeps the pace taut, deftly keeping up with the play’s tonal shifts, and making sure both stars are on an equal playing field, without one overshadowing the other. Indeed, Hall’s feminist perspective does sometimes seems to favor Camae, but in fact, the parts seem evenly distributed.

David Gallo‘s motel room set has the right slightly seedy and depressing ambience, and towards the end it breaks away impressively during the play’s climatic coup de theatre. Constanza Romero’s costumes – King’s rumpled suit and Camae’s yellow maid’s outfit – are right on target. Dan Moses Schreier‘s sound design – including the bone rattling thunderclaps that permeate the action which takes place on a stormy night – is most effective. Branford Marsalis has composed some apt original music

At my preview performance, the audience was thoroughly rapt throughout the plays 85 intermission-less, even when the play ventures into more spiritual realms, and the enthusiastic standing ovation at the end was the real deal.

(Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre, 242 West 45th St., 212-239-6200 or www.Telecharge.com)

[Pictured at top: Samuel L. Jackson as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Angela Bassett as Camae. Photo Credit: Joan Marcus.]