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Saturday, April 30, 2016

American Psycho (Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre)

By Harry Forbes

Bret Easton Ellis’ once (and perhaps still) notorious novel about an affluent Wall Street investment banker/serial killer, the basis of a popular 2000 film with Christian Bale, is the unlikely source for the latest musical by Duncan Sheik, composer/lyricist of “Spring Awakening” with a book by Robert Aguirre-Sacasa.

Sharply directed by the eclectic Rupert Goold -- whose “King Charles III” was one of this season’s dramatic high points -- and stylishly designed on a predominantly white and gray set (when it isn’t sprayed with blood) by Es Devlin, and brilliantly lighted by Justin Townsend, the production wittily captures the materialistic ethos of the 1980s which Ellis satirized. (Sheik has seamlessly incorporated a handful of actual 1980s numbers into the fabric of his electronic score.) The production originated, like Goold’s last, at London’s Almeida Theatre (in conjunction with Headlong) in 2013 where it starred Matt Smith.

Here, triple-threat Benjamin Walker gives quite an extraordinary performance as narcissistic Patrick Bateman, completely shallow and superficial, cold as ice, yet strangely vulnerable, one minute viciously killing a homeless man, the next waxing sentimental over the musical “Les Miserables,” and amusingly (or scarily) idolizing the 1980s Donald Trump. And Walker’s singing and dancing chops are also tops.

Helene Yorke is his vapid girlfriend Evelyn; Jennifer Damiano his sweet secretary Jean; Drew Moerlein his business nemesis Paul Owen; Jordan Dean his closeted gay associate Luis; Morgan Weed is Luis’ fiancee Courtney with whom Bateman is having an affair; and Theo Stockman, Dave Thomas Brown, and Alex Michael Stoll his other associates. All are fine. There’s good work too from Keith Randolph Smith as the detective who comes sniffing around Bateman after another character’s disappearance. Alice Ripley plays his mother and other roles.

Katrina Lindsay’s costumes are quite skimpy for some, including Walker who spends a lot of stage time in his Ralph Lauren underwear.

Goold has staged this unusual musical very stylishly with Lynne Page’s jagged, frenetic choreography just right for the era and milieu. The subject matter will be off-putting to many, but the production is not without a moral perspective which makes the whole palatable.

(The Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre, 236 West 45th Street; Telecharge.com or by phone at 212-239-6200)

Photo: Benjamin Walker. and the cast of American Psycho. Credit: Jeremy Daniel.

Friday, April 29, 2016

The Crucible (Walter Kerr Theatre)

By Harry Forbes

Ivo van Hove has now put his increasingly familiar (if not necessarily welcome) stamp on Arthur Miller’s durable 1953 classic about the Salem witch trials written as a metaphor for the House Un-American Activities witch hunts of the 1950s: a rather dreary non-period specific set (Jan Versweyveld) -- a sort of industrial looking classroom dominated by a giant blackboard -- non-period costumes (Wojciech Dziedzic), spooky sound design (Tom Gibbons), and creepy music (Philip Glass).

For all of that, he has assembled a first-rate cast who would, for the most part, do justice to a more traditional production. It’s a great treat, for instance, to see British actor Ben Whishaw, so superb in movie and TV roles (most recently, “London Spy,” seen on BBC America) as farmer John Proctor whose virtuous wife Elizabeth (the fine Sophie Okonedo) is unjustly imprisoned for witchcraft, thanks to the machinations of a former housemaid Abigail (Saoirse Ronan, far different than in her sympathetic role in “Brooklyn”), with whom John, to his shame, once dallied. Bill Camp is excellent as the Reverend Hale who comes to the Proctors’ home at the behest of the court to question their devoutness. Jason Butler Harner is the Reverend Parris whose niece Betty (Elizabeth Teeter) starts the accusations going when she seems to be in a possessed state after naked revels in the woods with Abigail.

Tavi Gevinson is perfect as Mary Warren, the most vulnerable of the girls, and the one who comes closest to recanting the accusations against the innocent townspeople. Jim Norton and Ray Anthony Thomas are husbands protesting the innocence of their wives. And Ciaran Hinds, particularly good here, is the unyielding judge presiding over the trials.

Really all of the performances are fine, for which no small credit goes to van Hove who does finds dramatic truth in the situations certainly. So, too, most of his staging bespeaks intelligence, and yet, for all of that, I found the avant-garde staging fatally damaging. And I don’t recall “The Crucible” ever feeling so long.

There are superb moments, such as John and Elizabeth’s heartbreaking final scene together towards the end. There’s a wonderful supernatural moment -- a coup de theatre, as they say -- towards the end, but it makes little sense when you think about it, for all its dramatic effect. Are we meant to think, in this scene and several others, that the girls really do possess occult powers?

This production’s merits notwithstanding, I must confess I remember the 2002 Richard Eyre revival with Liam Neeson and Laura Linney, and the 1991 National Actors Theatre one with Martin Sheen and Maryann Plunkett as being far more satisfying.

(Walter Kerr Theater, 219 West 48th Street; 212-307-4100 or ticketmaster.com; through July 17)

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

The Father (Manhattan Theatre Club)

By Harry Forbes

This ingeniously written play about a man’s descent into dementia provides Frank Langella with a superb career capping showcase. By turns, volcanic, charmingly ingratiating, insulting, confused, and ultimately, helpless, he really doesn’t make a false move. The award-winning play (the Moliere in France) -- from acclaimed French playwright Florian Zeller -- already won an Olivier Award for its London star, Kenneth Cranham, in Christopher Hampton’s adaptation, and could well bring similar honors to Langella come award time.

The setting is Paris. Langella is Andre, seemingly a once powerful engineer, now in the accelerating stages of the diseases. In the opening scene, we see his caregiver daughter Anne (Kathryn Erbe) discussing an imminent move to London to be with the man she loves, and she wonders whether he’ll be alright with merely weekend visits. But wait; the next time we see Anne, she’s played by another actress (Kathleen McKenny), and it seems she’s not moving to London at all, but is married to a man named Pierre (Charles Borland). Or is she?

What Zeller has done is give us the action of the play as seen from Andre’s perspective, and throughout the course of the play, we can never quite be sure what’s real, and what’s in Andre’s head. For in the next scene with Pierre, he’s now played by Brian Avers. And Anne is again Erbe, but is she going to London? It would appear not.

Though it’s a veritable case of apples and oranges, this dramatization of what it truly feels like to be in the throes of dementia makes an interesting comparison with the method employed by Coleman Domingo in his excellent recent play on the subject, “Dot,” to make the audience know how dementia must feel. In that play (really more of a domestic comedy with serious overtones), we were given a demonstration of a virtual dementia game.

Scott Pask’s set (appropriately lighted by Donald Holder) -- and, like the cast, ever changing in Andre’s mind -- paints a brilliant visual picture of Andre’s disorientation. Catherine Zuber’s costumes bear her usual character-perfect stamp.

The subject matter is grim (and there is even one moment of shocking violence, though we’re not sure if it’s real or imagined), but the play is not without humor, and Langella’s dynamism at all stages is as compelling as ever.

Erbe is effortlessly sympathetic as the true Anne (at least I think she’s meant to be the true Anne), and Avers and Borland double compellingly as Pierre who may or may not be Anne’s less-than-compassionate husband. McKenny morphs convincingly through multiple roles, and there’s good work from Hannah Cabell as a somewhat patronizing caregiver.

The play’s numerous short scenes are superbly directed by Doug Hughes who captures the rhythm of Zeller’s musicianly pacing with great sensitivity.

(Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, 261 W. 47th Street; 212-239-6200, orwww.Telecharge.com)

Friday, April 15, 2016

Dry Powder (Public Theater)

By Harry Forbes

Though much of the financial chit-chat in this dramedy about a failing private equity firm’s duplicitous efforts to acquire a luggage company is as dry as the title (a term for cash reserves and other liquid assets, by the way), once the conflict really kicks in -- about midway through its intermission-less 100 or so minutes -- Sarah Burgess’s sharp satire on today’s coldly ruthless economic environment does finally grip.

The blue chip cast includes Hank Azaria as Rick, the hard-nosed head of the firm; John Krasinski and Claire Danes as Seth and Jenny, Rick’s perpetually bickering rival partners with vastly different methods, and Sanjit De Silva as Jeff, the perceptive luggage company CEO. All give sharp performances as they play out their machinations on designer Rachel Hauk’s richly blue playing area comprised of mostly cubes of varying sizes which double as desks, tables, bar stools, and the like.

The firm is in the midst of a PR disaster when its actions led to massive layoffs at a grocery chain, after which Rick had the insensitivity to throw a lavish (and well-publicized) engagement party for himself. The acquisition of this luggage company is poised to save the day. But Seth, who brokered the deal in the first place, and Jenny have polar opposite ways of how the deal will play out: with Seth aiming to be reasonably honest in his negotiations (albeit concealing his firm’s financial difficulties), and Jenny adopting a more pragmatic and downright ruthless approach.

The cast -- sharply decked out in Clint Ramos’ suited designs -- is well chosen. Danes, so good in Roundabout’s “Pygmalion” in 2007, proves again how confident a stage actress she is, and what a good comedienne, too. Krasinski, in his stage debut, is very adept at conveying his character’s growing desperation to push through the deal. And De Silva is especially fine as his character begins to discern that something’s amiss with the original plan.

The narrative and the comic barbs become sharper as the evening progresses, and most of the dense money talk becomes more comprehensible, too.

“Hamilton” director Thomas Kail keeps the action -- played in the round -- at as taut a pace as the sometimes talky script allows, and as noted, draws fine performances from his cast.

(Public Theater, 425 Lafayette Street; through May 1; 212-967-7555 or http://publictheater.org/en/Tickets/)

Claire Danes, John Krasinski, and Hank Azaria in Dry Powder, written by Sarah Burgess and directed by Thomas Kail, running at The Public Theater. Photo credit: Joan Marcus.

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Bright Star (Cort Theatre)

By Harry Forbes

After a 2014 premiere at the Old Globe in San Diego, and a brief run at the Kennedy Center, “Bright Star” comes to Broadway in superb shape: a thoroughly absorbing and completely original musical from the surprisingly potent team of Steve Martin and Edie Brickell.

The story concerns one Alice Murphy (Carmen Cusack), a free-spirited young woman in a small North Carolina town and her ill-fated romance with Jimmy Ray (excellent Paul Alexander Nolan), the son of the controlling mayor (Michael Mulheren), in the 1920s.

What gives the story added texture is the parallel story of this same woman decades later. Now a successful editor of a literary journal, she encourages the literary efforts of a returning World War II vet Billy (likable A.J. Shively) who has left his childhood sweetheart (the appealing Hannah Elless).

Cusack is quite superb in both ages -- whether uninhibited teenager or starchy matron -- a really textured performance and most beautifully sung, and the cast supporting her is also top level. There’s Stephen Bogardus as Billy’s widowed father; Jeff Blumenkrantz as Alice’s humorously dour assistant Daryl at the magazine; Emily Padgett as his wise-cracking associate Lucy; Stephen Lee Anderson as Alice’s painfully conflicted preacher father; and Dee Hoty as her loving mother. So, too, this is a cast athat acts as well as it sings.

With an uncommonly fine bluegrass score (music by Martin & Brickell, lyrics by Brickell), encompassing gospel and swing, and a superior book by Martin, the show is skillfully constructed, unfolding much like a juicy novel. (It is said to be inspired by a true event.) And though the story is sometimes melodramatic, like all good drama, it always seems grounded in plausible reality as you’re watching it. A porch reunion between Alice and her father is but one of many examples of Martin’s well-judged and intelligent dialogue, and the quality of the acting.

Walter Bobbie directs the narrative for maximum impact drawing sensitive performances from all, while Josh Rhodes’ choreography from barn dances to 1940s jitterbugging is seamlessly interwoven and never intrusive.

Under Rob Berman’s expert musical direction, August Eriksmoen’s orchestrations create a gorgeous palette of sound, and the songs themselves all bespeak quality. The musicians earn well deserved applause when who are given a chance to strut their stuff during the entr’acte.

Eugene Lee has designed a spare but flexible and most attractive rolling set which suits the rural Blue Ridge mountain ambience to a tee (and an eye-catching miniature train high above the stage), complemented by Jane Greenwood’s costumes, Japhy Weideman’s lighting, and Nevin Steinberg’s sound design.

I was captivated by this highly original and warmly romantic show, refreshingly devoid of of cynicism and not afraid of embracing good honest sentiment, and I sensed the packed audience around me felt the same way, hanging on every plot turn and admiring of the talented ensemble before them.

(Cort Theatre, 138 West 48th Street; Telecharge.com or 800-447-7400)

Photo by Nick Stokes: Carmen Cusack and Paul Alexander Nolan.

Sunday, April 3, 2016

Pericles (Theatre for a New Audience)

By Harry Forbes

I had only encountered the Bard’s unwieldy 1608 epic twice before: director David Thacker’s 1990 production by the RSC at London’s Barbican, and the well-cast 1984 BBC production which later ran on PBS here.

But those were so long ago that, for all intents and purposes, the play was virtually new to me in TFANA’s handsome mounting. Beautifully designed by Robert Jones, costumed by Constance Hoffman, and and lighted by Stephen Strawbridge, with expert sound design by Daniel Kluger, the nearly three hour evening was generally enthralling, though admittedly, the second half more so than the first. In fact, scholars believe that Shakespeare delegated the writing of the first two acts to one George Wilkins (whom literary critic Harold Bloom dubs a “lowlife hack”). And there’s no question that the latter parts, improbably plotted as they are, bear more conclusively the master’s inspired stamp.

TFANA engaged no less a director than former RSC head Trevor Nunn to helm the production, and Nunn has applied many imaginative touches.

The plot -- narrated throughout by storyteller Gower (Raphael Nash Thompson) -- concerns the titular Prince of Tyre, played most commandingly by the excellent Christian Camargo, who sets out to woo the daughter (Sam Morales) of the King of Antioch (Earl Baker, Jr.) until he discovers that princess is having an incestuous affairs with her father.. For uncovering that sinful secret, Pericles incurs the wrath of the king and must temporarily abandon his own kingdom leaving it to his deputy Helicanus (an excellent Philip Casnoff) as the King’s assassins are out to get him.

After myriad travels and shipwrecks, Pericles falls in love with Thaisa (Gia Crovatin), the daughter of the King of Pentapolis (John Rothman), but she seemingly (only seemingly) dies at sea. Meanwhile, their young daughter Marina (Lilly Englert) is raised by Cleon (a solid Will Swenson), Governor of Tarsus, and his duplicitous wife Dionyza (Nina Hellman) who tries to kill Marina as the girl proves far more popular than her own daughter. But before that can happen, Marina is captured by pirates, and sold to a brothel, where she must fight to maintain her virtue.

As wild and wooly as the plot reads on paper, it actually builds to quite a wondrous climax that touches the heart. The recognition scenes between Pericles and his long-lost daughter, and later his wife, are quite magical, and Nunn has staged them for maximum impact. Pericles’ reverie as he succumbs to the “music of hte spheres” (dreaming of a vision of the Goddess Diana which ultimately leads him to Thaisa) is magically executed.

And those brothel scenes, as Pander (Oberon K.A. Adjepong), Bawd (Patrice Johnson Chevannes), and Boult (John Keating) try all manner of persuasion to get the steadfast Marina deflowered are strongly written and marvelously played here. During those scenes, about a dozen Moroccan-style chandeliers descend to composer Shaun Davey’s exotic music, providing just the right touch of decadent exoticism..

Incidental music and songs -- played live by Pigpen Theatre Company including four on-stage musicians -- greatly enhance the mood.

The character of Pericles is a bit of a cipher, but Camargo -- who has proven his Shakespearean chops on several occasions -- plays him beautifully, aging convincingly in the final scenes. Not all the performances are on his exalted level, but are certainly solid across the board. I did find Englert’s twee portrayal of the virtuous Marina rather odd, and the accent she affects here make some of her dialogue unintelligible.

Brian Brooks’ choreography enhances this tale with its unusual structure and its use, as Nunn explains in a program note, of “music, dance, [and] the mime of musically accompanied ‘dumb show.’

If you’ve never seen “Pericles,” you probably won’t see a finer production for some time to come.

(Theater for a New Audience, Polonsky Shakespeare Center; www.tfana.org or 866-811-4111; through April 10)

Photo: Gerry-Goodstein

Friday, April 1, 2016

Blackbird (Belasco Theatre)

By Harry Forbes

This is an undeniably powerful production of David Harrower’s disturbing 2005 play written for the Edinburgh Festival after which it enjoyed a West End production, and a mounting by Manhattan Theatre Club directed, like the present production, by Joe Mantello and also starring Jeff Daniels.

Scott Pask returns as scenic designer, and the stark set is as remembered, but the other production credits are different on this occasion but no less fine, with Ann Roth now designing the costumes, Brian MacDevitt the lighting, and Fitz Patton the sound.

And it is now Michelle Williams rather than Allison Pill playing opposite Daniels in this taut two hander.

Whether it is her presence or perhaps a richer interpretation on the part of Daniels and a more experienced guiding hand from Mantello, but I found the play, in its present incarnation, even more gut wrenching than before.

The setting is a break room in the office where worker Ray (Daniels) is employed. Una (Williams), a young woman from his past, has surprised Ray by tracking him down and showing up after coming across a photo of him in a magazine. Ray seems hugely discomfited by her sudden appearance, and has pulled her into this room out of sight of his co-workers. He seems anxious to move their reunion someplace outside the office, but Una is adamant about holding her ground there. Before long, revelations about a sexual relationship come to light, but to reveal more would spoil the neat and teasing construction of Harrower’s Olivier Award-winning work, one that never settles for easy judgments about either character.

Suffice to say that both performers are at the top of their considerable games. Impressive as Williams was in “Cabaret” -- her Broadway debut -- she is even more compelling here, delivering a spellbinding and quite epic monologue, the sort of tour-de-force for which Tonys are awarded. And Daniels is equally splendid, the finely detailed nuances of his performance only fully evident by the evening’s end.

Mantello directs the drama for maximum tension. There are lengthy stretches when you can hear a proverbial pin drop so gripping is the action and raw the performances.

(Belasco Theatre, 111 West 44th Street; (212) 239-6200, or Telecharge.com; through June 11)

Photo credit: Brigitte Lacombe