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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)